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Comcast Getting Into the Wireless Mobile Business; Relies on Wi-Fi, Verizon Wireless

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

Comcast is getting into the wireless mobile business.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made the surprise announcement at this morning’s Goldman Sachs Communacopia investor conference, telling attendees Comcast will offer service beginning in mid-2017.

Roberts added the service will depend heavily on Comcast’s installed base of 15 million Wi-Fi hotspots, mostly from cable modem/gateways already installed in customer homes. When away from a hotspot, Comcast’s cellular service will depend on Verizon Wireless.

The deal with Verizon Wireless was expected, because Comcast has maintained an agreement with Verizon since 2011 that allows both companies to sell each other’s services to consumers. The agreement allows Comcast to obtain service from Verizon Wireless at fixed wholesale prices.

That means Comcast can introduce its wireless service without having to build wireless infrastructure like cell towers.

“We believe there will be a big payback with reduced churn, more [customer] stickiness and better satisfaction,” Roberts said.

Comcast will continue the cable industry’s tradition of not directly competing with other cable operators and will not accept customers outside of an existing Comcast service area. Comcast will likely offer the service in a bundle with other services. This will result in a quad-play package for Comcast, bundling cable TV, internet, phone, and cellular service.

Roberts did not talk about pricing.

Verizon Wireless Bill Shock is Back; Customers Complaining About Sudden Usage Increases

bill shockSome Verizon Wireless customers are reporting data usage numbers spiked on their bills to unprecedented levels this summer, giving the cellular company’s bean counters a heaping helping of overlimit fees, charged when customers exceed their data allowance.

The phantom usage problem has become noticeable enough to win attention from the consumer reporter at Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, who found her own family of four suddenly blowing past their shared 15GB a month, resulting in a $30 overlimit fee.

“My family’s data usage has mysteriously increased significantly every month since February, except for one month,” wrote Teresa Dixon Murray. “My family of four pays for 15GB a month. We’re grandfathered in the old More Everything family share plan. We typically were using no more than 10GB a month. But for the last six months, that has increased steadily — and inexplicably. 8.2. Then 9.7. Then 10.6. Then 12.7. Two months ago, we got alerts that we were nearing our allotment and managed to take care to avoid going over. Last month, despite our efforts, we went over by 1.057GB, and were charged an extra $30.”

Murray questioned why her family’s phones were burning through their data allowance in the middle of the night, while connected to the family’s home Wi-Fi.

A Verizon representative explained phones may be connecting to Verizon’s network because of a new feature installed on some phones, including the Apple iPhone, called “Wi-Fi Assist.” This feature, which could also be called “Verizon Profit Assist” automatically ignores the fact you are connected to Wi-Fi and switches back to the Verizon Wireless network if the phone determines your Wi-Fi connection is “poor.”

“So what’s the definition of poor? I guess Verizon and our iPhones decide that,” Murray questioned.

This feature can be switched off from your phone settings.

They are coming.

They are coming.

But that hasn’t always stopped the overlimit fees. Some customers report they still incur overlimit fees even after switching cellular data off when they reach a warning from Verizon they are about to exhaust their allowance. Verizon charges $10 in overlimit fees, even in instances where the offending extra usage amounts to .0001GB.

Verizon claims its usage meter only provides an estimate of usage, and there are instances where the warning comes too late for a customer to stop using data before they’ve already exceeded their plan allowance. Verizon’s solution is to sell a $5/month “family coverage” add-on that allows parents to monitor data usage before it gets out of hand. But Verizon doesn’t guarantee it will stop overlimit fees based on the measurements of usage it provides.

That add-on plan may or may not have helped Valarie Gerbus, who is now facing a $9,100 Verizon cell phone bill she is adamantly refusing to pay.

The suburban Tampa customer regularly paid $118/month for her cell phone plan, which included 4GB of data usage — an amount she never exceeded, at least until July. Gerbus was shocked to open her bill and discover her normal monthly bill now also included $8,535 in overlimit fees for using 569GB of data in a single month:

(Image: The Plain Dealer)

(Image: The Plain Dealer)

On July 21, Verizon sent her a text, notifying her that she had used nearly all of her 4 gigabytes of data. The text said she could get 4 more gigabytes for $20. Realizing that she had two weeks before the end of the month, Gerbus bought the additional data.

Within an hour of the purchase, she received another text that told her she only had 10 percent left on the data that she had just purchased. The next text message she received said she could change her plan to 8 gigabytes for an additional $20 a month. She said she bought that upgrade to ensure she didn’t have any data overages.

In a span of several hours, she estimates that she received 40 to 50 texts saying that she needed to purchase more data. She turned the notification off, believing that there had been a glitch in Verizon’s system.

Gerbus said she realizes now that she should have contacted the company at that point, but she didn’t, as she feared being placed on hold by a customer service representative.

She later went to work and planned on paying the bill online. When she found her online statement, it said she owed $6,480 for using 490 gigabytes of data. She was shocked.

“I told them that I won’t pay the bill,” Gerbus told the newspaper. “I can either wait until they take it to a collection agency or when they take it to court. Either way, my credit history will be ruined. I can go bankrupt here.”

Verizon said they are not aware of any widespread problem, but is looking into phantom phone usage at night and some of the more extreme examples of bill shock, where bills extend into the thousands of dollars.

Affected customers report the high bills are, in some cases, tearing families apart.

“It got to the point that we were battling in our family,” reported Lockport, N.Y. resident Tom Walker, who told the newspaper their data usage soared for no apparent reason. “We were really asking each other, ‘Have you been on Facebook too much? What have you been doing?’ We were trying to figure out who was using all this data.”

Gerbus is almost thankful to pay Verizon Wireless a nearly $600 fee to exit her contract early as she switches to T-Mobile. Verizon’s engineers have no explanation for Gerbus’ bill, other than noting her phone contacted Amazon.com at least 400 times over a few days.

Providers with usage caps and usage-based pricing often consider their usage meters more reliable than their own customers, and when customers complain, many representatives trust the meter and insist on payment. When a customer like Gerbus complains about usage that is considerably above average usage, customer service representative are not always receptive.

“I told them that there was no way that I could have gone from 490 to 560 in a day,” Gerbus said. “The [Verizon] person said, ‘Yes there is.'”

Wireless Providers Create Challenges for Smartphone Upgrade Marketplace

samsung s7Smartphone manufacturers are dealing with sluggish sales for the newest and greatest phone models because American consumers are increasingly resistant to paying for top of the line devices.

Apple, Samsung, and others are facing some of their biggest challenges ever delivering upgrade features deemed useful enough to encourage consumers to spend the more than $600 that many high-end phones now command in the marketplace. As blasé new features fail to deliver a “must-have” message to consumers, many are hanging onto their existing phones and refusing to upgrade.

The decision by wireless providers to stop subsidizing devices backed by two-year contracts have delivered sticker shock to consumers looking for the latest and greatest. The Apple iPhone 7, expected to be announced this month, will likely carry a price of $650 — a serious amount of money, even if your wireless provider or Apple agrees to finance its purchase interest-free for 24 months. Despite the fact wireless providers charged artificially higher service plan rates to recoup the cost of the device subsidy over the length of the contract, consumer perception made it easier to justify paying $200 for a subsidized phone versus paying full retail price and getting cheaper service.

As a result, consumers are strategically holding on to their cell phones longer than ever and avoiding upgrade fever just to score a lower cell phone bill. The Wall Street Journal reports that since T-Mobile started the trend away from device subsidies in 2013, Citigroup estimates the smartphone replacement cycle has now lengthened to 29.6 months, considerably longer than in 2011 when upgrades were likely even before the two-year phone contract expired.

The average combined revenue earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged "price war."

The average combined monthly revenue (in $) earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged “price war.” (Image: Trefis)

Wireless providers don’t mind the change since they endured fronting the subsidy cost to phone manufacturers and slowly recouped it over the next two years. Not dealing with a subsidy would make the accounting easier. But AT&T and Verizon Wireless both understood the average consumer doesn’t have a spare $650 sitting around for a new device, much less the nearly $2,500 it would cost to outfit a family of four with a new top of the line smartphone every two years. So they entered the financing business, breaking the cost of the device into as many as 24 equal installment payments. Instead of paying $672 for a Samsung Galaxy S7, Verizon Wireless offers 24 equal installments of $28. That would be a distinction without much difference from the old subsidy system except for the fact some carriers are trying to sell their equipment financing obligations to a third-party, allowing them to move that debt off their books as well.

In fact, wireless providers are doing so well under the “no-contract/pay full price or installments” system, Wall Street analyst firm Trefis has started to ask whether the so-called wireless carrier “price war” is just a mirage. The firm notes (reg. req’d.) all the four major carriers are doing well and collecting an increasing amount of money from their customers than ever before. Much of that added revenue comes from customers bulking up data plans and being forced to pay for unlimited voice and texting features they may not need. But Trefis also points to reined in marketing spending at the carriers, who no longer have to entice customers into device upgrades as part of a contract renewal.

Things are looking worse for phone manufacturers that have relied on revenue based on the two-year device upgrade cycle in the United States. Apple is under growing pressure as its iPhone faces declining demand. In the U.S. alone, analysts predict iPhone sales will drop 7.1% this year. UBS predicts an even less optimistic 9% drop, followed by a 5% drop next year, even after iPhone 7 is introduced. AT&T has already reported some of the lowest upgrade rates ever during the first three months of 2016.

Another clue consumers are planning to hold on to their smartphones longer than ever — sales of rugged cases and screen protectors are up, as are smartphone protection/loss insurance plan sales, according to AT&T senior VP Steven Hodges. Parents even expect their children to give their phones better care.

Customers “realized it was a $500 to $700 device,” Hodges said at an industry conference held in June. “As such, they started taking care of them differently. You tell a kid this is only $49, the kid is going to use his phone as a baseball at times.”

Other customers are looking forward to benefiting from a dramatically lower bill after paying off their device in 24 months.

Kristin Maclearie has an iPhone 6 and she wants to keep it for the long term, if only to see her Verizon bill drop once she finishes her monthly payments. She told the Wall Street Journal as long as it keeps working, “I’ll just hang onto the one I have,” she said. “Unless something really cool comes out…but they’re always similar.”

Verizon Wireless Switches On LTE-Advanced to Improve 4G Performance

verizon wirelessVerizon Wireless today launched LTE Advanced technology to bring up to 50% faster peak wireless data speeds to almost its entire national 4G LTE service area.

LTE-A allows Verizon to better balance its data traffic by combining disparate mobile data channels on different frequency bands to increase bandwidth and speed for mobile data traffic. The technology, known as carrier aggregation, helps mobile providers more efficiently deliver data over multiple frequency bands at the same time. Verizon controls space in the 700 MHz, AWS and PCS spectrum bands giving the company the possibility of combining two or three bandwidth channels together into a single channel, boosting speeds.

There is a catch. Only customers with the latest devices supporting LTE-A will experience dramatic speed boosts. Verizon currently supports 39 LTE Advanced-capable phones and tablets on its network, including the latest Samsung Galaxy and Apple iPhone models. If you own one of these devices, the speed improvements are automatic and no plan change is required.

infographic-welcome-to-the-next-gen-network-2-HR

Verizon’s original LTE network was shown to deliver more than 100Mbps in peak speeds when it was in the lab or during early beta tests. But once actual customers got on the network, speeds began to slow. Most customers today get LTE speeds of 5-12Mbps from Verizon Wireless. Verizon’s press release touts “peak download speeds of up to 225Mbps” using two channel aggregation and over 300Mbps when testing three channel aggregation. But customers may find speeds considerably slower than that as the number of LTE-A capable devices grows in the months and years ahead.

Verizon Wireless is not shy about its boasts for better wireless speed.

“Our customers just received a major network enhancement for no additional cost,” said Tami Erwin, head of operations for Verizon’s wireless unit. “Verizon LTE Advanced works like a turbocharger on an engine. Speed boosts kick in when you need it most, with big data use. That’s when you get the big peak boost of Verizon LTE Advanced.”

“Verizon LTE Advanced means your data session moves more quickly over the best network,” said Nicki Palmer, Verizon’s chief wireless network engineer. “Imagine a road with multiple lanes in which, once you pick a lane, that’s the lane you drive in. That describes our award-winning 4G LTE network. Continuing the metaphor, Verizon LTE Advanced allows cars to change lanes efficiently and flawlessly, balancing the flow of traffic and getting drivers to their destinations more efficiently. That means blindingly fast data transmissions when you need it most.”

Verizon Ponders Installing Partners’ Bloatware on Your Android Phone for $1-2/App

Uninvited apps that cannot be removed infest smartphones.

Uninvited apps that cannot be removed infest smartphones.

Verizon Wireless keeps looking for those end runs around Net Neutrality, this time offering its preferred partners a chance to force-install their apps on your new Android phone without your permission.

Most consumers call these unwanted apps “bloatware,” but the geniuses from Verizon’s marketing department prefer to call it “brandware.” Whatever it’s called, each app successfully installed on your next Android phone will net the wireless giant $1-2, according to Ad Age.

Verizon has pitched the program to ad agencies and their major retail and financial clients rich enough to not worry about spending $1-2 million on app installations. Verizon’s app program is more dynamic than traditional pre-loaded bloatware that customers cannot uninstall. Through the use of Google’s remote install feature, a client could pay Verizon to trigger an automatic download and installation of a banking or shopping app the moment a customer turned on their new phone. The customer would likely assume such apps came with the phone, just like traditional pre-installed bloatware. But unlike the myriad of uninvited game trials, shopping and media apps that customers can’t get rid of, Verizon’s program would let customers uninstall the apps they never wanted installed on their phone to begin with.

Apple iPhone users have nothing to fear from Verizon’s “brandware” because the Apple ecosystem is more tightly controlled by Apple.

Ad Age notes the app program would only send apps to new smartphones being activated for the first time. That isn’t a small market. Verizon activates about 10 million new phones each quarter out of 75 million postpaid customers.

The program raised eyebrows among advertisers and consumer activists worried about Net Neutrality. A deep pocketed app maker would have an instant advantage pre-installing a new game or social networking app on millions of phones while smaller competitors would have to attempt to build scale through word-of-mouth, reviews, or other marketing efforts. Verizon would effectively be giving its preferred partners an unfair advantage over other app makers.

Advertisers are also reportedly wary about blowback from consumers that don’t appreciate uninvited apps chewing through their usage allowance installing themselves.

Consumers generally dislike all the excess apps stuffing up their phones, Azher Ahmed, director of digital at DDB Chicago told Ad Age. “If the app doesn’t offer valuable content and experiences, you’re going to deal with a lot of frustrated users calling out your bloatware.”

Verizon 5G: Finally a “Fiber” Broadband Service Verizon Executives Like

verizon 5gIt wasn’t difficult to understand Verizon’s sudden reticence about continuing its fiber to the home expansion program begun under the leadership of its former chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg. Starting his career with Verizon predecessor New York Telephone as a cable splicer, he worked his way to the top. Seidenberg understood Verizon’s wireline future as a landline phone provider was limited at best. With his approval, Verizon began retiring decades-old copper wiring and replaced it with fiber optics, primarily in the company’s biggest service areas and most affluent suburbs along the east coast. The service was dubbed FiOS, and it has consistently won high marks from customers and consumer groups.

Seidenberg

Seidenberg

Seidenberg hoped by offering customers television, phone, and internet access, they would have a reason to stay with the phone company. Verizon’s choice of installing fiber right up the side of customer homes proved highly controversial on Wall Street. Seidenberg argued that reduced maintenance expenses and the ability to outperform their cable competitors made fiber the right choice, but many Wall Street analysts complained Verizon was spending too much on upgrades with no evidence it would cause a rush of returning customers. By early 2010, Verizon’s overall weak financial performance coupled with Wall Street’s chorus of criticism that Verizon was overspending to acquire new customers, forced Seidenberg to put further FiOS expansion on hold. Verizon committed to complete its existing commitments to expand FiOS, but with the exception of a handful of special cases, stopped further expansion into new areas until this past spring, when the company suddenly announced it would expand FiOS into the city of Boston.

Seidenberg stepped down as CEO in July 2011 and was replaced by Lowell McAdam. McAdam spent five years as CEO and chief operating officer of Verizon Wireless and had been involved in the wireless industry for many years prior to that. It has not surprised anyone that McAdam’s focus has remained on Verizon’s wireless business.

McAdam has never been a booster of FiOS as a copper wireline replacement. Verizon’s investments under McAdam have primarily benefited its wireless operations, which enjoy high average revenue per customer and a healthy profit margin. Over the last six years of FiOS expansion stagnation, Verizon’s legacy copper wireline business has continued to experience massive customer losses. Revenue from FiOS has been much stronger, yet Verizon’s management remained reticent about spending billions to restart fiber expansion. In fact, Verizon’s wireline network (including FiOS) continues to shrink as Verizon sells off parts of its service area to independent phone companies, predominately Frontier Communications. Many analysts expect this trend to continue, and some suspect Verizon could eventually abandon the wireline business altogether and become a wireless-only company.

With little interest in maintaining or upgrading its wired networks, customers stuck in FiOS-less communities complain Verizon’s service has been deteriorating. As long as McAdam remains at the head of Verizon, it seemed likely customers stuck with one option – Verizon DSL – would be trapped with slow speed internet access indefinitely.

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion rises from the dead?

But McAdam has finally shown some excitement for a high-speed internet service he does seem willing to back. Verizon’s ongoing trials of 5G wireless service, if successful, could spark a major expansion of Verizon Wireless into the fixed wireless broadband business. Unlike earlier wireless data technologies, 5G is likely to be an extremely short-range wireless standard that will depend on a massive deployment of “small cells” that can deliver gigabit plus broadband speeds across a range of around 1,500 feet in the most ideal conditions. That’s better than Wi-Fi but a lot less than the range of traditional cell towers offering 4G service.

What particularly interests McAdam is the fact the cost of deploying 5G networks could be dramatically less than digging up neighborhoods to install fiber. Verizon’s marketing mavens have already taken to calling 5G “wireless fiber.”

“I think of 5G initially as wireless technology that can provide an enhanced broadband experience that could only previously be delivered with physical fiber to the customer,” said McAdam during Verizon’s second-quarter earnings call. “With wireless fiber the so-called last mile can be a virtual connection, dramatically changing our cost structure.”

McAdam

McAdam

Verizon’s engineers claim they can build 5G networking into existing 4G “small cells” that are already being deployed today as part of Verizon’s efforts to increase the density of its cellular network and share the increasing data demands being placed on its network. In fact, McAdam admitted Verizon’s near-future would not depend on acquiring a lot of new wireless spectrum. Instead, it will expand its network of cell towers and small cells to cut the number of customers trying to share the same wireless bandwidth.

McAdam’s 5G plan depends on using extremely high frequency millimeter wave spectrum, which can only travel line-of-sight. Buildings block the signal and thick foliage on trees can dramatically cut its effective range. That means a new housing development of 200 homes with few trees to get in the way could probably be served with small cells, if mounted high enough above the ground to avoid obstructions. But an older neighborhood with decades-old trees with a significant canopy could make reception much more difficult and require more small cells. Another potential downside: just like Wi-Fi in a busy mall or restaurant, 5G service will be shared among all subscribers within range of the signal. That could involve an entire neighborhood, potentially reducing speed and performance during peak usage times.

Verizon won’t know how well the service will perform in the real world until it can launch service trials, likely to come in 2017. But Verizon has also made it clear it wants to be a major, if not dominant player in the 5G marketplace, so plenty of money to construct 5G networks will likely be available if tests go well.

Ironically, to make 5G service possible, Verizon will need to replace a lot of its existing copper network it has consistently refused to upgrade with the same fiber optic cables that make FiOS possible. It needs the fiber infrastructure to connect the large number of small cells that would have to be installed throughout cities and suburbs. That may be the driving force behind Verizon’s sudden resumed interest in restarting FiOS expansion this year, beginning in Boston.

“We will create a single fiber optic network platform capable of supporting wireless and wireline technologies and multiple products,” McAdam told investors. “In particular, we believe the fiber deployment will create economic growth for Boston. And we are talking to other cities about similar partnerships. No longer are discussions solely about local franchise rights, but how to make forward-looking cities more productive and effective.”

If McAdam can convince investors fiber expansion is right for them, the company can also bring traditional FiOS to neighborhoods where demand warrants or wait until 5G becomes a commercially available product and offer that instead. Or both.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about how Verizon will ultimately market 5G. The company could adopt its wireless philosophy of not offering customers unlimited use service, and charge premium prices for fast speeds tied to a 5G data plan. Or it could market the service exactly the same as it sells essentially unlimited FiOS. Customer reaction will likely depend on usage caps, pricing, and performance. As a shared technology, if speeds lag on Verizon’s 5G network as a result of customer demand, it will prove a poor substitute to FiOS.

Verizon Sues New York Over Tax Refund Regulators Want Spent on Network Improvements

Phillip Dampier July 27, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon No Comments

verizon repairVerizon Communications is taking the New York Public Service Commission to court over the regulator’s ruling that $8 million in property tax refunds rebated to the phone company through a tax certiorari proceeding should be spent on improving Verizon’s service quality in the state.

Verizon wants to pocket the refunds of $1 million from New York City, $2 million from Oyster Bay, and $5 million from Hempstead for the benefit of the company and its investors, but regulators are insisting Verizon use the money to boost “capital expenditures to address purported service quality and network reliability concerns about its New York network.”

The PSC has been monitoring Verizon’s landline performance in the state since at least 2010 under its Verizon Service Quality Improvement Plan proceeding. Local officials and customers have filed complaints with the PSC about extremely long repair times, service outages, unreliable service, and sub-par line quality for several years, especially in downstate areas around New York City that have not yet been upgraded to Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service.

Regulators want those issues resolved, particularly after Verizon made it clear it has suspended its FiOS expansion outside of New York City. Customers with long-standing service issues are often offered a controversial wireless landline replacement called Voice Link, that has earned mixed reviews, instead of a permanent repair of their existing service.

ny pscVerizon calls the regulator’s demands arbitrary and unwarranted confiscation of its property.

“The commission did something it had never done before — it allowed Verizon to retain the refunds as it had in the past but this time also imposed a spending mandate which required Verizon to use the funds for a particular purpose,” the company claimed.

Verizon used the company’s long and successful track record convincing New York regulators that Verizon’s wireline networks have faced hard times as it bled landline customers, so it deserved regulatory and rate relief. Because the PSC recognized Verizon’s marketplace challenges when it “found that a lightened regulatory approach for traditional incumbent telephone carriers was warranted and necessary in order to level the playing field and enable them to remain viable providers in the future,” it is unwarranted to suddenly now demand the company spend its tax refund on network improvements, Verizon argued in its lawsuit.

In the past, Verizon added, the PSC allowed the phone company to keep its tax refund money for itself, even as it reduced spending on its infrastructure. The company claimed that to be “a proper regulatory response to the financial stress Verizon claims it is and will be under as it continues its transition to an increasingly competitive market.”

Earlier this year, the commission began to take a more formal look at the mounting service complaints it was receiving from Verizon customers and found troubling evidence Verizon might not be taking its copper landline network as seriously as it once did, especially in areas where FiOS upgrades have not been scheduled.

“…[T]here may be an unwillingness on the part of Verizon to compete to retain and adequately serve its regulated wireline customer base, and warrants further investigation into Verizon’s service quality processes and programs,” minutes from a March commission meeting state.

Is Your Landlord Taking Kickbacks to Keep Better Internet Out of Your Building?

xfinity communitiesIs your cable television service included in your rent or condo “services” fee? Have you ever called another provider and told service was not available at your address even through others outside of your condo neighborhood or apartment complex can sign up for service today? Chances are your landlord or property management company is receiving a kickback to keep competition off the property, while you may be stuck paying for substandard services you neither want or need. Worst of all, chances are it’s all legal and everyone is getting a piece of the action… except you.

Welcome to the world of Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) Bulk Service Agreements, the seedy underbelly of the anti-competitive cable and telco-TV world. When cable TV first got going, most people wanted access. In the early days, cable franchises were typically exclusive and cable companies maintained the upper hand in negotiations with apartment owners and property owners. Since the service was in demand, many property owners were told to sign whatever “Right Of Entry” Agreement (ROE) was put in front of them. Most contained clauses that guaranteed that cable company would get exclusive access to the property for as long as it was given a franchise to operate within that community. In other words, basically forever.

This turned out very handy when competitors started showing up. First on the scene were satellite television providers, which had a rough time dealing with landlords who loathed tenants installing satellite dishes that “ruined the aesthetics” of the property. Many rental agreements still restrict satellite television dishes in ways that make their use untenable. But things got much more serious when Verizon and AT&T got into the cable business. Initially, both companies found extending FiOS and U-verse to some rental and gated communities was blocked by the exclusive agreements held by cable operators. By 2007, the FCC finally acted to forbid exclusive service contracts, but the cable industry and property developers have played cat and mouse games with the FCC’s loopholes ever since.

Property Developers, Management Companies, Landlords, and Homeowner Associations With Their Hands Out

att connectedWith the FCC’s 2007 declaration that exclusive contracts between cable companies and property owners were “null and void,” the power of the cable industry to negotiate on their terms was markedly diminished. Although many property owners applauded their new-found freedom to tell the local cable company to take a hike if they did not offer better service to their tenants, many others saw dollar signs in their eyes. With leverage now in the hands of the property owner, if the local cable company wanted to stay, in many cases it had to pay. Only the most brazen property owners kicked uncooperative cable companies off their properties, putting tenants at a serious inconvenience. Instead, many found life more peaceful and lucrative to stick with the existing cable company, signing a new contract for “bulk billing” tenants. On the surface, it seemed like a good deal. Property owners advertised that cable TV was included in the rent (and they paid a deeply discounted price per tenant) and the cable operator had a guaranteed number of customers, whether they wanted the service or not.

Bulk billing also proved a very effective deterrent for would-be competitors, who had to overcome the challenge of marketing their service while the tenant was already paying for another as part of their rent. As a result, telco TV competitors often stayed away from properties with bulk billing arrangements.

As broadband has become more prominent and threatens to become more important than the cable TV package, the cable industry has refined its weapons of non-competition. While they cannot force competitors off properties, they can make life very expensive for them. The latest generation of ROE agreements often grant access rights to the building’s telecommunications conduit, cabling, and equipment exclusively to the cable operator.

fiosIf Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS sought to offer service on one of these properties, they would have to overcome the investment insanity of wiring each building with its own infrastructure, including duplicate cables, in separate conduits and spaces not already designated for the exclusive use of the cable company. Verizon in New York City has faced numerous obstacles wiring some buildings, including gaining access to the building itself. Intransigent on site employees, bureaucratic and unresponsive property management companies, and developers have all made life difficult for Verizon’s fiber upgrade.

AT&T often takes the approach “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and offers its own bulk billing incentives, along with occasional commitments for fiber upgrades. Google Fiber can afford to skip places where it isn’t wanted, although with recent revelations that landlords can raise the rent by up to 11% with the arrival of Google Fiber alone, it may hurt to alienate that fiber to the home provider.

Kickbacks for New Developments = Windfall

Kickbacks for existing properties are lucrative, but nothing compared to the lucrative windfall new property developments can achieve with the right deal.

In 2013, one property developer in Maryland went all out for an exclusive deal with a provider that was going to get de facto exclusivity by using a convoluted series of entities and agreements designed to insulate the company from competition and a challenge from the FCC. A court later ruled the provider used an “elaborate game of regulatory subterfuge” using various corporate entities to escape potential competition.

Some lawyers devote a substantial amount of their practice to the issue of bulk contracts and ROE agreements. Carl Kandutsch serves clients nationwide, many trying to extricate themselves from bad deals of the past. In many cases, an attorney may be needed to find a way out of contracts that don’t meet FCC rules. Other communities sometimes have to buy out an existing contract. Many have to sit and suffer the consequences for years. One residential community found itself trapped with a service provider that was quietly protected by an “airtight contract” negotiated not with the property management company or the homeowner association, but the development’s original builder. The provider delivered lousy service and the community spent six years trying to get rid of the offending firm with no result until they hired an attorney. Although happy to be rid of the bad provider, the homeowner association ended up illustrating how pervasive this problem is after it signed a similar contract with another provider also handing out kickbacks.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter's cable bill to the landlord.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter’s cable bill to the landlord. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast is more creative than most. It calls its handouts: “Marketing Support Compensation.” The property owner gets an increasing reward for every tenant signed up for Comcast service. Once around two-thirds of tenants are subscribed, the owner gets up to a 10% take of each bill, plus a one time payment of up to $130 per tenant.

Because Comcast’s reputation often precedes it, customers reluctant to sign up without considering other providers will find that tougher to do because Comcast bans other providers from marketing their services to tenants with the support or cooperation of the landlord. In other words, no door hangers, free coffee, brochures in the lobby, or any other on-site promotions. In case a property owner forgets, Comcast sends reminders in the mail:

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Susan Crawford calls it “astounding, enormous, decentralized payola” and claims it affects millions of renters.

Crawford

Crawford

“These shenanigans will only stop when cities and national leaders require that every building have neutral fiber/wireless facilities that make it easy for residents to switch services when they want to,” Crawford wrote. “We’ve got to take landlords out of the equation — all they’re doing is looking for payments and deals (understandably: they’re addicted to the revenue stream they’ve been getting), and the giant telecom providers in our country are more than happy to pay up. The market is stuck. Residents have little idea these deals are happening. The current way of doing business is great for landlords and ISPs but destructive in every other way.”

One real world example of how this deters competition comes from Webpass (recently acquired by Google), which offers gigabit Ethernet speeds in select MDUs in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, and Boston. The service comes with a low price, but that doesn’t get the company in the door, according to its president, Charles Barr.

Barr has been refused entry by multiple building owners who have agreements with Comcast, AT&T, or others.

“Tenants want us, but we can’t get in,” Barr said.

Crawford argues the FCC has once again been outmaneuvered by ISPs and their attorneys.

“Sure, a landlord can’t enter into an exclusive agreement granting just one ISP the right to provide Internet access service to an MDU, but a landlord can refuse to sign agreements with anyone other than Big Company X, in exchange for payments labeled in any one of a zillion ways,” added Crawford. “Exclusivity by any other name still feels just as abusive.”

This isn’t a new problem. Stop the Cap! first reported on these kinds of bulk buying arrangements back in 2010, all made possible by the FCC’s regulatory loopholes. Six years later, the problem appears to be getting worse.

AT&T’s King of Lobbyists Endorses Hillary Clinton for President

Cicconi

Cicconi

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years, and the deregulation measure supported with ecstasy by many in the telecom industry was signed into law by none other than President Bill Clinton, opening the door to a massive wave of industry deregulation and multi-billion dollar media consolidation.

It therefore comes as no surprise — to some at least — that AT&T’s top lobbyist Jim Cicconi, perhaps rivaled only by Comcast’s David Cohen in power and influence, has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The Wall Street Journal reported Cicconi has joined several other Republican corporate executives signing up for Team Hillary this election cycle.

Cicconi is voting Democratic this year, despite supporting every Republican presidential candidate since President Gerald Ford’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1976. This year is different, he claims.

hillary 2016“I think it’s vital to put our country’s well being ahead of party,” he said in a statement provided by the Clinton campaign. “Hillary Clinton is experienced, qualified, and will make a fine president. The alternative, I fear, would set our nation on a very dark path.”

Comcast’s David Cohen is also well-known for leaning to the left, and has been considered a friend of the Obamas since they took office in 2009. Cohen hosted 120 people in his home for a dinner in 2011 on behalf of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. It was an expensive dinner — each guest contributed at least $10,000.

The alternative, Donald Trump, represents what corporate America and Wall Street hates above all else – unpredictability and uncertainty.

Telecom issues have not made a big splash this year in either campaign, and regardless of who wins, their appointments to regulatory agencies like the FCC can have a major impact on consumer broadband initiatives and public policy. A Clinton administration could result in appointments of “centrist” Democrats that Bill favored during his two terms in office. Many of those former regulators are now lobbyists for the telecom industry. Or Hillary could move closer to Obama’s surprisingly tough pro-consumer policies on broadband issues and keep Thomas Wheeler at the helm of the FCC for a few more years.

attverizonCicconi would be pleased to see someone like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., take a seat at the FCC under a future Clinton Administration instead. Ford has served as an honorary co-chairman of Broadband for America, an industry-sponsored astroturf operation, for most of Obama’s two terms in office. He remains a close friend of both Bill and Hillary and is never far from the public eye, turning up regularly on MSNBC.

Broadband for America supports deregulation, opposes Net Neutrality, and essentially shills for its corporate sponsors. Rep. Ford would likely oppose Net Neutrality and continue support for near-total deregulation.

Verizon has also shown itself to be a Friend of Hillary. Three Verizon vice presidents each donated $2,700 to Hillary for America. They were joined by a senior vice president and another vice president, who gave an additional $1,000, according to Salon. A former Hillary Clinton operative who now lobbies for Verizon donated $2,700 as well, along with another Verizon lobbyist who pitched in $1,000.

While Bernie Sanders joined striking Verizon workers on the picket line, the Clinton campaign was cashing checks worth tens of thousands of dollars from Verizon executives and lobbyists. In May 2013, the telecom company paid Hillary a $225,000 honorarium in return for a speech (the text has not been disclosed) to Verizon executives.

The Clinton Foundation also benefited from Verizon contributions ranging from $100,000-250,000.

Verizon: Forget About FiOS, We’re Moving to a Broadband Wireless World

Who needs FiOS when you can get 5G wireless service with a data plan?

Who needs FiOS when you can get 5G wireless service with a data plan?

Fran Shammo has a message for Verizon customers and investors: fiber optic broadband is so… yesterday. Your millennial kids aren’t interested in gigabit speed, unlimited use Internet in the home. They want to watch most of their content on a smartphone and spend more on usage-capped wireless plans.

Shammo is Verizon’s money man – the chief financial officer and prognosticator of the great Internet future.

Like his boss, CEO Lowell McAdam, Frammo has his feet firmly planted in the direction of Verizon Wireless, the phone company’s top moneymaker. If one ever wondered why Verizon Communications has let FiOS expansion wither on the vine, Mr. McAdam and Mr. Shammo would be the two to speak with.

This week, Shammo doubled down on his pro-wireless rhetoric while attending the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2016 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference — one of many regular gathering spots for Wall Street analysts and investors. He left little doubt about the direction Verizon was headed in.

Shammo

Shammo

“As we look at the world if you will, and we look at our ecosystem, […] the world is moving to a broadband wireless world,” Shammo told the audience. “Now, I am really – when I say world, I am really talking the U.S., right. So, but I do think the world is moving to a wireless world.”

In Shammo’s view, the vast majority of people want to consume content, including entertainment, over a 4G LTE (or future 5G) wireless network on a portable device tied to a data plan. Shammo predicted wireless usage will surpass DSL, cable broadband, and even FiOS consumption in 3-5 years. If he’s right, that means a mountain of money for Verizon and its investors, as consumers will easily have to spend over $100 a month just on a data plan sufficient to cope with Shammo’s predicted usage curve. In fact, your future Verizon Wireless bill will likely rival what you pay for cable television, broadband, and phone service together.

Millennials don’t want fiber, they want wireless data plans

Shammo argued millennials are driving the transition to wireless, claiming they already watch most of their entertainment over smartphones and tablets, not home broadband or linear TV. His view is the rest of us are soon to follow. Shammo claims those under 30 are turning down cable television and disconnecting their home broadband service because they prefer wireless. Others wonder if it is more a matter of being able to afford both. A 2013 survey by Pew data found 84% of households making more than $54,000 have broadband. That number drops to 54% when annual household incomes are lower than $30,000 per year. But those income-challenged millennials don’t always forego Internet access — some rely on their wireless smartphone to access online content instead.

A microcell

A microcell

Verizon Wireless may be banking on the same kind of “hard choice” many made about their landline service. Pay for a landline and a mobile phone, or just keep mobile and disconnect the home phone to save money. Usage growth curves may soon force a choice about increasing your data plan or keeping broadband service at home. Shammo is betting most need Verizon Wireless more.

Verizon FiOS is really about network densification of our 4G LTE network

Shammo continued to frame its FiOS network as “east coast-centric” and almost a piece of nostalgia. The recent decision to expand FiOS in Boston is not based on a renewed belief in the future of fiber, Shammo admitted, it is being done primarily to lay the infrastructure needed to densify Verizon’s existing LTE wireless network in metro Boston to better manage increased wireless usage. Shammo’s spending priorities couldn’t be clearer.

“Obviously, we said, we would build up Boston now, because it makes sense from a LTE perspective,” Shammo said. “We can spend $300 million over the next three years to make that more palatable to expand FIOS. So we will continue to expand that broadband connection via fiber where it makes financial sense for us.”

verizon 5gIn other words, it is much easier to justify capital expenses of $300 million on network expansion to Wall Street if you explain it’s primarily for the high-profit wireless side of the business, not to give customers an alternative to Time Warner Cable or Comcast. FiOS powers cell sites as well as much smaller microcells and short-distance antennas designed to manage usage in high traffic neighborhoods.

Shammo also believes Verizon must not just be a ‘dumb wireless’ connection. Controlling and distributing content is also critically important, and Shammo is still a big believer in Verizon’s ho-hum GO90 platform, which compared to Hulu and Netflix couldn’t draw flies.

Even Verizon CEO McAdam admitted a few weeks ago at another Wall Street conference GO90 was “a little bit overhyped.” Most of GO90’s content library is mostly short video clips targeted at millennials with short attention spans. The downside of making that your target audience is the rumor many who sampled the service early on have already forgotten about it and moved on.

Forget about congested home and on-the-go Wi-Fi and expensive fiber optics. Verizon will sell you 5G wireless (with a data plan) for everywhere.

Shammo believes the future isn’t good for Wi-Fi in the home and on-the-go. As data demands increase, he believes Wi-Fi will become slow and overcongested.

“There is a quality of service with our network that you can’t get with others,” Shammo said. “I mean, most people in this room would realize that when Wi-Fi gets clogged, quality of service goes significantly down. It’s an unmanaged network. You can’t manage that.”

Instead, Verizon will eventually deploy 5G wireless instead of FiOS in many areas without fiber optic service today. Frammo said 5G would cost Verizon a lot less than fiber, “because there is no labor to dig up your front lawn, lay in fiber, or be able to fix something.”

Shammo doesn’t believe 5G wireless will replace 4G LTE wireless, however.

“LTE will be here for a very long time and be the predominant voice, text, data platform for mobile,” Shammo said.

So instead of unlimited fiber optic broadband, Verizon plans to sell home broadband customers something closer to Wi-Fi, except with a data allowance. It’s a return to fixed wireless service.

Verizon Wireless' existing fixed wireless service is heavily usage capped and no cheap.

Verizon Wireless’ existing fixed wireless service is heavily usage capped and not cheap.

Just a few short years ago, Verizon was looking to fixed wireless as a replacement for rural DSL and landline service. Now Shammo sees the economics as favorable to push a similar service on all of its customers, except those already fitted for FiOS. That changes the dynamics on usage as well, because Verizon Wireless ditched unlimited service several years ago except for a dwindling number of customer grandfathered in on its old unlimited plan.

Current 4G LTE fixed wireless customers can expect 5-12Mbps speeds with data plan options of $60 for 10GB, $90 for 20GB, or $120 for 30GB. The 5G service would be substantially faster than Verizon’s current fixed LTE wireless service, but the company’s philosophy favoring data caps for wireless services makes it likely customers will pay much higher prices for service, higher than Verizon charges for FiOS itself.

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