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Sprint a Pawn in Masayoshi Son’s U.S. Investment Scheme

President Trump met with Softbank’s Masayoshi Son in December, 2016.

Japan’s Softbank has a deal tailor-made for President Donald Trump’s desire to inspire companies to invest more in the United States and hire more workers, and all the president has to do is get Washington regulators concerned with mergers, acquisitions, and competition out of Softbank’s way.

Softbank’s Masayoshi Son has delivered a lot of speeches and made a lot of promises since acquiring Sprint in 2013 for $21.6 billion, originally promising to rebuild the struggling wireless company into a potential competitive juggernaut, capable of beating Verizon and AT&T and even take on cable operators. Now he’s offering to invest another $50 billion in the U.S., and create 50,000 new jobs, assuming the business climate is right.

Before accepting such a deal, one should take a closer look at how Sprint is doing three years under Softbank’s ownership. Few would argue with the fact Sprint has languished and fallen to last place among the four national carriers, now behind T-Mobile. Despite Son’s commitment to Donald Trump to invest and hire, Sprint has severely cut investment by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016 and has laid off more than 4,000 employees, most in the United States. Customers continue to complain about the perpetual ‘massive upgrade’ undertaking the company embarked on years ago that never seems to be finished and hasn’t helped service quality as much as customers expected.

In January 2016, BusinessWeek reported SoftBank has “plowed more than $22 billion into Sprint, and yet all of Sprint is now valued at $11.8 billion. The company’s $2.2 billion in cash is about the same as its 2016 debt obligations.”

Ten years earlier, Sprint was worth $69 billion and was prepared to dominate the U.S. wireless industry, but drove customers off with very poor customer service and inadequate investment in its network, allowing competitors like AT&T and Verizon Wireless to leap ahead. Sprint also embarked on an executive-inspired fantasy: a disastrous merger with Nextel that preoccupied the company for years. Softbank taking the lead has done little to change customer perceptions, nor those of some Wall Street analysts who fear Sprint is a bottomless money pit that always promises better times and profits are coming, but never seems to get there.

“You’ve watched a once-great institution deteriorate to the point that it is now a badly, badly compromised asset,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “They’ve been living from hand-to-mouth for years, constantly making short-term decisions in order to live to fight another day.”

It calls into question Softbank’s vision to use technology “to reduce loneliness and ease the sadness of people as much as possible.” There are a lot of sad Sprint customers, churning away into the arms of competitors like T-Mobile faster than Sprint can sign new customers up.

Son’s dream depended on his business plan that reduced the number of U.S. competitors to three by merging Sprint and T-Mobile together, something federal regulators under the Obama Administration failed to accept despite Son’s argument the combined resources of the two companies would theoretically make a super-sized Sprint more competitive with AT&T and Verizon.

In contrast to Son’s plan to consolidate the wireless industry to improve Sprint’s financial health, T-Mobile instead decided to boost investments in network upgrades and improved coverage to attract new customers. Ironically, some of the money to pay for those upgrades came from AT&T after it paid a reverse breakup fee of $3 billion in cash and $1–3 billion in wireless spectrum after its merger proposal with T-Mobile collapsed.

While Son promises he will invest billions in the United States, he is already spending much less on Sprint. In 2017, Verizon planned to spend $9.12 per subscriber (adjusted spending per monthly phone-equivalent subscriber), AT&T will spend $9.67 and T-Mobile will spend $9.04. Sprint will lag behind with $6.78 per subscriber in network investments. Moffett predicted of the $22 billion Verizon has committed for capital spending this year, about $11.3 billion will go toward wireless. By contrast, Sprint will spend $2.97 billion, excluding costs of leased phones. T-Mobile is spending just over $5 billion.

In the last two years, customers have delivered a new paradigm to wireless companies: bigger isn’t necessarily better. The only bright spot among all four national carriers in 2016 was the scrappy T-Mobile, once destined for a fire sale by owner Deutsche Telekom. But under the “Uncarrier” leadership of CEO John Legere, T-Mobile USA is worth pure gold in Deutsche Telekom’s global wireless portfolio. The turnaround came not from trying to consolidate the industry but rather giving customers what they have asked for — more data, unlimited data, better deals, and better service. T-Mobile’s network investments paid off, giving the company very competitive 4G LTE speeds and comparable urban and suburban coverage to its larger competitors. Legere has been so successful, the German owners of T-Mobile no longer seem to be interested in selling T-Mobile USA.

Softbank’s record of achievement with Sprint in the last two years has been much less of a success story.

Customer Gains and Losses by Carrier – 2016-Q4 Phone Activators

Investments by Sprint in its wireless network have plummeted 62.7% under the leadership of Softbank from 2014-2016. (Chart: Hal Singer)

In 2015, Sprint’s capex was $3.958 billion. Last year, it was $1.421 billion — less than half the previous year. Mr. Son seems reticent about maintaining the kind of investment necessary to grow Sprint’s network over the long term to keep up with customer demand, instead willing to compete short term on price and promotions. Sprint’s past reputation for poor customer service, a slow data network, dropped calls, and coverage dead zones makes attracting former customers back to Sprint a hard sell, especially considering T-Mobile exists as a credible alternative to Sprint for those seeking cheaper service plans.

Son’s argument to the new administration depends on President Trump and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai being more friendly to the idea of less competition than the Obama Administration. Son may have an uphill battle, considering the former Obama Administration’s opposition to earlier mergers, including T-Mobile and AT&T and T-Mobile and Sprint seems to have paid off for consumers in the form of today’s fiercer competition and a price war.

Convincing President Trump to loosen merger standards to allow Softbank a stronger position in the U.S. market in return for vague and illusory investment and job creation promises is ridiculous considering Mr. Son’s performance with Sprint has not been as rosy as his rhetoric. No president should agree to a de facto bailout deal for Softbank that reduces competition and guarantees higher prices. Mr. Son should instead direct some of the $50 billion he apparently has stashed in waiting to improve Sprint’s network to more effectively compete. If he cannot or will not, the entire country should not pay for his investment mistake by watching more wireless competition get eliminated in yet another merger.

AT&T Follows Verizon Back to Optional Unlimited Data Plans for All Starting Tomorrow: $100/Mo

Unlimited data is back.

AT&T has followed Verizon Wireless back the era of unlimited data plans, starting tomorrow.

The AT&T Unlimited plan will be available to all customers, not just those signed up with DirecTV, and will be expensive. A single line unlimited voice, text, and data plan will reportedly cost $100 a month. Customers switching four lines to unlimited data will pay $180 after a $40 bill credit kicks in 60 days after signing up. This means for the first two months, customers will pay $220 for the privilege of unlimited data.

The new plan is open to residential and business/corporate accounts and business customers will also get the benefit of any corporate discounts.

AT&T’s definition of “unlimited” actually means 22GB. If you exceed that amount, AT&T reserves the right to slow your data connection “during periods of network congestion.”

The plan includes:

  • unlimited calls from the U.S. to Canada and Mexico
  • unlimited texts to over 120 countries
  • talk, text and use data in Canada and Mexico with no roaming charges when adding the free Roam North America feature
  • the ability to switch off AT&T’s “Stream Saver” which limits online video playback to 480p

“We’re always listening to our customers and will continue to evolve to provide more choice, more convenience, and more value,” claims AT&T in a press release. But observers believe AT&T listens to the competitive realities of the marketplace more than its customers who never wanted to lose the option of unlimited data in the first place.

 

AT&T Slowly Strangling U-verse TV to Reposition Bandwidth for Broadband

Phillip Dampier February 16, 2017 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

AT&T’s U-verse TV has been losing customers for over a year. (Image: Market Realist)

AT&T wants its U-verse TV video service dead, but is willing to watch it bleed customers for a while before likely downsizing or axing the service to make room for better broadband speeds.

The phone company has allowed U-verse TV to wither on the vine for more than a year, losing hundreds of thousands of customers every quarter since late 2015, and surprisingly has done almost nothing to stop the subscriber losses. In all, more than a million AT&T U-verse TV customers canceled service in 2016.

AT&T has admitted it has abandoned aggressively marketing its U-verse TV platform and has put its marketing muscle into selling DirecTV, the satellite provider AT&T acquired two years ago. DirecTV has added customers at a remarkably similar rate that AT&T has been losing U-verse TV customers. AT&T is even willing to watch customers walk into the arms of their competitors, a clear sign AT&T hopes their U-verse TV customers churn away.

Customers report U-verse TV-related promotions and retention plans have gotten worse in the last 14 months and some tell Stop the Cap! they were steered to DirecTV when they contacted AT&T to discuss their options.

Even the U-verse brand is being gradually discontinued. AT&T recently rebranded its fiber to the home service AT&T Fiber, dropping the AT&T U-verse with GigaPower brand the company had used since first announcing gigabit speed access.

AT&T U-verse as a brand is slowly disappearing in favor of AT&T Fiber.

Market Realist reports AT&T doesn’t necessarily want to spend a lot of money upgrading its legacy U-verse fiber to the neighborhood network across its entire landline service area, but needs to boost broadband speeds to stay competitive with cable broadband. When U-verse was originally launched, the service reserved much of its available bandwidth for television service, limiting broadband speeds to a maximum of around 24Mbps. That is no longer seen as competitively adequate and that leaves AT&T with only two options: upgrade its legacy infrastructure to support fiber-fed gigabit speed or reduce the amount of bandwidth devoted to television services and use it to expand broadband speeds.

AT&T is doing a little of both, expanding its gigabit broadband service in very limited areas in 46 cities with 23 more to come sometime this year. An indication of just how few customers can actually buy AT&T’s gigabit speeds was revealed indirectly by AT&T. Only four million homes and businesses, including 650,000 apartment and condo units can buy 1,000Mbps broadband from AT&T nationwide. Los Angeles and Chicago — both AT&T Fiber service areas, combined have more than five million potential customers alone.

In many cases, fewer than 10% of AT&T’s customers in AT&T Fiber cities can actually buy the service. In Knoxville, Tenn., AT&T admitted its gigabit service was only available in about 30 apartment and condominium complexes.

AT&T is promising to expand its fiber service to reach at least 12.5 million customers in 67 metro areas by the summer of 2019. But that will still likely leave more than half of AT&T’s customers out of reach of the service.

AT&T has told investors it plans no blockbuster budget increases to aggressively roll out fiber service across its footprint, which includes much of the south and midwest and large sections of California. Instead, it will likely offer fiber service to new housing developments, multi-dwelling units, and higher income areas. That decision still requires AT&T to do something for customers not on a near-term upgrade list, and that will likely be a gradual transformation of legacy U-verse into broadband-only service with speeds closer to 50-75Mbps, where video streaming from services like DirecTV Now can travel over the top to customers.

AT&T Schmoozing Lawmakers With Drinks, Tartare, and a Blonde for Its Latest Merger Deal

Phillip Dampier February 8, 2017 Astroturf, AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

As your AT&T wireless bill soars to new heights, the phone company is spent your money on an exclusive inside-the-beltway private soirée to help win approval of its merger deal with Time Warner, Inc.

The little people (ordinary Americans and AT&T customers) were barred at the door for AT&T’s “Stars and Stripes Reception,” celebrating the grand opening of the AT&T Forum for Technology, Entertainment, and Policy. The party was heavy on lobbyists, lawyers, executives, and lawmakers that Bloomberg News reported were bathed in cool blue light and amply supplied with drinks and avocado tartare with melon carpaccio. Added bonus: free photos with a blonde in a slinky white gown promoting “Ice,” an AT&T original show seen on DirecTV.

AT&T doesn’t throw parties just to have fun. Its army of 100 lobbyists and a budget of at least $16.4 million to match leaves very little to chance. Only one company – Boeing – spends more time and money influencing lawmakers. But even a household name aerospace company cannot match the success AT&T has had getting its corporate agenda through in Washington, especially when the Republicans hold the majority. The company has spent more than $213 million schmoozing elected officials since 1998 alone.

The smell of power brought some important names to AT&T’s party, among them, Meredith Attwell Baker, former Republican FCC commissioner who accepted a high-paying lobbying job at Comcast just a few months after voting to approve its own merger deal with NBCUniversal. She was photographed by Washington Life magazine with Peter Jacoby, a former longtime AT&T lobbyist now lobbying for UnitedHealth Group, Bryan Cunningham, co-founder and principal at Polaris Consulting, which has advised AT&T on all of its merger deals since 2009 (along with just about every other large cable merger in the last seven years), and Shane Tews, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute also associated with the Koch Brothers-backed Heartland Institute, and two other DC consultant groups catering to big businesses that need a guide to help navigate and influence Washington.

Having fun: On the right is Republican strategist Ivan Garcia-Hidalgo, Hispanic Communications | Run PAC

In short, AT&T’s Forum is the embodiment of the D.C. “swamp” President Donald Trump has vowed to drain. Yet it confidently opened for business just a few days before his inaugural. Bloomberg News called the event part of AT&T’s search for “friends in high places.”

The phone company remains concerned about Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail that a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, Inc. would concentrate too much power in too few hands and was “an example of the power structure I’m fighting.”

But not concerned enough to believe their $85.4 billion deal is dead. In fact, D.C. insiders predict the transaction is likely to sail to approval with the Trump Administration’s Justice Department. Few believe the likely next head of the agency that reviews corporate mergers on antitrust grounds — Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is going to be too tough on AT&T. The president has yet to appoint an assistant attorney general for antitrust, who will be responsible for most of the transaction’s review. But Trump’s team was still considering Joshua Wright, a law professor that generally believes mergers are pro-consumer and has promoted a strict laissez-faire philosophy on antitrust enforcement, which foreshadows almost no enforcement at all.

So why throw lavish receptions for the important people in Washington?

“All of this outreach, all of this cultivation, is ensuring you have allies,” Meredith McGehee, strategic adviser to the Campaign Legal Center told Bloomberg News. “You get to know people. You invite them. You do the receptions. You start to cultivate champions on the Hill, so if an antitrust action comes about you can turn to those champions and say, ‘Hey I need you to push back. I need you to write letters.’”

Most of that attention will continue to be tilted towards Republicans, which have traditionally been more favorable to AT&T’s interests. AT&T donated 62% of the $2.7 million in campaign contributions to the GOP in the last election. Most of AT&T’s lobbyists are Republicans that took a trip through D.C.’s revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street — home of the city’s top lobbying firms. Almost 60 of the 100 AT&T lobbyists used to work for Republican lawmakers or affiliated groups. Another 30 come from Democratic backgrounds — most formerly working for the Clinton Administration or Democratic lawmakers.

Since President Trump began emphasizing the need for American jobs and investment, AT&T’s lobbying team has tailored its message accordingly. On inauguration day, AT&T took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post stating: “We employ more than 250,000 people.” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson also reportedly emphasized AT&T’s investments in its network when he met privately with Mr. Trump in New York.

AT&T Shuts Down Its 2G Wireless Network Creating Problems for San Francisco’s NextBus System

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2017 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

Connecting… but never connected at this San Francisco bus stop, because AT&T pulled the plug on the 2G service San Francisco’s public transit system relies on. (Photo Courtesy: Rick/Flickr)

AT&T quietly closed down its 2G wireless network nationwide on Jan. 1, 2017, stranding some very old phones left with Wi-Fi only service and causing irritation for San Francisco’s public transit system.

“To help support the massive growth of mobile internet usage and free up spectrum for newer technologies, we discontinued service on our 2G wireless networks Jan. 1, 2017,” AT&T said in a statement released Tuesday. “Since launching our 2G networks, technologies like smart phones, social media and wirelessly connected devices have changed the network landscape. In fact, since 2007, data usage on our network has grown by 250,000% with video being a significant contributor to this growth.”

You were warned: AT&T sent letters to affected customers several months before the shutdown.

2G has been around since the early 1990s and supported data speeds up to 64kbps, just a bit faster than dial-up. 2G was incorporated into slimmed down handsets that replaced early behemoth “brick”-sets, some models with improved video screens to display pictures and text messages. It would take the advent of 3G networks, introduced in 1998, to launch a full scale smartphone revolution.

The most notable phone that no longer has access to AT&T’s network is the original Apple iPhone, first released ten years ago. It will still work on Wi-Fi, but mobile data over AT&T’s network no longer functions.

Perhaps the biggest impact from AT&T’s network closedown came in San Francisco, where local public transit officials in the midst of a multi-year technology upgrade were caught by surprise by the 2G shutdown, leaving the NextMuni bus timing information system disabled. AT&T’s 2G wireless network provided data to and from 70% of the city’s Muni vehicles, including timing and arrival information for riders. When the system shut down, buses stopped reporting accurate arrival and departure information. City officials have temporarily suspended the NextMuni program until it can upgrade its fleet. A San Francisco transit officials told SFBay that could take weeks.

Verizon plans to shut down its 2G CDMA 1X network by 31 December 2019 while T-Mobile US has postponed shutdown of their 2G network until 2020.

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