from the stating-the-obvious dept
Last fall, we noted how New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office had launched an investigation into awful broadband service quality. In and of itself that was nothing particularly interesting (especially given Schneiderman’s history of grandstanding), though what made the inquiry of note is the office’s hiring of Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor who first coined the term “net neutrality” back in 2002. With Wu as the AG’s “senior lawyer and special adviser,” Schneiderman sent letters to NYC area broadband incumbents Verizon, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable — questioning whether they actually deliver the speeds they advertise.
So far this inquiry doesn’t appear to have culminated in much of anything beyond a recent letter sent to Charter CEO Tom Rutledge (pdf) warning him that he needs to dramatically improve the “abysmal” service offered by one of the company’s recently acquired properties, Time Warner Cable. According to the AG’s letter, tests conducted by volunteers show that Time Warner Cable connections consistently fail to achieve advertised data rates:
“The results we received from Time Warner Cable customers were abysmal. Not only did Time Warner Cable fail to achieve the speeds its customers were promised and paid for (which Time Warner Cable blamed on the testing method), it generally performed worse in this regard than other New York broadband providers. In short, what we have seen in our investigation so far suggests that Time Warner Cable has earned the miserable reputation it enjoys among consumers. Overcoming this history will require more than a name change; it will require a fundamental revolution in how Time Warner Cable does business and treats its customers.
This, of course, is not really a new revelation. Limited competition historically leaves large ISPs with no incentive to seriously upgrade infrastructure or customer support, resulting in the cable companies most of us know and love. And while the letter promises Charter’s CEO the NY AG’s office will “be in touch soon to propose next steps,” the AG hasn’t really offered a solution so far. And the letter comes just as New York State joins federal regulators in approving Charter’s $79 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, a deal most consumer advocates warn simply creates another Comcast with the size, scope and power to ensure broadband remains marginally competitive at best.
While the AG’s office appears to have used a relatively simple speed test to collect the data, a far more comprehensive study by the FCC last year (using custom-firmware embedded routers in user homes) found that roughly 10% of Time Warner Cable customers got less than 80% of their advertised speeds during prime time, 15% received 80 to 95% of their advertised speeds, while 75% got more than 95% of advertised speeds. That’s not perfection, but it doesn’t really rise to the level of “abysmal,” either.
In fact, that same FCC study found that the majority of the ISPs measured do consistently deliver advertised speeds, and since the FCC began conducting these studies — some ISPs have even taken to offering a little more than what’s advertised to avoid public shaming of this type. The problem with the AG’s inquiry is that, historically, speed hasn’t really been as large of an issue as horrible customer service, sneaky misleading fees and high prices, the last two of which federal and state regulators have a long, proud history of completely ignoring. And unless the AG has some magical way to address a lack of competition in the market, harsh letters stating the obvious may not really accomplish all that much.