In May of last year, a woman in Florida added some Latino channels to her Comcast cable TV account. It was priced at around $ 10 a month. But when her bill arrived that summer, she claims, it said she owned more than $ 300, thanks to some equipment she never received and a Latino triple-play service that included voice service with international calling. She called customer service, but they said that they couldn’t explain how the new services were added to her bill—and that they couldn’t authorize a refund. She’d have to talk to the billing department for that. And so began a three hour stay in customer service hell that ultimately ended with her being transferred to a fax machine.
This woman’s story is one of the thousands of allegations examined by the Federal Communications during its two year investigation of Comcast, and one of several cited in a settlement published by the agency on Tuesday. In the aftermath of the investigation, Comcast has agreed to pay a $ 2.3 million fine. That may not sound like much, but according to the FCC, it’s the largest civil penalty it has ever assessed against a cable provider. “It’s bigger than a dollar amount,” says Kate Forscey, an associate counsel for Government Affairs at the digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge. “It’s the agency taking a stand to protect the customers who are being grifted by the cable companies. I hope this won’t’ be a one-off.”
We hope so too. The investigation highlights just how hard it is for customers to get refunds for services they never should have been charged for in the first place. And the rather low fine shows how difficult it is to actually regulate these companies.
Yes and No
The FCC’s rules prohibit Comcast and other companies from charging customers for services they didn’t explicitly sign-up for. In other words, just because you didn’t say “no” to a service or a piece of equipment doesn’t mean your telco can charge you for it. But according the settlement, customers were in some cases charged for services and equipment they did specifically decline. Some customers even claim Comcast reported them to collection agencies while while they were disputing their bills.
The situation brings to mind the recent Wells Fargo scandal, during which employees created unauthorized accounts for customers, in some cases damaging customers’ credit ratings and collecting fees for accounts the customers didn’t even know existed. But Comcast denies any intentional wrongdoing.
“We do not agree with [the FCC’s] legal theory here, and in our view, after two years, it is telling that it found no problematic policy or intentional wrongdoing, but just isolated errors or customer confusion,” the company said in a statement. “We agree those issues should be fixed and are pleased to put this behind us and proceed with these customer service-enhancing changes.”
They Call It Cramming
Indeed, even though the FCC fielded thousands of complaints, that amounts to a small percentage of Comcast’s actual customer base. Telecommunications industry analyst Jan Dawson agrees that it appears that it these particular complaints came from a small subsection of Comcast subscribers, but points out that the practice of adding small fees to customers’ bills has been so common over the years there’s even a name for it: cramming.
Ultimately, it’s not clear how common the problem actually is. “We don’t know the people who didn’t file complaints,” Forscey says. But she believes the number of complains show that these weren’t isolated incidents, rather “a fundamental operation as to how these companies are treating their consumers.”
What’s more, the problem wasn’t just that customers were being billed for services they didn’t sign-up for. It was also ridiculously hard to get those fees reversed, often requiring customers to spend hours on the phone. That sort of thing is certainly in keeping with a the long history of complaints about Comcast that has led to it being ranked at the bottom of 24/7 Wall St.’s annual customer satisfaction poll for seven years in a row.
Keep an Eye Out
In addition to the fees, Comcast has agreed to implement a five year plan to prevent this sort of thing in the future. Under the plan, Comcast will allow customers to “lock” their accounts so new services can’t added, and will refrain from referring disputed charges to collection agencies while the dispute is still under investigation.
But Dawson says we should all still be vigilant. “In any company of sufficient size you’ll always get individuals or managers who bend the rules to try to hit their targets,” he says. “So I’m sure we’ll continue to see at least some examples of this sort of thing going forward.”
So keep an eye on your bill for weird fees.
In the future, we’ll all need a faster connection to the Internet. We’ll need more bandwidth for streaming high-definition video, strolling through virtual worlds, and, well, doing things no one has even thought of yet. But Google worries that Internet service providers won’t give us all the bandwidth we’ll need. So it’s taking matters into its own hands.
Several years ago, it unveiled Google Fiber, providing ultra-high-speed Internet connections to home and businesses in certain select cities. This redefined notions of how fast our Internet speeds should be, and in some cases, it significantly increased competition among service providers. But Google has been slow to push the service into new places. And the fact of the matter is that most people are still stuck with much slower connections. So, in order to accelerate this revolution, Google is turning to wireless technologies.
Today, the fastest Internet connections arrive via wire line. Your home connection is faster than the connection to your mobile phone. But Google is exploring a different breed of wireless that could provide a way of more rapidly pushing high-speed connections into homes and offices across the country.
Earlier this year, officials in Kansas City approved a Google plan to place experimental wireless antennas on the city’s light poles so that the company could expand its network of Internet connections without tapping into wire lines. And a new document, first spotted by Business Insider, reveals that Google is planning to expand those experiments into other cities, including Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; and Provo, Utah. The document signals that Google is serious about delivering Internet over the 3.5GHz radio spectrum, a swath of spectrum that the FCC opened up for broadband use last year.
All this is part of much larger effort to accelerate the evolution of our Internet connections. Google recently acquired an Internet service provider that was exploring similar technology, and Facebook is building new wireless antennas that can not speed up our Internet connections and even them into new places.
The fiber-optic wire line pipes required to deliver Google Fiber style gigabit Internet connections are already available across much of the country. The problem is that it’s very expensive to connect those backbone pipes to people’s homes and offices—the so-called “last mile” of an Internet connection. This often involves digging up people’s yards, or even tearing up streets and sidewalks.
In Kansas City, the first place Google Fiber offered its service, Google was able to cut its deployment costs by negotiating deals to run its cables along existing utility lines. But the company hasn’t had as much luck gaining access to utility poles in other cities. For example, AT&T sued to prevent Google Fiber from accessing its utility poles in Louisville, Kentucky.
That could be a big part of why Google appears to be shifting its focus to wireless technologies, which, in theory, should be much cheaper to deploy and could eventually offer speeds that are competitive with fixed line fiber optic connections. Google Fiber recently delayed its plans to deploy fiber in Silicon Valley and Portland, Oregon, and is reportedly considering offering wireless Internet access instead.
Meanwhile, Google recently acquired an Internet provider called WebPass. WebPass already uses wireless back haul in providing high-speed connections to apartment buildings in San Francisco. And through its partnership with a company called Artemis Networks, it could one day offer something more radical. Artemis has been working on something called pCell networks, which could improve bandwidth further still.
Unlike Google, Facebook doesn’t seem interested in becoming an Internet service provider. But it’s still investing heavily in technologies that aim to improve Internet access. Earlier this year, the company unveiled an ambitious plan to build new types of antennas and other wireless technologies and give the designs away freely to telcos. This includes ARIES, which the company hopes will be used to beam Internet access into hard to reach rural areas, and Terragraph, which is designed to help improve WiFi and cellular coverage in cities.
Of course, the world won’t depend entirely on wireless Internet. Both companies are heavily investing in undersea cables, and Google’s parent company Alphabet is also trenching pipe for Internet connections in Ghana. But when it comes to the last mile, both companies envision a wireless future.
You don’t need us to tell you that Comcast has a bad reputation when it comes to customer service. For seven years in a row Comcast ranked at the bottom of 24/7 Wall St.’s annual customer satisfaction poll. Now the company’s business practices may land it in court.
This week Washington state filed a $ 100 million lawsuit against Comcast, accusing the company of 1.8 million violations of the the state’s Consumer Protection Act. The state isn’t suing Comcast for bad customer service per se, but for the sorts of misleading claims and practices that have given Comcast such a poor public image. (Comcast denies any wrongdoing.)
The state’s biggest grievance appears to be Comcast’s $ 4.99-per-month “Service Protection Plan,” which Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson’s office calls “near-worthless.” According to the lawsuit, Comcast promoted the plan as a single-fee program that would cover all service calls, including those that involved in-wall wiring. The catch? Any work on “wires concealed within walls requiring wall fishing” was excluded, an exception the suit says meant customers would still have to pay for most in-wall service calls.
“The plan does not, in fact, cover the vast majority of inside wiring,” the Ferguson’s announcement alleges, adding that customer service scripts given to Comcast representatives deliberately misled customers.
The service’s limitations are now spelled out on the Comcast’s website, but the state claims those changes were made only recently “on the verge of this litigation.” According to the suit, Comcast not only buried the exceptions to the plan in the fine print but failed to give customers a copy of the fine print, or even tell them that the fine print exists.
Comcast disputes that the plan was misleading, saying it covered more than 99 percent of customers’ repair calls. “We worked with the Attorney General’s office to address every issue they raised, and we made several improvements based on their input,” Comcast said in a statement. The company said it was disappointed the attorney general’s office had chosen to sue instead of continuing to work with Comcast. “We stand behind our products and services and will vigorously defend ourselves.”
This isn’t the first time that Ferguson has gone after a telco over deceptive advertising. In 2013, the attorney general’s investigation into T-Mobile concluded that the mobile service provider’s ads promising “no contracts” mislead customers. T-Mobile settled with the state by adding disclaimers about the consequences of canceling your T-Mobile service before you’ve paid off your phone. This time around, Ferguson is looking for more than just a few disclaimers. The lawsuit seeks to have customers’ service call fees refunded and their credit scores revised. (Along with the allegedly misleading service plans, the lawsuit also claims that Comcast damaged customers’ credit scores by running unauthorized credit checks.)
Maybe none of this will make your wait time faster during your next call to Comcast. But it just might make the company take a harder look at its scripts it provides its customer service reps. Bad customer service may not be a crime. But it sure feels like an injustice.
Google Fiber is about to come to five more cities, thanks to a new acquisition. But it might not work the same way the high-speed fiber optic Internet service does elsewhere.
On Wednesday, the San Francisco-based Internet service provider Webpass announced that Google Fiber has agreed to buy the company. Webpass primarily offers what it calls “point-to-point wireless” service to businesses, apartment buildings and condos in five metropolitan areas—San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Boston, and Miami. What this means is that Webpass beams Internet to a fixed antenna on the building, and then runs data cables into each unit. From the end-user’s perspective, the connection is simply a traditional ethernet port like you’d find in corporate offices or dorm rooms.
Webpass advertises connections as fast 1Gps–the same speed as Google Fiber—for either $ 550 per year or $ 65 per month for the 1Gbps service. Landlords can also opt to pay for the service and offer it as an amenity to residents. That’s less than Google charges for the same speed: a 1Gbps fixed-line fiber optic service goes for about $ 80 a month. A Google Fiber spokesperson says that Webpass’s pricing and branding will remain the same after the acquisition.
The Webpass approach differs from Google’s Fiber’s usual model, which involves running fiber optic cables to customers’ homes. But earlier this year Google Fiber began testing wireless Internet service in Kansas City in an attempt to cut the costs of deploying high-speed connections. And this spring Google Fiber announced that it would offer service to select San Francisco apartments and condos, so this move seems to fit well with that strategy. “Joining Google Fiber will be a great development for our users because the companies share the same vision of the future and commitment to the customer,” Webpass president Charles Barr wrote on the Webpass blog. “Google Fiber’s resources will enable Webpass to grow faster and reach many more customers than we could as a standalone company.”
Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but according to Barr’s post, the acquisition should close this summer.
This isn’t the first time Google Fiber has acquired an existing provider. In 2013 the company acquired the Provo, Utah fiber-optic network iProvo. But it does represent a shift in the company’s overall strategy, away from building entirely new infrastructure. If Google Fiber is serious about becoming a nationwide Internet provider to rival Comcast, Verizon and Charter, more acquisitions will surely follow.
Google Fiber is finally coming to San Francisco, but only for a select few. Today the company announced that it will make its high-speed internet service available to San Francisco apartments, condos, and affordable housing properties where fiber optic cables are already available.
The announcement echoes Monday’s news that Google Fiber will bring its service to Huntsville, Alabama, where it will license the city-owned fiber optic infrastructure and share that infrastructure with other providers. “By using existing fiber to connect some apartments and condos, as we’ve done before, we can bring service to residents more quickly,” Google Fiber director of business operations Michael Slinger said.
“This approach will allow us to serve a portion of San Francisco, complementing the City’s ongoing efforts to bring abundant, high-speed Internet to the City by the Bay.”
Although San Francisco is generally seen as a tech city—THE tech city, really—it’s a bit late the the Google Fiber party. The service is already available in Kansas City; Austin, Texas; Provo, Utah and Atlanta, Georgia. Many other cities, including San Antonio and Nashville, have also been slated for Fiber.
This isn’t the first time Google has tried to offer Internet in San Francisco, which for a tech hub can be notoriously resistant to change. In 2007, Google and Earthlink proposed a city-wide WiFi service to San Francisco that ultimately fizzled. Let’s just hope its plans for Google Fiber work out better.
The good news: the European Union has passed regulations to protect so-called network neutrality in all 28 of its member states. The bad news: the legislation contains loopholes that could allow “Internet fast lanes”—the very preferential treatment that net neutrality is supposed to restrict.
As the name suggests, the Telecoms Single Market legislation is meant to establish a single telecommunications market for all of Europe. The regulations, which have been debated for over two years, also include provisions that prohibit most roaming fees by mobile carriers and ban most forms of traffic discrimination by Internet service providers. But critics find protections for both net neutrality and against roaming fees too weak.
Estelle Masse, a policy analyst for the the Internet freedom advocacy group Access Now, says that the legislation allows Internet service providers and mobile carriers not to charge for certain types of a data—a practice called “zero rating.” The organization also worries about over-broad language that would allow providers to charge varying rates for “specialized services.” The fear is that this could provide “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for certain types of content, such as streaming video, or give companies whose data services are zero-rated an unfair advantage over others.
Julia Reda, a member of the European Parliament representing the Pirate Party, argued in a statement today that even the roaming protections are too weak because they will still allow carriers to apply roaming fees if a customer exceeds certain undefined limits.
Network neutrality advocates sought to close the loopholes with a pair of amendments. Today, however, European lawmakers, eager to have the regulations in place, passed the rules without the amendments.
But all is not lost for network neutrality advocates. Masse notes in a blog post today that the passage of the legislation opens a nine month “consultation period” during which regulators will hammer out the new rules in more detail. That creates an opportunity to close those loopholes once and for all.
Move over Salisbury, North Carolina. Another city is getting a blistering 10 gigabit fiber Internet service. Say hello to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Today the Chattanooga Electric Power Board, the city-owned power utility, says that it is now offering 10 gigabit connections—nearly 1,000 faster than the average broadband connection in the US—to every business and residence in the city for about $ 300 a month. It will also offer three and five gigabit speed connections in addition its existing one gigabit service.
Chattanooga was one of the first cities to bypass large commercial Internet service providers and start offering city-run gigabit-speed fiber services for its citizens back in 2008—about five years before Google Fiber brought comparable speeds to Kansas City.
Commercial providers naturally hate these sorts of government-funded initiatives—known as municipal broadband—and have fought to pass laws to prohibit them in many states. Comcast, for example, unsuccessfully sued the Chattanooga Electric Power Board in 2008 in an attempt to block the network’s funding. But the legal tide has been turning, and commercial providers are slowly beginning to actually try to compete. Earlier this year Comcast announced that Chattanooga would be among the first cities in which it would sell its new $ 300-per-month two-gigabit Internet service.
It’s hard to see the new 10 gigabit service as anything more than an attempt to not be outdone by Comcast. Few home users will be able to take advantage of that much bandwidth, but schools and other large organizations could see a real benefit.
At the same time, there’s something bigger at work. Municipal broadband providers are raising expectations nationwide for what good Internet service means, forcing commercial providers to improve their infrastructure. And by increasing the amount of bandwidth available, they could be setting the stage for the creation of new, more bandwidth-hungry applications. This is how better service goes from a “nice-to-have” to a “you’d-better-have” for the country’s recalcitrant cable companies.
Google Fiber announced today that it’s considering bringing its ultra high-speed internet service to three more cities: Irvine, California; Louisville, Kentucky; and San Diego.
The company will work with local leaders in each city during the coming months to reach its decision. At the same time, Google Fiber is still considering bringing the its service to Portland, Oregon; Phoenix; and San Jose, California, a spokesperson said.
Google Fiber is already available in the Kansas City metro area; Provo, Utah; and Austin, Texas. Earlier this year the company announced plans to expand into Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, and Nashville.
Google Fiber is one of the entities being spun out of Google as an independent business under the new holding company Alphabet as part of a reorganization announced last month.