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CenturyLink Drops Hard Usage Cap Trial; “No Longer Aligns With Our Goals”

Phillip Dampier July 3, 2017 CenturyLink, Consumer News, Data Caps 4 Comments

CenturyLink has ended a year-long trial of usage-based billing for its customers, claiming charging for excess usage “no longer aligns with our goal to simplify offers and pricing for our customers.”

The data cap and overlimit program was first market tested in Yakima, Wash. in 2016, but has now been dropped with no plans to extend usage-based billing to any other CenturyLink customers.

“If you incurred overage charges related to this program, those charges will be credited and appear on your July monthly billing statement,” CenturyLink reports. “No action is required on your part, and there are no impacts to your existing CenturyLink service.”

CenturyLink does have a program of “soft caps” — generally unenforced data allowances for its customers:

  • 1.5Mbps plan: 150GB
  • 1.5Mbps-999Mbps: 250GB
  • 1Gbps: No download limit

“CenturyLink will weigh variables such as network health, congestion, availability of customer usage data, and the line speed purchased by the customer as factors when enforcing this policy,” writes the phone company. “Customers who are subject to enforcement receive a web notification and/or written communication from CenturyLink providing notice that they have exceeded their usage limit.”

In practice, very few customers are ever bothered by CenturyLink regarding their usage.

Cox Feels Safe Expanding Its Usage Cap Ripoff Scheme That ‘Affects Almost Nobody’

In an effort to keep up with Comcast, Cox Communications has quietly expanded its internet overcharging scheme to customers in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Omaha, Neb, and Sun Valley, Ida. (perhaps the only community that can afford Cox’s threatened overlimit fees). Cox’s customers have noticed and told DSL Reports about the forthcoming highway robbery.

These unlucky customers join those in Cleveland, Oh., Florida and Georgia who have already been enduring Cox’s usage cap and penalty fee system.

Cox hasn’t shown any interest in listening to customers who do not appreciate usage allowances and have repeatedly told the company they want unlimited access, especially considering how much they already pay Cox for service.

“It’s a total ripoff and customers have no option to keep unlimited, unless they move to the next city over where Charter/Spectrum offers internet access without any data caps,” notes Cleveland resident Shelly Adams.

Cox has followed Comcast by boosting most usage allowances given to customers to 1TB, an amount many believe was set high enough to avoid threatened regulatory scrutiny of stingy data caps by the FCC under the former Obama Administration.

As with every provider that has ever conjured up an internet overcharging scheme, no matter what the allowance is, the company always claims it is generous and impacts almost nobody. Cox claims 99% of their customers will never hit the cap, which always begs the question, if it affects so few customers why spend time, money and energy creating a data cap, usage measurement tools, and billing scheme for only a handful of customers? Is that Cox’s idea of innovation?

Usage caps for one and all.

In fact, Comcast has claimed the same thing, but their math came into question when more than 13,000 Comcast customers managed to stumble their way to the FCC’s complaints bureau in one year and write a formal protest about Comcast’s own overlimit fee scheme. We are certain there are many more customers with overlimit fees on their bills than that, and guess only a small fraction took the time to write a complaint and submit it.

As Stop the Cap! has said for almost a decade, beware of cable company “generosity” because it usually comes with fine print.

“Cox High Speed Internet packages include 1 TB (1,024 GB) of data to provide you with plenty of freedom to stream, surf, download, and share,” the company writes on its support website (its much rarer Gigablast gigabit plan includes 2TB). For now, if you use Cox Wi-Fi or CableWiFi hotspots, usage on those networks does not count toward your data plan.

Cox reserves itself some extra freedoms, such as automatically charging customers who exceed their allowance a $10 overlimit penalty for each 50GB of usage they incur until the next billing cycle begins. Cox’s generosity ends with the unused portion of your allowance, which Cox keeps for itself, not allowing customers to roll over unused data to the following month.

In an effort to get customers to accept the scheme, Cox calls it a “data plan,” similar to what wireless customers might pay, and says other companies have data caps too. But none of this justifies the practice.

You’re over our arbitrary usage limit!

In another “generous” move, Cox is offering a grace period for two consecutive bill cycles before it slaps overlimit penalties on customer bills for real in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Omaha, and Sun Valley. The grace period window begins with bills dated on or after Feb. 20, 2017. To make sure you get the message, the company will bill you the overlimit fee it claims almost nobody will ever pay along with a corresponding grace period credit for two months, just to put the scare in you. After May 22, it is time to pay up.

Cox will make sure you can’t claim you “didn’t know” you ran through your allowance by harassing you with data usage messages via Cox browser alert, email, text message, or an automated outbound call when you have used about 85% and 100% of your monthly data plan. You will receive additional alerts when you have reached 125% of your monthly data plan, at which point Cox will throw a party in your honor with thanks for allowing them to run up your bill.

Coincidentally, Cox isn’t testing their scheme in markets rife with competition from providers like Verizon FiOS, where usage is effectively unlimited. In many of Cox’s usage-capped markets, customers have AT&T as their alternative, and they have a 1TB usage allowance as well.

Incoming FCC chairman Ajit Pai is on record opposing any involvement in regulating usage-based pricing schemes, claiming it amounted to government meddling in business. But customers can complain directly to Cox and threaten to cancel service. It may be a good time to renegotiate your cable bill to win discounts that may help cover any overlimit fees that do make it to your bill.

There remains little, if any justification for a company like Cox to peddle data plans with usage allowances to their customers. The company is moving towards gigabit broadband speeds but apparently lacks the resources to manage customers that want a hassle-free unlimited experience? If Cox is being honest about how few customers will ever be affected by the cap, there is no reason the company cannot continue an unlimited plan at current prices.

Cox’s scheme does shine light on the uncompetitive broadband marketplace that continues to afflict this country. As one reader pointed out, customers are constrained by the offerings of whatever provider has set up shop in a city that typically has, at best, one other choice (usually a phone company selling DSL or up to 24Mbps U-verse). A truly competitive market would give customers a wide choice of “data plans” that include unlimited plans customers enjoyed for years and want to keep. But safe in their broadband duopoly, cable companies like Cox have no incentive to treat customers to a better or even fair deal.

The real reason for usage caps and data plans with penalty pricing was exposed by Wall Street analysts like Jonathan Chaplin, a research analyst for New Street Research LLP. Although he was speaking to a cable company executive at the time, his words traveled to our ears as well:

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin said. new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment).”

“The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business,” Chaplin added. “Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

Exactly.

Comcast Still Telling Funny Stories to Wall Street About Usage Caps/Usage-Based Billing

xfinityOn a morning conference call with Wall Street analysts, Comcast continues to misrepresent its vision of broadband usage caps and usage-based billing, claiming customer preferences echoed through Comcast’s performance in the marketplace will tell the company what is “best for consumers,” and guide Comcast how to realize the most value for shareholders.

Wall Street is very interested in usage caps and usage-based billing because cable operators can protect video revenue threatened by cord-cutting and boost revenue earned from customers who exceed their allowance.

Vijay Jayant, and analyst at Evercore ISI, quickly zeroed in on the potential loss of anticipated revenue from Comcast’s recent decision to boost its data cap from 300GB to 1TB, something Jiyant characterized as a “hurdle” for future usage-related charges.

“Well we have one terabyte. We moved it up from 300 gigabyte to one terabyte in 14% of our markets where we have usage-based pricing,” responded Neil Smit, Comcast Cable’s president and CEO. “We think we’re going to continue to adjust and look at it as the market evolves and as usage evolves. We have different pricing models, some based on speed, some based on usage, and we’re going to be flexible and kind of let the market tell us which way is best for consumers and how we add the most value. We continue to add speeds. We’ve upped speeds 17 times in 15 years. We’ve built out the fastest Wi-Fi. So we’re going to continue to invest in the network to stay ahead of things.”

Smit’s response was incomplete, however.

Smit

Smit

Comcast’s usage and speed-based pricing models are hardly “flexible” and do not co-exist in the same markets. Customers are compelled to obey Comcast’s usage cap, face overlimit fees up to $200 a month, or pay an additional $50 a month to buy back their old unlimited use service. In Comcast markets without usage caps, the cable company only sells speed-based internet tiers with no enforced caps.

Comcast has consciously avoided allowing customers to choose between speed-based or usage-based tiers, because years of experience among other cable operators quickly proved customers intensely dislike usage caps of any kind. In fact, the largest percentage of complaints filed with the FCC about Comcast are about its compulsory usage cap trial and the fees associated with it.

One reason for that hostility may be that Comcast’s broadband prices do not drop as a result of the introduction of usage caps in a service area. The customer effectively receives a lower value broadband product as a result of its arbitrary usage limit, and the potential exposure to overlimit fees or a very expensive “insurance” plan to avoid the cap altogether. Earlier trials offered some customers a small discount if they kept usage under 5GB a month, a difficult prospect for most and in any case not much of a revenue threat for Comcast.

Comcast-marchIf Comcast was seriously interested in what its customers think about its usage cap trial, it need only review the FCC’s complaint database. According to a Freedom of Information Law request from The Wall Street Journal, nearly 8,000 complaints received by the FCC in the second half of 2015 were about data caps, and most of those were directed at Comcast.

Comcast’s claim it will let the marketplace decide only delivers a distorted view about usage caps, because many Comcast customers have only one other competitive choice, and there is a significant chance that provider caps customer’s broadband usage as well. AT&T, for example, caps its customers at a level even stingier than Comcast. Those caps have not been enforced with overlimit fees on customer bills (except for AT&T’s DSL customers), although AT&T suggests it is getting serious about collecting future overlimit fees. If Comcast gains new customers leaving AT&T to avoid smaller caps, Comcast executives seem to believe they can claim consumers have ’embraced’ Comcast’s usage billing. But we know that is about as credible as an election in North Korea.

Time Warner Cable has been one of the few honest players about usage billing, giving customers the option of keeping unlimited or switching to a capped plan for a discount. More than 99% of customers have chosen to stay with unlimited and only a few thousand have chosen to limit their usage for a small discount. An honest market test from Comcast would extend a similar option to customers. Keep unlimited or voluntarily limit usage for a small discount. Given this kind of test, we expect the overwhelming majority of customers would keep unlimited at all costs. Doing so would hurt shareholder value, however.

The only value Comcast is concerned with is how much more money they can charge customers for broadband service. In America’s broadband duopoly, where speed-based broadband pricing is already outrageously high, usage caps and usage billing are nothing more than a greedy cash grab. When money is at stake, reputation comes in a distant second at Comcast, as the company continues to prove its poor reputation with American consumers is well-deserved.

CenturyLink: Usage-Based Billing That Makes No Sense, But Will Earn Dollars

followthemoneyCenturyLink will begin a usage-based billing trial in Yakima, Wa., starting July 26 that will combine usage caps with an overlimit fee on customers that exceed their monthly usage allowance. The trial in Washington state may soon be a fact of life for most CenturyLink customers across the country, unless customers rebel.

Already at a speed disadvantage with its cable competitors, CenturyLink will likely alienate customers with a new 300GB usage cap on DSL customers who can manage speeds up to 7Mbps, and 600GB for those lucky enough to exceed 7Mbps. Customers will be given a browser-injected warning when they reach 65% and 85% of their allowance. If a customer exceeds it, they will have overlimit fees forgiven twice before the usual de facto industry overlimit penalty rate of $10 for 50 additional gigabytes will be added to their bill, not to exceed $50 in penalties for any billing cycle.

DSL Reports received word from readers in Yakima they had the unlucky privilege of serving as CenturyLink’s first test market for hard caps and overlimit fees, and was the first to bring the story to the rest of the country.

CenturyLink hasn’t wanted to draw much attention to the usage-based billing change, quietly adjusting their “excessive usage policy FAQ” that takes effect on July 26. But it has begun directly notifying customers who will be enrolled in the compulsory trial.

“Data usage limits encourage reasonable use of your CenturyLink High Speed Internet service so that all customers can receive the optimal internet experience they have purchased with their service plan,” states the FAQ.

But counterintuitively, CenturyLink will exempt those likely to consume even more of CenturyLink’s resources than its low-speed DSL service allows by keeping unlimited use policies in place for their commercial customers and those subscribed to gigabit speed broadband.

CenturyLink’s justification for usage caps with customers seems to suggest that “excessive usage” will create a degraded experience for other customers. But CenturyLink’s chief financial officer Stewart Ewing shines a light on a more plausible explanation for CenturyLink to slap the caps on — because their competitors already are.

“Regarding the metered data plans; we are considering that for second half of the year,” Ewing told investors on a conference call. “We think it is important and our competition is using the metered plans today and we think that exploring those starts and trials later this year is our expectation.”

CenturyLink's overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

CenturyLink’s new overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

In fact, CenturyLink has never acknowledged any capacity issues with their broadband network, and has claimed ongoing upgrades have kept up with customer usage demands. Until now. On the west coast, CenturyLink’s competitors are primarily Comcast (Pacific Northwest) and Cox Communications (California, Nevada, Arizona). Both cable operators are testing usage caps. In many CenturyLink markets further east, Comcast is also a common competitor, with Time Warner Cable/Charter present in the Carolinas. But in many of the rural markets CenturyLink serves, there is no significant cable competitor at all.

Usage Cap Man is back.

Usage Cap Man is back, protecting high profits and preserving the opportunity of charging more for less service.

As Karl Bode from DSL Reports points out, for years CenturyLink has already been collecting a sneaky surcharge from customers labeled an “internet cost recovery fee,” supposedly defraying broadband usage and expansion costs. But in the absence of significant competition, there is no reason CenturyLink cannot charge even more, and also enjoy protection from cord-cutting. Customers who use their CenturyLink DSL service to watch shows online will face the deterrent of a usage cap. Customers subscribed to CenturyLink’s Prism TV will be able to access many of those shows on-demand without making a dent in their usage allowance.

For years, American consumers have listened to cable and phone companies promote a “robust and competitive broadband marketplace,” providing the best internet service money can buy. But in reality, there is increasing evidence of a duopoly marketplace that offers plenty of opportunities to raise prices, cap usage, and deliver a substandard internet experience.

As Stop the Cap! has argued since 2008, the only true innovations many phone and cable companies are practicing these days are clever ways to raise prices, protect their markets, and cut costs. Consumers who have experienced broadband service in parts of Asia and Europe understand the difference between giving customers a truly cutting-edge experience and one that requires customers to cut other household expenses to afford increasingly expensive internet access.

We recommend CenturyLink customers share their dislike of CenturyLink’s style of “innovation” in the form of a complaint against usage caps and usage-based billing with the FCC. It takes just a few minutes, and adding your voice to tens of thousands of Americans that have already asked the FCC to ban usage caps and usage pricing will keep this issue on the front burner. It will help strengthen our case that providers must stop treating internet usage as a limited resource that has to be rationed to customers. Wall Street believes the FCC has given a green light to usage caps and usage pricing, and the risk of attracting regulator attention by imposing higher broadband prices on consumers is pretty low. We need to change that thinking so analysts warn providers against being too greedy, out of fear the FCC will impose a regulatory crackdown.

Cox’s Data Limbo Dance: Slashes “Ultimate” Allowance in Half, Lies About Why

Cox's data plan limbo dance. How low can they go?

Cox’s data plan limbo dance. How low can they go?

Cox Communications has cut by half the data usage allowance of one of its fastest broadband plans targeting so-called “heavy users,” exposing unsuspecting customers to expensive overlimit fees, while claiming usage caps are now mandated by law.

Stop the Cap! reader John C. wrote to tell us he discovered his allowance for Cox’s “Ultimate” Plan, delivering 200/20Mbps, has been slashed from 2,000GB to 1,000GB, with little warning except in an obscure support FAQ.

“About 95% of Cox customers are currently on a data plan that more than adequately meets the monthly needs of their household,” Cox claimed. “However, some households, particularly those with multiple Internet users that enjoy streaming TV or movies, may want to select an Internet package with a larger data plan. That is why we offer plans for all types of users so you can choose what is best for your household.”

The plan that most customers want is a flat rate, unlimited-use plan, one that Cox has unilaterally decided to stop offering. Just as bad: targeting the most widely available premium plan for a major usage allowance cut with no explanation whatsoever. It’s bad news for John, who says after paying Cox their asking price for Ultimate service, he cannot afford to also pay overage fees on top of that (currently $10 for each 50GB allotment, charged only in the Cleveland, Oh. area for now).

Customers who contact Cox and complain about their usage caps or allowance changes are being told false fables by Cox’s customer service specialists, who claim data caps are now the law in the United States.

Here is an example of an actual support session with Cox employees, (emphasis ours, edited (…) for brevity):

cox say noYou: I also learned that you have internet data cap?

Jenna: Data limits were implemented by the FCC in 2011. By law, we have to have them. If you exceed the limit for 3 consecutive months, you will be contacted to discuss your options for upgrading.

You: FCC? can you send me details about that

[…]

Jenna: As I mentioned, there’s no fee for exceeding those limits. If you exceed the limit for 3 consecutive months, you will be contacted to discuss your options for upgrading. You can save a copy of this chat transcript for your records if you wish.

Jenna: I can also get you over to Customer Care for more information.

You: so why would you mention FCC rules then?

Jenna: Because you asked about our data limits.

Jenna: That’s why we have them.

You: Sure so can you tell me what FCC rule from 2011 you are referrind to?

Jenna: Sure, I’ll get you the link to the FCC website.

[…]

Jenna: Sure thing. Allow me a moment to get you over to Customer Care chat for further information about our Data Caps policies, and why we have them.

[…]

Christian O.: I see, well our Internet packages have a data usage limit however if you exceed that limit we won’t downgrade your speed or restrict your access to Internet or charge you more.

Christian O.: I think I found some information on the date usage and the FCC on 2011. One moment, please.

You: but it says right there that you will cahrge $10 for 50GB after I reach data cap

You: And FCC is very strict about data caps

Christian O.: Give me a moment to check something.

You: ok thanks

Christian O.: If you exceed your data plan, Cox may notify you by email to alert you. Your service will not be interrupted if you choose to stay on your existing package except in the rare cases of excessive usage. In those extremely rare situations, Cox may suspend service after attempting to resolve the issue.

Christian O.: Cox is conducting a limited data usage trial in Cleveland, Ohio. In all other markets, Cox does not currently charge additional fees if your data plan is exceeded.

You: what you are doing with data caps / usage is illegal

You: But please send me the FCC rule from 2011 that Jenna and you mention

You: “Jenna: Data limits were implemented by the FCC in 2011. By law, we have to have them.”

Christian O.: I don’t have such rule that talks about that. Do you have the rule where it says that is illegal?

Christian O.: Just asking.

[…]

Christian O.: Honestly I don’t have any idea about the rule that Jenna was speaking about. Let me go ask my supervisor. One moment, please.

[…]

Christian O.: Unfortunately we couldn’t find any information about that rule established by the FCC.

To clarify, the FCC neither has rules for or against data caps. It has remained neutral on the subject, although FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler recently advocated imposing a moratorium on data caps or usage billing for up to seven years as a condition of approving Charter Communications’ acquisitions of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Here are Cox’s current data plans, which are effective for all residential customers. However, only customers in Cleveland will face penalties for exceeding them at this time.

Package Monthly Included Data Speeds

Download / Upload

Starter 200 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 1000 GB 200 Mbps / 20 Mbps
Gigablast (Where Available) 2000 GB 1 Gbps / 1 Gbps

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