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AT&T Leaves Data Caps and Overlimit Fees on Hold Until September 30

Phillip Dampier July 1, 2020 Consumer News, Data Caps No Comments

AT&T has announced it will continue offering unlimited internet to all wired residential customers, with no overlimit fees, through Sept. 30:

“You’ve got a lot of things on your mind right now, so we’re going to help carry the load by continuing to waive home internet data overage charges for AT&T Internet customers through September 30. That means new and existing AT&T Fiber and AT&T Internet customers can continue to video conference, binge shows and movies, play video games, etc., and won’t see overage charges on their home internet bill.”

AT&T had usage capped its wired home internet customers at different levels, depending on the grade of service:

These usage caps are on hold until Sept. 30. Customers will not incur overlimit fees until after that date.

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.

FCC’s Ajit Pai Will Meet Privately With Wall Street Analysts in Closed Door Meeting

Phillip Dampier June 17, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Pai

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai will meet with Wall Street analysts at a Wells Fargo investors conference on Thursday closed to the public and news media.

Pai is expected to focus most of his remarks on the topics of 5G wireless networks and forthcoming spectrum auctions, but will also likely praise the Trump Administration’s overall deregulatory policies and achievements Pai feels point to the regulator’s recent successes. In attendance will be top executives from T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, and the powerful D.C. law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP that specializes in serving telecommunications industry clients. That firm will present a regulatory discussion entitled, “Will Washington Topple Tech and Telecom.”

A review of past investor conferences shows it is rare for a chairman of the FCC to appear at such private events, usually attended by professional analysts working for Wall Street investment firms and top executives from the businesses analysts cover for their investor clients. The propriety of public officials attending closed door events with the industries they regulate is controversial, particularly because topics discussed during informal meetings are not always disclosed to the public through “ex parte” notices filed with the Commission. But Pai has proven to be an industry-friendly chairman and formerly served as counsel for Verizon Communications.

A transcript of Pai’s formal remarks at the event will be published on the FCC’s website within a few days of his speech, and it likely Pai will speak on issues already a part of the agency’s public record. Normally the opportunity to strengthen personal ties between regulators like Pai and the regulated and a chance to meet Pai to exchange views is worth gold to many investors, but this specific event will be conducted entirely “virtually” online.

Defenders claim such meetings allow the FCC to become better informed about Wall Street investor concerns not discussed by corporate executives worried about any negative impact on their stock price. They also contend there is no opportunity for Pai to engage in “ex parte” discussions because the event is entirely webcast online. But critics note regulators that appear at such industry events rarely attend Question and Answer events open to the public. Critics view that as further evidence of the kinds of cozy D.C. relationships between the government and special interests many ‘good government’ groups decry as a conflict of interest.

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.

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.

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