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Christmas in August: Calif. Allows AT&T to Fine Itself and Keep the Money

att400California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) couldn’t get cozier with AT&T if they moved regulators into the phone company’s plush executive suites.

In a 3-2 decision, the CPUC has given California phone companies that cannot manage to keep their wireline networks in good order an early Christmas, allowing the companies to effectively fine themselves for bad performance and keep the money.

Although the CPUC adopted a series of “automatic fines” for companies with chronic service problems (AT&T is by far the largest offender), it completely negated any sting by allowing companies to skip the fine by demonstrating they’ve invested at least twice the amount of the penalty in their networks. That is an expense AT&T’s bookkeepers can manage to document in minutes just by highlighting AT&T’s investments in other parts of the state. AT&T can argue investments in gigabit fiber in southern California or wiring fiber to business parks and cell sites improves service reliability for at least some customers.

CPUC president Michael Picker isn’t in any hurry either, helpfully offering AT&T and other phone companies two years to complete the investments that will cancel their fines:

In support of a request to suspend the fine, carriers may propose, in their annual fine filing, to invest no less than twice the amount of their annual fine in a project (s) which improves service quality in a measurable way within 2 years. The proposal must demonstrate that 1) twice the amount of the fine is being spent, 2) the project (s) is an incremental expenditure with supporting financials (e.g. expenditure is in excess of the existing construction budget and/or staffing base), 3) the project (s) is designed to address a service quality deficiency and, 4) upon the project (s) completion, the carrier shall demonstrate the results for the purpose proposed. Carriers are encouraged to review their service quality results to find appropriate target projects to invest funds.

Consumer advocates have accused AT&T of underinvesting in their wireline facilities for years. Because the CPUC does not require the investment be specifically targeted to correcting problems that prompted the fine, phone companies can continue to allow high cost/low profit rural infrastructure to deteriorate while targeting service-improving investments in more profitable or competitive service areas.

Steve Blum from Tellus Venture Associates, who has closely tracked telecom public policy matters in California for years, called it the most cynical decision he’s ever seen from the CPUC:

Fines, it seems, are just another cost of doing business for telecoms companies and don’t matter anyway. So why not let them keep the money?

Boiled down, that’s CPUC president Michael Picker’s rationale for establishing new telephone voice service level requirements backed up by a swinging schedule of penalties and then saying but we’ll let you keep the money if you invest it in infrastructure or pay staff. Or something. Anything.

Picker

Picker

Commissioner Mike Florio called the Picker’s proposal “unenforceable.”

The CPUC’s own staff has documented the troubling condition of landline service in the state. A staff report published in September 2014 showed the largest phone companies in the state — AT&T and Verizon (later sold to Frontier Communications) — that control 88% of landlines in California never met the CPUC’s minimum standard of repairing 90% of “out of service” trouble tickets within 24 hours during 2010-2013.

In 2010 and 2011, AT&T and Verizon needed an average of 110 hours to repair 90% of outages. That is 4.5 days. In 2012 and 2013, repair time marginally improved to an average of 72 hours (3 days). That is three days without any phone service or the ability to call 911, something the CPUC staff said compromised public safety.

AT&T and Verizon have papered the CPUC’s walls with “corrective action reports” over the years explaining why they failed to meet CPUC standards and what actions they planned to take to improve compliance. The staff report found those reports never resulted in improved compliance.

Commissioner Catherine Sandoval submitted an alternative plan of simple fines and a reporting system that gives equal weight to outages occurring in areas served by independent phone companies like Citizens Telecommunications Company of California (d/b/a Frontier) and SureWest Telephone (d/b/a Consolidated Telephone). Picker didn’t bother to hold a vote on Sandoval’s proposal, instead bringing his own proposal to the commission that approved it on a 3-2 voice vote. Florio and Sandoval voted no.

Despite the easy out, the state’s phone companies are still complaining the fine system was unnecessary because the free market was best equipped to manage service outages. If customers don’t like their provider, they can switch, assuming there is another provider available in the large rural and mountainous parts of the state.

AT&T’s Cash Storm for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2017 Telecom Deregulation Agenda

Phillip Dampier August 18, 2016 Issues 1 Comment

fat cat attAT&T has gone over the top donating at least $70,000 to back Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, more than the company has ever donated to anyone else.

It isn’t by coincidence.

According to Communications Daily (subscription req’d), one of Ryan’s top priorities for 2017 is a possible complete rewrite of the Telecommunications Act — the nation’s most important federal law governing telecommunications regulation and the operations of the Federal Communications Commission. Ryan and many of his fellow Republicans have been critical of the FCC’s growing interest in consumer protection and industry oversight.

Ryan’s efforts to push for further deregulation and policies that could lead to further industry consolidation could generate a windfall in the billions for AT&T. Past revisions of the Act have radically transformed the telecom landscape in the United States. President Bill Clinton’s signature on the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the door to a tsunami of cross-media ownership and radio/TV station consolidation. Provisions in the ’96 Act were promoted as bolstering competition, but critics argued consolidation was favored over competition.

Howard Zinn summarized the effects of the ’96 law in his book A People’s History of the United States: “[it] enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information.” Adding to the criticism, Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano echoed: “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.”

In 2000 Consumers Union blasted the ’96 Act as legislative bait and switch.

Ryan

Ryan

“It is evident that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has failed to produce the consumer benefits policy makers promised because competition has failed to take hold across the communications industry,” the group said. “The fundamental problem is that the huge companies that dominate the telephone and cable TV industries prefer mergers and acquisitions to competition.”

AT&T is reportedly interested in access to lawmakers to lobby for telecom reforms that will allow it to switch off its legacy copper wire phone network in rural America, force certain consumers to wireless-only landline service, get rid of Net Neutrality, allow more wireless industry consolidation, ban municipal broadband, have a louder voice on privacy and cybersecurity regulation, access to wireless spectrum, and preferably a de-fanged FCC.

Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman told Communications Daily AT&T’s contributions are a “fundamental way of gaining access and influence to policymakers,” as part of Washington’s “pay-to-play system.”

The only entity giving Ryan more money than AT&T was the deregulation-obsessed Koch Industries, which gave $75,000.

Ryan’s current chief of staff is a close friend to Big Telecom. David Hoppe lobbied for AT&T, USTelecom and Verizon before being hired by Ryan. Hoppe’s influence appears to be significant after Ryan introduced “A Better Way,” the GOP’s platform for what they will do if they keep control of Congress and win the White House. The plan makes it clear there is unhappiness with the FCC under the leadership of chairman Thomas Wheeler, opposition to Title II reclassification of broadband — a change that opened the door to enforcing Net Neutrality, and a belief the FCC lacks transparency and is living in the regulatory past.

Holman worries that lobbyist spending in Washington, already a problem, has become insane after Citizens United eliminated limits on campaign contributions.

“The lids have been blown off… it’s breathtaking,” Holman told the newsletter.

Meet North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis (R-ALEC/Time Warner Cable)

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC's "Legislator of the Year" and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Back when we first became aware of Republican member of the North Carolina legislature Thom Tillis around 2010, he was hard at work building his political future just as Republicans were poised to take control of the state legislature for the first time since the days of Reconstruction. Despite running unopposed in 2010, Tillis raised more money from cable and phone companies than any other lawmaker in the state, depositing $37,000 before knowing he would be the next Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives in January 2011. To celebrate, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 just a few weeks before the swearing-in ceremony. It was money well spent, if you were a cable or phone company doing business in North Carolina.

Tillis left the legislature in 2015 to become the junior U.S. Senator from North Carolina. The telecom industry made sure to keep the campaign contributions flowing, if only to give their thanks for Tillis’ unwavering support for their agenda. Tillis doesn’t care much for his rural constituents still waiting for something better than dial-up internet access and as long as his campaign coffers remain bulging with corporate contributions, he doesn’t think he has much to fear from the state’s voters either. After all, he survived accusations from a resigning House Finance chairman that he had a secret business relationship with Time Warner Cable.

Raleigh’s The News & Observer felt it was their duty to mention Tillis in their editorial pages anyway, taking him to task for “cheering a loss for North Carolina consumers last week after a federal appeals court upheld a cable company protection law that he supported as state House speaker in 2011.”

The newspaper is talking about North Carolina’s infamous anti-public broadband bill that was literally constructed by lobbyists working for Time Warner Cable. The law effectively made it impossible for community broadband providers to bring their much-needed service to adjacent communities that have waited more than a decade for companies like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others to offer internet access in rural and underserved parts of the state.

Tillis personally helped shepherd the corporate protection bill, designed to shield incumbent cable and phone companies from community competition, through the state legislature, supporting it every step of the way. It would become law in 2011 and rural broadband in North Carolina hasn’t gotten any better since. In fact, it’s almost stagnant. But Tillis cannot say the same thing about his campaign bank accounts, which continue to bulge with corporate donations now in excess of $11 million.

An effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the state law failed in a federal appeals court, much to the delight of Thom Tillis, something the newspaper calls an “insult” to North Carolinians looking for a better deal.

“Today’s ruling affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the FCC completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hard-working taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Tillis said in a statement. Cough, cough.

The newspaper’s response:

Translation: Time Warner and other companies, thank goodness, will retain control of the market without having to worry about towns competing with them and thus will be able to charge people whatever the market will bear.

For Tillis to say the court ruling, which should be appealed, is a triumph for taxpayers is preposterous. It’s a setback. The “free market” he backs is one free of competition from municipal broadband services that offer a better product at a lower price.

AT&T’s Top Super Lobbyist Retiring This Fall; But Where Does Jim Cicconi Head Next?

Phillip Dampier August 11, 2016 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
Cicconi

Cicconi

Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s well-known top lobbyist, has announced he intends to retire at the end of September, after 18 years of service to the phone company.

Cicconi’s role at AT&T began as general counsel and the executive vice president of law and government affairs at AT&T. Cicconi assumed his current role at a super-sized AT&T in 2005, after SBC (formerly Southwestern Bell) acquired AT&T and kept its name intact.

Few corporate entities spend as much on campaign contributions and other lobbying-related activities, including a starring role at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), than AT&T.

His replacement will be Bob Quinn, currently the senior vice president of federal regulatory at AT&T Services. Quinn will stay in Washington and report directly to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

att“Jim is one of the best and brightest around when it comes to politics and public policy. He is respected by everyone, regardless of political party or viewpoint, as a big thinker, a master strategist and someone able to bridge divides to get things done,” Stephenson said, in a statement. “I greatly appreciate his leadership, wise counsel and countless contributions to AT&T over the years. He’s a great friend and we’ll miss him. I want to wish Jim and his wife, Trisha, all my best as they begin a new chapter in their lives.”

Where Cicconi heads next is anyone’s guess, but Beltway watchers note Cicconi endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The Wall Street Journal reported Cicconi has joined several other Republican corporate executives signing up for Team Hillary this election cycle. Cicconi is voting Democratic this year, despite supporting every Republican presidential candidate since President Gerald Ford’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Could there be a role for Jim Cicconi in the Hillary Clinton administration? It would not be unprecedented. Cicconi served in the White House as deputy to the chief of staff for President George H. W. Bush for two years, and four years as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

The N.Y. Times Exposes Corporate-Backed Think Tanks

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly "independent" people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly “independent” people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

“Net Neutrality would not improve consumer welfare or protect the public interest,” came the considered view of one Jeffrey A. Eisenach, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2014. “The potential costs of Net Neutrality regulation are both sweeping and severe. It is best understood as an effort by one set of private interests to enrich itself by using the power of the state.”

Mr. Eisenach was introduced on the printed formal agenda as a “visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” If one looked at a transcript of his written testimony, they would find he also co-served as “co-chair of NERA Economic Consulting’s Communications, Media and Internet Practice.” But his views could have effectively represented all the above and more.

The New York Times this week published a two-part article examining the thin lines between public policy scholars, lobbyists, researchers, advocates, corporations, and private citizens. It is an important piece that details the shady world of bought and paid for research, academia, corporate lawyers and lobbyists, and Washington lawmakers that too often accept what they are told without following the money.

On that September day back in 2014 Eisenach wanted his views to be attributed only to him.

Eisenach

Eisenach

“While I am here in my capacity as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the views I express are my own, should not be attributed to A.E.I. or to any of the organizations with which I am affiliated,” Eisenach told the Senate committee.

What was considerably less clear is the name of the client (or an affiliated trade organization) that has underwritten almost every one of a dozen studies he has published on internet-related issues from 2007-2016 — Verizon, the same company that shares his hostile views towards Net Neutrality.

Over the years, it has become difficult to tell whether Eisenach’s views, articles, and study findings are his own, those of his study sponsor, and/or those of his employer. Just tracking Eisenach’s ever-changing employment record was no easy task. In the fall of 2013, Eisenach was the director of the American Enterprise Institute’s new “Center on Media and Internet Policy.” Just a few months later, he joined NERA, one of the country’s oldest economic consultancy firms, as a senior vice president in its telecommunications practice.

From each of these positions, Eisenach can pen the views of some of America’s largest telecommunications companies under the guise of an “independent” study, an invaluable cover tool for a member of Congress confronted with voting on behalf of corporate friends at the cost of consumers in the district.

“A report authored by an academic is going to have more credibility in the eyes of the regulator who is reading it,” Michael J. Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now a special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, told the newspaper. “They are seeking to build credibility where none exists.”

A former Verizon employee who still does some consulting of his told the Times how the game is played.

aei“Let’s say you’re in legal and you want to have a paper that says what you want it to say,” said ex-Verizon economist Dennis Weller. “You could have a bunch of economists in house and ask them if they agree with you. How much easier would it be to go to an outside economist and say, ‘How about if I pay you $100,000 to write this?’”

With appropriate disclosure that a company like Verizon paid $100,000 for a report that exactly matches Verizon’s public policy agenda might raise questions on Capitol Hill as to its veracity and independence. If that disclosure goes missing or is hidden under a third-party like a trade association, a lawmaker might assume the report was produced independently and the strong corroboration of Verizon’s views is just a coincidence. That kind of credibility can be worth millions to any company confronting a debate over regulatory policy.

“[Eisenach] is good at linking big theoretical ideas to policy, and he’s been good at making money doing that,” added Weller. “He’s been good at moving from think tank to think tank and company to company, and I don’t think he’s ever lost money doing it.”

The New York Times investigation found while Eisenach testified before Congress ostensibly as a private citizen, he was also filing formal comments to the FCC as a “scholar” with the American Enterprise Institute, was meeting privately with FCC commissioners, organized public briefings that featured powerful senators like John Thune (R-S.D.), who happens to be the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. That committee also has direct oversight over the FCC and has spent the last three years scrutinizing FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. Eisenach even briefed the two Republican FCC commissioners about what AEI’s general counsel had to say about Wheeler’s efforts to get Net Neutrality in place at the FCC. Eisenach offered both commissioners speaking time at AEI events, urging at least one of them to attack Net Neutrality.

“Net Neutrality is obviously top of mind,” he said in an email to that commissioner, Michael O’Rielly. “I’d be delighted if you would use the opportunity to lay out the case against.”

net_neutralityThe Times reported Eisenach was hardly alone opposing Net Neutrality. Just weeks after becoming chairman, Wheeler received a letter signed by more than a dozen prominent economists and scholars affiliated with various Washington think tanks or academic institutions. They wanted Wheeler to reject Net Neutrality regulations. The letter attempted to distance the signers from any corporate agenda, noting in a footnote that nobody was compensated for their signature on the letter.

On the other hand, of the dozen studies that were included or referenced in their letter as “evidence,” more than half were entirely funded by giant telecom companies that oppose Net Neutrality. Mr. Wheeler would need a magnifying glass and plenty of free time to ferret out the industry funding disclosures in those attached studies, which were buried in footnotes.

When the industry took the FCC to court over broadband regulation or Net Neutrality, it was more of the same. Verizon was successful opposing an earlier FCC rule on Net Neutrality by trotting out almost two dozen studies and declarations that opposed regulatory oversight — more than half sponsored entirely by the telecommunications companies or trade associations that despise Net Neutrality. Many other studies were written by think tanks and scholars that also had direct financial ties to the companies.

Litan

Litan

Another key factor in the debate about Net Neutrality was the cost of implementing it. Again, the incestuous ties between the telecom industry, think tanks, and academia would serve up the “right answers” for Big Telecom’s case against Neutrality when two economists issued a controversial “policy brief” that claimed Net Neutrality would cost $15 billion in new fees and retard broadband expansion and upgrades. (The $15 billion figure came under immediate ridicule by consumer groups that effectively suggested the study authors ‘made it up,’ a case that may have been proven to some degree when the authors suddenly revised it down to $11 billion.)

Robert Litan, then a senior fellow at Brookings and Hal Singer, who used to work at the Progressive Policy Institute, would quickly come under greater scrutiny than Eisenach, probably because their report became central to the industry’s battle against Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) even built an advertising campaign against Net Neutrality around their study. Politicians opposed to Net Neutrality also regularly quoted from Litan and Singer’s findings to explain their strong opposition to the net policy.

Lost in the debate is who paid Mr. Litan and Mr. Singer for their work. Their employer, Economists Inc., yet another inside-the-Beltway consulting firm, didn’t exactly publicize their “select clients” included AT&T and Verizon — two of the largest opponents of Net Neutrality.

Using think tanks to bolster corporate lobbying has become so common, it has attracted the attention of some members of Congress.

Litan collided with one of the Senate’s fiercest consumer advocates and watchdogs — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a September 2015 hearing about a rules change fiercely opposed by investment bankers that would require financial advisers recommending retirement-associated investments to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own personal gain. Warren has championed the cause of ending high bank and investment-related fees that eat away investor returns. Some of the worst offenders convinced financial advisers to recommend their funds by kicking back large bonus commissions, which enriched the adviser and the investment bank but left seniors hit hard by lost potential earnings.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Litan’s research questioned the potential benefits of upping ethical standards. He wrote the costs to the banking and investment community to implement the rules would far outweigh any benefits to investors. Litan casually mentioned his affiliation with Brookings, a think tank, to promote his research’s credibility. He didn’t call attention to the fact his 28-page study was produced for a client: Capital Group — a massive financial services company with $1.39 trillion in assets. It would be directly impacted by the imposition of the new rules, which it strongly opposed.

Capital Group paid Economists, Inc. $85,000 for the study. Litan’s cut of the action was $38,800 — or $1,386 per page.

Warren complained Litan was not exactly forthcoming in disclosing his personal gain and his ties to a major opponent of the new rules under consideration.

“These disclosures are problematic: they raise significant questions about the impartiality of the study and its conclusions, and about why a Brookings-affiliated expert is allowed to use that affiliation to lend credibility to work that is…editorially compromised,” Sen. Warren wrote in a letter to Brookings President Strobe Talbott.

The embarrassment to Brookings, which has increasingly relied on corporate-funded research to fund its work, led to rumors Litan was asked to leave, and he resigned shortly thereafter. Litan downplayed the event, calling it a “minor technical violation” of Brookings’ ethics policy, which prohibits those associated with the think tank from using their affiliation with Brookings in any research report or testimony.

The incident fueled consumer groups’ arguments that cozy arrangements between purportedly independent scholars and academics and corporate entities too often results in bought-and-paid-for- research not worth the paper it is printed on. A clear conflict of interest and the lack of prominent funding disclosures makes such reports suspect at best and worthless in many other cases, because no company paying for a report is going to make it public if it conflicts with their agenda.

Singer

Singer

Remarkably, other economists, many also engaged in producing reports for corporate clients, rushed to the defense of… Mr. Litan, calling his removal from Brookings the result of a witch hunt.

A letter signed by former Clinton economic advisers W. Bowman Cutter and Everett Ehrlich; Harvard University international trade and investment professor Robert Z. Lawrence; former Clinton chief budget economist Joseph Minarik; and former Clinton economic adviser Hal Singer, who co-authored the report that got Litan in hot water with Sen. Warren, claimed as a result of Litan’s forced resignation, critics of their reports could threaten the credibility of their work with an “ad hominem attack on any author who may be associated with an industry or interest whose views are contrary to [Sen. Warren].”

“Businesses sometimes finance policy research much as advocacy groups or other interests do,” the economists wrote. “A reader can question the source of the financing on all sides, but ultimately the quality of the work and the integrity of the author are paramount.”

Singer has since left the Progressive Policy Institute.

D.C.’s revolving door has also provided lucrative work for those out of government jobs and now working in the private sector, often lobbying those still in government.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) had no problem introducing a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece into the Congressional Record written by Robert McDowell, who wears several hats at the Hudson Institute. He’s a “scholar,” a “telecommunications industry lawyer” at a firm retained by AT&T to fight Net Neutrality, and a lobbyist. If his name is familiar to you, that might be because McDowell used to be a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from June 1, 2006 to May 17, 2013. Now he is paid to kill Net Neutrality for AT&T.

None of that seem to faze Walden or raise questions about the credibility of the opinion piece he sought to have added to the official record.

“Everyone’s got their point of view,” Walden said last year. “And some of them get paid to have that point of view.”

AT&T Fined for Letting Drug Dealers/Money Launderers Run Sham Directory Assistance

Phillip Dampier August 8, 2016 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments
phone fraud

…for AT&T’s complacency.

AT&T will pay $7.75 million to the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau and to its customers to settle a phone cramming investigation that revealed the phone company allowed drug dealers and money launderers to offer a scam paid directory assistance service for AT&T’s landline customers.

AT&T allowed the scammers to charge many of its landline customers $9 a month for a directory assistance service investigators called “a sham” from day one. AT&T collected a “billing fee” for each charge and collected another $1.50 in “complaint fees” each time a customer complained about the charge on their phone bill.

It took the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to uncover the scam while investigating two Cleveland-area companies — Discount Directory, Inc. (DDI) and Enhanced Telecommunications Services (ETS) for drug-related crimes and money laundering the proceeds.

In the course of seizing drugs, cars, jewelry, gold, and computers (totaling close to $3.4 million) from the companies’ principals and associates, DEA investigators discovered financial documents related to a scheme to defraud telephone customers. The key participants in the scheme told DEA agents that the companies were set up to bill thousands of consumers (mostly small businesses) for a monthly directory assistance service on their local AT&T landline telephone bills. The DEA referred this investigation to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau in 2015.

AT&T received a fee from the companies for each charge AT&T placed on its customers’ bills. Although DDI and ETS submitted charges for thousands of AT&T customers, they never provided any directory assistance service. Neither DDI, ETS, nor AT&T could show that any of AT&T’s customers agreed to be billed for the sham directory assistance service, but AT&T kept on billing and collecting money from customers anyway, despite their responsibility to ensure the services were legitimate.

“AT&T ignored a number of red flags that the charges were unauthorized, including thousands of charges submitted by the companies for nonexistent, disconnected, or otherwise ‘unbillable’ accounts,” the consent decree stated.

Under the terms of today’s settlement, AT&T will issue full refunds to all current and former consumers charged for the sham directory assistance service since January 2012. These refunds are expected to total $6,800,000. AT&T will also pay a $950,000 fine to the U.S. Treasury. The Enforcement Bureau has also secured strong consumer protections in the settlement that include requirements that AT&T cease billing for nearly all third-party products and services on its wireline bills, adopt processes to obtain express informed consent from customers prior to allowing third-party charges on their phone bills, revise their billing practices to ensure that third-party charges are clearly and conspicuously identified on bills so that customers can see what services they are paying for, and offer a free service for customers to block third-party charges.

Charter, AT&T At War With Google in Louisville Over Pole Access

att poleStall, stall, stall. While Charter Communications and AT&T are working towards improving their broadband service offerings for Kentucky’s largest city, both companies are doing everything possible to slow down the arrival of their nemesis: Google Fiber, which is preparing to wire Louisville for gigabit fiber to the home service.

This past February, Louisville Metro Council unanimously passed a new ordinance called “One Touch Make Ready,” designed to streamline telecom provider access to utility poles, which are getting crowded with at least three telecom companies vying for consumers’ business. The ordinance was passed with the support of Google, which seeks a minimum of red tape from local permit and zoning bureaucracies and its competitors while network engineers begin installing fiber optics across the city. Installing Google Fiber on utility poles may involve moving other providers’ wiring to make room for Google, which in some cases could mean 4-5 different utility companies having to visit each pole to move their wiring. In the past, Google asked the pole owner for access, which has not always been forthcoming on a timely basis. The new ordinance requires the pole owner to respond to access requests within 30 days. If no response is forthcoming, Google can approach the city for a permit to hire a contractor to do all the relocation work on their behalf.

“Such policies reduce cost, disruption, and delay, by allowing the work needed to prepare a utility pole for new fiber to be attached in as little as a single visit—which means more safety for drivers and the neighborhood,” Google wrote on its blog. “This work would be done by a team of contractors the pole owner itself has approved, instead of having multiple crews from multiple companies working on the same pole over weeks or months. One Touch Make Ready facilitates new network deployment by anyone—and that’s why groups representing communities and fiber builders support it, too.”

Louisville, Ky. (Image: Chris Watson)

Louisville, Ky. (Image: Chris Watson)

About two weeks after the ordinance passed, AT&T made it clear they did not support it and took the city to court, claiming it had no right to regulate its utility poles.

“Louisville Metro Council’s recently passed ‘One Touch Make Ready’ Ordinance is invalid, as the city has no jurisdiction under federal or state law to regulate pole attachments,” said AT&T spokesman Joe Burgan. “We have filed an action to challenge the ordinance as unlawful. Google can attach to AT&T’s poles once it enters into AT&T’s standard Commercial Licensing Agreement, as it has in other cities. This lawsuit is not about Google. It’s about the Louisville Metro Council exceeding its authority.”

Time Warner Cable (now Charter Communications) joined AT&T, adding the city is violating the cable company’s corporate constitutional rights by effectively seizing their property (cable lines) and granting a right for third parties to manipulate, move, or manage those lines without Time Warner Cable’s permission.

“The ordinance is simply unworkable,” said Time Warner Cable’s attorney Gardner Gillespie, a partner in the D.C. law firm Sheppard-Mullin. “It does not provide any meaningful way for Time Warner Cable to know what changes have been made to its existing facilities or to assure any damage is promptly cured.”

google fiberGillespie also claimed customers could endure poorer service and outages as a result of unauthorized contractors relocating Time Warner Cable’s equipment, often without the cable company’s knowledge.

City officials dismissed the concerns, but failed to get either lawsuit dismissed.

Charter executives have also opened a new opposition front against Google Fiber’s presence in the city, accusing city officials of unfairly favoring the search engine giant while continuing to burden Charter with a franchise agreement that requires the cable company to provide free cable in city buildings and offer channel space and studio facilities for the city’s Public, Educational, and Government Access channels.

At present, Google is not obligated to provide any of those services and has also won a unique regional franchise that covers the city of Louisville and nearby suburbs in a single agreement. The Metro Council has also granted Google its own public right-of-way access for installing various communications infrastructure. Both AT&T and Charter claim they are only getting involved because they believe they should be given equal treatment. Critics contend they are attempting to slow down Google Fiber, which could begin offering service by fall of 2017.

Time Warner Cable began offering Maxx-upgraded service in March 2016, offering residents up to 300Mbps. AT&T is gradually expanding its U-verse with GigaPower gigabit broadband service in locations around Louisville.

Suddenlink Closing Call Centers, Adds New Paper Billing Fee

Phillip Dampier July 20, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Suddenlink 1 Comment

unemployedAltice’s ongoing efforts to cut expenses and boost profits at Suddenlink will cost an unspecified number of call center workers their jobs in three states and customers will soon pay a fee to receive their cable bill in the mail.

In three separate announcements, Suddenlink has begun notifying employees at three separate offices that many will be out of their jobs by this fall as the company shutters call centers and sales offices in Greenville, N.C., St. Joseph, Mo.,  and Parkersburg, W.V.

“We are migrating call center activities to some of Suddenlink’s larger call centers in the U.S. based on call volume, and where we have the greatest number of business partners,” said a company news release.

All of Suddenlink’s sales jobs will now be in Texas, and that means sales employees in the company’s Parkersburg office were given two choices: move to Texas, or take a different job in the Parkersburg office.

St. Joseph area employees were told their jobs will be relocated to larger call centers elsewhere where Altice has spent money to improve customer care.

“We have invested in advanced customer-care technology in those locations, and based on that believe this new structure will enable us to provide a superior service experience to all of our customers,” said Suddenlink spokeswoman Lisa Anselmo.

SuddenlinkLogo1-630x140This summer Suddenlink is also continuing incremental rate hikes for customers not already subject to them. Parts of North Carolina are the latest to face a new $1 billing fee, which began July 1. New customers already pay the fee, but now current customers will also face the extra charge if they want a paper statement mailed to them.

“This fee covers the handling and postage costs associated with providing a paper statement,” said spokesman Gene Regan, senior director of corporate communications.

Notification of the new fee went out in the company’s May and June billings. To avoid the fee, customers must opt-in to electronic billing by visiting the company’s paperless billing web page and logging in to their Suddenlink account.

“What we are finding is more and more people in recent months have gone to electronic billing. A lot of customers have made the change in recent months,” Regan told The Daily Reflector. “Today so many people are online, more and more people are online, and a lot of people don’t like to deal with paper mail. They like the convenience and the opportunity to use other ways to pay.”

August

August

But many customers would prefer the option of a lower cable TV bill.

In Louisiana, Lake Area residents continue to complain about Suddenlink’s business practices, especially rates, channel options, and equipment fees. City councilwoman Luvertha August told American Press she is inundated with complaints about the cost of cable television in particular.

“All of these comments are from senior citizens. They’re on fixed incomes and they have limited budgets,” August told the newspaper. “They’re concerned with what they deem are constant changes with the Suddenlink cable company.”

Seniors have been confronted with cable TV bills that have soared from $20 two decades ago to over $80 in many cases today. This month Suddenlink completed its all-digital transition in southern Louisiana, which requires customers to attach equipment to every cable-enabled television in the home, at an additional cost.

The Leichtman Research Group, which specializes in research on broadband media and entertainment, found today’s average cable-TV bill is just under $100 after fees, surcharges, and taxes are included. Seniors who have seen no significant increase in their Social Security checks for several years are hard-pressed to pay for channels they don’t want or watch.

Last year, August attempted to involve the state’s legislative delegation to coordinate a message that consumers want more options, including a-la-carte for cable television. Her effort found almost no interest from state and federal lawmakers representing Louisiana, many who receive substantial campaign contributions from telecom companies. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) did respond, but falsely claimed cable television is a state matter and the “federal government had nothing to do with the issue.”

In fact, many members of Congress have asked the FCC to get involved in the issue and others have supported efforts to increase competition and push for mandatory a-la-carte channel choices for consumers. AT&T U-verse has a franchise in southern Louisiana and may offer some consumers a choice, but after AT&T completed its acquisition of DirecTV, many consumers report AT&T is marketing satellite television more aggressively than its own U-verse TV option.

Cable One: Your Price and Customer Service Depend on Your Credit Worthiness

Phillip Dampier June 29, 2016 Cable One, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

no-thanksFirst credit cards were tied to your credit score, then auto insurance, and now how much you pay for cable television and what kind of support you receive from customer service may also depend on your creditworthiness, at least at Cable One.

CEO Thomas Might ignited controversy over his remarks at a recent J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference when he told Wall Street analysts the company was working hard to reduce the “hollow profitability” of its cable TV business. Fierce Cable caught the transcript. One of the biggest reasons to blame for low profits may be Cable One’s deadbeat customers who don’t pay their bills. Starting in 2013, Might ordered a “very rigorous FICI credit scoring process” on all video customers to weed out the good from the bad.

Might suggested Cable One discovered those with low credit scores were among the company’s low value customers, and they deserve much less from the cable company in return.

“We don’t turn people away,” Might said, but the cable company’s technicians aren’t going to “spend 15 minutes setting up an iPhone app” for a customer who has a low FICO score. “What we found is that through lifestyle and billing analysis, we could start to pinpoint where churn and bad debt was coming from, and credit scoring started to be a really good test.”

cable oneCable One has even stopped direct marketing its cable service, even though it was winning nine percent of new customer sign-ups. The customers Cable One attracted were so low quality, Might claims the company didn’t make a penny from the marketing effort.

“It was the worst of the lifetime value segments we had,” Might said.

Cable One’s unwelcome credit challenged customers returned the favor and canceled their service in droves. Although bad debt is down 70 percent under the new credit check policy, Cable One has lost about half of their cable TV customers, most leaving for AT&T U-verse or satellite television.

Might

Might

Might’s intemperate remarks evidently triggered the company’s recent decision to contact the FCC to “clarify” the situation. Chief operating officer Julie Laulis tried to quell any controversy Cable One treats its customers differently based on how they handle their credit.

“Cable One runs a consumer credit pre-qualification, with the applicant’s consent, solely during the new customer sign-up process,” Laulis said. “The pre-qualification results are used to determine the size of the deposit and the installation charge, if any, that would be appropriate for the particular customer to offset the customer to offset the non-payment of bills or the non-return of equipment, as well as any introductory offers the customer may be eligible to receive.”

But once signed up, Laulis admitted the company still treats customers differently based on an internal scoring system it calls Lifetime Value (LTV), which determines what perks and special deals each customer is qualified to receive.

“Importantly, the LTV program has nothing at all to do with the use of credit scores,” Laulis added. “Any Cable One customer can, through a good payment history, achieve the highest LTV level and achieve additional levels of customer service and other benefits. This LTV level is independent of a credit score, and a credit score is not used to determine levels of service or loyalty rewards.”

Laulis claimed “the media” confused Might’s positions on credit scoring inside Cable One, although the cable company never asked for any corrections. Laulis also doesn’t deny the amount of customer service assistance available to customers may still depend on their creditworthiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kickbacks for New Developments = Windfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crawford

Crawford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • James R Curry: It's also worth noting that in Maxx areas, 50/5 is the same price as 15/1 in non-Maxx areas. So without the Charter buy out, you would have eventuall...
  • Ricardo S: The DVR is treated as an umbrella charge. For example: customer wants 4 DVR's so cost would be 4.99 a piece and one 19.99 DVR service fee. Modem cost ...
  • John: My rates went up so I dropped my cable with the intention of signing up for a streaming service. However, dropping cable caused my 50mbs service to g...
  • Phillip Dampier: You missed my point. Many customers prefer a lower price over faster speed. You started with 50/5Mbps. Most TWC customers choose to pay for 15/1Mbps b...
  • Jk: The article is misleading. You compare the price of 15/1 internet to the price of Charter 60? I have 50/5 from a TW non max area, but I'm paying close...
  • Charles Dennett: Regarding the modem, from what I've heard, Charter includes the price of the modem rental in the price of the Internet access. They don't break it ou...
  • Derpson: Interesting, I have only seen 4megabits/sec advertised as the upload speed. They should be forced to show the upload speed in their advertisements, t...
  • Andy: Thought maybe AT&T and Verizon would consolidate all the land lines in the U.S. at one point. With Verizon shedding systems year after year, I gue...
  • Dan: Fun facts: "Maglan" means "ibis" in Hebrew. Ibises probe mud for crustaceans and maggots. FairPoint's operating margins are among the industry's highe...
  • Josh: Why the heck does this need a $50 "activation" or a "service call"? Isn't it just buying a modem that supports it and swapping it out? It was PAAA...
  • DANA: Thanks again comcast for slowing innovation by adding an artifical upload connection cap of 35megabits. Seriously. Enough is enough....
  • Derpson: They know the costs, just let people pay the actual cost plus whatever they need in profit and let people decide on only the channels they care about....

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