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Spectrum Drops FCC Request to Allow It to Impose Data Caps in 2021; Was Likely to Be Rejected

Spectrum internet customers can be assured of an additional two years of unlimited internet service after Charter Communications dropped its petition Tuesday with the FCC to allow the cable company to introduce data caps.

The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau acknowledged receipt of Charter’s withdrawal of its petition to end a prohibition on the company imposing data caps and usage-based pricing mechanisms two years before the original agreement with the regulator expires on May 18, 2023.

The company claimed it had no immediate plans to impose data caps or usage-based pricing, but its decision to rescind the request assures that. The FCC imposed a seven-year ban on Spectrum imposing data caps as part of its approval of Charter’s 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. The earliest the company can impose data caps is May 18, 2023.

Sources tell Stop the Cap! Charter likely made the decision to withdraw its petition after realizing the current Republican-dominated Commission was not planning to approve it in the waning days of the Trump Administration and it was highly unlikely to win approval under the incoming Biden Administration. It is not uncommon for petitioners to quietly withdraw requests to avoid the publicity of having them publicly rejected.

AT&T and T-Mobile Borrow Billions to Bid on 5G Spectrum

Phillip Dampier January 13, 2021 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't, Wireless Broadband No Comments

AT&T is seeking to borrow $14 billion dollars to help finance the cost of acquiring 5G airwaves in a competitive auction that has drawn heavy bidding from wireless carriers.

The phone company is in talks with Bank of America to provide a one-year term loan that will likely be refinanced in the bond market and paid off over several years.

AT&T’s loan follows news that T-Mobile USA borrowed $3 billion from investors for its own 5G spectrum acquisitions.

The FCC expects to collect more than $80.8 billion from the auction of 280 megahertz of spectrum around 3.7-3.98 GHz—a portion of the satellite C-band. This is the FCC’s largest mid-band 5G spectrum auction to date. Analysts were expecting bids of around $47 billion, but wireless carriers seem motivated to grab as much 5G spectrum as possible.

AT&T’s loan will add to the company’s existing $159 billion in debts, making it the world’s largest non-financial corporate borrower. Much of AT&T’s debt came from its 2018 $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, Inc.

House Democrats Blast Telecom Companies for Data Caps, Rate Hikes

House Energy & Commerce Committee

Democrats serving on the House Energy & Commerce Committee today blasted the nation’s largest internet service providers for price increases and data caps placed on consumer broadband services at the height of a global pandemic, questioning the industry’s commitment to keeping Americans connected.

“Over the last ten months, internet service became even more essential as many Americans were forced to transition to remote work and online school. Broadband networks seem to have largely withstood these massive shifts in usage,” wrote Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr (N.J.), Mike Doyle (Penn.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.). “Unfortunately, what cannot be overlooked or underestimated is the extent to which families without home internet service — particularly those with school-aged children at home — have been left out and left behind.”

Pallone

The congressmen questioned nine providers after reading media coverage of rate hikes and the implementation of data caps by Comcast and the potential for Charter Spectrum to impose data caps as early as May 2021.

“This is an egregious action at a time when households and small businesses across the country need high-speed, reliable broadband more than ever but are struggling to make ends meet,” the three Democrats wrote.

In March 2020, many cable and phone companies relaxed a number of restrictions on customers in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Many volunteered to suspend data cap overlimit fees, provide affordable broadband options to the economically disadvantaged, offer free months of service, open restricted Wi-Fi hotspots, and discontinue collection efforts or service disconnects on customers falling behind on bills.

Despite the pledge, consumers filed a significant number of complaints with the Federal Communications Commission alleging the companies broke their promises, by far most often for not following through on free service offers or continuing aggressive collections of past due bills and shutting off service.

Consumer complaints filed with the FCC regarding the “Keep America Connected” pledge, received from March-November 2020. (Source: FCC)

The Energy and Commerce Committee has now sent letters to the CEOs of many providers, seeking answers to these questions as part of ongoing oversight of the industry:

  • Did the company participate in the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge?
  • Has the company increased prices for fixed or mobile consumer internet and fixed or phone service since the start of the pandemic, or do they plan to raise prices on such plans within the next six months?
  • Prior to March 2020, did any of the company’s service plans impose a maximum data consumption threshold on its subscribers?
  • Since March 2020, has the company modified or imposed any new maximum data consumption thresholds on service plans, or do they plan to do so within the next six months?
  • Did the company stop disconnecting customers’ internet or telephone service due to their inability to pay during the pandemic?
  • Does the company offer a plan designed for low-income households, or a plan established in March or later to help students and families with connectivity during the pandemic?
  • Beyond service offerings for low-income customers, what steps is the company currently taking to assist individuals and families facing financial hardship due to circumstances related to COVID-19?

The full letters are available below:

Altice USA

AT&T

CenturyLink/Lumen

Charter Communications

Comcast Cable Communications

Cox Communications

Frontier Communications

T-Mobile US

Verizon Communications

BREAKING NEWS: Comcast Introducing 1.2 TB Data Cap in Northeast, Mid-Atlantic Regions

Comcast has quietly updated its online customer support website to reflect the forthcoming introduction of data caps to the last remaining major regions of the country where it has avoided imposing them for years.

The nation’s largest cable company will debut its 1.2 TB data cap usage plan on January 1, 2021 in Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and West Virginia.

“Customers in select markets can take the months of January and February to understand how the new 1.2 TB Internet Data Plan affects them without additional charges,” Comcast wrote on its new customer FAQ page. “We’ll credit your bill for any additional data usage charges over 1.2 TB during those months if you’re not on an unlimited data plan. It does not apply to Xfinity Internet customers on our Gigabit Pro tier of service, Business Internet customers, customers with Prepaid Internet, or customers on Bulk Internet agreements.”

But effective March 1st, residential customers will begin facing overlimit fees for exceeding their data allowance at a rate of $10 for each 50 GB of excess usage, up to a maximum of $100 a month. Customers will not be credited for unused data, cannot rollover unused data, or be charged less than $10 in overlimit fees, regardless if one used 1 MB or 49 GB over the 1.2 TB allowance.

Customers approaching their usage limit will receive email, text messages, and Xfinity X1 on-screen notifications upon reaching 75% (email only), 90%, and 100% of 1.2 TB of data usage. Overlimit fees that subsequently start accumulating will be noted in email and X1 on-screen notifications for each additional 50 GB of usage over 1.2 TB, up to the maximum overage charge of $100.

Customers can return to the unlimited data plan they had before January 1st by paying an additional $30 a month for an unlimited add-on plan.

Comcast imposed data caps on residential customers in other parts of the country for years, but had avoided doing so until now in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states where Verizon FiOS is a frequent competitor. Verizon does not impose formal data caps on its residential customers. The introduction of data caps by Comcast is likely to result in a shift of some customers towards Verizon, if FiOS is available.

Comcast is certain to be criticized for expanding data caps in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as the number of cases explodes in the United States, pushing more people than ever to work from home. The resulting increased usage will expose a growing number of Comcast customers to overlimit fees, starting at $10 additional a month. Usage caps are also not expected to slow the company’s ongoing rate increases. One of Comcast’s most successful businesses is selling residential broadband, often with no significant competition, and with customers unlikely to drop service there is plenty of room to raise prices further.

Protesters in front of the Time Warner Cable in Rochester, N.Y., protesting the introduction of data caps in 2009.

Fighting Back

The most effective ways to combat data caps are:

  1. Switch providers and tell Comcast you are leaving because of the imposition of data caps. Reject any arguments that suggest usage allowances will impact only a handful of customers. Ongoing studies show a growing number of consumers are exceeding these arbitrary “allowances”, forcing them to pay unjustified overlimit fees or subscribe to a costly unlimited plan for as much as $30 more a month. Usage caps are unnecessary in 2020. Comcast itself claims it has plenty of capacity across its network, including areas where no caps are currently imposed. But they now think it is appropriate to introduce caps in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Organize a noisy but legal protest in front of a local cable store or Comcast’s headquarters and contact newspapers, radio and TV stations in advance to invite them to cover the event. Be sure to carry signs and designate one or more members to be interviewed by the media about the unacceptability of data caps. We can supply talking points on request.
  3. Contact your local, state, and federal representatives and complain about Comcast imposing data caps. This is especially effective when tied-in with local protests, which may attract elected officials to the cause. There is precedent for companies backing down if consumers coordinate with elected officials and loudly protest. Tell officials your community’s digital future should not be dictated by Comcast and its unwanted data caps. More competition is needed, and until it substantially exists, ask them to ban “data plans” for home broadband service. Ask them to support municipal solutions, such as public/municipal internet service.
  4. Remind everyone that internet availability is not the only issue. Affordability is also a growing problem that puts much needed internet service out of reach of low-income citizens. Imposing data caps is just another way of raising prices and deterring innovation.

FCC Votes Unanimously to Expand 5 GHz Wi-Fi Frequencies Despite Auto Industry Protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. communications regulator on Wednesday approved a plan to allow a growing number of wireless devices to use part of a spectrum previously set aside for automakers to develop methods for vehicles to communicate with each other, a decision that the Transportation Department warned could result in “thousands of accidents.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 5-0 to split the spectrum block set aside for auto safety. Over the objections of automakers and some U.S. agencies, the FCC decision finalized a plan announced last year to divide a block of the 5.9 GHz spectrum band that was reserved in 1999 for automakers to develop technology called DSRC, but has so far gone largely unused. Under today’s decision, a 45 MHz portion of the band — 5.850GHz to 5.895GHz will be reallocated to unlicensed Wi-Fi services and made available for consumer use. Consumers may have to purchase new equipment to take advantage of the new frequencies.

45 MHz of the wireless auto band, shown in green, will join the 5 GHz Wi-Fi band shown in blue. Automakers will still be able to use 30 MHz of frequencies from 5.895-5.925 GHz.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said there is “a pressing need for us to allocate additional spectrum” for Wi-Fi, noting the coronavirus pandemic underscored “consumers need access and more bandwidth to be able to engage in telework, remote learning, telehealth, and other broadband-related services.”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had warned the FCC decision could result in “thousands more deaths annually on road and millions more injuries than would be the case otherwise.”

Major cable, telecom and content companies back the FCC proposal to open most of the spectrum band to Wi-Fi use.

Comcast Corp praised the FCC vote, saying Wi-Fi is “central to American homes, schools, and workplaces and carries more broadband traffic than all other wireless technologies combined.”

Automakers favor using the spectrum for developing technology to allow vehicles to exchange data about location, speed and direction.

House of Representatives Transportation Committee chairman Peter DeFazio called the decision “a gift to corporate interests at the expense of public safety,” adding it “will undermine decades of development and over a billion public dollars that the transportation community has invested in these technologies.”

The technology has previously been offered on just one General Motors Co vehicle. Government studies have suggested that, if widely adopted among, it could prevent at least 600,000 U.S. crashes annually.

GM said “the FCC has moved towards jeopardizing roadway safety.”

The FCC plans to transition the upper 30 megahertz from DSRC to enable a different automotive communications technology called Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything and use the other 45 megahertz for wireless use. Safety advocates question if the new technology will work.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

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