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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.

AT&T Exempts Its Own HBO Max Service from AT&T Wireless Caps

AT&T mobile customers can watch AT&T-owned HBO Max without fearing any impact on their data allowances, despite the fact competing services like Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix will not be given similar treatment.

The Verge confirmed with AT&T that customers with AT&T mobile service can watch an unlimited amount of HBO Max and not exceed data allowances or the soft cap of 22-50 GB a month that unlimited use plan customers have.

The practice of exempting some content from data caps is known as “zero rating” and critics of the practice contend it is an “end run” around net neutrality. AT&T defends itself claiming HBO Max is paying AT&T to sponsor customer usage.

“According to an AT&T executive familiar with the matter, HBO Max is using AT&T’s ‘sponsored data’ system, which technically allows any company to pay to excuse its services from data caps,” according to the story in The Verge. “But since AT&T owns HBO Max, it’s just paying itself: the data fee shows up on the HBO Max books as an expense and on the AT&T Mobility books as revenue. For AT&T as a whole, it zeroes out. Compare that to a competitor like Netflix, which could theoretically pay AT&T for sponsored data, but it would be a pure cost.”

In short, AT&T is moving money from one of its pockets to the other, which may tangentially benefit AT&T mobile customers, but will also leave competing streaming services at a disadvantage, allowing AT&T to give preferential treatment to its own streaming service, which may discourage subscriptions to other services.

Ars Technica confirmed AT&T is not extending the data cap exemption to customers with AT&T DSL or Fiber service.

This Internet Provider Earned a 94% Customer Satisfaction Score, and It Isn’t Comcast or Spectrum

One of America’s internet service providers managed to achieve a customer satisfaction score of 94%, an unprecedented vote of approval from consumers that typically loathe their cable or phone company.

What also makes this provider different is that it is owned by the public, and administered by the City of Fairlawn, Ohio. Fairlawn is a suburb of Akron, with a population of around 7,400 people. Akron is dominated by Charter Spectrum for cable and AT&T for telephone service. But the suburbs have been underserved by both companies for decades. As with many northeastern cities, the economic shift away from manufacturing towards high-tech businesses requires robust connectivity. But many communities are stuck with a cable company that will not service less populated areas in town and a phone company that is willing to leave many customers with low-speed DSL and nothing better.

When a community finds it cannot get gigabit fiber optic service for residents, it can either live with what is on offer instead or decide to do something about it. Fairlawn decided it was time to establish FairlawnGig, a municipal broadband utility that would provide gigabit fiber service to every resident in town, if they wanted it.

Broadband Communities reports local residents love the service they are getting:

The online survey results reveal overall satisfaction with FairlawnGig at an astoundingly high number of 94% with more than 3 out of 4 (77%) saying they are “very satisfied.”

Additionally, FairlawnGig 94% of residential customers rated the service they receive from FairlawnGig as “excellent” or “very good.”

FairlawnGig offers two plans to residents: 300/300 Mbps service for $55 a month or 1,000/1,000 Mbps service for $75. Landline phone service is an extra $25 a month, and the municipal provider has pointed its customers to online cable TV alternatives like Hulu and YouTube TV for television service. Incumbent cable and phone companies usually respond to this kind of competition with cut-rate promotions to keep the customers they have and lure others back. Spectrum has countered with promotions offering 400 Mbps internet for as little as $30/mo for two years. Despite the potential savings, most people in Fairlawn won’t go back to Spectrum regardless of the price. FairlawnGig’s loyalty score is 80, with 85% of those not only sticking with FairlawnGig but also actively recommending it to others.

Residents appreciate the service, deemed very reliable, and that technicians are local and accessible. The City says it works hard to ensure that customer appointments are kept and on time and representatives are available to assist customers with their questions and technical support needs. FairlawnGig claims its technicians spend extra time teaching customers about their services.

City officials candidly admit they were willing to build and launch the municipal fiber service even if it did not recoup its original investment for years to come. That is because the municipal fiber network has benefited the city in other ways:

  • It has attracted new residents to town and kept them there.
  • Several businesses launched or moved to be within FairlawnGig’s service area. Most are white collar businesses, such as IT firms, software and hardware engineers, and consultants.
  • A new orthopaedic hospital is being developed in the town, in part because FairlawnGig can provide connectivity up to 100 Gbps for things like medical imaging and video conferencing.
  • As businesses move in, so do workers looking for a shorter commute. Property values in the town have increased and realtors make a point to alert would-be buyers when a property is within FairlawnGig’s service area.

In short, Fairlawn officials see providing internet access as more than just a profit center. It is a public service initiative that is paying back dividends that will eventually exceed the $10 million investment taken from the city’s general fund to build the network. Taxes did not increase as a result of FairlawnGig either. Now other towns around Fairlawn and the city of Akron itself are showing interest in how to join forces to expand the public service well beyond Fairlawn’s town borders.

WOIO in Akron covered FairlawnGig back in January 2019 in this report explaining how a publicly owned fiber to the home service was delivering gig speed to this northeastern Ohio community. (2:31)

AT&T’s New CEO: If You Don’t Subscribe to HBO Max, You Have a Low IQ

Phillip Dampier April 28, 2020 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News No Comments

Stankey

AT&T’s incoming CEO John Stankey has a message for America: If you are unwilling to pay $15 a month for AT&T’s HBO Max, you have a low IQ.

Stankey made that declaration pitching the new service, set to debut in May. The fact the video platform is late to a market already crowded by Netflix, Hulu, and Disney is just part of the challenge. That $15 price point is a bigger one.

If there is any company in the telecom business that can prove consumers are sensitive to price hikes and bill shock, it is AT&T. Its frequent rate hikes for its DirecTV satellite service and various streaming TV platforms have caused a customer exodus. More than a quarter of DirecTV customers have left and, even more stunning, well over half of AT&T’s streaming TV customers have dropped the service. In late 2018, DirecTV Now (today AT&T TV Now) — AT&T’s cord cutting TV alternative, had 1.8 million customers. As of last month, that number is down to 788,000 and still falling.

AT&T has repeatedly claimed it wants to focus on “high value” customers, which may explain why it remains confident its $15/mo HBO Max service will do well, despite being the most costly streaming service in the market.

Stankey’s predecessor, Randall Stephenson, will exit as AT&T’s CEO in July. He leaves a much larger conglomerate than what he started with. AT&T has diversified from its telephone and wireless portfolio with several major acquisitions, including DirecTV — the satellite TV service, and Time Warner (Entertainment), a Hollywood studio and entertainment giant. The result is a company loaded with debt and a revolt by activist investors that question the wisdom of creating the 2010s version of AOL-Time Warner.

Elliott Management Corp., the activist investment firm that has proved itself a nuisance to the expensive dreams of several rich and powerful CEOs, does not see a viable marriage between AT&T’s profitable telecommunications business and a media and entertainment company. It took its concerns public in 2019, calling on AT&T management to get back to the basics.

Stankey’s approach seems to be a willingness to embrace the newest members of the AT&T family, for now, while also reassuring investors the shopping spree of mergers and acquisitions is over. Bloomberg News reports his views seem to have won Elliott Management over. At the same time, Stankey has to convince investors and the public he is competent at running a media company. The jury is still out on that:

Bloomberg:

At a town hall with HBO employees last year, Stankey said the network had to dramatically increase its programming output, comparing the work ahead to childbirth. Once, when a Time Warner veteran criticized an idea during a meeting, Stankey replied, “I know more about television than anybody.”

[…] But over the past two years, Stankey has tried to acclimate himself to the glitzy world of entertainment. He started watching HBO’s “Westworld” and “Succession.” He could be seen mingling with HBO talent at glitzy Manhattan premiere parties. At an industry event, he wore a pin featuring a Looney Tunes character — a WarnerMedia property — on his jacket lapel.

AT&T’s WarnerMedia Sets HBO Max Launch Date: May 27

Phillip Dampier April 21, 2020 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, HBO Max, Online Video No Comments

Get ready for another huge streaming platform, America. HBO Max from AT&T’s WarnerMedia is scheduled to debut Wednesday, May 27th with over 10,000 of content encompassing the libraries of HBO, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Crunchyroll, CNN, Looney Tunes, Rooster Teeth, TBS, TNT, truTV, and Turner Classic Movies.

HBO Max will replace HBO Now — the premium movie network’s subscription service for cord-cutters, and will remain priced at $14.99 a month. Those who currently subscribe to HBO through Charter Spectrum, AT&T TV (and TV Now), or DirecTV will get access to the HBO Max service at no additional cost.

WarnerMedia is positioning the service as a general interest streaming platform and super-sized HBO offering, sold as “Where HBO meets so much more.” It will combine legacy network TV content with original HBO movies and shows, and productions made especially for HBO Max.

“Our No. 1 goal is having extraordinary content for everyone in the family, and the HBO Max programming mix we are so excited to unveil on May 27th will bear that out,” said Bob Greenblatt, chairman of Warner Media Entertainment and Direct-To-Consumer. “Even in the midst of this unprecedented pandemic, the all-star teams behind every aspect of HBO Max will deliver a platform and a robust slate of content that is varied, of the highest quality, and second to none.”

HBO Max is likely to face challenges that its closest competitors — Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video do not. First, the service will launch with a premium price – $14.99 a month, which is more than double what Hulu charges and more than streaming leader Netflix, which suffered a growth slowdown after the last price increase brought its most popular plan to $12.99 a month. Second, the streaming market has become saturated with services that launched before HBO Max, which may potentially limit enthusiasm in these times of economic uncertainty. Disney+ launched with heavy discounting and comes free to a number of customers through cross-promotions with other companies. A subscription service asking for $15 a month at launch may prove a difficult sell, especially to those with no interest in HBO. Third, the HBO brand conveys an impression to would-be customers about the platform’s content. HBO has been criticized for its “male-centered” programming, replete with violence and sexual content. The brand itself may be a hard sell in conservative households with younger children, despite the fact it will feature a large roster of classic and new Looney Tunes cartoons, a Sesame Street original, and other family-friendly programming.

Subscribers will find content on the platform including:

Classic TV Shows: “Friends,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “South Park”

Movies: all Studio Ghibli films, films from Warner Bros., New Line and DC like “Joker,” “Suicide Squad,” “Wonder Woman,” “The Matrix,” “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

Originals: Comedy series “Love Life” starring Anna Kendrick, documentary “On the Record” about accusations of sexual harassment and rape against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons; “Legendary,” an underground ballroom dance competition series; “Craftopia,” hosted by YouTube star LaurDIY; an all-new “Looney Tunes Cartoons” from Warner Bros. Animation; and Sesame Workshop’s “The Not Too Late Show with Elmo.”

Watch the trailer from HBO Max original “Love Life,” starting May 27. (1:57)

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