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Altice Caught in Panama Papers Scandal; Tapping Junk Bond Market (Again) to Raise Quick Cash

drahiPatrick Drahi’s Altice — new owner of Suddenlink and presumed next owner of Cablevision — has been caught dealing with the scandalous Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in helping wealth-soaked billionaires and politicians evade taxes.

Altice’s name came up in the Panama Papers, a leak of over 11 million documents taken from the law firm. Although admitting it had dealings with Mossack Fonseca in 2008 and 2010, an Altice official claimed it was only for “incidental transactions for reasons of strict confidentiality and in perfectly legal conditions with no tax impact, let alone foreign, near or far, for any purpose of evasion, concealment, or tax optimization.” But critics are asking why a Swiss national running a cable conglomerate in Francophone Europe would hire an obscure law firm in Panama City to manage those “incidental transactions.”

Failed Consolidation Merger Keeps the Price Wars Going

Altice has been having a tough April. First, its participation in a three-way plot to consolidate the French wireless industry and end ongoing competitive price wars that benefit consumers turned out to be for nothing. Orange and Bouygues Telecom were set to merge, but likely only after divesting certain assets to Altice’s Numericable-SFR. The transaction fell apart when the two larger carriers couldn’t guarantee they’d each make a financial killing from the deal, and antitrust authorities were grumbling they might be willing to hammer anything that would likely boost prices for French consumers.

Last year, Wall Street was very pleased with Altice’s strategy of buying up other telecom companies, squeezing costs out of their operations through pay cuts, layoffs, and stiffing vendors, and then using customer revenue to leverage even more acquisitions. Altice enjoys significant support from asset managers like Vanguard, BlackRock, T. Rowe Price, and Fidelity. But their portfolios began taking beatings after Altice’s financial performance became an open question. More than a million customers dropped Altice-owned SFR-Numericable in the last year, citing poor performance.

Loaded in Debt, Altice Jumps into Junk Bond Market Twice in One Week

junk3The company’s massive debt load also continues to be a major concern. This week, Altice dipped into the junk bond markets not once, but twice, seeking to refinance their enormous debts. Yesterday, Altice went looking for $2.75 billion. Today it was expected to be back looking for $1.5 billion more, which is the third time Drahi has looked for money from investors comfortable with significant risk.

Drahi’s buyout of Cablevision in a $17.7 billion deal was financed with similar junk bonds and leveraged loans. If his acquisition is approved, it may have a profound impact on Cablevision customers in downstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

At Cablevision, Profits Will Come Before Employees, Customers

Drahi is insisting on driving Cablevision’s profit margins to as high as 50% while promising to slash $1 billion in costs out of the operation. Much of those savings will come from salary and job cuts at Cablevision and Newsday, the last remaining daily newspaper printed on Long Island.

“I don’t like to pay salaries,” Drahi said. “I pay as little as I can … No one in our company is making more than a couple hundred thousand a year.”

Altice CEO Dexter Goei noted there were more than 300 Cablevision employees making $300,000 or more a year. Their days are likely numbered. But that will only be the beginning.

mayotte reunion

Mayotte and Reunion are French territories off the coast of East Africa near Madagascar.

“I suspect Altice is going to come in and slash jobs, streamline operations and work to identify the quickest method of becoming profitable,” said Kevin Kamen, an area media broker. “One of the first places they’ll target for job consolidation will be Newsday, mark my words. They will also cut jobs at Cablevision in the long-run. Wherever they can save cost overruns and produces efficiency they will. Trust and believe. They are not about to invest billions in a sinking ship. I would also expect to see price increases across the board within a year for all subscribers regardless of how competitive the market is.”

French Competition Authority Fines Altice $17 Million for Sabotaging a Future Competitor

But before Drahi can put his earnings in the bank, he will have to share them with the French government, which today fined Altice $17 million dollars for breaking promises to French regulators.

In 2014, Altice won approval of its acquisition of Francophone mobile carrier SFR after agreeing to divest certain assets in places where it would give Altice a virtual monopoly on service. In the Indian Ocean region, the acquisition of SFR by Altice would give the Drahi operation a combined 66% market share in Reunion, 90% in Mayotte. To preserve competition, French regulators insisted Altice sell its Outremer Telecom operations in the two French territories to a third party. Until that sale was complete, Altice agreed to protect the economic viability, marketability, and competitiveness of the soon to be sold unit.

Instead, the Competition Authority discovered Altice suddenly jacked up the price of Outremer Telecom’s service between 17-60% and allowed customers to walk out of their contracts without any financial penalty. As a result, the future owner of Outremer Telecom would own a business that had already lost a substantial number of customers as a result of the price hike, out of character for a provider with an earlier reputation of low priced service.

Regulators suspect Altice might have intentionally sabotaged the business they were required to eventually spin-off, giving their own operation a competitive advantage.

Oman: Broadband for All By Any Means Necessary

omanOman has declared an all-out war on the digital divide, with the country’s broadband provider pledging every citizen will have broadband access within four years, using any means necessary.

With around 50% of the population living in Muscat, the capital of the Arabian Gulf nation, Oman has a pervasive rural broadband problem. The country is hurrying to rid itself of aging copper wire phone infrastructure, replacing it largely with fiber optics, which will reach 80% of the population by 2020. The absolute monarchy that rules Oman has made it clear it considers broadband service an essential utility, as important as electricity and clean water.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who has led the nation since 1970, decreed Oman must gradually create a knowledge-based economy, particularly as dependence on fossil fuel revenue is expected to diminish during the 21st century. Sultan Qaboos has presided over the Vision 2020 plan, which seeks to cultivate Oman’s information and communication technology economy.

oman broadband coTo accomplish this, every inch of the sultinate must have access to fast broadband speeds.

Talib Al Rashadi, business relations manager at Oman Broadband, made it clear he intends to bring Internet access through fiber optics, wireless service, and even satellite to the remotest sections of the country.

“The speed that we used to have one year ago was not more than 20 or 25Mbps,” said Al Rashidi. “Today, we have speeds of 100 to 150Mbps and even gigabit speeds. This is a very high speed, which enables some other applications, such as smart cities, smart governance and others.”

But that is just the beginning. By 2018, all major population centers of other governorates outside of Muscat will be covered with fiber to the home service. Oman is widely expected to pass the United States and Canada in broadband performance and coverage within the next four years. But it will need to do something about the cost of service to be recognized as a true world leader. An unlimited 60Mbps broadband line costs the equivalent of $156 a month. Although many Omanis’ enjoy a high standard of living, broadband at that price remains expensive.

Employees at Altice-owned SFR Smash Difficult Customer’s Phone Live on Periscope

SFR

This SFR retail store is part of the Altice telecom empire

Two customer service representatives at Altice-owned SFR, a wireless carrier in France, may not have understood that the video they broadcast over Periscope showing the destruction of a difficult customer’s cell phone wasn’t just for their friends’ viewing pleasure.

France is buzzing today about the wider release of the video, showing the two employees complain that despite the fact the customer’s phone was being repaired, “he’s breaking our balls this morning. You know what we’ll do to his phone?”

The miracle of Periscope, which let’s you “explore the world through someone else’s eyes,” means everyone watching quickly found out as they obliterated the smartphone by repeatedly throwing it to the ground.

Their evil plan, shared with countless viewers, was first to prove it was not a dummy phone they were destroying, and then claim it was the condition of the phone as it was received.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/SFR Workers Destroy Customer Cell Phone Live on Periscope 3-31-16.mp4

These two SFR employees apparently misunderstood that more than their friends would be watching Periscope as they destroyed a difficult customer’s cell phone. (French) (1:54)

broken phoneAfter the first 10,000 views of the video-that-went-viral, SFR’s damage control team moved in… to rescue SFR’s reputation. The company tweeted it had identified the culprits, (later independently identified as employees of the SFR shopping center in Villeneuve d’Ascq) and they would be “severely punished.” Within hours, both men were fired.

But customers of this Altice-owned operation consider it business as usual. As Altice continues to fight for approval of its acquisition of Cablevision, its largest wireless holding in France is fighting to to be taken seriously by its dwindling customer base.

On Wednesday, the French Association of Telecom Users (AFUTT) released its 2015 Report on Complaints and Customer Dissatisfaction, and no company disappointed more than SFR.

Despite repeated assurances from Altice and SFR-Numericable executives that things were improving, the report found the exact opposite. SFR-Numericable (the combination wireless and cable operator) was the subject of 36% of all complaints against all French telecom companies among Internet users, despite only having a 21% market share. It was the only telecom operator in France to further decline in the ratings, for a second year in a row.

“We can assume the acquisition of SFR by [Altice-owned] Numericable resulted in some initial disruptions to the quality of their service,” the AFUTT report speculates. “The first reports of this appeared in 2014 and have continued and grown in 2015.”

That may be bring pause to New Yorkers and state regulators currently reviewing Altice’s application to acquire Cablevision. Several consumer groups and unions have specifically called out the management methods of Altice founder Patrick Drahi as responsible for many of the problems, noting his demands for forcible cost cutting, squeezing supplies, and exasperating unions have caused many employees to depart.

39% of all complaints about telecom companies in France are directed against Altice-owned SFR-Numericable.

36% of all complaints about telecom companies in France are directed against Altice-owned SFR-Numericable, claims AFUTT.

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Frontier: Your Lousy Wi-Fi is Responsible for Your Slow Internet, Not Us

wi-fi blameFrontier Communications CEO Dan McCarthy blames slow Internet connections on your lousy home Wi-Fi network, not on his company’s broadband service.

McCarthy hoped to convince investors attending the J.P. Morgan Global High Yield & Leveraged Finance Conference earlier this month that Frontier’s last-mile network performance isn’t the real problem, it’s his customers’ Wi-Fi, and delivering faster broadband service isn’t going to solve many speed woes.

“I think the biggest issue that we face in having those kind of increments of capacity is the experience in the home can be substandard not only for us and they perceive a speed issue, but it’s really a Wi-Fi issue,” McCarthy said. “If you look at that many of the perceived speed issues in a home are purely due to a neighbor on the same Wi-Fi channel, which can cut your throughput by 50 percent.”

McCarthy claimed at least 40 percent of the complaints Frontier customers lodge about the company’s broadband service relate to the home Wi-Fi experience. Oddly, customers of other broadband providers don’t seem to complain as much about the performance of their Internet access provider. Frontier scores #12 on Netflix’s speed performance ranking, delivering an average of 2.51Mbps video streaming performance. It isn’t great, but it beat Windstream, Verizon DSL and last place CenturyLink.

frontier new logoFrontier Communications has promised to commit additional investment to expand and improve broadband after it completes its purchase of Verizon landlines in Florida, California, and Texas. Copper DSL customers may eventually get 25Mbps service, fiber customers up to 1Gbps. But the speed improvements have not been as forthcoming in Frontier’s original service areas, dubbed “legacy territories.”

McCarthy claimed more customers within its copper service areas will get speeds of 25-30Mbps, with some getting speeds of 100Mbps and above. But legacy customers often report they consider themselves lucky to see 6Mbps from Frontier DSL.

McCarthy

McCarthy

Despite that, McCarthy seemed to signal Frontier will direct much of its investment into its newest acquisition service areas, not the communities which have had Frontier DSL service for a decade or more.

“We’re investing in the copper facilities as we go into these three states,” McCarthy said. “We’ll be putting in the latest generation of bonded VDSL with vectoring capabilities at the DSLAM and that gives us the ability to have those 80-100 Mbps speeds.”

McCarthy does get the benefit of bragging the company has a larger amount of fiber broadband than ever before.

“Before we do the three-state acquisition, about 10 percent of our markets are passed with fiber-to-the-home and with these three markets about 55 percent of those markets are fiber-to-the-home,” McCarthy said. “We’ll have a substantial slug of markets passed with fiber.”

This excludes the fact Frontier did not build this additional fiber infrastructure itself. It acquired it from another company, in this case Verizon.

T-Mobile Lets Customers Binge On Porn With No Data Caps; PBS Still Capped

Dantes-Inferno-BrothelIf you are willing to spend $20 a month for a porn video service created for mobile devices, T-Mobile will let you watch forever without counting against your monthly data cap.

The latest “zero rating” (exempting some ‘preferred’ content from data caps) controversy from John Legere’s T-Mobile means if you watch educational programming from PBS on your mobile device, it will take a bite out of your usage allowance. But you can nibble all you like on MiKandi, the latest addition to the Binge On program.

MiKandi, which claims to offer “DVD quality” adult entertainment, calls it a victory for freedom of speech:

“When mainstream tech companies announce new platforms it tends to be another way to censor your online experience,” MiKandi CEO Jesse Adams said in a company blog post. “T-Mobile is treating adults like adults and we hope that other tech companies follow in their footsteps.”

T-Mobile hasn’t exactly trumpeted their new association with a porn video supplier, quietly adding the site to its growing list of data cap free websites. But now that it is there, can Pornhub be far behind?

Time Warner Cable Maxx Heads to Syracuse, N.Y., Arrives in Wilmington, N.C.

syrSyracuse residents will be the first in upstate New York to benefit from Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program, which has been gradually moving across the cable company’s footprint.

This month customers will receive communications from TWC outlining its transition to a 100%-digital network. Moving to an all-digital lineup frees up bandwidth to make faster Internet speeds possible. Each analog channel takes the space of three to four HD channels and up to 12 digital networks.

The upgrade means customers using older analog-only televisions will need set-top boxes (or similar equipment) after Time Warner drops analog television service starting in April. The company plans to introduce Maxx service this year to all TWC customers in Syracuse and its suburbs, along with the following central and northern New York service areas: Auburn, Boonville, Burlington, Champlain, Clayton, Cortland, Dixon, Fulton, Gouverneur, Hamilton, Herkimer, Ilion, Indian River, Ithaca, Lake Placid, Lowville, Madison, Malone, Massena, Meridian, Ogdensburg, Old Forge, Oneida, Oswego, Potsdam, Rome, Saranac Lake, Utica, Watertown and West Carthage.

twc maxxBroadband speeds will increase starting later this spring, with customers experiencing increases up to six times faster, depending on their current level of Internet service. For example, customers who subscribe to Standard, formerly up to 15Mbps, will receive up to 50Mbps; customers who subscribe to Extreme, formerly up to 30Mbps, will receive up to 200Mbps; and customers who subscribe to Ultimate, formerly up to 50Mbps, will receive up to 300Mbps, with no change in their monthly plan price.

Some customers will need to switch out their modems to receive the faster speeds and they will be communicated with via mail, email and phone messages with information on how to get a new modem.

Further south, in Wilmington, N.C., some customers are already finding they have faster Internet speeds, if they happen to live in a neighborhood that is a part of the now completed first phase of the Maxx rollout. Customers throughout the rest of the Wilmington and surrounding areas will see their speeds increase by the end of summer 2016.

wilmington“Our customers have asked for faster Internet speeds and we’re now able to provide these faster speeds at no additional cost to all of our customers in the Wilmington area,” said Darrel Hegar, regional vice president of operations for Time Warner Cable. “This is just the beginning of the benefits customers will see from our TWC Maxx initiative that will enhance our Internet, video and reliability.”

In the Wilmington area, Time Warner Cable has rolled out more than 1,500 TWC Wi-Fi Hotspots located both in popular outdoor areas and in indoor small business locations throughout the area, like restaurants, cafes, salons and shopping malls, with more hotspots to be added through 2016. In upstate New York, Time Warner primarily offers Wi-Fi access through Business Class Internet customers that volunteer to host hotspots. In New York, Time Warner has focused most of its owned and operated hotspot buildout downstate, particularly in Manhattan.

Lifestyles of the Rich & Infamous: Altice Execs Splurge on Real Estate While Slashing Jobs

Via his company Canef SA, the businessman bought in June 2014 this property of 2,987 square meters in Cologny, near Geneva.

Via his company Canef SA, Altice founder Patrick Drahi secretly bought this sprawling estate in Cologny, near Geneva, Switzerland. (Image: Capital.fr)

Despite slashing jobs, ruthless cost cutting that degrades network quality for subscribers, and stiffing vendors, Patrick Drahi and his associates have spared no expense building a fabulous collection of Swiss real estate for themselves.

Drahi, the founder and president of Altice, the European cable and wireless conglomerate that today owns Suddenlink and some day soon may own Cablevision, has taken great lengths to hide his extravagant spending. He prefers to depict his carefully cultivated public image of frugality, seen publicly riding a bicycle to the office, eschewing secretaries and business cards, and claiming to be an expert at running a good business for less money.

But as French magazine Capital reveals, like many of Altice’s products and services, the marketing doesn’t match the reality.

Soon after Drahi signs acquisition papers for his latest deal, promising upgrades and enhancements to the public and regulators while telling investors he’s ready to cut to the bone, it becomes clear his promises to Wall Street and investors are the only ones that matter:

  • Soon after acquiring French daily Libération, one-third of the workforce found themselves out of a job;
  • Within the Express-Expansion Group, of the 700 employees he inherited after acquiring the media group, 115 were gone after the deal was signed and Altice is preparing to jettison another 90 positions in the near future;
  • At one of his biggest acquisitions — Numéricable and SFR, despite a commitment not to layoff workers until 2017, unions estimate 700 positions vacated by employees have remained unfilled;
  • In Portugal, trade unions last month accused Altice of continuing to slash employee benefits, ending free subscriptions to PT’s Meo broadband, phone and television service for employees, reducing meal allowances and restricting the use of company vehicles (except by executives).
In 2000, during the "lean years," Drahi managed to acquire this modest piece of property for a bit over $7 million. It's one of his least valuable properties, and has since been put under his wife's name and undergoing extensive renovation.

In 2000, during the “lean years,” Drahi managed to acquire this modest piece of property for a bit over $7 million. It’s one of his least valuable homes, and has since been put under his wife’s name and is undergoing extensive renovation. (Image: Capital.fr)

While employees watch company bean counters demand cutbacks that occasionally leave offices without basic office supplies, Drahi’s endless acquisition deals come with numbers that make your head spin:

  • At least $50 million dollars a month is paid to bankers to cover interest on Altice’s massive debts, which now range near €10 billion.
  • Altice’s finances seem so risky to many bankers, they charge Drahi 5-10% interest.

Altice’s endless promises of improved service through upgrades and better customer relations are little more than expensive fibs to their customers in France, who have endured rate increases and appallingly bad service.

In fact, UFC Que Choisir, France’s Federal Union of Consumers, reported last month Altice’s management of its mobile operator SFR has turned the company into the worst rated and most hated mobile operator in France.

The group reports “unprecedented levels of discontent” from consumers calling their legal information service for help taking SFR to court over its poor service and billing practices. Of all the legal disputes filed in 2015 against telecom companies, an amazing 44% targeted Drahi’s SFR Numéricable, which has only a 20% share of France’s mobile market.

Despite assurances of better service during 2015, customers continued to leave. In mid-2015 alone, 445,000 mobile customers permanently hung up on SFR Numéricable and switched to other providers.

Drahi doesn’t just alienate his customers. His competitors, notably Orange and Free have complained SFR engages in a pattern of misleading or outright false advertising. Two months after those complaints were lodged, officials from the Competition Authority raided the headquarters of SFR Numéricable and seized documents.

ariaseresioarnge ariaseresisfrariaseresinumericable

Any provider except Altice-owned SFR-Numericable. When dissatisfied customers dump their current mobile provider, the last choices on their list are SFR and Numericable.

Any provider except Altice-owned SFR-Numéricable. When dissatisfied customers dump their current provider, the last choices on their list are SFR and Numéricable. (Images: Univers/Freebox)

Few of these developments have been noticed by regulators and investors in the United States, perhaps owing to the French-English language barrier. But Drahi’s arrival in New York turned out to be just as provocative.

A model of "7 Heavens," a set of seven luxury chalets under construction in the ski resort of Zermatt. Drahi has already bought two. (Image: Capital.fr)

A model of “7 Heavens,” a set of seven luxury chalets under construction in the ski resort of Zermatt. Drahi has already bought two. (Image: Capital.fr)

Last November, Drahi told Wall Street analysts at an investment conference that he does not like paying salaries and if given a chance, he will “pay as little as I can” to his employees. It’s a different story for his tight-knit management team, which have splurged on the 2.65 million stock options windfall granted to them, worth as much as $238 million dollars.

So where do the stacks of cash go? As far as Capital’s team of reporters can tell, it isn’t spent on network improvements, job retention, or customer service. Instead, a handful of top executives are quietly helping themselves to expensive Swiss real estate.

Following the money has not been easy. Drahi and his associates do not want customers to know where their money is being spent. Capital reporters were forced off one property after asking a developer about the buyer of two of seven chalet cottages nestled in the hills with a breathtaking view of the Matterhorn, Switzerland’s most famous mountain peak. That view came with a $45 million price tag. Drahi told Capital he knew nothing about the project, but newly-revealed documents from municipal authorities obtained by Capital reporters found Drahi-owned subsidiary NDZ was the buyer, and nobody expects the tony digs will house customer service agents.

But that isn’t enough for “Monsieur Altice.” In Cologny, a chic suburb of Geneva, Drahi’s 3,000 meter property surrounded by high fences and expensive security set him back around $19 million. He already owned a 2,400 meter property on the same street, acquired in 2000 for the modest sum of $7.4 million (he put the house in his wife’s name). Sixteen years later, it was time for an upgrade as a dozen construction trucks arrived to begin a major renovation.

Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice, bought this property in Collonge-Bellerive, in the village of Vésenaz, close to Geneva. The Swiss magazine Bilan estimates Goei is worth $275-370 million and growing.

Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice, bought this property in Collonge-Bellerive, in the village of Vésenaz, close to Geneva. The Swiss magazine Bilan estimates Goei is worth $275-370 million and growing. (Image: Capital.fr)

But wait, there is more. Drahi also invested 15 million euros for a 4,400 meter plot of land on which he’s building two villas with 700 meters of space each. On Jan. 15, also in Cologny, Drahi acquired another property via Canef worth an estimated $14 million.

Back in France, some customers were incensed to learn Drahi’s property shopping spree includes an advantageous tax package courtesy of the Swiss government, which bends over backwards hoping to attract the foreign super rich. Critics complain the Swiss effort to attract billionaires comes with premise a spare million or two might drop from their pockets onto the streets of Geneva and other major Swiss cities. Alas, Drahi has kept his money for himself. Altogether, Capital found over $110 million of Drahi’s money was invested in Swiss luxury properties.

Not to be left out of the Money Party, some Altice executives have moved money into Swiss real estate as well:

  • At Collonge-Bellerive, another upscale suburb of Geneva, Jeremiah Bonnin, the Secretary General of Altice, spent around $14 million on a 3,000 meter property;
  • Five minutes down the road is the $7.7 million estate of Altice CEO Dexter Goei.

Even former executives don’t leave the company empty-handed. Eric Denoyer, former director general of SFR-Numéricable for just one year, walked away with €2 million golden parachute, a €400,000 salary, and a gift of 1.2 million shares of the company.

Unlimitedville: Affordable Unlimited Wireless Broadband Service via Sprint

unlimitedvilleFinding affordable wireless Internet access that isn’t speed throttled or usage capped is becoming rare, but Stop the Cap! has been exploring a provider that offers both.

Unlimitedville is the latest authorized reseller of Sprint that has managed to get permission to market an unlimited LTE 4G wireless data plan that comes without speed throttles. The service is priced at $42.99 a month (not including certain minor fees and surcharges) and includes a 30-day free trial to test the service. A $50 setup fee includes a mobile hotspot device (typically a Netgear Zing or Pocket Wifi) that is yours to keep once you commit to the required 2-year contract (after the free trial).

Customers we have communicated with give the service a universal thumbs-up for not limiting or throttling usage. Customers in suburban and semi-rural areas near highways and interstates report the best speeds from relatively uncongested Sprint cell towers. Those in very rural areas may have a lot of trouble finding Sprint service available, so potential customers should review Sprint’s coverage map carefully for data service coverage before considering Unlimitedville.

There are some peculiarities about doing business with this reseller, however.

First, Unlimitedville acts as a front line sales agent, but accounts are apparently provisioned by an another company named Impact Wireless, a “master agent” for Sprint. After service is established, all future communications, support and billing take place directly with Sprint.

sprint zingGetting service established is the first minor hurdle. Because the contract plan is intended for business use, customers will need to list a company name on the enrollment form. It is acceptable to consider yourself a consultant or use your current profession if you intend to use the service at anytime/for any reason for work or while travelling for work. No formal business registration is required. Some customers sign up using their last name, as in “Smith Consulting.” You do have to give them your Social Security number or business Taxpayer ID Number to run the usual required credit check. Most applicants are easily approved within 72 hours and Sprint will then call to help arrange for service. If you are not approved, you can agree to pay an upfront deposit and after 12 on-time monthly payments, the deposit will be returned to your account.

Second, some customers have recently reported they’ve been surprised to discover their account activation came with membership in a free loyalty program for a certain home improvement retail chain. With the recent demise of Karma’s Neverstop plan, disconnecting customers are banging at the doors of Unlimitedville to get in. Evidently this overflow is also affecting Impact Wireless, which evidently has some limitations on how many new customers it can enroll itself over a certain period of time. As a result, they may be looking for other entry points available to them to get customers activated as quickly as possible. Customers should be ready to be flexible. Getting unlimited wireless data from anyone these days increasingly requires creativity.

As Unlimitedville gains more visibility, there are also questions about how long it will last given carriers’ dislike of resellers that attract a lot of heavy users. The service has been around at least as long as Karma and is still welcoming new clients, so it is hard to say. It will probably last longer if customers respect the wireless network that powers it was not built to sustain customers running up a terabyte of usage a month. Being a responsible user of a limited resource is likely to help keep these kinds of unlimited services viable, an important consideration for customers who do not have the luxury of going to another provider if Unlimitedville folds.

Bad Karma: Sprint and Data Caps Kill Neverstop Plan; Customers Claim Bait & Switch

Karma's very expensive $150 startup equipment package.

Karma’s very expensive $150 startup equipment package.

After customers spent $150 on a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device promising unlimited LTE wireless Internet access for $50 a month, Karma – the company offering the service – has put a stop to its “Neverstop” plan four months after introducing it.

“Karma is a bitch,” complained one customer who spent $250 with Karma trying to find a replacement for Clear’s now discontinued WiMAX service for his rural home. “After spending hundreds for nothing, it should be obvious to everyone why Karma turned off the comment section on its website.”

Neverstop customers have been through a rough ride during the brief life of the service, which started last November. Customers were promised unlimited 5Mbps service for $50 a month, after buying the $150 in required hardware. But not long after the plan was introduced, customers discovered their speeds were throttled to as low as 1.5Mbps to discourage customers from excessively using the service.

Insiders tell us the likely cause of the plan’s demise is Sprint, the wireless company Karma contracts with to offer the service. Sprint reseller contracts are closely guarded, but there is a clear track record of wireless companies taking action against resellers that place unexpected burdens on their networks. Millenicom, a similar provider that won customers largely through word-of-mouth, saw its unlimited offerings curtailed long before Karma announced its Neverstop plan, because wireless companies didn’t appreciate the fact some Millenicom customers relied entirely on the service for Internet access in the home.

Karma-Neverstop

Karma sold a plan that encouraged heavier data usage and then punished customers for using it.

Karma officials claim most of their customers never exceeded 15GB a month, but apparently enough did to get Sprint’s attention. Karma’s own internal research found that despite its insistence Neverstop was not a home broadband replacement, at least 60% of their customers used it exactly for that purpose. A handful of customers ran up hundreds of gigabytes of usage from online video, cloud storage/backup, and file trading. But a larger percentage used the service because they had no access to DSL or cable broadband, and used about as much data as the average household – an amount deemed by Sprint and/or Karma as “unsustainable.” Karma quickly moved to impose universal speed reductions on the service, dropping from 5Mbps to 1.5Mbps in an effort to curtail usage.

“Bait and switch,” complained Shannon Krakosky on Karma’s Facebook page. Many of the company’s earliest customers found the throttles arrived just as their 45-day return window for the expensive equipment expired, saddling them with a $150 paperweight. The company’s Black Friday offer inspired still more customers to sign up at a discount, only to find the equipment backordered, arriving at around the same time the traffic reduction speed throttles were announced.

Just one week before the speed reductions took effect, new customers were enticed with a year-end signup offer, further increasing traffic loads. Then customers received this:

[We] were surprised to learn how many of you are also using it heavily at home. We’ve seen lots of you binge watch Netflix in HD all day, back up your hard drives over the internet, and even connect your Xboxes through ingenious means. It’s a glimpse of how the internet should be, and we love it… but it’s putting a strain on the service and it’s not what the product is meant for today.​

After spending $150 on hardware for $50 unlimited LTE service, less than four months later these are your new choices.

After spending $150 on hardware for $50 unlimited LTE service, less than four months later these are your new choices.

But usage should have never surprised Karma, considering the firm marketed Neverstop in November and December as the perfect answer for “heavier usage, streaming, downloading….”

Only after imposing a speed throttle — later increased to 2.5Mbps — came changes in how Neverstop marketed its service. In early January, Neverstop was now sold as the perfect solution for “daily usage, worry-free browsing, on-the-go work, travel, occasional streaming, and more.” Also gone was the marketing that promoted unlimited usage. The new message to customers: lay off.

Many customers were unhappy about the sudden changes and have filed false advertising complaints with the Better Business Bureau and several state attorneys general.

Karma continued to modify its Neverstop plan later in January, claiming to relent on speed throttling and moving to impose a 15GB usage cap on Neverstop instead. The company claimed the usage cap would allow it to restore 5Mbps service, but most customers complained their speeds remained slow. In effect, customers were being asked to continue paying $50 a month for a shadow of the service originally advertised.

As of late last week, Karma revisited customers again to announce the once unlimited wireless data experience of Neverstop was being stopped… permanently.

van Wel

van Wel

Karma CEO Steven van Wel told Verge the company came to the realization that Neverstop was unsustainable after observing a month of customer usage following January’s adjustments. Even with the restrictive throttling, half of Neverstop customers reached the 15GB cap before the end of their billing cycle, and there was no way for them to easily continue high-speed service, whether by changing plans or paying overage fees. Just one month earlier van Wel told Verge only a few customers were likely to exceed their 15GB cap.

“You bait and switched us again,” came a chorus of complaints before Karma switched off public comments on all but its Facebook page.

“Poor business at best,” added Daniel Frisch. “Sell a customer one thing and then switch it to something completely different. You sold me an unlimited data device at a reasonable price and now you have gone from throttling that data to a high-priced limited data plan like everybody else.”

Karma’s latest plan is called Pulse and Neverstop customers will gradually find their existing Neverstop service transitioned to the new plan over the coming month, which will sell 5GB of service for $40 a month. Many complain there are better deals available elsewhere.

Stop the Cap! will continue to seek out options for rural or on-the-go customers who depend on wireless Internet access where DSL and cable broadband are not available. For now, we cannot recommend Karma because of the company’s unstable service plans and the high upfront cost of equipment.

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