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FCC Considering Making It Easier for Telcos to Kill Landline/DSL Service

The FCC has circulated a draft rulemaking that proposes to make it easier for phone companies to end landline and DSL service in areas they are no longer interested in maintaining existing infrastructure.

“We propose eliminating some or all of the changes to the copper retirement process adopted by the Commission in the 2015 Technology Transitions Order,” according to the draft, which would allow phone companies to end service “where alternative voice services are available to consumers in the affected service area.”

The proposed new policy would depart significantly from the one put in place during the Obama Administration because it would end assurances that competing providers would have reasonable and affordable access to wholesale broadband and voice services after phone companies mothball their copper wire networks in favor of wireless or fiber alternatives. If the FCC proposal passes, incumbent phone companies like Verizon and AT&T could end rural landline and DSL service and not make provisions for competitors to have access to the technology alternatives the phone companies would offer affected customers.

Verizon immediately praised the FCC proposal, saying it was “encouraged the FCC has set as a priority creating a regulatory environment that encourages investment in next-generation networks and clears away outdated and unnecessary regulations,” wrote Will Johnson, senior vice-president of federal regulatory and legal affairs at Verizon. “This action is forward-looking, productive and will lead to tangible consumer benefits.”

Previous attempts by Verizon to discontinue landline and DSL service did not lead to “tangible consumer benefits” as Verizon might have hoped. Instead, it led to a consumer backlash, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Verizon elected not to rebuild its copper wire infrastructure in affected coastal communities in New York and New Jersey. Instead, it introduced a wireless landline replacement called Voice Link that proved unpopular and caused a revolt among residents on Fire Island. The wireless replacement did not support data, health monitoring, credit card transaction processing, faxing, and was criticized for being unreliable. Verizon eventually relented and opted to expand its FiOS fiber to the home network on the island instead.

Verizon also attempted to market Voice Link to New York residents in certain urban and rural service areas affected by extended service outages in lieu of repairing its existing infrastructure. Under the proposed changes, the FCC would ease the rules governing the transition away from copper-based services, which include traditional landline service and DSL, in favor of wireless technology replacements and fiber optics.

Because telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon have made mothballing rural wireline infrastructure a priority, the FCC strengthened its rules in 2015 by doubling the notification window from 90 to 180 days, giving more time for affected customers to make other service arrangements or complain to regulators that there were no suitable alternatives. The FCC wants to roll back that provision to its earlier 90-day notification window in response to telephone company complaints that maintaining copper wire infrastructure is expensive and diverted investment away from next-generation networks.

AT&T has been lobbying for several years to win permission from state legislatures to abandon copper wireline infrastructure, mostly in rural areas, where the company has chosen not to upgrade to fiber optic networks. AT&T claims only about 10% of their original landline customer base still have that service.

Both Verizon and AT&T have shown an interest in moving rural consumers to more proprietary wireless networks, preferably their own, where consumers would get voice and data services. But consumer advocates complain customers could lose access to competitive alternatives, may not have a guarantee of reliable service because of variable wireless coverage, could pay substantially more for wireless alternatives, and may be forced to use technology that either does not support or works less reliably with home security systems, medical monitoring, faxing, and data-related transactions like credit card processing.

Other consumer groups like AARP and Public Knowledge have complained that shortening the window for a transition away from basic landline and DSL service to alternative technology could disproportionately affect the customers most likely to still depend on traditional wireline service — the elderly, poor, and those in rural areas.

Here’s What You Need to Know About Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable television operator, will compete for wireless customers with a new no-contract wireless plan that combines Verizon Wireless’ mobile network with Comcast’s installed base of 16 million hotspots installed in customer homes and businesses.

Xfinity Mobile will offer two plans — a pay as you go option for $12/GB and an unlimited calling, texting, and data plan that ranges from $45-65 a month. Customers spending about $150 or more on a Comcast X1 bundle of services will pay the lesser amount, while those with a more basic package will pay more. Customers must at least subscribe to Xfinity Internet service to qualify for the new wireless plan and live in a Comcast service area.

Comcast is powering its cell phone service with its MVNO agreement with Verizon Wireless, which grants the cable company the right to resell Verizon’s wireless network under the Xfinity brand. But Comcast hopes customers will use their devices the most while connected to an Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot, available in most Comcast customer homes and an extensive network of businesses. To make sure that happens, devices acquired from Comcast will come pre-configured to automatically connect to Comcast’s Wi-Fi, where available.

Comcast’s “unlimited” $65 plan — likely to be the most popular option, is between $15-25 less than what Verizon and AT&T charge their customers for a comparable plan, at least for accounts with just a single device attached. Like other “unlimited” plans, Comcast has a fine print data cap: 20GB of wireless data usage per month, after which it will throttle the customer’s connection until the next billing cycle begins. Comcast intends to always impose the speed throttle once 20GB is reached, not just in areas with congested cell towers. But throttled speeds will be a less maddening 1.5Mbps instead of the usual 128kbps most carriers use to punish their data-heavy users.

Overall, the plan may deliver some savings to current Comcast customers unfazed by signing up for a “quad play” bundle of wireless, phone, TV, and internet access, especially for those bringing a single wireless line to Comcast. Customers with multiple wireless devices on a family plan may want to do the math before signing up with Comcast. Unlike other wireless carriers, Comcast does not offer a discount for additional lines. For most, the price will be $65 a month for each line. For an account with four lines, that would amount to $260 a month — $75 more than what AT&T charges for a similar four-line plan.

Comcast may also attract some interest from light users or those with devices like tablets. Comcast’s $12/GB data plan has no limits or minimum charges. If a customer doesn’t use the plan, there are no charges. If a customer on this plan approaches 4GB of usage in a billing cycle, they can upgrade to Xfinity’s unlimited wireless plan ($45-65) mid-month and then use up to 20GB of data with no extra charges or speed throttles. Customers can put some devices on an unlimited plan and others on a pay-as-you-go plan on the same account.

Early adopters ready to sign up when the service launches this May or June will need to buy new devices from Comcast. The company will sell current generation Apple iPhones, Samsung Galaxy smartphones, and a budget option from LG Electronics. Customers can pay for devices upfront or receive interest-free financing.

Comcast’s interest in entering the wireless business represents the latest effort to keep customers locked into Comcast’s suite of products and services. The more services a customer bundles with Comcast, the more disruptive it will be to switch to another provider.

“The economics really work,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in January. “The goal of the business is to have better bundling with some of our customers who want to save on some of their bill and get a world-class product.”

Because Comcast will rely entirely on Verizon Wireless to provide cellular connectivity, the cost of getting into the mobile business is relatively low. Comcast struck a deal with Verizon several years ago giving the cable company “perpetual” access to Verizon Wireless, as well as any upgrades Verizon makes to its network in the future. However, Verizon still has the right to raise prices on Comcast, potentially slowing or stopping Xfinity Wireless from ever growing large enough to threaten Verizon’s profits.

Charter Communications is planning to introduce a similar wireless product in 2018.

Verizon Sued for “Knowingly Billing Customers for Fraudulent Charges”

Verizon will conveniently add fraudsters’ phone and service orders to your wireless bill until you catch the illegitimate charges and complain.

That is the basis of a new class action lawsuit filed in New York accusing the wireless company of billing customers for fraudulently obtained equipment and service.

Brooklyn lawyer Lowell Sidney told the New York Post it took five months of “autopay” charges almost $100 higher than normal before he noticed someone had obtained a new smartphone and service and billed it to his Verizon Wireless account.

“[Verizon] Fraud Services said that on Oct. 22, 2016, an unknown person entered a Best Buy store in Wesley Chapel, Florida, claimed to be [Sidney], and ordered a cellphone and phone service from Verizon,’’ the suit said. When Best Buy asked for ID, the imposter ran out of the store.

But that did not stop Verizon from running up Sidney’s bill for several months of phone financing installments and service charges.

Sidney’s lawyer told the newspaper it was clear the guy was a crook, but that did not stop Verizon from collecting money it knew didn’t belong to them.

Verizon’s fraud department confirmed Verizon’s corporate policy is not to notify customers about potential, suspected, or actual fraud. It is entirely up to customers to identify suspicious charges and prove to Verizon’s satisfaction those charges are illegitimate.

“The woman I spoke to was very candid — ‘That’s our policy,’” reported an outraged Sidney, and he’s suing to make the point Verizon should be doing a better job of protecting customers and should not be collecting money to which it is not entitled. He wants at least $75,000 in damages and wants other Verizon customers affected by fraud to receive settlements as well. He is also taking his business elsewhere after 17 years with Verizon.

“I am not sure if the competition provides comparable service, but to my knowledge, they don’t actively engage in defrauding their own customers,” Sidney said.

Sidney warns that “autopay” and electronic billing make it more difficult for consumers to scrutinize their bills and catch fraudulent charges because they have to seek out a monthly statement instead of getting one sent directly to them.

AT&T Wants to Walk Away from Universal Landline Service in Illinois

AT&T is seeking permission to walk away from its decades-long commitment to provide universal access to landline service in Illinois, which could mean the eventual end of landline phone and wired broadband service in parts of the state.

An Illinois Senate committee approved a bill in March effectively ghostwritten by AT&T that will end the phone company’s legal obligation to provide wired services. AT&T claims 90% of consumers have already dropped landlines in Illinois, switching to cell phone or Voice over IP services. But the company would not say how many consumers still get wired broadband service from AT&T.

AT&T is laying the groundwork to eventually mothball its copper wire networks. Customers in urban areas would likely be serviced by AT&T’s fiber-copper U-verse network while rural areas would be served entirely by AT&T’s wireless cellular network. The company has already received approval to drop landline service in 19 of the 21 states where it provides landline service. AT&T Illinois president Paul La Schiazza said the company won’t approach the FCC about switching the network off for good until it gets approval in all 21 states.

If AT&T wins the right to pull the plug, it need only provide customers with 60 days notice. The bill also currently qualifies only one company in Illinois to discontinue service almost immediately — AT&T. Despite that, the bill has won support from independent phone companies in the state including Frontier Communications.

La Schiazza complains the government has treated AT&T unfairly by requiring it to provide service while other companies can cherry-pick service areas.

“What we’re left with in Illinois is we’re not guaranteed any customers, we’re not guaranteed any return … yet we still are required to provide an old-style, voice-only telephone line to every customer in our service territory,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “No competitor is required to do that. They can pick and choose whatever customers they want to serve and they can use whatever available technology that they want to.”

But AT&T’s competitors never enjoyed a legacy as a government-sanctioned monopoly, and do not benefit from rights-of-access, government tax credits, and mature network infrastructure over which it can offer service almost anywhere. AT&T also wins an end to the universal service mandate that has been a part of telecom public policy for decades, which means some rural state residents will not be able to get any telephone or internet service from AT&T or any other provider.

AT&T claims it will invest the money it currently puts into wireline network maintenance into ‘services consumers actually want,’ which has traditionally been its wireless network. AT&T’s preferred solution for rural service is to bolster its wireless network and convert existing wired customers into wireless ones. But that gives some state legislators pause, and efforts to decommission landline service by Verizon in rural New York and Superstorm Sandy-ravaged communities along the New York and New Jersey shoreline met with howls of protest from customers about inferior service.

Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, warned AT&T’s proposal was good for AT&T but potentially bad news for rural, older, and poor residents. Scarr submitted testimony to the Illinois Senate’s Telecommunications and Information Technology Committee that argued the current bill SB1381 was favorable to AT&T’s corporate agenda but failed to preserve time-honored traditions of universal service, consumer protection, competition, and public safety.

Scarr pointed out several recent wireless failures including several 911 outages that disrupted access to emergency services nationwide and AT&T’s inability to offer reliable wireless service during mass events. He also questioned whether AT&T would actually invest adequately in improving coverage in Illinois.

“I don’t think we can take away the old policy without replacing (it with a) new one and just pray to the gods of the markets to provide everything,” Scarr said. “I’m quite confident that’s not going to work out for all Illinoisans, especially since we don’t have real competition in broadband.”

Charter Watch: Goodbye TWC’s $10 Modem Rental Fee, Hello Spectrum’s $5 Wi-Fi Fee

Former Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin were glad to see the end of modem rental fees, something promoted as a tangible deal benefit of the merger by new owner Charter Communications. But many of those same customers are now upset to discover that up to $10 modem rental fee has been replaced with a $5 monthly fee for “Wi-Fi service.”

LuAnn Summers, a Bright House customer in Tampa, wrote Stop the Cap! in February to complain her new bill from Charter/Spectrum included a $9.99 activation fee and $5 a month for something called “Wi-Fi Service.” The same fees have since appeared on bills for some customers recently switching away from their old Time Warner Cable service plans to new Spectrum pricing and plans.

Rich D’Angelo in Wisconsin recently took Charter up on its offer to switch away from his legacy TWC plan when his promotion expired in January.

“I was able to get a big speed boost and bundle it with Spectrum’s Silver TV package, which includes two of the premium movie channels I was paying TWC $15 each for every month, and my bill was only supposed to go up $10,” D’Angelo tells Stop the Cap! “Instead, it went up $25 and I feel lied to.”

Wi-Fi sticker shock.

D’Angelo retired his old owned Motorola SB6121 modem in favor of a new network gateway supplied free of charge by Charter because his new package didn’t work with his old modem.

“My 6121 modem was a real workhorse and I bought it right after Time Warner started charging modem fees, but it cannot support Spectrum’s fastest speeds in Wisconsin and I didn’t feel like buying a new modem when Spectrum gives them to customers for free,” D’Angelo explained. “This was the device they handed me and I was not offered any other option.”

Champagne Johnson in Columbus, Ohio also took advantage of Spectrum’s new pricing plans thinking she could save her family money and get better internet speeds from the cable operator that advertises it’s a “new day” for Time Warner Cable subscribers.

“New day but the same old lies and deceit,” Johnson writes Stop the Cap! “Do these cable companies only hire thieves? I was told the cable modem was included, but now I am suddenly getting charged for Wi-Fi, which is crazy. I called Spectrum up and they told me there is a charge if I use their modem for my Wi-Fi. I told them I don’t need their Wi-Fi because I have my own router that works fine and they told me it was included inside their modem and I had to pay for something I won’t use.”

Charter assumes if you use Wi-Fi, you want their Wi-Fi Service

We contacted Charter to learn more about this new charge and what customers can do about it.

It turns out the Wi-Fi charge and activation fee applies when you use a network gateway device provided by the cable company. We learned the reason so many customers are finding this charge on their bill comes as a result of slightly deceptive sales practices when customers choose a Spectrum internet service plan.

“Do you use Wi-Fi at home?” a Charter representative asked us when we inquired about pricing for a new Spectrum service plan to replace our existing Time Warner Cable plan. When we answered yes, the representative said they would send our “free equipment” and noted we would no longer pay a modem rental charge (despite the fact we had owned our own modem at Stop the Cap! HQ for years). “You can either pick it up in a cable store or we can ship it direct to you in a self-install kit.” That equipment was a “network gateway,” which bundles a cable modem and router into a single device.

Our readers confirm that Charter representatives did not ask them if they have an existing in-home router, which probably already provides Wi-Fi access in the home. Nor do they disclose that accepting a network gateway, which was also interchangeably referred to as “a modem” means they are agreeing to pay a $9.99 activation fee and $5/mo ongoing fee for “Wi-Fi service.”

We called three times this afternoon as were given identical information, and no disclosure of any Wi-Fi fees.

On the fourth call, we specifically asked about Wi-Fi fees and the representative told us they did not know the answer and left us on hold for 10 minutes before finally disclosing that Charter does charge both fees. When we asked how to avoid them, we were first told we could not waive the fee if we used Wi-Fi in the home, but a supervisor later clarified that it only applied to their gateway and we could specifically request a “basic modem” or have Wi-Fi disabled on a network gateway, and neither charge would apply.

“How are we supposed to know and understand that in advance?” Johnson asked us.

“Considering more than 90% of Time Warner Cable customers were paying $10 a month for a modem without ever realizing or understanding they could buy their own and avoid that charge, how many Spectrum customers are proficient enough to tell Spectrum they want their network gateway set to bridge mode or want a traditional cable modem without router functionality? It’s clear Charter is going to make $5 a month from a whole lot of customers, and it should be disclosed up front. It even got me and I am a network engineer.”

Summers learned about the controversy of the Wi-Fi charge after googling the fee and discovered a Tampa Bay Times story about the fee.

Spectrum spokesman Joe Durkin told the newspaper the fee should not apply to customers Charter inherited from Bright House who already had internet service. He said Spectrum is reviewing cases the Times has brought to its attention to see if the charges were appropriate.

But that isn’t always the case for customers placing orders on Charter’s website or contacting customer service by phone. In both cases, Charter implied if you want to use Wi-Fi at home, you owe them an extra $5 a month:

Charter’s website suggests that you have to pay $5 a month if you intend to use Wi-Fi at home.

Getting the charges off your bill

Luckily, Charter is readily agreeing to customer requests to remove the charge(s) from customer bills and will supply equipment with Wi-Fi disabled (or not present when using a traditional cable modem). You may need to exchange equipment, however. If either charge appears on your bill, call and complain. While we no longer recommend customers invest in their own cable modems as long as Charter is providing them without a rental fee, we do suggest customers buy their own router and avoid ongoing fees for Wi-Fi service.

Also be aware that if you are still on a legacy Time Warner Cable internet plan, Charter will keep collecting that $10 monthly modem fee until you abandon your Time Warner plan for a Spectrum internet plan. You can still avoid the rental fee by buying your own modem. Charter’s list of supported modems is here.

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  • Bobbie Jo: What about being billed for a service you don't even have?? Then they report it to your credit.. 6 months of Frontier-communications-corp hanging up...
  • Bill: I've had it with Time Warner and now Spectrum. Just purchased an amplified antenna and hooked it up. I get over 15 local channels in true HD (1080p vs...
  • LG: "simplified pricing" ..yes, it means they're "simply" raising the price. "It's actually less money when you factor in there is no modem fee. No d...
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  • Milan Gohil: Phillip, I trust that you will let us know what we can do to fight this assault on our freedom! Ajit PAID is a slimy POS! Trump is well on his way to...
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