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Maine Raises the Bar on Public Broadband: Will Fund Projects Offering 100/100 Mbps

Maine’s broadband internet authority is proposing major changes to win public financing of broadband projects in the state, demanding better speeds and performance and giving more Maine communities the potential to construct their own public internet projects.

The ConnectMaine Authority (ConnectME), which traditionally modestly funds a variety of smaller scale internet projects in the state, wants to think big now that it has a budget over fifteen times its original size. With at least $15 million to spend this year and potentially tens of millions in federal broadband funding to manage, courtesy of Congress and the Biden Administration, the authority wants to make certain future projects can deliver the scale and service consumers need in the 21st century digital economy.

In April, ConnectME’s board voted to propose changing the criteria for broadband funding awards, now insisting that projects be capable of delivering at least 100/100 Mbps service, which is four times faster than the FCC’s current minimum definition of downstream broadband. The board hopes the faster speeds will be future-proof and more realistic of what consumers need to telecommute and access online classes, streaming video, and other high bandwidth services. The result of the proposed standards would likely require all future projects to be fiber to the home, although historically the vast majority of broadband projects funded by ConnectME in the past have been fiber to the home.

The authority has also proposed expanding the definition of what represents an “unserved/underserved” area qualified to receive public funding to include any address that lacks access to at least 50/10 Mbps service, up from the current standard of 25/3 Mbps. Such a change would likely open up funding in areas where only DSL service or wireless internet is currently available. Most cable operators can meet the new standard, so their territories would likely remain closed to public funding. Opposition from the state’s telephone companies was almost instant, however, represented in comments from Ben Sanborn, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, a state telecom lobbying group.

Sanborn considers the proposed changes negative because public dollars could end up funding competitors in areas already served by lower speed providers.

“Arguably, there are going to be a whole bunch of areas in the state that will be eligible for funding either from ConnectME or with federal dollars,” Sanborn told the Press Herald. “Our concern with that is that it is going to create a situation of overbuilding existing networks,” which could leave currently unserved areas out of getting any funding for service.

At present, about 11% of Maine homes still have no internet access, mostly in rural areas. Traditionally, telephone companies or co-op telecom providers are the most likely to provide rural internet service, but the costs to reach those not currently served can be prohibitive. Cable operators have been the least likely to extend service in rural areas, and cash-strapped telephone companies have been reluctant to replace rural copper wire networks that can extend for miles with fiber optics, just to reach a few dozen homes. As broadband penetration increases, the cost to reach remaining unserved homes typically rises as they are often the most costly to reach. Subsidy funding can make a considerable difference when determining the cost/benefit analysis of expanding service to these homes.

The authority is also hoping to inspire existing providers to adopt 100/100 Mbps as the new broadband speed minimum across the state, which it claims will meet the needs of customers. For cable providers, that likely will not happen until upgrades to DOCSIS 4.0 are implemented, unlikely in the short term. Cable broadband networks are designed to deliver much faster downstream speeds at the expense of uploads.

The newly available funds are likely to achieve a significant increase in the number of rural homes served, but probably will not be enough to achieve 100% penetration.

ConnectME plans a public hearing to discuss the proposed changes on May 13, with a final vote scheduled for later this month.

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.

BREAKING NEWS: Comcast Introducing 1.2 TB Data Cap in Northeast, Mid-Atlantic Regions

Comcast has quietly updated its online customer support website to reflect the forthcoming introduction of data caps to the last remaining major regions of the country where it has avoided imposing them for years.

The nation’s largest cable company will debut its 1.2 TB data cap usage plan on January 1, 2021 in Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and West Virginia.

“Customers in select markets can take the months of January and February to understand how the new 1.2 TB Internet Data Plan affects them without additional charges,” Comcast wrote on its new customer FAQ page. “We’ll credit your bill for any additional data usage charges over 1.2 TB during those months if you’re not on an unlimited data plan. It does not apply to Xfinity Internet customers on our Gigabit Pro tier of service, Business Internet customers, customers with Prepaid Internet, or customers on Bulk Internet agreements.”

But effective March 1st, residential customers will begin facing overlimit fees for exceeding their data allowance at a rate of $10 for each 50 GB of excess usage, up to a maximum of $100 a month. Customers will not be credited for unused data, cannot rollover unused data, or be charged less than $10 in overlimit fees, regardless if one used 1 MB or 49 GB over the 1.2 TB allowance.

Customers approaching their usage limit will receive email, text messages, and Xfinity X1 on-screen notifications upon reaching 75% (email only), 90%, and 100% of 1.2 TB of data usage. Overlimit fees that subsequently start accumulating will be noted in email and X1 on-screen notifications for each additional 50 GB of usage over 1.2 TB, up to the maximum overage charge of $100.

Customers can return to the unlimited data plan they had before January 1st by paying an additional $30 a month for an unlimited add-on plan.

Comcast imposed data caps on residential customers in other parts of the country for years, but had avoided doing so until now in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states where Verizon FiOS is a frequent competitor. Verizon does not impose formal data caps on its residential customers. The introduction of data caps by Comcast is likely to result in a shift of some customers towards Verizon, if FiOS is available.

Comcast is certain to be criticized for expanding data caps in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as the number of cases explodes in the United States, pushing more people than ever to work from home. The resulting increased usage will expose a growing number of Comcast customers to overlimit fees, starting at $10 additional a month. Usage caps are also not expected to slow the company’s ongoing rate increases. One of Comcast’s most successful businesses is selling residential broadband, often with no significant competition, and with customers unlikely to drop service there is plenty of room to raise prices further.

Protesters in front of the Time Warner Cable in Rochester, N.Y., protesting the introduction of data caps in 2009.

Fighting Back

The most effective ways to combat data caps are:

  1. Switch providers and tell Comcast you are leaving because of the imposition of data caps. Reject any arguments that suggest usage allowances will impact only a handful of customers. Ongoing studies show a growing number of consumers are exceeding these arbitrary “allowances”, forcing them to pay unjustified overlimit fees or subscribe to a costly unlimited plan for as much as $30 more a month. Usage caps are unnecessary in 2020. Comcast itself claims it has plenty of capacity across its network, including areas where no caps are currently imposed. But they now think it is appropriate to introduce caps in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Organize a noisy but legal protest in front of a local cable store or Comcast’s headquarters and contact newspapers, radio and TV stations in advance to invite them to cover the event. Be sure to carry signs and designate one or more members to be interviewed by the media about the unacceptability of data caps. We can supply talking points on request.
  3. Contact your local, state, and federal representatives and complain about Comcast imposing data caps. This is especially effective when tied-in with local protests, which may attract elected officials to the cause. There is precedent for companies backing down if consumers coordinate with elected officials and loudly protest. Tell officials your community’s digital future should not be dictated by Comcast and its unwanted data caps. More competition is needed, and until it substantially exists, ask them to ban “data plans” for home broadband service. Ask them to support municipal solutions, such as public/municipal internet service.
  4. Remind everyone that internet availability is not the only issue. Affordability is also a growing problem that puts much needed internet service out of reach of low-income citizens. Imposing data caps is just another way of raising prices and deterring innovation.

Verizon Announces Expansion of Rural Unlimited 4G LTE Wireless Home Internet to 189 Markets

Verizon has announced a significant expansion of its 4G LTE Home Internet service, now reaching 189 markets in 48 states.

“This summer, we introduced LTE Home Internet in select pilot markets, and the response from customers was incredible,” said Frank Boulben, senior vice president of consumer marketing and products at Verizon. “It’s clear the need for connectivity has never been greater during these challenging times, that’s why today, we’re expanding LTE Home Internet to even more customers in rural areas of America who may not have access to broadband internet.”

Indeed, most of the zip codes covered by Verizon’s wireless home broadband service are in rural communities where demand on Verizon’s 4G mobile network is likely much lower, with capacity to spare. The service is designed primarily for those living where DSL or cable broadband is not available.

For $40 a month for existing Verizon mobile customers ($60 for non-customers), customers receive unlimited data with no data caps or throttles at download speeds between 25-50 Mbps. A $240 LTE Home router is also provided, after a $10 a month device payment plan promotional credit that lasts for 24 months. In other words, you technically owe $240 for the router, with a balance reduction of $10 for each month you stay a customer. If you remain a customer for two years, that $240 is reduced to $0.00. If you cancel before that, you owe whatever balance remains. Verizon promises the service is easy to self-install.

The list of available zip codes is extensive, so you can download the current list here. Or verify precise availability by visiting: www.verizon.com/home/lte-home-internet.

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