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AT&T-Time Warner Deal Could Hinge on Data Usage Caps/Zero Rating

AT&T’s rivals are likely to cry foul over the company’s practice of “zero rating,” in which it exempts its own video services from data-cap usage. The Wall Street Journal’s Shalini Ramachandran explains how this could impact the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger. (2:44)

Cox’s Halloween Gift: New Usage Caps, Overlimit Fees for Florida and Georgia Customers

coxAfter gracing Cleveland, Ohio with the dubious honor of being the first Cox service area in the country to be treated to compulsory data caps and overlimit fees, Cox Communications has announced it is expanding its internet overcharging scheme to customers in Florida and Georgia starting Nov. 21.

Stop the Cap! readers in both states shared Cox’s service change notification introducing hard caps in both states next month.

“Cox High Speed Internet packages include 1 TB (1,024 GB) of data,” Cox explains. “Approximately 99% of Cox customers are currently on a data plan that more than adequately meets their monthly household needs.”

That begs the question: if 99% of customers are unaffected by a data cap, then why have a data cap at all?

Cox “Data Plans”

Note: Unused data does not carry over to the next month.

Package Monthly Data Plan Speeds Download / Upload
Starter 1 TB (1,024 GB) 5 Mbps / 1 Mbps
Essential 1 TB (1,024 GB) 15 Mbps / 2 Mbps
Preferred 1 TB (1,024 GB) 50 Mbps / 5 Mbps
Premier 1 TB (1,024 GB) 100 Mbps / 10 Mbps
Note: 150 Mbps / 20 Mbps in select areas
Ultimate 1 TB (1,024 GB) 200 Mbps / 20 Mbps
Note: 300 Mbps / 30 Mbps in select areas
Gigablast (Where Available) 2 TB (2,048 GB) 1 Gbps / 1 Gbps

Content managed by Cox included in Cox-provided services do not count toward data usage:

  • TV and On Demand content accessed in the Contour app while connected to Cox in-home Wi-Fi
  • Cox Digital Telephone
  • Cox Homelife

Note: Third party content and content identified as internet services on receivers or TVGO in the Contour app may count toward data usage.

Customers in these areas who exceed their allowance will be billed $10 for each 50GB of excess usage. Customers will get a two-month grace period to become accustomed to internet rationing before the overlimit fees are added to customers’ bills.

Cox has not said if or when it will expand the data caps to other markets.

Customers can send Cox a message by calling the company and threatening to take your business to another provider specifically because of data caps and overlimit fees. Affected customers should also file a complaint with the FCC asking the federal agency to ban data caps as unnecessary and discriminatory against competing online video services.

Let the FCC know data caps are a major concern and are unnecessary considering the steep decline in internet provisioning and transit costs and the extremely high price (and profitability) providers already get from offering unlimited broadband service.

Pondering the Future of AT&T’s Dead-Brand Walking U-verse, DirecTV, and Data Caps

att directvWith the advent of AT&T/DirecTV Now, AT&T’s new over-the-top streaming TV service launching later this year, AT&T is preparing to bury the U-verse brand.

Earlier this year, AT&T customers noticed a profound shift in the company’s marketing priorities. The phone company began steering potential customers to AT&T’s latest acquisition, satellite television provider DirecTV, instead of U-verse. There is an obvious reason for this – DirecTV has 20.45 million customers as of the second quarter of 2016 compared to 4.87 million customers for AT&T U-verse TV. Volume discounts make all the difference for pay television companies and AT&T hopes to capitalize on DirecTV’s lower programming costs.

AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV confused many Wall Street analysts, some who believe the days of satellite television are past their peak. Satellite providers lack the ability to bundle services, although some phone companies partner with the satellite company to pitch phone, broadband, and satellite TV to their customers. But consider for a moment what would happen if DirecTV introduced satellite television without the need for a satellite dish.

Phillip Dampier: The "U" in U-verse doesn't stand for "unlimited."

Phillip Dampier: The “U” in U-verse doesn’t stand for “unlimited.”

AT&T’s DirecTV Now will rely on the internet to deliver television channels instead of a satellite. AT&T is currently negotiating with most of the programmer conglomerates that own popular cable channels to allow them to be carried “over-the-top” through broadband connections. If successful, DirecTV Now could become a nationwide powerhouse alternative to traditional cable TV.

AT&T is clearly considering a potential future where DirecTV could dispense with satellites and rely on broadband instead. The company quietly began zero rating DirecTV streaming in September for AT&T Mobility customers, which means watching that programming will not count against your data plan. For current U-verse customers, broadband speeds have always been constrained by the need to reserve large amounts of bandwidth to manage television viewing. Although AT&T has been boosting speeds in selected areas, a more fundamental speed boost could be achieved if AT&T dropped U-verse television and turned the service into a simple broadband pipe that relied on DirecTV Now to manage television service for customers.

AT&T seems well on the way, adding this notice to customer bills:

“To make it simpler for our customers U-verse High Speed Internet and U-verse Voice services have new names: AT&T Internet and AT&T Phone. AT&T Internet product names will now align with our Internet speed tiers. Our voice plan names will remain the same.”

An earlier internal company memo suggested AT&T would eventually transition all of its TV products into “AT&T Entertainment” after completing a transition to its “next generation TV platform.” Increasingly, that platform seems to be an internet-powered streaming solution and not U-verse or DirecTV satellite. That transition should begin in January.

Top secret.

Gone by end of 2016.

It would represent a formidable change, but one that makes sense for AT&T’s investors. The transition to IP networks means providers will offer one giant broadband pipe, across which television, phone and internet access will travel. The bigger that pipe becomes, the more services customers are likely to use — and that means growing data usage. Having a lot of fiber infrastructure also lays the foundation for expansion of AT&T’s wireless network — particularly towards 5G service, which is expected to rely on small cell technology to offer faster speeds to a more localized area — fast enough to serve as a home broadband replacement. Powering that network will require plenty of fiber optics to provide backhaul access to those small cells.

Last week, AT&T announced it launched a trial 100Mbps service using point-to-point millimeter-wave spectrum to offer broadband to subscribers in multiple apartment complexes around the Minneapolis area. If the initial trial is successful, AT&T will boost speeds to include 500Mbps service to those same complexes. AT&T has chosen to provide the service outside of its usual service area — Minneapolis is served by CenturyLink. AT&T acquired a nationwide license to offer service in the 70-80GHz band back in 2009, and an AT&T spokesperson claimed the wireless signal can reach up to two miles. The company is also experimenting with new broadband over power lines technology that could offer service in rural areas.

cheapJust like its wireless service, AT&T stands to make money not just selling access to broadband and entertainment, but also by metering customer usage to monetize all aspects of how customers communicate. Getting customers used to the idea of having their consumption measured and billed could gradually eliminate the expectation of flat rate service, at which point customers can be manipulated to spend even more to access the same services that cost providers an all-time low to deliver. Even zero rating helps drive a belief the provider is doing the customer a favor waiving data charges for certain content, delivering a value perception made possible by that provider first overcharging for data and then giving the customer “a break.”

As of mid-September, streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn noted Akamai — a major internet backbone transit provider — was selling content delivery contracts at $0.002 per gigabyte delivered, the lowest price Rayburn has ever seen. Other bids Rayburn has reviewed recently topped out at 0.5 cents per gigabyte. According to industry expert Dave Burstein, that suggests large ISPs like AT&T are paying something less than a penny per gigabyte for internet traffic.

“If you use 139GB a month, that costs your provider something like $1/month,” Burstein wrote, noting doubling backbone transit costs gives a rough estimate of the cost to the carrier, which also has to carry the bits to your local exchange. In this context, telecom services like broadband and phone service should be decreasing in cost, not increasing. But the opposite is true. Large providers with usage caps expect to be compensated many times greater than that, charging $10 for 50GB in overlimit fees while their true cost is well under 50 cents. Customers buying a cell phone are often fitted with a data plan that represents an unprecedented markup. The extent of price increases customers can expect can be previewed by looking at the cost of phone service over the last 20 years. The average, often flat rate telephone bill in 1995 was $19.98 a month. In 2014, it was $73 a month. In 2015, it was $90 a month. Those dramatically rising prices in the last few years are mostly as a result of the increased cost of data plans providers charge to clean up on customers’ growing data usage.

Both Comcast and AT&T are dedicated to a campaign of getting customers to forget about flat rate, unlimited service at a reasonable cost. Even as both companies raise usage caps, they continue to raise prices as well, even as their costs to provide the service continue to drop. Both companies hope to eventually create the kind of profitable windfall with wired services that wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have enjoyed for years since they abandoned unlimited flat rate plans. Without significant new competition, the effective duopoly most Americans have for telecommunications services offers the opportunity to create a new, more costly (and false) paradigm for telecom services, based on three completely false claims:

  • data costs are expensive,
  • usage must be monetized, and
  • without a bigger return on investment, investors will not finance the next generation of telecom upgrades.

But as the evidence clearly shows, profits from selling high-speed internet access are only growing, even as costs are falling. Much of the drag on profits come from increasing costs related to licensing television content. Voice over IP telephone service is almost an afterthought for most cable and phone companies, often thrown in for $10-20 a month.

AT&T’s transition puts all the attention and its quest for fatter profits on its broadband service. That’s a bad deal for AT&T customers no matter what the company calls its “next generation” network.

Verizon Wireless Bill Shock is Back; Customers Complaining About Sudden Usage Increases

bill shockSome Verizon Wireless customers are reporting data usage numbers spiked on their bills to unprecedented levels this summer, giving the cellular company’s bean counters a heaping helping of overlimit fees, charged when customers exceed their data allowance.

The phantom usage problem has become noticeable enough to win attention from the consumer reporter at Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, who found her own family of four suddenly blowing past their shared 15GB a month, resulting in a $30 overlimit fee.

“My family’s data usage has mysteriously increased significantly every month since February, except for one month,” wrote Teresa Dixon Murray. “My family of four pays for 15GB a month. We’re grandfathered in the old More Everything family share plan. We typically were using no more than 10GB a month. But for the last six months, that has increased steadily — and inexplicably. 8.2. Then 9.7. Then 10.6. Then 12.7. Two months ago, we got alerts that we were nearing our allotment and managed to take care to avoid going over. Last month, despite our efforts, we went over by 1.057GB, and were charged an extra $30.”

Murray questioned why her family’s phones were burning through their data allowance in the middle of the night, while connected to the family’s home Wi-Fi.

A Verizon representative explained phones may be connecting to Verizon’s network because of a new feature installed on some phones, including the Apple iPhone, called “Wi-Fi Assist.” This feature, which could also be called “Verizon Profit Assist” automatically ignores the fact you are connected to Wi-Fi and switches back to the Verizon Wireless network if the phone determines your Wi-Fi connection is “poor.”

“So what’s the definition of poor? I guess Verizon and our iPhones decide that,” Murray questioned.

This feature can be switched off from your phone settings.

They are coming.

They are coming.

But that hasn’t always stopped the overlimit fees. Some customers report they still incur overlimit fees even after switching cellular data off when they reach a warning from Verizon they are about to exhaust their allowance. Verizon charges $10 in overlimit fees, even in instances where the offending extra usage amounts to .0001GB.

Verizon claims its usage meter only provides an estimate of usage, and there are instances where the warning comes too late for a customer to stop using data before they’ve already exceeded their plan allowance. Verizon’s solution is to sell a $5/month “family coverage” add-on that allows parents to monitor data usage before it gets out of hand. But Verizon doesn’t guarantee it will stop overlimit fees based on the measurements of usage it provides.

That add-on plan may or may not have helped Valarie Gerbus, who is now facing a $9,100 Verizon cell phone bill she is adamantly refusing to pay.

The suburban Tampa customer regularly paid $118/month for her cell phone plan, which included 4GB of data usage — an amount she never exceeded, at least until July. Gerbus was shocked to open her bill and discover her normal monthly bill now also included $8,535 in overlimit fees for using 569GB of data in a single month:

(Image: The Plain Dealer)

(Image: The Plain Dealer)

On July 21, Verizon sent her a text, notifying her that she had used nearly all of her 4 gigabytes of data. The text said she could get 4 more gigabytes for $20. Realizing that she had two weeks before the end of the month, Gerbus bought the additional data.

Within an hour of the purchase, she received another text that told her she only had 10 percent left on the data that she had just purchased. The next text message she received said she could change her plan to 8 gigabytes for an additional $20 a month. She said she bought that upgrade to ensure she didn’t have any data overages.

In a span of several hours, she estimates that she received 40 to 50 texts saying that she needed to purchase more data. She turned the notification off, believing that there had been a glitch in Verizon’s system.

Gerbus said she realizes now that she should have contacted the company at that point, but she didn’t, as she feared being placed on hold by a customer service representative.

She later went to work and planned on paying the bill online. When she found her online statement, it said she owed $6,480 for using 490 gigabytes of data. She was shocked.

“I told them that I won’t pay the bill,” Gerbus told the newspaper. “I can either wait until they take it to a collection agency or when they take it to court. Either way, my credit history will be ruined. I can go bankrupt here.”

Verizon said they are not aware of any widespread problem, but is looking into phantom phone usage at night and some of the more extreme examples of bill shock, where bills extend into the thousands of dollars.

Affected customers report the high bills are, in some cases, tearing families apart.

“It got to the point that we were battling in our family,” reported Lockport, N.Y. resident Tom Walker, who told the newspaper their data usage soared for no apparent reason. “We were really asking each other, ‘Have you been on Facebook too much? What have you been doing?’ We were trying to figure out who was using all this data.”

Gerbus is almost thankful to pay Verizon Wireless a nearly $600 fee to exit her contract early as she switches to T-Mobile. Verizon’s engineers have no explanation for Gerbus’ bill, other than noting her phone contacted Amazon.com at least 400 times over a few days.

Providers with usage caps and usage-based pricing often consider their usage meters more reliable than their own customers, and when customers complain, many representatives trust the meter and insist on payment. When a customer like Gerbus complains about usage that is considerably above average usage, customer service representative are not always receptive.

“I told them that there was no way that I could have gone from 490 to 560 in a day,” Gerbus said. “The [Verizon] person said, ‘Yes there is.'”

Comcast Backs Off Charging Customers Double for Gigabit Speed in Chicago

comcast gigabitTo be a Google Fiber city or not to be a Google Fiber city. It could make a big difference to your wallet if Comcast upgrades broadband speeds in your neighborhood before Google Fiber finally arrives in your “fiberhood.”

When Comcast first announced a major trial of DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit broadband service in Chicago, it confirmed it would cost $139.95 a month — double the price Comcast charges customers in cities where Google Fiber has expressed an interest in providing gigabit service as well. With Chicago nowhere on the Google Fiber upgrade list, it seemed Comcast was prepared to prove the point that competition can really make a difference in broadband pricing, at least until stories appeared headlining Comcast’s pricing policies. Within hours, Comcast “clarified” it was prepared to sell gigabit service in Chicago for $70 a month as well, with a three-year contract.

“We are now able to deliver gigabit speeds over the existing lines that already reach millions of homes in the Chicago area,” Comcast spokesman Jack Segal told the Chicago Tribune. “This is a major step in the evolution of high-speed broadband.”

This is not Comcast bringing a new fiber line to your home or business. This is gigabit download speed over Comcast’s current cable/fiber network — the same one that delivers your current broadband service. DOCSIS 3.1 allows Comcast to bond additional channels together to boost speeds, at least on the downstream side. This technology will not deliver gigabit speed in both directions, at least for now. Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit plan delivers 1,000Mbps download speed, but just 35Mbps upstream. Customers looking for something faster can pay dramatically more for Comcast’s Gigabit Pro fiber to the home service, offering 2,000Mbps speeds. But it will cost up to $1,000 to install and is priced at $300 a month with a two-year contract.

Comcast’s 1TB usage cap (with up to $200 in overlimit fees) will apply to Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 plans, unless you opt for unlimited service… for another $50 a month. Comcast gracefully includes unlimited with its Gigabit Pro service.

gigabit comcast

Chicago residents can sign up for either gigabit plan at www.xfinity.com/gig. A $50 installation fee applies and a service call is required. Customers signing up will need a new cable modem that supports DOCSIS 3.1, and there are only a handful on the market so far. Many more will be available in 2017.

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  • Rob: With Time Warner issuing their "all-digital" notice to customers this week to all the Rochester, NY news outlets, does this mean we can expect the upg...
  • Ryan: Frontier needs to be sued for false advertising of fios. They ran commercials on TV and radio that fios is here but in reality its not. We wanted fios...
  • Jim Dudenhefer III: See previous. 5:21 AM Central Time. Kansas City, MO. Cell # 816-560-0537. Land Line # 816-523-2309....
  • Jim Dudenhefer III: I live with and assist my 88 year old mother and 92 year old father. Both don't drive. Dad's mind is going and Mom's getting very tired as the main ca...
  • Ty: well hey on top of all of this I am sure more cable companies will adopt data caps. WOW! (my current cable company that overbuilt TWC here and I left...
  • Kim: I am currently paying TWC $180 a month for tv, internet, and home phone. I recently tried calling to have my home phone removed, since both my daughte...
  • James R Curry: No guarantee at all. But, as there's no contract commitment, you can at least cancel if they gut the line-up....
  • Required: Much more expensive than Hulu or Netflix, doesn't let you time-shift (VOD) all the shows/movies,, and doesn't solve the local news/sports problem, rea...
  • JayS: Looks like the era of the CVNO (CableTv Virtual Network Operator) has arrived. MVNO's have been terrific for the Mobile-phone consumer. We now have nu...
  • Gregory Blajian: A quick analysis for my wife and my entertainment situation is below. Getting Starz and MLB Network plus the A&E and Viacom family of channels mig...
  • Elbert Davis: Your last paragraph is exactly why Armstrong Cable cord-cutters cannot have this--200GB a month is all we're allowed to have until we have to pay Arms...
  • ANgela Hill: Did you get anywhere with this? I am about to do the same thing myself. My bill is $170 month, and I cannot do it any longer....

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