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Shocking Revelation: Big Telecom Companies Treating You Like Trash Turns Out to Be a Mistake

Jeff Kagan is a name familiar to anyone that follows the cable industry. For over 30 years, Kagan has been tracking consumer perceptions about the telecom industry and offering insight into the challenges these and other businesses were likely to face in the future.More recently, Kagan has been fretting about the growing trend of retail businesses paying more attention to cultivating their relationships with Wall Street while targeting their customers for abuse.

“I have been noticing how in recent years, retail is becoming increasingly unfriendly to the customer. This is a mistake,” Kagan offers in a new opinion piece on Equities.com. “New technologies and new ideas may be good for the bottom line in the short-term. They may solve problems like shoplifting, and that may make investors happy today. However, in the long-term, these customer unfriendly trends will take their toll as customers will shop where they feel appreciated, respected and wanted. Customers shop at stores they love. Love is an emotion. So, we must think of winning the customer with emotion. This is difficult for most businesspeople to understand.”

‘My way or the highway’-type attitudes from retailers come from all sorts of businesses. Warehouse clubs make you pay for the honor of shopping there. Chains like Walmart are beefing up security teams and in some places now demand to see receipts from customers exiting the store. But nobody has abused customers better and longer than the telecom industry. Not even the cattle car-like airlines.

Kagan

After literally decades of almost bragging about their “don’t care” customer service while throwing attitude and intransigence at customers unhappy with service or pricing, the nation’s biggest cable and phone companies are now experiencing long-overdue customer revenge. Kagan notes that cord-cutting is not just about switching to a competitor for service. Many customers are literally thrilled to see the back end of their long hated provider.

Decades of monopoly service made abusing customers a risk-free and very profitable strategy for companies like Comcast, AT&T, Charter, Cox, Mediacom, and Verizon. In fact, someone turned the concept of the “cable guy” into a horror movie. Did you stay home from work to wait for a service call that never materialized? Tough luck. Don’t like yet another rate increase? Too bad.

“The reason they did this was, they had no competition in their market area. That meant the customer could not leave them,” Kagan noted.

After years of getting a bad reputation, only two things threatened to scare telecom companies straight — the fear of imminent regulation, such as what happened in 1992 when reregulation of cable companies turned out to be the only bill that year to be vetoed by President George H. W. Bush and overridden by the U.S. Senate to become law.

The other, much more scary fear is competition. In the mid-1990s, the nation’s biggest phone companies including what we now know as AT&T and Verizon were contemplating getting into the video business. This proved far more threatening than the much smaller home satellite dish business, which attracted around three million Americans at the time. The cable industry spent years taking shots at satellite competitors, including sticking dishowners with the cost of buying a $300 descrambler box up front, and charging as much (or even more) for programming than cable customers paid, despite the fact homeowners had to purchase and service their own dish, often 6-12 feet wide and not cheap to install.

The cable industry feared phone companies would charge ratepayers to subsidize their entry into the television business and sought protective legislation prohibiting the same cross-subsidization the cable industry would later rely on to introduce broadband and phone service.

More recently, after the country reached “peak cable” — the year the highest number of us subscribed to cable TV, the industry recognized it was likely all downhill from there. Comcast, in particular, specialized in empty lip service gestures to improve the customer service experience. For years, it promised to do better, only to do worse. The company even attempted to shed its bad reputation by changing the brand of its products from Comcast to “XFINITY.” Customers were not fooled, but that did not stop Charter from following Comcast’s lead, introducing the “Spectrum” brand to its products and almost burying its corporate name, which it barely references these days.

Kagan notes not following through on the customer service experience made cable companies ripe for stunning customer losses as new competitors for video service emerged. Comcast and Charter are among the biggest losers of cable TV customers, but their bad attitudes persist. Their latest ideas? Keep raising prices, rely on tricky Broadcast TV surcharges that are soaring in cost, end customer retention offers for dissatisfied video customers, and make up the difference in lost revenue by jacking up the price of broadband service, which is already nearly all-profit.

“The bottom line for any business is always focus on the customer. If they are happy, your business will remain strong and growing,” Kagan warned.

At some point, customers will get more choices for broadband service. Community owned broadband solutions have been very successful in communities that have experienced the worst abuse AT&T, Comcast, and Charter can deliver. In the future, fixed 5G wireless may provide perfectly respectable internet service if it is not data capped. Next generation satellite providers, interloping independent fiber to the home providers, and mesh wireless providers may offer consumers a number of options that can deliver suitable service and perhaps finally put cable and phone companies in their place.

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Wall Street Journal Says Faster Internet Not Worth It, But They Ignore Bottlenecks and Data Caps

The Wall Street Journal believes the majority of Americans are paying for internet speed they never use or need, but their investigation largely ignores the question of traffic bottlenecks and data caps that require many customers to upgrade to premium tiers to avoid punitive overlimit fees.

The newspaper’s examination was an attempt to test the marketing messages of large cable and phone companies that claim premium speeds of 250, 500, or 1,000 Mbps will enhance video streaming. A total of 53 journalists across the country performed video streaming tests over a period of months, working with researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago to determine how much of their available bandwidth was used while streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and other popular streaming services.

Unsurprisingly, the newspaper found most only need a fraction of their available internet speed — often less than 10 Mbps — to watch high quality HD streaming video, even with up to seven video streams running concurrently. That is because video streaming services are designed to produce good results even with lower speed connections. Video resolution and buffering are dynamically adjusted by the streaming video player depending on the quality of one’s internet connection, with good results likely for anyone with a basic broadband connection of 10-25 Mbps. As 4K streams become more common, customers will probably get better performance with faster tiers, assuming the customer has an unshaped connection that does not throttle video streaming speeds as many mobile connections do and the streaming service offers a subscription tier offering 4K video. Netflix, for example, charges more for 4K streams. Some other services do not offer this option at all.

Image: WSJ

WSJ:

For most modern televisions, the highest picture clarity is the “full” high-definition standard, 1080p, followed by the slightly lower HD standard, 720p, then “standard resolution,” 480p. The Journal study found a household’s percentage of 1080p viewing had little to do with the speed it was paying for. In some cases, streaming services intentionally transmit in lower resolution to accommodate a device such as a mobile phone.

When all HD viewing is considered—1080p and 720p—there were some benefits to paying for the very highest broadband tiers, those 250 Mbps and above.

Streaming services compress their streams in smart ways, so they don’t require much bandwidth. We took a closer look at specific services by gathering data on our households’ viewing over a period of months. Unlike the “stress test,” this was regular viewing of shows and movies, one at a time.

Netflix streamed at under 4 Mbps, on average, over the course of a show or movie, with not much difference in the experience of someone who was paying for a 15 Mbps connection and someone with a one gigabit (1,000 Mbps) connection. The findings were similar for the other services.

There is a brief speed spike when a stream begins. Netflix reached the highest max speeds of the services we tested, but even those were a fraction of the available bandwidth.

Users watching YouTube might launch a video slightly faster than those watching Netflix, and at lower resolution, but this is a function of how those services work, not your broadband speed, the researchers said.

Whereas Netflix tries to load “nice high quality video” when you press play and hence has higher spikes, YouTube appears to “want to start as fast as possible,” said Paul Schmitt, one of the researchers.

A spokeswoman for Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube said the service chooses playback quality based on factors including type of device, network speed, user preferences and the resolution of the originally uploaded video. A Netflix Inc. spokeswoman said the company aims to deliver quality video with the least possible bandwidth. Amazon.com Inc. had no comment.

The Journal finds little advantage for consumers subscribing to premium speed tiers, if they did so hoping for improved streaming video. The unanswered question is why customers believe they need faster internet speeds to get those improvements in the first place.

The answer often lies in the quality of the connection between the streaming provider and the customer. There are multiple potential bottlenecks that can make a YouTube video stutter and buffer on even the fastest internet connection. Large providers have had high profile disputes with large streaming companies over interconnection agreements that bring Netflix and YouTube traffic to those internet service providers’ customers. Some ISPs want compensation to handle the increasing amount of incoming video traffic and have intentionally not allowed adequate upgrades to keep up with growing subscriber demand. This creates a traffic bottleneck, usually most noticeable at night, when even a small YouTube video can get stuck buffering. Other streaming videos can suffer from repeated pauses or deteriorate into lower resolution video quality, regardless of the speed of your connection.

Another common bottleneck comes from oversold service providers that have too much traffic and not enough capacity to manage it. DSL and satellite internet customers often complain about dramatic slowdowns in performance during peak usage times in the evenings and on weekends. In many cases, too many customers in a neighborhood are sharing the connection back to the phone company. Satellite customers only have a finite amount of bandwidth to work with and once used, all speeds slow. Some other providers do not pay for a large enough pipeline to the internet backbone, making some traffic slow to a crawl when that connection is full.

Customers are sold on speed upgrades by providers that tell them faster speeds will accommodate more video traffic, which is true but not the whole answer. No amount of speed will overcome intentional traffic shaping, an inadequate connection to the video streaming service, or an oversold network. Too bad the Journal did not investigate these conditions, which are more common than many people think.

Finally, some customers feel compelled to upgrade to premium tiers because their provider enforces data caps, and premium tiers offer larger usage allowances. Cable One, Suddenlink, and Mediacom customers, among others, get a larger usage allowance upgrading. Other providers offer a fixed cap, often 1 TB, which does not go away unless a customer pays an additional monthly fee or bundles video service.

Data caps are a concern for video streaming customers because the amount of data that can be consumed in a month is substantial. As video quality improves, data consumption increases. The Journal article does not address data caps.

Finally, the Journal investigation confined itself to video streaming, but internet users are also increasingly using other high traffic services, especially cloud backup and downloading, especially for extremely large video game updates. The next generation of high bandwidth internet applications will only be developed if high speed internet service is pervasive, so having fast internet speed is not a bad thing. In fact, providers have learned it is relatively cheap to increase customer speeds and use that as a justification to raise broadband prices. Other providers, like Charter Spectrum, have dropped lower speed budget plans to sell customers 100 or 200 Mbps service, with a relatively inexpensive upgrade to 400 Mbps also gaining in popularity.

Does the average consumer need a premium speed tier for their home internet connection? Probably not. But they do need affordable unlimited internet service free of bottlenecks and artificial slowdowns, especially at the prices providers charge these days. That is an investigation the Journal should conduct next.

NY PSC Clarifies Broadband Speed Requirement Merger Terms

Charter Communications is not obligated to upgrade New York internet customers to a minimum internet speed of 300 Mbps, according to a letter of clarification directed to Stop the Cap! and received today from the New York State Department of Public Service.

DPS:

In the Commission’s 2016 order, Charter was required to offer broadband internet service with speeds up to 100 Mbps to all customers served by its New York networks (including its Columbia County systems) by the end of 2018; and offer broadband internet service with speeds up to 300 Mbps to all customers served by its New York networks by the end of 2019. At the time of the Commission’s decision, although Time Warner operated some systems in New York that were already capable of offering customer speeds up to 300 Mbps, the majority of Time Warner customers in Upstate New York were limited to broadband speeds of 50 Mbps.

Charter was therefore required to upgrade its network to be able to offer broadband service at speeds up to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019 but was not required to increase its minimum service offering to 300 Mbps. Charter has reported that it has complied with this condition ahead of schedule and Department of Public Service Staff has begun the process of independently field-testing Charter’s network to verify compliance with the condition.

Stop the Cap! raised this issue with the Commission as part of the recent settlement agreement between New York State and Charter Communications, and sought an official clarification. Approximately 40% of Charter’s national footprint now receives 200 Mbps download speeds while most New Yorkers receive just 100 Mbps for the same price, putting the state at a disadvantage.

Dampier

“The Commission’s language in the original merger agreement was unclear, because Time Warner Cable had already embarked on a statewide upgrade to its so-called ‘Maxx’ service tiers, which included free speed increases, negating most of the benefits of the state’s condition requiring Charter to upgrade broadband speeds as part of its terms to approve the merger,” said Phillip Dampier, founder and president of Stop the Cap! “In fact, this merger made things worse for New Yorkers because customers would have been getting Time Warner Cable Maxx speeds as much as a year earlier than what Spectrum finally delivered across the state, and customers would have been offered a number of options for less costly internet service that Spectrum dropped.”

Shortly after the merger was approved, Charter placed a moratorium on Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades and spent months attempting to knit Charter’s existing systems with the much larger Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speeds were well on the way throughout Upstate New York before Charter acquired the company and issued an upgrade moratorium.

“Consumers already know from their cable bills that this merger was just another bad deal for New York, and now nearly half of Spectrum’s national service area gets twice the speed Upstate New York gets for the same price, and there is no pressure on the company to deliver any additional upgrades,” Dampier added.

Stop the Cap! also urged the Commission to do all it could to make life easier for customers in the New York City area, where Charter has been trying to rid itself of union technicians that have been on strike for over two years.

“For all the talk by state officials, including the governor, it appears there is no end in sight for this strike and customers are caught in the middle,” Dampier said. “We hear frequently from New York City consumers about substandard repair work and unacceptable installations that suggest the company is not using the best available workforce to take care of customer needs. Charter is making loads of money in profits and can afford to offer a square deal to workers to end this strike and get these technicians back to work.”

What’s Eating Your Comcast Data Cap?

Comcast has put its proverbial finger to the wind to define an “appropriate” data cap it declares “generous,” regardless of how subjectively random that cap happens to be. Although 1,000 GB — a terabyte — usage allowance represents a lot of internet traffic, more and more customers are finding they are flirting with exceeding that cap, and Comcast has never been proactive about regularly adjusting it to reflect the reality of rapidly growing internet traffic. That means customers must protect themselves by checking their usage and take steps if they are nearing the 1 TB limit.

If you do exceed your allowance, Comcast will provide two “grace periods” that will protect you from overlimit fees, currently $10 for each extra 50 GB allotment of data you use. Another alternative Comcast will happily sell you is an insurance policy to prevent any risk of overlimit fees. For an extra $50 a month, they will take the cap off your internet plan allowing unlimited usage. But $50 a month is close to paying for your internet service twice and is indefensible considering how little Comcast pays for its customers’ internet traffic. It is just one more way Comcast can pick up extra revenue without doing much of anything.

Customers that do regularly break through the 1 TB data cap often have a guilt complex, believing they have no right to complain about data caps and should pay more because they must cost Comcast a lot more money to service. In fact, Time Warner Cable executives broadly considered internet traffic expenses as little more than a “rounding error” to their bottom line, according to internal emails obtained by the New York Attorney General’s office. Managing customers’ data usage is far less costly than network plant upkeep, the regularly increasing costs of video content, and expenses related to expanding service to new locations.

One VentureBeat reader investigated what chewed through Comcast’s data allowance the most, and it wasn’t easy:

Xfinity pretends to make this easier for you, but that’s a load of horsesh*t. Its X-Fi app claims to give you usage stats for your connected devices — only nothing appears up-to-date. The phone I was using to look at the X-Fi app doesn’t even appear on the connected-devices list. You also have to look at each device individually. I saw no way to sort a list of devices by data usage, which would obviously help a lot.

Some of the biggest data users are connected households, where multiple family members use a range of devices, often at the same time. Customers with multiple internet-connected computers, video game consoles, and streaming devices are most at risk of exceeding their cap.

Video Games Consoles/PCs

The biggest data consumption does not come from gameplay itself. It comes from frequent software updates, some exceeding 50 GB. If you play a number of games, updates can come frequently. In the case of the VentureBeat author, 17% of daily usage came from the home’s primary desktop PC. Another 12% was traced to the family’s Xbox One. An in-home media server that also runs Steam and auto-updates frequently was also suspect.

Streaming Devices

If you are not into video games and do not depend on cloud storage or large file transfers to move data back and forth, streaming set-top boxes and devices are almost certainly going to be the primary source of your biggest monthly data usage. Video resolution can make a difference in how much data is consumed. If you are regularly approaching or exceeding your monthly cap, consider locking down maximum video resolution for streaming on large televisions to 720p, and 480p for smartphones. Some streaming services offer customized resolution options in their settings menu.

Autoplay, also known as the ‘binge’ option can also consume a lot of video when a service automatically starts playback of the next episode in a series. Some people switch off their televisions without stopping video playback, which can mean you watched one episode but actually streamed six or more. Check the streaming software for an option to not autoplay videos.

Remember that cable TV replacements like DirecTV Now and YouTube TV will continue streaming live broadcasts until you stop them. Do not just switch off the television. Many live/linear TV apps will prompt you every few hours if you have not changed channels to make sure there is someone still watching. If you do not respond, streaming will stop automatically.

Cloud Storage Backups

When customers report staggering data usage during a month, cloud storage backup software is often the culprit. If you are new to cloud storage backup services like Dropbox or Carbonite, your PC may be uploading a significant part of your hard drive to create a full backup of your computer. This alone can consume terabytes of data. Fortunately, most backup services throttle uploads and do not automatically assume you need to backup your entire hard drive. Many offer options to limit upload speed, the total amount of data that can be uploaded each month, and options to selectively backup certain files and folders. 

Your Wi-Fi Network is Insecure

In areas where data caps are pervasive, those who want to use a lot more data and do not want to pay for it may quietly hop on your home Wi-Fi network and effectively bill that usage to you. This is most common in large multi-dwelling units where lots of neighbors are within range of your home Wi-Fi. The best way to reduce the risk of a Wi-Fi intrusion is to create a password that is exceptionally difficult to guess, using a mixture of special characters (!, ^, %, etc.) and mixed case random letters and numbers. Although this can be inconvenient for guests, it will probably keep intruders out and prevent them from running up your bill.

It is unfortunate customers have to jump through these kinds of hoops and compromise their online experience. But where cable and phone companies lack competition, they can charge a small fortune for internet access and still feel it is appropriate to cap usage and ask for even more money when customers “use too much.”

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