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Wall Street’s Latest Great Idea: Providers Should Charge More for 5G, But Only After You Are Hooked

“You’re giving it away… you are giving it all away!” — An unknown Wall Street analyst tossing and turning in the night.

America is simply not paying enough for wireless service. Thanks to dastardly competition introduced by T-Mobile and Sprint (potentially to be snuffed out in due course if their merger gets approved), wireless pricing is no longer a license to print money. Forced to offer one-size-fits-all affordable $40-50 unlimited plans, the prospects to grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) have never been worse because you can’t charge people for more service on an “unlimited plan” without admitting that plan is not exactly “unlimited.”

Wall Street analysts, already upset at the thought of carriers spending more than $100 billion on 5G network upgrades, are in a real tizzy about how companies are going to quickly recoup that investment. No matter that some wireless companies have profit margins in the 50% range and customers have paid providers for a service they were assured would keep up with the times and network demand. If there is to be a 5G revolution in the United States, some insist it must not come at the cost of reliable profits — so the industry must find a way to stick consumers with the bill.

It is not common for industry analysts to go public brainstorming higher prices and more customer gouging. After all, North Americans already pay some of the highest cell phone bills in the world, only mitigated (for now) by scrappy T-Mobile and Sprint. Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, was willing to go public in the pages of Fierce Wireless, arguing “operators should be considering charging a premium price for what will hopefully be a premium service.” That is likely music to the ears of AT&T and Verizon, both frustrated their pricing power in the market has been reduced by credible competition from a significantly improved T-Mobile.

Lowenstein fears the prospects of a “race-to-the-bottom 5G price war” which could arrive if America’s wireless companies offer a credible home internet replacement that lets consumers tell the local phone or cable company to ‘take a hike.’ Since wireless operators will bundle significant discounts for those who subscribe to both home and mobile plans, telecommunications services may actually cost less than what Wall Street was banking on.

Something must be done. Lowenstein:

In mobile, there’s been premium pricing for premium phones. And Verizon Wireless, for a few years when it had a clear network lead, was sort of able to charge a higher price for its service (but not a premium price). But today, there isn’t really premium pricing for premium services. That should change when 5G really kicks into gear.

So how do you extract more cash from consumers’ wallets? Create artificial tiers that have no relationship to the actual cost of the network, but could potentially get people to willingly pay a lot more for something they will initially get for a simple, flat price:

One simple way would be a flat premium price, similar to the “tiers” of Netflix for a higher number of devices or 4K/Ultra HD.  So, perhaps $10 per line for 5G, or $25 for a family plan. Another approach would be more akin to broadband, where there are pricing tiers for different levels of service performance. So if the base 4G LTE plan is $50 per month today, for an average 100 Mbps service, 5G packages could be sold in gradations of $10 for higher speeds (i.e. $60 for 300 Mbps, $70 for 500, $80 for 1 Gbps, and so on). An interesting angle on this is that some of the higher-end 4G LTE services such as Gigabit LTE (and beyond) could get incorporated into this, so it becomes less of a 4G vs. 5G discussion and more of a tier of service discussion.

I would also like to see some flexibility with regard to how one can purchase 5G capabilities. For example, a user might only need those premium 5G features occasionally, and might only be prepared to pay that higher price when the service is being used. Here, we can borrow from the Wi-Fi model, where operators offer a “day pack” for 5G, or for a certain city, location, or 5G-centic app or experience. 5G is going to be hot-spotty for awhile anyway, so why not use a Wi-Fi type model for pricing?

Even better, now with net neutrality in the ash heap of history, courtesy of the Republican-dominated FCC, providers can extract even more of your money by artificially messing with wireless traffic!

Lowenstein sees a brand new world of “app-centric pricing” where wireless carriers can charge even more to assure a fast lane for those entertainment, gaming, and virtual reality apps of the future, designed to take full advantage of 5G. Early tests have shown millimeter wave 5G networks can deliver extremely low latency traffic to customers from day one. That kills the market for selling premium, low-latency add-ons for demanding apps before companies can even start counting the money. So assuming providers are willing to purposely impede network performance, there just could be a market selling sub-100ms assured latency for an extra fee.

The potential of a Money Party only 5G can deliver is coming, but time is short to get the foundation laid for surprise toll lanes and “premium traffic” enhancements made possible without net neutrality. But first, the wireless industry has to get consumers hooked on 5G at a tantalizingly reasonable price. Charge too much, too soon and consumers may decide 4G LTE is good enough for them. That is why Lowenstein recommends operators not get carried away when 5G first launches.

“We don’t want to be setting ourselves up for a WiMAX-like disappointment,” Lowenstein writes. “The next 12-18 months are largely going to be ‘5G Experimentation’ mode, with limited markets, coverage, and devices. Heck, it’s likely to be two years before there’s a 5G iPhone in the United States, where iOS still commands nearly half the market.”

The disappointment will eventually be all yours, dear readers, if Lowenstein’s recommendations are adopted — when “certain milestones” trigger “rate adjustment” letters some day in the future.

Lowenstein sees four signs to start the pillaging, and we’ve paraphrased them:

  • Coverage: Wait until 30-40% of a city is covered with 5G, then jack up the price. As long as customers get something akin to 5G one-third of the time, they’ll moan about why their 5G footprint is so limited, but they will keep paying more for the scraps of coverage they get.
  • Markets: Price the service differently in each market depending on how stingy customers are likely to be at different price points. Then hike those prices to a new “nationwide” standard plan when 5G is available in the top 20-30 cities in the country. Since there may not be much competition, customers can take it or leave it.
  • Performance: AT&T and Verizon’s gotta gouge, but it’s hard to do it with a straight face if your 5G service is barely faster than 4G LTE. Lowenstein recommends waiting until speeds are reliably north of 100 Mbps, then you can let rip with those diamond-priced plans.
  • Devices: It’s hard to extract another $50-100 a month from family plan accounts if there are an inadequate number of devices that support 5G. While your kids “languish” with 4G LTE smartphones and dad enjoys his 5G experience, mom may shut it all down when the bill comes. Wait until everyone in the family can get a 5G phone before delivering some good old-fashioned bill shock, just like companies did in the golden days of uncompetitive wireless.

These ideas can only be adopted if a lack of competition assures all players nobody is going to call them out for pickpocketing customers. Ajit Pai’s FCC won’t interfere, and is even subsidizing some of the operators’ costs with taxpayer dollars and slanted deregulation to let companies construct next generation 5G networks as cheaply as possible (claiming it is important to beat China, where 5G service will cost much less). Should actual competition remain in the wireless market, all the dreams of rate-hikes-because-we-can will never come true, as long as one carrier decides they can grow their business by charging reasonable prices at their competitors’ expense.

Sen. Thune Slams FCC and Ajit Pai for “Unacceptable Failure” to Expand Rural Broadband

Thune

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) slammed the Federal Communications Commission for its “unacceptable failure” to expand rural broadband service and close America’s rural-urban digital divide.

Thune’s comments were directed to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appearing Thursday before the Senate Commerce Committee the South Dakota Republican chairs. Thune complained rural broadband expansion has slowed in his rural state, something he blamed on the FCC’s “inaction.” Thune criticized the FCC’s cuts to the Universal Service Fund, implemented as part of an effort to reduce the FCC’s budget.

“The FCC’s failure to ensure sufficient and predictable funding jeopardizes the vitality of America’s rural communities, and makes it much, much harder for our witnesses and others like them to deploy broadband,” Thune said in his opening remarks. “This is simply unacceptable.”

Thune claims the FCC’s cuts have increased by almost 25%, and there has been no study undertaken to determine the impact those cuts have on rural broadband expansion.

“Rural Americans should never be left behind their urban counterparts,” Thune added.

Pai defended the FCC’s actions under the Trump Administration, claiming the Commission is allocating nearly $6 billion for Connect America Fund subsidies and additional money for rural wireless projects. Pai claimed the FCC is providing $340 million to bring 4G LTE service to tribal lands, with additional funds available when those rural broadband subsidies are exhausted. Most of the money is being paid to subsidize for-profit companies.

Pai also claimed his broadband policy reforms, such as repealing net neutrality and other deregulation will stimulate new private investment independent of the Commission. To help that expansion, Pai suggested the recently proposed rules to streamline new cell tower approvals and ease up on historic preservation and environmental reviews will speed rural rollouts.

But both Sen. Thune and Chairman Pai have steadfastly opposed municipal and public broadband expansion projects designed to close the rural broadband gap in areas where for-profit ISPs have refused to serve without subsidies.

Telecom Lobby Sues California to Block State’s Net Neutrality Law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Four industry groups representing major internet providers and cable companies filed suit on Wednesday seeking to block California’s new law to mandate net neutrality rules.

The groups represent companies including AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc, Comcast Corp and Charter Communications Inc. The lawsuit came after the U.S. Justice Department on Sunday filed its own lawsuit to block the new law.

The lawsuit filed by the American Cable Association, CTIA – The Wireless Association, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association and USTelecom – The Broadband Association, called California’s law a “classic example of unconstitutional state regulation” and urged the court to block it before it is set to take effect Jan. 1.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Sunday in a statement that the “the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy.”

This marked the latest clash between the Trump administration and California, which have sparred over environmental, immigration and other hot-button issues.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission said in repealing the Obama-era rules that it was preempting states from setting their own rules governing internet access.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on Sunday the Trump Administration was ignoring “millions of Americans who voiced strong support for net neutrality rules.”

The Trump administration rules were a win for internet providers but opposed by companies like Facebook Inc, Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc.

Under President Donald Trump, the FCC voted 3-2 in December along party lines to reverse rules that barred internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic or offering paid fast lanes, also known as paid prioritization.

In August, 22 states and a coalition of trade groups representing major tech companies urged a federal appeals court to reinstate the rules. The states argue that the FCC cannot preempt state rule because it is not setting any limits on conduct by internet providers.

A federal judge on Monday set a Nov. 14 hearing in Sacramento on the Justice Department lawsuit.

Frontier Abdicates Basic Responsibilities in Minn.; One Resident Has Phone Cable Draped Over Propane Tank

Ceylon City Council Member John Gibeau shows this Frontier Communications cable intentionally laid across the customer’s propane tank. (Image courtesy: Mark Steil, MPR News)

Frontier Communications technicians decided it would be perfectly safe to drape their telephone lines on top of a propane tank, use overhead tree branches as makeshift telephone poles, and leave phone cables laying on the ground — in lawns, fields, and farms — for up to three years in southern Minnesota.

Minnesota Public Radio found a number of problems with Frontier Communications in a special report outlining years of complaints about the phone company’s performance — or lack thereof — in small communities around the state, including in the town of Ceylon in Martin County, located along the Minnesota-Iowa border.

John Gibeau, a city council member, might tell visitors to be careful of Frontier’s phone cables, some that have laid on the ground in parts of town for years.

“There’s three lines there, that are just laying across the ground,” Gibeau told MPR News. “And they run down for probably another 60 yards.”

Frontier laid out the phone cables sometime ago, but they have never seen a day attached to a utility pole.

In another part of town, a Frontier line technician thought nothing about draping a phone line across the top of a homeowner’s propane tank. At one address, there was no convenient utility pole in sight, so the technician used a few trees in the neighborhood as makeshift poles, distributing the line through the tree branches which help keep the cable above ground so vehicles do not drive over it. Gibeau said Frontier has left it that way for almost three years.

Ceylon, Minn.

Another resident deals with Frontier’s phone line each time he mows his lawn. That is because Frontier just dropped the cable on the grass and left it there. He relocated it to a nearby flower bed to avoid an accidental entanglement with the lawnmower. Other neighbors have done their part, attaching Frontier’s lines to the top of fences and fence poles — anything in sight that can get the cable off the ground where it can be ruined over time.

In all these cases, Frontier has refused to fix the problems, despite repeated calls. But that may be asking for too much. At a hearing recently in Slayton, Frontier customer Dale Burkhardt lost his phone and DSL service after a construction crew accidentally severed the phone cable that serves his farm. More than a year later, Frontier’s repair crews have never shown up to repair the line, regardless of the number of trouble tickets and calls to customer service.

“I still don’t have a landline, I don’t have an internet,” Burkhardt said. “I’m getting a little fed up.”

As Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission continues a series of public hearings around the state to hear complaints concerning Frontier Communications, regulators are getting an earful. Nearly 400 people have turned out for the hearings so far. Many report Frontier has not fixed their problems, no matter how often customers complain.

Javier Mendoza, Frontier’s vice president of communications, told MPR the company is listening to customers.

“For us, one customer who is out of service is one customer too many,” Mendoza said. “So, we would thank our customers for their patience. We recognize that from time to time we experience service issues and delays. And for those customers that are affected, we apologize to them.”

Frontier Communications scatters its phone cables on residents’ lawns, across a propane tank, and through tree branches as makeshift utility poles, reports Minnesota Public Radio (3:56)

If This Had Been An Actual Emergency… National Emergency Alert Test Wednesday

Phillip Dampier October 2, 2018 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

FEMA, in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission, will conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) on Wednesday, Oct. 3, creating a cacophony of alarms and warning tones on cell phones, radios, and televisions from coast to coast.

The WEA test is most likely to be heard… in every school, office, and store as nearly all wireless phones sound off starting at 2:18pm EDT. Two minutes later, radio and television stations, NOAA weather radios, and cable, satellite, and telco TV systems, will deliver EAS alerts to their respective audiences.

This will be the first time FEMA and the FCC will deliver a nationwide WEA test, which will measure the effectiveness of using cell phones to mass deliver emergency alerts and action messages on a nationwide scale. Previous uses included urgent Amber Alerts and weather-related messages, but only to specific localities or regions. The government agencies want to know if America’s cell phone carriers can deliver messages to all of their customers accurately and on a timely basis.

The emergency alert messages have no political connection to the Trump Administration or the White House, and were first envisioned during the Bush Administration. Despite that, some planned to mute their phones or switch them off as a protest against the president, falsely fearing he might use the system to deliver political messages.

Tomorrow’s alerts will consist of the following messages, sent using a unique tone and vibration that is not designed to be muted or silenced:

  • WEA: Presidential Alert: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”
  • EAS: (in English and/or Spanish) “THIS IS A TEST of the National Emergency Alert System. This system was developed by broadcast and cable operators in voluntary cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and local authorities to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency an official message would have followed the tone alert you heard at the start of this message. A similar wireless emergency alert test message has been sent to all cell phones nationwide. Some cell phones will receive the message; others will not. No action is required.”

FEMA’s public service announcement about Wednesday’s test. (0:48)

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