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Windstream Teaches AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Others How to Avoid Federal Income Taxes

A gift from the American taxpayer, willing to make up the difference.

Another corporate tax cut

Wall Street rallied around big telecommunications company stocks this week as news spread that Windstream has found a way to avoid paying federal income tax by converting its copper and fiber networks and other property assets into a tax-exempt trust.

Windstream says it has already won Internal Revenue Service approval to convert all of its network assets into a publicly traded “real estate investment trust.” REIT’s pay no federal income taxes, and if other large telecom companies follow Windstream’s lead, taxpayers will have to make up the estimated $12 billion in lost tax revenue annually.

Investors are excited by the prospect of a major reduction in tax exposure for some of America’s richest telecommunications companies. Windstream was rewarded the most with a 12 percent boost in its share price – a two-year high for the largely rural phone company. But AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Cablevision also saw stock prices rising over the possibility of major increases in dividend payouts to shareholders from the proceeds of the tax savings.

REIT conversions are just the latest trick in the book corporations have used to cut, if not eliminate most of their tax liabilities. REITs are exempt from federal taxes as long as they distribute 90 percent of taxable earnings back to shareholders. Democrats in Congress have been busy fighting their Republican colleagues offer efforts to drop the practice of inversion — allowing companies to cut taxes by relocating offshore. Robert Williams, an independent corporate tax consultant, told Bloomberg News the Democrats have their hands full with that this year and are unlikely to be able to also devote resources to closing the REIT tax loophole.

“Management teams will surely look closely at emulating Windstream because the tax savings are potentially so significant,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC, in a note. “For a company like AT&T, where free cash flow has been under pressure and management has been willing to push hard to save on taxes, the appeal must surely be great.”

staxIf a high-profile phone or cable company moves to enact an REIT, that might be enough to provoke Congress to act, warned Moffett.

“The biggest hurdle in this process is getting the private letter ruling from the IRS, and we’ve got that,” David Avery, a spokesman for Windstream, told Bloomberg. The deal doesn’t need the consent of the Federal Communications Commission, Avery added.

Windstream’s tax savings will cut company debt by around $3.2 billion and produce about $115 million annually in free cash flow. Although Windstream chief financial officer Tony Thomas vaguely promised to use some of the money to invest in broadband upgrades, he was more specific about the benefits Windstream’s REIT will have on the company’s growth agenda. It can use the savings to “acquire other network assets to grow,” — business jargon meaning more merger and acquisition deals, this time fueled by Windstream’s slashed tax bill.

Wall Street investment banks paid to advise on Windstream’s REIT conversion are promoting the concept to other telecom companies as easy to replicate and profoundly profitable. But who should share in the new found wealth?

“People are asking the question if these tax benefits should be passed on to the end user — you and I when we pay our phone or cable bill — versus going to the corporation,” said Phil Owens, vice president at Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm in Newport Beach, California, that has counseled companies like Equinix on REIT conversions.

Don’t count on it.

Windstream Pays $600,000 to Settle False Broadband Speed Claims in Georgia

Phillip Dampier February 26, 2014 Video, Windstream 2 Comments
Windstream delivers turtle slow Internet speeds to customers paying for fast connections.

Windstream delivers turtle slow Internet speeds to customers paying for fast connections.

Windstream broadband customers in Georgia were not imagining their turtle-slow DSL Internet speeds after all. After a year-long investigation, the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection (GOCP) this week announced a $600,000 settlement with the rural telephone company over claims it was ripping off customers by falsely advertising broadband speeds it was in no position to deliver.

“This is essentially a truth in advertising case,” says John Sours, administrator of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection.  “What consumers thought they were getting from a major company was significantly different from what they allegedly received. People need to be able to make informed choices about buying the services they need to communicate and do business. We are confident that this settlement will ensure that will now occur here.”

A GOCP investigation found substantial evidence Windstream routinely advertised and sold certain Internet speeds to customers it should have known it could not provide and/or guarantee, especially over its deteriorating copper landline network. Customers complained they should have been sold cheaper broadband packages with Internet speeds Windstream could actually deliver.

windstreamlogoCustomers who called to complain about the poor performance of their connection received empty promises from Windstream representatives that misrepresented the time frame within which broadband speeds would improve. In some cases, customers were not told their speed issues would likely never be resolved. In rural Georgia communities, DSL broadband is often the only available option.

The GOCP also found that some of Windstream’s “Lifetime Price Guarantee bundle” advertisements falsely implied that the advertised offer included high-speed Internet packages with speeds of “up to 12 Mbps”.

Windstream was also criticized for advertising a free 6-month “Hulu Plus” subscription but did not clearly disclose that consumers who failed to cancel the subscription at or before the 6-month period would be charged membership fees every month afterwards, until the membership was cancelled.

To resolve these allegations, Windstream will pay a total of $600,000, which includes a $175,000 civil penalty, $175,000 in administrative fees and expenses, and $250,000 in cy pres restitution to be used to buy new computer equipment for the Technical College System of Georgia. Customers will receive no compensation from the settlement, but Stop the Cap! strongly recommends that affected customers insist on compensation by appealing directly to Windstream for service credits and/or a penalty-free exit from any service commitments.

gocp“Windstream … has cooperated fully throughout the inquiry by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection,” wrote a company spokesperson in a statement. “Windstream is pleased to resolve this inquiry by entering an assurance of voluntary compliance with all applicable advertising laws. That agreement includes no finding or admission of violation by the company.”

Windstream has represented to the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection that it is in the process of investing about $14 million to upgrade its fiber-supported areas in Georgia.  The company says that 90% or more of these upgrades were completed by the end of 2013, with the remaining upgrades slated for completion by mid-2014. The company expects the upgrades to address systemic download speed issues in the areas undergoing the upgrades. It is also seeking federal funding as well as exploring other options for upgrading the Internet service for consumers who are served by network equipment supported by copper-fed wires.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WGCL Atlanta Windstream Settles False Advertising Suit 2-25-14.mp4

WGCL in Atlanta reports Windstream has agreed to settle charges they falsely advertised broadband speeds customers could never receive. The state gets $600,000, customers get nothing. (1:56)

Major Outage in Southeast, Turkey Buzzard Poo in Nebraska Challenging Windstream

Phillip Dampier April 29, 2013 Consumer News, Rural Broadband, Windstream 1 Comment


While tens of thousands of customers in the southeastern United States might describe the quality of Windstream service as something to avoid stepping in, turkey buzzards are generating plenty of the real thing in Nebraska, creating two major headaches for the independent telecom company.

As of this afternoon, at least 30,000 Windstream customers in the southeast U.S. cannot make or receive long distance or toll-free calls without encountering a fast busy signal or an intercept recording. In case callers forget what a regular busy signal sounds like, one can be heard by dialing Windstream’s national customer support number, which is overwhelmed with complaint calls from annoyed customers.

“Windstream’s network operations and engineering teams are working a widespread outage affecting long-distance and toll-free call processing,” Windstream customer support acknowledged this afternoon. “This has also affected inbound calling to our support centers. An estimated time for restoral is not known.”

That is not good enough for Windstream customer Megan Short. Anyone calling her business number is likely to hear a Windstream recording telling callers: “The number you have reached is not in service, disconnected, or has been changed.”

“I am trying to run a business here, and this issue needs to be resolved ASAP,” she wrote on the company’s Facebook page. “This is your job, you know. You have ONE JOB.”

Other customers are complaining the outage is affecting local calls as well.

Veterinary Ophthalmology Services near Nashville is having a very quiet Monday with “few calls in or out, so it can’t be just long distance numbers. The majority of our clients are local.”

The employees of Don Meyler Inspections had plenty of free time to inspect the morning newspaper, afternoon lunch, and their frustration level, because the phones simply are not ringing in south Florida either.

“We’re severely impacted for inbound calls and outbound is sporadic,” the company writes on DownDetector.com. “It is the worst outage we’ve had in six years.”

Those tenacious enough to wait for customer support are not exactly getting total customer satisfaction:

“The big kicker was being on hold with the online chat for over an hour only to inform me there was ‘a high call volume’ and then the chat session ended,” said Chad Spaulding in Louisville, Ky. “You can’t even reach the corporate office for support. This is the fourth outage in our area in two months.”

With outages like this, some might thing the buzzards would be circling, and in Beatrice, Neb. they literally are, according to the Omaha Herald-World, fouling Windstream-provisioned Verizon Wireless cell towers where the federally protected birds favor building their nests.

Windstream’s John Dageford presented the company’s solution to the annual poo-problem from the birds: shoot them.

Dageford thinks if someone kills a handful of the large birds, the rest will flee in terror.

The Beatrice council reserved its decision on how to proceed for now, although a number of Windstream customers affected by today’s outage may not.

Special Report: Georgia’s ‘Men From A.L.E.C.': Who Do Your Legislators Really Represent?

alec exposedThe corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) took a hit in the Georgia legislature last week as the clock ran out on several initiatives backed by its members and supporters on behalf of the group’s corporate clients.

While H.B. 282, a municipal broadband ban introduced by Rep. Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming) was soundly defeated in an unusual, bipartisan 94-70 vote, two other measures supported by Hamilton never came up for votes, including one that would have placed restrictions on city employees speaking out against corporate-ghostwritten bills like the public broadband ban he introduced.

Hamilton is no stranger at ALEC. He received $3,527.80 in ALEC “scholarships” in 2008 alone, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Those payments covered certain travel expenses, wining and dining, and entertainment for state lawmakers (and often their families) bought and paid for by ALEC’s corporate members which include large telecom companies. After 2008, ALEC no longer had to disclose their scholarships and neither do many politicians who receive them.

In the last cycle, Hamilton cashed checks well into the thousands of dollars from AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast and Verizon. That doesn’t include $1,000 from the Georgia Cable TV Association.

special reportRep. Don Parsons, another bill supporter, happens to be an active member of the ALEC Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force. He has received $5,735.48 during his first three years in that role.

ALEC’s principle role is to get corporate-backed legislative ideas written into state laws. The group maintains a large database of pre-approved legislation ready-made for introduction in any statehouse. Simply change a few words here and there and suddenly it isn’t AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable or Comcast introducing the bills they helped draft, it is Reps. Hamilton and Parsons.

In 2013, these two representatives went over the top for their corporate friends at ALEC.

Mark Hamilton’s H.B. 228: The “Keep Your Mouth Shut Else or Else” Act



Among the most overreaching bills introduced in the 2013 session was Rep. Hamilton’s H.B. 228 – an untitled bill that would prohibit local government employees from using government computers, fax machines or email to promote or oppose legislation by the General Assembly. It would also prohibit employees from contacting members of the General Assembly or the governor to discuss the impact of pending legislation on local governments, unless the employee is registered as a lobbyist or information is requested directly by a member of the General Assembly.

The greatest wish-come-true of ALEC is introducing legislation supported by unshackled corporate interests while muzzling local governments from objecting to the legislation.

In the community broadband battle, large cable and phone companies have limitless budgets to spend opposing public broadband with scare mailers, push polling, newspaper, radio and even television ads. Local officials fighting to defend their interests in better broadband do not. Hamilton’s bill would have taken this imbalance even further, making it a crime for any agencies, authorities, bureaus, departments, offices, and commissions of the state or any political subdivision of the state to provide members of the General Assembly with information about their broadband problems. Communities could not correct misinformation, explain a bill’s unintended consequences, or request changes to the bill.

“HB 228 is utterly ridiculous,” said Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas. “When did a local government, contacting one of our representatives or our governor, become professional lobbying? It’s respective governments conducting business for or on behalf of our citizens.”

Don Parsons’ H.B. 176: AT&T’s “Put Your Cell Tower Wherever You Want” Act

Rep. Parsons had trouble coming up with a good name for his latest legislative gift to AT&T. Originally entitled the “Advanced Broadband Colocation Act,” that title was eventually scrapped because it was not snappy enough. In its place, the “Mobile Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development (BILD) Act” was suddenly born.



But after reading both it and a substitute amendment, we call it the “Put It Anywhere Act,” because the bill’s real intent is to largely strip away cell tower location authority from Georgia’s local governments.

Parsons does not host an AT&T cell tower in his backyard in Marietta, but other Georgian homeowners might had the bill passed.

H.B. 176 allowed cell towers to be placed anywhere a wireless company wanted with very limited local input. Companies were under no obligation to prove that the new towers were needed. Local governments could no longer veto their choices, much less limit additions to existing towers or suggest more suitable alternative locations.  Parsons’ bill even removed authority from local governments to insist that companies remove abandoned towers before constructing new ones.

Parsons went all-out for AT&T. Knowing that resource-strapped local governments often have bigger priorities, he set a deadline on cell tower applications at 90 days for existing towers, five months for new ones. Unless the community rejects a proposal showing good cause, it would be deemed automatically approved.

Amy Henderson, director of communications for the Georgia Municipal Association, scoffed at claims the bill was designed to streamline the cell tower application process.

“Dictatorship is just streamlined government,” she told the Rockdale Citizen. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the best interest of the public.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Youtube -- Rep Parsons on HB176 3-2-13.flv

Rep. Parsons’ rambling YouTube video featuring a laundry list of AT&T talking points about the need for cell companies to throw up cell towers wherever they please because it is good for business (even if it isn’t so good for you or your neighbors). Parsons’ video then launches into a hissyfit directed at the Georgia Municipal Association, unhappy with Parsons’ sweeping transfer of authority away from local communities in favor of AT&T and others. Al Gore never sighed this much. It garnered a whopping 41 views on YouTube to date and in the spirit of open dialogue, Parsons disabled comments on the video.  (17 minutes)

Private vs. Public: A Phone-y Debate

handoutAt the heart of most of ALEC’s legislative initiatives is a sense that public institutions are somehow hampering private enterprise. Community broadband is considered an especially dangerous threat because incumbent providers claim public broadband represents unfair competition.

But as ALEC itself demonstrates, corporate welfare is alive and well in the statehouses of even the reddest states. The idea that taxpayers should not be footing the bill for things the private sector can do without costing taxpayers a nickel just doesn’t fly with reality.

As Free Press reports, phone and cable companies have been on federal welfare since their inception. A 2011 Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy study shows AT&T and Verizon receiving more than $26 billion in tax subsidies from 2008–2010.

The FCC’s 2012 report on Universal Service Fund subsidies shows nearly $3 billion in federal payments to AT&T, Verizon and Windstream. In 2010, Windstream — a telecommunications company with services across the South — applied for $238 million in federal stimulus grants to improve its service in 16 states. More than 16 million taxpayer dollars went to upgrade the company’s services in Georgia.

“Phone and cable companies would not be recording the soaring profit margins that they do, if there were truly a free market,’” said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner. “They have created an unlevel playing field that gives them massive first-mover advantages. The real-dollar benefits of that can’t be quantified.”

Windstream Exposed: Provider Under Investigation in Georgia for Ripping Off Broadband Customers

windstreamWindstream Communications is under investigation by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection because of allegations the company is advertising broadband speeds and performance the company simply cannot deliver its customers in Georgia.

A Windstream employee in a company retail office in Dawsonville told an undercover CBS Atlanta photographer that the company can offer Internet speeds up to 24Mbps. He guaranteed service no slower than 6 to 12Mbps. But Mark Creekmore, who lives in Dawsonville, reports his speeds sometimes barely reach 1Mbps during the afternoons.

Duane Hartness, a Windstream customer, says Windstream has oversubscribed their service by continuing to sell broadband on a network that is overcrowded as-is, which slows speeds for every customer.

“Every customer they add to their oversubscribed DSLAM increases their revenue while further degrading your bandwidth,” Hartness said. “Lacking competition, they can ignore any and all complaints.”

Creekmore wants every Windstream customer in Georgia that is dissatisfied with their broadband service to file complaints with the state agency.

“The more complaints, the more likely the Office of Consumer Protection is to take action,” Creekmore said. “Please make sure to include that you are not getting what you are paying for and any other personal detail that would help them understand what you have gone through. If you have had multiple communications with Windstream, please include those details as well. In short, the more detail the better.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WGCL Atlanta Windstream Exposed for Not Providing Speeds Promised 3-7-13.mp4

WGCL — CBS Atlanta reports there are new developments in Georgia regarding Windstream: It is under investigation by the governor’s office for misleading subscribers with broadband speeds the company cannot actually deliver.  (3 minutes)

The FCC finds Windstream is the worst of the worst DSL providers, only giving customers advertised speeds 81 percent of the time.

The FCC finds Windstream is the worst of the worst among DSL providers, only giving customers advertised speeds 81 percent of the time. AT&T, Georgia’s largest phone company, doesn’t do much better.

Windstream is the worst-performing DSL provider in the country according to the Federal Communications Commission, with just 81 percent of customers getting the broadband speeds marketed.

After complaints about the company helped derail H.B. 282 — a bill Windstream heavily lobbied for that would have eliminated possible competition from community-owned providers — Windstream representatives quickly began promising upgrades.

“We’re asking our customers to be patient with us because we’re on it. We understand that they have issues and we’re working to upgrade their network,” Bettye Willis, a regional vice president at Windstream, told the CBS station in Atlanta.

Willis added Windstream was committed to solving its Internet speed problems, but not for everyone.

The company released this map showing planned service upgrades for "two-thirds of the communities it serves" in Georgia. But the company warned not everyone would receive improved service. For the remaining one-third, "take it or leave it" broadband service will continue.

The company released this map showing planned service upgrades for “two-thirds of the communities it serves” in Georgia. But the company warned not everyone would receive improved service. For the remaining one-third, “take it or leave it” broadband service will continue.

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