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Sellout: Biden’s Broadband Stimulus is a Shadow of Its Former Self

After weeks of tense negotiations to secure bipartisan support for the Biden Administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus measure, the White House appears to have largely capitulated to Republican efforts to water down funding to expand broadband service into a $65 billion package that will doubtless be a financial bonanza to the country’s largest phone and cable operators.

The Biden Administration’s original proposal for $100 billion in broadband funding was dedicated to wiring rural areas as well as focusing funding on new entrants like community-owned networks that could deliver internet access to unserved and underserved locations without having a profit motive. The original proposal also would have prioritized funding for future-capable fiber internet, with some advocating that networks be capable of delivering at least a gigabit of speed to customers to qualify for funding. The Administration also promoted the idea of affordable broadband, combatting the growing digital divide exacerbated by internet pricing out of reach of the working poor.

What emerged on Sunday as a “bipartisan agreement” with Republicans on infrastructure stimulus is almost a travesty — slashed almost by half and now effectively a veritable gift to Big Telecom. The industry spent hundreds of millions lobbying Congress and got almost everything it wanted. If passed in its current form, those same phone and cable companies will pocket much of the money for themselves.

Here is how consumers were sold out:

Reduced speed requirements are a dream come true for cable operators.

The bipartisan measure proposes to water down speed requirements to qualify for government stimulus funding to a underwhelming 100/20 Mbps. That speed is tailor made for cable operators, which traditionally offer upload speeds just a fraction of their download speeds. Gone is any condition requiring gigabit-capable networks, at a time when more providers than ever are marketing near-gigabit speeds. That could quickly lead to the emergence of a speed divide, with rural Americans stuck with slower broadband technology from companies that will have no financial incentive to upgrade in these areas.

Addressing affordability is now mostly wishful thinking.

The latest proposal’s idea of solving the broadband affordability issue is to admit there is a problem and declare the need for some kind of low-cost broadband option, but apparently does not specify pricing, who is qualified to get cheaper service, and who will oversee that such programs remain affordable. That allows providers to keep writing the rules of their own token, voluntary efforts to offer discounted internet, like those that disqualify current customers and requires enrollees to jump through various qualification hoops to sign up. The stimulus program will also spend billions of dollars effectively paying a portion of disadvantaged Americans’ internet bills, at the current high prices many ISP’s charge. That is a direct subsidy to big cable and phone companies that can continue charging whatever they please for access, knowing the government will now pay $30-50 of the bill.

Republicans have made sure there is not a whiff of rate regulation or consumer protection mandates in the measure. It also abandons establishing a fixed rate, affordable internet tier for as little as $10 a month. That original proposal would have given cable and phone companies as little as $10 a month from the federal government, much less than collecting up to $50 a month from the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which pays a portion of regular-priced service. The $14 billion being set aside to continue subsidizing Americans’ internet bills at Big Telecom’s monopoly or duopoly prices could be better spent building and expanding internet services where no service or competition exists now.

Digital redlining is A-OK

The watered down compromise measure chastises companies for only incrementally expanding fiber service, mostly to wealthy neighborhoods, but stops short of banning the practice. This wink and a nod to redlining primarily benefits phone companies like AT&T and Frontier, which can now cherry-pick rich neighborhoods for fiber upgrades most likely to return the biggest profits. Phone companies and fiber overbuilders will continue to skip over urban poor neighborhoods and the highest cost rural areas which have always been the hardest to reach.

Sky is the Limit pricing with onerous data caps are fine with us.

Nothing in the measure will give preference to providers willing to offer affordable, flat rate service without the hassle of data caps. Neither will it discourage applicants that plan to use public tax dollars to subsidize expanding service that comes at high prices and with paltry usage limits.

Light Reading reported Wall Street analysts were generally pleased with the outcome, noting the negotiations resulted in stripping out oversight and price regulation and the measure won’t fund potential competitors. It also noted Big Telecom and its associated trade organizations spent more than $234 million on lobbying. Comcast topped the list of spenders at more than $43 million, with AT&T coming in second at $36 million. Both the cable and wireless industry also spent tens of millions on lobbying. They got their money’s worth. Taxpayers won’t.

$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.”

Comcast Postpones Data Caps in Northeast Until July

Comcast on Wednesday said it will give its customers a six month reprieve on implementing its 1.2 TB data cap after state legislators in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania’s attorney general complained about the prospect of families paying more for internet access during a pandemic.

“As Pennsylvanians continue to navigate this pandemic, we know millions are relying on the internet for school and work more than ever. This is not the time to change the rules when it comes to internet data usage and increase costs,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “My office negotiated with Comcast to delay the implementation of these overage charges and waive any early termination fees for customers who opt out through December 2021. We also limited the impact of these changes on low-income households.”

The postponement applies to Comcast broadband customers in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

In addition to a delayed introduction of data caps, Comcast has also agreed to:

  • not implement any data caps for low-income customers enrolled in Comcast’s Internet Essentials discount internet program for the rest of 2021;
  • waive any early termination fees for customers planning to switch providers and signed a contract before November 2020;
  • delay any overlimit fees until July, which will first be seen on customers’ August bills;
  • more prominently disclose the fact Comcast has a data cap in its marketing materials.

Pennsylvania consumers concerned about how Comcast’s data threshold may affect them should file a complaint with the Office of Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Comcast also reminded customers the data cap postponement announced today only applies to customers in the northeastern U.S. states noted above.

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

Comcast Offers Some Customers 6 Month Reprieve from Its Data Cap

Phillip Dampier December 29, 2020 Consumer News, Data Caps 1 Comment

Comcast customers in the northeastern U.S. have just a few days left of unlimited internet service before the company’s 1.2 TB data cap arrives. To reduce the sting, Comcast is offering these customers a six month reprieve. But you will have to act fast. Comcast claims the offer expires on 12/30/2020.

Comcast’s special offer to avoid the caps is reportedly available to customers in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C, along with parts of North Carolina and Ohio.

There are two versions of the offer:

  • If you subscribe to xFi Complete, Comcast’s cable modem, Wi-Fi, and unlimited usage solution, you will get unlimited service for six months for free and effectively just pay for the cost of the equipment and service — $14 a month for the first six months. After six months, the regular rate of $25 a month will apply, which includes the equipment and unlimited service.
  • If you own and use your own modem and router, you can get unlimited service free for six months. After that, it will cost you an extra $30 a month to get the same level of unlimited service you enjoy today. Ironically, customers with their own equipment will eventually pay more for unlimited service than those who rent Comcast’s modem and router.

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