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The Return of the Verizon Wireless Unlimited Data Plan Provokes Wall Street Anxiety

The days of wine and roses from wireless data profits may be at risk, according to some Wall Street analysts, after Verizon Wireless on Monday brought back an unlimited data plan it vowed was dead for good in 2011.

The “Cadillac” wireless network reintroduced unlimited data, phone, and texting this week at prices that vary according to the number of lines on your account:

  • $80 a month for one line
  • $70 a line for two lines
  • $54 a line for three lines
  • $45 a line for four lines

Verizon Wireless last enrolled customers in its old unlimited data plan in 2011, and a dwindling number of customers remain grandfathered on that plan, which began increasing in price last year and has since been restricted to no more than 200GB of “unlimited” usage in a month.

Verizon’s new unlimited data plan is a response to pressure from increasing competition, especially from T-Mobile and Sprint. All of Verizon’s national competitors have unlimited data plans with varying restrictions, and Verizon’s lack of one is likely to have cost it new customer signups last year. The company only managed to add 2.3 million postpaid customers in 2016, down from 4.5 million signed up in 2015.

CEO McAdam swore unlimited data was dead at Verizon

Causing the most irritation is T-Mobile, which near-constantly nips at Verizon’s heels with innovative and disruptive plans designed to challenge Verizon’s business model. BTIG Research analyst Walter Piecyk noted Verizon’s claims it does not need to respond to T-Mobile’s marketing harassment just don’t ring true any longer.

“Verizon has a long history of rebuffing T-Mobile’s competitive moves as non-economic or unlikely to have an impact on the industry for more than a quarter or two, only to later replicate the offer,” Piecyk said. “That was true for phone payment plans, ETF payments for switchers, overage etc. We can now add unlimited to that list. How long will it be until Verizon offers pricing that includes taxes? Despite those delayed competitive responses, T-Mobile has maintained industry leading growth while Verizon’s has declined.”

Piecyk believes Verizon Wireless rushed their unlimited data plan into the marketplace and its introduction seemed not well planned.

“We asked Verizon what has changed to explain such an abrupt reversal, but have yet to receive a response,” Piecyk said. “They had recently been running an advertisement promoting the 5GB rate plan that argued why customers do not need unlimited. The rate plan remains, but it is not clear if the advertisement will. The launch of unlimited seemed rushed, coming a week after the exposure they could have secured with a Super Bowl advertisement. The ad run last night during the Grammy’s did not appear to have taken much to produce.”

Verizon Wireless executives have argued for years customers don’t need unlimited data plans and Verizon would no longer offer one:

  • With unlimited, it’s the physics that breaks it. If you allow unlimited usage, you just run out of gas. — Lowell McAdam, Verizon CEO (September, 2013)
  • At this point, we are not going to entertain unlimited. Promotions come and go. We can’t react to everything in the marketplace.” — Fran Shammo, former Verizon CFO (January, 2016)
  • “I’ve been pretty public saying the unlimited model does not work in an LTE environment. Unlimited is a very short-term game in the LTE market. Eventually unlimited is going to go away because you have to generate cash to reinvest.” — Fran Shammo, former Verizon CFO (March, 2016)
  • Unlimited data plans were “not something we feel the need to do.” — Matthew Ellis, Verizon CFO (January, 2017)

Shammo: Unlimited doesn’t work on LTE networks.

The impact of not having an unlimited data plan appears to have convinced Verizon to change its mind, and that comes as no surprise to Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.

“In three to five years, unlimited plans will come back,” Entner predicted in 2011. He claimed back then wireless carriers were initially unsure how to predict data usage growth on their networks and placing limits on usage gave carriers more predictable upgrade schedules. But after several years of data, Entner said carriers can now better predict the amount of data an average subscriber will use in a month, giving them confidence to remove the caps.

Verizon Wireless’ unlimited plan includes several fine print limitations that provide additional network protection for Verizon and manage any surprise usage:

  • Unlimited use is only provided on Verizon’s 4G LTE network. Limits may apply to customers using older 3G networks, which are less efficient managing traffic;
  • Unlimited not available to Machine-to-Machine Services;
  • Customers with unlimited data plans may find their traffic deprioritized on congested cell sites after 22GB of data consumption during a billing cycle. This speed throttle can reduce network speeds to near-dial up in some circumstances, at least until site congestion eases;
  • Mobile hotspot tethering on this unlimited plan is limited to 10GB per month on Verizon’s 4G LTE network. Additional usage will be provided at 3G speeds. This is designed to discourage customers from using Verizon Wireless as a home broadband replacement;
  • Verizon’s ultimate 200GB monthly limit is also presumably still in place. If you exceed it on Verizon’s legacy unlimited data plan, you were told to shift to a tiered data plan or had your account closed.

Piecyk thinks Verizon’s unlimited data plan may have been rushed out.

Although consumers clamoring for an unlimited data plan from Verizon are happy, Wall Street is not. Analysts are generally opposed to Verizon’s return to unlimited, with many suggesting it is clear evidence the days of high profits and predictable revenue growth are over. That is especially bad news for AT&T and Verizon Wireless, where investors expect predictable and aggressive returns. Verizon has already warned investors it expects revenue and profits to be flat this year.

Jeffrey Kvaal with Instinet believes Verizon’s traditionally robust network coverage is no longer an advantage as competitors catch up and unlimited data is the final nail in the coffin for wireless revenue growth. That means only one thing to Kvaal, AT&T and Verizon must pursue growth outside of the wireless industry. Verizon, in particular, is facing investor expectations it will do something bold in 2017, such as making a large acquisition like a major cable operator.

Evercore ISI’s Vijay Jayant believes unlimited data is bad news for all carriers from the perspective of investors looking for revenue growth.  Jayant told investors in the short term, unlimited data may help Verizon’s revenue because the plans are expensive, but in the long run Verizon is sacrificing the revenue potential of monetizing growing data usage in return for a high-priced, flat rate option. That guarantees “customers won’t see their bills rise, even as their usage does,” Jayant said.

Some analysts point out Verizon’s unlimited data plan is expensive, limiting its potential attractiveness to customers considering jumping to another carrier. While Verizon charges between $80-180 (for one to four devices), AT&T charges between $100-180 for unlimited plan customers, who must also sign up with DirecTV to get an unlimited data plan. T-Mobile charges between $70-160 and Sprint charges between $60-160. The cheapest is T-Mobile, because its plans are all-taxes/fees inclusive. All four carriers have soft limits after which customers may be exposed to a speed throttle. AT&T can temporarily throttle users at 22GB, Sprint can throttle above 23GB and T-Mobile after 28GB.

The Wall Street Journal discusses Verizon’s unlimited data plan and its caveats. (4:55)

MegaMerger: Verizon Approaches Charter Communications About Buyout; Regulators Concerned

Verizon Communications has opened preliminary talks with officials close to Charter Communications about a possible merger of the two companies, concerning regulators worried the massive combined telecommunications company would have a near-monopoly on residential broadband service in New York and western Massachusetts.

The Wall Street Journal reports Verizon is working with advisers to study the potential transaction, and warned there is no guarantee a formal deal will materialize. A merger of Verizon and Charter would combine more than 114 million Verizon Wireless customers, 16 million landline customers, and over 6 million broadband customers with Verizon DSL or FiOS with Charter’s 21 million television, phone and broadband customers. The deal could fetch a price of more than $80 billion, no small amount for Verizon, already $100 billion in debt. An acquisition by Verizon would be a remarkable development for a cable company that became America’s second largest only eight months ago with the acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Preliminary Talks

The newspaper reported Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam has talked with Liberty Broadband CEO Greg Maffei. Liberty has a 25% voting stake in Charter Communications, and Maffei is a close ally of John Malone, Charter’s largest single shareholder. McAdam’s back channel discussions have likely been designed to test Charter’s potential interest in a deal. For Malone and the former owners of Bright House Networks who control another 7% of Charter’s shares, making money appears to be their primary motivation and neither would likely to stand in the way of a deal.

McAdam

The newspaper was less certain about Charter’s CEO Thomas Rutledge. Rutledge is approaching his fifth anniversary as president and CEO of Charter Communications, now greatly enlarged with the combination of Time Warner Cable and Bright House. He spent the last 34 years in lesser roles at Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, and its predecessor American Television and Communications (ATC). Rutledge is reportedly interested in continuing his leadership role at Charter as it seeks to grow even larger, something unlikely to happen if Verizon acquires the cable company and rebrands it as Verizon under their own management. However, Rutledge’s personal interests will likely be secondary to the potential shareholder and executive windfall likely to come from any deal.

A Verizon/Charter Merger Would Establish a Broadband Monopoly in New York and Western Massachusetts

Verizon and Charter are the only significant direct competitors in residential broadband and landline telephone service in western Massachusetts and most of New York State, except a portion of New York City, Long Island and Westchester County (served by Altice’s Cablevision) and Rochester (served by Frontier Communications). A source at the New York Department of Public Service told Stop the Cap! this morning New York regulators would have a tough time approving a merger of this size and scope unless Verizon divested its landline and FiOS network in the state or Charter sold its cable properties in New York. A Verizon divestiture would likely attract Frontier Communications as a buyer, while a Charter sale of New York assets would probably bring bids from companies like Comcast or Altice.

“We would be very concerned about how this would impact broadband service competition and to lesser degree wireline service for New York,” the source, not authorized to speak to the media, told us this morning. “Gov. Cuomo has an ambitious agenda for broadband deployment in rural New York and this deal could also be a problem for the governor’s office. Verizon is perfectly aware of the regulatory challenges such a deal would face in Albany.”

Verizon’s Heavy Dependence on Wireless Was a Mistake

Verizon is under significant pressure to act after Wall Street punished the company for a poor fourth-quarter earnings report that illustrated the days of easy money in the wireless business seem to be over. Verizon suffered the third quarter in a row of sales declines after six years of continuous growth. Analysts point to increasing competition from T-Mobile and Sprint as the single biggest factor for Verizon’s struggles. As Verizon Wireless remained slow to cut prices and remained militant about not giving new and current customers access to unlimited data plans, customers have cut back on services or switched to other providers. Revenue dropped 4.9% in the last quarter and a growing number of Verizon’s most valuable postpaid customers are now leaving — mostly for T-Mobile and Sprint. Wireless churn reached a higher-than-expected 1.1% in the last three months.

Verizon Wireless is also having trouble attracting new customers. Analysts expected Verizon would add 726,000 customers during the last quarter, but only managed to attract 591,000. Wall Street punished Verizon’s latest financial results with a 4.4% slash in the stock price, Verizon’s worst day in more than five years.

Several Wall Street analysts have urged Verizon to diversify its business to reduce its dependency on wireless. In the last three years, Verizon has invested most of its attention and resources on bolstering its wireless network. In 2014, AT&T decided to spread its risk around with significant investments in its U-verse wireline broadband network, an acquisition of satellite-TV provider DirecTV, and its bid to buy content company Time Warner, Inc. In contrast, in 2014 Verizon spent $130 billion buying out its partner’s share of Verizon Wireless. That made UK-based Vodafone cash-rich and left Verizon mired in debt.

So far, Verizon’s diversification efforts have relied on acquiring affordable companies whose best days are long past, including AOL and Yahoo. An effort to entertain Millennials with video clips and other content over its go90 mobile app has largely been a flop, and investments in telematics and machine-to-machine wireless communications are years away from paying off, if they ever do.

Verizon May Want Charter’s Extensive Fiber Backhaul Network

Verizon executives have shown little interest in acquiring assets that rely primarily on linear/live television, which is why the company never moved to counter AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV with an offer for its satellite competitor Dish Networks.

Verizon is very interested in fiber optics — ironic for a company that largely abandoned expanding its FiOS fiber to the home service seven years ago.

Verizon will need a lot of fiber assets to power the 5G wireless networks the company is interested in deploying. This will require a massive network of fiber-connected “small cells” that will deliver wireless services at speeds faster than today’s 4G networks. These small cells will be capable of serving individual neighborhoods or planned communities and could theoretically rely on Charter’s fiber backbone to deliver service. Without access to Charter’s network, Verizon would have to undertake to build out its own fiber network throughout its service areas.

Regulatory Climate Warms for Big Business Mergers

Although President Donald Trump has voiced his opposition to AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, Inc., his appointments to manage the day-to-day affairs of government are strident believers in deregulation and are unlikely to stand in the way of merger deals. The most likely opposition to a Verizon-Charter deal would come from state telecommunications regulators in New York and Massachusetts. On the federal level, significant opposition may be unlikely. Among the Trump appointees that would likely review a Verizon-Charter merger:

  • Joshua Wright is the leading contender to head the Justice Department’s antitrust division. He’s a conservative law professor who believes regulator reviews of corporate mergers should be hands-off to a degree that has failed to withstand court scrutiny. Wright’s approach during his term as a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission was so business-friendly, some joked his middle name should be “Laissez-Faire.” He believes mergers rarely have a bad impact on competition and prices and in fact offer consumer benefits. Courts have blocked mergers he supported and judges have criticized his standards of proof that “had no support in the law.”
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions is Trump’s nominee for Attorney General. While Sessions claimed he had no problem blocking anti-competitive mergers and acquisitions, Wall Street believes the Trump Administration will not stand in the way of a frenzy of mergers. Evercore ISI’s Terry Haines made it clear what is likely to come from a Sessions-led Justice Department: “Sessions’ likely nomination and confirmation by the Senate, in which he has served since 1997, is a market positive for merger and acquisition activity. Sessions as attorney general would shift immediately from the current mostly ‘red light’ Obama antitrust/competition policy and move towards one that would be friendlier to M&A activity.”
  • The Federal Communications Commission would also scrutinize the deal, but under the chairmanship of Ajit Pai and a Republican majority, any significant opposition to the deal seems unlikely. Pai has never opposed any major telecommunications merger deal on principle, although he has fought with former chairman Thomas Wheeler over the terms and conditions the FCC sought to impose in return for the agency’s approval.

Big Red Verizon Really Wants to Own a Cable Company – Charter or Comcast Will Do Nicely

Shhh… Don’t tell anyone except the newspapers, trade journals, everyone else….

Well-placed sources inside Verizon are leaking like a sieve to the media about the phone giant’s ambition to own and operate a large cable company.

In what may be a trial balloon to test the waters with the incoming Trump Administration, at least two “well-placed sources” have told the New York Post Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is seriously contemplating countering AT&T’s buy of DirecTV and its attempted acquisition of content company Time Warner, Inc., with the buyout of a major national cable operator.

Verizon’s primary interest, according to multiple sources, is expanding available content to fill its current and future wireless platforms, especially 5G. Acquiring a cable operator would make content deals easier and more affordable because of volume discounting. It would also allow Verizon to directly sell cable products and services without investing in further FiOS expansion.

The CEO told friends at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas that he “wants to buy into cable.”

The most likely targets would have to be large cable operators with a national footprint, and a source told the tabloid two companies qualified: Charter or Comcast.

“Altice is too small,” the source speculated. That would also count out other medium-sized companies like Cox and Mediacom, because they have too limited a service area to be of much use to Verizon.

No final decision has been made, the newspaper notes, adding no talks are underway between Verizon and any cable company at present. Should Mr. Trump repeat the earlier objections to the AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., merger he made last October, any marriage of Verizon with a cable operator would be unlikely. Trump cited unchecked media consolidation as his primary reason for opposing AT&T’s latest acquisition deal, but he has not repeated those objections recently. Last week Trump met with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in New York.

McAdam originally planned to use Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo! as a way to broaden the phone company’s content library, but that yet-to-be-finished deal has been in turbulence since media reports exposed major security breaches of Yahoo’s e-mail and portal sites.

A deal with Charter is more likely than a buyout of Comcast because Charter’s most significant shareholder – John Malone, has no allegiance to keeping Charter Communications independent. Charter also lacks the kind of complications that an acquisition of Comcast could bring – notably Comcast’s ownership of NBC and its dozen owned-and-operated TV stations.

Malone has a long history of dispassionately buying and selling large telecom assets, including the cable company Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) he helped build from a handful of cable systems into what used to be the nation’s largest cable operator. In 1999, TCI was sold and rebranded as AT&T Broadband and Internet Services. Three years later, most of those cable systems were again sold to their present owner Comcast.

Verizon may argue it has already divested significant amounts of its FiOS service to Frontier Communications in the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, Texas, California, and Florida, limiting antitrust concerns. But state regulators, particularly in New York, are likely to raise serious objections if Verizon, already the dominant telephone company in New York (except Rochester) attempts to acquire Charter, the only significant cable operator in upstate New York and Manhattan. That would leave the vast majority of New York with a classic telecom monopoly, with only one provider for landline and broadband service.

Frozen in Time: Verizon’s Ultra Slow DSL Languishes On in Massachusetts

When the Berkshire Eagle asked readers to test their internet speeds and share the results, along with opinions about their broadband options, the newspaper hit a nerve.

Over 400 readers in western Massachusetts promptly responded, many with scathing stories about slow speeds and unresponsive customer service.

The newspaper preferred to call it “tortured testimony.”

“It is slow and getting slower,” wrote Bob Rosen, from Otis. “Many times it just says, ‘not responding.'”

It” is Verizon’s DSL — broadband for the masses of landline customers in Massachusetts unlucky enough not to have FiOS fiber to the home service available before Verizon decided to stop expanding its copper-replacement fiber network. For the last seven years, Verizon’s DSL has remained more or less “as-is,” with no significant service improvements or apparent expansion effort.

Source: The ConsumeristUnfortunately, as customer demand for bandwidth grows, performance drops unless providers continually invest in new equipment to manage demand appropriately. Customers in western Massachusetts report Verizon seems to be making do with what they already have, and speeds have suffered.

Douglas Mcnally of Windsor, a member of the Select Board and consultant whose job depends on a good internet connection told the newspaper he really doesn’t have a consistently reliable connection. One test showed a speed of 2.82Mbps, but a second one returned a speed result of 0.64Mbps. Barbara Craft-Reiss from Becket has a connection also topping out at 0.64Mbps.

In Dalton, a customer that repeatedly complained about his 1.5Mbps speed was told that was as good as Verizon DSL was going to get.

“I have had several communications with Verizon and they always say not to expect any more,” the reader told the newspaper. “At times it is so slow the web page expires before it comes up. There are many times it does not work at all.”

On August 13th, 2011, The WiredWest Cooperative in western Massachusetts was officially formed by charter member towns. The project has gained some town, lost some others as the region works towards faster broadband instead of waiting around for Verizon, Comcast, and Charter.

Verizon seemed to echo its “done with DSL” attitude to Robert Rosen who has subscribed since the 1990s at his home in the Otis Woodlands area.

“In the beginning, the signal was very strong. Every six months I would call Verizon and see if I could get a stronger signal. Sometimes it was boosted, however in the past several years I have been told by Verizon I am at max strength,” Rosen said.

But at least he could subscribe. Verizon customer service agents have warned some customers if they drop DSL service, they cannot come back. Bob Johnson dropped his 2Mbps Verizon DSL account — the one he inherited under the previous account-holder’s name.

“I was told that if I cancelled the previous owner’s account, I would not be able to get an account at all,” Johnson reported.

A Verizon spokesperson claimed DSL is still available in Verizon’s FiOS-less service areas, as long as the customer’s line passes a loop qualification test. Only ISDN has been decommissioned in certain service areas, the spokesperson claimed.

But Stop the Cap! has heard from countless Verizon customers who share stories of deteriorating performance and disinterest in improving service, and customer service agents won’t even sell DSL to customers without bundling landline phone service.

“They are just letting the old telephone network fall apart piece by piece,” claims John Landis, a Verizon DSL customer outside of Buffalo, N.Y. “The investment is just not clear anymore. When is the last time Verizon introduced a new service on their wired network, such as faster internet speeds? We’re living with a company where time has stopped, unless you are on Verizon Wireless.”

Verizon’s apparent disinterest in selling DSL broadband has proved to be a significant benefit for cable operators that continue to take market share from the phone company. Strategy Analytics reports cable companies added more than three million new subscribers from 2015 on. Cable operators now have a 62% broadband market share, compared to just 15% for DSL, a percentage that has dropped for years. (Fiber broadband now accounts for a 23% share.)

“The telco operators haven’t been able to shake off the losses of DSL subscribers, but we expect to see increased fiber deployments in the coming quarters, which should help AT&T and Verizon return to growth,” Jason Blackwell, director of Strategy Analytics’ Service Provider Strategies Service said last summer. But much of that growth seems to be targeted for urban and suburban areas, not rural areas where DSL is often the only available broadband technology.

Cable broadband is generally not available in rural areas.

Despite telco claims that wireless broadband alternatives will eventually solve the rural broadband problem, Blackwell is skeptical.

“The reality is fixed broadband is continuing to grow in the U.S., and not being replaced by mobile broadband as some have reported,” he claimed. “The cable operators are driving the growth with increased speeds and multiplay bundles.”

The availability of a cable competitor has helped some in western Massachusetts resolve their broadband problems, but only in communities where cable operators exist. Many western Massachusetts residents are still waiting for community-owned gigabit-capable fiber broadband through the WiredWest project.

In late 2015, politics from the governor’s office put a “pause” on all state “last-mile broadband” projects and a sudden policy shift required each town to own its own network infrastructure despite the widely expressed desire on the local level for a regional approach. More than a year later, the project to improve broadband across the western half of the state is still trapped by bureaucratic interference, allowing the state’s big cable and phone companies to continue the status quo with no alternatives on the immediate horizon.

As of late December, the project is gathering support for sending a resolution to state officials reaffirming their request to allow local communities involved in the project to determine their broadband future without onerous requirements from the governor’s office.

Without WiredWest, the future is not good. Unless Verizon changes its mind about broadband deployment in western Massachusetts or cable operators Charter and Comcast spontaneously expand their service areas, readers of the Berkshire Eagle can expect more of what staff writer Larry Parnass summed up in two words: extreme disappointment.

Pennsylvania Could Lose $23M in Broadband Improvement Funding Because Verizon Doesn’t Want It

Come for the scenery but don’t stay for the broadband. (Image: Paul Hamilton)

Verizon’s lack of interest in improving broadband service in rural Pennsylvania could cause the state to lose more than $23 million in available broadband improvement funding.

For several years, Verizon has declined tens of millions from the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF). The program’s ratepayer-funded subsidies are offered to private phone companies to expand rural internet access in high cost service areas where return on investment is slow or uncertain.

In 2016, Verizon was eligible to receive $23.3 million — nearly half of the federal allotment available to Pennsylvania, but Verizon once again turned the money down. Some consumer advocates called Verizon’s decision counter-intuitive in a state like Pennsylvania where a state law requires guaranteed access to broadband to any customer who wants the service.

Instead of accepting the money to improve the company’s poorly rated DSL service, still not widely available in many rural areas, Verizon has consistently shown no interest in improving service or expanding its highly acclaimed FiOS fiber to the home service to more customers in the state.

State officials now fear the millions in available funding will instead be distributed to other states, leaving Verizon customers in Pennsylvania paying ongoing bill surcharges that will be effectively spent on improved broadband in West Virginia, New York, Ohio, and other states.

“Losing all or part of this funding would be unfair to Pennsylvania residents in rural and high-cost areas and contrary to the FCC’s goal of ensuring broadband access for all,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) wrote in a Dec. 22 letter to outgoing FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler.

The state’s Public Utilities Commission claims there isn’t much the state can do if Verizon remains intransigent about accepting Connect America funding and the minimum speed and service obligations that come with the money.

Independent phone companies in the state including Frontier Communications and Windstream could benefit by requesting some or all of Verizon’s share of the money, but only if the companies are willing and able to invest in rural broadband expansion. In most cases, CAF funding requires phone companies to invest matching funds to collect a payout.

Verizon has significantly reduced investment in its landline/wireline networks since suspending FiOS expansion in 2010.

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