Jon Brodkin

Survey says: Comcast, Time Warner Cable customers are still the angriest

Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the most hated companies in each of the three "triple play" markets where they operate, according to an American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report being released.

The two cable companies, which are attempting to merge, ranked second-to-last and last in the Internet service market as well as the subscription TV and fixed-line telephone service markets, the ACSI found. Comcast and TWC also fared poorly in 2013 but cemented their places at the bottom in 2014 by dropping significantly in customer satisfaction.

"Time Warner Cable lags behind the entire industry following its second consecutive yearly decline, down seven percent to an all-time low of 56 [on the ACSI's 100-point scale]," the ACSI report said. "The combination of low and downward-trending customer satisfaction for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable is cause for concern amid merger talks between the two companies. The issue at stake is not that the proposed merger will limit competition, as the service territories of the two companies do not overlap. Instead, it is the question of whether a combination of two pay-TV providers with such poor records could possibly create a better customer experience, especially given the volume of evidence from ACSI data suggesting that mergers in service industries tend to damage satisfaction -- at least in the short term."

Moreover, they're the worst-rated companies in the most hated industries. The ACSI averages the results of its customer interviews to create indexes for more than 40 industries. Subscription TV service and Internet service ranked last, and fixed telephone service was in the bottom 10 along with health insurance.

Wi-Fi networks are wasting a gigabit -- but multi-user beamforming will save the day

Wi-Fi equipment based on the new 802.11ac standard -- often called Gigabit Wi-Fi -- has been on the market for nearly two years. These products offer greater bandwidth and other improvements over gear based on the older 802.11n specification, but they don’t implement one of the most impressive features of 11ac.

It was simply too complicated to deploy all the upgrades at once, hardware makers say. As a result, 11ac networks actually waste a lot of capacity when serving devices like smartphones and tablets. This shortcoming should be fixed with new networking equipment and upgrades to end-user devices.

Once everything is in place, Wi-Fi networks will be better able to serve lots of devices at once, particularly the mobile devices that every single person in the US seemingly has in his or her hands every minute of the day. The soon-to-be-deployed technology is called MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple-input and multiple-output), which is like a wireless "switch" that sends different data to different receivers at the same time.

It's powered by multi-user beamforming, an improvement over the single-user beamforming found in first-generation 11ac products. MU-MIMO will let wireless access points send data streams of up to 433Mbps to at least three users simultaneously, for a total of 1.3Gbps or more. Large-scale Wi-Fi deployments could include hundreds of access points sending signals to thousands of devices.

As such, they have to efficiently handle roaming and coordinate channel assignment, all while doing it automatically without forcing IT shops to do extra configuration. These features are what “make large-scale Wi-Fi feel like the Wi-Fi in your home,” Gast said.

It’s not a “fast lane” but Comcast built a CDN to charge for video delivery

Comcast is now competing against content delivery networks (CDNs) such as Akamai with a new service that can improve delivery of video to Comcast subscribers in exchange for payment.

"This new offering allows content owners to go directly to the ISP and have their content stored and delivered via the last mile, thereby displacing some traffic currently delivered by third-party CDNs like Akamai and Limelight Networks," well-connected industry analyst Dan Rayburn reported. "While this is the same type of CDN service that other commercial CDNs like Akamai already offer, Comcast can offer a very good SLA since they are a last mile provider."

The service will let Web content companies "bypass network middlemen and deliver their services directly to Comcast Internet customers," The Information article said. Despite making an argument that it would be allowed to offer “paid prioritization,” Comcast has said it doesn't intend to offer fast lanes. And the new CDN service is not a fast lane, Rayburn told Ars.

AT&T claims to embrace net neutrality but could still offer “fast lanes”

AT&T offered to follow the Federal Communications Commission's old network neutrality rules for three years if the government approves its acquisition of DirecTV.

Even though the FCC's 2010 Open Internet Order was largely overturned by a federal appeals court, AT&T said its merger with DirecTV would come with a "continued commitment for three years after closing to the FCC's Open Internet protections established in 2010, irrespective of whether the FCC re-establishes such protections for other industry participants following the DC Circuit Court of Appeals vacating those rules."

But AT&T hasn't said exactly how it interprets those rules. Judging by statements made by Comcast, AT&T could argue that the 2010 rules allow the controversial Internet "fast lanes" in which Web services pay Internet service providers for priority access to consumers over the network's last mile.

Wireless carriers again avoid strict rule against blocking apps

The Federal Communications Commission asked a lot of questions in its latest network neutrality order. One of them is whether the commission should start treating fixed broadband and cellular Internet as one and the same for the purposes of no-blocking and anti-discrimination rules.

But for now, the commission is continuing the course it's taken previously by treating fixed and wireless Internet differently. Like the 2010 Open Internet Order that was largely struck down by a federal appeals court ruling, the latest Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) lays out rules for ISPs to follow on disclosing network practices, blocking applications and websites, and discriminating against Internet services.

But cellular carriers such as Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile face less strict rules than fixed (e.g. wired) Internet providers, allowing them to block applications that don't compete against their telephony services.

The FCC doesn’t have to authorize Internet fast lanes -- they’re already legal

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler repeatedly said that his network neutrality proposal doesn’t authorize Internet fast lanes.

“This proposal does not provide or mandate paid prioritization,” he said to reporters after the FCC’s vote. “There is nothing in this proposal that authorizes a fast lane. We ask questions but don’t jump to conclusions.”

So has everyone who called this a “fast lane” proposal gotten the story wrong? Not exactly. As Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said during the meeting, there are no rules at all against Internet service providers blocking traffic or prioritizing some content over others. That’s because a federal appeals court in 2014 overturned the FCC’s previous net neutrality order, issued in 2010.

While the FCC’s latest proposal doesn’t specifically authorize fast lanes, it didn’t have to: they’re already legal. ISPs can charge Web services like Netflix (“edge providers” in regulatory parlance) for a faster path to consumers over the last mile of the network because there aren’t any enforceable rules against it. The important thing is that the proposal apparently doesn’t ban fast lanes.

Mad at the FCC? Use this code to create your own “slow lane” on the Web

The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote on a controversial "fast lane" proposal, and it's inspired a bunch of people to protest by slowing down their own websites.

Recently, a Web hosting company called Neocities throttled its home page, and MaxCDN gave customers the option of doing the same -- but this only slowed websites down for people connecting from an FCC IP address. Now, there's an easy way to throttle your website for everyone who visits.

Venture capitalist Brad Feld just announced the project. There's a Stop The Slow Lane page and a small bit of code on GitHub that inserts the "slow lane" widget on a website.

"The FCC could soon let Internet providers charge websites to access a bogus 'fast lane' and slow down every site that doesn't pay," Feld wrote. "Do you want a slower Internet? Neither do we. Show the world what the FCC's 'slow lane' looks like by embedding the #StopTheSlowLane Widget on your site!"

Comcast plans data caps for all customers in 5 years, could be 500GB

A Comcast executive said he expects the company will roll out "usage-based billing" -- what most people call "data caps" -- to all of its customers within five years.

Speaking with investors, Comcast Executive VP David Cohen said, "I would predict that in five years Comcast at least would have a usage-based billing model rolled out across its footprint."

Comcast, which has about 20 million broadband customers, has rolled out caps to some of the areas that it serves, including Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta, and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tenessee; and Charleston, South Carolina.

Customers generally get 300GB of data per month, with $10 charges for each extra 50GB. (During the trial period, customers can exceed the cap for three months out of any 12-month period without incurring extra fees.)

Comcast told Ars last November that "98 percent of our customers nationally don’t use 300GB/month." Cohen said that Comcast will raise the limit over time so that the large majority of users won't go over it, suggesting that 500GB is a possible monthly limit by 2019.

Netflix’s many-pronged plan to eliminate video playback problems

For all of Netflix’s complaints about Internet service providers harming video performance, one of the company’s top technology experts is confident that the streaming company can solve most of its customers’ problems. }

The best-known parts of Open Connect are probably the storage boxes that Internet service providers can take into their own networks to bring content closer to consumers. Internet service providers (ISPs) can also peer with Netflix, exchanging traffic directly without hosting Netflix equipment.

But these aren’t the only ways Netflix’s Open Connect technology can deliver good quality. Netflix used to use third-party CDNs such as Akamai, but it has moved most of its traffic over to Open Connect in the past couple of years.

Outside the US, 100 percent of Netflix traffic is distributed using Open Connect equipment. The percentage is in the “high 90s” in the US, with plans to hit 100 percent this summer. Even if the storage boxes aren’t inside an ISP’s network, they’re not too far away. They could even be in the same data centers, the Internet exchange points where Netflix transit providers connect to ISPs.

AT&T claims common carrier rules would ruin the whole Internet

AT&T urged the Federal Communications Commission to avoid reclassifying broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service, which is something network neutrality advocates are asking the FCC to do.

Reclassification would open broadband providers up to common carrier rules under Title II of the Communications Act, similar to regulations that have covered our phone system since 1934. One of the most interesting arguments made by AT&T is that Title II reclassification would force giant changes in the peering and interconnection markets. Reclassification could also bring lots of new requirements for ISPs that don’t directly serve consumers, AT&T argued.