Tag Archives: comcast

Penalties, but not prevention, for deceptive ISP billing practices

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Consumer reports cable billing 3oct2019

It’s common practice for big, monopoly model broadband providers to promise low prices to new subscribers, then tack on arbitrary fees after they’re locked into long term contracts. AT&T was recently slammed for adding a property tax surcharge to some customers’ bills – no one has figured out yet why AT&T thinks it can do that in the first place, let alone why it more than doubled the charge – California property tax rate hikes are tightly restricted. Frontier Communications also adds fees on top of the rates customers have agreed to.

Comcast is a frequent target of consumer billing complaints, and state attorneys general are listening. Just about a year ago, the Minnesota attorney general took Comcast to court over billing practices. The case was settled on Wednesday. According to the Minnesota AG

Part of being able to afford your life means knowing the full cost of what you’re getting, getting what you were promised, not being overcharged for things you didn’t ask for, and not being unfairly charged to get rid of things you didn’t ask for. But when people signed up for Comcast, that’s what happened to them…This settlement will help put money back in Comcast’s customers’ pockets where it should have been in the first place. Just as importantly, it provides millions of dollars’ worth of debt relief. And we’ve made sure that going forward, Comcast customers will know exactly how much they’ll pay for service before they sign up for it. That should put an end to unpleasant surprises.

Another deceptive billing case in Washington state last year resulted in Comcast being hit with a $9 million fine, plus orders to make refunds to customers.

It’s not just broadband service – arbitrary fees are added to the full range of products and services that telephone and cable companies provide. A study by Consumer Reports showed that the typical cable TV customer pays an extra $450 a year, just because. The graphic above breaks that down.

So far, little has been done to stop deceptive billing practices in the first place. That could change. The Federal Communications Commission’s declaration that broadband isn’t a telecommunications service passed the buck to the Federal Trade Commission, which might or might not get around to doing something about it. State governments also have a role to play – a federal appeals court opened the door to broadband consumer protection laws and other state-level regulation last year. So far though, no one in Sacramento has shown much interest in walking through it.

Some people aren’t buying the false data big ISPs sold to the FCC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Microsoft oregon analysis 5dec2018

The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband testing program evolved from a engineering-driven performance assessment when it was launched in 2012 to a marketing tool for monopoly model Internet service providers. That’s partly the result of the FCC republican majority embracing a role as a cheerleader for big telecoms companies, but it also reflects tensions in the program that date back to when it began under a democrat-majority commission.

Jim Warner, who recently retired from a long career as the network engineer for the University of California, Santa Cruz and still chairs the Central Coast Broadband Consortium’s technical expert group, helped design the FCC’s program, along with several others from the academic side of the house as well as industry representatives. He says there’s a split between the two groups, with industry more concerned with selling service than delivering it…

While the research community has been continuously engaged in measurement activities as part of high performance networking, the commercial side of the business has been plodding along on its own measurement efforts. Our goals are to improve performance (or at least understand its limits). On the commercial side, the goal is more along the line of making money and, if performance got better, that was OK, too.

The ISPs – especially AT&T – were unwilling to accept the results of the program’s measurements and fought hard to get poor results removed from their totals to improve their score.

The lack of hard information about where and what kind of broadband service is available, particularly in rural areas, is sore spot in Washington, D.C. There’s bipartisan support for a couple of bills that would put more money behind broadband measurement and mapping programs, and set higher standards. Maybe, just maybe, enough support to make it into law in the coming weeks.

FCC allows big ISPs to add performance enhancing juice to speed tests, WSJ says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Syringe

The fast, reliable broadband service claims endorsed by the Federal Communications Commission are based on test data that’s been doctored by California’s monopoly model Internet service providers, according to a Wall Street Journal article Shalini Ramachandran, Lillian Rizzo and Drew FitzGerald (h/t to Jim Warner for sending me the link).

Annual speed measurements taken to evaluate U.S. broadband service are “juiced” by AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and others, who know ahead of time where the tests are run and afterwards lobby the FCC to suppress bad results and hype good ones, the story says…

[AT&T] pushed the Federal Communications Commission to omit unflattering data on its DSL internet service…

In the end, the DSL data was left out of the report released late last year, to the chagrin of some agency officials. AT&T’s remaining speed tiers notched high marks…

Comcast a few years ago upgraded speeds in some regions without notifying the FCC, making test results look stellar, people close to the FCC program said. The FCC discovered the changes after spotting anomalous data and adjusted the numbers.

This September, amid an FCC test, Comcast rolled out speed upgrades for many customers in several states…

Charter-Time Warner Cable oversold its network to the point where 200 Mbps and 300 Mbps households “would achieve speeds that were only a half to a third of their promised speeds,” the New York attorney general alleged [in a 2017 lawsuit]. Yet Time Warner Cable’s FCC speed-test results in the two years prior averaged 100% or more of promised speeds.

Even so, the FCC’s VIP treatment isn’t good enough for AT&T. It pulled out of the testing program and will submit performance data it gathers itself.

The story also reports that measurements of Cox Communications’ broadband service showed a 37% actual-versus-promised consistency mark. It blamed the wholesale provider it chooses to work with, so the FCC relegated the results to a footnote, even though Cox – or any other last mile ISP– is responsible for properly provisioning middle mile connectivity and raw Internet protocol bandwidth.

The FCC broadband measurement program is a mess. Earlier this year, the FCC pulled back claims of widespread gigabit availability after a thorough debunking by a broadband advocacy group and Microsoft. That’s what happens when a regulator turns into a cheerleader for the industry it’s supposed to oversee.

AT&T, Comcast “continue to frustrate” CPUC inquiries “even on safety matters”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

AT&T and Comcast blew off demands for information about broadband pricing from California Public Utilities Commission staff, so now the public advocates office, which requested the data, is asking the commission to force the companies to comply and to acknowledge their legal responsibility to fully answer questions about service, safety and other issues.

The PAO sent a detailed questionnaire to Internet service providers in California, including telephone companies and cable operators, during an ongoing inquiry into the affordability of broadband and other essential utility services in California. According to the “motion to compel responses to data requests” filed by the PAO, Charter Communications and Cox answered, but Comcast and AT&T lawyered up (the filing doesn’t mention Frontier Communications, the other member of California’s Big Five ISP club).

Although AT&T and Comcast provided some information (see below), the bulk of their responses boiled down to you people don’t have any jurisdiction over broadband, but if you’re really interested, check out our website.

The jurisdiction question was answered, if not completely settled, by a ruling from Clifford Rechtschaffen, the commissioner who is leading the inquiry. He took the uncommon step of issuing a ruling that asserted “a significant role for the commission” in managing California’s broadband ecosystem.

Besides being dismissive, answering a data request with a link to a sales-focused website isn’t enlightening and could be dangerous, according to the filing…

The presentation of pricing on the AT&T website does not provide all relevant combinations of service bundles and speeds. Websites also produce selective company information that are in no way responsive to the data requests or comparable to other communication companies’ information. For instance: What is the lowest price for the user-defined combination of services at the user-defined speed across all communication companies?…

Telecommunication companies continue to frustrate the Public Advocates Office’s efforts to understand their continually evolving operational landscape and how it affects California consumers, even on safety matters.

There’s no particular timeline for when – if – action will be taken on the PAO’s motion.

Comcast
Comcast pricing jan 2019

AT&T
Att broadband pricing 2019
Att legacy dsl pricing 2019

Telephone and cable companies stonewalled California emergency officials during massive power outages

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cell site outages 28oct2019

Mobile carriers generally cooperated with California emergency officials during the week long siege of public safety power shutoffs in October, while cable and telephone companies hid behind confidentiality claims. Paul Troxel, who heads the 911 program at the California office of emergency services, testified at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Wednesday and told commissioners that neither the state’s emergency operations center or local officials knew where access to 911 service and disaster information, such as evacuation orders, were unavailable…

Outage data was not reported by all providers. Some providers were very responsive and provided outage data as requested by Cal OES, while others were slow to respond due to confidentiality concerns related to outage data. Frankly, information from the wireline and VoIP providers was not provided until the end of the event. Because of the lack of complete reporting, Cal OES had to work with the Federal Communications Commission to activate the disaster information reporting system.

The FCC’s data isn’t intended to support real time operations. It’s typically 12 to 24 hours old and only aggregated data is provided – at the county level for mobile carriers and the state level for telephone and cable companies. But it did provide a useful check on the accuracy of the data provided voluntarily by telecoms companies through their industry association, which is their standard method.

It didn’t work so well. According to Troxel, at one point the industry’s organisation, the California Utilities Emergency Association (CUEA), reported that 57,000 wireline customers were out of service, while the FCC’s disaster information reporting system said the figure was 224,000. CUEA’s mobile outage reports weren’t much better – in one county the FCC said 133 cell sites were down while CUEA claimed only nine were. The problems with the industry association’s data were severe enough that OES requested reports directly from telecoms companies, with varying degrees of success.

During the hearing, Verizon, T-Mobile and, perhaps, AT&T executives promised to provide timely, detailed outage information in future emergencies, and make it public. A senior AT&T operations executive said the company would do so, after a company lawyer deflected the question by extolling the wonderfulness of the current system – that’s an arm wrestling match that needs to be resolved. The other representatives, from Frontier Communications, Comcast, Charter Communications, Cox and Sprint, wouldn’t make any promises at all.

Meaningful answers and we’ll get back to you, as CPUC drills down on phone, broadband outages in emergencies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc phc telecoms outages 20nov2019

Telecoms company representatives – telco, cable and mobile – were grilled for three hours yesterday by CPUC commissioners about their ability to maintain communications capabilities during power outages and other emergencies. And their willingness to provide actionable, real time network status information to officials and the public.

The central issue is whether the California Public Utilities Commission should establish regulations for things like backup power, network resiliency and outage reporting, for voice, text and, perhaps, broadband service. Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen cut to heart of it, asking the eight representatives “would you support this as a regulatory requirement?”.

Three of the mobile companies – AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – were represented by senior operational and engineering executives. Although they didn’t express any great enthusiasm for new regulations, they engaged with questions posed by commissioners and generally gave knowledgable answers about their networks, back up capacity and emergency management procedures.

Verizon sent a lobbyist. He reiterated an early statement by Verizon that it would be happy to provide lots more information about future outages in something like real time, and make it public because our network is so damn good.

AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s execs signed onto that pledge. Mobile networks were a particular focus – 80% of 911 calls are made using mobile phones, according to a CPUC staffer. The objective is to identify and publicise communications gaps, where people can’t call 911 or access evacuation maps on the web. Sprint’s rep was more reticent, but it might not matter if T-Mobile is successful in acquiring the company.

It wasn’t clear whether AT&T’s wireline network was included in the promise. At one point, an AT&T lawyer jumped up and seemed to say no. Instead, he lauded AT&T platoons of lobbyists and public relations people, and their “longstanding” efforts to keep state and local officials informed.

Right.

Frontier Communications also sent a corporate lobbyist to the hearing. Not much came of it. She didn’t promise to share detailed or real time outage information, let alone make it public. She did say that only 85% of Frontier’s customers are served by central offices that have back up generators that can keep facilities powered for at least 72 hours. “Facilities further out” in “remote areas” rely on shorter-lived batteries and portable generators.

Translation: the urban systems we got from Verizon are okay, rural communities, not so much.

The three cable companies – Charter Communications, Comcast and Cox – sent regional managers, who typically have a lot of operational responsibility at the local level, but take their marching orders on corporate policy from headquarters. That seemed to be the case yesterday. All three were cordial and, within their field of expertise, knowledgeable enough, but not forthcoming when pressed for information sharing commitments. I’ll get back to you was a frequently heard response. Back up power on cable networks didn’t seem to be as robust as telcos. Comcast’s rep said that all their network devices in the field have back up power, but only 4 to 24 hours worth.

Telecoms companies to explain broadband, phone failures during California power cuts

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Green acres utility pole

With another Pacific Gas and Electric company power shut off looming later today, the California Public Utilities Commission is calling in telecommunications companies and demanding that they be prepared to explain their “responsiveness during the latest wildfires and public safety power shut offs to keep telecommunications services on”.

A hearing is scheduled for this morning in San Francisco, with “top officials” from California’s major telecoms companies directed to “publicly appear and publicly address their response during the latest wildfire events [and] public safety power shutoffs”. The list includes California’s two big telephone companies – AT&T and Frontier Communications – as well as Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox on the cable side, and all four mobile carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Electric utility executives are also invited, albeit a bit more politely.

During the last wave of power cuts, intended to prevent wildfires, hundreds of thousands of Californians lost telephone and broadband service. Data collected by the Federal Communications Commission indicated that 455,000 telco and cable subscribers in 32 California counties lost connectivity, and 3.3% of cell sites were down. There might have been more – the FCC didn’t say how many telecoms companies were reporting outages – reporting was voluntary – or whether the total included all customers who couldn’t connect because they lacked back up power in their homes and businesses.

Who shows up will be as significant as what they say. Expect AT&T and Frontier to send people – they’re still regulated to an extent by the CPUC – but whether their representatives are actual decision makers or lobbyists with inflated titles remains to be seen.

Cable companies tend to resist any encroachment on their turf by the CPUC, so their response, if any, will be interesting to watch. Normally, mobile carriers don’t have much to say to state officials, but since AT&T has to be there anyway, and Sprint and T-Mobile are trying to make nice with the CPUC so they can gain approval for their merger, we might get some meaningful information from them.

“Framework” for telecoms competition in rural telco territories considered by CPUC

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo 2

A rousing and thoroughly disingenuous defence of telecommunications competition doesn’t appear to be enough for Comcast to get permission right now to cherry pick affluent households in Ponderosa Telephone Company’s territory. A pair of California Public Utilities Commission administrative law judges (ALJs) said in a ruling last Friday that even though allowing competitive telecoms companies into the protected service areas of California’s small, rural telcos should be considered on a case by case basis, those decisions should be made within a common framework.

The two ALJs – Mary McKenzie and Hazlyn Fortune – are managing what the CPUC calls a rulemaking proceeding that’s looking at the way California subsidises, and consequently protects, small telephone companies that serve remote and sparse rural communities that aren’t lucrative enough to attract big telecoms service providers. Or at least used to be. As California’s suburbs spread further out from cities, new developments are springing up on farm and ranch land that’s served by rural telcos.

Citing Comcast’s case as an example, they decided that the next step in that process is to establish a general set of rules that will guide future decisions about who should provide telephone service and, in some cases, broadband service in those new communities…

The Commission will first consider adopting general criteria in this Rulemaking as a framework for allowing competition, which will then be evaluated on a case-by-case basis considering local conditions for each individual small [rural telco] service territory where an application is filed by a potential competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) seeking a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN).

Comcast’s request to be allowed to provide telephone service in the upscale Tesoro Viejo development north of Fresno is being handled by another ALJ, Zhen Zhang, in a separate case. In theory, Zhang doesn’t have to wait for McKenzie and Fortune to finish their work, which could take months. In practice, since ALJ’s produce draft decisions for consideration by CPUC commissioners, it would probably be a waste of time to, as Ponderosa described it, put “the cart before the horse”.

Ponderosa Telephone makes its case for blocking Comcast’s bid to cherrypick “high end” households

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo construction 25aug2019

Ponderosa Telephone shot back at Comcast’s claims that no harm would come from its proposed cherry picking of affluent households in a new, high end development outside of Fresno. In comments filed with the California Public Utilities Commission last week, Ponderosa made its case for denying Comcast permission to offer telephone service in its territory. The company argued that if the CPUC wants to change its current policy of protecting small rural telcos from competition, it should do so on a top level basis, and not on case by case requests from a major telecoms company.

Particularly if that telecoms company’s request for special treatment is “disingenuously misleading”.

California has 13 rural telephone companies that serve remote communities. Or in some cases, communities that used to be reckoned as remote, before the arrival of suburban and exurban sprawl. Rural telecoms service can be expensive – miles and miles of lines are needed to reach scattered homes and businesses. Low population density means low revenue density, so to keep telephone service affordable both the CPUC and the Federal Communications Commission back fill rural telco’s budgets with subsidies from universal service funds. To keep the tab for taxpayers as low as possible, the CPUC doesn’t allow competitive telephone companies, or big incumbents who want to exert their monopoly model might, to carve off service areas where the revenue potential is the highest and the need for subsidies is the lowest. If there’s a need at all.

That policy is under review, in a CPUC proceeding that could take years to resolve. Meanwhile, Comcast wants permission to add telephone service – it already can offer broadband and TV service – to newcomers able to afford a home in the (relatively) pricey Tesoro Viejo development, just north of Fresno. That would be costly to taxpayers, Ponderosa said…

Comcast seeks to raid the most profitable consumers in Ponderosa’s service territory. This “cherry-picking” concern by [non-carrier of last resort telcos] operating in [rural telco] territories was a factor that led the Commission to conclude that wireline competition would “leave behind residential, small business, and community anchor institution customers in more scattered and harder to serve areas of the rural carrier’s territory”; “adversely affect the bulk of the hard-to-serve and high cost customers”; and “result in the [small rural telcos] losing revenue and needing to seek a larger draw from the [California High Cost Fund rural subsidy] program.”

Abandoning, or at least substantially modifying, decades-old rural telecoms policy might be necessary, as 21st century digital services replace legacy telephone technology and business models that, in some respects, date back to the 19th century. It needs to be done thoughtfully and carefully, and not on the basis of requests for case by case special treatment by telecoms giants.

Comcast games expiring VoIP regulation ban to win CPUC permission to cherry pick suburbs

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tesoro viejo 25aug2019

Comcast’s sideways pleading for permission to compete against a subsidised rural telephone company demonstrates why it was wise to allow California’s ban on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service regulation to expire. And why Comcast, along with Charter Communications, AT&T and Frontier Communications, handed so much cash offered highly intellectual arguments to California legislators in their failed (so far) attempt to extend the ban.

Ponderosa Telephone Company offers service in the foothills and the Sierra generally north and east of Fresno. It’s one of 13 small telephone companies that serve rural California, and that depend on state and federal universal service subsidies to survive. As Fresno grows, suburban development is creeping into Ponderosa’s service territory. Tesoro Viejo is one such subdivision under construction along State Route 41, just beyond Fresno’s current development limit.

Comcast offers cable television and Internet service in Tesoro Viejo – households and disposable income are now dense enough to meet its return-on-investment objectives in an area it previously ignored. To offer phone service, though, it needs to connect its currently unregulated VoIP facilities to the traditional public telephone network. Comcast wants to do that via a legally isolated subsidiary that was specifically created to operate in that regulated environment, without creating any regulatory inconvenience for the rest of the company.

But that legally isolated subsidiary needs permission to set up shop in Ponderosa’s territory. The California Public Utilities Commission generally doesn’t allow competitors to cherry pick rural phone companies’ most lucrative customers, because it’s worried that doing so would result in ever increasing public subsidies to deliver retail service to poorer and more isolated people that don’t interest the likes of Comcast.

Nevertheless, Comcast asked for special permission to enter Ponderosa’s territory, and the CPUC is considering it. In support, Comcast is now citing the still current ban on VoIP regulation by the CPUC (it doesn’t expire until January) and disingenuously arguing that its regulated subsidiary only provides wholesale phone service, which doesn’t compete against Ponderosa’s retail offerings. The fact that its retail VoIP subsidiary would use that wholesale service to wholeheartedly compete against Ponderosa is irrelevant, Comcast’s argument goes, because it’s unregulated. At least for the present.

The CPUC has an inquiry under way that, eventually, could decide how it will protect, or not, California’s small telephone companies: should it allow competition, and the consumer benefits it brings, in affluent exurbs while spending more subsidy dollars to maintain service in communities with fewer people with less money to spend, or continue to try to maintain economic feasibility and baseline service availability, and minimise public subsidies by fencing off rural service territories?

It’s an important and timely question, not least because the telecoms industry is in the middle of a major, analog-to-digital shift. It’s the sort of technological revolution that only comes along every century or so. The answer should not come in bits and pieces, as major incumbents like Comcast (and AT&T, Charter and the rest) try to game the system with political and legal maneuvers based on irrelevant technological distinctions between otherwise identical services, and with falsehoods and evasions regarding their true intentions.