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CenturyLink Broadband in Former Qwest Country is a Mess: Slow Speeds, Customers Leaving

molassesOnly half of CenturyLink’s customers in well-populated areas formerly served by Qwest can buy broadband service at 40Mbps or higher, while rural customers fare considerably worse with less than 25% able to get High Speed Internet at those speeds.

Customers have noticed and at least 65,000 canceled their broadband service with the phone company in the second quarter of this year, most presumably switching to their area’s cable operator.

“CenturyLink is by far the most abysmal telephone company I’ve ever had to deal with and I’m 63 years old,” shares Glen Canby in Arizona. Canby is a retired telephone company engineer that spent 40 years with a larger phone company serving the midwestern U.S.  “Their reviews online echo my own experiences, which have ranged from being quoted one price while being billed another, being locked into a term contract you didn’t ask for, and getting only a fraction of the speed they claim to sell.”

Canby is counted as one of CenturyLink’s 40Mbps-qualified customers, yet he actually receives less than 6Mbps service.

But that isn’t what CenturyLink tells the Federal Communications Commission. In a semi-annual broadband deployment report, the company claimed 51 percent of their customers in urban and suburban former Qwest service areas can subscribe to 40Mbps DSL or higher. But whether a customer is “qualified” to buy 40Mbps service is not the same as actually getting the speeds the company markets.

CenturyLinkCenturyLink attempts to cover their claims with fine print attached to their FCC submission: “The numbers shown in this chart reflect the percentages of households served by DSLAMs that are capable of providing the specified broadband speeds.” (A DSLAM is a network device typically used to extend faster DSL speeds to customers by reducing the amount of copper wiring between the telephone company’s central office and the customer’s home. Customers in a neighborhood typically share space on a DSLAM, in effect sharing a single connection back to the phone company.)

“That’s clever of them, because of course the DSLAM is just one link in the chain that ends with the ‘last mile’ between that equipment and my home, and that is where CenturyLink’s phone plant is at its weakest,” Canby writes. “I spent 20 years at a phone company dealing with last-mile DSL speed issues, so they cannot fool me.”

Canby blames the condition of CenturyLink’s infrastructure between the DSLAM serving him and his home for the problems, as well as overselling DSL service by packing too many customers onto a single DSLAM.

“It might be 40Mbps service at the remote end, but it drops to around 6Mbps on a good day by the time it reaches my house,” Canby complains. “Once the sun goes down, the speed drops to 3Mbps, which is a classic case of overselling to me because too many people are trying to share one connection at the same time. It has been this way since 2008 according to my neighbors.”

Back then, phone service was provided by Qwest, the former Baby Bell providing service in 14 sparsely populated western U.S. states — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Qwest was acquired by CenturyLink in 2011.

centurylink report

CenturyLink has promised to improve broadband speeds for former Qwest customers, but much of what counts as progress has been in more urban areas, while rural customers continue to languish. The company admits just 21.9 percent of rural households can get 40Mbps service. Only 47.6% can buy 12Mbps, 61.3% can get 5Mbps, and 83% can subscribe to 1.5Mbps. That leaves 17% of former Qwest customers with no broadband options at all. CenturyLink did not break out the percentage of customers that meet the FCC’s 25Mbps minimum speed definition of broadband.

“This is why CenturyLink loses customers to cable operators who have no problems trying to deliver internet access over their network, because it was built to support more bandwidth,” Canby shares. “They can usually deliver the same internet speed to customers no matter how far out they live while phone companies deal with a network built for making phone calls, not data.”

Company officials recognize they could do better and have promised investors another 2.5 million customers will be able to reach 40Mbps by the end of 2017. By the end of the year after that, CenturyLink hopes to reach 85% of customers with VDSL2, bonding, and vectoring technology to achieve 40Mbps service for most customers in their top 25 markets. But rural customers are likely to left waiting longer because of the costs to upgrade Qwest’s copper-based network, especially in smaller states like Idaho, the Dakotas and Wyoming.

“The only answer is cable or fiber broadband, and if you live in a small community it could be years before CenturyLink gets around to you,” Canby writes. “If it’s the same story all over town, I’d start advocating for a community-owned fiber network and not sit around and wait for CenturyLink to act, especially if there is no cable company in town.”

CenturyLink to Minnesota: Deregulate Us Because We Said So

centurylinkAn attempt by CenturyLink to win near-complete deregulation for all of its 108 telephone exchanges in Minnesota has been met with strong objections from the Department of Commerce and the Minnesota Attorney General’s office because CenturyLink couldn’t be bothered to provide enough information to prove its case.

“In essence, a carrier filing a petition [for deregulation must] ‘show its work’ in the initial filing in order to have a complete petition for review,” wrote the Attorney General’s office. “CenturyLink has not shown its work. As a result, any analysis of the merits of the petition is both premature and impossible, given the lack of detail provided in the petition. The filing of the superficial results of analyses performed by the company with no supporting data or workpapers does not allow for any analysis necessary on the merits of the petition. This leaves the commission with a take-it-or-leave-it approach and shuts out other parties’ ability to perform analysis of the petition using the same data set relied upon by the company. Such scant data would not be allowed in any other commission proceeding.”

The two state agencies, in addition to some public interest groups, object to CenturyLink’s claim that since they now serve fewer than 50% of households and competing services are available to at least 60% of customers in each of their exchanges, they should no longer be regulated.

But unlike many other states, Minnesota law requires the burden of proof be met by CenturyLink, and in this case that requires a clear record of evidence of customer losses as a result of direct competition, according to the state agencies.

centurylink mn

The Attorney General’s office believes CenturyLink used proprietary data and other unexplained criteria difficult to impossible for independent third parties to verify. The Attorney General complained, “parties must take CenturyLink at its word that its analysis is accurate.”

One requirement mandates that phone companies seeking regulatory relief provide a list of local services offered in each exchange, to verify if competitors are providing a comparable level of service. CenturyLink admitted it winged it, never submitting an actual list of local services but instead a link to its national website.

When asked why the company omitted the list, a company representative told the Office of the Attorney General they didn’t think it was important.

Other examples:

  • CenturyLink’s list of exchange areas was developed using proprietary data using an “allocation tool” that requires everyone involved in the case to take CenturyLink at its word the analysis is accurate and complete;
  • CenturyLink was required to prove how many competitive providers were available to customers in each exchange. CenturyLink took a short cut, supplying a list of “major” wireless providers and cable companies alleged to be supplying service in the area with no verification or data source to generate the list. For proof of coverage, CenturyLink took screen shots of wireless provider coverage maps used in marketing material, with no proof customers actually get adequate coverage in those areas.
  • CenturyLink footnoted in tiny print it was beginning to offer unregulated Voice over IP phone service, but had no customers as of Dec. 31, 2015. It did not say anything about its plans for 2016. Should CenturyLink launch VoIP, they will be able to offer unregulated phone service in Minnesota and elsewhere, possibly negating the need to ask for deregulation.

Earlier this week, CenturyLink filed its response, effectively telling regulators they cannot dismiss the company’s petition based on the complaints from the two state agencies.

“The agencies’ arguments misread the relevant statute, confuse the distinction between completeness and sufficiency, and should be summarily rejected,” CenturyLink argued. “The statute clearly does not contemplate that all issues … must be unequivocally resolved before a petition is deemed complete. If that were the case, there would be no need for the 180 day review period.”

The proceeding is still ongoing, although it was originally supposed to take a maximum of six months.

CenturyLink: Usage-Based Billing That Makes No Sense, But Will Earn Dollars

followthemoneyCenturyLink will begin a usage-based billing trial in Yakima, Wa., starting July 26 that will combine usage caps with an overlimit fee on customers that exceed their monthly usage allowance. The trial in Washington state may soon be a fact of life for most CenturyLink customers across the country, unless customers rebel.

Already at a speed disadvantage with its cable competitors, CenturyLink will likely alienate customers with a new 300GB usage cap on DSL customers who can manage speeds up to 7Mbps, and 600GB for those lucky enough to exceed 7Mbps. Customers will be given a browser-injected warning when they reach 65% and 85% of their allowance. If a customer exceeds it, they will have overlimit fees forgiven twice before the usual de facto industry overlimit penalty rate of $10 for 50 additional gigabytes will be added to their bill, not to exceed $50 in penalties for any billing cycle.

DSL Reports received word from readers in Yakima they had the unlucky privilege of serving as CenturyLink’s first test market for hard caps and overlimit fees, and was the first to bring the story to the rest of the country.

CenturyLink hasn’t wanted to draw much attention to the usage-based billing change, quietly adjusting their “excessive usage policy FAQ” that takes effect on July 26. But it has begun directly notifying customers who will be enrolled in the compulsory trial.

“Data usage limits encourage reasonable use of your CenturyLink High Speed Internet service so that all customers can receive the optimal internet experience they have purchased with their service plan,” states the FAQ.

But counterintuitively, CenturyLink will exempt those likely to consume even more of CenturyLink’s resources than its low-speed DSL service allows by keeping unlimited use policies in place for their commercial customers and those subscribed to gigabit speed broadband.

CenturyLink’s justification for usage caps with customers seems to suggest that “excessive usage” will create a degraded experience for other customers. But CenturyLink’s chief financial officer Stewart Ewing shines a light on a more plausible explanation for CenturyLink to slap the caps on — because their competitors already are.

“Regarding the metered data plans; we are considering that for second half of the year,” Ewing told investors on a conference call. “We think it is important and our competition is using the metered plans today and we think that exploring those starts and trials later this year is our expectation.”

CenturyLink's overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

CenturyLink’s new overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

In fact, CenturyLink has never acknowledged any capacity issues with their broadband network, and has claimed ongoing upgrades have kept up with customer usage demands. Until now. On the west coast, CenturyLink’s competitors are primarily Comcast (Pacific Northwest) and Cox Communications (California, Nevada, Arizona). Both cable operators are testing usage caps. In many CenturyLink markets further east, Comcast is also a common competitor, with Time Warner Cable/Charter present in the Carolinas. But in many of the rural markets CenturyLink serves, there is no significant cable competitor at all.

Usage Cap Man is back.

Usage Cap Man is back, protecting high profits and preserving the opportunity of charging more for less service.

As Karl Bode from DSL Reports points out, for years CenturyLink has already been collecting a sneaky surcharge from customers labeled an “internet cost recovery fee,” supposedly defraying broadband usage and expansion costs. But in the absence of significant competition, there is no reason CenturyLink cannot charge even more, and also enjoy protection from cord-cutting. Customers who use their CenturyLink DSL service to watch shows online will face the deterrent of a usage cap. Customers subscribed to CenturyLink’s Prism TV will be able to access many of those shows on-demand without making a dent in their usage allowance.

For years, American consumers have listened to cable and phone companies promote a “robust and competitive broadband marketplace,” providing the best internet service money can buy. But in reality, there is increasing evidence of a duopoly marketplace that offers plenty of opportunities to raise prices, cap usage, and deliver a substandard internet experience.

As Stop the Cap! has argued since 2008, the only true innovations many phone and cable companies are practicing these days are clever ways to raise prices, protect their markets, and cut costs. Consumers who have experienced broadband service in parts of Asia and Europe understand the difference between giving customers a truly cutting-edge experience and one that requires customers to cut other household expenses to afford increasingly expensive internet access.

We recommend CenturyLink customers share their dislike of CenturyLink’s style of “innovation” in the form of a complaint against usage caps and usage-based billing with the FCC. It takes just a few minutes, and adding your voice to tens of thousands of Americans that have already asked the FCC to ban usage caps and usage pricing will keep this issue on the front burner. It will help strengthen our case that providers must stop treating internet usage as a limited resource that has to be rationed to customers. Wall Street believes the FCC has given a green light to usage caps and usage pricing, and the risk of attracting regulator attention by imposing higher broadband prices on consumers is pretty low. We need to change that thinking so analysts warn providers against being too greedy, out of fear the FCC will impose a regulatory crackdown.

CenturyLink to Test Metered Billing (Comcast Already Is, and Wall Street Asked)

followthemoneyCenturyLink is planning to trial usage caps on its broadband service later this year, not to reduce congestion or to bank the extra money for service upgrades, but to boost revenue and profits.

Stewart Ewing, chief financial officer at CenturyLink, told Wall Street analysts the company was on board with usage caps and usage billing primarily because its biggest competitor (Comcast) is already implementing a similar program in many of its markets. It’s that kind of “competition” many customers say they could do without.

“Regarding the metered data plans; we are considering that for second half of the year,” Ewing told investors on a morning conference call. “We think it is important and our competition is using the metered plans today and we think that exploring those starts and trials later this year is our expectation.”

No details about the test markets or range of usage allowances were made available by Ewing, but CenturyLink is under pressure by Wall Street to improve its revenue after raising prices and tightening credit standards on its customers. The combined impact of rate hikes and a tighter credit qualification policy led CenturyLink to lose 22,000 broadband customers during the last quarter, many who simply stopped paying the bill.

CenturyLink has been under pressure by Wall Street to put usage caps and usage pricing on its broadband service for over a year.

David Barden from Bank of America called data caps “an opportunity” for CenturyLink to rake in more dollars from customers by using misleading pricing to trick customers.

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Post

“We have been seeing a lot of the cable companies experimenting with data caps and metering higher-end usage,” Barden told CenturyLink executives on the conference call. “It seems like the FCC is not pushing back on this and it feels like it could be a big opportunity for telcos to, if nothing else, price underneath the cable umbrella and start to raise rates from high-end users.”

In plain English, Barden wants companies like CenturyLink to make customers believe they are getting a better deal from a lower price, at least until customers actually use the service. Then, the rate increases from usage caps and overlimit fees begin.

Glen Post, CEO of CenturyLink, is still committed to believing CenturyLink is in a good position to add broadband customers, despite the forthcoming trials of usage caps and overlimit fees. He defines 40Mbps broadband from CenturyLink as the speed that will “address most of our customers’ actual needs.”

prism tvCenturyLink now has 940,000 households connected to its Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON), many for its Prism TV service. Another 490,000 businesses also have access to CenturyLink’s GPON network, primarily for broadband. Post claims more than 30% of the company’s service area is now served with broadband speeds of 40Mbps or greater.

In 2016, CenturyLink expects to spend $1.2 billion on upgrades for its broadband network and capacity. In comparison, in 2015 CenturyLink spent $1 billion repurchasing shares of its own stock and another $1 billion on dividend payouts – both to benefit shareholders.

At present, CenturyLink has around a 15% market share in its GPON-enabled markets (the company didn’t say what its market share was where legacy copper wire infrastructure still dominates). Post believes that gives the phone company enormous room to grow, assuming its customers can pass credit checks and do not mind their broadband service data-capped. Like many phone companies looking for the biggest return on investment, Post noted CenturyLink will pay extra attention to wiring Multiple Dwelling Units (MDUs) — apartment buildings, condos, etc. — where the company can bring fiber service at a lower cost than wiring each home and business.

Corporate Welfare: Congress Gives Big Telecom Accelerated and Bonus Depreciation Extensions

Phillip Dampier December 16, 2015 AT&T, CenturyLink, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon 10 Comments

corporatewelfareIn the darkness of night, Congress on Tuesday handed some of America’s largest telecom companies a huge tax windfall allowing many to continue taking a special 50% depreciation bonus that slashes their tax bills on new equipment purchases, winning substantial reductions in their federal tax bills.

CenturyLink had been heavily lobbying House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other House leaders to extend a “temporary tax provision” that was designed to stimulate corporate spending on capital investments during the height of the Great Recession. Stimulus programs like these have allowed corporations like AT&T and Verizon to pay virtually no federal taxes at all for multiple years in a row. AT&T was the second biggest tax provision/corporate welfare recipient in the country, Verizon was fifth according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Between 2008-2012 taxpayers effectively covered the $19.2 billion in federal tax not paid by AT&T and $11.1 billion not paid by Verizon.

The two words that make it possible are: Accelerated Depreciation

Telecom companies, particularly those with wireless assets, are benefiting from the “temporary” stimulus program introduced by President George W. Bush in the last year of his second term because most are capital-intensive, spending regularly to expand, maintain, and upgrade their networks. CenturyLink has taken advantage of accelerated depreciation to invest billions in fiber network expansions to reach cell towers and businesses and on residential broadband speed upgrades the company claims would not have come so quickly without the tax savings.

Mobile companies like AT&T and Verizon Wireless are some of the largest beneficiaries of the stimulus program, using accelerated depreciation to write off expenses for cell tower expansion, network densificiation, and deployment of services like 4G LTE. In most cases, “accelerated depreciation” is technically a tax deferral, but because these companies maintain constant investment in network development and upkeep, the tax man never actually arrives at the door to collect.

Heavy lobbying from beneficiaries not only succeeded in getting the program’s expiration date extended, the Obama Administration agreed to expand it at the end of 2013. Companies slashed tens of billions off their tax bills as a result. A report from the Congressional Research Service, reviewing efforts to quantify the impact of depreciation breaks, found that “the studies concluded that accelerated depreciation in general is a relatively ineffective tool for stimulating the economy.”

Citizens for Tax Justice added:

Combined with rules allowing corporations to deduct interest expenses, accelerated depreciation can result in very low, or even negative, tax rates on profits from particular investments. A corporation can borrow money to purchase equipment or a building, deduct the interest expenses on the debt and quickly deduct the cost of the equipment or building thanks to accelerated depreciation. The total deductions can then make the investments more profitable after-tax than before-tax.

The latest budget bill, passed Dec 15-16, extends the tax breaks until 2018 when the bonus drops to 40%, 30% in 2019, and zero in 2020.

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