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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

AT&T Stops Selling DSL Service

Phillip Dampier October 5, 2020 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Rural Broadband 3 Comments

AT&T stopped accepting orders for traditional DSL service from customers across its landline service area on Oct. 1, and will no longer allow existing customers to change speeds or transfer DSL service if they move to a new address.

AT&T sells three classes of wired internet service to residential customers:

  • DSL: Traditional, old-fashioned DSL is sold primarily in rural and exurban areas that were never upgraded to AT&T’s U-verse service. Download speed is typically between 1-6 Mbps. This service is no longer available to new customers.
  • U-verse: AT&T’s fiber-to-the-neighborhood service delivers 24 Mbps or faster download speed. AT&T uses fiber optic cables between the central switching office and the customer’s neighborhood, where it connects with existing copper wiring that runs down your street and into your home. Most AT&T internet customers are still served by U-verse.
  • Fiber: About 4.3 million former U-verse customers have been upgraded to AT&T Fiber, the company’s fiber to the home service. This upgrade eliminates the copper wiring that runs to your home, which provides for vastly faster internet speeds.

Only AT&T’s DSL service has been discontinued. The company claims about a half million customers still get DSL service from AT&T as of the second quarter of 2020. Most don’t choose DSL by choice. It is often the only option, because the customer lives in a rural area where no other options for internet service exist. That may leave some new customers with no options for wired internet service at all.

“We are focused on enhancing our network with more advanced, higher speed technologies like fiber and wireless, which consumers are demanding,” AT&T said in a statement. “We’re beginning to phase out outdated services like DSL and new orders for the service will no longer be supported after October 1. Current DSL customers will be able to continue their existing service or where possible upgrade to our 100% fiber network.”

AT&T has been slowly expanding its wireless 4G LTE home internet service in select rural areas, but the service is unlikely to reach all the areas now shut out of DSL service.

While AT&T’s rural customers have been left behind, prices for AT&T Fiber are coming down, at least for new customers. Spectrum and Comcast have offered attractive new customer promotions in areas served by AT&T, and the phone company is now responding with better offers. New customers can now get 100 Mbps from AT&T Fiber for $35 a month, 300 Mbps for $45 a month, and 1,000 Mbps for $60 a month (all promotions good for 12 months and do not include equipment fees or taxes).

AT&T Reportedly Looking for a Buyer for DirecTV, But Some Are Skeptical a Deal Can Be Done

Phillip Dampier August 31, 2020 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video, Rural Broadband Comments Off on AT&T Reportedly Looking for a Buyer for DirecTV, But Some Are Skeptical a Deal Can Be Done

Just five years after buying DirecTV for $49 billion, AT&T is looking to sell the satellite TV service after losing over 10 million customers because of repeated price hikes, network blackouts, and the ongoing shift to streaming online video.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that AT&T was in talks with private equity firms, potentially including Apollo Global Management and Platinum Equity about the possibility of acquiring DirecTV and taking the service private.

Regardless of who buys the service, AT&T might lose $30 billion on the five-year-old venture, buying high and selling low at a price that could drop below $20 billion. AT&T is rapidly losing its television customers. More than six million people have dropped TV packages from AT&T’s U-verse TV and satellite provider DirecTV in the last two years. Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, told the New York Post even at a rumored discount sale price of $20 billion, AT&T may have “overvalued” the “albatross.”

Moffett is skeptical buyers will close a deal, considering AT&T’s remaining 17.7 million television customers are still in the mood to cancel, with an “astounding” 18% of customers leaving each year.

But even with the customer losses, DirecTV moves a lot of money through its operations, making it at least look attractive on certain buyers’ books. DirecTV’s cash flow helped AT&T’s own unimpressive earnings, adding $22 billion to AT&T’s balance sheet since buying the satellite company. A buyout by a private equity firm could further slowly drain DirecTV by saddling it with debt, secured in part by its still healthy cash flow. A buyer could also attract investors by borrowing even more to pay out handsome dividend bonuses. That could leave DirecTV hopelessly hobbled in debt, leaving DirecTV in an “inevitable” position of having to merge with its chief competitor, Dish Network, or face eventual bankruptcy. If that were to happen, rural Americans could face a satellite TV monopoly as their only choice for live video entertainment.

DirecTV customers report innovation at the satellite service seems to have disappeared since AT&T took over. Very little has changed with the service in the past few years, except for AT&T raising prices and getting stingier with promotions. Many rural DirecTV customers still depend on satellite television because of a lack of over the air reception or broadband service. For these customers, saving money on television service means having to bounce back and forth between Dish Network and DirecTV, trying to keep a discounted promotion active on their account. If the two satellite services eventually merge, that will cease.

After AT&T acquired Time Warner (Entertainment), insiders report many of AT&T’s legacy businesses, including DirecTV and U-verse, have become afterthoughts. AT&T’s bigger priorities now lie with its new 5G wireless service and HBO Max, its new online video service. But the company’s most profitable businesses continue to be cell phone service and selling wired broadband internet access, which together now earns the company over $180 billion annually.

Internet Providers Get Ready To Cut Off Past Due Customers Unless They Agree to Payment Plans

Phillip Dampier June 23, 2020 AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, T-Mobile, Verizon Comments Off on Internet Providers Get Ready To Cut Off Past Due Customers Unless They Agree to Payment Plans

Internet providers are preparing to cut off late-paying and non-paying customers as early as June 30, as the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep America Connected” pledge expires next week.

In March, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai invited providers to agree to waive late fees and put off disconnections and usage overlimit charges for several months as a result of the sudden economic shutdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. As the pledge expires, Pai is asking providers not to immediately disconnect customers who are past due, if they agree to enroll in payment plans to pay off accrued balances. But Pai ultimately stood on the side of the nation’s multi-billion dollar phone and cable companies as he expressed his understanding why some customers will be cut off anyway and turned over to collection agencies as early as next week.

“Broadband and telephone companies, especially small ones, cannot continue to provide service without being paid for an indefinite period of time; no business in any sector of our economy could,” Pai said in a statement.

Some customers have accumulated past due balances of over $1,000 in the past four months, when one combines wireless, cable-TV, internet, and landline charges. As a result, some large providers recognize the need for long-term repayment plans if they hope to preserve customer relationships. With unemployment over 13%, even their most loyal customers may find it difficult to keep up on bills that often exceed $100 a month, and are often much more.

Those customers that lose service for non-payment may forfeit future participation in low-cost internet programs for those on public assistance, and cannot restart service without coming to terms on past due balances. That could leave desperate customers at risk of losing access to job-seeking information, education, and news about the ongoing pandemic.

Some providers are gradually announcing new programs designed to keep service on, but only if customers contact providers and agree to commit to a repayment contract.

AT&T: The company disclosed 156,000 customers are currently enrolled in Keep America Connected-related programs. AT&T expects full payment of past due charges as early as June 30, or up to 90 days after the first past-due notice was issued, whichever is later. Customers can also keep service turned on by contacting AT&T and setting up an alternate payment arrangement.

Charter/Spectrum: The company has announced it will forgive a portion of past due balances and not require full repayment, if the customer or his/her job was directly impacted by the coronavirus. Spectrum’s offer of 60 days of free internet service introduced in March was accepted by at least 400,000 customers. But for most, the offer has since expired. Spectrum has worked to convert those at the end of the free offer into paid customers, but won’t disclose how much success they have had.

Comcast: Customers enrolled in the Xfinity Assistance Program are being given the option of repaying past due amounts in up to 12 equal monthly installments. After a repayment arrangement is made, some customers are persuaded to downgrade service to more affordable plans until past due amounts are repaid. Comcast’s offer of 60 days of free internet service has ended for most customers that enrolled shortly after it was introduced. Comcast has not announced a date when its 1,000 GB usage cap is scheduled to return in most service areas.

T-Mobile: For many, service will terminate if an account is well past due. Customers who want to keep their service must call T-Mobile to make payment arrangements, but T-Mobile did not disclose any formal repayment plans or payment forgiveness. It is imperative that customers call and discuss past due accounts before service is switched off.

Verizon: Verizon will continue service for “hundreds of thousands of customers” that enrolled in the Keep America Connected pledge program, as long as they agree to make regular payments as part of a special repayment plan that will be introduced for these customers in July. Customers will be billed a portion of their past due amounts along with current service charges until repayment has been made in full.

Of the country’s largest providers, only Charter/Spectrum has agreed to forgive some past due balances outright. Others will expect to be repaid and are likely to suspend service quickly if repayment plans also fall past due.

Maryland Sues Cricket Wireless, AT&T For Selling Phones That Stopped Working A Year Later

Phillip Dampier June 16, 2020 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Cricket, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on Maryland Sues Cricket Wireless, AT&T For Selling Phones That Stopped Working A Year Later

Cricket Wireless and AT&T are being sued by Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh for allegedly selling phones both companies knew would stop working on Cricket’s network a year after the two companies merged.

Frosh announced the lawsuit on Monday, claiming both wireless companies violated the Maryland Consumer Protection Act.

Cricket formerly operated its own mobile network, which relied on CDMA technology. Customers were required to use devices compatible with that mobile standard to access the Cricket network. In July 2013, AT&T agreed to acquire Cricket Wireless’ parent, Leap Wireless, for $1.2 billion. The FCC approved the acquisition in March 2014. Cricket, now under AT&T’s ownership, continued to sell CDMA mobile devices to consumers for the next year. Frosh contends both companies knew AT&T was planning to decommission Cricket’s cellular network and move customers to AT&T’s own network, which uses GSM technology incompatible with CDMA.

Frosh

That left customers with devices that stopped working with their Cricket service, requiring many to purchase new phones compatible with AT&T’s GSM network. Other customers discovered their Cricket phones were locked exclusively to Cricket’s network, and the company refused to unlock the phones so they could be used on a competitor’s network. Many customers complained their costly smartphones were less than a year old before they stopped working. Cricket’s only solution was to buy a new device, often costing hundreds of dollars.

“Cricket and AT&T continued to market and sell a product to consumers they knew wouldn’t work after their merger was complete,” said Frosh. “This practice, we allege, was undertaken to maximize profit from the sale of expensive smartphones without regard for the harm it would cause consumers.”

The lawsuit is seeking restitution, an injunction preventing Cricket and AT&T from engaging in unfair or deceptive trade practices, as well as civil penalties and costs.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday, September 9, 2020, at the Office of Administrative Hearings in Hunt Valley, Md. For more information, Maryland residents can call the Consumer Protection Division hotline at 410-528-8662 or toll free at 1-888-743-0023.

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