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Verizon Cutting Wireline Broadband Investments: Still No FiOS Expansion, Less Money for Wired Networks

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon Communications signaled today it plans further cuts in investments for its wireline network, which includes traditional copper-based telephone service and DSL as well as its fiber-optic network FiOS.

“We will spend more CapEx in the wireless side and we will continue to curtail CapEx on the wireline side,” Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo told investors this morning. “Some of that is because we are getting to the end of our committed build around FiOS.”

Instead of expanding its FiOS fiber to the home network to new areas, Verizon is trying to increase its customer base in areas previously wired. It is less costly to reconnect homes previously wired for FiOS compared with installing fiber where copper wiring still exists.

Verizon continues to lose traditional landline customers, so the company is increasingly dependent on FiOS to boost wired revenue. The fiber network now accounts for 77% of Verizon’s residential wireline revenue.

Wherever FiOS exists, it has taken a significant number of customers away from cable competitors. FiOS Internet has now achieved 41.1% market penetration, with 6.6 million customers, up 544,000 from last year. Of those, the majority want broadband speeds they were not getting from the cable company. At the end of 2014, 59% of FiOS Internet customers subscribe to broadband speeds above 50Mbps, up from 46% at the end of 2013.

Verizon-logoDespite the success of FiOS, Verizon’s senior management continues to devote more attention to its highly profitable Verizon Wireless division, spending an even larger proportion of its total capital investments on wireless services.

In 2014, Verizon spent $17.2 billion on capital expenditures, an increase of 3.5% over 2013. But only $5.8 billion was spent on maintaining and upgrading Verizon’s landline and FiOS networks, down 7.7% over 2013. Verizon Wireless in contrast was given $10.5 billion to spend in 2014. The company is using that money to add network density to its increasingly congested 4G LTE network. In many cities, Verizon Wireless is activating its idle AWS spectrum to share the traffic load and is accelerating deployment of small cell technology and in-building microcells to deal with dense traffic found in a relatively small geographic area — such as in sports stadiums, office buildings, shopping centers, etc.

Verizon Wireless is branding its network expansion “XLTE,” which sounds to the uninitiated like the next generation LTE network. It isn’t. “XLTE” simply refers to areas where expanded LTE bandwidth has been activated. Unfortunately, many Verizon Wireless devices made before 2014 will not benefit, unable to access the extra frequencies XLTE uses.

With Verizon increasing the dividend it pays shareholders, the company is also cutting costs in both its wired and wireless divisions:

  • Verizon Wireless’ 3G data network will see a growing amount of its available spectrum reassigned to 4G data, which is less costly to offer on a per megabyte basis. As Verizon pushes more 4G-capable devices into the market, 3G usage has declined. But the reduced spectrum could lead to speed slowdowns in areas where 3G usage remains constant or does not decline as quickly as Verizon expects;
  • Verizon will push more customers to use “self-service” customer care options instead of walking into a Verizon store or calling customer service;
  • The company will continue to move towards decommissioning its copper wire network, especially in FiOS areas. Existing landline customers are being encouraged to switch to FiOS fiber, even if they have only landline service. Copper maintenance costs are higher than taking care of fiber optic wiring;
  • Verizon has accelerated the closing down of many central switching offices left over from the landline era. As the company sells the buildings and property that used to serve its network, Verizon’s property tax bill decreases;
  • Verizon will continue cutting its employee headcount. Shammo told investors in December, Verizon Communications cut an extra 2,300 employees that took care of its wired networks.

Republicans’ Fake Net Neutrality Alternative Contains Grand Canyon-Sized Loopholes

Thune

Thune

When Sen. John “Net Neutrality is unjustified” Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred “Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem” Upton (R-Mich.) last week magically became Internet activists ready to solve the Net Neutrality issue with an “unambiguous” bill to “protect Americans” from greedy ISPs, you will pardon me if I am just a tad suspicious.

The two Republicans who champion “less government regulation is better” and “let the marketplace decide for itself”-principles are proposing new legislation that will regulate the conduct of Internet Service Providers, claiming it will tie their hands and prevent the launch of Internet fast lanes and ban traffic degradation.

The two legislators are traveling in a fast lane of their own — hurrying to schedule hearings, mark up a bill, and speed it to the floor for consideration by the end of this month. That’s a marked departure for the U.S. Congress-as-usual, the one that can’t manage to pass virtually anything, much less in a hurry. So where is the fire?

It is at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, scheduled to vote on its own new Net Neutrality proposal by the end of February. Thune and Upton are hoping to launch a pre-emptive strike against the anticipated strong Open Internet protections the FCC will probably enact on a party line vote. The FCC is likely to pursue a reclassification of broadband away from the lobbyist-lovin’, largely deregulated “information service” it is today towards a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Communications Act. That represents Comcast’s worst nightmare.

???????????????????????????????Current FCC rules have allowed traffic shenanigans from ISPs like Comcast that don’t mind slowing their customers’ Netflix experience to a crawl until the streaming company opens its checkbook. The FCC’s anticipated new proposal would strictly forbid any creative end-runs around the concept of paid fast lanes Comcast can get away with today.

The proposed Republican alternative suggests a “third way” compromise only Comcast and AT&T could love. While ostensibly banning intentional interference with Internet traffic, the two legislators include a Grand Canyon-sized loophole in the form of one word you could fly an Airbus A380 through: reasonable

SEC. 13. INTERNET OPENNESS.

(a) OBLIGATIONS OF BROADBAND INTERNET ACCESS SERVICE PROVIDERS.—A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged (1) may not block lawful content, applications, or services, subject to reasonable network management; may not prohibit the use of non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management; may not throttle lawful traffic by selectively slowing, speeding, degrading, or enhancing Internet traffic based on source, destination, or content, subject to reasonable network management; may not engage in paid prioritization; and shall publicly disclose accurate and relevant information in plain language regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings, except that a provider is not required to publicly disclose competitively sensitive information or information that could compromise network security or undermine the efficacy of reasonable network management practices.

No ISP has ever declared its own traffic management policies unreasonable, so whatever they do, in their minds, is “reasonable” by definition.

Upton

Upton

The proposed bill would keep Net Neutrality far away from the critical Title II foundation it needs — essential armor that will help withstand inevitable court challenges by providers outraged by the government’s attempt to interfere with their free speech rights (at the expense of their customers’ freedom from content-killing traffic slowdowns).

The concept of “network management” is Play-Doh in Comcast and AT&T’s hands. It could mean balancing traffic by adding more capacity as needed or implementing a “fair access policy” that rations inadequate capacity. Both could easily be called “reasonable” by them. Customers paying for 25Mbps and getting 6Mbps during the evenings may think otherwise.

But no worries, the Republicans’ plan requires ISPs to disclose exactly how they are undercutting the broadband service you paid good money to receive. They claim that will give you an “informed choice,” except for many Americans, there is no choice.

The FCC’s plan is much more likely to stop to the tricks, traps, and traffic manipulation in whatever form arises now or in the future. It uses well-established precedent that is unlikely to be thrown out by the courts, delivers real oversight desperately needed in the monopoly/duopoly broadband marketplace, and will actually protect consumers.

The Republican alternative primarily protects AT&T, Comcast, and their chances of getting more campaign contributions from their friends in the cable and phone business. In short, it isn’t worth your time, and you should tell your member of Congress it isn’t worth theirs either.

AT&T to Federal Trade Commission: Our Speed Throttling is None of Your Business

Image courtesy: cobalt123AT&T has asked a federal judge in California to throw out a lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission over wireless speed throttling, claiming the federal regulator has no authority over how AT&T manages its network.

The FTC filed a lawsuit in October 2014 alleging AT&T was throttling the speeds of its grandfathered “unlimited data” customers by as much as 90 percent and failed to sufficiently disclose the practice in violation of the FTC Act.

Although AT&T discloses its network management policies in broad terms deep within its website, the original complaint charges AT&T failed to directly notify customers identified as the ‘heavy unlimited users’ targeted for wireless speed reductions reportedly as low as 56kbps for up to 30 days or more.

AT&T’s lawyers claim the FTC has no jurisdiction to file the lawsuit because a portion of AT&T’s business — cellular voice service — is defined by the Communications Act as a regulated common carrier service by the Federal Communications Commission. The FTC had argued AT&T’s mobile data services are unregulated and do not fall under the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction.

AT&T’s attorneys argue two apparently contradictory assertions about wireless regulation that both require the court, in AT&T’s view, to dismiss the FTC’s case:

  1. AT&T acknowledges that its mobile data services are not subject to Title II regulatory oversight by the FCC as a common carrier service. Therefore, federal agencies like the FTC have no jurisdiction to interfere in AT&T’s private business decisions on issues like data caps and speed throttling because it is an unregulated service;
  2. AT&T claims the FCC has asserted sweeping authority over wireless services under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Therefore it should be up to the FCC alone (and not the FTC) to decide the fairness of AT&T’s network management practices. But AT&T doesn’t remind the court this is the same authority that large telecom companies sued into impotence by successfully arguing the FCC exceeded its mandate attempting to assert jurisdiction on data services to enforce concepts such as Net Neutrality and attempting to fine Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer network traffic.

ftcAT&T calls the FTC’s claims it can intervene in services not regulated by the FCC “irrelevant,” arguing once one of AT&T’s services is subject to the FCC’s common carrier regulation, all of its services become untouchable by the FTC.

“The FTC lacks jurisdiction to prosecute this action because AT&T is a common carrier subject to the Communications Act and therefore outside the FTC’s authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act. 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2),” argues AT&T. “Indeed, the FTC itself has recognized that, as drafted, the exemption altogether removes common carriers such as AT&T from its jurisdiction and has asked Congress to modify the statute. So far, Congress has refused.”

“But whether AT&T’s network management program is ‘unfair’ and whether its disclosures were ‘inadequate’ are issues for the FCC to decide, and in fact the FCC is in the process of so deciding, just as Congress intended,” AT&T said. “Congress drafted Section 5 to avoid subjecting common carriers like AT&T to precisely this sort of conflicting authority of separate federal agencies over the same conduct.”

Should the FCC find AT&T in violation of its transparency rules, AT&T will have a strong legal case to have that ruling tossed as well on the grounds the agency has no mandate from Congress to regulate mobile data services under Section 706/Title III of the Communications Act — the same case other telecom companies have successfully argued in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Ironically, AT&T’s apparent regulatory loophole will vanish should the FCC order that broadband services of all kinds be reclassified as Title II telecommunications services as part of the ongoing effort to implement strong Net Neutrality policies.

Wall Street Investors Suckered By Broadband, Wireless Myths on Usage Pricing, Network Investment

verizon-protestBig Telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T use phony numbers and perpetuate myths about broadband traffic and network investments that have conned investors out of at least $1 trillion in unnecessary investments and consolidation.

Alexander Goldman, former chief analyst for CTI’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants, is warning Wall Street and investors they are at risk of losing millions more because some of the largest telecom companies in the country are engaged in disseminating bad math and conventional wisdom that relies more on repetition of their talking points than actual facts.

Goldman’s editorial, published by Broadband Breakfast, believes the campaign of misinformation is perpetuated by a media that accepts industry claims without examining the underlying facts and a pervasive echo chamber that delivers credibility only by the number of voices saying then same thing.

Goldman takes Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam to task for an editorial published in 2013 in Verizon’s effort to beat back calls on regulators to oversee the broadband industry and correct some of its anti-competitive behavior.

McAdam claimed the U.S. built a global lead in broadband on investments of $1.2 trillion over 17 years to deploy “next generation broadband networks” because networks were deregulated.

Setting aside the fact the United States is not a broadband leader and continues to be outpaced by Europe and Asia, Goldman called McAdam’s impressive-sounding dollar figures meaningless, considering over the span of that 17 years, the United States progressed from dial-up to fiber broadband. Wired networks have been through a generational change that required infrastructure to be replaced and wireless networks have been through at least two significant generations of change over that time — mandatory investments that would have occurred with or without deregulation.

Over the past 17 years, the industry has gotten more of its numbers wrong than right. An explosion of fiber construction in the late 1990s based on predictions of data tsunamis turned out to be catastrophically wrong. University of Minnesota professor Andrew Odlyzko, the worst enemy of the telecom industry talking point, has been debunking claims of broadband traffic jams and the need to implement usage-based pricing and speed throttling for years. In 1998, when Wall Street was listening intently to forecasts produced by self-interested telecom companies like Worldcom that declared broadband traffic was going to double every 100 days, Odlyzko was telling his then-employer AT&T is was all a lot of nonsense. The broadband traffic emperor had no clothes, and statistics from rival telecom companies suggested Worldcom was telling tall tales. But AT&T executives didn’t listen.

fat cat att“We just have to try harder to match those growth rates and catch up with WorldCom,” AT&T executives told Odlyzko and his colleagues, believing the problem was simply ineffective sales, not real broadband demand. When sales couldn’t generate those traffic numbers and Wall Street analysts began asking why, companies like Global Crossing and Qwest resorted to “hollow swaps” and other dubious tricks to fool analysts, prop up the stock price and executive bonuses, and invent sales.

Nobody bothered to ask for an independent analysis of the traffic boom that wasn’t. Wall Street and investors saw dollars waiting to be made, if only providers had the networks to handle the traffic. This began the fiber boom of the late 1990s, “an orgy of construction” as The Economist called it, all to prepare for a tidal wave of Internet traffic that never arrived.

After companies like Global Crossing and Worldcom failed in the biggest bankruptcies the country had ever seen at the time, Odlyzko believes important lessons were never learned. He blames Worldcom executives for inflating the Internet bubble more than anyone.

A bubble of another kind is forming today in America’s wireless industry, fueled by pernicious predictions of a growing spectrum crisis to anyone in DC willing to listen and hurry up spectrum auctions. Both AT&T and Verizon try to stun investors and politicians with enormous dollar numbers they claim are being spent to hurry upgraded wireless networks ready to handle an onslaught of high bandwidth wireless video. Both Verizon’s McAdam and AT&T’s Randall Stephenson intimidate Washington politicians with subtle threats that any enactment of industry reforms by the FCC or Congress will threaten the next $1.2 trillion in network investments, jobs, and America’s vital telecom infrastructure.

Odlyzko has seen this parade before, and he is not impressed. Streaming video on wireless networks is effectively constrained by miserly usage caps, not network capacity, and to Odlyzko, the more interesting story is Americans are abandoning voice calling for instant messages and texting.

8-4WorldcomCartoonThat isn’t a problem for wireless carriers because texting is where the real money is made. Odlyzko notes that wireless carriers profit an average of $1,000 per megabyte for text messages, usually charged per-message or through subscription plan add ons or as part of a bundle. Cellular voice calling is much less profitable, earning about $1 per megabyte of digitized traffic.

Wireless carriers in the United States, particularly Verizon and AT&T, are immensely profitable and the industry as a whole haven’t invested more than 27% of their yearly revenue on network upgrades in over a decade. In fact, in 2011 carriers invested just 14.9% of their revenue, rising slightly to 16.3 percent in 2012 when companies collectively invested $30 billion on network improvements, but earned $185 billion along the way.

While Verizon preached “spectrum crisis” to the FCC and Congress and claimed it was urgently prioritizing network upgrades, company executives won approval of a plan to pay Vodafone, then a part owner of Verizon Wireless, $130 billion to buy them out. That represents the collective investment of every wireless provider in the country in network upgrades from 2005-2012. Verizon Wireless cannot find the money to upgrade their wireless networks to deliver customers a more generous data allowance (or an unlimited plan), but it had no trouble approving $130 billion to buy out its partner so it could keep future profits to itself.

Odlyzko concludes the obvious: “modern telecom is less about high capital investments and far more a game of territorial control, strategic alliances, services, and marketing, than of building a fixed infrastructure.”

That is why there is no money for Verizon FiOS expansion but there was plenty to pay Vodafone, and its executives who walked away with executive bonuses totaling $89.6 million.

As long as American wireless service remains largely in the hands of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, competition isn’t likely to seriously dent prices or profits. At least investors who are buying Verizon’s debt hope so.

Goldman again called attention to Odlyzko’s latest warning that the industry has its numbers (and priorities) wrong, and the last time Odlyzko had the numbers right and the telecommunications industry got its numbers wrong, telecommunications investors lost $1 trillion in the telecommunications dot.com bust.

As the drumbeat continues for further wireless consolidation and spectrum acquisition, investors have been told high network costs necessitate combining operations to improve efficiency and control expenses. Except the biggest costs faced by wireless carriers like Verizon are to implement strategic consolidation opportunities like the Vodafone deal, not maintain and grow their wireless network. AT&T is putting much of its spending in a proposed acquisition of DirecTV this year as well — at a cost of $48.5 billion. That could buy a lot of new cell towers and a much more consumer-friendly data plan.

Voice to text substitution (US)

year voice minutes billions texts billions
2005 1,495 81
2006 1,798 159
2007 2,119 363
2008 2,203 1,005
2009 2,275 1,563
2010 2,241 2,052
2011 2,296 2,304
2012 2,300 2,190

Cell phone network companies (if you can believe their SEC filings) are incredibly profitable, and are spending relatively little on infrastructure:

year revenues in $ billions capex in $ billions capex/revenues
2004 102.1 27.9 27.3%
2005 113.5 25.2 22.2
2006 125.5 24.4 19.4
2007 138.9 21.1 15.2
2008 148.1 20.2 13.6
2009 152.6 20.4 13.3
2010 159.9 24.9 15.6
2011 169.8 25.3 14.9
2012 185.0 30.1 16.3

Time Warner Cable Recommits: No Mandatory Usage Caps As Long As Company Remains Independent

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable today recommitted itself to providing unlimited broadband service to any customer that wants it, promising customers they won’t be forced into a tiered usage plan as long as Time Warner Cable remains an independent company.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.”

Marcus told Wall Street analysts on an afternoon conference call that the average Time Warner Cable customer now generates 35GB of traffic per month, and that a significant percentage of light users might realize some savings choosing a 30GB optional usage plan. But Marcus also admitted that few do.

marcus

Marcus

“I think that’s a testament to the value they place on unlimited,” said Marcus.

Marcus’ decision to stay away from compulsory usage-capped Internet was questioned by Marci Ryvicker from Wells Fargo Securities, LLC., a Wall Street investment firm. Ryvicker tied the growth of online video consumption to the implementation of usage caps as way of protecting video revenue and regaining money lost from lost cable television subscriptions.

“I guess the underlying question is do you think you can monetize the pipe enough through high-speed data pricing to offset video decline,” asked Ryvicker.

“We haven’t really viewed usage-based pricing quite the way you’re postulating,” responded Marcus. “I think there’s a separate question as to whether or not we have the ability to offset video declines with [broadband]. I think it’s fair to say we’re very bullish on the high-speed data business and think we can continue to grow it based on both subscriber volume and incremental ARPU per [broadband] customer.”

Marcus added that Time Warner can continue to boost revenue by raising broadband prices and encouraging customers to upgrade to faster speed tiers at a higher price.

Comcast has a very different philosophy about usage caps — it embraces them. Comcast continues to test mandatory usage caps in several markets, leading to howls of complaints from customers and bill shock. One customer complained their cable bill frightens them every time they receive it, not knowing how much Comcast would charge them for that month of service. The family’s last cable bill, including Internet, exceeded $560, primarily due to Comcast’s overlimit usage fees. Comcast has also received complaints about its usage meter’s accuracy, but the company adamantly bills customers according to the readings of their meter.

“I’ll tell you what really isn’t fair,” wrote one customer. “That is that in ‘test markets’ like mine, Atlanta, we have the 300GB [cap] enforced with the penalty overage charge and we pay the SAME rates as people in other markets that aren’t yet one of the ‘test markets.’

Most analysts expect Comcast will eventually roll out usage caps to all of its customers, including any it acquires from Time Warner Cable. Customers cannot choose an unlimited use option in Comcast’s usage cap test markets.

Federal Trade Commission Suing AT&T Over Unfair Speed Throttles for Unlimited Data Customers

throttleThe Federal Trade Commission today filed a lawsuit against AT&T for its practice of subjecting grandfathered unlimited data customers to speed throttles that dramatically cut speeds up to 90 percent after customers use more than 3GB of data on AT&T’s 3G network or 5GB on its 4G network. Thus far, according to the FTC, AT&T has throttled at least 3.5 million unique customers a total of more than 25 million times.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the company failed to adequately disclose to its customers on unlimited data plans that, if they reach a certain amount of data use in a given billing cycle, AT&T reduces – or “throttles” – their data speeds to the point that many common mobile phone applications – like web browsing, GPS navigation and watching streaming video –  become difficult or nearly impossible to use.

“AT&T promised its customers ‘unlimited’ data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited.”

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler publicly complained about Verizon’s plans to start a similar throttling program on its wireless network, questioning the fairness of cutting speeds for certain customers while exempting others. Both Verizon and AT&T have claimed speed throttles are part of a fair usage policy that allows all customers to share its wireless resources. Broadband providers have often painted a picture of a “bandwidth hog” taking a disproportionate share of network resources away from other customers, but there is no evidence heavier users are creating conflicts for other users, especially as wireless carriers encourage customers to use more data.

throttle att

From AT&Ts website

The logic of rationing Internet use for unlimited customers while providing unlimited access to those willing to pay usage-based charges escaped the FTC, which is what brought the suit.

According to the FTC’s complaint, AT&T’s marketing materials emphasized the “unlimited” amount of data that would be available to consumers who signed up for its unlimited plans. The complaint alleges that, even as unlimited plan consumers renewed their contracts, the company still failed to inform them of the throttling program. When customers canceled their contracts after being throttled, AT&T charged those customers early termination fees, which typically amount to hundreds of dollars.

The FTC alleges that AT&T, despite its unequivocal promises of unlimited data, began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period. According to the complaint, the throttling program has been severe, often resulting in speed reductions of 80 to 90 percent for affected users.

According to the FTC’s complaint, consumers in AT&T focus groups strongly objected to the idea of a throttling program and felt “unlimited should mean unlimited.” AT&T documents also showed that the company received thousands of complaints about the slow data speeds under the throttling program. Some consumers quoted the definition of the word “unlimited,” while others called AT&T’s throttling program a “bait and switch.” Many consumers also complained about the effect the throttling program had on their ability to use GPS navigation, watch streaming videos, listen to streaming music and browse the web.

The complaint charges that AT&T violated the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers’ unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans.

FTC staff worked closely on this matter with the staff of the Federal Communications Commission.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint was 5-0. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.

FCC Delays Wireless Spectrum Auction; Hires Investment Banker to Pitch Stations to Sell and Sign-Off

fcc2The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday it will postpone an important spectrum auction until 2016 after broadcasters filed suit against the regulator challenging its proposed format.

The FCC wants your free, over-the-air television dial to be a lot smaller with a deal that will pay broadcasters to sign-off their channels for good to benefit the wireless industry. Remaining stations will be moved to VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-30. The spectrum covering UHF channels 31-51 would likely then be sold in pieces to major wireless carriers including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and/or T-Mobile.

To entice broadcasters to voluntarily switch off their transmitters, the FCC has designed a spectrum auction that would provide tens of millions in proceeds to smaller stations and up to $570 million for a UHF station in Los Angeles to get off the air. Technically, stations giving up their channels don’t have to sign-off — they can move to low/lower-powered broadcasting, share channel space with another television station on a digital subchannel, or move to cable television exclusively.

To sell stations on the deal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hired Greenhill, a Wall Street investment bank, to prepare a presentation sent to every eligible television station in the country, encouraging them to sell their channels for some eye-popping proceeds:

(These numbers refer to full-power stations; in some markets there are also Class A stations, low-power stations that meet certain programming requirements. The estimated value of their spectrum is lower.)

In millions of dollars
MARKET Full-Power Stations
Maximum Median
New York $490 $410
Los Angeles $570 $340
Chicago $130 $120
Philadelphia $400 $230
Dallas-Fort Worth $67 $53
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose $140 $110
Boston $140 $93
Washington, D.C. $140 $130
Atlanta $91 $65
Houston $52 $45
West Palm Beach $100 $93
Providence, R.I. $160 $110
Flint, Mich. $100 $45
Burlington, Vt. $58 $17
Youngstown, Ohio $95 $90
Palm Springs, Calif. $180 $100
Wilkes-Barre-Scranton $150 $140

Source: The FCC

 

getoffThere is so much money to be made buying and selling the public airwaves — at least twice as much as broadcasters originally anticipated– spectrum speculators have also jumped on board, snapping up low power television station construction permits and existing stations with hopes of selling them off the air in return for millions in compensation. Wireless customers are effectively footing the bill for the auction as wireless companies bid for the additional spectrum. Television stations will receive 85% of the proceeds, the FCC will keep 15%.

take the moneyMajor network-affiliated or owned stations in major cities are unlikely to take the deal. But in medium and smaller-sized markets where conglomerates own and operate most television stations, there is a greater chance some will be closed down, moved to a lower channel, or transferred to a digital sub-channel of a co-owned-and-operated station in the same city. The most  likely targets for shutdown will be independent, CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates. In smaller cities, multiple network affiliates owned by one company could be combined, relinquishing one or more channels in return for tens of millions in cash compensation.

In Los Angeles, the stakes are especially high with auction prices estimated at up to $570 million for a high-powered UHF station like KDOC-TV.

“There is some real money to be had,” Bert Ellis, chief executive of Ellis Communications, which owns KDOC-TV, told the Wall Street Journal. “I think every broadcaster should take a very close look at this.”

Estimates show at least 80 significant U.S. cities will likely lose one or more channels, especially when the bid price well exceeds the value of an independent, ethnic or religious station. Many of these will go dark, move to cable or a less desirable lower power VHF channel, or sign an agreement with a remaining station to carry its programming on a sub-channel.

The National Association of Broadcasters filed suit against the FCC’s auction in August. The NAB wants the FCC to guarantee that stations that wish to stay on the air will not have their coverage area reduced or forced to pay to move to a new channel number assigned by the FCC as the regulator “repacks” a much smaller UHF band.

“We’ve said from day one, if stations want to volunteer to go out of business, that’s their prerogative. But for those stations that choose to remain in business, they should be held harmless,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

The spectrum auction is designed to address the wireless industry’s claim of a spectrum crisis, warning that if more frequencies are not found, wireless users will eventually see their service degraded.

Half of AT&T’s Customers Are Paying $100 for 10GB Data; Unlimited Customers Still Throttled After 3-5GB

Speed bump

Speed bump

More than half of AT&T’s wireless customers are paying at least $100 a month for 10GB or more of wireless data on AT&T’s Mobile Share Plans at the same time AT&T continues to throttle its legacy unlimited data customers who use more than 3GB of data on its 3G network or 5GB of data on its 4G LTE network.

AT&T claimed in 2012 it implemented its “fair usage policy” for unlimited customers to assure all could receive reasonable service during peak usage times when cell towers become congested.

AT&T also blames “a serious wireless spectrum crunch” for the speed throttling, implying access to more spectrum could help ease the problem. But there is a much faster way to overcome AT&T’s “spectrum crunch:” agree to pay them more money by ditching that $30 unlimited plan for a tiered plan.

John Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, told investors Wednesday that nothing boosts revenue more than pushing customers into usage-cappped data plans that customers are regularly forced to upgrade.

“On the ARPU (average revenue per user/customer) story, I think the biggest issue with the improvement is people buying the bigger [data] buckets and buying – upping plans,” said Stephens. “We had over 50% of the customer base at the 10GB or bigger plans.”

Stephens added that AT&T benefited from customers upgrading to 4G LTE devices that are handled more efficiently by AT&T’s mobile data network.

Increased usage and upgraded data plans delivered a 20% increase in data billings over the last quarter.

Since 2012 AT&T has paid out more than $50 billion to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks. The company benefited from nearly $20 billion a year in free cash flow and asset sales over the last two years and is expected to repeat those numbers this year. Consolidated revenue at AT&T grew to $33 billion, up $800 million since the same time last year.

Miraculously, despite the “alarming spectrum crunch,” AT&T found more than enough spectrum to award its best customers with a “double data” promotion that turns a 15GB data plan into a 30GB plan, a 20GB plan to 40GB, a 30GB plan to 60GB, a 40GB plan to 80GB, or a 50GB plan to 100GB. Importantly, AT&T boasts its double data promotion won’t “explode” — their language for “expire” — on customers until their contract ends.

Lowering the bar on "unlimited use" customers.

Lowering the bar on “unlimited use” customers.

“Those exploding offers — customers hate those offers,” said AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega at a recent investor conference. “Unless they change their mind, we won’t offer those kinds of promotions.”

But de la Vega doesn’t mind leaving the company’s most loyal legacy customers in the penalty box if they cling to their grandfathered unlimited data plans. The throttles stay and the allowances have remained unchanged since first announced, despite the bountiful spectrum obviously ready and available to serve AT&T’s deluxe customers. Unlimited customers are regularly reminded they can easily avoid the throttle — just abandon that unlimited data plan. According to Stephens, more than 80% of AT&T’s customers already have.

The excuses for wireless speed throttles and killing off unlimited data plans at AT&T and Verizon Wireless don’t seem to wash with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who demanded Verizon offer the “rationale for treating customers differently based on the type of data plan to which they subscribe, rather than network architecture or technological factors,” after it announced it was planning speed throttles for its remaining unlimited data plan customers. Verizon canceled the plan after Wheeler began scrutinizing it, but the throttles are still in place at AT&T.

AT&T’s 10GB Mobile Share Plan starts with a $100 data plan. Customers also pay:

  • $10 a month for each auto-based smart-locator;
  • $10 a month for each tablet, camera or game device;
  • $15 a month for each basic phone;
  • $20 a month for each wireless home phone replacement;
  • $20 a month for each connected Internet device;
  • $40 a month for each connected smartphone.

A family of four with four smartphones, a tablet, and AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement would be billed $290 a month before at least $39 in taxes, fees, and surcharges — well north of $300 a month for most.

Marriott’s Scheme to Force Guests to Use $1,000 Hotel Hotspots Derailed by FCC; Fined $600K

Marriott's Gaylord Opryland Resort made sure it had a corner on the Wi-Fi market by blocking the competition and charging $250-1,000 to win access to the hotel's Wi-Fi.

Marriott’s Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville made sure it had a corner on the Wi-Fi market by blocking the competition and charging $250-1,000 to gain access to the hotel’s Wi-Fi.

Marriott International, Inc. and its subsidiary, Marriott Hotel Services, Inc., have been fined $600,000 after a Federal Communications Commission investigation uncovered hotel employees intentionally interfering with personal Wi-Fi networks during convention events, forcing guests and exhibitors to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi network, at a cost of up to $1,000.

The FCC Enforcement Bureau, in response to a guest’s complaint that the hotel was intentionally jamming every Wi-Fi network except their own, discovered hotel workers were using a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville to prevent visitors from using their personal mobile broadband hotspots, a serious violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act.

Employees of Marriott, which has managed the day-to-day operations of the Gaylord Opryland since 2012, were tasked with using features of the hotel’s Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to contain and/or de-authenticate guest-created Wi-Fi hotspot access points in the conference facilities. In some cases, employees sent de-authentication packets to the targeted access points, which would dissociate consumers’ devices from their own Wi-Fi hotspots and lock out the devices to keep them from connecting in the future.

Guests and exhibitors arriving expecting to use their AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile mobile hotspots found them completely disabled while on the property. Even adjacent Wi-Fi networks from nearby properties stopped working the moment users entered or approached the hotel grounds.

At the same time the hotel was blocking connections, Marriott charged conference exhibitors and guests dependent on Wi-Fi to run their exhibits or manage business matters connection fees ranging from $250-$1,000 per device for access to the Gaylord’s Wi-Fi network, the only network available.

“Consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center,” said Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc. “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network. This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”

Marriott claimed they were just protecting their guests from cyber attacks and the FCC’s decision to fine the hotel has created confusion across the hospitality industry.

marriott-logo“Marriott has a strong interest in ensuring that when our guests use our Wi-Fi service, they will be protected from rogue wireless hot spots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft,” Marriott said in a statement. “Like many other institutions and companies in a wide variety of industries, including hospitals and universities, the Gaylord Opryland protected its Wi-Fi network by using FCC-authorized equipment provided by well-known, reputable manufacturers. We believe that the Opryland’s actions were lawful. We will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rule making in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today’s action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”

Several hotel chains have turned to Internet connectivity as a revenue generator, but few hotels have asked as much as Marriott. Some hotel chains charge as much as $22 per day for permission to connect to the facility’s Wi-Fi network, convincing many guests to use their own personal mobile devices as Wi-Fi hotspots instead. But Marriott’s debacle with the FCC allowed several chains to get an edge on the competition and trumpet they are not in the Wi-Fi jamming business:

  • Hilton Hotels:  “We do not block or jam any wireless transmissions at our properties;”
  • Kempinski and Hyatt Hotels: There are no policies that allow our hotels to jam, block or prevent guests’ use of personal Wi-Fi hotspots;
  • InterContinental Hotels Group (Candlewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Even, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Indigo, Hualuxe, InterContinental and Staybridge Suites) has no problem with guests using personal networks on hotel property, but why bother when any guest can enroll in the IHG Rewards Club at no charge which gives them free unlimited access to the chain’s Wi-Fi;
  • The majority of Wyndham’s hotels are independently owned and operated, but most already offer complimentary Wi-Fi to guests, according to a hotel spokesperson.

Marriott was convinced it was not in violation of the law because it was not using an illegal signal jammer, commonly available overseas and often used in restaurants and theaters to silence cell phones. Marriott’s guests could still make and receive phone calls and text messages. But the Enforcement Bureau found that argument uncompelling after discovering hotel employees intentionally targeting any non-hotel hotspots they could locate to disconnect or block consumers from using them.

The $600,000 fine, the first of its kind for an incident of this kind, won’t mean much to the Marriott Gaylord Opryland. For staying at one of the hotel’s 3,000 rooms, Marriott charges $18 a day in “resort fees” for the “free Internet access,” $6.99 a day for enhanced Internet speed “suitable for downloading files, video chat and video streaming,” and $21-28 a day to park your car there.

But the FCC enforcement action has put a stop to this kind of access blockade spreading further. Under the terms of Marriott’s agreement with the FCC announced today, Marriott must cease the unlawful use of Wi-Fi blocking technology and take significant steps to improve how it monitors and uses its Wi-Fi technology at the Gaylord Opryland. Marriott must institute a compliance plan and file compliance and usage reports with the Bureau every three months for three years, including information documenting any use of access point containment features at any U.S. property that Marriott manages or owns.

Verizon Wireless Cancels Its LTE 4G “Network Optimization” (Speed Throttling) Plan Before It Launches

throttleVerizon Wireless, facing scrutiny from FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, today announced it has canceled plans to introduce a new “network optimization” policy that would have significantly throttled down speeds for heavy users still on grandfathered, unlimited use data plans.

Stop the Cap! received a statement from Verizon Wireless this afternoon announcing a sudden change of heart:

Verizon is committed to providing its customers with an unparalleled mobile network experience.  At a time of ever-increasing mobile broadband data usage, we not only take pride in the way we manage our network resources, but also take seriously our responsibility to deliver exceptional mobile service to every customer.  We’ve greatly valued the ongoing dialogue over the past several months concerning network optimization and we’ve decided not to move forward with the planned implementation of network optimization for 4G LTE customers on unlimited plans.  Exceptional network service will always be our priority and we remain committed to working closely with industry stakeholders to manage broadband issues so that American consumers get the world-class mobile service they expect and value.

Chairman Wheeler questioned Verizon’s strategy almost immediately after the company announced its “network optimization” strategy in July.

Wheeler

Wheeler

“‘Reasonable network management’ concerns the technical management of your network; it is not a loophole designed to enhance your revenue streams,” Wheeler wrote in a July 30 letter to Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead. “It is disturbing to me that Verizon Wireless would base its ‘network management’ on distinctions among its customers’ data plans, rather than on network architecture or technology.”

Wheeler reminded Mead the FCC defined network management practices to be reasonable “if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service.”

Wheeler told Mead Verizon’s plans didn’t qualify.

“I know of no past FCC statement that would treat as ‘reasonable network management’ a decision to slow traffic to a user who has paid, after all, for ‘unlimited” service,'” Wheeler wrote.

everybody does itWheeler also questioned how Verizon could justify its planned speed throttling under the conditions it agreed to after winning the 700MHz “C Block.” That spectrum was accompanied by a special FCC mandate – open platform rules which prohibits Verizon Wireless from denying, limiting, or restricting the ability of end users to download and use applications of their choosing on the C Block networks. A speed throttle would make using some applications impossible.

In August, Wheeler hammered home his opposition to Verizon’s plans at a news conference.

“My concern in this instance–and it’s not just with Verizon, by the way, we’ve written to all the carriers–is that [network management] is moving from a technology and engineering issue to a business issue, such as choosing between different subscribers based on your economic relationship with them.”

Wheeler has expressed irritation that Verizon’s justification for congestion management only applied to its unlimited customers, while those paying on a per-gigabyte basis could use (and spend) as much as they like.

Verizon responded that other providers — notably AT&T — already have a similar network management policy in place, throttling speeds of grandfathered unlimited customers who consume more than 3GB of wireless traffic on its 3G network or 5GB on its 4G network a month.

“‘All the kids do it’ was never something that worked with me when I was growing up and didn’t work with my kids,” Wheeler responded, noting Verizon was trying to reframe the issue instead of justifying the need for speed throttles for some customers, while giving others unlimited access as long as they pay.

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