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AT&T Getting Pushback from Consumer Groups Over Dropping Landline Service in Illinois

Phillip Dampier April 20, 2017 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

A telecommunications bill largely written at the behest of AT&T now working its way through the Illinois legislature would allow AT&T to discontinue landline telephone service in the state, potentially eliminating traditional phone service that more than a million Illinois residents and businesses still depend on.

“The Illinois Telecom Act is up for review in the 2017 legislative session, and AT&T is pushing two deregulation bills—Senate Bill 1381 and House Bill 2691,” says the Citizen’s Utility Board (CUB) website. “The bills would open the door for the company to end traditional home phone service in Illinois and push consumers onto less affordable and reliable alternatives.”

Consumer advocates urged Illinoisans to visit SaveOurPhoneService.com to send messages to the General Assembly against AT&T’s deregulation bills, or they can also call a special toll-free hotline, at 1-844-220-5552, to talk to their legislators.

With Illinois’ Telecommunications Act under review and set to expire July 1, AT&T’s bills would:

  • Abolish the state requirement that AT&T serve traditional landline customers. That authority would be ceded to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Illinois would be stripped of any meaningful oversight to protect AT&T’s 1.2 million business and residential landline customers from inferior service.
  • Abolish low-cost calling plans. The General Assembly mandates that AT&T offer three “Consumer’s Choice” plans, which were created by CUB under a legal settlement. Illinois’ best local phone deals, which cost about $3 to $20 a month, have saved callers millions of dollars, and are under a state-mandated price freeze.

For many in Illinois still bypassed by AT&T’s U-verse fiber-to-the-neighborhood system, the measure could leave customers with just two choices for home phone service – a local cable operator or a wireless mobile provider — both potentially more expensive and less reliable than basic landline service.

“It doesn’t take someone with an economic degree that one option, one unregulated option for people, isn’t very cheap. So I’m sure cable is sitting back licking their chops,” said Citizens Utility Board director of governmental affairs Bryan McDaniel.

Some Chicago-area residents, like Michele Charous and Carol Kolen, prefer traditional landline service for its cost and reliability. A significant percentage of older residents still depend on affordable rotary dial landline phone service from AT&T — a service the phone company now wants to scrap.

AT&T claims more than 90% of Illinois customers have either replaced landline service for a cell phone or have switched to digital U-verse phone service from AT&T or a cable operator. But AT&T doesn’t mention its network upgrades have bypassed large rural sections of the state, and its U-verse phone service can cost more than a traditional landline.

Kolen and Charous claim their AT&T landline service has proven reliable for decades, while cell service has not, especially in an emergency.

Katherine Panny adds she is in her 80s, does not have a cellphone or a computer and has a rotary dial phone on her kitchen wall. She said she likes it.

“I depend on this landline with my life,” she said.

“We are not at the point we can guarantee that this is going to work all the time,” added Kolen.

AT&T’s part supplier.

“I would be just isolated because how would I be able to talk anybody if the battery died or I forgot to charge it what would I do,” Charous said.

“For a lot of people a landline is there most reliable and affordable lifeline to vital services,” said Jim Chilsen, of the Citizens Utility Board. “Our fear is that, what AT&T really wants to do is push consumers onto phone options that tend to be more expensive and tend to be less reliable.”

AT&T Illinois and Midwest president Paul La Schiazza gave some stark admissions to reporters about the state of AT&T’s wireline network in Illinois.

By the end of this year, “less than 10 percent of the households [in Illinois] will have an old style, voice-only line in their home,” La Schiazza said. AT&T is losing about 1,000 traditional landline customers a day. Maintenance on the traditional telephone system is also getting more difficult, and the phone company is turning to some unique sources for parts these days.

“Believe it or not, even AT&T at times, has to go to eBay to scrounge for parts to keep these ‘old-style’ switches running,” he said.

WMAQ in Chicago reports some Illinois consumers are worried AT&T is about to pull the plug on their landline home phone service. (2:38)

Swamp Filling: AT&T Among Special Interests Donating $106 Million for Trump Inauguration

Phillip Dampier April 19, 2017 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

So much for the “small-dollar donors” President Donald Trump touted as his biggest financial supporters. A new campaign finance report released today shows about three dozen billionaires and corporations bankrolled almost half the inauguration expenses of the president, doubling what President Obama collected for each of his two inaugurations.

Despite a campaign that promised to “drain the swamp” of corporate influence and special interests in Washington, Trump’s team accepted checks valued in the millions from individuals and companies with matters before regulators or Congress. The Wall Street Journal reports they include billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who gave $5 million; hedge-fund executive Robert Mercer, who gave $1 million; Marlene Ricketts, a member of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, who gave $1 million; and Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who gave $1 million.

While the Republican National Committee was concerned enough about a $250,000 contribution from Russian-American businessman Alexander Shustorovich to return it, President Trump had no reservations accepting a $1 million check from Shustorovich, who has close ties to the Putin government and various state-owned companies. Shustorovich raised alarms with national security officials who rejected some of his U.S. business deals in the past on national-security grounds.

Trump also accepted huge contributions from corporations with dealings in Washington and his Administration. Chief among the top donors was AT&T, along with Pfizer, Boeing, and Qualcomm, that all donated $1 million each. Boeing’s check arrived about a month after Trump tweet-slammed Boeing for the “out of control” cost of the new 747 Air Force One. Trump has been silent about Boeing since the check arrived. AT&T’s check may also prove a good investment if Trump abandons his commitment to oppose the AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., merger now before regulators.

The Journal reports Trump’s extravagant corporate donor list threatens to undercut the president’s message that he isn’t beholden to anyone — special interests or wealthy donors. In contrast, President Obama banned corporate funding of his 2009 inauguration. The newspaper adds, in some cases, the donations arrived days after the president selected executives at those companies to serve in his administration.

Will the FCC’s Spectrum Auction Improve Your Service? Let’s Look at the Coverage Maps

Four large telecom companies won the bulk of the available licenses to operate their wireless services on the upcoming 600MHz band, once UHF TV channels occupying part of it vacate. But what exactly did AT&T, Comcast, Dish, and T-Mobile buy and where? Mosaik, a mapping firm, produced maps (courtesy Fierce Wireless) showing exactly where the four companies won 600MHz spectrum in the recent auction. The differences are striking. T-Mobile effectively won the right to launch new service almost everywhere in the country, in part because it acquired a huge number of cheap, low-demand licenses in largely rural areas.

Dish’s plans for its spectrum remain a complete mystery, while Comcast’s winning bids are entirely within areas where it provides cable service. AT&T, although already holding a large supply of low band frequencies, apparently needs more capacity in larger cities, and paid handsomely to get it.

AT&T

Most of AT&T’s winning bids cover larger cities where it already operates an extensive cellular network. Among the areas where AT&T can expand service: Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, St. Louis, Birmingham, Mobile, Tampa, Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Minneapolis and Little Rock. But AT&T also grabbed licenses for rural western Massachusetts, central Ohio, and southern Michigan.

Comcast

Comcast’s winning bids consisted of 10MHz of spectrum, except in Nashville where it nabbed 20MHz. Comcast grabbed enough spectrum to cover every city in Florida except Tampa (where Charter provides cable service). The cable company focused heavily on east and west coast bids, winning spectrum across much of the Pacific Northwest, the Boston-NYC-DC corridor, and Illinois and Indiana. The only downside is that 10MHz is not a lot of spectrum to support a large wireless service, but then Comcast does not require that at this time, because it will rely primarily on a shared arrangement with Verizon Wireless to power Xfinity Mobile.

Dish Network

What Dish intends to do with its spectrum remains a complete mystery, but it grabbed a significant amount of it in New York City and its nearby suburbs, including Connecticut. It also won respectable quantities of frequencies in Alaska, California, Florida, Puerto Rico, Seattle and Portland, and several midwestern and south-central cities.

T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile published a similar map as part of its press package claiming victory in the spectrum auction. This map better highlights T-Mobile’s extensive spectrum wins in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. If T-Mobile uses it all, it will command similar coverage areas comparable to Verizon and AT&T. T-Mobile will manage this without any need to merge with anyone else, as AT&T and Sprint have historically argued in their past failed efforts to acquire T-Mobile.

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.

AT&T Blames Labor Costs for High Cost of Fiber Expansion

Phillip Dampier April 5, 2017 AT&T, Consumer News No Comments

AT&T wants to pass 12.9 million homes with its fiber to the home upgrade, but is upset about the price of those doing the work.

In an effort to cut costs, Fierce Telecom reports AT&T is discontinuing the practice of having two technicians prepare a home or business for fiber — one working outdoors on the fiber drop to the home and the other installing inside equipment like wiring, set-top boxes and gateways. Now one AT&T technician or subcontractor is expected to do it all.

“Originally we had a technician who placed the fiber drop and ONT [optical network terminal] on the side of the home and then they turned it over a technician inside the house that get the customer going with their services,” said Kent McCammon, lead member of technical staff at AT&T Labs. “The desire was to have what was formerly called the inside technicians perform the fiber drop, but in order to do that we had to train technicians who were not using to dealing with fiber.”

An AT&T Fiber cable placed on a pole in Dunwoody, Ga. (Image: Heneghan’s Dunwoody Blog)

To simplify training and cut costs, AT&T has been using field installed mechanical connections and pre-connectorized fiber drops, which means the installer no longer has to manually splice fiber cable connections, saving time. But as a result the technicians can no longer test the actual performance of the fiber connection to the home.

“When the technicians did a mechanical connection, you don’t have the visibility like you do with a fusion splicer where you can actually see it’s a good connection,” McCammon said. “[Once] the ONT’s green light turned on […] they left whether it was well done or not.”

That has been a risk AT&T is willing to take to speed expansion of fiber service to more of its customers, but it has also increased the number of service calls when customers are left with substandard service.

“In our recent analysis we did a few weeks ago, we’re seeing lines with variable optical power,” McCammon said, a sure sign there is a technical fault. “It’s 5% of the areas where we have installed fiber so 95% of the cases have a good connection.”

In most cases, McCammon said problems are usually the result of a bad connector and when it is replaced, power levels return to normal. It’s up to customers to notice a problem and call it in for now, but AT&T is studying whether optical time-domain reflectometer (OTDR) capability could be deployed to detect problems like air gaps or high reflection points inside the fiber.

AT&T is also reviewing how future fiber technologies can co-exist with AT&T’s current GPON fiber network. The technologies that can currently overlap AT&T’s GPON network are XGS-PON and NG-PON2. AT&T is currently reviewing XGS-PON to see if it would be suitable to deploy symmetrical 10Gbps service in the future.

“We’re getting started XGS-PON,” McCammon said. “We have it in the lab and we’re starting the IT work on that system right now, and unless something changes, that’s where we’re headed after GPON for consumer and potentially for business.”

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