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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.

Frugal Sprint: Relocating Cell Towers to Public Land to Save $$$, Annoy Customers

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2016 Consumer News, Rural Broadband, Sprint, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Frugal Sprint: Relocating Cell Towers to Public Land to Save $$$, Annoy Customers

sprint terribleSprint customers will once again have to endure service interruptions and disruptions and the possibility of degraded service after the cellular company quietly announced it was terminating leases with Crown Castle and American Tower — two of the largest owners of shared communications towers in the country, and relocating Sprint cell sites to government-owned property.

Sprint is aggressively pursuing a $2 billion cost-cutting program to stay competitive with T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless. Re/code reports much of this savings will come from rushing cellular antennas off shared-use cell towers and erecting antennas on public land instead, expected to cost much less. The move is “raising eyebrows” on Wall Street, as analysts grow concerned about Sprint’s exposure to early termination fees from the early end of multi-year contracts with at least two tower owners. Many are also concerned Sprint will end up placing towers in less than ideal areas, opening up coverage gaps and unanticipated negative coverage changes for customers.

Jennifer Fritzsche, senior analyst for Wells Fargo, predicts the move could “be a major step backwards on the recent progress [Sprint] has made” on its ‘brand repair’ efforts.

Sprint has been criticized for seemingly never-ending “network improvements” that have promised subscribers dramatically better service. Instead, many customers have defected to competitors like T-Mobile after their patience came to an end waiting for upgrades that never arrived. Sprint’s latest effort to save money could cost Sprint even more in additional customer defections if service deteriorates.

Penny wise, pound foolish,” is the conclusion of wireless expert Roger Entner, an analyst for Recon Analytics. “Customers don’t like surprises.”

Customers in the eastern United States and in large cities are likely to be at risk for signal degradation, if only because the government owns much less land in these areas available for Sprint’s use.

Sprint also intends to abandon much of its fiber backhaul network, now owned primarily by AT&T and Verizon. Instead, Sprint will transition to microwave backhaul service between cell towers and its network connection points, for a potential savings of $1 billion annually. The microwave approach was last taken by Clearwire, which Sprint acquired in 2012. Few, if any carriers, are expected to follow Sprint’s footsteps.

One person familiar with the initiative, dubbed the Next Generation Network, predicted another wave of network hiccups, Re/code reported. The plan is likely to result in reduced coverage in rural areas and a lot of problems for current customers as Sprint embarks on its massive tower relocation project.

“Getting there is going to be a nightmare,” said the source, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the matter. “It’s going to be very, very disruptive.”

Wireless Carriers’ Ho-Hum Economics of Wi-Fi Calling; The Real Money is Still in Data

Phillip Dampier November 24, 2015 AT&T, Broadband "Shortage", Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps, Editorial & Site News, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Wireless Carriers’ Ho-Hum Economics of Wi-Fi Calling; The Real Money is Still in Data

telecom revenueThe year 2013 marked a significant turning point for phone companies that have handled voice telephone calls for over 100 years. For the first time, the volume of domestic telephone calls and the revenue generated from them was nearly flat. For the last two years, both are now in decline on the wireless side of the business as North Americans increasingly stop talking on the phone and text and message instead.

The U.S. wireline business peaked in the year 2000 with 192 million residential and office landlines. Over the next ten years, close to 80 million of those — 40 percent, would be permanently disconnected, replaced either by cell phones, cable telephone service, or a Voice over IP line. Wireless companies picked up the largest percentage of landline refugees, most never looking back.

Over one-third of more than $500 billion in annual revenue generated by telecom companies in 2013 came from voice services. Although that sounds like a lot, it’s a pittance of a percentage when compared to 2005 when AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless earned most of their revenue from voice calls. Ten years ago, wireless companies principally sold plans based on the number of calling minutes included, and many customers often guessed wrong, paying per minute for calls exceeding their allowance.

At first, this represented a revenue bonanza for the wireless industry, which earned billions selling customers minute-based calling plans that came with built-in cost-controlling deterrents for long-winded talkers — the concern of using up their calling allowance.

attverizonStarting in 2008, wireless industry executives noticed something peculiar. While revenue from texting add-on plans was surging, the growth in calling began to level off. Wireless voice usage per subscriber peaked at an average of 769 minutes in 2007 and began falling after that year. By 2011, the average customer was making 615 minutes of calls a month. As customers began downgrading calling plans, wireless carriers shifted their quest for revenue towards text messaging.

For awhile, texting earned wireless companies astounding profits that required little extra investment in their networks. SMS service at most carriers was effectively priced at $1,250 per megabyte, broken up into 160 byte single messages. In 2011, over 2.3 trillion text messages were exchanged. A message that cost a wireless carrier an infinitesimal fraction of a penny to send and receive cost consumers up to 20 cents or more apiece if they lacked an optional texting plan. To further boost revenue, some carriers like Verizon Wireless began to pull back offering customers a variety of tiered texting plans with different messaging allowances, switching instead to a single, more expensive unlimited texting plan. Many customers balked at the $19.95 a month price and began exploring other forms of messaging each other.

chetan sharmaThe industry’s demand for profit eventually threatened to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. At the same time wireless carriers were raising prices on text messages and forcing customers into expensive texting add-on plans, free third-party messaging apps began eating into texting volume. By 2012, the use of SMS declined for the first time, with 2.19 trillion text messages sent and received, down 4.9 percent from a year earlier.

It took little time for the wireless industry to realize the days of offering plans based on calling minutes and texting were quickly coming to an end. Younger users began the cultural trend of talking less, texting more — but using a growing number of free alternative apps to do so. As a result, both AT&T and Verizon shifted their plans away from focusing on revenue from calling and texting and instead moved to monetize data usage. Today, both carriers offer base plans featuring unlimited voice calling and texting almost as an afterthought. The real money is now made from selling packages of wireless data.

Wi-Fi calling allows customers to make and receive voice calls over a Wi-Fi connection, not a nearby cell tower. The prospect of bundling that option into a cell phone just a few years ago would have been unlikely at some providers, unthinkable at others. It was never considered a high priority at any traditional carrier, although T-Mobile began offering the service all the way back in 2007.

Since most calling plans now bundle unlimited calling, letting calls ride off the traditional cellular network is no longer much of an economic concern.

wifi callingSome even expect carriers to eventually embrace Wi-Fi calling, declaring it superior to alternatives like Hangouts and Skype, which require an app to handle the call. A Wi-Fi call can be received by anyone with a phone.

This month, the last holdout, Verizon Wireless, capitulated and announced it had won approval from the FCC to introduce Wi-Fi calling to customers, joining Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T. But Verizon plans to initially limit that service, offering an app that must be installed to make and receive Wi-Fi calls. The other three carriers integrate Wi-Fi calling directly into the primary phone call app already on the phone.

The introduction of the service is unlikely to have a significant economic impact on any wireless carrier. Most have ample room on their networks to handle cell call volumes. Whether a call is placed over Wi-Fi or traditional cellular service, it will ultimately end up on the same or a similar IP-based phone switch as it makes its way to the called party.

With little revenue-generating opportunities for voice calling or SMS messaging, companies have nearly stopped the practice of monetizing individual telephone calls, preferring to offer unlimited, all-you-want calling and texting plans that used to cost consumers considerable amounts of money.

Now wireless carriers see fortunes to be made slicing up and packaging gigabytes of wireless data, sold at prices that have little relation to actual cost, just as carriers managed with text messaging for the last 20 years. A Verizon Wireless customer using 12GB of data in October that kept a now-grandfathered unlimited data plan paid just under $30 for that usage. (This month Verizon raised the price of that coveted unlimited plan by $20 a month.) Verizon charges $80 for that same amount of data on its new “XL” data plan. Verizon’s cost to deliver that data to customers is lower than it was five years ago, but customers wouldn’t know it based on their bill. As always with the wireless industry, costs often have no relationship to the price ultimately charged consumers.

Sprint Raising the Price of Unlimited Data to $70; Existing Customers Will Still Pay $60

Phillip Dampier September 30, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps, Sprint, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Sprint Raising the Price of Unlimited Data to $70; Existing Customers Will Still Pay $60

SprintSprint customers thinking about subscribing to an unlimited data plan may want to decide before Oct. 16, when Sprint raises the price of its cap-free plan for new customers by $10 to $70 a month.

Sprint and T-Mobile are the last remaining holdouts still offering unlimited data, and T-Mobile’s costs $80 a month. AT&T and Verizon Wireless still have a dwindling number of customers holding onto unlimited data plans discontinued a few years ago.

Current Sprint customers will be grandfathered in at their current rate, and Sprint has dropped any mention of de-prioritizing unlimited users’ data for the benefit of those on capped plans.

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure previously warned in July he was no fan of unlimited data and would be discouraging Sprint customers from keeping their cap-free plan. A $10 price increase for new customers won’t likely convince existing customers to give up unlimited data, but further price increases in the future might.

Sprint’s problem remains its wireless network, which has often performed poorly in consumer ratings. As video streaming becomes more popular, Sprint’s network may have some of the most trouble trying to keep up, slowing speeds for everyone. Alienating a loyal customer base that has put up with Sprint’s endless promises of a better network on the way may prove unwise if those customers continue defecting to T-Mobile.

Sprint Chairman Calls U.S. Wireless Networks “Very, Very Bad”

Masayoshi Son

Masayoshi Son

Sprint, for perhaps the 5th time in three years, is promising a major network turnaround in the near future that will boost their network’s performance and potentially restore the wireless provider to third place in the U.S. wireless market.

Masayoshi Son, who serves as both the CEO of Japanese carrier SoftBank and chairman of Sprint proved defensive about Sprint’s performance, which recently dropped to America’s fourth largest carrier after trading places with T-Mobile, despite posting improved financial results for the quarter.

Once again, Son told investors the state of America’s wireless network coverage was downright lousy.

“When I come to the [United] States, this network is not something you should be proud of,” Son said on a Sprint conference call with analysts. “It’s very, very bad.”

John Legere, the outspoken CEO of T-Mobile, took to Twitter to berate his smaller competitor.

“Does that make Sprint’s network ‘VERY, very, very bad’ or just completely terrible,” Legere wrote. “It’s easy to boast about your network in Japan, @masason. That’s 146k square miles, or basically most of California. #notthathard ;),” he added.

sprint all inSon has been relatively quiet since failing to inspire regulators to allow him to merge Sprint and T-Mobile into a single company to help both compete more effectively against giants AT&T and Verizon Wireless. After promising to invest vast sums to improve Sprint’s relatively poor performing network and coverage area, Son seemed to disappear and Sprint started losing more customers than it could add. Some have expressed frustration about Sprint’s seemingly endless promises a network turnaround was just around the corner, but never seemed to actually materialize. Many have since left for T-Mobile, which added 2.1 million new customers this year.

Although this quarter may signal Sprint is turning things around by adding 675,000 net new customers, analysts question whether Sprint’s drop to fourth place and the amount of spending that will be required to improve its wireless network could lead Son to ditch his shares in Sprint two years after acquiring an interest in the carrier. Son himself admitted he lost confidence in Sprint after the idea of a merger with T-Mobile flopped. But now he claims he is back, personally overseeing plans for Sprint’s next generation network with U.S. based engineers every night between 10pm-2am Japan time.

Customers seem unconvinced, peppering comment sections with reactions ranging from surprise Son was willing to criticize Sprint’s network (a criticism many agreed with), to exasperation that Sprint has promised better service for years and has yet to provide it.

“You know your carrier’s service sucks when even the CEO says it sucks,” commented one reader.

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