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Wall Street Journal Says Faster Internet Not Worth It, But They Ignore Bottlenecks and Data Caps

The Wall Street Journal believes the majority of Americans are paying for internet speed they never use or need, but their investigation largely ignores the question of traffic bottlenecks and data caps that require many customers to upgrade to premium tiers to avoid punitive overlimit fees.

The newspaper’s examination was an attempt to test the marketing messages of large cable and phone companies that claim premium speeds of 250, 500, or 1,000 Mbps will enhance video streaming. A total of 53 journalists across the country performed video streaming tests over a period of months, working with researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago to determine how much of their available bandwidth was used while streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and other popular streaming services.

Unsurprisingly, the newspaper found most only need a fraction of their available internet speed — often less than 10 Mbps — to watch high quality HD streaming video, even with up to seven video streams running concurrently. That is because video streaming services are designed to produce good results even with lower speed connections. Video resolution and buffering are dynamically adjusted by the streaming video player depending on the quality of one’s internet connection, with good results likely for anyone with a basic broadband connection of 10-25 Mbps. As 4K streams become more common, customers will probably get better performance with faster tiers, assuming the customer has an unshaped connection that does not throttle video streaming speeds as many mobile connections do and the streaming service offers a subscription tier offering 4K video. Netflix, for example, charges more for 4K streams. Some other services do not offer this option at all.

Image: WSJ

WSJ:

For most modern televisions, the highest picture clarity is the “full” high-definition standard, 1080p, followed by the slightly lower HD standard, 720p, then “standard resolution,” 480p. The Journal study found a household’s percentage of 1080p viewing had little to do with the speed it was paying for. In some cases, streaming services intentionally transmit in lower resolution to accommodate a device such as a mobile phone.

When all HD viewing is considered—1080p and 720p—there were some benefits to paying for the very highest broadband tiers, those 250 Mbps and above.

Streaming services compress their streams in smart ways, so they don’t require much bandwidth. We took a closer look at specific services by gathering data on our households’ viewing over a period of months. Unlike the “stress test,” this was regular viewing of shows and movies, one at a time.

Netflix streamed at under 4 Mbps, on average, over the course of a show or movie, with not much difference in the experience of someone who was paying for a 15 Mbps connection and someone with a one gigabit (1,000 Mbps) connection. The findings were similar for the other services.

There is a brief speed spike when a stream begins. Netflix reached the highest max speeds of the services we tested, but even those were a fraction of the available bandwidth.

Users watching YouTube might launch a video slightly faster than those watching Netflix, and at lower resolution, but this is a function of how those services work, not your broadband speed, the researchers said.

Whereas Netflix tries to load “nice high quality video” when you press play and hence has higher spikes, YouTube appears to “want to start as fast as possible,” said Paul Schmitt, one of the researchers.

A spokeswoman for Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube said the service chooses playback quality based on factors including type of device, network speed, user preferences and the resolution of the originally uploaded video. A Netflix Inc. spokeswoman said the company aims to deliver quality video with the least possible bandwidth. Amazon.com Inc. had no comment.

The Journal finds little advantage for consumers subscribing to premium speed tiers, if they did so hoping for improved streaming video. The unanswered question is why customers believe they need faster internet speeds to get those improvements in the first place.

The answer often lies in the quality of the connection between the streaming provider and the customer. There are multiple potential bottlenecks that can make a YouTube video stutter and buffer on even the fastest internet connection. Large providers have had high profile disputes with large streaming companies over interconnection agreements that bring Netflix and YouTube traffic to those internet service providers’ customers. Some ISPs want compensation to handle the increasing amount of incoming video traffic and have intentionally not allowed adequate upgrades to keep up with growing subscriber demand. This creates a traffic bottleneck, usually most noticeable at night, when even a small YouTube video can get stuck buffering. Other streaming videos can suffer from repeated pauses or deteriorate into lower resolution video quality, regardless of the speed of your connection.

Another common bottleneck comes from oversold service providers that have too much traffic and not enough capacity to manage it. DSL and satellite internet customers often complain about dramatic slowdowns in performance during peak usage times in the evenings and on weekends. In many cases, too many customers in a neighborhood are sharing the connection back to the phone company. Satellite customers only have a finite amount of bandwidth to work with and once used, all speeds slow. Some other providers do not pay for a large enough pipeline to the internet backbone, making some traffic slow to a crawl when that connection is full.

Customers are sold on speed upgrades by providers that tell them faster speeds will accommodate more video traffic, which is true but not the whole answer. No amount of speed will overcome intentional traffic shaping, an inadequate connection to the video streaming service, or an oversold network. Too bad the Journal did not investigate these conditions, which are more common than many people think.

Finally, some customers feel compelled to upgrade to premium tiers because their provider enforces data caps, and premium tiers offer larger usage allowances. Cable One, Suddenlink, and Mediacom customers, among others, get a larger usage allowance upgrading. Other providers offer a fixed cap, often 1 TB, which does not go away unless a customer pays an additional monthly fee or bundles video service.

Data caps are a concern for video streaming customers because the amount of data that can be consumed in a month is substantial. As video quality improves, data consumption increases. The Journal article does not address data caps.

Finally, the Journal investigation confined itself to video streaming, but internet users are also increasingly using other high traffic services, especially cloud backup and downloading, especially for extremely large video game updates. The next generation of high bandwidth internet applications will only be developed if high speed internet service is pervasive, so having fast internet speed is not a bad thing. In fact, providers have learned it is relatively cheap to increase customer speeds and use that as a justification to raise broadband prices. Other providers, like Charter Spectrum, have dropped lower speed budget plans to sell customers 100 or 200 Mbps service, with a relatively inexpensive upgrade to 400 Mbps also gaining in popularity.

Does the average consumer need a premium speed tier for their home internet connection? Probably not. But they do need affordable unlimited internet service free of bottlenecks and artificial slowdowns, especially at the prices providers charge these days. That is an investigation the Journal should conduct next.

Frontier is Experiencing Multiple Service Outages in Western New York Today

Phillip Dampier August 14, 2019 Consumer News, Frontier, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 2 Comments

Some Frontier Communications customers in Rochester were left without service early today in a “widespread” outage that impacted local governments, commercial customers, and medical care facilities.

Medical facilities are relying on backup plans to maintain communications after service failed this morning, just days after the New York Public Service Commission warned Frontier Communications it must improve service after receiving a growing number of service complaints impacting service across the state.

The outage is just the latest in a growing series of outages that have left some customers without service for as long as five weeks. Last week, state regulators released results of their 2018 survey on the service quality of telephone companies serving New York and found service from four Frontier-owned affiliates lacking:

  • Citizens Telecommunications Company of New York, Inc. (Citizens)
  • Frontier Telephone of Rochester, Inc. (Frontier Rochester)
  • Frontier Communications of New York, Inc. (Frontier New York)
  • Frontier Communications of Ausable Valley, Inc. (Ausable Valley)

“The rate of consumer complaints received by the Department of Public Service (PSC Complaints) has significantly increased in the last several years for these companies,” the PSC report concludes. “In addition, a review of company-provided initial data shows poor performance regarding repair duration for customers who lose service. Further, Staff has received an increasing number of complaints from local, county, and State government representatives and officials from first-responder organizations regarding network reliability and timeliness of repairs in the service areas of these companies.”

Frontier was a clear standout among problematic service providers serving New York. The company currently serves 221,000 access lines from 211 central offices and is the largest independent telephone company in New York outside of Verizon. Frontier is the incumbent landline provider for 7.9% of the state’s total access lines, with its largest service area centered on Rochester and the 585 area code. The PSC notes Frontier has been rapidly losing customers, with 30,000 access lines disconnected in 2018 alone.

But not every Frontier division in New York has operated below the PSC’s standards. Former Rochester Telephone-owned entities including Frontier Ogden Telephone Company and Frontier Communications of Seneca-Gorham, as well as Frontier Communications of Sylvan Lake experienced no significant outages or complaints in 2018. Frontier often allows its divisions to be managed somewhat autonomously, with local managers keeping watch over operations in their area. Frontier offers little residential fiber optic service in its New York markets, except in selected new housing developments and in areas where the existing copper network has deteriorated or been damaged beyond practical repair. Most customers are offered copper-based DSL service over telephone lines installed decades ago.

Frontier’s ongoing and increasing financial problems may be responsible for the spike in service complaints and lengthening repair times. Employees have repeatedly told Stop the Cap! resources to deal with service issues are increasingly scarce and cost management is among the highest priorities inside the company. Frontier’s service repairs often take days, if not weeks. Company officials have told employees that since most people have cell phones, landline repairs are no longer as critical as they once were years ago. But spotty internet service can significantly damage local businesses, and outages are becoming more frequent and taking longer to repair.

“The PSC Complaint rate has significantly increased in the last several years for these Frontier companies,” the PSC found. “In addition, Staff has responded to a significant number of network reliability complaints and inquiries from local, county, and State government representatives, including emergency response entities. These complaints include long repair durations and repeated out-of-service conditions, as well as internet access and speed issues.”

Stop the Cap! has learned the New York State Attorney General’s office has also opened an informal inquiry into the increasing number of internet service complaints filed with the AG’s office.

To learn why Frontier is experiencing an increasing number of problems, the PSC has requested more granular trouble reports and will interview Frontier’s local supervisors and technicians to get a candid assessment of Frontier’s wireline facilities and what exactly is contributing to a deterioration of service. If Frontier is unwilling or unable to improve service, the PSC has warned it may take formal action against the company.

WHAM-TV in Rochester reports some Frontier customers in Mount Morris, N.Y., south of Rochester, have been without internet service for five weeks, causing frustration. (2:05)

WROC-TV in Rochester reports on another multi-day Frontier service outage, this one affecting residential and business customers in the Sea Breeze and Point Pleasant areas along Lake Ontario. (1:58)

Frontier Wrestles Worst ISP in America Award Away from Mediacom

“Frontier offers a level of suckage that cannot be proportionally compared with any other company in America. Stabbing yourself with knitting needles is less painful than their snail slow internet service and dealing with customer service agents that formerly served as prison guards at a Syrian detention camp.” — A deeply dissatisfied Frontier DSL customer in Ohio

Frontier Communications has achieved a new low in customer satisfaction, wrestling away the award for America’s worst ISP from perennial favorite Mediacom, in a newly released American Customer Satisfaction Index.

No internet service provider did particularly well in customer satisfaction, but Frontier managed to alienate more of their customers than any other this year, ranking poorly in speed, reliability, and customer service. Customers also complained about being given inaccurate information, inaccurate billing, and surprise charges on their bill.

Frontier’s worst performance is delivered in legacy DSL service areas, where its aging copper wire network is often incapable of delivering 21st century broadband speeds. In many areas, speeds drop well below 10 Mbps during peak usage. Even worse, company officials signaled that the company had few plans to improve its wireline network or service experience in 2019. As a result, many customers switched providers, if one was available. If Frontier is the only option, customers often have no options.

“For several years we have had no internet options except for Frontier. We receive 10 to 20% of the service we pay for time and time again,” wrote one customer in a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. “The service has even diminished over time, [and] whenever my work demands me to log online, I often have to leave my home at different times of the day or night to a location where I can get free Wi-Fi or drive 24 miles to my job. This is totally unacceptable. Every single weekend and every night my internet shuts off. I mean every night. Nothing has been done from a customer’s view to improve service.”

What seems to have driven Mediacom out of last place was not so much an improvement in their network or service.

“Mediacom has the second-lowest score among subscription TV services at 56, but has one of the highest-rated mobile apps, both in terms of quality and reliability,” the ACSI found.

Frontier has an improved website, but still offers many potential subscribers a severe disappointment when shopping for internet plans, and finding only one:

Irony Dept.: Frontier Paying $1,000 to Someone Willing to Live With Obsolete Flip-Phone for a Week

Frontier Communications will pay one smartphone addict $1,000 if they will give up their device for one week and rely on a 1990s-era obsolete flip phone instead. The cringe worthy challenge, soaked in irony, is brought to you by a phone company that delivers late 1990s-era DSL to a substantial number of its customers.

Frontier:

If you’re chosen, you’ll be responsible for using a flip phone in place of your smartphone for seven full days (that’s 168 hours!), and we want you to log your experience. We’ll have you track (don’t worry, your info stays safe with us!) how long it takes you to do basic tasks such as texting and checking email, how many times you wish you could Google something, how many hours you slept, how your productivity changed (or didn’t!), and even if you were late to appointments (after all, how does anyone get around without Google Maps?). Was your experience #TheWorstThingEver? Did you find new freedom? Either way, we want to hear about it.

Applicants can register until July 8, 2019. 

What’s in it for you

$1,000 in compensation

Boredom Buster Swag Bag (i.e. your survival kit) including:

  • An actual, physical map (yes, those still exist!) to make up for your GPS.
  • A pocket phonebook, because who memorizes numbers anymore?
  • A notepad and pen to make grocery trips a little less painful.
  • A couple ’90s CDs (think Britney and NSYNC) to soothe your Spotify withdrawals.
  • Remote work environment as you earn your $1,000—no heading to an office at 8am for this job!
  • No drug testing or background check required.
  • A unique social experiment and a chance to go back in time . . . or, well, something like that.

The goal of the experiment is “to help us understand how much we rely on smartphones and how that affects day-to-day life. (Our hypothesis? A lot.)”

It is too bad Frontier didn’t embark on an experiment to determine how much customers rely on high quality, 21st century internet access. They could quickly learn that for many of those stuck with Frontier’s DSL service… they can’t, because Frontier does not provide it.

Cable One: A Regime of High Prices and Data Caps

Cable One has the highest average revenue per customer of any publicly traded cable company in the United States, with the average customer paying Cable One $70.80 a month, mostly for internet access.

The company’s first quarter earnings growth of 5.5% reflect the company’s recent price increases and regime of low-allowance data caps, which have pushed 10 percent of its customers to pay an extra $40 a month to bring back unlimited access. Others are upgrading to costlier, faster tiers with more generous usage allowances.

“During the first quarter, we saw roughly 50% of our new customers choose our 200 Mbps or higher speed service and nearly 10% of our new customers opted to purchase our unlimited data plan,” said Julia Laulis, Cable One CEO.

Laulis

Cable One’s 200 Mbps plan (with a 600 GB data cap) costs $65 a month after promotions expire. A DOCSIS 3.0 modem lease fee of $10.50 applies. A $2.75 monthly internet service surcharge may apply. If a customer wants unlimited access to avoid overlimit fees, there is an additional charge of $40 a month (a 5 TB cap applies to the “unlimited plan”). Customers choosing a 200 Mbps broadband-only package with unlimited data will pay up to $118.25 a month.

Cable One’s broadband customers are concerned about staying within the data caps to avoid overlimit fees. While Comcast and Charter Spectrum customers consume over 300-400 GB of data per month (Comcast has a 1 TB cap, Spectrum only sells unlimited service), Cable One customers use an average of 290 GB, with usage growing at a 30-35% annual rate. Many Cable One customers have little choice either. Laulis noted that Cable One’s DSL competition is not very relevant when customers want to watch streaming video. Speeds are often so slow, customers do not have a good experience streaming HD video over DSL.

 

Cable One is also shedding its video customers in record numbers, with just 305,000 of its cable TV customers left. More than 29,000 departed year over year, and that number continues to rise as consumers rebel against the company’s high prices and unwillingness to negotiate.

MoffettNathanson warned that Cable One’s high pricing may eventually price itself out of broadband growth, as consumers elect to sign up with telephone companies instead. But many of its service areas are still served by low-speed DSL, and despite Cable One’s high cost, the company added 10,600 new internet customers in the last quarter.

In addition to raising prices, the company also plans to spend between $9-11 million to change its name from Cable One to Sparklight over the next two years.

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