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Charter charges more money for slower Internet on streets with no competition

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A Charter Spectrum service truck on a snowy street.

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum service truck in McKinney, Texas, on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

It's no surprise that cable companies charge lower prices for broadband when they face competition from fiber-to-the-home services. But an article yesterday by Stop the Cap provides a good example of how dramatically promotional prices for Charter's Spectrum Internet service can vary from one street to the next.

In this example, Charter charges $20 more per month for slower speeds on the street where it faces no serious competition. When customers in two areas purchase the same speeds, the customer on the street without competition could have to pay $40 more per month and would have their promotional rates expire after only one year instead of two.

Stop the Cap said it examined promotional offers to new customers in the metro Rochester, New York, market, "where Spectrum faces token competition from Frontier's slow speed DSL service" and more robust competition in limited areas from Greenlight Networks' fiber service. Greenlight fiber is available in 23 percent of Rochester, while Charter cable is available to homes throughout the city, according to BroadbandNow. Greenlight prices start at $50 per month for 500Mbps.

"Charter's offers are address-sensitive," Stop the Cap founder Phillip Dampier wrote. "The cable company knows its competition and almost exactly where those competitors offer service. That is why the company asks for your service address before it quotes you pricing."

Dampier found that Charter offers 200Mbps service for $50 a month "[i]n neighborhoods where Spectrum enjoys a broadband monopoly." Charter charges $70 for 400Mbps service in those same competition-free neighborhoods.

But "[j]ust one street away, where Greenlight offers customers the option of gigabit speed over a fiber-to-the-home network, Spectrum's promotional prices are quite different," Dampier wrote. On the competitive street, Charter charges only $30 a month for the same 400Mbps service that costs $70 nearby. As previously noted, customers on the noncompetitive street have to pay $50 for 200Mbps.

"Spectrum does not even bother offering new customers its entry-level 200Mbps plan in areas where it has significant fiber competition," Dampier noted, referring to the promotional offers that pop up when you type in an address. "For $20 less per month, you get double that speed."

For gigabit-download service, Charter charges $90 a month on the competitive street versus $110 on the noncompetitive street. These are the base prices without fees and taxes. Stop the Cap's article included these screenshots from Charter's promotional offers:

Longer price guarantee on competitive street

Charter also offers to lock in the monthly rate for two years in the competitive area, compared to just one year in the noncompetitive area. Prices can rise dramatically once promotional deals expire, so locking in a price for 24 instead of 12 months ensures that customers on competitive streets save even more money in the long run.

And that's not all. Charter "charges a hefty $199.99 compulsory installation fee for gigabit service in noncompetitive neighborhoods. Where fiber competition exists, sometimes just a street away, that installation fee plummets to just $49.99," Dampier wrote.

He added:

Note similar pricing variability exists in Spectrum service areas around the country, with the most aggressively priced offers reserved for addresses also served by a fiber-to-the-home provider or multiple competitors (e.g., cable company, phone company, Google Fiber or other [competitor]). Current customers typically have to cancel existing service and sign up as a new customer to get these prices.

Cable-company pricing varies widely, so the price difference between competitive and noncompetitive areas may be lower elsewhere. But the price differences show how valuable competition is to broadband subscribers.

Greenlight charges $50 per month for 500Mbps service, $75 for 750Mbps, $100 for 1Gbps, and $200 for 2Gbps. The company charges a $100 installation fee. It doesn't offer promotional prices, so there isn't a big automatic price hike after a set period like there is with many major ISPs.

Charter says it uses a “common” pricing strategy

When contacted by Ars, Charter said that "Spectrum Internet retail prices, speeds, and features are consistent in each market—regardless of the competitive environment." But "retail prices" are the standard rates customers pay after promotional rates expire. Stop the Cap showed that Charter's promotional rates vary between competitive and noncompetitive areas.

Charter told Ars that its promotional offers are affected by several factors, including "location."

"Any promotional offers available to new customers are time-limited and vary based on a number of factors, such as time of year, location and programming, or device opportunities, and testing different promotional offers concurrently is common in a subscription business," Charter said.

This isn't the first time we've written about major Internet providers offering lower prices in competitive areas. In 2015, we noted that AT&T was charging $40 more per month for gigabit service in cities without Google Fiber.

Charter has over 27 million residential Internet subscribers in 41 states, making it the second-largest home-Internet provider in the US after Comcast.

Charter far behind Greenlight on upload speed

Price isn't the only factor that a customer might consider when choosing between Greenlight and Charter. As a fiber provider, Greenlight offers far higher upload speeds than Charter's cable network.

Charter's upload speeds max out at 35Mbps, while Greenlight's start at 50Mbps. Greenlight currently lists upload speeds as being 10 percent of download speeds, so the 500Mbps-download plan has 50Mbps uploads, and the 2Gbps plan has 200Mbps uploads. But Greenlight plans to make its speeds symmetrical like other fiber providers do.

"In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are upgrading upload speeds for orders in Serviceable Greenlight Districts at no additional charge. Your upload speed will match your download speed (500/500, 750/750, 1000/1000, 2000/2000.)," the company's website says.

Charter's upload speeds start at only 4Mbps. Its 200Mbps download plan comes with 10Mbps upload speeds, and the 400Mbps download plan comes with 20Mbps upload speeds. You have to buy Charter's gigabit-download plan to get its highest upload speeds of 35Mbps, slower than Greenlight's lowest upload rate. Despite years of promising higher upload speeds through upgrades to cable's DOCSIS standard, Charter and other cable companies still lag far behind fiber in upload capabilities.

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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rascalking
170 days ago
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Solving The Vaccine Data Problem

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VaccinateCA, the non-profit I have been running, expanded nationally to Vaccinate The States. Here's what we've learned in the last 100 days.
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rascalking
221 days ago
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Judge upholds Boston School Committee on alternative way to select students for exam schools this year

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A federal judge ruled today that the Boston School Committee can proceed with selecting students for the city's three exam schools via a formula based on grade point average and Zip codes, rather than using GPAs and the traditional entrance exams.

US District Court Judge William Young said the new method, enacted due to the difficulties of giving multiple-choice tests in the middle of a pandemic, was not racially biased.

This Court finds and rules that the Plan is race-neutral, and that neither the factors used nor the goal of greater diversity qualify as a racial classification.

BPS had initially hoped to begin sending out acceptance letters to families today for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O'Bryant School.

Young's ruling come in a suit brought by a group of White and Asian-American parents, mostly in West Roxbury, who contended the new method, in which the top 20% of students sent acceptance letters would be chosen citywide by GPA, with the rest based on their GPA by Zip code, starting with the city's poorest districts, was not discriminatory against their children.

Young noted the plan, approved by the School Committee in October, does not use explicit racial designations to select potential candidates for seats at the three schools and so is "facially race neutral," and that while the School Committee obviously considered the issue of racial equity in its deliberations, by itself that only recognizes the reality of Boston demographics, not an explicit decision to bias the selection process against Whites and Asian-Americans.

In fact, he criticized the parents' filings for their "cavalier interpretations" of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal-protection doctrine.

Without question, some statements raise cause for concern. The statement within the Equity Planning Tool, for example, about a hard pivot away from equality and towards equity simply has no support in the Equal Protection jurisprudence of the Supreme Court. Had this Plan unconstitutionally substituted equality of result for equality of opportunity along racial lines, this Court would not hesitate to strike it down.

But that is not what happened here.

He continued that, if anything, the School Committee took another tack: That while it did consider race, the plan it approved also accomplished another goal having nothing directly to do with race, to ensure that students get into the schools from all neighborhoods and economic classes.

Apparently well counseled, the School Committee considered diversity and developed its Plan within the permissible framework of the Supreme Court precedent. Despite its goal of greater "racial, socioeconomic and geographic diversity [better to reflect the diversity of] all students (K-12)," the Plan principally anchors itself to geographic diversity by equally apportioning seats to the City's zip codes according to the criterion of the zip code's percentage of the City's school-age children. ... The Plan similarly anchors itself to socioeconomic diversity by ordering the zip codes within each round by their median family income. The Plan is devoid, however, of any anchor to race.

Viewing everything through the prism of race is both myopic and endlessly divisive. Geographic and socioeconomic diversity are appropriate educational goals in their own right, regardless of race. ... They are not mere shibboleths or surrogates for racial balancing. Indeed, Boston's richly varied cultural heritage, see, e.g., Mark Peterson, The City-State of Boston (Princeton Univ. Press 2019), makes it all the more appropriate to draw the Exam Schools' entering class from every corner of the City. Likewise, putting the poorest neighborhoods first in the draw is a bold attempt to address America's caste system.

The School Committee's goal of a more racially representative student body, although more often discussed and analyzed, did not commandeer the Plan, and it in fact necessarily took a back seat to the Plan's other goals, which the Plan more aptly achieved. Consequently, any effect on the racial diversity of the Exam Schools is merely derivative of the Plan's effect on geographic and socioeconomic diversity -- not the reverse.

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rascalking
229 days ago
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Here's hoping they can make this change permanent, and get rid of the exams for good.
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"Fortunately this is not a metaphor for anything on our Earth!"

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rascalking
241 days ago
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Imagine if the Blue Line had been extended to Brighton

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Vanshnookenraggen maps every single Boston-area subway expansion proposal since the 1890s - some of which got built, and some, like extending what is now the Blue Line from downtown to Brighton, didn't.

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rascalking
251 days ago
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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system

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An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. "Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels," Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast's network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation's largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn't exist. Comcast's 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast's online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking "pricing & other info" and "view plan details" links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn't reveal upload speeds.

Even after adding a plan to the cart and going through most of the checkout process, I could not find any mention of upload speeds. I got to the point where you have to enter credit card information to continue, so I initially stopped there. I later confirmed that Comcast's ordering system will show upload speeds after it checks whether your credit card is valid, in the final page where you submit an order.

Deliberately keeping customers in the dark

I've long known that it's difficult to find upload speeds on Comcast's website, but I'm not sure exactly when it became virtually impossible. There were complaints about this very problem on Comcast's customer support forums in 2020 and in 2019, though. "What is my upload speed now? No where in the world can I find documentation," one customer asked. The answer was that existing customers can find upload speeds for their own plan in their account settings after logging in and navigating to the correct section.

But that does not help people who are signing up for service and want to find out what upload speeds they'll get or compare upload speeds of different plans. Even the Xfinity.com comparison tool that lets you compare details of different plans doesn't reveal their upload speeds. The absence of upload speeds from Comcast's website is so thorough that it is clearly a deliberate attempt to keep customers in the dark. This gallery shows how the Comcast Xfinity website displays Internet plans without mentioning upload speeds and continues that tactic through nearly the entire checkout process:

Thankfully, the third-party website CableTV.com lists both download and upload speeds, showing that Comcast's 25Mbps download plan comes with 3Mbps uploads; the 100Mbps and 200Mbps download plans both have 5Mbps uploads; the 300Mbps download plan has 10Mbps uploads; the 600Mbps plan has 15Mbps uploads; and the 1Gbps download (1.2Gbps in some areas) comes with 35Mbps:

Comcast's website does list the 35Mbps upload speeds for the gigabit plan at this page, but I couldn't find anything similar for Comcast's other cable-Internet plans. Comcast also offers a fiber-to-the-home service with 2Gbps speeds both downstream and upstream. But Comcast's residential fiber requires installation charges of up to $500, and the service costs $300 a month, which is more than three times as much as the gigabit-cable plan that has 35Mbps downloads.

Comcast, why did you make this so hard?

I contacted Comcast today with two primary questions: is there any way to find upload speeds on Comcast's website before submitting an order for Internet service, and does Comcast have any plans to raise its cable upload speeds?

Comcast's answer on where to find upstream speeds was as follows:

Our network report shows that, despite the growth in upstream traffic in 2020, patterns remain highly asymmetrical as downstream volumes were 14x higher than upstream throughout 2020. Our website reflects the way customers use the Internet with downstream overwhelmingly dominating usage, but upstream speeds are included in your cart and are visible upon check out when you submit your order.

Despite Comcast claiming that "upstream speeds are included in your cart," I could find no evidence of this. Adding a Comcast Internet plan to the cart and then clicking the cart icon brought me to an ordering page that does not mention upload speeds. I confirmed this behavior on Xfinity.com in both Chrome and Safari.

I circled back to the Comcast spokesperson and asked what exact steps I need to take to make upload speeds show up in the cart. It turns out the upload speeds never show up in the cart at all unless you define "cart" to include the entire ordering process. Comcast told us the upload speeds will finally appear "when you are at the step when you review your order."

Despite my earlier reluctance to enter my credit card information for service I am not ordering, I finally did so to check whether this is accurate. I submitted my address, phone number, and credit card information, and I clicked "Next." This triggered a step in which Comcast's system checked to see whether I had entered a valid credit card. I accidentally entered a recently expired card number, so Comcast's system "declined" my card and made me re-enter it. After I entered a card number that Comcast could charge, I finally got to this page, where the 300Mbps download-plan's 10Mbps upload speeds are shown:

At this page, with Comcast having already verified your card, you can view upload speeds and decide whether to submit the order or exit the ordering system. The part of Comcast's statement that upload speeds are "visible upon check out when you submit your order" is thus accurate. But refusing to tell a prospective customer what they're paying for until after they submit credit card information is simply ridiculous. You can probably get upload speeds earlier by asking a Comcast rep in an online chat or phone call, but that shouldn't be necessary.

No plan to raise upload speeds

Comcast did confirm to us that the upload speeds listed on CableTV.com are accurate. As for whether Comcast will increase those upload speeds any time soon, the company told us it has no plans to do so at the moment. "Over the years, we have consistently increased both upstream and downstream speeds," Comcast said. "We offer a wide range of Internet service tiers with upstream speeds up to 2 Gig and will continue to evaluate usage, but [we have] nothing to announce about increases to our upstream speeds at this time."

Comcast said in its new report that, in just four months during 2020, "Comcast's network experienced almost 2 years worth of traffic growth." That's obviously pushing more people over the 1.2TB monthly data cap enforced by Comcast in most states, but Comcast says it has plenty of capacity to spare.

"Throughout 2020, Comcast continued to deliver above-advertised speeds to customers across the country, including in areas most affected by COVID-19," Comcast's report boasted. "The remarkable performance of the network during this time can be attributed to outstanding work by engineering and care teams, key technology innovations, and billions of dollars in strategic investment for many years before the pandemic began."

Cable industry hasn’t delivered promised upgrades

The cable industry has been promising faster uploads for years without delivering, leaving cable upload speeds far behind those offered by fiber-to-the-home providers. Cable companies and lobbyists have hyped upgrades to DOCSIS, the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification used by the cable industry to provide Internet access over coaxial cables, saying new versions would bring gigabit-plus upload speeds.

Here's how we described the situation in a previous article about Cox lowering upload speeds:

A "full duplex" update to DOCSIS 3.1 that was finalized late in 2017 was supposed to bring download and upload speeds of 10Gbps. The cable industry unveiled a "10G" marketing campaign in January 2019 to boast of the 10Gbps speeds that would soon hit field trials.

Even the DOCSIS 3.1 specification released in 2013 theoretically allows 10Gbps downloads and 1Gbps upload speeds. It does take a few years for network-hardware vendors to build and certify modems and then for cable companies to upgrade networks. But even now, cable ISPs offer upload speeds that are pitiful compared to fiber.

Comcast in October 2020 announced a "technical milestone" that can deliver gigabit-plus download and upload speeds over existing cable wires. But the technology has only been deployed in testing, and even the Comcast gigabit cable plan available to customers today still only offers 35Mbps upload speeds.

Upload bandwidth is not irrelevant

Comcast's 2020 network report discussed percentage increases in overall Internet traffic without saying how much data is being used by Comcast customers. But we have stats on the US broadband industry thanks to a recent report from OpenVault, a vendor that sells a data-usage tracking platform that ISPs use to enforce data caps.

"Average upstream bandwidth usage in December 2020 reached 31GB, representing 63 percent growth over 2019," OpenVault said. The growth in upstream usage was "particularly noteworthy for network operators who are challenged with managing upstream bandwidth on their network."

Average usage in Q4 2020 including both downloads and uploads was 482.6GB, a 40 percent year-over-year increase, OpenVault said. While uploading still represents a small percentage of residential broadband use, possibly due in part to the upload-speed limits imposed by cable operators, both Comcast and OpenVault found that upload usage is growing faster than download usage.

Trying to find Comcast's upload speeds today was a frustrating exercise for me even though I wasn't purchasing Internet service. For customers, it's much more exasperating. Upload speeds are more important for some customers than others, of course, but Comcast treats upload speeds as if users shouldn't even care about them. One customer asked in a Comcast community forum in August 2020, "Is Comcast under the impression that customers only need to download data and upload bandwidth is irrelevant (like for WFH video calls, hello!). Please tell me how to get this info and better yet, update every plan info with upload speeds."

No one answered the question.

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rascalking
272 days ago
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This bit me when I switched from fios a couple years ago. I assumed a 300mb plan would have decent upload speed, but nope, just 10mb.
Wakefield, MA
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