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Mediacom Warns Top 0.05% of Uploaders to Cut It Out, Cites Network “Stress”

Phillip Dampier January 27, 2021 Broadband "Shortage", Consumer News, Data Caps, Mediacom 3 Comments

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding traffic growth has apparently taken its toll on network capacity at Mediacom, forcing the company to reach out to a growing number of its heavy uploaders and telling them to reduce usage or face a speed throttle or the possible closure of their account.

An East Moline, Ill. Mediacom broadband customer of 10 years was offended to receive a phone call from Mediacom’s “Fraud and Abuse Department” telling him he was overusing his gigabit internet account, which includes a 6 TB data cap. The customer was certain he never exceeded Mediacom’s data cap, and in fact recorded 2.5 TB of usage over the last month, well below his data allowance.

Mediacom’s representative explained the problem was not with how much he downloaded.

“He told me my upload was 450 GB over their average and if I didn’t reduce my usage they would either throttle or disconnect me,” DSL Reports‘ reader poonjahb wrote. “I argued that I used less than half of the total data allowed by my plan, but he said my 1.2 TB of upload was too much and that this was my warning.”

Other Mediacom customers across the Midwest also received similar letters in early January, and several contacted Stop the Cap! Many were already annoyed Mediacom had earlier imposed a data cap, but were incensed they were now being threatened when usage was well under that cap.

“I am paying for gigabit internet service just to never have to worry about a data cap,” said Cory, a Mediacom customer in Missouri. “It comes with a 6,000 GB monthly allowance, which is way more than I will ever use, but I still received a warning letter claiming I was uploading too much. I discovered I used about 900 GB over the last two months, setting up a cloud backup of my computer. At most I can send files at around 50 Mbps, which they claim is interfering with other customers in my neighborhood. I don’t understand.”

Several filed complaints with the FCC, which the agency forwarded on to Mediacom customer service. Most received form letter replies.

COVID-19 Pandemic Causes Traffic Surge, Mediacom Tells Stop the Cap!

“Mediacom routinely reviews both download and upload usage trends to determine if any customers are using a disproportionate share of bandwidth compared to average users,” explains Thomas J. Larsen, senior vice president of government and public relations at Mediacom. “If a customer falls into the top 0.5% of downstream or upstream capacity users in a given month, they may receive a letter or call from Mediacom regarding their usage. This would apply to both business and residential customers. The reason for contacting the customers is to explain that their usage patterns may be degrading the performance of the network and affecting other users.”

Larsen pointed to statistics from the cable industry’s largest trade group, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, which reported a 31.8% total cumulative growth in downstream internet traffic and a 51.1% increase in upstream traffic since the spring COVID-19 lockdowns back in March 2020.

A Mediacom letter sent to customers complaining to the FCC about the practice cited network “stress” caused by excess upstream traffic. Larsen told Stop the Cap! the company regularly reviews customers’ download and upload traffic trends, looking for outliers that use a disproportionate share of bandwidth compared to average users. Larsen would not admit if heavy users were noticeably affecting other customers with congestion-related slowdowns, but said the company was “reaching out … more frequently than before” to the top 0.5% of traffic generating users anyway. He also noted this policy equally applied to both residential and business accounts.

“This is not the easiest topic to explain because internet usage is growing rapidly in this work from home/study from home environment, so it is difficult to give an exact number that puts a customer into the 0.5% category because that number changes from month to month,” Larsen noted. “Understandably, that may make the policy seem arbitrary when we are really just trying to stay in line with moving usage trends.”

Internet Service Providers Have Wide Latitude to Cut Off Heavy Users

Virtually every internet service provider has a provision in their acceptable use policy allowing them to terminate or restrict service when a customer causes problems for that provider. Mediacom is no exception, telling subscribers “without limitation, customer’s usage of the service cannot restrict, inhibit, interfere with or otherwise disrupt or cause disruption, performance degradation of other users or impair or threaten to impair the operation of Mediacom’s systems or network.” This policy is in addition to whatever data usage plans are in place.

But Larsen insists Mediacom is not trying to alienate its customers.

“[We want to] work with our customers to address this issue in a productive manner,” Larsen told Stop the Cap!

At the moment, the only solution seems to be to reduce usage enough to stay off of the company’s “top 0.5%” radar.

Mediacom’s Warning Letters Uncommon Among Other Providers

Mediacom’s crackdown on heavy usage has not been copied by most other U.S. providers. Although traffic growth has been measured by virtually every provider in the country, most providers are mitigating possible service degradation by aggressively upgrading capacity or quietly node splitting neighborhoods experiencing the highest traffic growth, which immediately eases congestion issues.

The company did not indicate if its usage crackdown was temporary or if any planned network upgrades would allow it to ease restrictions sometime in the near future.

Other small providers dealing with congestion issues found a better solution sending letters to high traffic customers explaining forthcoming upgrades and temporarily requesting they limit upstream traffic during peak usage times, while not penalizing them for any off-peak traffic. That might prove to be a useful compromise between Mediacom and its customers and preserve goodwill.

AT&T’s Lawyers Use Media Reports Critical of Company’s Throttle Policy in Defense of Throttling Customers

AT&T throttles

How low can AT&T go? Customers retaining “unlimited data plans” that were discontinued in 2010 were throttled to as little as 127 kbps after using just 2 GB a month.

AT&T’s lawyers are asking a judge to accept media coverage exposing the company’s allegedly “secret” speed throttling policy for some of its wireless customers as a valid defense in a 2015 class action case that seeks to compensate some AT&T customers for misrepresenting its “unlimited data plan.”

AT&T last month asked the judge to have the long-running case thrown out, claiming AT&T well publicized its new speed throttling policy it imposed on a legacy unlimited data plan the wireless company stopped selling in 2010, but allowed existing customers to keep. By 2011, some customers still subscribed to the grandfathered unlimited plan started noticing data speeds plummeting to near dial-up if they used a lot of data. At first, AT&T appeared to impose a speed throttle on customers using over 10 GB of data per month, but by 2012, AT&T was accused of speed throttling unlimited customers after they used as little as 2 GB of data during a billing period.

The resulting class action lawsuit, filed in California, alleged that AT&T misrepresented its unlimited data plan as ‘unlimited,’ when in fact in practical terms it was not. The plaintiffs are seeking damages from AT&T to discourage the company from engaging in false advertising in the future, and to compensate customers that paid for an unlimited data plan that eventually became almost useless after customers used just over 2 GB a month.

AT&T’s defense partly relies on the company’s claim it extensively publicized changes to its legacy unlimited data plan as early as 2011, and the plaintiffs should have been aware of it. The Federal Communications Commission was aware of AT&T’s actions and just a month before the class action case was filed, the regulatory agency issued a notice of apparent liability to AT&T proposing a $100 million fine for unwarranted speed throttling.

AT&T’s attorneys have worked hard to stop the lawsuit over the last five years. In addition to claiming customers were notified of their excessive data usage through text messages and billing notices, AT&T last month sought to introduce a dozen media reports covering its speed throttling policy into the court record to convince U.S. District Judge Edward Milton Chen the plaintiffs don’t have a case and to get the lawsuit dismissed.

One of the news articles cited in AT&T’s May 14 filing was written by former DSL Reports’ author Karl Bode, who has been roundly critical of AT&T’s data caps for over a decade. Ironically, AT&T’s defense team is arguing Bode’s report, “AT&T Wages Quiet War on Grandfathered Unlimited Users” offers proof AT&T was not keeping its speed throttling policy “secret,” as at least one plaintiff claimed. Bode suggested AT&T had engineered its speed throttling plan to push grandfathered unlimited data plan customers off the plan in favor of more profitable plans offering a specified data allowance and overlimit fees.

Bode

“In other words, pay $30 for “unlimited” service where you’re actually only getting 2 GB of data before your phone becomes useless, or sign up for a 3 GB tier for the same price so you’re in line to get socked with the usage overages of tomorrow,” Bode wrote at the time.

His views have not changed in 2020.

“For nearly a decade AT&T has tap danced around the fact it misleadingly sold an ‘unlimited’ data plan packed with confusing limits. No amount of legal maneuvering can hide the fact that AT&T lied repeatedly to its customers about the kind of connection they were buying,” Bode told Stop the Cap! “Instead of owning its mistake, learning from it, and moving forward, AT&T’s now trying to point to critical news coverage from the era to falsely suggest consumers should have known better. It’s utterly nonsensical and speaks volumes about the lack of ethical leadership at a company that routinely sees some of the lowest customer satisfaction ratings in American industry.”

AT&T’s lawyers are not prepared to concede, however. Since the lawsuit was filed, AT&T’s legal team attempted to force the case into arbitration in 2016. That effort was successful until a 2017 California Supreme Court decision in another case gave the plaintiffs ammunition to claim that it was against California law to force consumers into arbitration. The Ninth Circuit court agreed, and the case reverted to district court, where AT&T immediately began efforts to have the case dismissed outright.

AT&T is not alone throttling so-called “heavy users” that have either legacy or current unlimited data plans. All major cellular companies enforce fine print policies that allow speed throttling after customers consume as little as 20 GB of wireless data during a billing cycle. The fact companies still advertise such plans as “unlimited” irks Bode.

“An unlimited data connection should come with no limits. If giant wireless carriers can’t respect the dictionary, they should stop using the word entirely,” Bode told us.

10% of Homes Now Exceed Comcast/AT&T/Cox’s 1 TB Usage Cap; Average Use Now 402.5 GB

Note that data usage is slightly higher for users with “flat rate billing (FRB)” plans vs. those stuck with “usage-based billing (UBB).” (Source: OpenVault)

A record 10 percent of U.S. households now exceed 1 TB of data usage per month, putting some customers at risk of overlimit fees for exceeding data allowances that are usually enforced by AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and other telecom companies. Those caps are temporarily suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

OpenVault, which collects average data usage from several service providers, reports a dramatic increase in the number of homes it designates as “power users” that consume at least 1 TB of data each month. In the first quarter of 2019, 4.2% of customers regularly exceeded 1 TB of usage. During the same period this year, that number shot up 138% to 10% of customers. “Extreme power users” that consume 2+ TB of data increased a record 215% from just one year ago, now representing 1.2% of broadband households. Last year it was 0.38%.

Overall total broadband usage across all users increased 47% in the first quarter of 2020, reaching an average of 402.5 GB a month. But that number mostly comprises average usage before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to work from home. OpenVault originally predicted in January 2020 that monthly usage would reach 425 GB by the end of 2020. But with most Americans sheltering at home, measurements now suggest average broadband usage already exceeds that, reaching a record high of 460 GB in April.

“Nearly all the growth in broadband usage we would have expected for 2020 has now been achieved in the first quarter, with much of it concentrated in the last two weeks of the quarter,” OpenVault reported.

Despite usage growth, broadband providers in the United States are universally confident their networks are more than capable of sustaining the increased traffic. In fact, many providers report a spike in new customers, upgrades to higher speed tiers, and at least one — Spectrum, is confident enough of its network capacity to give away two months of broadband service to households with school-age children for free.

NCTA–The Internet & Television Association reports the biggest increases in broadband traffic are occurring on the upstream side, likely because of video teleconferencing. Although downstream traffic also spiked after the pandemic forced many businesses to close their offices, that traffic has flattened out and most recently has even decreased slightly.

Source: NCTA

Broadband providers may have lost key arguments to support reimposing data allowances and usage caps after the pandemic eases. Not only have broadband networks managed dramatic spikes in traffic with no significant difficulties, there are no signs of any “data tsunamis” in the future, even as broadband usage growth exceeds predictions. NCTA reports that 99.8% of the time broadband providers had “ample” or “excess” capacity available, not only to sustain current traffic levels but also potential future spikes in traffic. Peak traffic usage reaching levels where reduced capacity was available was identified just 0.2% of the time, causing a “minor impact on performance and customer experience.”

The current crisis is likely to bring a flood of new revenue to many broadband companies, even without usage overlimit fees. Since the pandemic began, OpenVault reports a 3.75% growth in premium-priced gigabit speed upgrades, up 97% from the same time last year.  In the New York City area, gigabit service subscriptions at Altice/Optimum increased 56% as many workers began to telecommute.

The biggest challenge the cable broadband industry faces as a result of this year’s usage growth is a need to accelerate plans already under development to increase upload speeds. Much of the recent traffic growth came from upstream traffic, which is cable broadband’s biggest Achilles’ Heel. Cable broadband networks devote most available bandwidth to downloads, with only a small fraction devoted to upload speed. Cable companies are expected to modestly increase upload speeds in a few months and will eventually deploy the next DOCSIS standard, supporting far faster upload speeds, beginning sometime next year.

New York Governor’s Boast About Near-100% Broadband Coverage Backfires

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasted in 2015 that anyone who wanted broadband service in the state would have access to it, he could not have realized that claim would come back to haunt him five years later.

New York’s Broadband for All program claimed to be the “largest and most ambitious state broadband investment in the nation,” with $500 million set aside “to achieve statewide broadband access by 2018,” with “99.9% of New Yorkers” getting access to broadband service.

In 2020, that goal remains elusive, with over 80,000 New Yorkers relegated to heavily data-capped satellite internet access and potentially tens of thousands more left behind by erroneous broadband availability maps that could leave many with no access at all. Now it appears the federal government will not be coming to the rescue, potentially stranding some rural residents as a permanent, unconnected underclass.

The Republican-majority at the Federal Communications Commission has decided to take the Democratic governor at his word and exclude additional rural broadband funding for New York State. The FCC’s recently approved Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is the most ambitious rural broadband funding initiative to date, with a budget of $20.4 billion. As it stands, not a penny of those funds will ever be paid to support additional broadband projects in the Empire State.

“Back in 2016, the governor of New York represented to this agency that allocating the full $170 million in Connect America Fund II support to the state broadband program would allow full broadband buildout throughout the Empire State, when combined with the state’s own funding,” said FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly.

That $170 million was originally designated for Verizon to spend in upstate and western New York in areas without high-speed broadband. When Verizon declined to accept the funding, the rules for the program required the money to be made available for other qualified projects in other states, or left forfeit, unspent. An appeal from New York’s Senate delegation to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to award that $170 million to New York’s Broadband for All program was successful, allowing other phone, cable, and wireless providers to construct new rural broadband projects around the state. That decision was met with criticism, especially by the Wireless Industry Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents the interests of mostly rural, fixed wireless providers around the country.

O’Rielly

“After robust opportunity for public input, last year the FCC adopted a CAF-II framework that was truly technology-neutral and designed to harness the power of competition to deliver the most broadband to the most Americans, at the lowest overall price,” said Steve Coran, counsel for WISPA, in a statement. “Unfortunately, today’s action appears to deviate from this approach by providing disproportionate support to one state at the expense of others, which will now be competing for even less federal support.”

That criticism was partially echoed by Commissioner O’Rielly, who appreciated the dilemma of rural New Yorkers without access to high speed internet, but felt the FCC was showing favoritism to New York, which he worried was getting a disproportionate share of federal funding.

“These are federal [Universal Service Fund] dollars taken from ratepayers nationwide. They are not New York State funds, and we have the burden of deciding how best to allocate these scarce dollars, as well as the right to demand that they be spent wisely,” O’Rielly said. “At the same time, I am concerned that the funding will not be used as efficiently as possible. It should not be lost on everyone that New York is one of the states that diverts 9-1-1 fees collected to other non-related purposes, as is noted in the Commission’s recent report on the subject. We should have received assurances that New York would cease this disgraceful practice.”

O’Rielly added that offering even more generous funding in New York could lead to overpaying providers to service rural New York communities at the expense of other, cheaper rural broadband projects in other states.

Recently O’Rielly claimed that allowing New York to receive funding under the new RDOF program would almost guarantee dollars would be spent on duplicative, overlapping broadband projects, noting that Gov. Cuomo already considers New York almost entirely served by high speed providers. In fact, he claimed any additional funding sent to New York would be “beyond foolish and incredibly wasteful” and would undermine the rural broadband program’s objective to avoid funding projects in areas already served by an existing provider.

In other words, since Gov. Cuomo has claimed that virtually the entire state is now served with high speed internet access, O’Reilly believes there is no reason to award any further money to the state.

Except the claim that ‘nearly the entire state already has broadband access’ is untrue, and O’Rielly’s arguments against sending any additional money to New York seem more political than rational.

The FCC’s broadband availability map shows significant portions of New York in yellow, which designates no provider delivering the FCC’s minimum of 25/3 Mbps broadband service.

First, the FCC’s own flawed broadband availability maps, criticized for over counting the number of Americans with access to broadband, still shows large sections of upstate and western New York unserved by any suitable provider. Parts of western New York between Buffalo and Rochester, significant portions of the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, and North Country are all still without access. An even larger portion of upstate New York has either no access or very slow access through DSL. The number of residents without service is significant. The FCC uses census blocks to measure broadband availability, but this methodology is flawed because if even one home within that block has broadband while dozens of others do not, the FCC still counts every home as served. This has angered many New Yorkers stuck without service while a local cable or phone company offers high-speed internet access to neighbors just up the road. Many of these rural residents are not even designated to receive satellite service, Broadband for All’s last catchall option for areas where no wired provider bid to provide service.

Second, long-standing rules in broadband funding programs already deny funding to areas where another suitable provider already offers service. So it would be impossible for RDOF to award “wasted” funding to projects where service already exists.

While Gov. Cuomo’s boastful claims about broadband availability opened the door for discriminatory rules against the state, the FCC itself wrote the rules, and it appears the goal was one part payback for securing earlier broadband funding over the objections of Commission O’Reilly, and one part sticking it to a state that has given the Trump Administration plenty of heartburn since the president took office.

FCC Considering New 5.9 GHz Wi-Fi Band

Pai

Pai

After significant lobbying by the cable industry, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai made a decision to propose splitting up the 5.9 GHz so-called Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) band to open up 45 MHz for unlicensed Wi-Fi services and leave 30 MHz reserved for emerging crash avoidance technology that will allow cars to communicate with each other to reduce accidents.

Pai has been frustrated by the slow development of intelligent vehicle communications, especially as different competing technologies appear to have delayed deployment as carmakers ponder a technology shift. Pai’s proposal would allow auto manufacturers to debate what kind of spectrum division might be appropriate within the remaining band if different technologies are eventually deployed. But Pai would also quickly move to open up much of the rest of the band for cable industry and consumer Wi-Fi services.

“My proposal would do far more for both automotive safety and Wi-Fi than the status quo,” Pai said, noting he was adding his proposal for FCC consideration at a meeting on Dec. 12.

The cable industry, through its national lobbying group NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, quickly applauded Pai’s proposal, which nearly mirrors the plan recommended by the nation’s biggest cable companies.

“We applaud Chairman Pai’s announcement today that the Commission intends to move forward in considering a new plan for 5.9 GHz spectrum band that will chart a constructive path forward in putting these frequencies to better use for consumers,” said NCTA President Michael Powell. “The Chairman’s proposal will enable the fastest gigabit Wi-Fi speeds in America, ensuring that Wi-Fi can keep pace with growing consumer demand and the deployment of next-generation wireless broadband technologies. We also thank Commissioners O’Rielly and Rosenworcel for their tireless efforts in support of unlicensed spectrum, especially enabling Wi-Fi in the 5.9 GHz band.”

Cable operators including Charter and Comcast want to deploy a large network of Wi-Fi hotspots in the new band to support their growing mobile service operations. Both stand to save substantially by offloading network traffic to their own wireless networks instead of relying on Verizon Wireless, which is contracted to provide 4G LTE service.

Consumers will eventually also be able to purchase in-home routers that will support the new 5.9 GHz band, if Pai’s proposal is approved. The new Wi-Fi band, located between 5.85-5.895 GHz is adjacent to the existing 5.9 GHz Wi-Fi band in the United States (5.725-5.850 GHz)

Expanding available Wi-Fi spectrum may help consumers get faster wireless connections, especially in areas where signal congestion from other users is significant. Some proponents suggest that the new band could allow consumers to experience near-gigabit Wi-Fi speeds, but that will largely be dependent on the equipment used, one’s distance from a Wi-Fi hotspot, and any prevailing wireless traffic congestion.

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