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Fido Cable Leases Access from Current Cable Providers, Charges More Than They Do

(PRNewsFoto/Fido Cable)

(PRNewsFoto/Fido Cable)

You may soon have a choice of cable companies, but don’t expect any savings doing business with the competition.

South Carolina-based Sky Play, LLC has launched a new cable service it claims is available across the U.S., offering competitive broadband and later phone and television service.

The service, known as Fido Cable, is dependent on leasing access from cable companies including Cablevision-Altice, Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable, Cable One, Comcast, and Cox as well as telephone company AT&T.

“We believe that people deserve to select which internet company they would like to utilize as opposed to being stuck with one or two options of service from companies who constantly raise their rates and offer no thought of the customer they service,” said David Wheeler, vice president of Sky Play. “Fido Cable is available to everyone in every major city and surrounding cities throughout the U.S.”

The company’s claims about the aspirations of American cable subscribers may be true but after Stop the Cap! called the company and obtained price quotes, it is clear any savings doing business with Fido Cable are illusory at best. Fido has a single page website that needs work, including correcting “Cable Vision,” when it actually meant “Cablevision.” Details about service and pricing was scant, so we called the company to get prices for two large cable operators: Time Warner Cable and Charter.

The company claims it offers internet access today and will be offering voice services across its national footprint and television in “select cities.” For purposes of obtaining pricing information, we quickly learned our home city of Rochester, N.Y., is not select enough for Fido Cable.

charter twcFido Cable (which has no relationship with the Canadian prepaid mobile provider “Fido,” owned by Rogers Communications), says internet and voice plans start at $39.99 a month, but not for TWC or Charter customers.

In fact, Fido does not seem to offer any new customer promotional pricing. Their quoted rates were consistently higher than their cable company hosts charge their own customers. No wonder cable operators allowing Fido to compete using their systems are not breaking any sweat over the “competition.”

For instance, Fido charges a $120 installation and $15 modem fee for both Time Warner Cable and Charter customers. The representative claimed the modem fee was a one-time charge and customers were allowed to supply their own equipment. In comparison, both Charter and Time Warner Cable agreed to waive any installation fees for new customers. Time Warner Cable charges a $10 monthly modem rental fee and Charter includes the modem in the price of its service.

Fido Cable charges $65 a month for 15/1Mbps service. Time Warner Cable’s equivalent plan costs $59.99 a month for the service and modem rental (deduct $10 a month from TWC’s price if you buy your own modem). A 50Mbps plan from Fido costs $120 a month, but it’s $119 a month from Time Warner Cable (again, deduct $10 if you supply your own modem).

For Charter customers, a 60/4Mbps plan is priced $59.99 direct from Charter, but if you choose Fido Cable you will pay $5 more a month: $65. A 100/7Mbps plan from Charter is priced at $99.99, or you can pay Fido $105.

Here are more details about Fido internet plans we obtained today:

Time Warner Cable Service Areas

  • 10/1Mbps: $55
  • 15/1Mbps: $65
  • 50/5Mbps: $120

Charter Cable Service Areas

  • 60/4Mbps: $65
  • 80/5Mbps: $99
  • 100/7Mbps: $105

A 2-year price guarantee applies to all pricing.

Net Neutrality End Run: AT&T Exempts Its Own DirecTV Content from Its Mobile Data Caps

directvAT&T Mobility customers can now stream AT&T-owned DirecTV video on their mobile devices without fear of hitting their data allowance, because AT&T has exempted its own content from mobile data caps.

AT&T customers using the DirecTV iPhone app discovered the sudden exemption in an update released today, according to a report in Ars Technica:

“Now you can stream DirecTV on your devices, anywhere—without using your data. Now with AT&T,” the app’s update notes say under the heading “Data Free TV.” This feature requires subscriptions to DirecTV and AT&T wireless data services.

It sounds like the data cap exemption may not apply to all data downloaded by the app, as the update notes further say that “Exclusions apply & may incur data usage.” The service is also “Subject to network management, including speed reduction.” We’ve asked AT&T for more information and will provide an update if we receive one.

Customers can also use the app to download shows recorded on their home DVR straight to their mobile device(s) for viewing. Updates to the DirecTV apps for Android and iPad devices introducing similar exemptions are still pending as of this morning.

A description of "what's new" in the DirecTV app released this morning in the iTunes app store.

A description of “what’s new” in the DirecTV app released this morning in the iTunes app store.

AT&T is engaging in a practice known as “zero rating,” which exempts certain provider-preferred or owned content from that provider’s own data caps or allowances. Critics call zero rating an end run around Net Neutrality because users are more likely to use services that don’t count against their data allowance over those that do. The FCC’s definition of Net Neutrality prohibits providers from artificially enhancing the performance of certain websites at the expense of others, but says nothing about data caps or zero rating.

Chima

Chima

“All forms of zero rating amount to price discrimination, and have in common their negative impact on users’ rights,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director of Access, a group fighting for global preservation of Net Neutrality. “Zero rating is all about control. Specifically, control over the user experience by the telecom carrier — and potentially its business partners. We can see this is true when we look at how zero rating is implemented technically. Technologically, it is about manipulation of the network, where you guide or force the user to change the way they would otherwise use it.”

The FCC seemed to agree with Chima, specifically banning AT&T from exempting its own streaming video services and those of DirecTV from AT&T’s data caps in the agreement allowing AT&T to acquire DirecTV. But the FCC only mentioned AT&T’s caps on its DSL and U-verse home broadband services, not AT&T Mobility. AT&T took full advantage of the apparent loophole for its mobile customers.

AT&T has previously stated it does not discriminate against online content and is happy to exempt other video services from its data allowances and caps if those companies pay AT&T for the privilege.

The benefit of zero rating is obvious for AT&T. The company can now market its cell phone services to DirecTV customers with a significant advantage over competitors — free access to DirecTV video not available from Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile. It can also strengthen its earlier promotion offering unlimited DSL/U-verse service to those who bundle either product with a DirecTV subscription, by pitching zero rating for customers on the go.

AT&T’s competitors T-Mobile and Verizon also engage in zero rating on their mobile service plans.

Wireless Providers Create Challenges for Smartphone Upgrade Marketplace

samsung s7Smartphone manufacturers are dealing with sluggish sales for the newest and greatest phone models because American consumers are increasingly resistant to paying for top of the line devices.

Apple, Samsung, and others are facing some of their biggest challenges ever delivering upgrade features deemed useful enough to encourage consumers to spend the more than $600 that many high-end phones now command in the marketplace. As blasé new features fail to deliver a “must-have” message to consumers, many are hanging onto their existing phones and refusing to upgrade.

The decision by wireless providers to stop subsidizing devices backed by two-year contracts have delivered sticker shock to consumers looking for the latest and greatest. The Apple iPhone 7, expected to be announced this month, will likely carry a price of $650 — a serious amount of money, even if your wireless provider or Apple agrees to finance its purchase interest-free for 24 months. Despite the fact wireless providers charged artificially higher service plan rates to recoup the cost of the device subsidy over the length of the contract, consumer perception made it easier to justify paying $200 for a subsidized phone versus paying full retail price and getting cheaper service.

As a result, consumers are strategically holding on to their cell phones longer than ever and avoiding upgrade fever just to score a lower cell phone bill. The Wall Street Journal reports that since T-Mobile started the trend away from device subsidies in 2013, Citigroup estimates the smartphone replacement cycle has now lengthened to 29.6 months, considerably longer than in 2011 when upgrades were likely even before the two-year phone contract expired.

The average combined revenue earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged "price war."

The average combined monthly revenue (in $) earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged “price war.” (Image: Trefis)

Wireless providers don’t mind the change since they endured fronting the subsidy cost to phone manufacturers and slowly recouped it over the next two years. Not dealing with a subsidy would make the accounting easier. But AT&T and Verizon Wireless both understood the average consumer doesn’t have a spare $650 sitting around for a new device, much less the nearly $2,500 it would cost to outfit a family of four with a new top of the line smartphone every two years. So they entered the financing business, breaking the cost of the device into as many as 24 equal installment payments. Instead of paying $672 for a Samsung Galaxy S7, Verizon Wireless offers 24 equal installments of $28. That would be a distinction without much difference from the old subsidy system except for the fact some carriers are trying to sell their equipment financing obligations to a third-party, allowing them to move that debt off their books as well.

In fact, wireless providers are doing so well under the “no-contract/pay full price or installments” system, Wall Street analyst firm Trefis has started to ask whether the so-called wireless carrier “price war” is just a mirage. The firm notes (reg. req’d.) all the four major carriers are doing well and collecting an increasing amount of money from their customers than ever before. Much of that added revenue comes from customers bulking up data plans and being forced to pay for unlimited voice and texting features they may not need. But Trefis also points to reined in marketing spending at the carriers, who no longer have to entice customers into device upgrades as part of a contract renewal.

Things are looking worse for phone manufacturers that have relied on revenue based on the two-year device upgrade cycle in the United States. Apple is under growing pressure as its iPhone faces declining demand. In the U.S. alone, analysts predict iPhone sales will drop 7.1% this year. UBS predicts an even less optimistic 9% drop, followed by a 5% drop next year, even after iPhone 7 is introduced. AT&T has already reported some of the lowest upgrade rates ever during the first three months of 2016.

Another clue consumers are planning to hold on to their smartphones longer than ever — sales of rugged cases and screen protectors are up, as are smartphone protection/loss insurance plan sales, according to AT&T senior VP Steven Hodges. Parents even expect their children to give their phones better care.

Customers “realized it was a $500 to $700 device,” Hodges said at an industry conference held in June. “As such, they started taking care of them differently. You tell a kid this is only $49, the kid is going to use his phone as a baseball at times.”

Other customers are looking forward to benefiting from a dramatically lower bill after paying off their device in 24 months.

Kristin Maclearie has an iPhone 6 and she wants to keep it for the long term, if only to see her Verizon bill drop once she finishes her monthly payments. She told the Wall Street Journal as long as it keeps working, “I’ll just hang onto the one I have,” she said. “Unless something really cool comes out…but they’re always similar.”

AT&T to Urban Poor: No Discounted Internet Access if We Already Deliver Lousy Service

access att logoAT&T is adding insult to injury by telling tens of thousands of eligible urban households they do not qualify for the company’s new low-cost internet access program because the company cannot deliver at least 3Mbps DSL in their service-neglected neighborhood.

In one of the worst cases of redlining we have ever seen, AT&T is doubling down on making sure urban neighborhoods cannot get online with affordable internet access, first by refusing to upgrade large sections of income-challenged neighborhoods and then by refusing requests from those seeking the low-cost internet service the government required AT&T to provide as a condition of its merger with DirecTV.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance reports their affiliates have run into serious problems helping AT&T customers sign up for Access from AT&T, the company’s new discounted internet access program open to users of the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the modern-day equivalent of food stamps. Participants are supposed to receive 3Mbps DSL for $5 a month or 5-10Mbps for $10 a month (speed dependent on line quality).

“As some NDIA affiliates in AT&T’s service area geared up to help SNAP participants apply for Access in May and June, they found that a significant number were being told the program was unavailable at their addresses,” NDIA reported. “Some of those households had recent histories of AT&T internet service or had next door neighbors with current accounts. So, why were they being told AT&T did not serve their addresses?”

It turns out AT&T established an arbitrary threshold that requires participating households to receive a minimum of 3Mbps at their current address. But AT&T’s urban neighborhood infrastructure is so poor, a significant percentage of customers cannot receive DSL service faster than 1.5Mbps from AT&T. In fact, data from the FCC showed about 21% of Census blocks in the cities of Detroit and Cleveland — mostly in inner-city, income-challenged neighborhoods — still cannot manage better than 1.5Mbps DSL.

Remarkably, although these residents cannot qualify for discounted internet service, AT&T will still sell them 1.5Mbps DSL service… for full price. AT&T even admits this on their website:

access att

“If none of the above speeds are technically available at your address, unfortunately you won’t be able to participate in the Access program from AT&T at this time. However, other AT&T internet services may be available at your address.”

“About two months ago, NDIA contacted senior management at AT&T and proposed a change in the program to allow SNAP participants living at addresses with 1.5 Mbps to qualify for Access service at $5/mo,” NDIA wrote. “Yes, we know we were asking for the minimum speed to be lower than it should be, but paying $5/mo is better than paying full price and in many neighborhoods, both urban and rural, Access is the only low-cost broadband service option. I’m sorry to report that, after considering NDIA’s proposal for over a month, AT&T said no.”

“AT&T is not prepared to expand the low-income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval,” is the official response of AT&T, leaving tens of thousands of AT&T customers unlucky enough to be victims of AT&T’s network neglect and underinvestment out in the cold.

Slowsville: These Cleveland neighborhoods marked in red cannot get anything faster than 1.5MBps DSL from AT&T.

Slowsville: These Cleveland neighborhoods marked in red cannot get anything faster than 1.5MBps DSL from AT&T.

Internet access is not just a problem in rural America. Urban neighborhoods are frequently bypassed for network upgrades because there is a sense residents cannot afford to pay for the deluxe services those upgraded networks might offer. Similar issues affected city residents that waited years for cable television to finally arrive in their neighborhoods. Some providers evidently felt they would not get a good return on their investment. Yet data consistently shows cash-strapped urban residents are among the most loyal subscribers to cable television, because it is less costly than many other forms of entertainment. This year, urban content viewers were among the most loyal cable TV subscribers, even millennials notorious for cord-cutting.

Regulators should review AT&T’s compliance with its DirecTV merger conditions. Access from AT&T should be available to every qualified home, particularly those AT&T will happily furnish with appallingly slow 1.5Mbps DSL, if customers agree to AT&T’s regular prices.

Federal Court Dismisses AT&T Throttling Lawsuit; AT&T Skates on a Loophole

Signage for an AT&T store is seen in New York October 29, 2014. AT&T Inc has made a bid for Yahoo Inc's internet business, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

Signage for an AT&T store is seen in New York October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal appeals court in California on Monday dismissed a U.S. government lawsuit that accused AT&T Inc  of deception for reducing internet speeds for customers with unlimited mobile data plans once their use exceeded certain levels.

The company, however, could still face a fine from the Federal Communications Commission regarding the slowdowns, also called “data throttling.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said it ordered a lower court to dismiss the data-throttling lawsuit, which was filed in 2014 by the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC sued AT&T on the grounds that the No. 2 U.S. wireless carrier failed to inform consumers it would slow the speeds of heavy data users on unlimited plans. In some cases, data speeds were slowed by nearly 90 percent, the lawsuit said.

The FTC said the practice was deceptive and, as a result, barred under the Federal Trade Commission Act. AT&T argued that there was an exception for common carriers, and the appeals court agreed:

The panel reversed the district court’s denial of AT&T Mobility LLC’s motion to dismiss, and remanded for an entry of an order of dismissal in an action brought by the Federal Trade Commission under section 5 of the FTC Act that took issue with the adequacy of AT&T’s disclosures regarding its data throttling plan, under which AT&T intentionally reduced the data speed of its customers with unlimited mobile data plans.

Section 5 of the FTC Act contains an exemption for “common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce.” 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2). The panel held that AT&T was excluded from the coverage of section 5 of the FTC Act, and FTC’s claims could not be maintained. Specifically, the panel held that, based on the language and structure of the FTC Act, the common carrier exception was a status-based exemption and that AT&T, as a common carrier, was not covered by section 5.

Asked about the appeals court ruling, a spokesman for AT&T said: “We’re pleased with the decision.”

An FTC spokesman said the agency has not yet decided whether to appeal. “We are disappointed with the ruling and are considering our options for moving forward,” FTC spokesman Jay Mayfield wrote in an emailed comment.

The company, however, could face action from the FCC. In June 2015, the agency proposed a fine of $100 million for AT&T’s alleged failure to inform customers with unlimited data plans about the speed reductions. AT&T has contested that proposed fine.

(By Diane Bartz; Editing by Paul Simao and Matthew Lewis; Additional reporting by Stop the Cap!)

AT&T’s Latest Sneaky Wireless Rate Hike

Always looking for a new angle.

Always looking for a new angle.

While T-Mobile and Sprint are preparing to battle it out offering dueling unlimited data plans, Verizon Wireless and AT&T are continuing to raise prices for many customers while pushing upgrades on customers some do not need.

This week, AT&T officially introduced its Mobile Share Advantage plan, with most of the advantages going to AT&T.

Per device fees have shot up by as much as 33% if you have more than two smartphones on your account. AT&T used to charge $15 per smartphone as a device fee. Now it is $20, offset in many cases by some reductions in data plan costs. But once you add a third device, you are paying a $5 rate increase per device.

The company is also trying to clean up its reputation by eliminating the scourge of data-related overlimit fee bill shock. Before the change, AT&T customers faced an overlimit fee of $5 for each 300MB used on its 300MB data plan and $15 per gigabyte on other plans. Instead of billing overlimit fees, AT&T is adopting punishing speed throttles for customers over their allowance. Once customers exceed their plan limit, speeds are reduced to 2G levels, up to 128kbps. While that is just painful for web pages, it makes watching video and uploading photos next to impossible without experiencing frustrating network timeout error messages.

Gone are the 2, 5, and 15GB plans. Customers can now choose from 12 different usage plans ranging from 1-100GB.

data plans att

But AT&T’s most conservative users of data are going to pay more under the new plan. Customers enrolled in the old 2GB $30 data plan, suitable for those who use their phones to check e-mail and view web pages, will find that same $30 will only buy them 1GB if they switch to the new plan. To avoid the likelihood of hitting the speed throttle, these customers will have to upgrade to a 3GB plan for $40 — a $10 increase.

For everyone else who happens to slightly exceed their data allowance, many may end up preferring the old $15 overlimit fee system. Under the new plan, customers have to live with speed throttles that make their devices almost unusable until the billing cycle refreshes. We predict many customers won’t wait and will upgrade their data plan to restore functionality. But upgrades from the 3GB and 6GB plans come in $20 increments — $5 more than the overlimit fee charged for slightly going over. Even worse, if the overage was a one-time issue, many customers will spend $20 more on a data allowance many probably won’t use.

Customers are free to keep their existing plan, for now. But if they change plans, they won’t be able to switch back.

Christmas in August: Calif. Allows AT&T to Fine Itself and Keep the Money

att400California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) couldn’t get cozier with AT&T if they moved regulators into the phone company’s plush executive suites.

In a 3-2 decision, the CPUC has given California phone companies that cannot manage to keep their wireline networks in good order an early Christmas, allowing the companies to effectively fine themselves for bad performance and keep the money.

Although the CPUC adopted a series of “automatic fines” for companies with chronic service problems (AT&T is by far the largest offender), it completely negated any sting by allowing companies to skip the fine by demonstrating they’ve invested at least twice the amount of the penalty in their networks. That is an expense AT&T’s bookkeepers can manage to document in minutes just by highlighting AT&T’s investments in other parts of the state. AT&T can argue investments in gigabit fiber in southern California or wiring fiber to business parks and cell sites improves service reliability for at least some customers.

CPUC president Michael Picker isn’t in any hurry either, helpfully offering AT&T and other phone companies two years to complete the investments that will cancel their fines:

In support of a request to suspend the fine, carriers may propose, in their annual fine filing, to invest no less than twice the amount of their annual fine in a project (s) which improves service quality in a measurable way within 2 years. The proposal must demonstrate that 1) twice the amount of the fine is being spent, 2) the project (s) is an incremental expenditure with supporting financials (e.g. expenditure is in excess of the existing construction budget and/or staffing base), 3) the project (s) is designed to address a service quality deficiency and, 4) upon the project (s) completion, the carrier shall demonstrate the results for the purpose proposed. Carriers are encouraged to review their service quality results to find appropriate target projects to invest funds.

Consumer advocates have accused AT&T of underinvesting in their wireline facilities for years. Because the CPUC does not require the investment be specifically targeted to correcting problems that prompted the fine, phone companies can continue to allow high cost/low profit rural infrastructure to deteriorate while targeting service-improving investments in more profitable or competitive service areas.

Steve Blum from Tellus Venture Associates, who has closely tracked telecom public policy matters in California for years, called it the most cynical decision he’s ever seen from the CPUC:

Fines, it seems, are just another cost of doing business for telecoms companies and don’t matter anyway. So why not let them keep the money?

Boiled down, that’s CPUC president Michael Picker’s rationale for establishing new telephone voice service level requirements backed up by a swinging schedule of penalties and then saying but we’ll let you keep the money if you invest it in infrastructure or pay staff. Or something. Anything.

Picker

Picker

Commissioner Mike Florio called the Picker’s proposal “unenforceable.”

The CPUC’s own staff has documented the troubling condition of landline service in the state. A staff report published in September 2014 showed the largest phone companies in the state — AT&T and Verizon (later sold to Frontier Communications) — that control 88% of landlines in California never met the CPUC’s minimum standard of repairing 90% of “out of service” trouble tickets within 24 hours during 2010-2013.

In 2010 and 2011, AT&T and Verizon needed an average of 110 hours to repair 90% of outages. That is 4.5 days. In 2012 and 2013, repair time marginally improved to an average of 72 hours (3 days). That is three days without any phone service or the ability to call 911, something the CPUC staff said compromised public safety.

AT&T and Verizon have papered the CPUC’s walls with “corrective action reports” over the years explaining why they failed to meet CPUC standards and what actions they planned to take to improve compliance. The staff report found those reports never resulted in improved compliance.

Commissioner Catherine Sandoval submitted an alternative plan of simple fines and a reporting system that gives equal weight to outages occurring in areas served by independent phone companies like Citizens Telecommunications Company of California (d/b/a Frontier) and SureWest Telephone (d/b/a Consolidated Telephone). Picker didn’t bother to hold a vote on Sandoval’s proposal, instead bringing his own proposal to the commission that approved it on a 3-2 voice vote. Florio and Sandoval voted no.

Despite the easy out, the state’s phone companies are still complaining the fine system was unnecessary because the free market was best equipped to manage service outages. If customers don’t like their provider, they can switch, assuming there is another provider available in the large rural and mountainous parts of the state.

AT&T’s Top Super Lobbyist Retiring This Fall; But Where Does Jim Cicconi Head Next?

Phillip Dampier August 11, 2016 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
Cicconi

Cicconi

Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s well-known top lobbyist, has announced he intends to retire at the end of September, after 18 years of service to the phone company.

Cicconi’s role at AT&T began as general counsel and the executive vice president of law and government affairs at AT&T. Cicconi assumed his current role at a super-sized AT&T in 2005, after SBC (formerly Southwestern Bell) acquired AT&T and kept its name intact.

Few corporate entities spend as much on campaign contributions and other lobbying-related activities, including a starring role at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), than AT&T.

His replacement will be Bob Quinn, currently the senior vice president of federal regulatory at AT&T Services. Quinn will stay in Washington and report directly to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

att“Jim is one of the best and brightest around when it comes to politics and public policy. He is respected by everyone, regardless of political party or viewpoint, as a big thinker, a master strategist and someone able to bridge divides to get things done,” Stephenson said, in a statement. “I greatly appreciate his leadership, wise counsel and countless contributions to AT&T over the years. He’s a great friend and we’ll miss him. I want to wish Jim and his wife, Trisha, all my best as they begin a new chapter in their lives.”

Where Cicconi heads next is anyone’s guess, but Beltway watchers note Cicconi endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The Wall Street Journal reported Cicconi has joined several other Republican corporate executives signing up for Team Hillary this election cycle. Cicconi is voting Democratic this year, despite supporting every Republican presidential candidate since President Gerald Ford’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Could there be a role for Jim Cicconi in the Hillary Clinton administration? It would not be unprecedented. Cicconi served in the White House as deputy to the chief of staff for President George H. W. Bush for two years, and four years as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

AT&T Fined for Letting Drug Dealers/Money Launderers Run Sham Directory Assistance

Phillip Dampier August 8, 2016 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments
phone fraud

…for AT&T’s complacency.

AT&T will pay $7.75 million to the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau and to its customers to settle a phone cramming investigation that revealed the phone company allowed drug dealers and money launderers to offer a scam paid directory assistance service for AT&T’s landline customers.

AT&T allowed the scammers to charge many of its landline customers $9 a month for a directory assistance service investigators called “a sham” from day one. AT&T collected a “billing fee” for each charge and collected another $1.50 in “complaint fees” each time a customer complained about the charge on their phone bill.

It took the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to uncover the scam while investigating two Cleveland-area companies — Discount Directory, Inc. (DDI) and Enhanced Telecommunications Services (ETS) for drug-related crimes and money laundering the proceeds.

In the course of seizing drugs, cars, jewelry, gold, and computers (totaling close to $3.4 million) from the companies’ principals and associates, DEA investigators discovered financial documents related to a scheme to defraud telephone customers. The key participants in the scheme told DEA agents that the companies were set up to bill thousands of consumers (mostly small businesses) for a monthly directory assistance service on their local AT&T landline telephone bills. The DEA referred this investigation to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau in 2015.

AT&T received a fee from the companies for each charge AT&T placed on its customers’ bills. Although DDI and ETS submitted charges for thousands of AT&T customers, they never provided any directory assistance service. Neither DDI, ETS, nor AT&T could show that any of AT&T’s customers agreed to be billed for the sham directory assistance service, but AT&T kept on billing and collecting money from customers anyway, despite their responsibility to ensure the services were legitimate.

“AT&T ignored a number of red flags that the charges were unauthorized, including thousands of charges submitted by the companies for nonexistent, disconnected, or otherwise ‘unbillable’ accounts,” the consent decree stated.

Under the terms of today’s settlement, AT&T will issue full refunds to all current and former consumers charged for the sham directory assistance service since January 2012. These refunds are expected to total $6,800,000. AT&T will also pay a $950,000 fine to the U.S. Treasury. The Enforcement Bureau has also secured strong consumer protections in the settlement that include requirements that AT&T cease billing for nearly all third-party products and services on its wireline bills, adopt processes to obtain express informed consent from customers prior to allowing third-party charges on their phone bills, revise their billing practices to ensure that third-party charges are clearly and conspicuously identified on bills so that customers can see what services they are paying for, and offer a free service for customers to block third-party charges.

Charter, AT&T At War With Google in Louisville Over Pole Access

att poleStall, stall, stall. While Charter Communications and AT&T are working towards improving their broadband service offerings for Kentucky’s largest city, both companies are doing everything possible to slow down the arrival of their nemesis: Google Fiber, which is preparing to wire Louisville for gigabit fiber to the home service.

This past February, Louisville Metro Council unanimously passed a new ordinance called “One Touch Make Ready,” designed to streamline telecom provider access to utility poles, which are getting crowded with at least three telecom companies vying for consumers’ business. The ordinance was passed with the support of Google, which seeks a minimum of red tape from local permit and zoning bureaucracies and its competitors while network engineers begin installing fiber optics across the city. Installing Google Fiber on utility poles may involve moving other providers’ wiring to make room for Google, which in some cases could mean 4-5 different utility companies having to visit each pole to move their wiring. In the past, Google asked the pole owner for access, which has not always been forthcoming on a timely basis. The new ordinance requires the pole owner to respond to access requests within 30 days. If no response is forthcoming, Google can approach the city for a permit to hire a contractor to do all the relocation work on their behalf.

“Such policies reduce cost, disruption, and delay, by allowing the work needed to prepare a utility pole for new fiber to be attached in as little as a single visit—which means more safety for drivers and the neighborhood,” Google wrote on its blog. “This work would be done by a team of contractors the pole owner itself has approved, instead of having multiple crews from multiple companies working on the same pole over weeks or months. One Touch Make Ready facilitates new network deployment by anyone—and that’s why groups representing communities and fiber builders support it, too.”

Louisville, Ky. (Image: Chris Watson)

Louisville, Ky. (Image: Chris Watson)

About two weeks after the ordinance passed, AT&T made it clear they did not support it and took the city to court, claiming it had no right to regulate its utility poles.

“Louisville Metro Council’s recently passed ‘One Touch Make Ready’ Ordinance is invalid, as the city has no jurisdiction under federal or state law to regulate pole attachments,” said AT&T spokesman Joe Burgan. “We have filed an action to challenge the ordinance as unlawful. Google can attach to AT&T’s poles once it enters into AT&T’s standard Commercial Licensing Agreement, as it has in other cities. This lawsuit is not about Google. It’s about the Louisville Metro Council exceeding its authority.”

Time Warner Cable (now Charter Communications) joined AT&T, adding the city is violating the cable company’s corporate constitutional rights by effectively seizing their property (cable lines) and granting a right for third parties to manipulate, move, or manage those lines without Time Warner Cable’s permission.

“The ordinance is simply unworkable,” said Time Warner Cable’s attorney Gardner Gillespie, a partner in the D.C. law firm Sheppard-Mullin. “It does not provide any meaningful way for Time Warner Cable to know what changes have been made to its existing facilities or to assure any damage is promptly cured.”

google fiberGillespie also claimed customers could endure poorer service and outages as a result of unauthorized contractors relocating Time Warner Cable’s equipment, often without the cable company’s knowledge.

City officials dismissed the concerns, but failed to get either lawsuit dismissed.

Charter executives have also opened a new opposition front against Google Fiber’s presence in the city, accusing city officials of unfairly favoring the search engine giant while continuing to burden Charter with a franchise agreement that requires the cable company to provide free cable in city buildings and offer channel space and studio facilities for the city’s Public, Educational, and Government Access channels.

At present, Google is not obligated to provide any of those services and has also won a unique regional franchise that covers the city of Louisville and nearby suburbs in a single agreement. The Metro Council has also granted Google its own public right-of-way access for installing various communications infrastructure. Both AT&T and Charter claim they are only getting involved because they believe they should be given equal treatment. Critics contend they are attempting to slow down Google Fiber, which could begin offering service by fall of 2017.

Time Warner Cable began offering Maxx-upgraded service in March 2016, offering residents up to 300Mbps. AT&T is gradually expanding its U-verse with GigaPower gigabit broadband service in locations around Louisville.

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