Broadband Providers Face New York Scrutiny Over Speed Claims

  • State Attorney General Schneiderman begins investigation
  • Service may be slower than advertised, state officials say

Three major U.S. broadband providers claiming to offer super-fast Internet connections may be delivering service that is slower than advertised, New York state’s top legal official said.

Verizon Communications Inc., Time Warner Cable Inc., and Cablevision Systems Corp. are facing a probe from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman into whether they are living up to their promises of blazing-fast speeds that allow customers to download movies, music and television shows and to perform other Web-enabled activities almost instantaneously.

In letters dated Oct. 23, Schneiderman’s new senior enforcement counsel, Tim Wu, told the providers that he is “specifically concerned about the disruptions to the consumer experience caused by interconnection disputes,” which can occur when one company’s service must pass through another company’s wires and other infrastructure.

There is a “possibility that interconnection arrangements may in some instances render irrelevant any benefit” of paying for a “premium” option such as Verizon’s FiOS, Time Warner Cable’s “Extreme” and “Ultimate” offerings and Cablevision’s “Optimum Online Ultra” choices, said Wu, whose appointment was announced last month.

Speed Gap

The U.S. lags behind other developed countries in Internet speed, and federal officials have blamed interconnection issues as one possible culprit. Service in the U.S. also tends to be more expensive than in other countries at given rates of speed, according to a 2014 policy paper by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

“Many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “Families pay a huge cost already for Internet access in New York, so I will not tolerate a situation in which they aren’t getting what they have been promised.”

Wu, a prominent open-Internet policy advocate known for coining the term “net neutrality,” warned the companies that actual performance of broadband service “may deviate far enough from the speeds advertised to render the advertising deceptive.”

Law Professor

In one of his first major initiatives since joining Schneiderman’s team and taking a leave of absence from his post as a professor at Columbia Law School, Wu requested a lengthy list of documents including detailed performance metrics, sales-employee training materials and information on interconnection agreements and policies.

“Optimum Online consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds, including in FCC and internal tests,” Charlie Schueler, a spokesman for Cablevision, said Monday in an e-mailed statement. “We are happy to provide any necessary performance information to the Attorney General as we do to our customers.”

A Time Warner Cable spokesman, Bobby Amirshahi, said by e-mail, “We’re confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the AG to resolve this matter.”

Verizon spokesman John Bonomo said the company is "confident in the robust and reliable Internet speeds it delivers to subscribers" and looks forward "to working cooperatively with the Attorney General’s office.”

The state attorney general can take legal action against companies over deceptive business practices. The companies have until Nov. 8 to comply with the requests.

Little Overlap

Many U.S. markets have only one option for high-speed Internet service, according to an analysis by using data gathered through the government’s National Broadband Map project. In cities where multiple providers operate, there is often little or no overlap in service areas, Consumerist found.

New York City is a competitive market, and broadband companies battle for customers by offering ever-better speeds to handle a proliferation of networked devices such as computers, video game systems and Internet-enabled televisions.

For example, Verizon tells customers that one of its service options is “great for 8 devices” and allows users to “upload large files to the cloud, perform quicker back-ups and play competitive multi-player gaming.”

Cablevision says its “Optimum Online Ultra 101” plan can allow customers to “send super-large attachments you never could before,” download a song in a fraction of a second and a television show-sized video in half a minute.

Time Warner Cable’s “Ultimate 100” broadband service promises customers enough speed to “upload large files” and “enjoy power gaming and streaming multiple videos simultaneously,” according to the company’s website.