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Stop the Cap! Reviews AT&T DirecTV Now: The Cord Cutting Revolution Continues

directvnow-planWhen AT&T announced it would offer 100+ cable television and broadcast network channels under the DirecTV Now brand for $35 a month, Wall Street had a fit.

Craig Moffett, an analyst with Moffett-Nathanson, speculated that AT&T would make at most a profit margin of $5 a month for its $35 a month plan, once programming costs were covered. But then AT&T announced it would sweeten the deal with a free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire Stick for those confident enough to prepay for the new service. That makes DirecTV Now a purposefully unprofitable service, creating considerable stress for both the cable and satellite industry and their investors.

Variety notes the average DirecTV satellite subscriber delivers about $60 a month in profit to its owner, AT&T. That led the industry magazine to speculate DirecTV Now is a “loss leader” designed to sell its parent company’s AT&T-Time Warner, Inc. merger deal to regulators on the premise of increased competition delivering real savings to consumers.

Thankfully for Wall Street’s nerves, AT&T’s usual practice of marketing things with a lot of fine print emerged in the nick of time, and the $35 dollar price has now turned out to be an introductory offer for early adopters. In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will enroll new customers for its “Go Big” package at a much more profitable $60 a month. Customers who sign up at the $35 rate and stay customers will be able to keep that price as long as they make no changes to their account after the promotion ends.

Moffett

Moffett

But Moffett warned investors that the traditional cable television model is still under serious threat, and AT&T’s less-promoted “Live a Little” package offering 60 popular cable networks for the everyday price of $35 is the equivalent of AT&T “running with scissors” because it alone could cause millions of cable and satellite customers to cut the cord and stay more than satisfied with a slimmed down cable package.

“Virtually all the channels that anyone would really want, save for regional sports networks” are included in the lighter “Live a Little” package, Moffett added. Customers who loathe watching sports but want a beefier package can also sign up for a $50, 80-channel “Just Right” package that primarily omits sports-oriented channels and a handful of spinoff cable networks few would miss.

Moffett and other Wall Street analysts were hoping AT&T would bloat its cheaper package with home shopping, religion, and other little-watched, low-cost cable networks and then entice customers to upgrade to unlock more popular cable channels. Instead, AT&T’s most premium package — “Gotta Have It” which costs $70 a month adds the “can live without” networks like Boomerang, Cloo, El Rey, Centric, and other little-known channels that typically live unnoticed in Channel Siberia on 500+ channel cable lineups. The highest premium priced package is attractive only for those looking for Starz/Encore channels and the basic cable network that gets no respect — Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (a/k/a the Dick van Dyke Permanent Employment Network.)

prepay-directvnow“By stacking their base package with all the best networks — likely a requirement for getting the programming contracts at all — they still have the same problem that was highlighted initially,” by Moffett. “Put simply, they aren’t going to make any money.”

That quest for profit is further challenged with subscriber acquisition programs that dole out free Apple TV units to customers willing to prepay for three months of service at the $35 rate or an Amazon Fire Stick (with Echo remote) in return for prepaying for one month of service. Anyone in the market for either device can sign up for DirecTV Now, get the equipment at an attractive price, and consider the 1-3 months of service a free extra bonus. Customers were reportedly lining up at AT&T’s owned and operated retail outlets (not authorized resellers) to pick up devices and sign up for service today.

At these prices and with these promotions, AT&T DirecTV Now could first decimate the subscriber base of its immediate competitors Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, either of which offer a much less compelling value. AT&T can afford to charge a lower price because it has deeper pockets and enormous volume discounts on the wholesale price of cable programming — combining millions of DirecTV and U-verse TV subscribers together to negotiate what industry insiders suspect are major discounts the smaller providers cannot get.

But there are issues likely to be deal-breakers for some would-be DirecTV Now subscribers:

  • Local broadcast stations are available only in a handful of selected cities and only a very few include all ABC, NBC, and FOX affiliates. CBS is not participating in DirecTV Now at this time, and that is a major omission;
  • NFL Network isn’t on the lineup;
  • Regional sports networks are spotty and geographically restricted. Here is a detailed PDF outlining options by zip code;
  • There is a limit of two concurrent streams and although video quality is very good, it is not the 1080/HD experience AT&T’s marketing material would suggest. The quality of your internet connection will make a difference;
  • No DVR option at this time.

CNET compiled an excellent channel comparison chart to help consumers figure out which, if any, of these upstarts make sense as a cable TV replacement:

DirecTV Now vs. Sling TV vs. PlayStation Vue (top 169 channels, see notes below)

Channel DirecTV Now Packages Sling Package Vue Package
A&E Live a Little Orange, Blue No
ABC Yes or VOD Broadcast extra Yes or VOD
AMC Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
American Heroes Go Big No Elite
Animal Planet Live a Little No Access
Audience Live a Little No No
AXS TV Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Baby TV No Kids extra No
BBC America Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
BBC World News Go Big News extra Elite
beIN Sports No Sports extra Core
BET Live a Little Blue (Orange lifestyle extra) No
Bloomberg TV Live a Little Base No
Boomerang Gotta Have It Kids extra Elite
Bravo Live a Little Blue Access
BTN Just Right No Core
Campus Insiders No Sports extra No
Cartoon Network/Adult Swim Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
CBS No No Yes or VOD
CBS Sports No No No
Centric Go Big No No
Cheddar No Orange, Blue No
Chiller Gotta Have It No Elite
Cinemax PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM No
Cloo Gotta Have It No Elite
CMT Live a Little Comedy extra No
CNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
CNBC World Just Right No Elite
CNN Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Comedy Central Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Comedy.TV Just Right No No
Cooking Channel Just Right Lifestyle extra Elite
CSPAN Live a Little No No
Destination America Go Big No Access
Discovery Channel Live a Little No Access
Discovery Family Go Big No Access
Discovery Life Go Big No Elite
Disney Channel Live a Little Orange Access
Disney Junior Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
Disney XD Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
DIY Go Big Lifestyle extra Access
Duck TV No Kids extra No
E! Live a Little Lifestyle extra Blue Access
El Rey Network Gotta Have It Orange, Blue No
Encore Gotta Have It No No
EPIX No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Drive-in No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Hits No Hollywood extra PREMIUM, Elite
EPIX2 No Hollywood extra No
ESPN Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN 2 Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN Bases Loaded No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Buzzer Beater No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Deportes No Spanish TV extra Orange Elite
ESPN Goal Line No Sports extra Orange No
ESPNEWS Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
ESPNU Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Esquire No No Access
Euro News No World News Extra No
Flama No Orange, Blue No
Food Network Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Fox Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
Fox Business Live a Little No Access
Fox College Sports Atlantic No No Elite
Fox College Sports Central No No Elite
Fox College Sports Pacific No No Elite
Fox News Live a Little No Access
Fox Sports 1 Live a Little Blue Access
Fox Sports 2 Go Big Blue Access
Fox Sports Prime Ticket Just Right No No
France 24 No World News Extra No
Freeform Live a Little Orange Access
Fuse Just Right No No
Fusion Just Right World News Extra Elite
FX Live a Little Blue Access
FXM Go Big No Elite
FXX Live a Little Blue Access
FYI Go Big Lifestyle extra No
Galavision Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Golf Channel Go Big Sports extra Blue Core
GSN Just Right Comedy extra No
Hallmark Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries No LIfestyle extra No
HBO PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM PREMIUM, Ultra
HDNet Movies No Hollywood extra No
HGTV Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Hi-Yah No No Elite
History Live a Little Orange, Blue No
HLN Live a Little News extra Access
HSN No No No
IFC Just Right Orange, Blue Core
Ion No No No
Impact No No Elite
Investigation Discovery Live a Little No Access
JusticeCentral.TV Just Right No No
Lifetime Live a Little Orange, Blue No
LMN Just Right Lifestyle extra No
Local Now No Orange, Blue No
LOGO Go Big Comedy extra No
Longhorn Network Just Right No No
Machinima No No Elite
Maker No Orange, Blue No
MGM-HD No No Elite
MLB Network Just Right No No
Motors TV No Sports extra No
MSNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
MTV Live a Little Comedy extra No
MTV Classic Go Big No No
MTV2 Live a Little Comedy extra No
Nat Geo Wild Go Big Blue Elite
National Geographic Live a Little Blue Access
NBA TV Go Big Sports extra Core
NBC Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
NBC Sports Network Just Right Blue Access
NDTV 24/7 No World News Extra No
News 18 India No World News Extra No
Newsy No Orange, Blue No
NFL Network No Blue Core
NFL Red Zone No Sports extra (Blue) PREMIUM (Core and up)
NHL Network Go Big Sports extra No
Nick Jr. Live a Little Blue No
Nickelodeon Live a Little No No
Nicktoons Live a Little Kids Extra Blue No
ONE World Sports No No Elite
Outdoor Channel No No No
Outside Television No Sports extra Elite
OWN Just Right No Access
Oxygen Just Right Lifestyle extra Blue Access
Palladia No No Elite
PBS No No No
Poker Central No No Elite
Polaris No Orange, Blue Elite
POP No No Access
QVC No No No
Revolt Go Big No No
RFD TV Live a Little No No
Russia Today No World News Extra No
Science Just Right No Access
SEC Network Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Showtime No No PREMIUM, Elite
Spike Live a Little Comedy extra No
Sprout Go Big No Elite
Starz Gotta Have It PREMIUM No
Sundance TV Go Big Hollywood extra Core
Syfy Live a Little Blue Access
TBS Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
TCM Live a Little Hollywood extra Core
Teen Knick Live a Little Kids extra Blue Elite
Telemundo Live a Little No No
Tennis Channel Go Big No No
The Weather Channel Live a Little No No
TLC Live a Little No Access
TNT Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Travel Channel Just Right Orange, Blue Access
truTV Live a Little Blue (Orange comedy extra) Access
TV Land Live a Little Comedy extra No
TVG Go Big No No
Universal HD No No Elite
Univision Live a Little Blue (Orange Broadcast extra) No
Univision Deportes Gotta Have It Sports extra No
Univision Mas Just Right Blue (Orange Broadcast Extra) No
USA Network Live a Little Blue Access
Velocity HD Live a Little No Elite
VH1 Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
VH1 Classic No No Elite
Vibrant TV No Lifestyle extra No
Viceland Live a Little Orange, Blue No
WE tv Live a Little Lifestyle extra Access
WeatherNation Live a Little No No
Notes

Broadcast networks including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are not available for live streaming in many cities, except where noted as “yes.” The term “VOD” means viewers can watch these shows on-demand 24 hours after airing.
Most RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) not listed; varies per locality

PREMIUM = Available for an additional monthly fee beyond base package

DirecTV Now package key:
Live a Little = $35/month (Local ABC, Fox, NBC broadcasts included in select markets)
Just Right = $50/month
Go Big = $60/month ($35 / month introductory price)
Gotta Have It = $70/month

Sling TV package key:
Orange = $20/month
Blue = $25/month
other “”extras”” = another $5 /month each (Sports extra with Blue is $10)
Broacast Extra: ABC, Univision and Univision Mas available to Sling Orange subscribers in select cities

PlayStation Vue package key:
(for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami ONLY)
Access (Base) = $40/month
Core = $45/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite = $55/month (includes Access and Core channels)
Ultra = $75/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

(for all other cities, where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are available via VOD only)
Access Slim (Base) = $30/month
Core Slim = $35/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite Slim = $45/month (includes Core and Access channels)
Ultra Slim = $65/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

Time Warner, Inc. did its part, offering a substantial deal to DirecTV Now to allow customers to add HBO and Cinemax for just $5 a month each, substantially less than what both networks charge customers signing up a-la-carte. This also unlocks access to streaming options on both networks’ websites.

In fact, as a DirecTV Now customer, you will also become an authenticated pay television subscriber, unlocking access on various cable network websites to extra streaming and on-demand options.

The implications of DirecTV Now depend on how long AT&T extends its $35 offer, which is going to be compelling for a lot of Americans. Moffett predicts DirecTV Now could sign up a staggering 11 million Americans — at least two million cannibalized from its own DirecTV satellite customer base, six million cutting the cord on their cable company (including AT&T U-verse) and another three million cord-cutters or “cable-nevers.” Most of the latter are Millennials, and research suggests $35 may be low enough of a price point to sign them up.

AT&T is also raising concerns among internet activists because online streaming of DirecTV Now will not count against an AT&T postpaid customer’s data allowance. This zero rating scheme is seen as an end run around Net Neutrality, particularly because AT&T is not as generous with its competitors. AT&T said it will offer other video streamers the possibility of being exempted from AT&T data allowances, if they pay AT&T for the privilege.

How It Works/Signing Up

AT&T DirecTV Now starts with the Google Chrome 50+, Safari 8+ or Internet Explorer 11+ (on Windows 8 and up) web browsers or the DirecTV Now app. AT&T recommends Chrome for desktop viewing. The service doesn’t work with Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or legacy browsers.

The first step is registering for a 7-day free trial. Before handing over your credit card number, if you scroll down you will find a small free preview option is also available that includes a largely useless streaming barker channel promoting the service and a respectable collection of video on demand options from basic cable networks. The free video streaming option will give you a clue about how the service is likely to perform on your internet connection and devices. For the record, DirecTV Now now supports:

Support for other devices like Roku is coming next year.

Customers must be within the United States to use the service. If you travel abroad or to any U.S. territories like Guam, the Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, DirecTV Now will stop working until you return. When you sign up, keep in mind your billing zip code will mean a lot when it comes to accessing regional sports and local broadcast channels. DirecTV Now uses your billing zip code and your actual location to determine whether you are qualified to access regional sports networks and local stations.

Score a Free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire TV Stick

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

If you are looking to score an Apple TV (4th generation) or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, you will want to skip the 7-day free trial and enroll in a paid plan immediately, which will allow you to select which player you want. If you want the Apple TV, you will prepay for three months at $35 a month ($105). The Amazon Fire TV Stick only requires you to prepay for the first month of service ($35). One device per email address, but you can sign up for multiple accounts (using individual email addresses) and get a device for each — especially useful for larger families that could run into DirecTV Now’s two-stream limit.

Consider your choices before enrolling. If you want to add premium channels or upgrade your plan, and you select the three-month prepay option to grab an Apple TV Player, adding premium channels like HBO and Cinemax or moving to a higher plan will result in three months of prepaid charges for those upgrades as well, billed automatically to your credit card on file — which amounts to a $30 charge if you select HBO and Cinemax. After your promotional prepaid term ends, your account will continue to be billed at the $35 (plus any add-ons) rate until you cancel. AT&T covers you for the forfeited first free week by extending your bill date out by seven days. Allow 2-3 weeks for the device(s) to be shipped to you.

You can also sign up at an AT&T owned and operated retail store, but be aware AT&T “authorized” reseller stores are not participating in this promotion. That may allow you to bring home a device today.

Don’t care about the device promotions? Take the 7-day free trial, but be aware that you are giving AT&T your credit card number and charges begin immediately after the free week ends unless you cancel. Here’s how:

  1. Sign in to your account.
  2. From your User Account overview page, select Manage My Plan.
  3. Select the Cancel Plan link.
  4. Choose one of the listed reasons.
  5. Select Cancel Now to confirm cancellation.

Your subscription will continue until the end of the billing cycle. No refunds or credits are provided for partial months. Your account will revert to Freeview demo status after you cancel a subscription.  You can add a subscription package back at any time.

Oddly, AT&T is not charging sales tax for New York, California, Maryland or Virginia residents. Customers in states like Tennessee where AT&T provides local phone service were most likely to face sales taxes. Those signing up early are in the best position to exploit what appears to be an oversight, or it represents the first time the New York Department of Taxation and Finance left money on the table.

directv-now-price

Streaming from Your AT&T Wireless Device Does Not Count Against Your Data Allowance

If you’re a DirecTV Now and AT&T Wireless customer, streaming most DirecTV Now movies and programs over the AT&T wireless network won’t count against your data usage allowance, according to AT&T. But believe it or not, AT&T’s fine print indicates advertisements and non-streaming app activity do count! There are some other important disclosures to be aware of:

  • You must be on the AT&T Wireless network within the U.S. (U.S. territories are not qualified for zero rating);
  • You must be a postpaid, not a prepaid AT&T wireless customer to qualify and must not have “data block” on your mobile line;
  • If you are grandfathered on an unlimited data plan, using DirecTV Now will not count against the 22GB data threshold which subjects you to speed throttling;
  • This offer may disappear at any time and/or is subject to change.

DirecTV Now Qualifies You as an Authenticated Pay Television Subscriber

Many cable networks require customers enter their cable, satellite, or telco TV login credentials to unlock video streaming and on-demand features. DirecTV Now is a qualified provider for these websites (more coming):

Other networks are not yet enabled for DirecTV Now. CNN, for example, has a prompt for DirecTV satellite customers to log in, but DirecTV Now has its own account registration system.

Local Channels Are Very Spotty

Local over the air channels are very limited on DirecTV Now and are geographically restricted. You can access these channels only if you are located in or very near to the cities listed below and your billing zip code is in the same area. If you travel outside of the immediate area, live streaming will stop working until you return.

ABC*  NBC**  FOX  and Telemundo  are covered by DirecTV Now in selected cities. CBS is not available on the service at all at this time.

  • wlsAtlanta, GA: WAGA-TV
  • Austin, TX: KTBC
  • Boston, MA: Telemundo East
  • Charlotte, NC: WJZY
  • Chicago, IL: WLS-TV, WMAQ, WFLD, Telemundo East
  • Dallas-Ft Worth, TX: KXAS, KDFW-TV, Telemundo East
  • Denver, CO: Telemundo East
  • fox2Detroit, MI: WJBK
  • Fresno-Visalia, CA: KFSN-TV, Telemundo East
  • Gainesville, FL: WOGX
  • Hartford-New Haven, CT: WVIT
  • Houston, TX: KTRK-TV, Telemundo East
  • 4nbcLas Vegas, NV: Telemundo East
  • Los Angeles, CA: KABC-TV, KNBC, KTTV, Telemundo East
  • Miami-Ft Lauderdale, FL: WTVJ, Telemundo East
  • Minneapolis, MN: KMSP-TV
  • New York, NY: WABC-TV, WNBC, WNYW, Telemundo East
  • Orlando-Daytona, FL: WOFL
  • Philadelphia, PA: WPVI-TV, WCAU, WTXF-TV, Telemundo East
  • Phoenix, AZ: KSAZ-TV, Telemundo East
  • Raleigh-Durham, NC: WTVD-TV
  • San Diego, CA: KNSD
  • San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, CA: KGO-TV, KNTV, KTVU
  • Tampa-St Petersburg, FL: WTVT
  • Washington, D.C.: WRC, WTTG

*Not available on Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 7. **NBC live stream available on mobile and desktop devices only.

Giving the Service a Test

Stop the Cap! enrolled as an ordinary customer this morning and gave the service a rigorous test, including multiple streams over our 50/5Mbps internet connection. The service debuted today, and there is little doubt there is intense interest from consumers, so we expected some performance problems from the initial demand. We didn’t see any evidence of traffic congestion, however, and that is a good sign.

AT&T's John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

AT&T’s John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

A similar test of Sling TV did not perform as well during peak viewing times, when streaming problems emerged. DirecTV Now seems to be built to withstand intense demand.

One customer with a 6Mbps U-verse internet connection “in the boonies” was impressed the video quality of DirecTV Now was high even on a relatively slow DSL-like connection.

“This blows SlingTV away,” the person shared. “I only have U-verse 6Mbps internet service and it is not pixelated or buffering at all. Looks exactly like my regular DirecTV picture.”

AT&T published these recommendations for DirecTV Now customers regarding internet connection speeds:

  • 150kbps – 2.5Mbps – Minimum broadband connection speed for Mobile devices
  • 2.5 – 5.0Mbps – Recommended for HD quality

We’ve been led to believe DirecTV Now should perform equivalently to 1080i HDTV service (depending on the video source of course). We cannot say we agree it does right now. We noticed significant artifacts on high-motion video and picture graininess that left us feeling this was closer to a 720p HD experience. It isn’t possible to say whether the video player reduced playback quality because of internet traffic issues we were unaware of or if this is how the picture is supposed to look. It did not significantly detract from the viewing experience and the lack of buffering and pixelation was far more important to us.

AT&T store in NYC.

AT&T store in NYC.

DirecTV Now would serve adequately as a cable TV replacement if it had local station coverage and some type of DVR. At present, DirecTV Now is limited to a “Restart” feature that allows you to restart shows already in progress on certain channels, but you cannot fast-forward or record a restarted show. Once AT&T introduces a cloud-based DVR and fills out the local station lineup, this service could be lethal to overpriced cable TV packages.

AT&T’s marketing attempts to undercut the powerful position of inertia by setting an unknown time limit for customers to enroll in the $35 a month video package. If you don’t sign up today, you may not get the “free” Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick and a respectable cable TV package for just $35 a month — about half what cable operators are charging these days for their bloated video packages. AT&T doesn’t care if you stick with your current cable provider and signup for DirecTV Now, if only to grab free streaming video equipment while sampling the service. They get their money either way.

Had AT&T permanently kept the price at around $35, many consumers would likely sit back and wait for AT&T to sort out the streaming contract issues it has with the TV networks — CBS in particular, and come up with a DVR solution before those potential customers decided to sign up and make the change. Based on several “hot deals” websites, the mentality among many consumers is to “lock in” the $35 price now and wait for AT&T to build out the package while continuing to invest $35 a month on it. That doesn’t seem so bad when you get free electronics as part of the deal.

Our Final Take

AT&T’s DirecTV Now is a potential winner and worth signing up for because of the introductory price and free equipment offers. But if you decide not to disconnect your cable/satellite television service, it is probably safe to drop DirecTV Now after your prepayment expires and return to resume service a little later. There will probably be some warning when AT&T will end the introductory price for the service, and interested customers can hop back on board before that date arrives. DirecTV Now will be a formidable competitor, but it will fight against consumer resistance to confront the cable company and cut cable’s cord until it solves the local channels issue and has a credible DVR option. The service could also use an add-on to make adding additional concurrent streams possible and more affordable than just signing up for a second account.

Don’t count out Big Cable just yet. With data caps and other internet overcharging schemes, Comcast, Cox, Suddenlink, and others can play games with usage allowances to deter customers from streaming all of their video entertainment online at the risk of blowing past their allowance. DirecTV Now’s $35 price won’t mean much after overlimit fees begin appearing on your internet bill.

Bless Their Hearts: Frontier Fiddles While Rome, Ga. is Stuck in the Slow Lane

Phillip Dampier November 23, 2016 Editorial & Site News, Frontier, Video 1 Comment

Next time you are on hold or waiting for the service technician to show up to diagnose your interminably slow DSL, here is what the folks at Frontier might be doing instead of taking your call or delivering anything close to the FCC’s 25Mbps standard to qualify as real broadband.

OMG. I just can’t even describe this. From the folks at Frontier Communications Exposed. (4:37)

Trump’s Short List for FCC Chairman Contains Industry Insider Who Questions Need for FCC

robber-barons

Making America Great for Robber Barons Again

The president-elect’s choice for chairing the Federal Communications Commission may conclude there is little reason to even have a regulatory agency for telecommunications.

Donald Trump has gone farther to the right than any president-elect in modern history, at least in how he has chosen to staff his transition team. Having a place on that team is traditionally seen as a fast track to getting a plum cabinet position or leadership role in Washington’s bureaucracy, and Mr. Trump’s choices for overseeing tech and telecom policy have more in common with Ayn Rand than Ralph Nader.

Two of the top picks for his FCC transition team are true believers in the “laissez-faire/the free market always knows best” camp, but both have also been on the payroll of Big Telecom companies that believe special favors are perfectly acceptable.

The notorious D.C. revolving doorman Jeffrey Eisenach, now a leading contender for the next chairman of the FCC, is a man with so many hats that the New York Times published an exposé on him, noting it has become hard to tell whether Eisenach’s views are his own, those of his friends at the corporate-friendly American Enterprise Institute (AEI), or those of various telecom companies like Verizon that have had him on the payroll.

Eisenach has been heavily criticized for his especially close ties to telecom companies, fronting their positions at various Washington events often under the cover of his role as a “think tank scholar” at AEI. Eisenach despises Net Neutrality with a passion, and has used every opportunity to attack the open internet protection policies as overregulation. At the same time, Eisenach’s consulting firm was also doing work on behalf of the cellular telephone industry, including Verizon and other cell companies.

Eisenach is exceptionally casual about disclosing any paid financial ties, and has received criticism for it. His prominence as a member of the Trump transition team is therefore curious, considering incoming vice president Mike Pence has tried to clean the transition team of lobbyists.

Eisenach

Eisenach

Trump’s other leading contender is Mark Jamison, a former lobbyist for Sprint who now works for AEI. Jamison has received less attention and scrutiny from the telecommunications press, but in some cases his views, well-represented on his blog, are even more extreme than those of Mr. Eisenach.

In a 2013 report to the Florida Public Service Commission, Jamison looked down on consumer involvement in creating and enforcing telecom regulations:

Does customer involvement in regulation improve outcomes? Not always, according to PURC Director Mark Jamison. Speaking at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission annual conference in Brisbane, Australia, Dr. Jamison explained that the key question is, “Who do we expect to change when regulators and customers engage?” Most discussion on customer engagement is about customers informing regulators about customer preferences and utility practices. Learning by regulators is important, but so are the building legitimacy, ensuring regulator integrity, and engaging in adaptive learning that are largely about changing customers. An over emphasis on changing regulators can result in pandering to current norms, which hinders institutional strengthening and adaptive work.

In that same report, Jamison echoed some of the same sentiments he has made on his blog, questioning the wisdom of regulating telecommunications policies, providing subsidies to ensure affordable telephone service (Lifeline), subsidizing rural broadband expansion, and maintaining the core concept of universal service, which means assuring every American that wants utility service can affordably get it.

Jamison even questioned the need for the FCC in its current form, particularly overseeing rate regulation, fair competition, and enforcing rules that overturn the telecom industry’s cartel-like agreement on mandated set-top boxes (and rental fees), Net Neutrality and interconnection agreements and fees, and consumer protection:

Most of the original motivations for having an FCC have gone away. Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies. If there are instances where there are monopolies, it would seem overkill to have an entire federal agency dedicated to ex ante regulation of their services. A well-functioning Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in conjunction with state authorities, can handle consumer protection and anticompetitive conduct issues.

Content on the web competes well with content provided by broadcasters, seeming to eliminate any need for FCC oversight of broadcasters. Perhaps there is need for rules for use of the airwaves during times of emergency, but that can be handled without regulating the content providers themselves.

The only FCC activity that would seem to warrant having an independent agency is the licensing of radio spectrum. Political interference in spectrum licenses would at least dampen investment and could lead to rampant corruption in the form of valuable spectrum space being effectively handed out to political cronies.

Jamison

Jamison

Jamison’s theories are interesting, but in the real world they are impractical and frankly untrue. Readers of Stop the Cap! have long witnessed the impact of the insufficiently competitive telecom marketplace — higher broadband fees, data caps, and relentlessly terrible customer service. The costs to provide service have declined, but prices continue to rise. For many consumers, there is barely a duopoly for telecom services with cable companies taking runaway victory laps for providing 21st century broadband speeds while an area’s phone company continues to try to compete with underinvested DSL. The FTC has been a no-show on every important telecom issues of our time, in part because the industry got itself deregulated, leaving oversight options very limited.

It wasn’t the FTC that halted AT&T’s attempted buyout of T-Mobile and Comcast didn’t lose its struggle to acquire Time Warner Cable because of the FTC either. Pushback from the FCC and Department of Justice proved to be the only brakes on an otherwise consolidation-crazed telecom sector.

Oversight of broadcasting remains important because unlike private networks, the airwaves are a publicly owned resource used for the good of the American people. Jamison would abandon what little is left of regulations that required broadcasters to serve the public interest, not just private profit motives. Programming content is not the only matter of importance. Who gets a license to run a television or radio station matters, and so does the careful coordination of spectrum. It is ironic Jamison theorizes that a lack of regulation (of spectrum) would lead to political interference, rampant corruption, and cronyism. Anyone who has followed our experiences dealing with many state regulatory bodies and elected officials over telecom mergers and data caps can already use those words to describe what has happened since near-total deregulation policies have been enacted.

Public and private broadband competitors like local communities and Google have been harassed, stymied, and delayed by organized interference coordinated by incumbent telecom companies. Allowing them off the leash, as Jamison advocates, would only further entrench these companies. We have a long history in the United States dealing with unfettered monopoly powers and trusts. Vital infrastructure and manufacturing sectors were once held captive by a handful of industrialists and robber barons, and consumers paid dearly while those at the top got fabulously rich. Their wealth and power grew so vast and enduring, we are still familiar with their names even today — Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Schwab, Mellon, Duke, and Carnegie, just to name a few.

Jamison wrote a blog entry mapping out how to ultimately destroy the effectiveness of the FCC:

  • Take direction from politicians,
  • Promote partisan divides,
  • Change the language in orders after the FCC votes,
  • Ignore the facts, or at least manipulate them.

Jamison intended to argue that represented the current state of the Obama Administration’s FCC, but it is just as easy to ponder what comes after the Trump-lit bonfire of burned regulations and oversight, leaving only Big Telecom companies and their paid mouthpieces to manipulate the facts.

Jamison also undercuts his own argument in two other ways: first by declaring Michael Powell one of the great FCC chairmen of the modern era (after leaving the FCC he became president of the country’s biggest cable industry lobbying group) and second by relying extensively on quoting people with direct and undisclosed financial ties to the telecom companies that will directly benefit from implementing Jamison’s world views.

New York Times: In a 2014 email, Mr. Eisenach encouraged Michael O’Rielly, a Republican F.C.C. commissioner, to use an American Enterprise Institute event to “lay out the case against” internet regulations.

New York Times: In a 2014 email, Mr. Eisenach encouraged Michael O’Rielly, a Republican FCC commissioner, to use an American Enterprise Institute event to “lay out the case against” internet regulations.

Who doesn’t ultimately matter much in this debate, according to Jamison, are customers and consumers, whose input in these discussions is dismissed as either trendy or misinformed. No similar conclusions are forthcoming from Mr. Jamison about the influence and misinformation emanating from huge telecommunications companies that keep more than a few of his self-interested sources in comfortable suburban Virginia homes, driving their nice cars to and from the offices of shadowy think tanks that receive direct corporate funding or go out of their way to hide their benefactors.

Appointing either Mr. Eisenach or Mr. Jamison to the Federal Communications Commission would be the ultimate rubber stamping of business as usual in Washington, exactly what Donald Trump ran against. That may make Verizon or Comcast “great again,” but it certainly won’t help the rest of the country.

Election 2016: Trump Victory Troublesome for Tech Issues

Phillip Dampier November 10, 2016 Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't 7 Comments

donaldtrumpThe stunning victory by Donald Trump in Tuesday’s election ended two years of campaigning, negativity, and divisiveness.

Wednesday probably marked the beginning of Election 2020, which will involve four years of campaigning, negativity, and divisiveness.

Before looking at the implications of the forthcoming Trump Administration, some personal words about the results from the perspective of a lifelong resident of western New York, on the periphery of the Rust Belt region that evidently made all the difference for Mr. Trump on Tuesday night.

Casting my vote here in western New York while suffering a severe cold that has now evolved into walking pneumonia, I reflected on the fact this nasty election probably gave it to me. Despite that, I have the good fortune of living in a diverse community. Our next door neighbor, and by far the closest to us personally, is an ardent Republican who supported Sen. McCain, Gov. Romney, and Mr. Trump. Across the street, a reliable panoply of Democratic candidate lawn signs sprout every other fall. I spend my Friday afternoons in a community south of Rochester where Hillary Clinton has been largely reviled since she was a senator of New York. She didn’t win in Ontario County this year either. But Sen. Chuck Schumer routinely wins his elections with little effort or opposition.

Politics in the western half of New York State (known as “somewhere around Canada” to those in New York City and Long Island) is far more comparable to the battleground state of Ohio than reliably Democratic Manhattan. Our urban centers in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse are solidly Democratic, while the suburbs and rural areas are just as likely to elect Republicans to office. Among those disappointed Democrats pondering a surprising election of Donald Trump, many cannot understand how such a result is possible. But having been a lifelong resident in a region that has seen profound changes from the decimation of blue-collar, high-paying manufacturing jobs in states that still cling to tax rates that assume everyone still has one, the Trump rebellion predicted by Michael Moore was hardly outlandish. Across the Rust Belt, more than a few voters have given up believing politicians, and are still waiting for relief from the relentless pressure on the declining middle class. Some of the worst job declines came in this region during the first Bush Administration and then again under President Bill Clinton. Memories are still fresh.

The changes to local economies in this region are profound and extremely difficult to navigate for those who lack advanced degrees or special technical skills. A state like North Carolina understands these changes well. An economy quickly transformed away from tobacco and textiles towards high technology created enormous challenges for many families. Those problems still exist in many parts of the state where infrastructure and good jobs are still lacking more than two decades later.

In Rochester, the formerly solid and reliable employers like Eastman Kodak and Xerox are a fraction of the size they were in the 1980s. My father met my mother at Eastman Kodak, a company that also employed more than half my extended family. But not for long. I vividly recall watching the inauguration parade of President Bill Clinton on television in 1993 on a day that Eastman Kodak carried out another wave of draconian job cuts. My father’s job survived, but my uncle’s did not. My grandfather had retired by then.

Michael Moore correctly predicted the reality of a Trump victory with the support of a disaffected middle class in economically distressed states.

Michael Moore correctly predicted the reality of a Trump victory with the support of a disaffected middle class in economically distressed states.

Twenty-three years later, the largest employer by far in this area is the University of Rochester/UR Medicine, which includes the university and an enormous medical treatment infrastructure. Together, this accounts for 22,500 workers. The second largest employer in Rochester is a grocery store. A great grocery store — Wegmans, founded and based here, but a grocery store nonetheless. It accounts for 13,500 jobs. Another 13,000+ workers are employed in medical treatment and hospital services that compete with the U of R. Rounding out top employers are the Rochester City School District with 5,500 teachers, administrators and staff, which is almost as big as Monroe County’s government, which accounts for 4,500 employees. The biggest remaining manufacturer is Xerox, which employs 6,300 workers. But consider this contrast: in 1982 Kodak employed 60,400 in the Rochester area. Today, that number is just 2,300.

Rochester had it easy compared to heavy manufacturing cities to our west. Buffalo, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have been walloped twice — first by the offshoring of heavy industry and then a second round of manufacturing job losses many voters blame on various free trade agreements. Many tens of thousands of these displaced workers have relocated to other states. Exiting residents of Rochester overwhelmingly prefer North Carolina and Arizona for various reasons, while blue-collar workers further west often end up in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and other southern states. Many of those that remained behind and remember their old jobs are angry, very angry. Some of them supported Bernie Sanders, especially in Michigan. But once the choice came down to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, more than a few voted for Mr. Trump, not out of a great allegiance to the Republican party, but because Trump vilified free trade and business as usual in D.C. To these voters, fair or not, Hillary seemed to embody the establishment that has done little or nothing except make speeches.

The election is now over and we have the results. My candidate did not win because she did not run. (Elizabeth Warren in 2020!) On the broadband issues Stop the Cap! is concerned with, a Trump Administration is likely to be bad news for consumer protection, fair pricing, and community broadband, primarily because the people Mr. Trump has chosen thus far to advise him on tech issues are the usual sort with close ties to the largest telecommunications companies in the country, and many have penned papers that have closely aligned with those companies’ public policy positions.

Phillip Dampier: This election gave me walking pneumonia.

Phillip Dampier: This election gave me walking pneumonia.

Trump transition team adviser Jeffrey Eisenach, for example — who we wrote about back in August, could hold considerable power over the direction President-elect Trump will take tech policy in this country. Eisenach has written papers opposing Net Neutrality, is unconcerned about data caps and zero rating policies, and called fears about consolidation blowouts like the now-dead Comcast-Time Warner Cable mega-merger overblown.

Trump did state opposition to the recent merger announcement from AT&T and Time Warner, Inc., which has Wall Street concerned the deal will be DOA by the time the merger papers are filed sometime early next year in Washington. If President Trump keeps his word on that, there are many more mergers and acquisition deals that will emerge in 2017 that will likely never be on his radar, but will be reviewed by a Federal Communications Commission stacked with commissioners closer in ideology to Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly than Thomas Wheeler. In our view, Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly have yet to support any significant pro-consumer policy change on broadband before the FCC. Instead, they have largely parroted Big Telecom’s talking points.

It is our suspicion that most of the merger and acquisition deals dreamed about on Wall Street that would never have gotten through the Obama Administration’s Justice Department and FCC will receive quick approval under a Trump Administration.

While Mr. Trump alludes he will prove to be a complete game-changer to business as usual in Washington, his transition team is being swarmed by the usual faces — corporate lobbyists, big donors, and political hacks angling for cabinet or agency positions. Most of them are Beltway insiders, and many have been through D.C.’s revolving door before — lobbyist -> public servant -> lobbyist.

So while Mr. Trump tells America AT&T and Time Warner is “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” we remain uncertain he will speak as loudly about other likely deals, particularly involving Altice, Cox, Mediacom, CenturyLink, Windstream, Frontier, Sprint, and T-Mobile — just some of the hunters and the hunted that may get consolidated in 2017.

On other issues:

  • Net Neutrality: Republicans vilified Net Neutrality and a Republican-dominated FCC will likely kill or dramatically downplay any efforts to enforce it. Trump himself has never been a fan. Any new powers won by Chairman Wheeler to regulate internet providers under Title II will also likely be jettisoned by a Chairman Pai or O’Rielly;
  • Data Caps/Zero Rating: This issue is important to us, but isn’t likely to see any regulatory action under a GOP-dominated FCC. Internet providers are likely to see a Trump Administration as a green light for data caps and consumption billing;
  • Internet Privacy: Efforts to regulate internet privacy will also likely face a reversal from skeptical Republicans who will combine excuses for national security with a “hands off” attitude on telecommunications regulation.
  • Community Broadband: The issue of turning back bans on public/municipal broadband will have to be won on the state level. We do not expect to see many friends for municipal broadband in Republican-dominated Washington. The influence of the Koch Brothers, notoriously opposed to public internet projects, has only gotten stronger after this election.

With a GOP-sweep across the Executive and Legislative branches, we expect more deregulation, which is likely to further entrench the broadband duopoly in the United States, if not further expand it with additional consolidation-related mergers and acquisitions, at least among the small and mid-sized players.

On a more personal level, I have been involved in public policy battles surrounding telecommunications issues since 1988. In the late 1980s, I fought for increased competition and regulatory relief for home satellite (TVRO) dishowners and we joined forces to help pass the 1992 Cable Act, which laid the foundation for the emergence of competitors DirecTV and Dish Networks — the first serious competition to the cable industry. That law was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush, but that veto was overridden by the U.S. Congress — the only bill to successfully become law during the first Bush Administration over his objection. Republicans pay cable bills too.

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

Administrations come and administrations go, but we are still here.

The need for robust consumer protection, true competition, and a level playing field never changes. Your involvement remains essential regardless of what party is in power in Washington. Some battles will be more challenging, but not all. Direct consumer action can make an impact on companies concerned about their brand and public image. Just as consumers are passionate about rising cable bills, broadband is always a hot button issue, especially where service is unavailable or comes only at a price that resembles extortion.

The president-elect says that America doesn’t win anymore. We sure haven’t been winning on broadband, either on speed, pricing, or availability, in comparison to Europe and Asia. The solution is not to turn the problem over to the same companies that created the conditions for broadband malaise we are dealing with now. As seen in fiercely competitive markets like France, true competition is often the only regulation you need. A duopoly answers to itself. Having the choice of four, five, six, or more competing providers answers to customers. Consolidated and entrenched markets resist innovation and the need to compete stagnates. Corporate welfare and ghost-written telecom laws that forbid community broadband restricts economic growth and kills jobs, stranding countless rural residents from the digital economy. That -is- business as usual in too many states where groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) facilitate legislative fixes and legal protectionism that restricts or disadvantages competition.

If Mr. Trump truly believes the words he has spoken, he must be vigilant. He must not surround himself with the same politicians and their minders that created the very problems he promises to fix. The voters that elected him to office expect nothing less than blowing up business as usual. But the nation’s capital has a better track record of changing the politician while resisting change to the status quo.

We wish President Trump success for our country, but we’ll be watching to make certain his rhetoric meets the reality.

Frontier’s Follies: Company Blames Marketing, On-Shoring Call Centers for Customer Flight

Road to nowhere?

Road to nowhere?

Frontier Communications has lost more than 150,000 customers in the last six months as company executives blamed bad marketing and the on-shoring of call centers that formerly supported Verizon customers in Texas, California, and Florida.

Some 99,000 customers dropped Frontier service in the last three months, and another 77,000 departed during the three months before that. In addition to losing customers, Frontier saw a net loss of $80 million in its third quarter, up from a the $14 million the company lost during the same quarter a year ago.

A clearly distraught Dan McCarthy, Frontier’s CEO, knew he was in for a pummeling from Wall Street analysts on a conference call with investors on Tuesday.

“I wanted to assure you, that I’m focused on addressing and resolving the issues hindering our performance,” McCarthy said. “I’m fully aware that the third quarter results underscore the urgent need for our expanded business to perform at the higher level, where I know it can and should. And you have my personal commitment that we will do so.”

Frontier lost $52 million in revenue in the last three months in part because of its disastrous transition of former Verizon customers in California, Texas, and Florida and because a growing number of broadband users have realized Frontier’s endless promises of better service have rarely come to fruition and those customers chose other providers.

“This decline is unacceptable and reflects a level of performance, [and] I’m committed to change it,” McCarthy promised.

Unfortunately for customers and investors, that “change” is primarily rearranging the deck chairs with a haphazard, and likely soon-to-be-an-afterthought “reorganization,” and the usual treatment prescribed when executives fail to deliver Wall Street the results they expect: big layoffs of employees that had nothing to do with Frontier’s problems and have in fact been warning the company about some of their more boneheaded moves. The idea for quick layoffs may have come from Frontier’s newest chief financial officer R. Perley McBride, a pick McCarthy said will be “laser focused” on cost management. That’s code for cost-cutting, not exactly the best idea for a company that has shown a near-constant aversion to investing adequately in its network and on necessary broadband upgrades.

Analysts didn’t seem to be terribly interested in Mr. McCarthy’s grand reorganization plan either, detailed in this veritable word salad:

Let me also highlight that today, we announced a new customer-focused organizational structure, and the creation of commercial and consumer business units. This change is designed to improve our execution and operational effectiveness, increases spans of control in the organization and makes us more nimble, while at the same time eliminating duplicative costs associated with our former structure. In the first month of operating our new properties, it became apparent that this change was necessary.

McCarthy

McCarthy

Some investors pondered if these operational problems were all so readily identifiable and apparent, why didn’t Mr. McCarthy carry out changes after assuming leadership of the company more than a year ago.

McCarthy’s realization that big changes were needed is not what he was telling investors in May, when he was downplaying the impact of the Verizon customer cutover as affecting less than 1% of customers and wasn’t material. That level of happy talk puts McCarthy dangerously close to Wells Fargo territory, where a few million fake bank accounts weren’t material either.

McCarthy loves to use catchphrases to minimize the problems experienced at Frontier, as well as countering any negative developments with aspirational talk about the future.

For example, Frontier’s decision not to carefully scrutinize customer data provided by Verizon before cutting over customers to Frontier’s systems, leaving many without service for days to weeks was the result of “imperfect data extracts and network complexities” according to McCarthy. That cost Frontier plenty as the company issued bill credits to potentially tens of thousands of customers left without service because of ‘imperfections.’ Many just decided to leave and never looked back.

In May, McCarthy told investors “After a month of operating these properties, we are very pleased with the progress we have made, and we want to thank customers for their patience during the transition period. The entire Frontier team remains focused on cultivating growth by retaining and attracting new customers. We will continue to drive Frontier’s performance to maintain free cash flow that provides an attractive and sustainable dividend payout ratio.”

Not so much anymore. This week, McCarthy hit the red alert button and suddenly declared an urgent need for a major reorganization, oddly pegging Frontier’s problems partly on organizational inefficiencies:

“Historically, Frontier was organized around a regional structure, each one of the regions had its own resources that included marketing, finance, engineering, human resources. And in doing that, we – when we were a much smaller entity, it really did serve us well at that point in time. The more we looked at it today, the less differences there are in a lot of the markets and the way we’re going to market whether it’s around a Vantage product or it’s around FiOS or it’s around next-generation broadband products. So, when we looked at it, we did a really a trade-off on it, so we’ve essentially eliminated all of that redundancy in the organization.”

The unemployment line is in the future for 1,000 Frontier employees.

The unemployment line is in the future for 1,000 Frontier employees.

So what is the “redundancy” Frontier claims it has essentially eliminated? The forthcoming layoffs of 1,000 employees nationwide which Frontier management believes will make things much better for customers, at least according to McCarthy:

The impact is approximately 1,000 individuals that will be leaving the organization, and that translates directly into cost savings. And the nice part about it too is that the enhanced focus on commercial as well as consumer and Frontier has historically been a very consumer-focused organization. We’ve done well on the commercial side, but I really believe we can do much better with more focus, more attention and really putting the resources on those opportunities and making it, that’s what they do every day when they get up and they come to work, all they’re trying to do is grow the commercial revenue base.

So that’s really what we’ve done. It does change the focus on the field operations to really be engaged with the community as well as providing excellent service to customers and being that bridge, but really sales for both consumer and commercial are more centralized in a way that we can apply better resources and do it in a more efficient manner.

analysisSo Frontier plans to become more engaged with the community and deliver better service locally by… getting rid of 1,000 local employees and centralizing its resources somewhere else, probably in another state. The cherry on top? Frontier also implemented a rate hike for customers to enjoy.

McCarthy claimed Frontier has been a “very consumer-focused organization,” which seems hard to believe considering how many customers are saying goodbye to Frontier for good. He also implied customer sales are down because Frontier hasn’t effectively used their call center employees to sell service and Frontier alienated customers by moving those call centers from overseas back to the United States. Really?

The executive team at Frontier shrugs off further evidence of deepening customer dissatisfaction by ignoring customer losses in their “legacy” service areas — Frontier territories served by copper yesterday, today, and probably tomorrow. But ignoring problems is nothing new at Frontier:

  • It’s not a problem that customers cannot order Frontier products and services on its website because of managerial ineptitude.
  • It’s not a problem that customers are still stuck with 1-6Mbps copper-based DSL from Frontier while their cable competitor offers 200Mbps or more.
  • It’s not a problem that several years after assuming control over almost all landlines in West Virginia, Frontier has only accomplished broadband speed upgrades for 23% of customers stuck in Frontier’s broadband molasses, and only after the company settled with the West Virginia Attorney’s General office in December 2015. For the record, that amounts to 6,320 customers. Don’t break a sweat there. Frontier’s performance in West Virginia has been so abysmal, the settlement between the state and the company represents the largest, independently negotiated consumer protection settlement in West Virginia history, which extends back to June 20, 1863.
  • It’s not a problem that customers in Connecticut are still plagued by aftershocks from the tumultuous transfer from AT&T to Frontier in October 2014. On Oct. 19, 2016 countless DSL customers were reminded of that transition when they suffered another multi-hour outage and to add insult to injury, Frontier decided the time was also right to raise rates $4 a month for its Vantage TV service, which caused another round of customer cancellations.

McCarthy called the operational reorganization a “bridge” between field operations and providing excellent service to customers. We call it just another bridge to nowhere.

We’ve written for years that Frontier’s real problem isn’t cost management, organizational structure, or where it places employees and call centers. The real elephant in the room is that Frontier’s broadband service is terrible, especially where Frontier built the network all by itself or acquired it from another phone company decades earlier.

We are convinced Frontier’s management understands this, and so do many investors, but they just don’t care. One summed up the Frontier story this way:

So Frontier buys the whole wireline shooting match in one geographic area after another (labor force, wires, customers, DSL, even FIOS) paid for with billions in junk bond proceeds. Looking at an asset base that is disappearing before their eyes, the game is to squeeze as much out of it as possible before it crumbles completely. Minimum possible maintenance, minimum possible [investment], minimum possible headcount, and less every year.

From an investor’s standpoint, the key question is to figure out when the final collapse is going to take place.

Frontier's "High Speed" Fantasies extend back to 2010 when former CEO Maggie Wilderotter was telling customers Frontier was loaded with fiber.

Frontier’s “High Speed” fantasies extend back to 2010 when former CEO Maggie Wilderotter was telling customers Frontier was loaded with fiber.

When Rochester Telephone rebranded itself Frontier Communications in the 1990s, it did so looking forward to the future. The Frontier Communications experience of today is like immersing oneself in the History Channel. Nearly everything about Frontier these days is about the past and a promised future that never seems to arrive. Everything surrounds a legacy network still almost entirely dependent on last-century DSL for residential customers and various acquired networks from Verizon and AT&T mismanaged at conversion, forcing customers to clean up after Frontier’s repeated mistakes.

In legacy service areas where little has changed over the last decade, the four words that come to mind are “too little, too late” as customers make one last call to permanently drop service despite promises faster speeds are coming soon.

Too little investment in suitable broadband: Frontier dwells on its dividend payout to shareholders while customers languish with internet speeds that do not come close to the FCC’s definition of broadband. Instead of spending billions acquiring Verizon’s throwaway service areas, invest that money in your network and offer truly competitive 21st century broadband service.

Too late to matter: Frontier’s commitments to broadband upgrades happen too slowly and for too few customers. Much of Frontier’s state-of-the-art networks were built by other companies and simply acquired by Frontier, which now provides sleepy caretaker service. When people think Frontier Communications, they sure don’t think of words like “modern” and “innovative” and “excellence.” They think “yesterday,” “out of service,” and “slow.” There is a good reason why cable operators eat Frontier’s market share. People don’t love the cable company more than Frontier, but at least they are no longer stuck with broadband speeds that were common during the latter half of the Clinton Administration.

You’re a communications company, not the Geek Squad: While Frontier fritters away their customer base, those remaining are literally assaulted with promotions for dubious value services like tech support, virus protection, and cloud storage backup. There is a reason other phone and cable companies have not followed Frontier’s lead on emphasizing these services. They don’t matter to most customers and many of those who do have them are surprised when they find them on their phone bill because they don’t remember signing up. Sell reliable and fast phone, broadband, and video service, not gimmicks.

It is unfortunate another 1,000 Frontier employees are about to pay for the mistakes made at the top. Until that changes, customers would do well to consider their options and act accordingly. If reporting by The Hour is any indication, customers shouldn’t hold their breath. Frontier is still looking out for their most important asset: their shareholders.

If Frontier’s customer relations remain a work in progress, so does McCarthy’s job convincing investors to see the promise of his plan and that of his CEO predecessor Maggie Wilderotter to create a national broadband company from territories AT&T and Verizon have been willing to cast aside. Since closing at $6.54 on Oct. 31, 2014, on the eve of the switch [in Connecticut], two years later Frontier shares have hovered for the most part just above the $4 threshold.

With a new chief financial officer in place in former Frontier executive Perley McBride, McCarthy promised to get Frontier on track from an investor perspective, even as the company works to get its customer relations on an even keel.

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