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Unintended Consequences: Feds Let Telecom Companies Skirt Taxes While States Crack Down

Tax-FreeSome of America’s largest telecommunications companies continue to pay almost nothing in federal taxes even as state taxing authorities hungry for revenue  are getting more aggressive about denying access to tax loopholes and suing some for failing to pay their fair share.

Special interest-inspired “pro-business” loopholes have been a growing part of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan Administration. The premise seemed reasonable enough: high corporate taxes are simply passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business, so lowering them will trickle savings down to the consumer and also free capital to create more jobs. It has not worked that way, however. Product pricing for services like broadband have been based more on what customers believe the product is worth, not what it costs to deliver, and Verizon was among the companies cited for significant job cuts after its corporate tax rate plummeted. Regardless of corporate tax rates, providers continue to raise broadband prices, even as the costs to provide the service are declining. The old maxim of charging what the market will bear is alive and well. So where do the tax savings go? Into share buybacks, shareholder dividend payouts, increased executive salaries and bonuses, and lobbying.

Some states are discovering they have been leaving money on the table when they don’t insist on collecting owed state taxes, and as state budgets continue to be strapped with increasing medical and infrastructure-related expenses, taking companies to court who try to avoid their tax obligations is getting more popular.

One of the biggest potential windfalls could eventually fill New York State coffers with $300 million in damages and penalties courtesy of Sprint, which was accused of deliberately not billing customers for state taxes on its wireless services over seven years.

SprintYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Sprint’s effort to void an October 2015 New York Court of Appeals decision that would allow the state to proceed to court arguing Sprint intentionally failed to collect more than $100 million in taxes from New Yorkers from 2005 on. At the time, Sprint was attempting to rebuild its market share by luring customers with cheaper mobile service. One way to offer a lower price is to stop charging tax. In New York alone, municipalities lost $4.6 million a month as a result of the scheme.

Sprint has repeatedly argued the lawsuit is invalid because a 2000 federal law trumps a 2002 New York State law that covered state taxes. The court disagreed, and the fact a whistleblower at Sprint revealed what Sprint was up to didn’t help. The case will now likely head to state court or get settled.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-bannerWhile $300 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the money Verizon manages to dodge paying the Internal Revenue Service. The phone company is the poster child of corporate tax dodging according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders targeted Verizon because between 2008-2013, Verizon not only did not pay a nickel in federal taxes, it actually received a refund from the federal government after achieving a federal tax rate of -2.5%, despite booking $42.5 billion in profits. American taxpayers effectively subsidized Verizon when it got its refund check.

In the last two years, Verizon is paying federal taxes once again, but at a rate of 12.4%, well below the tax rate of most middle class Americans.

It’s a sensitive matter for Verizon, because CEO Lowell McAdam launched a full-scale media blitz trying to paint the Sanders campaign as inaccurate. McAdam claims Verizon actually paid a 35% tax rate in 2015, which would only be true if the company added the tax obligations it owes on the billions of dollars it stashes in overseas bank accounts. Foreign taxes don’t help the American taxpayer, suggest critics, and Citizens for Tax Justice consider McAdam’s claims “artificial.”

“In fact, over the past 15 years, Verizon has paid a federal tax rate averaging just 12.4 percent on $121 billion in U.S. profits, meaning that the company has found a way to shelter about two-thirds of its U.S. profits from federal taxes over this period,” the group claims. “In five of the last 15 years, the company paid zero in federal taxes. While there is no indication that this spectacular feat of tax avoidance is anything but legal (the company’s consistently low tax rates are most likely due to overly generous accelerated depreciation tax provisions that Congress has expanded over the last decade), few Americans would describe the company avoiding tax on $78 billion of profits as ‘fair.’”

unintendedBruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, claims Verizon also specializes in dumping most of its costs and “losses” on Verizon Communications, which owns its legacy wireline network, which helps them cut their tax obligations.

Too often, changes to the U.S. tax code have unintentional consequences, especially when corporations can hire tax attorneys that outclass those working for the federal government.

Fredric Grundeman helped draft a tax bill that was supposed to curb loopholes in the estate tax and though well-trained as a trusted attorney at the Treasury Department, the bill quickly backfired. The new law opened even larger loopholes than those it was originally written to close, allowing some of America’s richest families to pass on money to heirs with no tax implications at all. Grundeman admits legislators often don’t recognize a new tax law’s potential for abuse.

“How do I say it?” Grundeman told Bloomberg News back in 2013. “When Congress enacts a law, it isn’t always well thought out.”

That is also true on the state level.

Oregon officials push a button to exempt Google Fiber from a state property tax.

Oregon officials push a legislative button and give Google Fiber a tax break. Then Comcast shows up.

Oregon wants to attract Google Fiber to Portland, but Google objected to one of the state’s property tax provisions that affects companies that sell data services. Oregon partly sets the tax rate commensurate with the value of the provider’s brand name, among other factors. It’s all very vague, but not so vague that Google would miss it could pay an even higher tax rate that its competitors — Comcast and CenturyLink.

Oregon’s legislature voted to correct the problem by exempting providers that offer gigabit broadband. The tax law changes were tailored to benefit Google, assuming Comcast and CenturyLink would continue to drag their feet to upgrade their Oregon networks.

But the enterprising lawyers at Comcast promptly requested the same tax exemption that Google would get in return for building its fiber network in the state. The reason? Comcast had introduced its own gigabit Internet service on a much more limited scale.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) admitted Oregon had another law on its hands with unintended consequences. Barnhart told utility regulators this spring his fellow lawmakers never intended to give the tax break to Comcast, which charges hundreds of dollars for 2,000Mbps service. But nobody bothered to set any price guidelines in the law, meaning Google can charge $70 a month for gigabit service and get a tax break and Comcast can offer 2Gbps service in a limited number of locations, at the “go away” price of $300 a month, with start-up costs up to $1,000, and a multi-year contract, and get the exact same tax break.

Barnhart

Barnhart

Or maybe not, at least for now.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Revenue ruled Comcast is not eligible for that tax break, at least not this year, according to The Oregonian. The department wouldn’t explain why, citing taxpayer confidentiality. For good measure, the same department also rejected applications from Google Fiber and Frontier Communications (Frontier operates a very limited FiOS fiber to the home network in communities including Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham that it inherited from Verizon), claiming Google and Frontier’s gigabit networks were theoretical in Oregon and there needed to be gigabit service actually up and running to qualify.

That leaves Google in a classic catch-22. It won’t bring fiber to Oregon so long as it faces a stiff tax bill and tax authorities won’t forgive the tax until there is gigabit fiber up and running. For some taxpayers, what burns the most is the legislature paved the road to tax bliss to attract Google Fiber, but the only company that may actually ultimately travel down it is Comcast.

Google Fiber Offering New $15 for 25Mbps Plan for Low Income Families in Kansas City

google fiber truckGoogle Fiber has quietly unveiled its own discount Internet plan for the income-challenged that vastly simplifies the hoops consumers have to successfully jump through to enroll.

Relying on Census block and FCC broadband availability data, Google proposes to sell residents of Kansas City living in areas identified as having a sustained digital divide a 25Mbps Internet plan for $15 a month. The new plan is accompanied by totally free connections and service for residents of select subsidized housing — mostly apartment buildings.

The new service offerings will replace Google’s 5Mbps free service option, which was dropped from Google Fiber’s menu this week. Google previously charged residents a $300 installation fee to qualify for free service which proved to be an insurmountable challenge for many paycheck-to-paycheck residents who did not realize Google would also accept $10 monthly installments for 30 months.

The choice of 25Mbps happens to coincide with the FCC’s official minimum speed designation to qualify as “broadband.” Google hopes the low-priced broadband option will inspire residents living in broadband-sparse neighborhoods to sign up for service. Currently, most low-income residents not subscribed to fixed broadband rely on their cell phones for Internet access. Google makes its money providing search results and accompanying contextual advertising, and home broadband service remains an important part of Google’s ad revenue stream.

Google’s plan avoids the intrusive qualification requirements most phone and cable companies insist on to receive discounted Internet service. Comcast, among others, demands evidence of school-age children enrolled in the federal school lunch program, and forbids participation to current customers who manage to already scrape together enough to pay for broadband service. Google’s plan relies on a potential customer’s location and avoids income tests and paperwork, opening its program to childless couples, young singles, and seniors.

Google’s $15 Broadband plan features:

  • $15 a month
  • 25Mbps upload and download speeds
  • No data caps
  • No application process or contracts
  • No equipment rental and no construction or installation fees

Residents of Kansas City can determine their eligibility on or after May 19, 2016 on this website.

Google Fiber Announces $10 Landline Phone Service

google phoneAlthough tens of millions of Americans have pulled the plug on landlines in favor of their mobile phones, there is still a market for affordable landline phone service, especially if you hate talking on cellphones.

Today Google Fiber has announced Fiber Phone, a new $10 phone line with unlimited local/nationwide calling, Google Voice rates for international calls, and package of phone features and voicemail that includes reliable access to 911.

Customers signing up will get a portable Voice Over IP box similar in style to those supplied by cable companies and VoIP providers like Vonage. It is designed to connect to your home’s existing phones and your Google Fiber service, but can also be taken with you on trips.

“We’ll be introducing Fiber Phone in a few areas to start,” Google writes in a blog post. “Over time, we’ll roll out Fiber Phone as an option to residential customers in all of our Fiber cities. Once we bring the service to your area, you can sign up and get the service through a simple installation process. To stay updated on the latest, sign up here.”

Google Fiber has offered TV and broadband service in a “double play” package since its start, but steered clear of phone service due to the complexity of local, state and federal regulations, especially pertaining to 911 service. Google apparently has overcome those challenges.

Google Fiber’s Contractors Create Headaches for Austin Residents

Flash flooding in a neighborhood where storm drains were blocked by construction debris. (Image: Adolfo Romero)

Flash flooding in a neighborhood where storm drains were blocked by Google’s construction debris. (Image: Adolfo Romero)

Some Austin residents are fuming over the sloppy construction work and eyesores left by contractors hired by Google to install its fiber optic service.

Last year, 254 formal complaints were filed against Google and its contractors, by far the largest compared with AT&T and Time Warner Cable, which are also in the process of upgrading their networks in the city.

The epicenter of construction nightmares for homeowners is on Lambs Lane in Southeast Austin, where last October a flash flood allegedly caused by Google’s construction crews blocking nearby storm drains brought two feet of water into the home of Arnulfo and Dolores Cruz, causing $100,000 in damages.

Oregon Lawmakers Write Loophole for Google Fiber That Will Save Comcast Millions Instead

bank_error_in_your_favorFrom the Department of Unintended Consequences, Comcast will likely be the biggest benefactor of a new Oregon law intended to attract Google Fiber to Portland.

The Oregon Legislature rewrote the state’s tax laws after learning Google objected to Oregon’s concept of “central assessment,” which calculates local property taxes partly on the value of a company’s brand. The tax policy proved so contentious, Comcast spent years fighting the tax before ultimately losing its appeal before the Oregon Supreme Court in 2014. After two years of lobbying Google to come to Portland, nothing short of a repeal or exemption of this tax policy was likely to get the search engine giant to reconsider.

Comcast officials must not have believed their luck when state lawmakers resolved the tax problem for them, all because of efforts to woo Google back to the state. Legislators proposed a tax exemption for companies that agreed to invest in gigabit speed broadband and deliver it to the majority of the state’s broadband customers. The new law was a clear invitation to Google to begin wiring the state for fiber, but Comcast has crashed the party instead.

Comcast officials argue their own new “Gigabit Pro” service qualifies the cable company for the same tax exemptions Oregon intended Google to receive, despite the fact its 2-gigabit offering costs a fortune and is unlikely to attract more than a fraction of Comcast customers.

gigabit proOregon lawmakers wrote a law seeking to assure equal access by prohibiting companies from targeting only affluent neighborhoods for fiber upgrades, while forgetting to consider the cost of the service itself. Gigabit Pro will never feature prominently in Portland’s challenged neighborhoods at a cost of $4,600 for service during the first year.

Lawmakers now face the wrath of several local tax authorities that report they’ll lose tens of millions in tax revenue if Comcast successfully applies for an exemption. Staff members of the Oregon Public Utility Commission believes Comcast ultimately will qualify for that exemption, even if only a few customers pay Comcast’s asking price for gigabit service.

“If the application is approved, schools, libraries and local governments across the state would receive significantly less revenue,” wrote Mary Beth Henry, director of Portland’s Office of Community Technology, in a letter to state regulators. “This application was not the kind anticipated by the Legislature.”

Portland officials argue Comcast is violating the spirit of the new broadly written law by pricing its fiber service at $300 a month, far out of reach of most households. Google Fiber typically charges $70 for its gigabit service.

Critics of the legislature contend this isn’t the first instance of the Oregon body making a mess of things. In addition to not bothering to define what qualifies as “affordable” Internet, how much companies had to spend to offer it, or how many customers had to actually sign up for the service, language in the original bill accidentally left Google Fiber off the exemption list.

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