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Subscribers Furious Over Drahi-Ordered Cost Cuts at Altice/SFR; 2-Week Service Outages

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi's cost-cutting methods have caused an uproar in France, leading to nearly two million customers to flee his companies for other providers.

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi’s cost-cutting methods have caused an uproar in France, leading nearly two million customers to flee his telecom companies for other providers.

Even as Patrick Drahi’s Altice promises state regulators expensive upgrades and better service for Cablevision subscribers in return for permission to buy the cable operator, complaints from Altice customers in France are now achieving an unprecedented high, with French media reports implicating Drahi’s demands for severe cost cutting in disastrous consequences for customers that face service outages that can last weeks.

SFR, one of France’s largest telecom service providers, has been the subject of ongoing media attention across France as customers continue to complain about promised network improvements that have ground to a halt, deteriorating infrastructure and service outages, poor customer service, and what French telecom experts claim is a clear case of cost-cutting being given precedence over good service.

Rarely has a company executive charged with putting a company’s case to the media and the public had a more difficult time explaining away the thousands of complaints that media outlets receive when they ask readers and viewers to comment about Altice-owned companies.

Salvatore Tuttolomondo, a regional director of relations for SFR, could only muster, “For now, we are not very good, but we are not bad,” in defense.

The French Association of Telecom Users (AFUTT) reports complaints about what is now one of the worst-performing telecom providers in France have exploded. SFR has seen a doubling of complaints from its wired customers between 2014 and 2015 and complaints about wireless service are also up by 50%.

“Even Free.fr and MVNOs do better,” says Denis Leboeuf, from the AFUTT.

For many French consumers, Altice teaches the lesson of bewaring promises of vast service improvements from an executive with a well-known demand to cut costs to the bone.

Capital reports the reason for SFR’s troubles is easy to identify.

sfr-abonne-s_small

Subscriber Numbers Falling…

“To restore margins, the operator has sacrificed the quality of its network and its customer service,” the magazine reports.

Capital lays out an indictment of Drahi’s way of doing business, one that has occasionally left his customers in peril when they were unable to summon emergency assistance over failing telephone lines or ruined one town’s tourist season when service problems made it difficult to impossible for visitors to register for events and arrange bookings.

It was never supposed to happen this way. On April 7, 2014, a triumphant Patrick Drahi announced his company Altice trumped rivals like Bouygues Telecom to acquire SFR from French conglomerate Vivendi for about $17 billion dollars. The first thing Mr. Drahi promised was to invest heavily in SFR to improve network quality and cut unnecessary costs. Those promises are now familiar to Cablevision subscribers as regulators in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey contemplate approving the sale of the cable company to Altice.

Much of France is still waiting for those promised upgrades. SFR’s DSL equipment is ‘downright lousy,’ delivering dead last performance among French telecom operators. SFR wireless data is no prize either, with customers howling complaints about slow to unresponsive service. Even texting over SFR’s network is dreadful, reports La Voix du Nord: “Carrier pigeons are faster,” it reported. Widespread complaints of texting failures lasting hours are legion. Customers know when service is restored when the dozens of unanswered texts they didn’t receive during the business day suddenly arrive in the middle of the night.

...While complaints are rising.

…While complaints are rising.

One nurse discovered her best bet is to go and stand near her toilet, where cell reception is just good enough to roam on a cell network operating across the border in Belgium. Other customers have to go outside to find a signal, because many of SFR’s cell towers are often affected by service interruptions which can last weeks.

Several French cities were the unlucky recipients of SFR service outages in December. Parts of Pas-de-Calais had the displeasure of being “cut off from the world” by a complete service outage lasting 15 days. French businesses sent employees to coffee shops and other venues during the business day with their cell phones to find a wireless signal to conduct business for more than two weeks.

La Voix du Nord confirmed one subscriber’s account that The Grand Wireless Failure of 2015 in Desvres came as a result of an antenna that fell into disrepair. The problem was identified in the first week of December, but an employee-engineer brusquely admitted “maintenance [to restore service] will not take place before Wednesday, Dec. 16” — at least two weeks later. Whether the repair could be completed quickly or not made no difference. Cost controls at SFR controlled the calendar.

French telecom watchdog ARCEP has learned to take Altice’s promises and commitments with a grain of salt. It suggested the “gap between promises and reality” had grown into a chasm over SFR’s appallingly awful 3G service. Altice replied it was “undertaking a major renovation program of its mobile network that is not without impact on service quality, but it is an investment for the next 15 years.”

Waiting on hold

Waiting on hold

More than a few customers wonder if that means it will take 15 years to get reasonable service. More than 1.6 million so far have decided not to wait and find out.

Laurence joined the exodus of customers canceling service this month. Many customers leave angry, such as the parade of residents from the “digital eco-district” of Issy-les-Moulineaux who are “exasperated by repeated failures” of SFR’s wired broadband and television service equipment. Of the 40 days Laurence was a customer, he lacked Internet service for 17 of them.

Altice officials call the horror stories anecdotal and note they have millions of happy customers. But La Voix du Nord isn’t so certain that is true either. (They are also an SFR customer suffering service problems.) Since Drahi took over as the new owner, the newspaper surveyed its readers starting in March 2015 for their thoughts about Altice-owned SFR. In less than 24 hours, their Facebook page melted down with 3,760 mostly critical responses. Orange, the cell phone company the French usually love to hate, skated by with ten times fewer complaints than SFR. Altice officials promised things were about to get much better in response.

Slightly.

Heading for the exit

Heading for the exit

Last fall, the newspaper repeated the survey and 2,700 comments and replies arrived, again overwhelmingly negative. More than 100 customers were so angry, they wanted to share details of their service tragedies in private messages. The reader service representative eventually had to ask people to stop, saying she had at least 100 more unread in her inbox.

Customers were promised upgrades before. Thomas Detrain of Nœux-les-Mines received word he should expect one disruption lasting three weeks back in November 2014. Since that time, the outages keep on coming and SFR has offered him one time compensation of approximately $44 on one bill amounting to about $52. SFR now expects to be paid in full, whether the service is working or not.

Charlotte Dabrowski of Bourbourg has had her problems with service quality, too. But at least she has some service. “What makes me the most pissed off is that I was told: ‘You’re lucky, you are on the right side of our antenna.’ Was this supposed to be funny?”

Tuttolomondo

Tuttolomondo: You can’t trust our customers.

SFR has resolved to either downplay its legendary bad press or blame someone else for all the troubles.

Tuttolomondo attempts the former, dismissing the thousands of Facebook complaints the newspaper had received.

“You have how many comments from dissatisfied customers, 2,000?,” Tuttolomondo asked. “We have about 500,000 customers in the region, so this is less than 0.5%.”

When asked if SFR would automatically compensate customers for its significant service outages, Tuttolomondo implied his customers would take advantage of him if he tried.

“It’s case by case,” said Tuttolomondo. “I’m not going to promise a general compensation, otherwise even customers who do not have to worry will ask me for money. But our customer service is really alert. You think it makes me happy to have unhappy customers? We’ll never get 100% satisfied.”

Tuttolomondo also seemed exasperated with his own customers, implying the company’s poorly rated 4G service “sometimes comes from incompatible phones” owned by customers who didn’t know better.

SFR's customer service call center... in Tunisia.

SFR’s customer service call center… in Tunisia.

Tuttolomondo’s line matches that of SFR’s customer service representatives, now relocated to call centers sprinkled across the exotic North African desert lands of the Maghreb, where workers with passable French language skills are willing to work cheap. But not cheap enough. Recently Drahi has been looking for an even better deal from subcontractors in Portugal, Mauritius and Madagascar. Customers lament it will probably be difficult to get a call center employee living with a few hours of electricity a day and no telephone service at home to comprehend why SFR’s fiber to the home service is not meeting its broadband speed objectives.

Drahi yes-man Jerome Yomtov, the Deputy Secretary General of SFR, decided it would be more productive to blame someone else for everything — Vivendi, the former owner, in particular.

“For our 3G and 4G networks, we pay the price of under-investment from the previous [owner],” explains Yomtov. He added the sale disrupted upgrades for two years. SFR had reduced its investments by 10% after it knew it was going to be put up for sale. But Capital reports after Drahi arrived, investments froze almost completely, which caused ever-increasing delays for network repairs and upgrades to keep up with traffic demands, not to mention commissioning new cell sites to improve coverage.

The reason for the delay was a Drahi-inspired Lord of the Flies-style bidding war among vendors and subcontractors.

It was either this...

Altice Cost Cutters: It was either this…

“The new management has replaced our usual subcontractor bidding process with that used by Numericable [another Drahi-owned company],” a network technician tells Capital. The result was endlessly repeated bidding rounds as subcontractors tried to undercut each other to win Drahi’s business. The technician reports Drahi allowed the bidding to run up to four months, resulting in one of the last rounds to scrape together a bid offering savings of just 5,000 Euros (just over $5,000) over a previous round.

“Drahi wanted to see how far they would be willing to come down,” the technician said. “The standoff would have [eventually] enabled SFR to save 10-15% of its infrastructure costs.” In the end, the priority given to cost-savings (at the cost of deteriorating service) caused a stagnancy of upgrades lasting almost nine months, claimed one project manager.

ARCEP revealed that SFR now has France’s smallest high-speed 4G network, with only 39% of the population covered. SFR officially claims 65% coverage, but that difference comes largely from coverage rented from competing Bouygues Telecom. Over the first 11 months of 2015, Altice’s subsidiary has managed to launch only 962 new antennas, three times less than the notoriously cheap Free.fr.

More stories of Altice’s so-called “Cost-Killing Madmen” — the company’s bean counters sent in after Drahi closes on a deal — have also since emerged. Employees tell the French press their cost-cutting schemes are bizarre and ruthless. Employees in one office were suddenly given orders to discard the office’s plants strategically placed to help improve the working environment.

“They told us it’s that or the toilet paper,” sighed the employee. Many thought the cost-cutters were joking at first, until they remained stone-faced during the nervous laughter shared by employees.

...or this

…or this

At the headquarters of La Plaine Saint-Denis, visitors may notice things are looking a little worse for wear in the office. That may be because the carpet is no longer cleaned weekly. The bean counters think once every two weeks is enough. But the toughest conditions are now probably experienced by the janitorial staff, who have been ordered to clean and maintain 46 office restrooms and given only three hours each work cycle to complete the task. At least 700 workers in Lyon were denied doctor visits for several days when the cost-cutters decided medical expenses were too high. It took the Works Council a few angry moments with company executives to rescind that budget cut.

Despite the plight of the workers, Drahi has some headaches of his own. He is hard at work conquering the most exclusive neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland. Drahi, who boasts about his cost cutting and his ability to pay minimal wages, has splurged on two enormous villas in the commune of Cologny. His deputies and financial partners are not far away, having spent small fortunes on expensive housing in Vésenaz and Prangins. Now one of Drahi’s protegés, Jean-Luc Berrebi, member of the board and chief financial officer at Altice-owned Israeli telecom company HOT, has strategically moved himself right next door to Drahi, spending nearly $28 million dollars to buy Drahi’s second villa just 100 meters away. At the same time Drahi was closing on that deal, ordinary Israelis are shelling out considerably more for service from HOT, after the company announced sweeping rate hikes.

Exempt from cost-cutting, one of two of Drahi's villa in Switzerland, recently sold to a protege for about $28 million. Drahi still lives next door.

Exempt from cost-cutting: One of two Drahi villas in Switzerland, recently sold to a protegé for about $28 million. Drahi still lives next door.

Investors initially seemed pleased to learn cost cutting and reduced investment helped SFR increase its margin 18% since the beginning of 2015, which has allowed the company to deliver some impressive results to shareholders, at least in the short-term. But that good news was tempered by the veritable stampede of customers fleeing SFR for better service from other providers. Many in the French media now question whether Drahi has not just damaged SFR’s service, but also permanently tainted the image of its brand.

Executives at Orange can sigh some relief watching the chaos unfold at SFR and Numericable. Customers that swore off Orange with protestations of “never again,” are now increasingly calling the perennial bad boy of wireless “the lesser evil.”

FCC Chairman Rejects Mobile Internet as Useful Competitor to Wired Broadband

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler considers mobile broadband a poor substitute for fixed/wired Internet access. A fact sheet released by Wheeler’s office shows he is convinced America still has a broadband problem — speeds are too slow, competition is lacking, and 4G/LTE wireless broadband is so usage-capped or speed throttled, it is not a serious substitute for traditional wired broadband.

Wheeler claimed, “approximately 34 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25Mbps for downloads, 3Mbps for uploads,” and has previously said those that do often find those speeds from only a single provider, typically a cable company.

Wheeler doesn’t dismiss the need for wireless Internet access, but he considers it an add-on for customers on the go. Other highlights from the fact sheet:

  • A persistent urban-rural digital divide has left 39 percent of the rural population without access to fixed broadband. By comparison, only 4 percent living in urban areas lack access;
  • 41 percent of Tribal Lands residents lack access;
  • 41 percent of schools have not met the Commission’s short-term goal of 100Mbps per 1,000 students/staff;
  • Only 9 percent of schools have fiber connections capable of meeting the FCC’s long-term goal of 1Gbps per 1,000 students.

Wheeler also said that U.S. broadband continues to lag behind other developed nations, only ranking 16th out of the top 34 countries.

Wheeler thinks wireless broadband is an essential service for many, but it should not be compared with wired broadband, as the two services are distinct from one-another:

  • Fixed broadband offers high-speed, high-capacity connections capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive uses, such as streaming video, by multiple users in a household. But fixed broadband can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely.
  • Mobile devices provide access to the web while on the go, and are especially useful for real-time two-way interactions, mapping applications, and social media. But consumers who rely solely on mobile broadband tend to perform a more limited range of tasks and are significantly more likely to incur additional usage fees or forego use of the Internet.

Frugal Sprint: Relocating Cell Towers to Public Land to Save $$$, Annoy Customers

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2016 Consumer News, Rural Broadband, Sprint, Wireless Broadband No Comments

sprint terribleSprint customers will once again have to endure service interruptions and disruptions and the possibility of degraded service after the cellular company quietly announced it was terminating leases with Crown Castle and American Tower — two of the largest owners of shared communications towers in the country, and relocating Sprint cell sites to government-owned property.

Sprint is aggressively pursuing a $2 billion cost-cutting program to stay competitive with T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless. Re/code reports much of this savings will come from rushing cellular antennas off shared-use cell towers and erecting antennas on public land instead, expected to cost much less. The move is “raising eyebrows” on Wall Street, as analysts grow concerned about Sprint’s exposure to early termination fees from the early end of multi-year contracts with at least two tower owners. Many are also concerned Sprint will end up placing towers in less than ideal areas, opening up coverage gaps and unanticipated negative coverage changes for customers.

Jennifer Fritzsche, senior analyst for Wells Fargo, predicts the move could “be a major step backwards on the recent progress [Sprint] has made” on its ‘brand repair’ efforts.

Sprint has been criticized for seemingly never-ending “network improvements” that have promised subscribers dramatically better service. Instead, many customers have defected to competitors like T-Mobile after their patience came to an end waiting for upgrades that never arrived. Sprint’s latest effort to save money could cost Sprint even more in additional customer defections if service deteriorates.

Penny wise, pound foolish,” is the conclusion of wireless expert Roger Entner, an analyst for Recon Analytics. “Customers don’t like surprises.”

Customers in the eastern United States and in large cities are likely to be at risk for signal degradation, if only because the government owns much less land in these areas available for Sprint’s use.

Sprint also intends to abandon much of its fiber backhaul network, now owned primarily by AT&T and Verizon. Instead, Sprint will transition to microwave backhaul service between cell towers and its network connection points, for a potential savings of $1 billion annually. The microwave approach was last taken by Clearwire, which Sprint acquired in 2012. Few, if any carriers, are expected to follow Sprint’s footsteps.

One person familiar with the initiative, dubbed the Next Generation Network, predicted another wave of network hiccups, Re/code reported. The plan is likely to result in reduced coverage in rural areas and a lot of problems for current customers as Sprint embarks on its massive tower relocation project.

“Getting there is going to be a nightmare,” said the source, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the matter. “It’s going to be very, very disruptive.”

AT&T Brings Back Unlimited Wireless Data Plan… If You Have U-verse TV or DirecTV

att-logo-221x300Building in protection from cord-cutting, AT&T today announced it was bringing back its unlimited data wireless plan for customers that subscribe to U-verse TV or DirecTV.

The new AT&T Unlimited Plan claims to offer unlimited data, talk and text for $100 a month. Additional smartphones are $40 per month each, with a fourth smartphone free to add at no extra charge.

“Video traffic continues to grow on our network as fast as ever because people enjoy viewing their favorite video content on their favorite devices,” said Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions. “And, they will get a high-quality video streaming experience from the start. No compromises in video quality.”

Except that AT&T discloses in its fine print, “After 22GB of data usage on a line in a bill cycle, for the remainder of the bill cycle AT&T may slow data speeds on that line during periods of network congestion.”

Speed throttles often affect video quality and can stall playback.

It’s the first time in five years AT&T has offered an “unlimited data” wireless option to its mobile customers. Analysts suspect the offer is designed to compete with T-Mobile’s free video streaming “BingeOn” promotion, while also protecting AT&T’s video platforms from cord-cutting. AT&T also gets an opportunity to add new video customers to its recently acquired DirecTV service, because only customers with a qualifying video subscription are allowed to buy the unlimited data plan.

AT&T is tying the unlimited data promotion to its satellite offering DirecTV, not U-verse, with a promotional satellite TV package for new video customers beginning at $19.99 per month for 12 months, with a 24 month agreement. After one year, the base TV package increases to $49.99 a month.

To bring back AT&T wireless customers that left for another carrier, AT&T is offering up to $500 in incentives when customers switch to the AT&T Unlimited Plan with an eligible trade-in and buy a new smartphone on AT&T Next. Customers who combine their U-verse or DirecTV account with AT&T Wireless on a single bill will also get an extra $10 off per month.

AT&T is effectively selling its Unlimited Plan for $60 a month, double AT&T’s original rate for unlimited data of just under $30. With a video subscription pre-qualifier, customers enrolling in the plan can expect a substantial bill.

AT&T Unlimited Plan
Device Type Monthly Access Fee Per Device
1st Smartphone $100
Additional Smartphones  (Fourth line free after bill credit) + $40
Tablets + $40 (or $10 for 1GB)
Watches + $10
Basic/messaging phones + $25
Select connected devices + $10

On the mobile side, customers will be initially expected to pay up to $220 a month for four active lines. The $40 credit for the fourth smartphone only begins after two billing cycles, finally reducing the bill to $180 a month before taxes and surcharges. A required video package will range from $19.99 for a basic DirecTV plan ($49.99 in year two) to as much as $80 or more for U-verse TV, bringing a combined television and wireless bill to more than $300 a month.

Those with 4G tablets can save some money dropping the $40 unlimited data device access fee and choosing a $10 1GB data plan for tablets instead.

Compare/Contrast: Taiwan’s Presidential Candidates Can’t Wait to Give Away Free Broadband

The three candidates contesting in the 2016 Presidential Elections are James Soong from the People First Party (PFP) (L), Eric Chu from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) (Center), and Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (R).

The three candidates running for President of the Republic of China are: James Soong from the People First Party (PFP) (L), Eric Chu from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party (Center), and Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (R).

Taiwan’s three presidential candidates, appearing in a nationwide debate on Sunday, promised to deliver improved High Speed Internet in the Republic of China, with some candidates committing to give broadband away for free to low and middle-income families.

Taiwan is making broadband expansion and improvement a top national priority, as the country races towards delivering gigabit wired broadband and 5G wireless service. The government wants to boost the country’s broadband ranking, now 33rd in the world.

Bringing speeds up while reducing broadband bills is the goal of Eric Chu, the candidate from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party. During his terms as leader of New Taipei and Taoyuan County, Chu presided over a major expansion of Internet penetration rates. Chu believes the next step is to make broadband service free of charge for low/middle-income residents and deliver nationwide free Wi-Fi to every centimeter of Taiwan.

Internet providers would still profit from selling faster access to customers willing to pay for it, but Chu’s policies continue a theme that broadband access is a basic human right, a position increasingly popular in the country. Voters appeared skeptical of Chu’s claims, however, because the KMT has garnered a reputation of being in bed with big business during its last two terms in office. But that has not stopped Chu from criticizing telecom executives for not doing more to invest and eventually offer next generation 5G wireless service in Taiwan.

James Soong, from the People First Party — considered to have a close (but frequently tense) alliance with the KMT  — predictably agreed with Chu, but also wants Taiwan to do more to protect Internet privacy and online safety. Soong wants to completely scrap the country’s legacy copper wire telecommunications infrastructure and replace it with fiber optics, delivering fiber service to every home and business in Taiwan. With a fiber upgrade, Soong is convinced Taiwan will achieve his goal of top-10 broadband status.

Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said when private companies don’t deliver, it is government’s responsibility to address the digital divide, by making high quality service affordable and fast. Taiwan’s telecom companies are paying close attention to the DPP candidate because polls make her the favorite to become the next president of Taiwan, after the election on Jan. 16.

“The use of broadband Internet service should be part of the people’s basic human rights,” she said. “It is also important to narrow the digital divide to improve educational opportunities for children in remote areas and develop children’s digital capabilities.”

With broadband being treated as a high priority issue in the presidential race, Taiwan’s largest broadband provider, Chunghwa Telecom – 中華電信, has announced the first commercial deployments of G.fast technology – the newest generation of DSL – across Taiwan.

Israeli chipmaker Sckipio demonstrated G.Fast technology at CES 2016 in Las Vegas this week, claiming it is faster than traditional DSL and cable broadband. In a limited demonstration, the company demonstrated download speeds achieving 750Mbps over traditional copper wire networks, about 50 times faster than average broadband speeds. Sckipio promised G.Fast technology will debut in the United States later this year.

FCC Wants Details About Usage Caps and Zero Rating from Comcast, T-Mobile, and AT&T

An AT&T Logo is pictured on the side of a building in Pasadena, California, January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

An AT&T Logo is pictured on the side of a building in Pasadena, California, January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Editor’s Note: Stop the Cap! learned in May from a well-placed source that the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if Comcast moved to further expand them in its service areas across the country. It appears that day has arrived although it is too early to tell what direction the FCC will move in. Comcast’s data cap program has grown the most controversial, triggering at least 13,000 consumer complaints from what the company continues to claim is only a limited “trial.” But wireless providers’ growing interest in exempting certain data from counting against a customer’s allowance — a practice known as “zero rating” — has also attracted interest because of its potential impact on Net Neutrality policies.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday it has asked major Internet providers to discuss innovative data policies in the wake of the government’s Net Neutrality rules.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters Thursday that commission staff sent letters on Wednesday to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile “to come in and have a discussion with us about some of the innovative things that they are doing.”

Wheeler said the letters are focused on data policies.

T Mobile has introduced a new “Binge On” policy that does not count some digital video services against data limits.

Comcast is rolling out its own live streaming TV service called “Stream TV” that would not count usage against data caps if using Comcast services.

AT&T has had “sponsored data plan” programs that allow content providers to subsidize users wireless data.

Wheeler said the commission wants to welcome innovation in its open Internet order. He said the commission wants to “keep aware” of what is going on.

On Dec. 4, a U.S. appeals court heard arguments on Friday over the legality of the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, in a case that may ultimately determine how consumers get access to content on the Internet.

The fight is the latest battle over Obama administration rules requiring broadband providers to treat all data equally, rather than giving or selling access to a so-called Web “fast lane.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Verizon: Ignore Our Adamant Denials of Not Being Interested in Selling Our Wired Networks

carForSaleDespite denials Verizon Communications was interested in selling off more of its wireline network to companies like Frontier Communications, the company’s chief financial officer reminded investors Verizon is willing to sell just about anything if it will return value to its shareholders.

In September, rumors Verizon planned to sell more of its wireline network where the company has not invested in widespread FiOS fiber-to-the-home expansion grew loud enough to draw a response from Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam at the Goldman Sachs 24th annual Communicopia Conference.

“When people ask me, and I know there’s some speculation that we might be interested in selling the wireline properties, I don’t see it in the near-term,” McAdam said.

Today, Shammo seemed to clarify McAdam’s pessimistic attitude about another Verizon landline sell off in the near future.

“We’re extremely happy with the asset portfolio we have right now, but as we always say we continue to look at all things,” Shammo said. “Just like the towers, we said we would not sell the towers and then we got to a great financial position and we sold our towers. If something makes sense [and] we can return value to our shareholders and it’s not a strategic fit we’ll obviously look at that.”

Shammo

Shammo

For most of 2014, Verizon denied any interest in selling its portfolio of company-owned wireless cell towers. In February 2015 the company announced it would sell acquisition rights to most of its cell towers to American Tower Corporation for $5.056 billion in cash.

Some analysts believe the early indicators that suggest Verizon is ready to sell include its lack of upgrades in non-FiOS service areas and Verizon’s willingness to walk away from up to $144 million from the second phase of the FCC’s Connect America Fund to expand Internet access to more of Verizon’s rural landline customers.

Verizon’s decision to take a pass on broadband improvement funds infuriated four southern New Jersey counties that claim Verizon has neglected its copper network in the state. As a result of allegedly decreasing investment and interest by Verizon, customers in these areas do not get the same level of phone and broadband service that Verizon customers receive in the northern half of New Jersey.

More than a dozen communities have signed a joint petition sent to the Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey’s telecom regulator, insisting the BPU take whatever measures are needed to preserve the availability of telecommunications services in southern New Jersey. The towns also want the BPU to consider funding sources to help improve broadband service that public officials claim is woefully inadequate. Outside of Verizon FiOS service areas, Verizon offers customers traditional DSL service for Internet access.

Verizon-logoThe communities:

  • Atlantic County: Estell Manor and Weymouth Township.
  • Gloucester County: South Harrison Township.
  • Salem County: Alloway Township, Lower Alloways Creek, Mannington Township, Township of Pilesgrove, and Upper Pittsgrove Township.
  • Cumberland County: Commercial Township, Downe Township, Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Maurice River Township, City of Millville, Upper Deerfield Township, and Fairfield Township.

Officials claim Verizon has pushed its wireless alternatives to customers in the region, including its wireless landline replacement. But officials suggest Verizon’s wireless coverage and the quality of its service is not an adequate substitute for wireline service.

Verizon's Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon’s Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon has proposed decommissioning parts of its wireline network in rural service areas and substitute wireless service in the alternative. At issue are the costs to maintain a vast wireline network that reaches a dwindling number of customers. Verizon reminds regulators it has lost large numbers of residential landline customers who have switched to wireless service, making the costs to maintain service for a dwindling number of customers that much greater.

But for many communities, the focus is increasingly on broadband, especially in areas that receive little or no cable service. Telephone companies serving rural communities are surviving landline disconnects by providing broadband service.

For companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream, investments in providing broadband service are among their top spending priorities. At larger phone companies like Verizon and AT&T, highly profitable wireless divisions get the most attention and are top spending priorities.

Speaking this morning at the UBS 43rd Annual Global Media and Communications Conference, Shammo told investors Verizon will continue to allocate the majority of its capital allocation around Verizon Wireless to help densify its wireless network. Verizon, Shammo noted, plans further spending cuts for its wired networks next year as FiOS network buildouts start to taper off.

This will make expansion and improvement of Verizon DSL unlikely, and may put further cost pressure on maintaining Verizon’s wireline networks, which could further motivate a sale.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo is likely looking at three alternatives for the future:

  1. Increase investment in Verizon Communications to further expand FiOS fiber optics;
  2. Look at cost savings opportunities to improve the books at Verizon Communications, including decommissioning rural landline networks (if Verizon can win regulator approval);
  3. Consider selling Verizon’s non-core wireline assets in areas where the company has not made a substantial investment in FiOS and refocus attention on serving the dense corridor of customers along the Atlantic seaboard between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Are Cheap Chinese Christmas Lights Killing Your Wi-Fi?

Despite the UL label, these Walmart-sold Christmas lights have been recalled in Canada for causing "unfortunate incidents." In the U.S. consumers are on their own.

Despite the UL label on the cord, these Walmart-sold Christmas lights have been recalled in Canada for causing “unfortunate incidents.” In the U.S. they are still on the market and consumers are on their own.

The increasing prevalence of energy-saving LED holiday lights may help reduce your energy bill this Christmas, but are probably not doing any favors to your in-home Wi-Fi.

Chinese factories that produce billions of light string sets annually often have the attitude that quality control should take a back seat to selling price, and as such many of these cheaply produced sets experience a growing number of issues the longer they are in use. This year, Canadian regulators have ordered complete recalls of holiday lights manufactured by Taizhou Hongpeng Colour Lanterns or Ningbo EGO International Co. Ltd. The sets were implicated for interference, overheating, fire, shock, toxicity, and more.

The affected lights, sold until the fall of 2015, were available across North America in dollar stores, hardware warehouses, supermarkets, and department stores. Many were sold by Loblaws, Michaels (the CELEBRATE IT series) and Walmart’s “Holiday Time” brand lights. Up north, it’s time for those lights to go after sampling and evaluation by the federal agency led to clear evidence they posed serious safety risks.

In the United States, consumers are on their own. Despite adopting new safety regulations in June, the Consumer Product Safety Commission remains satisfied with a hands-off/business-friendly approach that relies primarily on voluntary recalls that begin after consumers self-report injuries from defective products.

The CPSC does not test Christmas light sets, despite the fact seasonal and decorative lighting products have been responsible for hundreds of fire and shock-related deaths and injuries over the years. CPSC is aware of 132 fatal incidents that occurred from 1980 through 2014 which led to 258 deaths, and 1,405 nonfatal incidents associated with seasonal and decorative lighting products.

Despite clear warnings from Health Canada’s own testing, the CPSC continues to allow manufacturers to sell dangerous light sets that are now recalled in Canada.

Assuming your Christmas tree lights don’t overheat or short out, regulators are also turning their attention to a less serious problem with the light sets: their potential to create interference problems.

Wi-Fi trouble waiting to happen.

Wi-Fi trouble waiting to happen.

Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s independent telecom regulator, has seen enough reports of Wi-Fi problems tracked back to Christmas lights to issue a caution.

The problem isn’t so much with the LED bulbs. The interference problems usually develop from the cheap transformers/switched mode power supplies used to regulate voltage for certain energy-saving lights. A poor quality unshielded light set, especially those with a built-in, programmed light show, is likely to throw audible hash across the AM radio dial. But it can also interfere with Wi-Fi reception in certain cases, especially if you turn your home and yard into the equivalent of the Vegas strip.

Despite the timely holiday themed Ofcom announcement, most of the lights sold in the United States have offered negligible interference so far — typically when the wireless router is located very near a Christmas tree or a powered holiday decoration. The biggest culprit that obliterates Wi-Fi is still the microwave oven. When running, many models can wipe out reception across a home or apartment.

Other factors that can make a difference include the distance between you and your router and whether the neighbors are sharing the same Wi-Fi channel you use.

Ofcom’s advice:

Move your router away from electrical devices: Halogen lamps, electrical dimmer switches, stereo or computer speakers, Christmas lights, TVs and monitors and AC power cords have all been known to cause interference to broadband routers. Keep your router as far away as possible from other electrical devices as well as those which emit wireless signals such as baby monitors etc.

Move your router to a different part of your home: The walls and furniture in your house act as an obstacle to the Wi-Fi radio frequencies. Ideally routers should be kept centrally within the home and placed on a table or shelf rather than on the floor.

Try restarting your wireless router: This may automatically select a less busy Wi-Fi radio frequency.

Our advice is to consider replacing or upgrading a misbehaving router that will not hold a Wi-Fi connection even in the best of circumstances and above all, make sure you have enabled wireless security to keep uninvited guests off your network.

Regulators Want to Know Why Vidéotron Has Room for Unlimited Data for Some Apps, Not Others

videotron mobileThe Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is asking some hard questions of Quebec-based mobile provider Vidéotron, which began zero-rating preferred partner music streaming services last summer that allow customers to stream all the music they want without it counting against their data cap.

The CRTC is examining whether the practice violates Canada’s Net Neutrality policies, which insist all content be treated equally.

“If, as Vidéotron has stated, congestion is manageable and there is no meaningful risk of service degradation as a result of offering Unlimited Music service, explain why Vidéotron did not either increase or eliminate data usage caps for your broader customer base instead of zero-rating certain applications or services,” the CRTC has asked.

Unlimited Music allows customers to stream Spotify, Google Play Music, Deezer and Canadian-owned Stingray Music without it counting against a customer’s allowance. Other streaming services do count, potentially putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

videotron_coul_anglais_webObservers say zero-rating enhances a customer’s perception that data has a measurable financial value, often arbitrarily assigned by competitors in a marketplace. If providers charge an average of $10 per gigabyte, customers will gradually accept that as the base value for wireless data, despite the fact many providers used to sell unlimited data plans for around $30. Zero rating content can be used in marketing campaigns to suggest customers are getting added value when a provider turns off the usage meter while using those services. Stream 3GB of music and a provider can claim that has a value of $30, but provided to you at “no charge.”

In the United States, most providers generally offer “bonus data” allowances in promotions instead of focusing on individual services. But T-Mobile goes a step further, also offering Music Freedom, a zero-rated music streaming service of its own.

Consumer reaction to the services are mixed. If a customer is a current subscriber to the preferred content, they often perceive a benefit from the free streaming. But customers looking to use a service not on the list may consider such plans unfair.

The CRTC will be awaiting Vidéotron’s formal answer.

Wireless Carriers’ Ho-Hum Economics of Wi-Fi Calling; The Real Money is Still in Data

telecom revenueThe year 2013 marked a significant turning point for phone companies that have handled voice telephone calls for over 100 years. For the first time, the volume of domestic telephone calls and the revenue generated from them was nearly flat. For the last two years, both are now in decline on the wireless side of the business as North Americans increasingly stop talking on the phone and text and message instead.

The U.S. wireline business peaked in the year 2000 with 192 million residential and office landlines. Over the next ten years, close to 80 million of those — 40 percent, would be permanently disconnected, replaced either by cell phones, cable telephone service, or a Voice over IP line. Wireless companies picked up the largest percentage of landline refugees, most never looking back.

Over one-third of more than $500 billion in annual revenue generated by telecom companies in 2013 came from voice services. Although that sounds like a lot, it’s a pittance of a percentage when compared to 2005 when AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless earned most of their revenue from voice calls. Ten years ago, wireless companies principally sold plans based on the number of calling minutes included, and many customers often guessed wrong, paying per minute for calls exceeding their allowance.

At first, this represented a revenue bonanza for the wireless industry, which earned billions selling customers minute-based calling plans that came with built-in cost-controlling deterrents for long-winded talkers — the concern of using up their calling allowance.

attverizonStarting in 2008, wireless industry executives noticed something peculiar. While revenue from texting add-on plans was surging, the growth in calling began to level off. Wireless voice usage per subscriber peaked at an average of 769 minutes in 2007 and began falling after that year. By 2011, the average customer was making 615 minutes of calls a month. As customers began downgrading calling plans, wireless carriers shifted their quest for revenue towards text messaging.

For awhile, texting earned wireless companies astounding profits that required little extra investment in their networks. SMS service at most carriers was effectively priced at $1,250 per megabyte, broken up into 160 byte single messages. In 2011, over 2.3 trillion text messages were exchanged. A message that cost a wireless carrier an infinitesimal fraction of a penny to send and receive cost consumers up to 20 cents or more apiece if they lacked an optional texting plan. To further boost revenue, some carriers like Verizon Wireless began to pull back offering customers a variety of tiered texting plans with different messaging allowances, switching instead to a single, more expensive unlimited texting plan. Many customers balked at the $19.95 a month price and began exploring other forms of messaging each other.

chetan sharmaThe industry’s demand for profit eventually threatened to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. At the same time wireless carriers were raising prices on text messages and forcing customers into expensive texting add-on plans, free third-party messaging apps began eating into texting volume. By 2012, the use of SMS declined for the first time, with 2.19 trillion text messages sent and received, down 4.9 percent from a year earlier.

It took little time for the wireless industry to realize the days of offering plans based on calling minutes and texting were quickly coming to an end. Younger users began the cultural trend of talking less, texting more — but using a growing number of free alternative apps to do so. As a result, both AT&T and Verizon shifted their plans away from focusing on revenue from calling and texting and instead moved to monetize data usage. Today, both carriers offer base plans featuring unlimited voice calling and texting almost as an afterthought. The real money is now made from selling packages of wireless data.

Wi-Fi calling allows customers to make and receive voice calls over a Wi-Fi connection, not a nearby cell tower. The prospect of bundling that option into a cell phone just a few years ago would have been unlikely at some providers, unthinkable at others. It was never considered a high priority at any traditional carrier, although T-Mobile began offering the service all the way back in 2007.

Since most calling plans now bundle unlimited calling, letting calls ride off the traditional cellular network is no longer much of an economic concern.

wifi callingSome even expect carriers to eventually embrace Wi-Fi calling, declaring it superior to alternatives like Hangouts and Skype, which require an app to handle the call. A Wi-Fi call can be received by anyone with a phone.

This month, the last holdout, Verizon Wireless, capitulated and announced it had won approval from the FCC to introduce Wi-Fi calling to customers, joining Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T. But Verizon plans to initially limit that service, offering an app that must be installed to make and receive Wi-Fi calls. The other three carriers integrate Wi-Fi calling directly into the primary phone call app already on the phone.

The introduction of the service is unlikely to have a significant economic impact on any wireless carrier. Most have ample room on their networks to handle cell call volumes. Whether a call is placed over Wi-Fi or traditional cellular service, it will ultimately end up on the same or a similar IP-based phone switch as it makes its way to the called party.

With little revenue-generating opportunities for voice calling or SMS messaging, companies have nearly stopped the practice of monetizing individual telephone calls, preferring to offer unlimited, all-you-want calling and texting plans that used to cost consumers considerable amounts of money.

Now wireless carriers see fortunes to be made slicing up and packaging gigabytes of wireless data, sold at prices that have little relation to actual cost, just as carriers managed with text messaging for the last 20 years. A Verizon Wireless customer using 12GB of data in October that kept a now-grandfathered unlimited data plan paid just under $30 for that usage. (This month Verizon raised the price of that coveted unlimited plan by $20 a month.) Verizon charges $80 for that same amount of data on its new “XL” data plan. Verizon’s cost to deliver that data to customers is lower than it was five years ago, but customers wouldn’t know it based on their bill. As always with the wireless industry, costs often have no relationship to the price ultimately charged consumers.

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