Home » AT&T » Recent Articles:

AT&T Raising Administrative Fees on Wireless Customers, Helping to Defray Merger Costs

AT&T has some expensive legal bills to pay facing down the Justice Department’s objections to its recent expensive acquisition of Time Warner, Inc. But no worries, AT&T’s wireless customers will be helping to pick up the tab after another major hike in an “Administrative Fee” that will raise at least $800 million a year for the phone company.

BTIG Research analyst Walt Piecyk caught AT&T hiking its Administrative Fee twice during the last quarter, now reaching $1.99 a month, billed to every post-paid wireless customer.

AT&T introduced the fee in 2013, claiming it would cover some of AT&T’s costs connecting phone calls and managing its wireless network. It started at $0.61 a month, then increased at some point to $0.76.

Although AT&T received negative press after introducing the fee, for most customers it is just one of several barely noticed charges applied in a separate section of monthly bills usually reserved for mandatory government fees and taxes. Many customers assume the fees are mandated by local, state, or federal governments, but in fact many are actually conjured up by AT&T and pocketed by the company. Most analysts believe companies create these fees to raise revenue without the perception of raising rates.

“The Administrative Fee helps defray certain expenses AT&T incurs, including but not limited to: (a) charges AT&T or its agents pay to interconnect with other carriers to deliver calls from AT&T customers to their customers; and (b) charges associated with cell site rents and maintenance.” – AT&T

Customers are now noticing the $1.99 Administrative Fee and complaining about it, after the company nearly tripled it over the last three months.

Fees and surcharges paid by a typical AT&T wireless customer in Illinois.

“In April of 2018, the Administrative fee increased to $1.26 and in June it rose again to $1.99,” Piecyk writes. “We believe the increase applies to all post-paid phone lines other than perhaps some large enterprise contract customers. We have confirmed that it does not apply to pre-paid lines after some customer service reps incorrectly told us otherwise last night. We believe this fee is included in AT&T’s reported service revenue and ARPU despite AT&T’s accounting change last quarter, which stripped regulatory fees and taxes out of both revenue and cost of service.”

Piecyk calculates that if 85% of AT&T’s 64.5 million postpaid wireless customers are now charged the fee, it will result in $800 million of incremental service revenue annually.

Piecyk is skeptical AT&T needed the money to cover cost increases.

“It’s hard to believe that interconnection costs have increased in the past six months enough to justify this fee increase,” Piecyk writes. “In fact, wireless operators have been crediting LOWER interconnection costs when explaining why their cost of service was in decline. Not surprisingly, we don’t recall any reductions in Administrative Fees by AT&T or its peers associated with reductions in interconnection expenses.”

Tower fees, also mentioned by AT&T, may have increased slightly, but as compensation for building out FirstNet, a public safety/first responder-prioritized wireless network, taxpayers are reimbursing AT&T $6.5 billion of FirstNet’s construction costs, despite the fact FirstNet will also benefit AT&T’s ordinary paying customers who will share the benefits of AT&T’s network expansion.

AT&T’s Administrative Fee hike will play right into the hands of T-Mobile, which has an advertising campaign blasting other wireless companies for sneaky fees. (0:45)

Delrahim Suggests Justice Dept. Was Outgunned by CNN, Judge in AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Phillip Dampier June 27, 2018 AT&T, Audio, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Delrahim

The top antitrust regulator in the United States partly blames CNN for helping AT&T and Time Warner outmaneuver the Justice Department and win approval of their merger, despite antitrust objections.

“We have some of the best and most dedicated public servants who tried this case, but we don’t have the same resources available to us,” Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general of the United States and chief of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division told Marketplace Morning Report. “We don’t have a 24-hour dedicated news channel to go out and spin your case to the American public and judges and others as some merging parties might.”

CNN is owned by Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a division of Time Warner, Inc.

Delrahim admitted the government “is often the underdog in a lot of these cases, and we’re still considering our next steps and whether or not the government will appeal.”

AT&T and Time Warner clearly do not believe the government will further pursue the case, treating the merger as a done deal as the two companies move forward on combining their assets.

Delrahim complained about the judge handling the case, whose ruling excoriated the government’s case and strongly urged the Justice Department to not contemplate an appeal. In Delrahim’s view, the judge gave favorable weight to evidence from the two companies and dismissed much of the evidence the government presented.

“I think eight out of 10 judges may have treated this case differently,” he concluded.

Delrahim expressed his general frustration with government antitrust regulators attempting to impose various deal conditions and limitations designed to mitigate a transaction’s anti-competitive harm in the marketplace.

“If there’s a substantial lessening of competition, that’s the legal test, then the transaction is illegal,” Delrahim said. Instead of that simple test, the antitrust division often tries to rescue troublesome transactions with deal conditions he calls “microengineering an industry which is dynamic,” and in his view, is contrary to the role Congress assigned to the Antitrust Division. “I think the role is you go in, if there’s problematic aspect of a transaction, you divest and you let the market decide what the prices are now.”

“So the idea is: the greater the competitive process, the better the price ultimately will be, or the better the products will be for the consumer. And that’s where you have fair competition in the marketplace,” he added. “Our job is to police that. It isn’t to keep companies from getting too big. If they’re better at what they do, if customers like what they do, more power to them. The free market system encourages that. And we shouldn’t punish them once they have reached a certain level of success. If they are too big though, they also got to be careful. They can’t take anti-competitive practices that harms competition, which ultimately harms consumers.”

AT&T Debuts WatchTV and Two New Unlimited Plans Next Week

AT&T’s ultra-slim TV package WatchTV arrives next week and is free of charge, if you are willing to switch to one of two new unlimited plans that bundle “unlimited” talk, text, and data with your choice of content.

AT&T WatchTV includes more than 30 networks and over 15,000 on-demand movies and TV shows. The lineup:

A&E, AMC, Animal Planet, Audience, BBC World News, BBC America, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN, Discovery, Food Network, FYI, Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, HGTV, History Channel, HLN, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime, Lifetime Movies, OWN, Sundance TV, TBS, Turner Classic Movies, TLC, TNT, Tru TV, Velocity, Viceland, and WE. The service also promises to add a small suite of Viacom networks: BET, Comedy Central, MTV2. Nicktoons, Teennick, and VH-1 shortly after launch.

AT&T’s new “unlimited plans” appear to add to the confusion over exactly what “unlimited” means. Full details of both plans will be on AT&T’s website next week.

AT&T Unlimited &More

  • Option to add WatchTV
  • $15 monthly credit toward DIRECTV NOW
  • Up to 4G LTE unlimited data

AT&T Unlimited &More Premium

  • Option to add WatchTV
  • Option to add one of these premium services: HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, or Starz, as well as music streaming from Amazon Music Unlimited and Pandora Premium or gaming service VRV.
  • $15 monthly credit toward DIRECTV, DIRECTV NOW and U-verse TV
  • 15GB of high-speed tethering
  • High-quality video

AT&T has not disclosed pricing, but the fine print does mention: “AT&T may slow data speeds when the network is congested. Video may be limited to SD.”

AT&T’s marketing language suggests customers will have the option of getting these services, which means you may have to opt-in to get them. If you are not interested in changing your wireless plan or if you are not an AT&T customer, AT&T WatchTV will be available shortly on a standalone basis for $15 a month. Details on that option “are coming soon.”

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile Have Been Selling Your Location to Just About Anyone

Go ahead, enjoy a free trial and locate (within 100 yards) your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, husband, wife, or friends. This online demo had few security checks to keep unauthorized users out, despite claims consent was required. (Image courtesy of: Krebs on Security)

A company best known for providing phone service to prisoners and monitoring inmate locations has sold access to the whereabouts of almost every powered-on cellphone in the country without verifying a court order, thanks to a lucrative partnership with America’s top four cell phone companies.

The service, provided by Securus, has proved a handy tool for law enforcement agencies nationwide, allowing one former sheriff of Mississippi County, Mo., to track the whereabouts of a judge and members of the State Highway Patrol, all without their consent.

The New York Times reported in May that despite repeated assurances from cell phone companies that location data sold to third parties would not include personally identifiable information, it now appears in fact, it often does, and not just information about a particular company’s own customers.

Securus’ location service has been available since at least 2013, although some claim the service has been active for much longer than that, and after recent attention from Congress, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint have announced they will suspend the sale of location data to most third parties as soon as contract termination notices can be sent.

The industry’s commitments to customer privacy appear to be tissue thin, based on the confidential contracts companies like Verizon and AT&T sign with third-party data aggregators, who in turn resell each provider’s location service to an even broader range of companies. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the contracts “the legal equivalent of a pinky promise” in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission.

Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint all have contracts with two of the country’s largest resellers of location data – LocationSmart and Zumigo. The contracts allow the two firms to pull cellphone users’ locations in real time and sell that information to other companies, including Securus. The contracts claim to need users’ consent before their location information can be revealed, which is either done in an app directly requesting location data or in a thicket of fine print terms and conditions most consumers never read. There is scant evidence cell phone companies independently audit consent records, which means a company or app author could claim blanket consent.

Securus never had a contact with many of the people it tracked — often those suspected of a crime or law enforcement officers. Securus operates its service under provisions permitting law enforcement to access location data without the consent of those being tracked, as long as the law enforcement agency attests to the legality of its request. Laws requiring court orders to track cellphone users vary considerably in different states. Some require a judge’s signature on a court order, others demand a notarized statement from a law enforcement official, while others require no independent review at all.

Cell phone companies may have a loophole to escape legal culpability for revealing private personal location information to unauthorized third parties. Privacy laws have never offered strong privacy protections to consumers for telecommunications services. In March 2017, the Republican majority in Congress stripped what privacy protections did exist during the Obama Administration in a mostly party-line vote condemned by Democrats. After the rules were repealed, mobile providers can track and share people’s browsing and app activity without permission. Several Democrats warned the move would lead to an eventual scandal when providers were caught collecting and selling sensitive personal information without customer consent.

As long as they are following their own voluntary privacy policies, carriers “are largely free to do what they want with the information they obtain, including location information, as long as it’s unrelated to a phone call,” Albert Gidari, the consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and a former technology and telecommunications lawyer told the New York Times. If a cellphone is powered on, constantly updated location information accurate within a few hundred feet is available for sale.

Because cell phone companies work with third-party aggregators, they can claim any privacy violations could be the result of unauthorized or inappropriate use of their location tools. But finding which company ultimately violated a consumers’ privacy requires investigative work because services like LocationSmart also sell services to other aggregators, who in turn sell services to a myriad of companies. That is what appears to have happened with Securus, who accessed location services through a mobile marketing company called 3Cinteractive, which in turn has a contract with LocationSmart. That means a provider can claim at least three layers of possible third-party liability, because requests moved through several hands:

Example: Law enforcement agency request -> Securus -> 3Cinteractive -> LocationSmart -> Verizon

Although law enforcement agencies are supposed to upload legal documents proving informed consent laws do not apply to a particular request, it appears the validity of those documents was not independently verified.

“Securus is neither a judge nor a district attorney, and the responsibility of ensuring the legal adequacy of supporting documentation lies with our law enforcement customers and their counsel,” a Securus spokesman said in a statement. Securus offers services only to law enforcement and corrections facilities, and not all officials at a given location have access to the system, the spokesman added.

But those that did could abuse the system with few consequences. In fact, a security hole left open for a year by LocationSmart appears to have let almost anyone use the service to find friends, family, or anyone else, thanks to a helpful free demo for prospective clients revealed by Robert Xiao, a security researcher at Carnegie Mellon University:

LocationSmart’s demo is a free service (Editor’s Note: the demo has since been locked down) that allows anyone to see the approximate location of their own mobile phone, just by entering their name, email address and phone number into a form on the site. LocationSmart then texts the phone number supplied by the user and requests permission to ping that device’s nearest cellular network tower.

Once that consent is obtained, LocationSmart texts the subscriber their approximate longitude and latitude, plotting the coordinates on a Google Street View map. [It also potentially collects and stores a great deal of technical data about your mobile device. For example, according to their privacy policy that information “may include, but is not limited to, device latitude/longitude, accuracy, heading, speed, and altitude, cell tower, Wi-Fi access point, or IP address information”].

But according to Xiao, a PhD candidate at CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, this same service failed to perform basic checks to prevent anonymous and unauthorized queries. Translation: Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about how Web sites work could abuse the LocationSmart demo site to figure out how to conduct mobile number location lookups at will, all without ever having to supply a password or other credentials.

“I stumbled upon this almost by accident, and it wasn’t terribly hard to do,” Xiao said. “This is something anyone could discover with minimal effort. And the gist of it is I can track most peoples’ cell phone without their consent.”

Obtaining customer consent to share location details appears to not always be a priority of the location data resellers. For them, a lucrative business depends on easy access to location information that can be sold for targeted marketing campaigns (such as texting a coupon offer when entering a store or sending a special offer if you appear to be visiting a competitor’s store), tracking packages, service calls, or deliveries (such as tracking the cable repair technician, the location of your pizza, or where the parcel service driver is with a package you ordered), or allowing your bank to flag a suspicious credit card transaction when they discover your cellphone is nowhere near the store where the purchase just occurred.

Wyden

The personal risks of unauthorized access are too numerous to count, starting with former boyfriends or girlfriends cyberstalking one’s live location, criminals tracking a target, and law enforcement officials violating your rights.

The revelations in the New York Times, published on May 10, have attracted the sudden attention from America’s largest cell phone companies this week because of Sen. Wyden’s letter informing them they are under scrutiny. No cell phone company wants to endure the media spotlight Facebook has been under since revelations it exposed the personal data of as many as 87 million users without their consent. The carriers, except for T-Mobile, have announced a lock-down.

Verizon: Verizon Communications pledged to stop selling individual customer locations to data brokers, and will wind down contracts with LocationSmart and Zumigo, a competing data aggregator. “We will not enter into new location aggregation arrangements unless and until we are comfortable that we can adequately protect our customers’ location data,” Verizon privacy chief Karen Zacharia wrote in a June 15 letter to Wyden. Verizon did not explain why it took at least two years for the lock-down to begin.

AT&T: Said it “will be ending our work with aggregators for these services as soon as practical in a way that preserves important, potential lifesaving services like emergency roadside assistance.”

Sprint: “Suspended all services with LocationSmart” last month and “is beginning the process of terminating its current contracts with data aggregators to whom we provide location data.” A spokeswoman said that effort “will take some time in order to unwind services to consumers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention services.”

T-Mobile: Stopped short of terminating agreements, T-Mobile executives told Wyden it “started one of our periodic reviews several months ago and selected a third-party to assess this program.”

Securus: Securus spokesman Mark Southland said in a statement that the company adheres to its contract, adding that cutting off law enforcement access to location tools “will hurt public safety and put Americans at risk.”

Read the full letters from America’s top-four mobile companies:

Comcast’s Acquisition of Fox Will Make It Among World’s Most Maxed Out Companies

Phillip Dampier June 19, 2018 AT&T, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 1 Comment

If Comcast’s $65 billion all-cash offer for 21st Century Fox is accepted, America’s largest cable operator will also be among the world’s largest corporate debtors, owing $170 billion in all.

Comcast will borrow as much as $85 billion to cover the acquisition of Fox, plus an additional $27.5 billion to cover the buyout of the United Kingdom’s satellite operator Sky.

Excluding banks, Comcast will be the world’s second most-buried-in-debt corporation, outdone only by AT&T, according to Moody’s.

Comcast’s all-cash offer to snatch Fox away from its corporate arch-enemy Disney, also bidding for Fox, is remarkable for a company with only $6 billion of cash on hand. Comcast will have to borrow most of the money for the buyout, in addition to covering Fox’s existing $20 billion in debt. The result will be a 1980s style leveraged buyout that is likely to result in a significant downgrade of Comcast’s credit rating. Moody’s has already warned the company of exactly that.

Some Wall Street analysts see the transaction as particularly unusual for Comcast, a company that has avoided massive debt. Some suspect the generous cash offer for Fox is being driven by personal animosity between Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Disney CEO Robert Iger, originating more than a decade earlier when Comcast attempted a hostile takeover of Disney, and failed.

Many investors are clearly worried about the growing debt levels of several large telecommunications companies, which remind some of two spectacular corporate failures at the end of the dot.com boom, when MCI-Worldcom and Global Crossing were both brought down by accounting scandals and bankruptcy in an effort to hide their debts.

There are fears that a decade of unprecedented low-interest rates, business-friendly regulatory policies, and a stabilized economy have allowed companies to grow complacent about the risks of debts from blockbuster mergers that are now bigger and more expensive than ever. Companies may be overconfident that their huge, debt-financed deals can be managed with low interest loans and frequent refinancing and bond sales to until debts can be paid down. But some analysts warn that if there is a downturn in the economy, easy credit will be hard to get, and interest rates will be significantly higher. Because highly leveraged companies are bigger credit risks, bondholders will likely demand a better deal for themselves.

The Wall Street Journal reports global corporate debt (excluding financial institutions) now stands at $11 trillion, and those companies are now 30% more leveraged than they were just before the start of the financial crisis of 2007. Wall Street expects several additional merger deals in the telecommunications and media sectors this year, which will likely raise debt levels even higher.

The unprecedented level of debt has not escaped the notice of the Federal Reserve. Asked whether the United States is in a “credit bubble,” Fed chief Jerome Powell said last week that officials are “watching” elevated levels of corporate leverage.

AT&T and Comcast officials told the Journal any fears are unwarranted; they are different from most companies because their respective debts are expected to be repaid quickly with higher levels of cash generated by their businesses. AT&T claims it could apply the $8-10 billion of its anticipated free cash flow from the merger with Time Warner to reduce debts, although that could threaten shareholder perks like dividend payouts and share buybacks, as well as customer-focused network upgrades.

Investors that used to treat AT&T and Comcast stock as a safe haven are not anymore.

“We are getting a lot of calls,” Allyn Arden, a telecom and cable analyst at S&P Global Ratings, told the Journal after both S&P and Moody’s cut their respective ratings on AT&T bonds last week to a level just two notches above the junk-debt category.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson downplayed the concerns of Wall Street over the additional debt.

“This thing delivers quickly,” he told CNBC. “Within four years, we’ll be back to our normal levels of debt.”

Where will AT&T and Comcast get the money to pay down their debts? Captive customers could be one source. Both AT&T and Comcast are planning to continue raising rates, particularly on internet customers, providing a lucrative shot of extra revenue. By gaining control of deep content libraries, both Comcast and AT&T will be able to hike licensing fees on that content as well.

Search This Site:

Contributions:

Recent Comments:

  • Tommy Todd: This sounds good. But getting help to get the process started is next to impossible. The mobile website is a dead end, can't even check the service ma...
  • BestLolita: I have noticed you don't monetize your blog, don't waste your traffic, you can earn additional cash every month. You can use the best adsense alterna...
  • EJ: Josh you are correct as of right now. Without unlimited and/or very high (1TB) caps 4g/5g is nothing more then competition for satellite internet. We ...
  • Dylan: Got that right!...
  • Gayle Conversion: My name is Gayle Anne Wehner-Foglesong.To McAdams! Watch your mouth! You do not blame anyone but yourself. I know everything and I want my money now! ...
  • Michael sherwood: Spectrum charged me an overdue amount and I haven't even been with them for a month...
  • Josh: He’s not wrong, for once. The cell phone stuff keeps blathering s out speeds and how great it is, then can’t actuslly provide unlimited service or an...
  • Dylan: Yeah, Spectrum definitely needs this. I know here in New York, we have National Grid as our electric and gas provider and they definitely tell you abo...
  • FRED HALL: I wish Spectrum had this (and it was accurate). Whenever there's an outage, their tech support is either too stupid or too lazy to let the customer r...
  • Bob61571: TDS Telecom is a sub of Telephone & Data Systems(TDS). US Cellular is also a sub of TDS. TDS Telecom owns a number of smaller small town/rural t...
  • D H: If you want to really feature someone serious for the Governorship. I would suggest Larry Sharpe instead who is actually doing a grassroots campaign....
  • David: Well, I dropped them for earthlink DSL which is slower and buggier but I don't regret it since I don't accept getting pushed around. If earthlink keep...

Your Account: