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China’s 5G Competition Brings Astonishing Discounts: 5G Plans Starting at $9.76 a Month

Chinese consumers are enjoying some of the lowest priced mobile plans in the world as several giant wireless companies compete to attract customers interested in 5G wireless service.

Prices have been coming down fast in the ongoing price war, with China Mobile now selling its entry level 5G package for just 69 yuan ($9.76 US) a month, 31% off the original price. A premium 5G package that originally was priced at 128 yuan ($18.08 US) now sells for 88 yuan ($12.43 US), if the customer signs a one-year contract.

China Unicom, another competitor, has responded with price cuts of its own, reducing some plan prices by 30 percent. A popular 5G package called “5G Refreshing Ice Cream” costs 90 yuan ($12.72 US) per month, not including a small prepaid service fee and a 12-month contract. A premium 5G package is priced at 103 yuan ($14.55 US) per month and comes with a 24-month contract.

Most of the cheapest 5G plans include unlimited texting, but have talk time limits (usually 200 minutes per month) and a data cap of 30 GB and a speed cap of 300 Mbps. Higher end plans include more talk time and much higher data caps of up to 300 GB and a speed cap of 500 Mbps or 1,000 Mbps, depending on the plan. Customers on budget plans may see traffic de-prioritized on busy cell towers during peak usage times in some cities, but data speeds will always exceed 4G service.

Fu Liang, a telecom industry analyst, told China Daily the competitive pricing was not about trying to force competitors out of business. Instead, operators are trying to attract Chinese consumers to upgrade to 5G-capable devices which will offload traffic from existing 4G networks to more efficient 5G networks, saving carriers money. Faster speed 5G plans are also expected to persuade businesses to create 5G applications and services.

Mobile handsets with built-in support for 5G are also getting cheaper every day, with prices starting at $210 US in China. Handset purchases are gradually growing as companies build out 5G capacity and coverage in their networks.

Some American operators are marketing 5G service as a premium product, with at least one (Verizon) charging some a $10 monthly surcharge for access to 5G service.

“When you deliver a differentiated service, you can get a differentiated price point,” Verizon CFO Matt Ellis explained during an investor event held this spring. Verizon temporarily rescinded the fee after customers complained about Verizon’s tiny 5G coverage areas, but the surcharge has since returned for some customers. Verizon waives the fee on its $80 Do More and Play More plan options and the $90 Get More plan, if you activate a 5G device on those plans. A cheaper $70 Start Unlimited plan is also available, but the $10 5G surcharge applies, making it cost as much as Verizon’s other $80 plans.

Ironically, Verizon’s $10 surcharge is more expensive than some Chinese carrier’s cheapest 5G mobile plans.

Chinese carriers are marketing a range of plans to attract an income diverse customer base, while in the United States, traditional postpaid plan carriers primarily sell much higher-cost plans that bundle “unlimited” talk, text, and data (up to 20-50 GB). Lower income customers are usually diverted to less credit-risky prepaid plans, often sold by independent resellers or specialty carrier-owned brands like Cricket, MetroPCS, or Boost Mobile (soon to be owned by Dish Networks).

Charter Spectrum Asks FCC for Freedom to Usage Cap Its Internet Customers

Charter Communications is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission for permission to usage cap its internet customers two years before the FCC’s ban on the company imposing data caps runs out.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, is seeking an early exit from some FCC-imposed deal conditions Charter agreed to as part of an approval of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Out of concern that Charter’s merger could harm emerging online video streaming competition, the FCC required the company to not charge fees to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to carry video traffic to its customers and not impose data caps and usage based billing schemes that would limit online video consumption for seven years.

“New Charter’s increased broadband footprint and desire to protect its video profits will increase incentives to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle,” the FCC concluded in its 2016 order approving the merger, with conditions. “For seven years, we prohibit New Charter from imposing data caps or charging usage-based pricing for its residential broadband service. This condition ensures that New Charter will continue Charter’s past pricing practices and protects subscribers from paying fees designed to make online video consumption more expensive leading subscribers to stick with a traditional pay-TV bundle.”

Charter last week argued that with cord-cutting at an all-time high and video streaming alternative cable and video packages flourishing, there is no reason to continue the seven-year ban on data caps, noting that many other large providers including AT&T, Cox, Altice, and Comcast are free to impose data caps of their own.

“They are able to do so because, unlike Charter, they are not subject to a condition that artificially and unilaterally restricts the packages available to their customers,” Charter argues in its filing. “The online video distribution marketplace is almost unrecognizable compared to what existed in 2016. […] Consumers have never had more online video choices.”

Charter said a sunset of the prohibition of data caps was now overdue.

“As data usage skyrockets, the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] artificially hamstrings Charter’s ability to allocate the costs of maintaining its network in a way that is efficient and fair for all of its customers—above-average, average, and light users alike,” the company argued. “Charter should be afforded the same flexibility as other broadband providers to respond to developments in the market. In short, tremendous changes in the marketplace have rendered the [ban on data caps and usage-based billing] no longer necessary, and thus ending it in 2021 would be in the public interest.”

The FCC’s 2016 order approving the merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, with a 7-year prohibition on data caps, was not unanimous. Separate statements from Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly were highly critical of most of the deal conditions the then-Democratic majority favored. Four years later, Pai now presides as chairman over a Republican-majority FCC that could take a favorable view of Charter’s request to end deal conditions early.

In 2016, Pai’s spokesperson complained about the imposition of deal conditions in the Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House merger, telling The Hill, “The FCC’s merger review process is badly broken. [Then FCC] Chairman Wheeler’s order isn’t about competition, competition, competition; it’s about regulation, regulation, regulation. It’s about imposing conditions that have nothing to do with the merits of this transaction. It’s about the government micromanaging the internet economy.”

Charter’s June 2020 filing focuses almost exclusively on streaming video competition to argue there is no longer any need to ban the company from imposing data caps. The FCC in 2016 concluded that data caps were a powerful anti-competitive weapon that could be used to keep streaming video competition from harming cable television packages. Charter argues that consumers now have many choices for streaming video, including cable-TV alternatives, which proves they have not engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

But Charter ignored the FCC’s other chief concern about data caps and usage billing (UBP): the lack of choice of broadband competitors.

“[…] Subscribers will continue to have no (or limited) alternative cable or fiber […] options when faced with data caps and UBP designed to deter online video consumption,” the FCC concluded.

The FCC hoped that by 2023, consumers would have more options for home broadband service, likely driving usage caps out of the marketplace.

“Seven years may also provide the high-speed […] provider market sufficient time to develop further with additional investments in fiber from established wireline […] providers, Wireless 5G technology, use of smartgrid fiber for broadband, additional overbuilding, and other potential competitors to traditional wired […] providers,” the FCC wrote. “It is our expectation that these developments will foster competition in the market to make the anticompetitive use of data caps less tenable in the future.”

Unfortunately, broadband competition remains fleeting in many parts of the United States, where only one provider offers broadband service that meets the FCC’s standard of 25 Mbps for downloads.

Ironically, Charter executives were against imposing data caps on their customers when the company was seeking approval to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

FCC:

“Charter in particular emphasizes its aversion to data caps, stating that instead of enforcing usage limits it chooses to market the absence of data caps as a competitive advantage. Charter also argues there is a strong business case for not implementing caps. Specifically, Charter explains that it terminated its enforcement of the usage limits trial in the AUP in January 2012 because the benefits to customers of continuing the trial (minimizing bandwidth consumption to preserve a positive Internet experience) would not exceed the program’s costs. Charter also states that caps create marketing challenges because they complicate consumer purchasing decisions. Furthermore, Charter argues that data caps increase churn among subscribers. Finally, Charter states that it plans to distinguish itself from its competitors based largely on the quality and speed of its broadband offerings and that data caps undermine that marketing message.”

But the FCC remained unconvinced by Charter’s statements. In a review of confidential internal company documents, the FCC found multiple instances where Time Warner Cable had not completely abandoned the idea of data caps, despite multiple high-profile consumer backlashes against the idea.

“We also note that despite Time Warner Cable’s relative lack of success in implementing usage-based billing, its internal documents leave no doubt that it is also incentivized to use data caps to protect its [cable TV] business,” the FCC concluded.

Four years later, Charter is among many cable operators reporting staggering losses of video customers that have chosen to “cut the cord” on cable television and have switched to a streaming competitor. If an incentive to data cap customers to protect video revenue was there in 2016, it stands to be much stronger today in 2020.

The FCC is now seeking public comment on Charter’s proposal until July 22, 2020. Stop the Cap! plans to file extensive comments on the matter and will shortly publish a guide for readers offering sample letters that can be sent to the FCC on this issue.

Wilson, N.C.’s Fight for Better Internet Found Lots of Opposition from Big Telecom and Republicans

If you’ve ever lived in small-town America, you know how bad the internet can sometimes be. So one town in North Carolina decided: If we can’t make fast internet come to us, we’ll build it ourselves. And they did, despite laughter and disbelief from Time Warner Cable (today known as Spectrum).

When the city started installing fiber optics, the incumbent cable and phone companies did not like the competition and fought back, hiring an army of 40 lobbyists. The telecom companies enlisted the support of the now Republican-controlled state legislature, often with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other conservative groups. Together, they hammered home scare stories with suspect studies critical of municipal broadband written by not-so-independent researchers ghost-funded by many of the same big cable and phone companies.

National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” looks at what happened when the City of Wilson decided to try and start its own internet provider, and how it started a fight that eventually spread to dozens of states, a fight about whether cities should even be allowed to compete with big internet providers, and what the effect the outcome might have on working remotely. But the citizens of Wilson seem to love Greenlight Community Broadband, right down to its well-regarded customer service, which includes dropping by elderly customers’ homes during lunch to troubleshoot set-top boxes and nefarious remote control confusion. (22:47)

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)

Rural New York Legislators Slam Charter Spectrum’s Request to Limit Rural Broadband Funding

With an estimated 90,000 New Yorkers stranded without broadband service, a proposal from Charter Communications to block funding for future projects is coming under fire from a bipartisan group of rural legislators.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission to exclude certain census blocks for funding under the agency’s new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The cable company claims it intends to privately fund expansion of internet service in those areas, and does not welcome government-subsidized competition.

“Good cause plainly exists to grant the waiver to avoid overbuilding areas in which Charter has already begun the process of deploying service and is investing private capital well in excess of $600 million,” company officials wrote. “This will ensure scarce universal service support is deployed to close the gap/digital divide in actually unserved areas. The commission has previously granted rule waivers where, as here, the purposes of the rule would be disserved by its strict application, and where waiver would affirmatively serve the public interest.”

Many of the rural homes Charter claims it intends to serve have been waiting for internet access for well over a decade. Many were hopeful that wait would end shortly after the cable company agreed to expand service to an additional 145,000 rural New York households as part of an agreement with state regulators approving its merger with Time Warner Cable. But a March 2020 audit conducted by the Comptroller of New York found Charter was not meeting its commitments:

“[…] It has been over three years since the merger was approved. Network expansion should have already been provided to approximately 126,875 unserved or underserved premises based on the 2016 Commission Order approving the merger. As of July 2019, Charter had only extended its network to 64,827 premises. Based on the original Order, 62,048 additional customers should have received access to these services. Charter now has until September 2021 to complete the network expansion of 145,000 premises previously scheduled to be completed by May 2020.”

Barrett

Some New York legislators believe Charter is out of line asking the FCC to exclude funding for other rural broadband projects while taking its time meeting its own commitments.

“Charter’s waiver request is simply self-serving and will in no way benefit the residents of upstate New York who, even in the year 2020, are struggling to access adequate broadband by any provider,” Rep. Didi Barrett (D-Hudson) wrote in a letter to the FCC. “Charter’s petition is a blatant attempt to reduce competition and leave consumers with no choice but to wait around for Charter to finish a job that should already be complete. In Upstate New York, tens of thousands of residents and businesses are still waiting for internet service because of Charter’s years-long effort to renege on their obligations to New York State and the people who live in rural communities. We must continue to call Charter out until every household and business is served as planned under their agreement with New York State.”

Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik from Schuylerville agrees with many of Barrett’s views, blasting Spectrum for seriously delaying its rural rollout commitments. Stefanik worked with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to change the qualification requirements for the RDOF program, which originally would have excluded New York from receiving funding. If the FCC adopts Charter’s request, it would block much of her district from receiving broadband funds, either because Charter previously indicated it would (eventually) offer service or because the state previously supplied broadband subsidies, which would also seem to disqualify RDOF grants.

“I have heard directly from constituents and local elected officials that this decision would have a severe impact on their ability to gain rural broadband access, which is essential, especially during this time of crisis,” Stefanik said. “Charter’s request would exclude parts of the North Country from this critical federal funding, and I will work with my upstate colleagues and the FCC to keep it available.”

WNYT in Albany reports rural New York communities like Stillwater have waited years for Charter Spectrum to provide broadband service. The addresses Spectrum grudgingly will serve in the area are routinely quoted installation fees starting at $8,000. (2:16)

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