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Stop the Cap! to N.Y. Public Service Commission: Time Warner Cable Stalls Upgrades

stc

June 16, 2016

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

Today, we confirmed that Charter Communications has ordered an indefinite suspension of the Time Warner Cable Maxx broadband upgrade program pending a review that seems to carry no specific timeline for completion.[1]

We are deeply concerned about the implications of this decision, particularly as Time Warner Cable has been performing broadband upgrades this spring and summer in the Hudson Valley[2] and Syracuse/Central New York[3] regions that deliver important speed upgrades to customers in New York State. We have good information that Rochester was the next city scheduled for these upgrades, followed by Buffalo. These upgrades would have provided customers with up to 300Mbps broadband service as soon as late this year across a significant section of upstate New York, with the western New York/Buffalo region upgraded in 2017.

It is clear the only reason these upgrades have been suspended relates to the recent ownership change of Time Warner Cable, approved by the N.Y. Public Service Commission.

As you know, Stop the Cap! argued our concerns about approving the merger transaction between Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, in part because Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program offered more compelling broadband upgrades, at a lower price, and introduced faster than Charter’s own offer.[4]

The alarming development of an indefinite nationwide suspension of the Maxx upgrade program has profound implications on large sections of upstate New York waiting for urgently needed broadband speed upgrades. The announcement also suggests large sections of New York will be waiting much longer to reach speed parity with cities, mostly downstate, that already enjoy up to 300Mbps service on an upgraded, less trouble-prone network.

Once again, New Yorkers are being divided into those with reasonably fast speeds, and those without. Should Charter adopt the slowest possible upgrade schedule permitted by the Commission, several upstate cities will be waiting until the end of 2018 – almost two years, to receive 100Mbps broadband.[5] I’d remind the Commission other major cable companies are offering residential customers speeds up to 2Gbps today[6], and many already offer tiers that well exceed Charter’s promised maximum speed.

Charter’s corporate decisions also impact New Yorkers more profoundly than other states because of the absence of significant competition. Outside of limited deployments of Verizon FiOS, DSL continues to predominate from New York telephone companies, including Verizon, Frontier, TDS, Windstream, and others. In most cases, these speeds do not come close to achieving the minimum 25Mbps speed that the FCC defines as “broadband.”

In states to our west, AT&T is already offering gigabit Internet service to residential customers, and Google Fiber (which has bypassed the entire northeastern U.S. for fiber deployment) continues its own expansion.

We urge the Commission to obtain definitive information about the current Maxx upgrade delay, the reasons for it, the timetable to resume upgrades (if ever), and an assurance that Charter Communications will resume a comparably rapid Maxx-equivalent upgrade for New Yorkers that Time Warner Cable was well on its way to complete within the next two years. We also hope the Commission will share its findings with the general public.

Yours very truly,

 

Phillip M. Dampier
Director

[1] Text of a company memo obtained by Stop the Cap! originally sent to Time Warner Cable’s engineering/customer support team: “The Maxx Internet Speed Increase Program is currently undergoing review by our leadership team. As a result, all speed increases and customer communications were placed on a temporary hold beginning Thursday, May 26. Once the updated launch schedule is determined, updated hub schedules will be posted to KEY and area management will be notified. Customers will continue to receive notification when the new speeds are available in their hubs.” (http://stopthecap.com/2016/06/16/charter-indefinitely-suspends-time-warner-cable-maxx-upgrades-pending-review/)

[2] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/press/twc-increases-internet-speed-hudson-valley.html

[3] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/press/twc-to-transform-tv-internet-experience-central-northern-ny.html

[4] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}

[5] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={DEE1823A-AADD-48D4-94BD-B96BAC096DAA}

[6] http://www.xfinity.com/multi-gig-offers.html

America’s 5G Revolution Comes By Giving Wireless Industry Whatever It Wants

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler today told an audience at the National Press Club that 5G — the next generation of wireless networks — “is a national priority, and why, this Thursday, I am circulating to my colleagues proposed new rules that will identify and open up vast amounts of spectrum for 5G applications.”

Wheeler’s proposal, dubbed “Spectrum Frontiers,” is supposed to deliver wireless connectivity as fast as fiber optic broadband, and in Wheeler’s view, will deliver competitive high-speed access for consumers.

“If the Commission approves my proposal next month, the United States will be the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications,” said Wheeler. “And that’s damn important because it means U.S. companies will be first out of the gate.”

Central to Wheeler’s 5G proposal is opening up very high frequency millimeter wave spectrum — for unlicensed and licensed data communications. Wheeler named two in his speech: a “massive” 14GHz unlicensed band and a 28GHz “shared band” that will allow mobile and satellite operators to co-exist.

“Consider that – 14,000 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum, with the same flexible-use rules that has allowed unlicensed to become a breeding ground for innovation,” Wheeler said.

5g“Sharing is essential for the future of spectrum utilization. Many of the high-frequency bands we will make available for 5G currently have some satellite users, and some federal users, or at least the possibility of future satellite and federal users,” Wheeler noted. “This means sharing will be required between satellite and terrestrial wireless; an issue that is especially relevant in the 28GHz band. It is also a consideration in the additional bands we will identify for future exploration. We will strike a balance that offers flexibility for satellite users to expand, while providing terrestrial licensees with predictability about the areas in which satellite will locate.”

The CTIA – The Wireless Association, America’s largest mobile carrier lobbying and trade association, is all for opening up new spectrum for the use of their members — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, among others. They just don’t want to share it. Ironically, they are calling on the FCC to regulate who gets access to what frequencies and what services can use them. They’d also appreciate federal rules restricting or preempting local officials responsible for approving where new cell towers can be located, and some form of price regulation for backhaul services would also be nice:

First, we need the right rules for high-band spectrum based on a time-tested regulatory framework. It must strike a reasonable balance for licensed and unlicensed use while promoting investment with clear service and licensing rules. We should avoid experimenting with novel spectrum sharing regimes or new technology mandates.

Second, we need the right rules to help build our 5G infrastructure. Traditional spectrum travels many miles, depending on large cell towers to transmit signals. In contrast, high-band spectrum – capable of carrying greater amounts of data –travels meters, not miles and will require the deployment of thousands of new small cells the size of smoke alarms. This network evolution requires a new infrastructure approach, and Congress, the FCC and states must streamline and simplify local siting and rights of way rules.

Wheeler recognizes that 5G services will work very differently from the 3G and 4G networks we’ve used in the past.

ctia

CTIA is the wireless industry’s biggest lobbyist and trade association.

“5G will use much higher-frequency bands than previously thought viable for mobile broadband and other applications,” Wheeler said. “Such millimeter wave signals have physical properties that are both a limitation and a strength: they tend to travel best in narrow and straight lines, and do not go through physical obstacles very well. This means that very narrow signals in an urban environment tend to bounce around buildings and other obstacles making it difficult to connect to a moving point. But it also means that the spectrum can be reused over and over again.”

In other words, think about 5G as an initially limited range wireless network that may turn out to be best suited for fixed wireless service or limited range hotspots, especially before network densification helps make 5G service more ubiquitous. The wireless industry doesn’t think Wheeler’s vision will be enough to resolve capacity issues in the short term, and is calling on the FCC to release even more low and mid-band spectrum in the 600MHz range that can travel inside buildings and offer a wider coverage area.

Wheeler’s recognition that 5G’s shorter range signals will likely require a massive overlay of new infrastructure has also opened the door for the CTIA to call on the FCC to revisit local zoning and antenna placement rules and policies, with the likely goal of preempting or watering down local authority to accept or reject where cell phone companies want to place their next small cell or cell tower. Wireless companies are also expected to push for easy access to utility poles, time limits to approve new cell tower construction applications, and pricing regulation for fiber lines needed to connect 5G infrastructure to backhaul networks.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

Cell tower camouflage failure.

On the issue of backhaul — the connection between a cell tower and the wireless carrier’s network, the FCC is planning a pro-regulatory “anchor pricing” approach to benefit wireless companies. Consumers can also relate to being overcharged for slow speed Internet access with little or no competition, but the FCC is only acting for the benefit of the wireless companies for now — the same companies that would undoubtedly complain loudly if anchor pricing was ever applied to them.

“Lack of competition doesn’t just hurt the deployment of wireless networks today, it threatens as well to delay the buildout of 5G networks with its demand for many, many more backhaul connections to many, many more antennae,” complained Wheeler. “Before the end of this year the Commission will take up a reform proposal – supported by the nation’s leading wireless carriers, save one – that will encourage innovation and investment in Business Data Services while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold 5G hostage.”

While Wheeler’s goals are laudable, there are stunning examples of hypocrisy and self-interest from the wireless industry. Yet again, the industry is seeking regulatory protection from having to share spectrum with unlicensed users, existing licensees, or competitors.  No letting the “free market” decide here. Second, there are absolutely no assurances the wireless industry will deliver substantial home broadband competition. Verizon and AT&T will be effectively competing with themselves in areas where they already offer wired broadband. Is there a willingness from AT&T and Verizon to sell unlimited broadband over 5G networks or will customers be expected to pay “usage pack”-prices as high as $10 per gigabyte, which doesn’t include the monthly cost of the service itself. Offering customers unlimited 5G could cannibalize the massive profits earned selling data plans to wireless customers.

Cactus or cell tower

Cactus or cell tower

Upgrading to 5G service will be expensive and take years to reach many neighborhoods. Verizon’s chief financial officer believes 5G wireless will be more cost-effective to deploy than its FiOS fiber to the home network, but considering Verizon largely ended its deployment of FiOS several years ago and has allowed its DSL customers to languish just as long, 5G will need to be far more profitable to stimulate Verizon’s interest in spending tens of billions on 5G infrastructure. It does not seem likely the result will be $25/month unlimited, fiber-like fast, Internet plans.

Although the mobile industry will argue its investment dollars should be reason enough to further deregulate and dis-empower local officials that oversee the placement of cellular infrastructure, it would be a tremendous mistake to allow wireless carriers to erect cell towers and small cells wherever they see fit. Most small cells aren’t much larger than a toaster and will probably fit easily on utility poles. But it will likely spark another wave of pole access controversies. The aesthetics of traditional cell tower placement, especially in historical districts, parks, and suburbs, almost always create controversy. The FCC should not tip the balance of authority for tower placement away from those that have to live with the results.

The mobile industry doesn’t make investments for free, and before we reward them for investing in their networks, let’s recall the United States pays some of the highest mobile service prices in the world. The industry argues what you get in return for that $100+ wireless bill is better than ever, an argument similarly used by the cable industry to justify charging $80 a month for hundreds of channels you don’t watch or want. Therefore, incentives offered to the wireless industry should be tied to permanent pro-consumer commitments, such as unlimited 5G broadband, better rural coverage, and the power to unbundle current wireless packages and ditch services like unlimited texting many customers don’t need. Otherwise, it’s just another one-sided corporate welfare plan we can’t afford.

Middle Mile Madness: Rural Florida Blows $24 Million on Wireless Network Serving Nobody

12126179-florida-rural-broadband-alliance-logoA word to the wise: using public money to build a middle mile broadband network without any customers lined up to sign up is a disaster waiting to happen.

In April, the disaster arrived in the form of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing on behalf of the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA), which threw away $24 million in federal grants on a network that was so unviable, the contractor that was supposed to run it apparently ran away instead, resulting in confusion and an eventual declaration it was “doomed to fail” anyway.

The sordid story started almost seven years ago when Florida’s Heartland Regional Economic Development Initiative (FHREDI) and Opportunity Florida (OF) — two non-profit organizations dedicated to spurring economic development across rural Florida, discovered federal grant money was available for rural Internet expansion as part of the Obama Administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The two groups fashioned a broadband proposal they were confident would win approval. At the time, rural broadband across northwest and south-central Florida was dismal at best, with only 39% of homes covered. Largely unserved by cable and barely served with DSL from AT&T and other telephone companies, the two groups believed a wireless network would be the best solution for Hardee, DeSoto, Highlands, Okeechobee, Glades, Hendry, Holmes, Washington, Jackson, Gadsden, Calhoun, Liberty, Gulf and Franklin counties.

empty-office

$24 million spent and nothing to show for it.

Although $24 million is not an insubstantial sum, it was clearly never adequate to build a comprehensive rural broadband network reaching homes and businesses. Instead, the two groups envisioned a “middle mile” network funded by the government, with central offices in Orlando and Tallahassee equipped with microwave dishes and computer servers. Unlike most middle mile networks, the one proposed by the FRBA would rely on a network of microwave towers instead of fiber optics, and would ultimately serve all of its customers over a wireless network.

When complete, the wireless network was supposed to deliver up to 1Gbps capacity throughout the region, relying on leased space on existing cell towers to support microwave links that would bounce signals from one area to the next. Initially promising to serve more than 174,000 homes and 16,400 businesses, the one immediate flaw noticed by those skeptical of the proposal was the lack of a definitive plan to sell Internet service to paying residential and business customers. The brochures suggested existing commercial Internet Service Providers would magically step into that role. Early critics called that “wishful thinking.”

Despite what some felt was an untenable business plan and an incomplete application, the group won its federal “BTOP” grant of $24 million in 2010 and began a very lengthy planning process using well-paid consultants to get the network fully scoped out and built. Within a year, controversy quickly threatened to swamp the project, and a congressional oversight investigation quickly found evidence of wasteful spending and put its funding on hold. That would hardly be the first allegation raised against the FRBA and those overseeing it. By 2013, the Columbia County Observer had run more than a dozen stories reporting irregularities and other problems with the project. Few were noticed more than the report Rapid Systems, Inc., one of the contractors on the project, had filed a $25 million lawsuit replete with soap operatic allegations against FRBA for not being paid for its work.

Rapid Systems CEO, Dustin Jurman and CFO/VP Denise Hamilton. (Image: Columbia County Observer)

Rapid Systems CEO, Dustin Jurman and CFO/VP Denise Hamilton. (Image: Columbia County Observer)

Rapid Systems alleged everything from fraud and double-dipping to sexual promiscuity over what it called the “FRBA Fraud Scheme.”

At the heart of the lawsuit were allegations money was being misspent, “to pay inflated salaries to employees, who then fled to South America, and that grant money was used for inflated fees to consulting companies which were owned by FRBA principals.”

Rapid Systems claimed FRBA was very generous paying management consulting fees of $10,000 a month to an entity known as the Government Service Group (GSG), along with a pro rata share (3% of the grant) for a “Grant Compliance Fee” and an additional 13% of the grant as a “Capital Improvement Program Administrative Fee.” And you thought only Comcast and Time Warner Cable were creative conjuring up fees. When added up, it appeared just one consultant — GSG — would walk away with 16% of the entire grant — nearly $4 million in total “management fees” before a single broadband connection would be made.

The lawsuit also claimed the grant money was gorged on by the leadership of both non-profits, one who allegedly relocated to South America the lawsuit states in another aside. The two “were being paid fees in the amount of $8,500 a month to themselves cloaked as administrative and community outreach funds,” according to the lawsuit.

Phillip Dampier: To be a credible supporter of community broadband, it is responsible to call out the disasters so that they are not repeated.

Phillip Dampier: To be a credible supporter of community broadband, it is responsible to call out the disasters so they are not repeated.

Meanwhile, the public eagerly awaiting something better than the non-broadband AT&T and some independent phone companies were supplying in the region couldn’t get answers about the project’s progress. Neither could the media, which reported the business phone number for the FRBA would ring unanswered for hours or days. Those hired to provide community outreach about the broadband project were frequently unable to answer even basic questions about the network or its status, or where the principals involved in the project even met.

By 2014, Opportunity Florida’s Facebook page claimed the network was 90% complete. But the project now decidedly downplayed how many homes and businesses would get service. Instead, the middle mile network promoted itself as an institutional network, dedicated primarily to serving “community anchor institutions:”

The FRBA system provides lower cost, high capacity broadband to Community Anchor Institutions, commonly referred to as “CAIs.” CAIs include local government and public agencies including schools, libraries and hospitals. The NTIA grant was initiated with these unserved or underserved CAIs as the intended target. Most government and public services have moved, or are in the process of moving, to paperless transactions and record-keeping and need the additional broadband and Internet based capabilities. Another benefit of the FRBA system will be capacity to schools and libraries as both those institutions face online and digital mandates.

Commercial ISPs willing to use the network to offer service to individual non-institutional customers were invited to visit an Opportunity Florida webpage (now gone) for more information. There is no evidence any major ISP ever bothered. In fact, even institutional users didn’t seem very interested. We remain unclear if there was ever a single paying customer on the network, despite a report filed by the NFBA with the federal government that claimed through September 30, 2012, the NFBA had 11 anchor institutions, zero residents, and zero businesses hooked up to its network.

A year later, the Columbia County Observer went further and called some of those involved in evangelizing the project “clueless,” and based on the post-mortem of what has happened since, they may be right.

Those directly involved in the project have since displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about its operations and practices, or what has become of the $24 million:

The unfortunate "I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing" brigade.

The unfortunate “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing” brigade answers questions from the media.

  • Gina Reynolds, the last executive director of FHREDI, which administered FRBA, claimed the network was running fine when she left in the summer of 2015 to start her own economic development consultancy. She may be among the very few that got out before the project ultimately fell apart. Although FHREDI managed to pay her for her services, it suddenly lacked any resources to pay anyone to replace her after she left;
  • Greg Harris, a Highlands County commissioner and FHREDI director, disclosed at a recent county commission meeting FRBA was in Chapter 7 bankruptcy and the group that oversaw it — FHREDI, was being dissolved. But like the phoenix rising from the ashes, some of those involved in FHREDI and FRBA are now associating themselves with a new group called the Florida Heartland Economic Region of Opportunity (FHERO). Says Harris: “We didn’t really know what FHREDI was doing. They were spending most of their opportunity on FRBA and the rural broadband. It got away from what we really needed to focus on.”
  • Terry Burroughs, an Okeechobee County commissioner, is FHERO’s chairman. But last year, the ex-telephone company executive was a FHREDI board member. His memory is excellent about where the taxpayer-funded equipment to run the network eventually ended up: in warehouses in Lake Placid and Tallahassee. But his answers were more vague when asked how things went so wrong. Burroughs tried to put substantial distance between himself and the failed wireless broadband network: “When I first got on the board, they were trying to negotiate with a contractor. Gina [Reynolds] was working with that, and it went on and on and on. There was probably a network at some given time, but I don’t think a last mile ever deployed. When I got there, the last mile was dark. … I never knew of a paying customer. They were trying to build a telephone company, and they were doomed to failure.”
  • Paul McGehee, business development manager for Glades Electric and a FHERO director, did an even better job explaining he knew nothing, saw nothing, and heard (almost) nothing: “The operator who was contracted to run it as a company stepped away from it,” McGehee said, adding he could not recall the contractor’s name. The flaw in FRBA’s plan, according to McGehee, was that while the grant bought the equipment, there were no federal funds for operations. “No one wanted to step up and operate the network, and there was no way to pay the tower leases… The end product wasn’t a viable sustainable thing.”

fhrediToo bad nobody bothered to consider that before spending $24 million of the taxpayers’ money on a non-viable network.

Commissioner Jim Brooks didn’t seem too bothered by the admissions of total failure. After hearing an explanation about the network’s demise and the money spent on it, he told his fellow commissioners he “didn’t have a problem with it.”

A multitude of articles that have documented this disaster (including our own from September 2011) illustrates what can happen when over-enthusiastic consultants overwhelm projects with happy talk not recognized as such by a board that has little or no understanding of the technology, the broadband business, or, in this case, the project itself. The claims and projections consistently simply bore no reality… to reality. What is even more concerning is some of those consultants didn’t work for free, and may have tapped a substantial portion of the total available grant for themselves.

It is also remarkable and disappointing to read candid assessments about a project “doomed to failure” from those with direct knowledge and or involvement only after the liquidator from the federal government turns up. As stewards of public taxpayer money, one expects more than a shrug of the shoulders and a quiet shuffle dance out of FHREDI into a new, reincarnated “rural economic development” initiative. How can we trust the same mistakes won’t be made again?

We remain strong supporters of community broadband, but messes like this hand potent ammunition to corporate-ISP-funded think tanks that use these kinds of failures to sully all public broadband projects. We must call out of the bad ones to be seen as credible supporting the good ones. It also never hurts to learn from others’ mistakes.

Among the biggest reasons this project was a flop (beyond the dubious skills of those in charge of overseeing it) was its size, scope, and technology choice. The biggest challenge to any rural broadband project is always “the last mile” — the point where the connection leaves a regional fiber network and reaches a nearby neighborhood’s utility poles and finally enters your home. It also happens to be the most costly segment of the network, and often the hardest to fund with government subsidies. But it is the one that makes the difference for individual homeowners and businesses who either have broadband or don’t.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Like too many middle mile projects of this type, the story initially fed to the press and supporters is that such networks will somehow alleviate rural broadband problems. Only later do supporters realize they are actually getting an institutional middle mile network that will offer service to hospitals, schools, and public safety buildings — not to homes and businesses. Ordinary citizens cannot access such networks unless a commercial ISP shows interest in leasing it to resell, which is unlikely. The closest most will ever get to experiencing an institutional network they paid for is staring at the fiber cable stretched across the utility poles in front of your house.

FRBA was too ambitious in size and scope, and a credible consultant should have advised those in charge to get credible evidence that a network built with grant money could be sustained without it going forward. If not, scale back the project or don’t apply for the grant.

This project proposed a wireless backbone to power a large regional wireless network. Winning support among anchor institutions was predictably difficult, because many already have existing contracts with commercial telecom companies. With government funding available in many instances, an institution can get full fiber or metro Ethernet service easier than a rural farmer can get 6Mbps DSL from a disinterested phone company.

The evidence shows there were few takers — institutional or otherwise — of what FRBA had to offer. Did the project organizers not see this lack of interest as a problem as the network prepared to launch? After launch, there were almost immediate signs it lacked enough of a customer base to sustain itself. Did the project backers assume the government would bail out the network or dump millions more into it to make it viable to sell to homes and businesses? Such assumptions would have been irresponsible.

There are too many underutilized middle mile or institutional fiber networks already built with taxpayer dollars that remain off-limits to those who paid to build them. Utilizing those networks by extending grant funding for last mile projects would be helpful, as would sufficient subsidies to assure middle mile construction is followed by last mile construction and actual service. We remain big believers in fiber to the home service. Although expensive, such projects are best positioned for success and future viability and can take advantage of the massive amount of dark fiber already laid in many areas. Some cities prefer to run the networks themselves, others contract day-to-day operations out to independent operators. Either would be preferable to a network that took six years to build and fail, without any evidence it could attract, support and sustain enough customers to support anything close to viability.

Jesse Jackson Compares Set Top Box Competition to Bull Connor’s Fire Hoses

Bull Connor was Birmingham, Ala.'s notorious Commissioner of Public Safety

Bull Connor was Birmingham, Ala.’s notorious Commissioner of Public Safety in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In an astonishing guest editorial published by USA TODAY, Rev. Jesse Jackson evoked imagery of the 1960s civil rights movement as a backdrop to claim the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to promote an open, competitive market for set-top boxes was racist.

“National news coverage of the snarling dogs, water hoses and church bombings in the American South were the catalysts to exposing the ugly truths of racism and bigotry in the 1960s. Local news outlets gave new meaning to what the struggle looked like for people on its front lines,” wrote Jackson. “That is why a new proposal at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate TV ‘set top boxes’ has raised so much concern.”

That “concern” has come almost entirely from the cable and telco-TV industry and their allies, which have compared the potential breakup of a lucrative cable TV equipment monopoly to anti-Americanism, minority television genocide, an invitation to piracy and a pathway for total world domination by Google.

In April, we reported the rhetoric surrounding the proposal, which would create an open standard allowing any manufacturer to make and sell their own set-top box, had already taken Hyperbole Hill. But Rev. Jackson’s latest guest editorial rockets the ridiculousness of the cable industry’s opposition into the stratosphere.

Jackson claims (wrongly) the proposal will lead third-party manufacturers to segregate minority television content, apparently in a way that resembles life in rural Mississippi in 1962. It evokes dreams of hordes of Google vans roaming across the southern countryside looking for trouble by stripping networks like Revolt and Vme TV of their ad revenue and copyright protection. It just isn’t true. But one line in Jackson’s commentary does prove revealing — noting all these terrible events could all take place “without any compensation.”

Jackson

Jackson

This is the diamond in the rough of this near-senseless editorial. Like most things in the world of Big Telecom public policy, it’s all about the money. Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition apparently isn’t what it used to be. Originally created to promote civil rights and diversity, the organization these days is just as likely to promote Big Telecom mergers and its public policy agenda, usually in exchange for contributions to Jackson’s groups, although such quid-pro-quo is always hotly denied. Therefore, we shall call them monetary “coincidences.” His coincidental association with Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and others runs back more than a decade:

  • Bell Atlantic (later Verizon) coincidentally donated $1 million to Jackson and his groups. In 1999, Jackson coincidentally endorsed the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic into a new entity known as Verizon, which coincidentally pledged $300,000 to Jackson annually through the year 2002;
  • In 1998 Jackson was strongly opposed to the merger of SBC and Ameritech (which would later emerge as AT&T), suggesting it was anti-democratic. After the two companies donated $500,000 to Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund (given a dubious rating by Charity Navigator), Jackson coincidentally did a complete 180, praising the merger. It didn’t hurt that Ameritech coincidentally sold part of its cellular business to Georgetown Partners, owned coincidentally by one of Jackson’s closest friends.
  • Not to be left out, AT&T coincidentally donated $425,000 to Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund in 1999, right after Jackson coincidentally withdrew his opposition to the merger of AT&T and TCI Cable (later sold to Comcast).
  • Jackson coincidentally has maintained a regular presence in proceedings involving Comcast’s various business dealings, particularly its merger with NBCUniversal, which it coincidentally endorsed as “pro-consumer.”

bullhoseJackson mentioned his views have the support of certain other civil rights organization including the National Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), two groups Stop the Cap! has written about extensively regarding their ongoing committed support of Big Telecom mergers, deregulation, and other public policy agendas. They don’t work for free — substantial contributions and other compensation from those same companies head into the coffers of both groups. LULAC counts AT&T, Comcast, Cox, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Time Warner Cable and Verizon as members of their “corporate alliance.” None of those companies support the FCC’s plan to open up the set-top box marketplace.

Jackson cheapens the legacy of the civil rights movement in his efforts to draw comparisons between the horrible atrocities of the past with the fat equipment profits the cable industry is counting on in the future.

His views are also simply provably wrong. Jackson’s claim that the government was somehow responsible for the destruction of local multicultural newspapers at a time when the entire newspaper industry continues to struggle against online media is ludicrous. His myopic view that the elimination of a minority tax certificate program is the reason minorities don’t own many radio and television stations today ignores the fact many former minority owners cashed out and sold those stations (at a massive profit) after the Clinton Administration deregulated the industry in the late 1990s, which lead to a massive wave of ownership consolidation. Finding individuals, minority or otherwise, that still own local radio and television stations isn’t as easy as it once was.

opinionJackson and his supporters are wasting their time fighting to preserve the dying concept of the 500-channel linear TV marketplace. Consumers, minorities included, are not clamoring for more minority networks littering the cable dial that spend much of their broadcast day airing program length commercials and reruns of Good Times or The Cosby Show. Many of these networks only add to the growing cost of cable TV. Viewers want on-demand access to quality original programming they can actually find and watch.

We’d also remind Jackson minorities also pay the outrageous price of set-top box rentals, something Jackson and his organization should be sensitive about. Busting the set-top box monopoly means every American will pay lower rates for this equipment. We do understand it won’t help Jackson’s bank account, or those of other civil rights groups that kowtow to their corporate friends, but who exactly do they represent?

Daring to suggest that this debate has anything to do with Bull Connor’s outrageous behavior in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, where Connor ordered the city fire department to turn fire hoses on peaceful civil rights protesters and attacked them with police dogs, tarnishes the reputation of Jackson and his group and demonstrates just how desperate the cable industry is getting trying to credibly defend a monopoly. Jackson should withdraw those remarks.

Verizon: Forget About FiOS, We’re Moving to a Broadband Wireless World

Who needs FiOS when you can get 5G wireless service with a data plan?

Who needs FiOS when you can get 5G wireless service with a data plan?

Fran Shammo has a message for Verizon customers and investors: fiber optic broadband is so… yesterday. Your millennial kids aren’t interested in gigabit speed, unlimited use Internet in the home. They want to watch most of their content on a smartphone and spend more on usage-capped wireless plans.

Shammo is Verizon’s money man – the chief financial officer and prognosticator of the great Internet future.

Like his boss, CEO Lowell McAdam, Frammo has his feet firmly planted in the direction of Verizon Wireless, the phone company’s top moneymaker. If one ever wondered why Verizon Communications has let FiOS expansion wither on the vine, Mr. McAdam and Mr. Shammo would be the two to speak with.

This week, Shammo doubled down on his pro-wireless rhetoric while attending the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2016 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference — one of many regular gathering spots for Wall Street analysts and investors. He left little doubt about the direction Verizon was headed in.

Shammo

Shammo

“As we look at the world if you will, and we look at our ecosystem, […] the world is moving to a broadband wireless world,” Shammo told the audience. “Now, I am really – when I say world, I am really talking the U.S., right. So, but I do think the world is moving to a wireless world.”

In Shammo’s view, the vast majority of people want to consume content, including entertainment, over a 4G LTE (or future 5G) wireless network on a portable device tied to a data plan. Shammo predicted wireless usage will surpass DSL, cable broadband, and even FiOS consumption in 3-5 years. If he’s right, that means a mountain of money for Verizon and its investors, as consumers will easily have to spend over $100 a month just on a data plan sufficient to cope with Shammo’s predicted usage curve. In fact, your future Verizon Wireless bill will likely rival what you pay for cable television, broadband, and phone service together.

Millennials don’t want fiber, they want wireless data plans

Shammo argued millennials are driving the transition to wireless, claiming they already watch most of their entertainment over smartphones and tablets, not home broadband or linear TV. His view is the rest of us are soon to follow. Shammo claims those under 30 are turning down cable television and disconnecting their home broadband service because they prefer wireless. Others wonder if it is more a matter of being able to afford both. A 2013 survey by Pew data found 84% of households making more than $54,000 have broadband. That number drops to 54% when annual household incomes are lower than $30,000 per year. But those income-challenged millennials don’t always forego Internet access — some rely on their wireless smartphone to access online content instead.

A microcell

A microcell

Verizon Wireless may be banking on the same kind of “hard choice” many made about their landline service. Pay for a landline and a mobile phone, or just keep mobile and disconnect the home phone to save money. Usage growth curves may soon force a choice about increasing your data plan or keeping broadband service at home. Shammo is betting most need Verizon Wireless more.

Verizon FiOS is really about network densification of our 4G LTE network

Shammo continued to frame its FiOS network as “east coast-centric” and almost a piece of nostalgia. The recent decision to expand FiOS in Boston is not based on a renewed belief in the future of fiber, Shammo admitted, it is being done primarily to lay the infrastructure needed to densify Verizon’s existing LTE wireless network in metro Boston to better manage increased wireless usage. Shammo’s spending priorities couldn’t be clearer.

“Obviously, we said, we would build up Boston now, because it makes sense from a LTE perspective,” Shammo said. “We can spend $300 million over the next three years to make that more palatable to expand FIOS. So we will continue to expand that broadband connection via fiber where it makes financial sense for us.”

verizon 5gIn other words, it is much easier to justify capital expenses of $300 million on network expansion to Wall Street if you explain it’s primarily for the high-profit wireless side of the business, not to give customers an alternative to Time Warner Cable or Comcast. FiOS powers cell sites as well as much smaller microcells and short-distance antennas designed to manage usage in high traffic neighborhoods.

Shammo also believes Verizon must not just be a ‘dumb wireless’ connection. Controlling and distributing content is also critically important, and Shammo is still a big believer in Verizon’s ho-hum GO90 platform, which compared to Hulu and Netflix couldn’t draw flies.

Even Verizon CEO McAdam admitted a few weeks ago at another Wall Street conference GO90 was “a little bit overhyped.” Most of GO90’s content library is mostly short video clips targeted at millennials with short attention spans. The downside of making that your target audience is the rumor many who sampled the service early on have already forgotten about it and moved on.

Forget about congested home and on-the-go Wi-Fi and expensive fiber optics. Verizon will sell you 5G wireless (with a data plan) for everywhere.

Shammo believes the future isn’t good for Wi-Fi in the home and on-the-go. As data demands increase, he believes Wi-Fi will become slow and overcongested.

“There is a quality of service with our network that you can’t get with others,” Shammo said. “I mean, most people in this room would realize that when Wi-Fi gets clogged, quality of service goes significantly down. It’s an unmanaged network. You can’t manage that.”

Instead, Verizon will eventually deploy 5G wireless instead of FiOS in many areas without fiber optic service today. Frammo said 5G would cost Verizon a lot less than fiber, “because there is no labor to dig up your front lawn, lay in fiber, or be able to fix something.”

Shammo doesn’t believe 5G wireless will replace 4G LTE wireless, however.

“LTE will be here for a very long time and be the predominant voice, text, data platform for mobile,” Shammo said.

So instead of unlimited fiber optic broadband, Verizon plans to sell home broadband customers something closer to Wi-Fi, except with a data allowance. It’s a return to fixed wireless service.

Verizon Wireless' existing fixed wireless service is heavily usage capped and no cheap.

Verizon Wireless’ existing fixed wireless service is heavily usage capped and not cheap.

Just a few short years ago, Verizon was looking to fixed wireless as a replacement for rural DSL and landline service. Now Shammo sees the economics as favorable to push a similar service on all of its customers, except those already fitted for FiOS. That changes the dynamics on usage as well, because Verizon Wireless ditched unlimited service several years ago except for a dwindling number of customer grandfathered in on its old unlimited plan.

Current 4G LTE fixed wireless customers can expect 5-12Mbps speeds with data plan options of $60 for 10GB, $90 for 20GB, or $120 for 30GB. The 5G service would be substantially faster than Verizon’s current fixed LTE wireless service, but the company’s philosophy favoring data caps for wireless services makes it likely customers will pay much higher prices for service, higher than Verizon charges for FiOS itself.

Verizon Workers Return to Jobs After Union Declares Victory

cwaThe Communications Workers of America just proved there is strength in numbers. After 39,000 network technicians and customer service representatives employed by Verizon Communications went on strike April 13 after nearly a year without a contract, Wall Street pondered the potential impact of $200 million in lost business for Verizon’s FiOS, phone and television services.

Reports from customers and union observers suggested Verizon’s temporary workforce of strike replacements proved inept and unsafe, putting increasing pressure on Verizon executives to respond to union demands to share a piece of Verizon’s vast and increasing profits.

The CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have also been some of the strongest advocates of pushing Verizon to continue service upgrades, particularly for its FiOS fiber to the home service. The unions believe the fiber upgrades not only benefit the workers who install and maintain the optical fiber network, but also help Verizon sell more products and services to customers who would love an alternative to their local cable company. Although Verizon FiOS has a substantial presence in major Eastern Seaboard cities, vast areas of Verizon territory are still dependent on its aging copper wire networks that can handle little more than basic landline service and slow speed DSL.

The seven week strike was the largest and longest strike action in the United States since 2011, and attracted the attention of the Obama Administration and the two Democratic candidates for president. It was also one of the most effective, from the union’s point of view.

Verizon workers have been on strike since April 13.

Verizon workers have been on strike since April 13.

Verizon executives eventually agreed to ‘share the wealth’ with workers, offering to hire 1,400 new permanent employees and pay raises just above 10 percent. It was a long journey for the workers and the unions, which have fought for a new comprehensive agreement with the company for several years. The CWA last struck Verizon for two weeks after negotiations deadlocked in 2011. Their latest contract ended last August, leading the union to begin several months of “informational picketing,” which effectively meant workers visibly protested Verizon’s policies towards its employees but stayed on the job while doing so.

Conservative groups attacked the unions and defended Verizon officials in editorials and columns. Billionaire Steve Forbes called Verizon employees “bamboozled” and greedy. Unless workers capitulated to Verizon executives’ wise and realistic demands, “Big Labor” would reduce Verizon’s tech revolution to something that “looks more like Detroit than Silicon Valley.” Forbes had nothing to say about Verizon’s explosive growth in compensation and bonus packages for the company’s top executives, or its increased debt load from buying out Vodafone, its former wireless partner, or its generous dividend payouts and share buybacks to benefit shareholders.

Did Verizon Capitulate Because it Intends to Sell Off its Wireline Networks?

Is Verizon planning on selling off its wireline networks?

Is Verizon planning on selling off its wireline networks?

Some on Wall Street were visibly annoyed that Verizon capitulated. Some analysts predicted it was the beginning of the end of Verizon remaining in the wired networks business.

“They needed to end the strike and they bit the bullet,” said Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. He said he thinks the deal “reinforced their commitment to basically exiting [wireline], the least profitable, most problematic part of the business. [The new contract] gives Verizon four years basically to get rid of the unit. Let it be somebody else’s problem.”

That somebody else is likely Frontier Communications. Stop the Cap! has predicted for more than a year our expectation Verizon Communications will continue to gradually sell off its wired service areas, starting with those inland regions not FiOS-enabled, to Frontier as that smaller company’s capacity to borrow money to finance transactions allows. Frontier has a strong interest in staying in the wireline business, and is acknowledged to have stable and friendly relations with its unionized workforce, including former Verizon workers.

Jim Patterson, CEO of Patterson Advisory Group, believes Verizon’s recent investments in fiber optics signals it does intend to stay in the wireline business. But there is a careful line to be drawn between wireline investments in services like FiOS and those made to support its much more profitable wireless unit, Verizon Wireless.

Bruce Kushnick, executive director of New Networks Institute, is increasingly skeptical about Verizon’s FiOS spending priorities.

Shammo

Shammo

“According to the NY Attorney General, about 75% of Verizon NY’s wireline utility budget has been diverted to fund the construction of fiber optic lines that are used by Verizon Wireless’s cell site facilities and FiOS cable TV,” Kushnick wrote last week in a Huffington Post article that questions Verizon’s announced investments in wiring Boston with fiber optics for FiOS. “On the 1st Quarter 2016 Verizon earnings call, [chief financial officer Fran] Shammo said that the build out is for another Verizon company – Verizon Wireless—and it is going to be paid for by the wireline, state utility— Verizon Massachusetts; i.e., it is diverting the wireline construction budgets to do another company’s build out of fiber, to be used for wireless services.”

If Kushnick is right, Verizon may not care whether the service area(s) it sells are well-fibered or not. The fact Verizon recently sold FiOS-enabled service areas in Texas, Florida, and California to Frontier Communications may bolster Kushnick’s case. Shammo’s statements to Wall Street suggest Verizon is primarily attracted to investing in areas where it needs to improve its wireless service, not its landline, broadband, and television services, delivered over FiOS fiber optics.

“We’ll take one city at a time,” Shammo said on the same conference call. “Obviously we still don’t have Alexandria (Virginia) built out or Baltimore. So if we get to a position where we believe we’re going to need to invest in [wireless network/cell] densification in those cities, then that’s an opportunity for us to take a look at it. But at this time we’re concentrating on Boston.”

Unions Can Make a Big Difference for Workers

Nobody believes individual workers could have negotiated the kind of salary and benefits package the CWA and IBEW won for their organized workforces. The New York Daily News heralded the end of the strike as “score one for the middle class — and for the importance of collective bargaining.”

As wages continue to stagnate for most Americans, union supporters call organized labor the last bulwark against a global wage race to the bottom for the middle class. Challenged by cheap labor overseas, increasing health care costs, and government policies some claim only promote accelerating wealth for about 1% of the population, the CWA’s victory forced Verizon to share some of its profits with the workers that helped make those profits possible.

Share the wealth

Share the wealth

“Executives get performance bonuses, stock awards, and retention bonuses for doing a good job, so why shouldn’t we?” argued one picketer outside of a Wall Street event featuring a Verizon executive.

Verizon’s last “final offer” before capitulating was a 6.5% salary hike and little, if any, future job security. Now Verizon will have to hire additional permanent call center workers instead of outsourcing that work to Asian-based call centers. The unions also won other concessions that reduce compulsory relocation to other cities, canceled planned pension and disability insurance cuts, and the CWA got its first contract for Verizon’s previously non-unionized wireless retail force.

Unintended Consequences: Feds Let Telecom Companies Skirt Taxes While States Crack Down

Tax-FreeSome of America’s largest telecommunications companies continue to pay almost nothing in federal taxes even as state taxing authorities hungry for revenue  are getting more aggressive about denying access to tax loopholes and suing some for failing to pay their fair share.

Special interest-inspired “pro-business” loopholes have been a growing part of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan Administration. The premise seemed reasonable enough: high corporate taxes are simply passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business, so lowering them will trickle savings down to the consumer and also free capital to create more jobs. It has not worked that way, however. Product pricing for services like broadband have been based more on what customers believe the product is worth, not what it costs to deliver, and Verizon was among the companies cited for significant job cuts after its corporate tax rate plummeted. Regardless of corporate tax rates, providers continue to raise broadband prices, even as the costs to provide the service are declining. The old maxim of charging what the market will bear is alive and well. So where do the tax savings go? Into share buybacks, shareholder dividend payouts, increased executive salaries and bonuses, and lobbying.

Some states are discovering they have been leaving money on the table when they don’t insist on collecting owed state taxes, and as state budgets continue to be strapped with increasing medical and infrastructure-related expenses, taking companies to court who try to avoid their tax obligations is getting more popular.

One of the biggest potential windfalls could eventually fill New York State coffers with $300 million in damages and penalties courtesy of Sprint, which was accused of deliberately not billing customers for state taxes on its wireless services over seven years.

SprintYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Sprint’s effort to void an October 2015 New York Court of Appeals decision that would allow the state to proceed to court arguing Sprint intentionally failed to collect more than $100 million in taxes from New Yorkers from 2005 on. At the time, Sprint was attempting to rebuild its market share by luring customers with cheaper mobile service. One way to offer a lower price is to stop charging tax. In New York alone, municipalities lost $4.6 million a month as a result of the scheme.

Sprint has repeatedly argued the lawsuit is invalid because a 2000 federal law trumps a 2002 New York State law that covered state taxes. The court disagreed, and the fact a whistleblower at Sprint revealed what Sprint was up to didn’t help. The case will now likely head to state court or get settled.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-bannerWhile $300 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the money Verizon manages to dodge paying the Internal Revenue Service. The phone company is the poster child of corporate tax dodging according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders targeted Verizon because between 2008-2013, Verizon not only did not pay a nickel in federal taxes, it actually received a refund from the federal government after achieving a federal tax rate of -2.5%, despite booking $42.5 billion in profits. American taxpayers effectively subsidized Verizon when it got its refund check.

In the last two years, Verizon is paying federal taxes once again, but at a rate of 12.4%, well below the tax rate of most middle class Americans.

It’s a sensitive matter for Verizon, because CEO Lowell McAdam launched a full-scale media blitz trying to paint the Sanders campaign as inaccurate. McAdam claims Verizon actually paid a 35% tax rate in 2015, which would only be true if the company added the tax obligations it owes on the billions of dollars it stashes in overseas bank accounts. Foreign taxes don’t help the American taxpayer, suggest critics, and Citizens for Tax Justice consider McAdam’s claims “artificial.”

“In fact, over the past 15 years, Verizon has paid a federal tax rate averaging just 12.4 percent on $121 billion in U.S. profits, meaning that the company has found a way to shelter about two-thirds of its U.S. profits from federal taxes over this period,” the group claims. “In five of the last 15 years, the company paid zero in federal taxes. While there is no indication that this spectacular feat of tax avoidance is anything but legal (the company’s consistently low tax rates are most likely due to overly generous accelerated depreciation tax provisions that Congress has expanded over the last decade), few Americans would describe the company avoiding tax on $78 billion of profits as ‘fair.’”

unintendedBruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, claims Verizon also specializes in dumping most of its costs and “losses” on Verizon Communications, which owns its legacy wireline network, which helps them cut their tax obligations.

Too often, changes to the U.S. tax code have unintentional consequences, especially when corporations can hire tax attorneys that outclass those working for the federal government.

Fredric Grundeman helped draft a tax bill that was supposed to curb loopholes in the estate tax and though well-trained as a trusted attorney at the Treasury Department, the bill quickly backfired. The new law opened even larger loopholes than those it was originally written to close, allowing some of America’s richest families to pass on money to heirs with no tax implications at all. Grundeman admits legislators often don’t recognize a new tax law’s potential for abuse.

“How do I say it?” Grundeman told Bloomberg News back in 2013. “When Congress enacts a law, it isn’t always well thought out.”

That is also true on the state level.

Oregon officials push a button to exempt Google Fiber from a state property tax.

Oregon officials push a legislative button and give Google Fiber a tax break. Then Comcast shows up.

Oregon wants to attract Google Fiber to Portland, but Google objected to one of the state’s property tax provisions that affects companies that sell data services. Oregon partly sets the tax rate commensurate with the value of the provider’s brand name, among other factors. It’s all very vague, but not so vague that Google would miss it could pay an even higher tax rate that its competitors — Comcast and CenturyLink.

Oregon’s legislature voted to correct the problem by exempting providers that offer gigabit broadband. The tax law changes were tailored to benefit Google, assuming Comcast and CenturyLink would continue to drag their feet to upgrade their Oregon networks.

But the enterprising lawyers at Comcast promptly requested the same tax exemption that Google would get in return for building its fiber network in the state. The reason? Comcast had introduced its own gigabit Internet service on a much more limited scale.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) admitted Oregon had another law on its hands with unintended consequences. Barnhart told utility regulators this spring his fellow lawmakers never intended to give the tax break to Comcast, which charges hundreds of dollars for 2,000Mbps service. But nobody bothered to set any price guidelines in the law, meaning Google can charge $70 a month for gigabit service and get a tax break and Comcast can offer 2Gbps service in a limited number of locations, at the “go away” price of $300 a month, with start-up costs up to $1,000, and a multi-year contract, and get the exact same tax break.

Barnhart

Barnhart

Or maybe not, at least for now.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Revenue ruled Comcast is not eligible for that tax break, at least not this year, according to The Oregonian. The department wouldn’t explain why, citing taxpayer confidentiality. For good measure, the same department also rejected applications from Google Fiber and Frontier Communications (Frontier operates a very limited FiOS fiber to the home network in communities including Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham that it inherited from Verizon), claiming Google and Frontier’s gigabit networks were theoretical in Oregon and there needed to be gigabit service actually up and running to qualify.

That leaves Google in a classic catch-22. It won’t bring fiber to Oregon so long as it faces a stiff tax bill and tax authorities won’t forgive the tax until there is gigabit fiber up and running. For some taxpayers, what burns the most is the legislature paved the road to tax bliss to attract Google Fiber, but the only company that may actually ultimately travel down it is Comcast.

Another Fine Mess: Ex-Verizon Customers Still Complaining About Frontier

frontierThe 24-hour emergency hotline at Alcoholics Anonymous in Ventura County, Calif., rang only sporadically back in April and it wasn’t because Simi Valley, Ojai, and Thousand Oaks were overrun with teetotalers.  The director of the center blamed Frontier Communications for phone outages, which began right after it took over phone service for Verizon.

In Garland, Tex., Carolyn Crawford has had nothing but excuses about her service outage, which began April 11.

“When you call you receive scripted responses and when you send a message on Facebook you receive robotic responses,” Crawford told the Dallas Morning News.

In Florida, the Sarasota Tribune put an online form up to collect complaints about Frontier and had 662 registered over just one weekend. One complaint:

“It’s our seventh day with no phone, no Internet and no answers,” said Howard Duff of Bradenton.

He said he had spent 45 minutes to an hour on a cell phone before getting through to someone, then spent hours for several days with Frontier tech support, disconnecting and reconnecting equipment and relaying information about lights. On Thursday, when he reached a Frontier technician who wanted him to begin the same checks, Duff refused to go through it all again. Instead, he was given a repair ticket number and was told someone would contact him. He was still waiting Monday afternoon.

“They really don’t care about the people in Florida,” Duff said. “Who can we call? What can we do?”

txcaflmap

Frontier’s latest acquisition involves Verizon’s wireline networks in Texas, Florida, and California.

Back in late April, more than 11,000 comments from Frontier customers around the country have been posted to its Facebook page, mostly to complain about service problems. They affect both residential and business customers.

Michael Camp of Parker, Tex. says Frontier’s reliability has killed his business’ ability to make international business calls.

“It’s like trying to work in a Third World country,” he said.

The first challenge Frontier customers with service problems face is a dreaded interaction with Frontier’s customer service. The challenges can start right away, such as trying to prove to the phone company you actually are one of their customers.

At S.O.S Resale Boutique and Veteran’s Communication Center in Palm Desert, Calif., the non-profit group spent days trying to get Frontier to restore their phone and Internet service.

“The most frustrating part of the ordeal was that every time you would call, they would say you are not a customer and that you don’t have an account. I would keep arguing that we do,” Erica Stone, founding director of S.O.S., told KESQ-TV. Either way, Frontier didn’t bother to show up for a scheduled appointment anyway.

Mary Harmon, in Long Beach,  was told (after four calls) that a repair technician would come to her house on April 15. That date was changed to Monday, April 18 with a 10-hour window. She told the Long Beach Press Telegram she wasn’t holding her breath.

“I don’t have any faith in them,” Harmon said. I’m so fed up with everything that’s been going on.”

Harmon spent all day Monday at home waiting, only to get a call at 5:25pm that her appointment was rescheduled one week later to April 25.

Considering the onslaught of stories from readers like Harmon, that newspaper has taken to calling Frontier customers “victims.”

But it wasn’t all bad news.

“No Internet or cable,” wrote one customer on Twitter. “But the bill arrived on time.”

What Problems? Frontier Living in Denial

laurel and hardyThousands of complaints later, it is evident Frontier has gotten itself into another fine mess, one predicted in advance by Stop the Cap! each time Frontier decides it wants to buy up some more landlines. No matter how bad things actually got, the company regularly tells its shareholders tall tales that all went well, the problems were small, and the resolutions easy.

Just look at what Daniel McCarthy, Frontier’s CEO, told a Wall Street audience at the recent JPMorgan Global Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference.

“Two months into the integration, and I would describe this integration as, by and large, it has gone better than any one that we’ve done before,” McCarthy said. “If you look at the billing systems, the ERP, payroll, HR, every part of the integration has gone exceptionally well. We’ve actually got through all of our billing, and out the door, we’re back on normal cycles with customers. And we’ve moved to the point now where we’re moving forward with a normal business rhythm around trouble tickets and service orders in the market.”

Frontier customers are unconvinced Frontier’s Rhythm Method is working for them. Elizabeth Galvan of North Hills has another name for it: “a nightmare.” She has had continuous problems with her landline, including Internet outages, since Frontier took over.

Many Stop the Cap! readers also continue to share their grief over outages, billing problems, and the less than sympathetic customer service representatives they encounter.

“We were on hold with Frontier for two hours on Friday and they swore to us they’d be out Wednesday and fix things,” wrote Wanda from Sarasota, Fla. “If the good Lord Jesus himself told them they’d be sent to hell for lying, Frontier already has 1st Class tickets. My ex-husband lied less than this phone company. They told me ‘Miss Wanda, we are sorry we could not get out there but we called you to let you know.’ Oh really? On what phone, the one that hasn’t worked for two weeks? Then he thinks he puts me on hold to reschedule while he tells his friend now I have more time to get my hair done.”

Back in Dallas, Jeffrey Weiss from the Morning News pressed Frontier for a reality check on how bad the problems were.

Bright House is targeting disgruntled Frontier customers in Florida with special promotions.

Bright House is targeting disgruntled Frontier customers in Florida with special promotions.

“There are currently no widespread outages,” came the response from Frontier. “The isolated issues currently being addressed include either individual customer issues from the conversion or the day to day service issues that arise when operating a complex network. In addition, the recent extreme weather in the north Texas area may have impacted some customers’ service, while Frontier allocated resources to repair any damaged equipment in the path of the storm. The customer experience is always at the forefront of our company, and we are committed to each customer’s satisfaction. We are addressing service orders as quickly as possible, prioritizing repairs over new installations and coordinating both customer availability and the management of our ongoing queue of orders. In all cases, that means the next best available time.”

At that time, the Texas Public Utility Commission had collected at least 100 complaints about Frontier, reports spokesman Terry Hadley. Melinda White, Frontier’s regional president for the western region characterized the 2,500 service disruptions suffered by Californians as evidence things were going “relatively well.”

In Florida, the problems were substantial and widespread enough for competing cable operator Bright House to offer customers up to $240 to switch away from Frontier with a special promotion. But before customers sign up, they should be aware despite the ongoing issues, Frontier has no intention of letting anyone out of their contracts.

Frontier spokesman Bob Elek told the Tampa Bay Times, “While all customers will be eligible for service credits on a case-by-case basis, contracts will remain in force.”

That’s ironic, considering Frontier’s marketing pitch for the last several years assured customers there were no contracts or early termination fees. But Verizon had both, and Elek apparently feels if it is fair to give customers promotional pricing, it is fair to penalize them if they disconnect early, even if the service doesn’t work as advertised.

Fast forward more than a month and the problems… and Frontier’s excuses keep on coming.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNBC Los Angeles Frontier Official Apologies For Service Outages 5-24-2016.flv

Frontier’s Melinda White, regional president for the company’s western region, finally showed up on KNBC Los Angeles to apologize for weeks of frustration and service problems. (2:56)

Blame Verizon

Nearly two weeks ago, Frontier executives were grilled at an Assembly Informational Hearing called by Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), when he had a spare moment in-between shilling for AT&T’s universal service/landline abdication bill making its way through the California legislature.

Finger-pointing-225x3002Ironically, Gatto was upset with Frontier — a company that wants to stay in the landline/DSL business — because it couldn’t do the job, while earlier applauding AT&T for being willing to cut the phone lines of rural Californians and have them risk AT&T’s “one-bar” rural wireless service instead.

Members at the Assembly Informational Hearing implored Frontier to fix at least a month of problems the company has consistently denied was that big of a deal. A meeting of the minds between the politicians and Frontier seemed unlikely until Melinda White, Frontier West’s regional president found what she hoped would be a “Get Out of the Hot Seat Free” excuse card.

White told the Los Angeles Times that one reason for all the trouble is Verizon sent them “corrupted” or “incomplete” data on an unspecified number of remotely addressable items like network terminal boxes, modems, and those “interface” devices they slap on the sides of most homes and businesses. Frontier claims it sent initialization messages to those devices that were rejected, and unilaterally shut down in response, causing the large service outages Frontier claimed a few weeks earlier didn’t happen.

“We are sincerely sorry,” White said during the hearing. “Even one customer out of service is one too many.”

Even worse, Frontier claims it found those scamps at Verizon messed up another database containing serial numbers identifying older network terminal boxes, including hundreds located in Long Beach. You know what came next — more outages.

But wait, there’s more. The same phone company that proudly boasts it uses American workers to handle customer service matters had to admit it hired a call center in the Philippines to handle customer transition issues. It was instantly overwhelmed and the call takers were as bewildered as customers trying to deal with Frontier about service outages.

call center“Unfortunately, that did not work out — to our dismay,” White said.

Like a lot of things coming from Frontier, that is an understatement. Just ask countless customers who reserved repair appointments through this same call center that often forgot or couldn’t pass them on to the U.S. based technicians that were supposed to show up and fix the problems. Result: missed service calls and even angrier customers.

Knowing this, one would assume Frontier would quickly pull the plug on overseas call centers and hire — at attractive wages if needed — more U.S. based employees to get things moving sooner rather than later. White told the Los Angeles Times it would phase those foreign call centers out… later… by the end of July.

The Lawmaker and Regulator CYA Cakewalk

The Frontier buyout and takeover of Verizon landlines didn’t just happen at the behest of the two phone companies. In a state regularly accused of over-regulating business, California regulators and lawmakers both had direct influence on the Frontier-Verizon transaction. It got approved without much effort and only came back to haunt officials when it all went wrong.

Assembly member Jay Obernolte (R-Hesperia) claimed, “These issues have set a record for constituent calls.”

Exactly who is responsible requires the time-honored practice of finger-pointing that always extends outwards, never inwards.

approved-rubber-stampThe committee chairman, Mr. Gatto, and vice chairman, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, (R-Fresno), blamed the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) as much as Frontier because they approved the takeover deal.

But as California consumers just saw in an embarrassing capitulation to approve the Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House merger with deal conditions even worse than what the FCC got, there are questions whether the CPUC could properly vet a Dollar Menu at a McDonalds drive-thru, much less a multi-billion dollar Big Telecom merger:

“Hi, welcome to McDonalds, what can I get the CPUC today?”

“We’ll let you decide, whatever you think is best. We trust you!”

“Okay, drive through to the second window.”

CPUC executive director Tim Sullivan casually mentioned the possibility of an official investigation and the highly-improbable-to-believe possible reconsideration of the buyout. That comes a little late.

While they hold hearings in California, the complaints keep rolling in even into the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

If This is the New Frontier, We Prefer the Old One

30+ years of a dedicated customer relationship destroyed in less than three weeks with Frontier.

30+ years of a dedicated customer relationship that started around the time Back to the Future hit theaters was destroyed after about a month with Frontier.

Lynn Peterson in Sacramento has kept her phone service with Verizon (and its predecessors) since around the year Back to the Future arrived in movie theaters (July 3, 1985 for trivia fans). After a month or so with Frontier at the helm, she abandoned ship last week.

“My service just kept going out over and over again ever since Frontier became my provider,” Peterson told the Santa Monica Mirror. “Whenever I called customer service they seemed completely indifferent. I have now switched to Time Warner Cable.”

Abby Arnold also severed a bad relationship with Frontier last week, and like a clingy ex in breakup denial, they won’t let it go.

“After a month of trying to resolve issues, I left Verizon/Frontier and signed up with Time Warner,” Arnold wrote. “At least I can watch the Dodgers. One of the many issues in my saga is that I cannot get Frontier to acknowledge that I am no longer their customer. ‘Our system won’t let me cancel your account.’ Argh.”

Customers will have another opportunity to bring their complaints about Frontier to the CPUC’s attention this Wednesday from 4-6pm at a public hearing at Long Beach City Hall.

Texas Mops Up

Some of the worst damage done to Frontier’s reputation was in Texas. Some experts predict Frontier’s name will be mud in that state for months to years.

“My opinion is that Frontier’s brand, reputation, and trust will suffer in the short to medium term (months to years),” David Lei, associate professor of strategy at SMU’s Cox School of Business told the Dallas Business Journal. “The longer the problems persist in any situation for any business or service provider, the greater the customer anger. However, even a good communications/PR strategy remains insufficient in the wake of the scale of disruptions and the seemingly ‘easy’ task of scheduling technicians to houses within the promised time frame. Strategy execution always occurs at the customer level – dealing with each customer truthfully and forthrightly. Yet, it is probably difficult for Frontier’s management to openly acknowledge just how complex the integration task will remain for quite some time.”

Our Recommendations

Frontier has a long history of transition problems whenever it acquires landline networks from other providers, whether Verizon or AT&T. In some cases, these may prove to be nothing more than self-correcting minor inconveniences. But in states like West Virginia, Connecticut, and now Texas, Florida, and California, long outages got painful and expensive for customers, and in some cases could have been life-threatening. With each transition, Frontier claimed it learned how to improve on the process to better reassure customers problems would be few and isolated. But the evidence is overwhelming these problems are bigger than Frontier seems ready to admit. Frontier refuses to release outage statistics broken down by state. Are these transition outages comparable to the day-to-day experiences of a big independent phone company? Allowing the public to see outage numbers for Florida and compare them with West Virginia or New York, for example, would be illuminating.

Regulators can also give Frontier some added incentives to guarantee the transition experience goes “exceptionally well” in the real world, not just in company press releases. Those incentives come in the form of stiff fines and guaranteed, automatic rebates for any customer affected by a service disruption. Right now, Frontier still requires most customers to personally apply for service credits for outages and other disruptions. That is a real hassle if you’ve ever called Frontier by phone and waited on hold, sometimes for an hour or more. Being promised a credit does not guarantee it will actually appear on your bill either.

Consider the experience of Lake Elsinore resident Kristi Coy. Her husband can’t sell video conferencing equipment online because Frontier’s Internet is too slow.

Coy was offered a service credit, but only after the problem was fixed. After the visit, she called Frontier and waited on hold 90 minutes before finally hanging up.

“How much are they going to give me, $20?” she said. “How long will I have to stay on hold? An hour and a half to get a $20 refund? It’s not even worth the time.”

Frontier should have a regulator-reviewed transition plan with contingencies in place for unexpected problems. That plan should prioritize returning customers to service, even if it means backing out of a system transition. Maintaining reliable service should be the first priority, not cost-savings or convenience for the companies involved. A full audit of exactly what Frontier bought from Verizon could have uncovered the discrepancies and corrupted data White blamed for the outages before the transition began. But that costs time and money. The prospect of a regulator-imposed fine costing even more delivers the cost/benefit formula customers (and Frontier, apparently) needs to assure customer protection.

Regulators need to start scrutinizing these consolidation transactions much more carefully, and reject those from companies that have a significant record of failing their customers. Frontier’s disastrous transition in West Virginia in 2010 led to months of news coverage and a number of very serious outages. More than five years later, service complaints are still coming in, mostly focused on poor broadband service. In Connecticut, Frontier had to cough up costly service credits and promotions to stop a flood of customers headed for the exits over Frontier’s messy transition from AT&T. Suspiciously familiar problems including service outages, billing issues, and missed service calls plagued Connecticut in 2015 just as they do in 2016 in Texas, Florida, and California.

We warned regulators in each instance that Frontier’s repeated poor performance should give them pause. We recommended regulators either impose extra requirements as part of any approval agreement or reject these types of deals outright. They chose to believe Frontier instead. So while Frontier executives and shareholders enjoy the proceeds of enhanced revenue and their regular dividend payouts, customers that depend on Frontier, especially small businesses, are in trouble. Dagwoods Pizza Parlor in Santa Monica is just one example.

Dagwoods manager Mark Peters said Frontier’s lousy performance in Southern California “has the potential to destroy small businesses” like his. This past Memorial Day weekend was a partial bust for Dagwoods because their Frontier-supplied phone and Internet service was down again until Frontier finally showed up to fix it.

“It’s a bad situation,” Peters told the Santa Monica Observer. “We can’t take orders, and this is our big night of the week. We’re really bummed out about the whole situation.”

The time for excuses and explanations has come and gone. The time for action, fines, and automatic service credits is overdue, but better late than never.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WTVT Tampa Frontier Official Apologies For Service Outages 5-10-16.mp4

WTVT in Tampa reports Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is now taking a hard look at Frontier’s performance in the state. (2:41)

Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

Charter Running Ads Welcoming Time Warner, Bright House Customers to “Spectrum”

spectrumIf your reputation precedes you, a virtual makeover with a quick name change may be all a company can do to help smooth customers’ ennui about the news one cable company they heard wasn’t very good was taking over for the one they hate with a passion. After all, joining a new family isn’t necessarily good news if their last name happens to be Frankenstein, bin Laden, or Manson.

Charter Communications began running commercials this week on Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks cable systems “welcoming” customers to the Charter family. Except the Charter logo was nowhere to be found. Like Comcast’s virtual image makeover effort/attempt with its XFINITY brand, Charter is hoping for a “reset” with customers who have heard bad things about Charter from their relatives by using its “Spectrum” brand instead. That logo is expected to appear on cable trucks, billboards, billing statements, and television spots.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Charter Communications Transaction with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks from Charter 5-23-16.mp4

Charter Communications has completed the transactions with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, and soon you’ll get to know us by the name, Spectrum. We are proud to be the fastest growing TV, Internet, and Voice provider in the United States and are committed to bringing you the most advanced products and services for your home and business.

Exciting changes are in the works, but for now, Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks and Charter Spectrum will continue offering their current suite of services to customers in their markets. In the coming months you’ll hear more from us as it relates to network, product and service improvements. Whether it is new ways to enjoy more shows with unrivaled picture quality, better service, or faster internet speeds, we cannot wait to show you what’s next. (1:04)

opinionWe offer three facts to ponder:

Charter’s Internet speeds are not any faster than what a Time Warner Cable Maxx customer can buy today — up to 300Mbps. Charter “Spectrum” tops out at 100Mbps in most of its markets.

Charter may consider its service “unrivaled,” but customers don’t, rating it only a mouse whisker better than Time Warner Cable.

Many customers of both Time Warner and Bright House are indeed concerned with what Charter has in store for them, particularly after conditions preserving cap-free Internet expire.

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