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Federal Trade Commission Sues Lyin’ Frontier for Deceptive Advertising: Promised Internet Speeds a Fantasy

Frontier is accused of not delivering the internet speeds it sells to consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission, along with law enforcement agencies from six states, today sued Frontier Communications, alleging that the company did not provide many consumers with internet service at the speeds it promised them, and accepted customer orders for internet speed tiers the company had no intention of actually providing.

In the complaint, the FTC and its state partners allege that Frontier advertised and sold internet service in several plans, or tiers, based on download speed. Frontier has touted these tiers using a variety of methods, including mail and online ads, and has sold them to consumers over the phone and online.

In reality, the FTC alleges, Frontier did not provide many consumers with the maximum speeds they were promised and the speeds they actually received often fell far short of what was advertised.

“When Frontier sends mail to a consumer’s residential address, or displays digital advertisements to consumers with residential addresses known to Frontier, Frontier has access to information indicating that it is unable to provide certain of its DSL Internet speed tiers to some consumers, based on factors such as the address’s distance from Frontier’s networking equipment, which Frontier can easily compute or estimate for many addresses,” the complaint stated. “In numerous instances, Frontier has sent consumers advertisements for DSL Internet service at speed tiers that Frontier could not provide to them.”

In early 2019, a management consulting firm analyzed, at Frontier’s direction and with Frontier’s participation, Frontier’s proprietary network data and internal records for nearly 1.5 million then-current DSL subscribers. This analysis found that approximately 440,000 of Frontier’s DSL subscribers, or nearly 30% of the population analyzed, were “potentially” “oversold” on speed tiers that
exceeded the actual speeds Frontier provided to them.

Frontier is also accused of violating Wisconsin state law by making demonstrably false statements about its service reliability. Frontier’s advertisements represent to consumers that they can receive uninterrupted “crystal-clear” phone service with “99.9% reliability.” But the lawsuit claims Wisconsin consumers routinely suffer from sound quality issues with their service. For example, consumers have complained that they experience a buzzing or static sound that makes hearing the other caller very difficult, if not impossible. The suit also claims that between 2018 and 2019, Wisconsin customers endured over 200,000 landline outages, with over 25,000 left unrepaired after 24 hours.

The FTC’s complaint was filed with the attorneys general from Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, as well as the district attorneys’ offices of Los Angeles County and Riverside County on behalf of the State of California. The plaintiffs seek court costs and restitution for consumers affected by Frontier’s allegedly deceptive behavior.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint was 4-0. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

$50 Emergency Broadband Benefit Is A Windfall for Telecom Companies, a Headache for Consumers

Confusion, frustration, and fine print are all a part of the deal signing up for the $50 Emergency Broadband Benefit, customers complain.

The Biden Administration’s efforts to help economically challenged Americans with their broadband bills is actually a windfall for some of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies, which will pocket the money earned while forcing some customers off discounted promotional and legacy plans they claim do not qualify for bill relief.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), rushed through in the early days of the new administration, is a $3.2 billion program that will offer qualifying consumers $50 off their monthly internet bill, at least until this fall when the money funding the program is expected to run out. Internet service provider participation is voluntary, but with billions of free money to be collected, most cable and phone companies are on board with the program. In fact, several are using the new benefit to earn even more money, by writing program rules that cynically exploit their income-challenged customers.

To qualify for the benefit, an individual is eligible if one member of the household:

  • Is a participant in one of the qualifying Lifeline programs: Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, FPHA, Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit;
  • Is a resident on a Tribal reservation and participates in one of the following programs: Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance; Tribally administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tribal TANF); Head Start (only those households meeting its income qualifying standard); or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR);
  • Has applied for and been approved to participate in the National School Lunch Program: receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision;
  • Has gross household income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines;
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, and the household had a total income in 2020 below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers. This includes those who are unemployed or experienced unemployment in 2020 and/or were furloughed.

Stop the Cap! has received a few dozen letters from consumers that thought qualifying under the ‘substantial loss of income’ condition would be easy. Instead, they are sharing horror stories about providers unilaterally rejecting their applications, quietly canceling promotional packages, forcing some off less expensive, grandfathered service packages no longer being sold, or requiring customers to upgrade to more costly packages that ultimately left them with a bigger bill than they started with.

In some cases, poor training of customer service representatives seems to be the biggest impediment between you and a cheaper monthly bill. Some companies, including Sparklight, did not seem to even be aware of the highly publicized program. Others, notably Charter and Comcast, gave different answers depending on the representative you reach.

The most cynical provider of them all, however, is Verizon. No ISP makes participation in the EBB program more difficult. The phone company dominates as the largest wireline phone company in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and Verizon Wireless is one of the three major wireless carriers. It appears to be using the EBB as a marketing opportunity to upsell customers or drive them off older legacy plans that cost less, even if that is the only plan available.

“Verizon told me flat out ‘no’ that DSL customers cannot receive the $50 discount,” said Ted Rogers. Verizon is his only option for internet service, and only barely so. “We get about 6 Mbps from Verizon, no cell signals at all, and cable internet is just a dream. We live almost a mile from the nearest neighbor.”

Rogers lost his job as a result of the pandemic and is now working two part-time jobs to make ends meet. He told us the broadband benefit would be nice, but in the end is not worth fighting the phone company to get.

“You really have nowhere to go when they reject you, because the program is voluntary,” Rogers told us. “The FCC just passes the complaint back to Verizon and the PSC says it does not regulate internet service.”

Collect the $50, and then even more by forcing customers to switch to more expensive service plans.

Early FiOS customers who signed up for plans they have kept for years are also running straight into a firm “no” from Verizon. The Washington Post shared the stories of several Verizon fiber customers who were told they must upgrade to a more costly plan to qualify for the $50 discount. One customer in Massachusetts would have to give up his internet-only plan costing $62 for basically the same service under a different name — for $79 a month. While the $50 discount will make his internet bill much lower through the summer, when funds run out, he will end up paying $17 more a month indefinitely.

A Virginia customer was told she would have to walk away from her current Verizon internet plan costing $79 a month and switch to a new one for $95 a month, just to get a $50 discount over the next 3-6 months. That is a $16 more a month. In Pennsylvania, a Verizon customer was told she could not get the $50 a month broadband benefit unless she signed up for a costlier TV package and start renting some set top equipment as well. Her bill, after the EBB benefit expires, will be “at least $50 a month higher.”

“In my case, it seems like EBB only benefits Verizon,” she told the Post.

Unlike most telecom companies that claim these kinds of stories are simple misunderstandings or confusion on the part of their customer service team, Verizon spokesman Alex Lawson stepped up to boldly confirm that yes, indeed, the $50 benefit was only good on “qualifying plans.” For everyone else (our phrase): tough luck. But Lawson claims these newer plans allow customers to drop home phone service and typically save customers money. But not always, especially on legacy plans that include all the services a customer wants and special promotional packages which are lost when customers switch plans.

For the record, Verizon limits EBB benefits to these service plans. Notice DSL is excluded and prepaid wireless customers have to speak to a representative to find out if they can qualify:

Mobile:

Verizon Mix & Match Unlimited
Start Unlimited
Play More Unlimited
Do More Unlimited
Get More Unlimited
Above Unlimited
Beyond Unlimited
Go Unlimited (Some Go plans may not be eligible- inquire with rep.)
Standalone Mobile Hotspot plans
Unlimited and Unlimited Plus plans (Standalone mobile hotspot service offerings are those without a smartphone line on the account).

Home:

Fios Mix & Match Internet, any speed
Verizon 5G Home Internet
Verizon LTE Home Internet

Comcast representatives offered a range of responses to customers inquiring about signing up for EBB.

“Talk to one representative, get one story, hang up and call back and you get a completely different story,” said Sha’qwanda, a Comcast customer in Baltimore. “They told me I don’t qualify because I am 15 days late on my bill, then another person told me the plan was only for people on Medicaid, then another person told me I would have to give up my promotion plan they rate locked for a year. My bill would have gone up $54 a month. I can’t afford that. Who is really getting rich here?”

A Philadelphia customer told us Comcast completely messed up their account trying to apply the benefit, canceling their services and charging them for unreturned equipment.

“We lost service the following morning,” the customer wrote us, wishing to remain anonymous. “When we called up, the representative couldn’t figure out what happened, except he saw in the notes we were signed up for EBB, then the account was closed. Our final bill was over $400.”

The Xfinity social media account reached out to us earlier today to clear up the misunderstanding.

If you are a Comcast customer and are having trouble enrolling in EBB, we suggest you tweet a message to @Xfinity and get assistance. We suspect the problem here is insufficient training of customer service representatives to manage enrollments properly.

Charter/Spectrum is using the EBB program as a pry lever to push stubborn customers still holding on to legacy Time Warner Cable or Bright House service plans to switch to Spectrum internet plans and pricing. If you do not make the switch, you won’t qualify for EBB benefits. This is a choice by Charter management, not a limitation imposed by their billing system. Some customers on other legacy plans were also told they do not qualify.

“I am still a subscriber of New York’s Everyday Low Priced Internet service that used to be $15 a month. They have raised the price since, but also effectively jailed me by saying I have to abandon this plan if I want to get the $50 a month off my internet bill,” said Jay, a customer in New York City. “I can never go back either they tell me. Who wrote the rules for this program? The cable companies are using this to force people like me into upgrades I do not want and cannot afford. It’s scandalous.”

Another customer wishing to remain anonymous noted the same month EBB became available, Charter announced rate increases on equipment rentals and the Broadcast TV Fee paid by cable television customers.

“They will be back to raise internet prices again soon, I am sure,” the customer predicted.

AT&T, not to be left behind, also insists that customers choose from a limited menu of premium price plans and can never return to the plan they gave up. Even worse, customers complain you have to call to enroll, and the lines are jammed:

“I waited an hour on hold and then AT&T hung up on me twice,” said Kate Derry from Chicago. “It’s busy signals or waiting on hold forever. It’s like calling the unemployment office during the pandemic. AT&T has decided it should not be easy to enroll in this and I wonder how many people just give up.”

Jon, an AT&T Fiber customer in Dallas seems to agree.

“I finally got through at around 8am Texas time and listened to a representative fumble their way through disclaimers and conditions,” Jon told Stop the Cap! “Several times she had to put her hand over the microphone and ask her supervisor for help. It took an hour to get everything set up, not including the time needed to assemble the qualifying documentation. I really doubt many people are going to go through all this for a few months of savings. There is no excuse for this not to be available for online enrollment.”

Maine Raises the Bar on Public Broadband: Will Fund Projects Offering 100/100 Mbps

Maine’s broadband internet authority is proposing major changes to win public financing of broadband projects in the state, demanding better speeds and performance and giving more Maine communities the potential to construct their own public internet projects.

The ConnectMaine Authority (ConnectME), which traditionally modestly funds a variety of smaller scale internet projects in the state, wants to think big now that it has a budget over fifteen times its original size. With at least $15 million to spend this year and potentially tens of millions in federal broadband funding to manage, courtesy of Congress and the Biden Administration, the authority wants to make certain future projects can deliver the scale and service consumers need in the 21st century digital economy.

In April, ConnectME’s board voted to propose changing the criteria for broadband funding awards, now insisting that projects be capable of delivering at least 100/100 Mbps service, which is four times faster than the FCC’s current minimum definition of downstream broadband. The board hopes the faster speeds will be future-proof and more realistic of what consumers need to telecommute and access online classes, streaming video, and other high bandwidth services. The result of the proposed standards would likely require all future projects to be fiber to the home, although historically the vast majority of broadband projects funded by ConnectME in the past have been fiber to the home.

The authority has also proposed expanding the definition of what represents an “unserved/underserved” area qualified to receive public funding to include any address that lacks access to at least 50/10 Mbps service, up from the current standard of 25/3 Mbps. Such a change would likely open up funding in areas where only DSL service or wireless internet is currently available. Most cable operators can meet the new standard, so their territories would likely remain closed to public funding. Opposition from the state’s telephone companies was almost instant, however, represented in comments from Ben Sanborn, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, a state telecom lobbying group.

Sanborn considers the proposed changes negative because public dollars could end up funding competitors in areas already served by lower speed providers.

“Arguably, there are going to be a whole bunch of areas in the state that will be eligible for funding either from ConnectME or with federal dollars,” Sanborn told the Press Herald. “Our concern with that is that it is going to create a situation of overbuilding existing networks,” which could leave currently unserved areas out of getting any funding for service.

At present, about 11% of Maine homes still have no internet access, mostly in rural areas. Traditionally, telephone companies or co-op telecom providers are the most likely to provide rural internet service, but the costs to reach those not currently served can be prohibitive. Cable operators have been the least likely to extend service in rural areas, and cash-strapped telephone companies have been reluctant to replace rural copper wire networks that can extend for miles with fiber optics, just to reach a few dozen homes. As broadband penetration increases, the cost to reach remaining unserved homes typically rises as they are often the most costly to reach. Subsidy funding can make a considerable difference when determining the cost/benefit analysis of expanding service to these homes.

The authority is also hoping to inspire existing providers to adopt 100/100 Mbps as the new broadband speed minimum across the state, which it claims will meet the needs of customers. For cable providers, that likely will not happen until upgrades to DOCSIS 4.0 are implemented, unlikely in the short term. Cable broadband networks are designed to deliver much faster downstream speeds at the expense of uploads.

The newly available funds are likely to achieve a significant increase in the number of rural homes served, but probably will not be enough to achieve 100% penetration.

ConnectME plans a public hearing to discuss the proposed changes on May 13, with a final vote scheduled for later this month.

New York Mandates $15 Low-Income Broadband Tier Available to All Who Qualify

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo discussed affordable internet at the State of the State address in January 2021.

Low income New Yorkers will soon be able to subscribe to internet service at speeds starting at 25/10 Mbps for $15 a month, thanks to a new law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

To qualify, a consumer will need to show proof of active enrollment in any of the following programs:

  • Medicaid
  • Free or discounted school lunches
  • the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “food stamps”
  • A senior or disability rent increase exemption

Almost every internet service provider of consequence in New York will be required to introduce a low income discounted internet program by June 2021. Consumers will be offered at least two options, depending on the technological capacity of a provider’s network:

  • $15/month basic service at speeds of at least 25/10 Mbps
  • $20/month enhanced service bringing download speeds up to 200 Mbps.

Rates will be fixed for at least five years, after which providers can increase prices based on the rate of inflation or by a modest percentage allowed by the state. In 2023, the New York State Public Service Commission will be permitted to require increases in the minimum download speeds offered.

The measure is part of New York’s effort to expand broadband availability and affordability across the state. Earlier broadband funding programs helped expand service into rural, unserved areas. This year, the legislature and the governor are targeting the digital divide between those who can and cannot afford internet access. The state’s largest cable operator, Charter Spectrum, already offers low-income customers its own Spectrum Internet Assist program, with similar qualifications. The company charges $14.99/month for 30/4 Mbps internet service, but excludes current customers from enrolling and may reject customers with past due balances owed in the past.

Gov. Cuomo announced the initiative at the State of the State Address in January. Critics called the plan “window dressing,” noting the state’s largest telecommunications companies including Charter Spectrum, Verizon, Altice, and Frontier already offer internet discount programs. Many also continue to question the governor’s contention that 98% of New Yorkers can now access high-speed internet and the overall cost and quality of service.

To assist residents in finding a suitable provider, the state launched an Affordable Internet website to help consumers sign up for discounted service. In some cases, additional discounts may be available.

The legislation also mandates the Public Service Commission to study and report back on internet accessibility and affordability by this time next year. The PSC will scrutinize how many New York homes and businesses still lack access to high-speed internet, as well as studying how reliable service providers are, what rates they charge, and the current state of competition in New York.

New York consumers can share their own experiences with internet service providers the state will use to guide potential future legislation.

WGRZ in Buffalo took a closer look at whether New York’s mandate for affordable internet service was a game changer or just window dressing. (2:33)

Congressman Clyburn Plans to Reintroduce $100 Billion Rural Broadband Expansion Fund Bill

Clyburn

Congressman James Clyburn (D-S.C.) plans to reintroduce a bill offering $100 billion dollars to provide rural high speed internet service in unserved and underserved parts of the United States and to provide subsidies as needed to ensure that internet service is affordable.

The return of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act will be welcomed by the House Rural Broadband Task Force and other groups appealing for rural broadband funding to resolve the pervasive lack of high-speed internet access in unprofitable service areas.

Clyburn notes that in his home state, one in ten rural South Carolinians lack access to suitable broadband service, despite years of more modest funding programs. His bill went nowhere in the 2020 session as part of the Democrats’ $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, dubbed the Moving Forward Act. With the election of President Joe Biden and the razor thin Democratic majority control of the U.S. Senate, some form of expanded infrastructure spending bill is likely to emerge in Congress this spring, which will include rural broadband funding.

Like last year’s bill, the 2021 version will likely include:

  • $80 billion in direct subsidy funds to build out high-speed rural internet access to homes and businesses.
  • $5 billion set aside for low interest broadband deployment loans
  • $5 billion for distance learning programs
  • Funding for Wi-Fi service in school buses
  • The creation of the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to monitor, promote, and assist rural communities and those economically disadvantaged in getting affordable high-speed internet service established in their community.
  • Funding for digital equity programs to train those not yet connected in how to use the internet.
  • A requirement that the FCC track and analyze national broadband pricing and ensure price transparency.

Clyburn’s 2020 bill also knocked down state barriers on building and expanding municipal broadband networks.

According to the FCC, 21 million Americans and 10 million school-age children do not have internet access. Low-income households are the least connected in America, and, not surprisingly, rural communities are the least served. What might surprise us all is that the data reveals a 75% correlation between median household income and broadband access In 2019, US Representative Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) created the Rural Broadband Task Force to close the digital divide, with the goal of all Americans having high-speed internet access by 2025. The digital era is to the 21st century what electricity was to the 20th, argues Clyburn. Bridging the digital divide is something we must address if we are going to reset the US economy for all. Featuring Jim Clyburn in conversation with Naomi Nix. (9:21)

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