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Crown Castle Buys Lightower Fiber for $7.1 Billion; Sets Stage for 5G in Northeast

Phillip Dampier July 20, 2017 Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Antenna tower operator Crown Castle International has announced it will buy privately held Lightower Fiber Networks for about $7.1 billion in cash to acquire the company’s extensive fiber assets across the northeastern United States that will be used to connect small cell 5G networks.

The acquisition will allow Crown Castle to market an extensive fiber backhaul network in large cities like New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, as well as smaller cities particularly in upstate New York, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and northern New England. Crown Castle, which already owns many of the cell towers where AT&T and Verizon place their equipment, will now be able to market fiber backhaul connectivity for AT&T and Verizon’s forthcoming 5G networks.

LIghtower’s fiber footprint.

Lightower’s fiber network was originally focused on major markets like Boston, New York City, the District of Columbia, and Chicago. Its partner, Fibertech — acquired by Lightower in 2015, focused on 30 mid-sized cities from Indiana to the west to Maine in the east. The network’s customers are large companies and independent ISPs. In Rochester, where Lightower maintains a Network Operations Center, Greenlight Networks relies on a fiber backhaul network originally built by Fibertech to connect its fiber-to-the-home broadband service. That fiber is likely to soon be shared with AT&T, Verizon, and potentially T-Mobile and Sprint to power any 5G buildouts in the region.

“Lightower’s dense fiber footprint is well-located in top metro markets in the northeast and is well-positioned to facilitate small cell deployments by our customers,” said Crown Castle CEO Jay Brown in a statement. “Following the transaction, we will have approximately 60,000 route miles of fiber with a presence in all of the top 10 and 23 of the top 25 metro markets.”

This acquisition marks Crown Castle’s first major diversion outside of its core market — leasing out the cell towers it owns or acquires.

California’s Internet Privacy Legislation Being Undermined by Industry-Funded Privacy Group

Phillip Dampier July 19, 2017 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

(Image by Brad Jonas originally for Pando.com)

A shadowy group claiming to advocate for sensible online privacy is urging California’s legislature to ditch the California Broadband Internet Privacy Act (AB 375), introduced by Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park), claiming it will curb innovation, reduce competition, and hurt consumers.

“First, the proposal attacks a nonexistent problem,” complained Jon Leibowitz, a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell and co-chair of the 21st Century Privacy Coalition. “Internet service providers have committed that they will seek permission from consumers before using sensitive personal information, such as health and financial data. Customers will have to affirmatively opt in before any such transaction could take place. So no one’s personal data is being sold.”

“Second, even if a problem exists, there are legal tools to combat it. In short, there is no legislative privacy gap,” he said. “The Federal Communications Commission has statutory authority to bring cases against internet service providers that fail to protect consumer privacy. In addition, the California attorney general can bring cases under the state Unfair Competition Law, which prohibits ‘unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business acts or practices.’”

Leibowitz seemed unusually concerned with how phone and cable companies would fare if the proposed bill becomes law.

Leibowitz

“The California proposal ignores the principle, almost universally accepted, that privacy should not be about who collects data, but rather what data is collected and how it is used,” Leibowitz said. “It would treat Internet service providers, a small subset of the Internet ecosystem, differently from every other company that collects consumer information online.”

Leibowitz told readers of The Sacremento Bee he hoped the legislature would “give this proposal the burial it deserves.”

The interest in state online privacy bills has grown because of the Republican-dominated FCC and Congress that tossed out federal internet privacy rules earlier this year. Consumers concerned about how their personal information and browsing habits are collected and sold are now largely dependent on whatever state laws exist to protect personal privacy and give consumers the right of informed consent for online information gathering and marketing.

While Leibowitz advocates for burying California’s effort to re-establish internet privacy, he has also attempted to bury his exceptionally close ties to the cable and phone companies that are responsible for almost all of his group’s funding.

The 21st Century Privacy Coalition, also co-chaired by former Republican congresswoman Mary Bono, is funded by Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable/Charter Communications, DirecTV, and their respective industry trade associations. The checkbooks are wide open, because the coalition has already spent nearly $2 million on lobbying, according to disclosure records. Most of that money has gone to hiring lobbyists from Mayer Brown and Ryan, MacKinnon, Vasapoli, and Berzok.

The group launched in 2013 and primarily concerned itself with federal online privacy issues, but since the Trump Administration came into office, there is little work to be done on the federal level, so their new mission appears to be hassling state legislatures who are unwilling to do the industry’s bidding.

Leibowitz is also a traveler through D.C.’s revolving door, serving as former Democratic chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Today he collects accolades and more from the cable and phone companies.

Altice Deploys Gigabit Broadband in Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas

Phillip Dampier July 19, 2017 Altice NV, Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Suddenlink No Comments

Altice’s Suddenlink Communications has announced gigabit service for its customers in Batesville and El Dorado, Ark., Maryville, Mo., and Conroe, Tex.

“Today’s announcement is the next step in Altice USA’s Operation GigaSpeed initiative to provide gigabit broadband service to our Suddenlink customers,” said Hakim Boubazine, co-president and chief operating officer of Altice USA, in a statement.

Altice will continue to use DOCSIS 3.0 technology for most of its Suddenlink customers instead of adopting DOCSIS 3.1 in the near future. Because Suddenlink systems are all-digital, Altice is using a significant amount of its available cable bandwidth for broadband services. Customers who don’t want to pay for 1,000Mbps can also choose from 100 and 200Mbps plans, up from 75 and 100Mbps respectively.

These communities bring the number of GigaSpeed enabled cities in Suddenlink territory to 45. Here are the others, below the break:

… Continue Reading

The Great American Telecom Oligopoly Costs You $540/Yr for Their Excess Profits

Like the railroad robber barons of more than a century ago, a handful of phone and cable companies are getting filthy rich from a carefully engineered oligopoly that costs the average American $540 a year more than it should to deliver vital telecommunications services.

That is the conclusion of a new study from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, authored by two men with decades of experience representing the interests of consumers. They recommend stopping reckless deregulation without strong and clear evidence of robust competition and ending rubber stamped merger approvals by regulators.

The trouble started with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a bill heavily influenced by telecom industry lobbyists that, at its core, promoted deregulation without assuring adequate evidence of competition. It was that Act, signed into law by President Clinton, that authors Gene Kimmelman and Mark Cooper claim is partly responsible for today’s “highly concentrated oligopolistic markets that result […] in massive overcharges for consumer and business services.”

“Prices for cable, broadband, wired telecommunications, and wireless services have been inflated, on average, by about 25 percent above what competitive markets should deliver, costing the typical U.S. household more than $45 per month, or $540 per year, for these services,” the report states. “This stranglehold over these essential means of communication by a tight oligopoly on steroids—comprised of AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., and Charter Communications Inc. and built through mergers and acquisitions, not competition—costs consumers in aggregate almost $60 billion per year, or about 25 percent of the total average consumer’s monthly bill.”

The cost of delivering service is plummeting even as your bill keeps rising.

The authors also claim that these four companies earn astronomical profits — between 50 and 90% — on their services, compared with the national average of just under 15% for all industries.

The only check on these profits came from the 2011 rejection of the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, which started a small price war in the wireless industry, saving customers an average of $5 a month, or $11 billion a year collectively.

But antitrust enforcement alone is inadequate to check the industry’s anti-competitive behavior. Competition was supposed to provide that check, but policymakers too often kowtowed to the interests of telecom industry lobbyists and prematurely removed regulatory oversight and protections that were supposed to remain in place until real competition made those regulations unnecessary.

Attempts to force open closed networks to competitors were allowed in some instances — particularly with local telephone companies, but only for certain legacy services. Newer products, particularly high-speed broadband, were usually not subject to these open network policies. The companies lobbied heavily against such requirements, claiming it would deter investment.

The framers of the ’96 Act also mandated an end to exclusive franchise agreements that barred phone and cable companies from entering each others’ markets. This was intended to allow phone and cable companies to compete head to head, setting up the prospect of consumers having multiple choices for these providers.

Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai frequently cites the 1996 Communications Act as being “light touch” regulation that promulgated the broadband revolution. But in reality, the Act sparked a massive wave of corporate consolidation in broadcasting, cable, and phone companies at the behest of Wall Street.

“[Cable companies] refused to enter new markets to compete head to head with their sister companies [and] never entered the wireless market,” the authors note. “Telephone companies never overbuilt other telephone companies and were slow to enter the video market. Each chose to extend their geographic reach by buying out their sister companies rather than competing. This means that the potentially strongest competitors—those with expertise and assets that might be used to enter new markets—are few. This reinforces the market power strategy, since the best competitors have followed a noncompete strategy.”

Wall Street sold consolidation on the theory of increased shareholder value from eliminating duplicative costs and workforces, consolidating services, and growing larger to stay competitive with other companies also growing larger through mergers and acquisitions of their own:

  • The eight regional Baby Bells created after the breakup of AT&T’s national monopoly in the mid-1980s eventually merged into two huge wireline and wireless companies — AT&T and Verizon. The authors note these companies didn’t just acquire those that were part of the Ma Bell empire. They also bought out independent companies like GTE and long distance companies like MCI. Most of the few remaining independents provide service in rural areas of little interest to AT&T or Verizon.
  • The cable industry is still in a consolidation wave combining large players into a handful of giants, including Comcast and Charter Communications, which also have close relationships with content providers. Altice entered the U.S. cable business principally on the prospect of consolidating cable companies under the Altice brand, not overbuilding existing companies with a competing service of its own.

Such consolidation wiped out the very companies the ’96 Act was counting on to disrupt existing markets with new competition. Comcast, Charter, and Verizon even have agreements to cross-market each others’ products or use their infrastructure for emerging “competitive” services like mobile phones and wireless broadband.

“By the standard definitions of antitrust and traditional economic analysis, a tight oligopoly has developed in the digital communications sector,” the report states. “While some markets are slightly more competitive than others, the dominant firms are deeply entrenched and engage in anti-competitive and anti-consumer practices that defend and extend their market power, while allowing them to overcharge consumers and earn excess profits.”

“The impact of this abuse of market power on consumers is clear. According to the most recent Consumer Expenditure Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ‘typical’ middle-income household spends about $2,700 per year on a landline telephone service, two cell phone subscriptions, a broadband connection, and a subscription to a multichannel video service,” the report indicates. “Adjusting for the ‘average’ take rate of services in this middle-income group, consumers spend almost twice as much on these services as they spend on electricity. They spend more on these services than they spend on gasoline. Consumer expenditures on communications services equal about four-fifths of their total spending on groceries.”

The authors point out the Obama Administration, unlike the Bush Administration that preceded it, was the first since the 1996 Act’s passage to begin implementing policies to enhance and protect competition, and also check unfettered market power among the largest incumbent providers:

  • It blocked the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, which would have removed an important competitor and affect wireless rates in just about every U.S. city. The Obama Administration’s opposition not only preserved T-Mobile as a competitor, it also made that company review its business plan and rebrand itself as a market disruptor, forcing wireless prices down substantially for the first time and collectively saving all wireless customers in the U.S. billions from rate increases AT&T and Verizon could not carry out.
  • It blocked the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, which would have given Comcast unprecedented and unequaled control over internet access and content providers in the U.S. It would have immediately made other cable and phone companies potentially untenable because of their lack of market power and ability to achieve similar volume discounts and economy of scale, and would have blocked emerging competitors that could not create credible business plans competing with Comcast.
  • It blocked informal Sprint/T-Mobile merger talks that would have combined the third and fourth largest wireless carriers. Antitrust regulators were concerned this would dramatically reduce the disruptive marketing that we still see today from both of these companies.
  • It placed restrictions on Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal and Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Comcast was required to effectively become a silent partner in Hulu, a vital emerging video competitor. Charter cannot impose data caps on its customers for up to seven years, helping to create a clear record that data caps are both unnecessary and unwarranted and have no impact on the cost of delivering internet services or the profits earned from it.
  • Strong support for Net Neutrality, backed with Title II enforcement, has given the content marketplace a sense of certainty and stability, allowing online cable TV competitors to emerge and succeed, giving consumers a chance to save money by cutting the cord on bloated TV packages. If providers were given the authority to discriminate against internet traffic, it would place an unfair burden on competitors and discourage new entrants.

The authors worry the Trump Administration and a FCC led by Chairman Ajit Pai may not be willing to preserve the first gains in broadband and communications competitiveness since mergermania removed a lot of those competitors.

“The key lesson in the communications sector is that vigorous regulation and antitrust enforcement can create the conditions for market success. But balance is the key,” the reports warns. “Technological innovation and convergence are no guarantee against the abuse of market power, but the effort to control the abuse of market power should not stifle innovation. If the Trump administration jettisons the enforcement practices of the past eight years, then the telecommunications sector is likely to see a wave of new consolidation and a dampening of the price cutting and innovative wireless and broadband services that have been slowly emerging.”

Frontier’s March to Oblivion: Bankruptcy In Its Future?

Frontier Communications is quickly becoming the Sears and Kmart of phone companies, on a slow march to bankruptcy or outright oblivion.

What started as a small independent phone company in Connecticut has grown through acquiring overpriced or decrepit landline cast-offs, mostly from Verizon, leaving itself with massive amounts of debt and infrastructure it is not willing to upgrade.

Despite rosy prognostications given to customers and shareholders, few are willing to take Frontier’s word that life is good with a company that still relies heavily on copper wire phone and DSL service.

Don’t take out word for it. Just watch the line of customers heading for the exits, canceling service and never looking back. As Frontier continues to lose customers fed up with its bad DSL service, rated even poorer than satellite-delivered broadband by Consumer Reports, its only chance to grow is to acquire more customers through more acquisitions. Unfortunately, after another disastrous transition for former Verizon customers in Florida, California, and Texas, Frontier’s bad reputation is likely to leave regulators and shareholders concerned about Frontier’s ability to manage yet more acquisitions in the future.

The Wall Street Journal reports Frontier bet on making it big with rural and suburban landlines, and lost.

Frontier’s mess has infuriated shareholders who invest in the stock mostly for its dividend payouts. The Norwalk, Conn. company recently announced it slashed its dividend, causing investors to flee the stock. Shares are down 69% so far this year. In a desperate bid to keep its Nasdaq listing, the company announced an unprecedented 1-for-15 reverse stock split just to prop up its share price.

Frontier’s slow hemorrhage of landline customers turned into a flash flood in the spring of 2016 after botching yet another “flash cutover” of customers acquired from Verizon. Verizon’s decision to sell off its landline networks in Florida, California, and Texas (mostly acquired from GTE by Verizon predecessor Bell Atlantic) was good news for Verizon, bad news for Frontier’s newest customers. Frontier hates to spend money to overhaul its copper-based facilities with fiber. It prefers to buy service areas from companies that undertook fiber upgrades on their own dime. Verizon had already upgraded large sections of those three states with its FiOS fiber to the home network. Frontier’s interest was primarily about acquiring that fiber, Frontier finance chief Perley McBride told the Wall Street Journal. Even McBride admitted Frontier failed to do a good job integrating those customers.

Consumer Reports rates Frontier DSL lower than one satellite broadband provider.

That should not be news to McBride or anyone else. Frontier has repeatedly failed every flash cutover it has attempted. The worst recent examples were Frontier’s botched 2010 transition in West Virginia, where the company inherited copper landlines neglected by Verizon for decades. Customers were infuriated by Frontier’s inability to maintain service and billing, and the company was investigated by state officials after many customers lost service, sometimes for weeks. In Connecticut, Frontier messed up a transition of its acquisition of AT&T’s U-verse system, having learned nothing from its mistakes in West Virginia or elsewhere. The company was forced to pay substantial service credits to residential and business customers that were offline for days. Thus it was no surprise yet another hurried transition would lead to disaster last spring. Regulators received thousands of complaints and a significant percentage of longtime Verizon customers left for good.

Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy appears to be even less credible with investors and customers than his predecessor Maggie Wilderotter, who may have retired with an understanding the long term future of Frontier looks pretty bleak. McCarthy has repeatedly put an optimistic face on Frontier’s increasingly poor performance.

John Jureller, Frontier’s last chief financial officer, routinely joined McCarthy in putting a brave face on Frontier’s stark numbers. He repeatedly tried to fuel optimism by telling investors the Verizon landline acquisition would make revenue trends “very positive.”

Jureller is no longer with Frontier. His replacement is the aforementioned McBride, who has a reputation as a “turnaround” expert, usually at the expense of employees. McBride has already helped oversee the permanent departure of at least 1,000 employees, laid off as part of what Frontier is calling “a customer-focused reorganization.” McCarthy prefers to tell Wall Street the layoffs are about reining in costs, despite the company’s profligate spending on acquisitions.

McBride told the Journal he doesn’t expect much revenue growth at Frontier anytime soon in California, Texas, and Florida. McCarthy’s grand turnaround plan isn’t working either. In fact, customer ratings of Frontier are falling about as fast as a rock thrown off a cliff.

There is little evidence Frontier will improve its dismal American Customer Satisfaction Index score in 2017. It finished dead last among internet service providers last year, falling 8% despite taking on new customers and allegedly upgrading others. Frontier’s overall grade was second to last across all categories in the telecom sector. Frontier managed to achieve bottom of the barrel scores despite broad upticks in customer satisfaction among other similar providers last year. Verizon FiOS achieved a 7% improvement to a best-ever customer satisfaction rating. In areas acquired by Frontier, as soon as the service was renamed Frontier FiOS, ratings plunged.

So has Frontier’s revenue, which continues a downward spiral. The company posted a loss of $373 million last year compared to $196 million in losses a year earlier. It has committed to spending $1 billion on its network this year, but customers uniformly report few substantial service improvements, and many wonder where the money is going.

Frontier is also upset that Verizon, in its zeal to make its landline properties in California, Texas, and Florida look as good as possible, stopped collection activity on overdue accounts just before the sale, saddling Frontier with thousands of deadbeat customers Verizon should have written off as uncollectable long ago, but never did.

Yesterday, the western New York office of the Better Business Bureau reported Frontier had achieved an “F” rating, amassed nearly 9,000 complaints, and out of 718 customer reviews, just six were positive:

We find a high volume and pattern of complaints exists concerning prior Verizon consumers who have not had a smooth transition to Frontier Communication since Frontier Communications took over various Verizon customers on April 1, 2016. Consumers have reported that services did not transition properly: many do not have services or are having spotty service with outages; many internet issues, from slow speeds to complete outages, consumers advise they are paying for certain levels of internet speeds but are not receiving those levels. Cable issues including missing networks, movie on demand concerns, issues with purchased subscriptions not carrying over, titles consumers have paid for (purchased licensed for) not being uploaded to their libraries and no solutions are being offered; and inability to access items like DVR boxes at the same time (multiple boxes in households not functioning); the Frontier App is not functioning for consumers; not fulfilling the rewards advertised with new service signups; charging consumers unauthorized third party charges on their telephone bill and not properly applying credits to consumer’s bills or consumers not being able to login to pay their bills.

When consumers call to receive assistance many report to BBB that they are hung up on or calls are disconnected and [are not followed up] by Frontier representatives. Consumers are transferred from representative to representative without receiving any assistance to their concerns many times resulting in a disconnection.

We have also identified a pattern in [Frontier’s] responses to complaints stating:

  • Per Tariff, in no event shall Frontier be liable in tort, contract, or otherwise for errors, omissions, interruptions, or delays to any person for personal injury, property damage, death, or economic losses. Frontier shall in no event exceed an amount equivalent to the proportionate charge to the customer for the period of service during which such mistake, omission, interruption, delay, error or defect occurs. Frontier will apply a credit based on the customer’s daily service rate.
  • We trust that this information will assist you in closing this complaint.  We regret any inconvenience that ‘consumer name’ may have experienced as a result of the above matter.

The business did not respond to the pattern of complaint correspondence BBB sent.

“Cable companies are beating the pants off Frontier,” Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst for New Street Research, told the newspaper. Heavy targeted marketing of Frontier’s customers, especially those served by Charter Communications in states like New York, Texas, Florida, and California are only accelerating Frontier’s customer cancellations.

Frontier’s cost consciousness and deferred upgrades as a result of its financial condition are only allowing cable companies to steal away more customers than ever, as the value for money gap continues to widen. While Frontier has failed to significantly upgrade many of their DSL customers still stuck with less than 10Mbps service, Charter Communications is gradually boosting their entry-level broadband speed to 100Mbps across its footprint and selling it at an introductory price of $44.99 a month.

Even Verizon sees the writing on the wall for the revenue prospects of landline service, especially in areas where it has not undertaken FiOS upgrades. Verizon DSL is still very common across its northeastern footprint, particularly in states like New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Upstate New York is almost entirely DSL territory for Verizon, except for a few suburbs in Buffalo, Syracuse, and the state’s Capitol region. Verizon soured on upgrading its copper facilities in these areas years ago, and has contemplated selling them or moving customers to wireless service instead.

Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni admitted Verizon’s strategy was to “sharpen our strategic focus on wireless,” which makes Verizon considerably more money than its wireline networks.

“If Verizon’s selling assets, they’re selling them for a reason,” Chaplin said. “Verizon had taken those markets [in California, Florida, and Texas] pretty close to saturation before they sold. That’s the point at which they punted the assets to Frontier.”

Frontier cannot continue to do business this way and expect to survive. Investors have circled 2020 on their calendar — the year $2.4 billion in debt payments are due. Another $2.5 billion is due in 2021 and $2.6 billion in 2022, not including interest charges and other obligations. Refinancing is expected to get tougher at struggling companies and interest rates are rising. The pattern is a familiar one in the telecom industry, where acquirers like FairPoint Communications and Hawaiian Telcom spent heavily on acquiring landline cast-offs from Verizon. Customer departures, a financial inability to upgrade facilities quickly enough, and heavy debts forced both companies into bankruptcy, precisely where Frontier Communications will end up if it does not change its management and business practices.

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  • Josh: Good grief. If they still have money, they HAVE to spend...I mean it's probably too late, but...what on Earth is wrong with these executives? I mean...
  • Paul Houle: The scary thing is that Frontier has a huge cash flow. There are still enough customers that use Frontier because they don't have a choice. "Cable" ...
  • Robert: Cox sucks...
  • Dan: The high dividends aren't a problem anymore, but there's probably not enough money to do more than pay off the interest. If they were smart, they'd st...
  • BobInIllinois: Reminder---July 1 2010, Frontier took over Verizon properties in 13 states, including my DSL account in Illinois. Took them 3 months to send me a bi...
  • LG: Same as Christopher's post above. Great work. The longer this goes on, the more I believe regulation and laws alone will not be enough. I'm thinkin...
  • Paul Sheehan Jr.: Why doesn't WGBH move to ch. 44 and WGBX go off air and what is the future for wbts-lp in boston...
  • Josh: What the frak are they doing? For the past couple of years I've been assuming the top executives are just trying to get payouts, then jump from the c...
  • Dan: Don't you mean "a small independent phone company in Rochester?" Frontier didn't begin as SNET....
  • Joe V: I almost pity poor Randall and those that think that this "5G" will good enough once cord cutting internet streaming TV becomes the norm. AT&T's ...
  • MD: It only goes to 30, I know what it is technically capable of because they replaces all of the cables on the entire street, and the previous TWC cable ...
  • LG: Yet more pandering to the overpriced, lightly used cell data services. The ISPs love it because they can take out a TV ad and say... "Our service is ...

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