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Comcast Backs Off Charging Customers Double for Gigabit Speed in Chicago

comcast gigabitTo be a Google Fiber city or not to be a Google Fiber city. It could make a big difference to your wallet if Comcast upgrades broadband speeds in your neighborhood before Google Fiber finally arrives in your “fiberhood.”

When Comcast first announced a major trial of DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit broadband service in Chicago, it confirmed it would cost $139.95 a month — double the price Comcast charges customers in cities where Google Fiber has expressed an interest in providing gigabit service as well. With Chicago nowhere on the Google Fiber upgrade list, it seemed Comcast was prepared to prove the point that competition can really make a difference in broadband pricing, at least until stories appeared headlining Comcast’s pricing policies. Within hours, Comcast “clarified” it was prepared to sell gigabit service in Chicago for $70 a month as well, with a three-year contract.

“We are now able to deliver gigabit speeds over the existing lines that already reach millions of homes in the Chicago area,” Comcast spokesman Jack Segal told the Chicago Tribune. “This is a major step in the evolution of high-speed broadband.”

This is not Comcast bringing a new fiber line to your home or business. This is gigabit download speed over Comcast’s current cable/fiber network — the same one that delivers your current broadband service. DOCSIS 3.1 allows Comcast to bond additional channels together to boost speeds, at least on the downstream side. This technology will not deliver gigabit speed in both directions, at least for now. Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit plan delivers 1,000Mbps download speed, but just 35Mbps upstream. Customers looking for something faster can pay dramatically more for Comcast’s Gigabit Pro fiber to the home service, offering 2,000Mbps speeds. But it will cost up to $1,000 to install and is priced at $300 a month with a two-year contract.

Comcast’s 1TB usage cap (with up to $200 in overlimit fees) will apply to Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 plans, unless you opt for unlimited service… for another $50 a month. Comcast gracefully includes unlimited with its Gigabit Pro service.

gigabit comcast

Chicago residents can sign up for either gigabit plan at www.xfinity.com/gig. A $50 installation fee applies and a service call is required. Customers signing up will need a new cable modem that supports DOCSIS 3.1, and there are only a handful on the market so far. Many more will be available in 2017.

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.

N.Y. Governor Announces “Sweeping Progress” Towards Broadband-for-All-NY’ers Goal

broadband nyGovernor Andrew M. Cuomo yesterday announced that the “New NY Broadband Program” is well on its way to achieving “sweeping progress toward achieving its nation-leading goal of broadband for all” New Yorkers.

The governor claimed that 97% of New York residents will have access to high-speed internet access by 2017, with a vague goal of serving 100% of New Yorkers by the end of 2018.

To do this, Gov. Cuomo relies heavily on the state’s new and overwhelmingly dominant cable operator – Charter Communications, which closed on its acquisition of Time Warner Cable earlier this summer. A press release promoting the governor’s efforts quotes Charter’s executive vice president of government affairs Catherine Bohigia as being excited to work with the governor and his administration to expand service to about 145,000 households currently not served by Time Warner Cable or Charter in New York.

Charter officials are working with the Public Service Commission to identify the households to be served, and highly redacted documents suggest Charter is identifying new housing developments and areas immediately next to existing Charter/Time Warner Cable service areas for this expansion.

A second separate plan to subsidize private cable and phone companies to help cover the costs of reaching another 34,000 homes that won’t be served by Charter is only expected to reach 50% of the remaining unserved homes and businesses in the state. A further round of funding will target the the remainder of unserved areas, including certain rural landline areas where Verizon has shown no interest in offering customers internet access of any kind.

Charter Communications

Charter Communications has effectively canceled the Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades that were either underway, in progress, or in the planning stage in upstate New York. Instead, Charter plans to speed up the roll-out its own originally proposed upgrade, which includes two tiers: 60 and 100Mbps, for more than two million upstate homes and businesses by early 2017 in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton and Albany.

Customers in Central New York are likely to be left in limbo, some already getting Maxx upgraded 300Mbps internet access while others were scheduled to get the speed upgrade the same week Charter froze further Maxx upgrades. Those customers are now likely to receive a maximum of 100Mbps service sometime next year under Charter’s new plan.

Charter is also negotiating with state officials about where it will deploy broadband to 145,000 currently unserved homes in upstate New York over the next four years.

State-funded Rural Broadband Awards – Round I

New York State will help subsidize broadband rollouts to approximately 34,000 homes and businesses currently not served (or not served adequately) in rural areas. All but two of these projects will rely on fiber to the home service and each will offer service to a few thousand people:

Applicant Namesort descending Technology REDC Region Census Blocks Housing Units Total Units State Grant Total Private Match Total Project Cost
Armstrong Telecommunications, Inc. FTTH Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, Western NY 176 1,135 1,162 $3,930,189 $982,549 $4,912,738
Armstrong Telephone Company FTTH Southern Tier, Western NY 74 466 504 $1,778,256 $444,564 $2,222,820
Citizens Telephone Company of Hammond, N.Y., Inc. FTTH North Country 146 1,789 1,860 $3,316,810 $829,202 $4,146,012
Empire Access FTTH Southern Tier 124 719 724 $1,797,894 $449,474 $2,247,368
Empire Access FTTH Southern Tier 117 1,202 1,268 $1,598,480 $399,620 $1,998,100
Frontier Communications FTTH Southern Tier 1 62 65 $67,592 $16,899 $84,491
Frontier Communications FTTH North Country 3 188 216 $129,634 $32,409 $162,043
Frontier Communications FTTH Southern Tier 12 129 142 $197,104 $49,276 $246,380
Frontier Communications FTTH Capital Region 23 391 394 $318,304 $79,576 $397,880
Frontier Communications FTTH Mohawk Valley 30 402 405 $924,663 $231,166 $1,155,829
Frontier Communications FTTH North Country 105 1,928 2,096 $1,702,246 $425,562 $2,127,808
Germantown Telephone Company FTTH Capital Region 208 2,195 2,334 $2,512,562 $628,140 $3,140,702
Haefele TV Inc. FTTH Southern Tier 413 3,029 3,238 $271,568 $67,892 $339,460
Hancock Telephone Company FTTH Southern Tier 136 1,505 1,675 $4,915,920 $1,228,981 $6,144,901
Heart of the Catskills Communications Hybrid-Fiber Coax Southern Tier 216 2,836 3,177 $1,224,946 $524,977 $1,749,923
Margaretville Telephone Company FTTH Mid-Hudson, Southern Tier 209 1,882 2,002 $4,791,505 $2,053,503 $6,845,008
Mid-Hudson Data Corp Fixed Wireless Capital Region 60 647 663 $950,184 $237,546 $1,187,730
Mid-Hudson Data Corp FTTH Capital Region 6 354 362 $59,155 $14,789 $73,944
State Telephone Company, Inc. FTTH Capital Region 231 3,801 4,134 $5,805,600 $1,451,400 $7,257,000
State Telephone Company, Inc. FTTH Capital Region 101 516 595 $2,914,960 $728,740 $3,643,700
TDS Telecom FTTH Southern Tier 156 2,369 2,423 $1,895,390 $1,895,390 $3,790,780
TDS Telecom FTTH North Country 74 506 543 $1,084,000 $1,084,000 $2,168,000
TDS Telecom FTTH Central NY, Finger Lakes 106 996 1,038 $1,424,793 $1,424,793 $2,849,586
TDS Telecom FTTH Southern Tier 395 3,528 3,551 $4,989,570 $4,989,570 $9,979,140
The Middleburgh Telephone Company FTTH Capital Region, Mohawk Valley 250 1,596 1,651 $5,562,548 $1,390,637 $6,953,185
Federally Funded Rural Broadband Awards – Round II

After Verizon abdicated any interest in participating in rural broadband expansion funding through the FCC’s Connect America Fund, New York’s Broadband Program Office (BPO) and the Public Service Commission urged the FCC to keep the original funding intended for rural New York intact and open to other applicants seeking to build rural broadband projects. The FCC has not fully committed to do this, but it is an agenda item. Assuming this funding becomes available, it will be used to help pay for independent broadband providers or rural cable operators to begin delivering broadband service into still unserved parts of New York not included in the Charter expansion or Round I projects noted above. Many Verizon territories are expected to be included.

Applicants will have to provide at least 100Mbps service in most places or a minimum of 25Mbps in the most remote corners of New York. The application form discourages applicants from delivering broadband over DSL or wireless and clearly favors fiber to the home or cable broadband technology. Price controls will be in place for the first few years to assure affordability and those winning funding are strictly prohibited from introducing usage caps or usage-billing.

A vaguely defined “third phase” is scheduled to launch early next year to offer internet access to all remaining unaddressed service areas. Nobody mentions where the money is coming from to cover the last 1-3% of unserved areas, which are likely to be notoriously expensive to reach.

Gov. Cuomo explains progress on his New York Broadband for All program. (26:31)

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

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

Seidenberg

Seidenberg

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

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

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

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

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion rises from the dead?

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

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

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

McAdam

McAdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charter Ready to Introduce HD and Internet Access on Berkshire Cable Systems… in 2016

lanesboroughIt is hard to imagine there are still cable systems serving customers with nothing more than a slim lineup of standard definition cable television channels in 2016, but not if you live in three Berkshire towns over the New York-Massachusetts border where Charter Communications will finally introduce HD television and internet service starting next week.

Lanesborough, West Stockbridge, and Hinsdale all suffer from the pervasive lack of broadband common across western Massachusetts. But these communities, along with Charter’s cable system in nearby Chatham, N.Y., are benefiting from regulator-mandated upgrades as a condition of approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Charter Communications has almost no presence in New York, except for 14,000 customers in Plattsburgh and the seriously antiquated system in Chatham that isn’t too far from the dilapidated systems serving the Berkshires on the Massachusetts side of the border. Like in Chatham, customers in the Berkshires pay for service similar to what cable customers received in the 1980s – no video on demand, no internet access, and a capacity-strained system that lacks enough bandwidth to offer HD channels.

The upgrades will cost about $6,000 per customer — numbering 2,500 in Chatham and another 800 in the three towns in Massachusetts. Charter is paying the bill. Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable will make things easier for the cable operator, because it will extend fiber connections between the Charter systems and existing Time Warner Cable infrastructure nearby.

In Massachusetts, Charter’s upgrades require customers to install new set-top boxes in time for the switchover on Aug. 2. A week later, on Aug. 9, internet access will be available at the two speeds Charter traditionally offers — 60 and 100Mbps.

Most customers care a lot less about improved cable television and are more concerned about getting broadband. Western Massachusetts’ broadband problems have affected property values and kept businesses from relocating or expanding in the area. Few areas in the northeast have languished with inadequate internet access more than Massachusetts communities west of Springfield.

The large consortium of 44 communities working under WiredWest have spent years working towards community-owned fiber to the home service in the western half of the state, but the project ran into political interference at the state government level. Lanesborough had been part of the WiredWest collaborative effort, reports iBerkshires. With Charter’s upgrade, the community may decide to drop out of the project, even though it would likely deliver superior broadband service over what Charter will offer.

Stop the Cap! to N.Y. Public Service Commission: Time Warner Cable Stalls Upgrades

stc

June 16, 2016

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

Today, we confirmed that Charter Communications has ordered an indefinite suspension of the Time Warner Cable Maxx broadband upgrade program pending a review that seems to carry no specific timeline for completion.[1]

We are deeply concerned about the implications of this decision, particularly as Time Warner Cable has been performing broadband upgrades this spring and summer in the Hudson Valley[2] and Syracuse/Central New York[3] regions that deliver important speed upgrades to customers in New York State. We have good information that Rochester was the next city scheduled for these upgrades, followed by Buffalo. These upgrades would have provided customers with up to 300Mbps broadband service as soon as late this year across a significant section of upstate New York, with the western New York/Buffalo region upgraded in 2017.

It is clear the only reason these upgrades have been suspended relates to the recent ownership change of Time Warner Cable, approved by the N.Y. Public Service Commission.

As you know, Stop the Cap! argued our concerns about approving the merger transaction between Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, in part because Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program offered more compelling broadband upgrades, at a lower price, and introduced faster than Charter’s own offer.[4]

The alarming development of an indefinite nationwide suspension of the Maxx upgrade program has profound implications on large sections of upstate New York waiting for urgently needed broadband speed upgrades. The announcement also suggests large sections of New York will be waiting much longer to reach speed parity with cities, mostly downstate, that already enjoy up to 300Mbps service on an upgraded, less trouble-prone network.

Once again, New Yorkers are being divided into those with reasonably fast speeds, and those without. Should Charter adopt the slowest possible upgrade schedule permitted by the Commission, several upstate cities will be waiting until the end of 2018 – almost two years, to receive 100Mbps broadband.[5] I’d remind the Commission other major cable companies are offering residential customers speeds up to 2Gbps today[6], and many already offer tiers that well exceed Charter’s promised maximum speed.

Charter’s corporate decisions also impact New Yorkers more profoundly than other states because of the absence of significant competition. Outside of limited deployments of Verizon FiOS, DSL continues to predominate from New York telephone companies, including Verizon, Frontier, TDS, Windstream, and others. In most cases, these speeds do not come close to achieving the minimum 25Mbps speed that the FCC defines as “broadband.”

In states to our west, AT&T is already offering gigabit Internet service to residential customers, and Google Fiber (which has bypassed the entire northeastern U.S. for fiber deployment) continues its own expansion.

We urge the Commission to obtain definitive information about the current Maxx upgrade delay, the reasons for it, the timetable to resume upgrades (if ever), and an assurance that Charter Communications will resume a comparably rapid Maxx-equivalent upgrade for New Yorkers that Time Warner Cable was well on its way to complete within the next two years. We also hope the Commission will share its findings with the general public.

Yours very truly,

 

Phillip M. Dampier
Director

[1] Text of a company memo obtained by Stop the Cap! originally sent to Time Warner Cable’s engineering/customer support team: “The Maxx Internet Speed Increase Program is currently undergoing review by our leadership team. As a result, all speed increases and customer communications were placed on a temporary hold beginning Thursday, May 26. Once the updated launch schedule is determined, updated hub schedules will be posted to KEY and area management will be notified. Customers will continue to receive notification when the new speeds are available in their hubs.” (http://stopthecap.com/2016/06/16/charter-indefinitely-suspends-time-warner-cable-maxx-upgrades-pending-review/)

[2] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/press/twc-increases-internet-speed-hudson-valley.html

[3] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/about-us/press/twc-to-transform-tv-internet-experience-central-northern-ny.html

[4] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}

[5] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={DEE1823A-AADD-48D4-94BD-B96BAC096DAA}

[6] http://www.xfinity.com/multi-gig-offers.html

Federal Court Agrees With FCC: Broadband in a Utility; Net Neutrality Policies Upheld

netneutralityA federal appeals court today sided with the Federal Communications Commission, upholding its view broadband service is an essential utility that can no longer be left unregulated and open to the whims of large cable and phone companies.

The 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia firmly establishes the FCC’s right to transition broadband from its old designation as a barely regulated “information service” to a “telecommunications service” subject to broad oversight by regulators under the FCC’s “Title II” authority.

The most immediate implication of the court’s decision is upholding the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, which require Internet providers to grant equal access to all legal Internet content and applications regardless of the source, without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

“After a decade of debate and legal battles, today’s ruling affirms the commission’s ability to enforce the strongest possible Internet protections — both on fixed and mobile networks — that will ensure the Internet remains open, now and in the future,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

The ruling left broadband providers smarting, especially wireless carriers that once expected to be exempted from Net Neutrality regulations. Wireless broadband services are now also considered common carrier utility services subject to Net Neutrality.

“The people have spoken, the courts have spoken and this should be the last word on Net Neutrality,” Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement.

At least one Republican FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, disagreed and was heartened by news a very disappointed AT&T was vowing a quick appeal to the Supreme Court.

“We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal,” said David McAtee II, the senior executive vice president and general counsel for AT&T.

“I continue to believe that these regulations are unlawful, and I hope that the parties challenging them will continue the legal fight,” Pai added. Pai has been a frequent critic of Net Neutrality.

But AT&T may find itself in the unenviable position of taking their case to the Supreme Court without the late Antonin Scalia on the bench. The ongoing opposition by Senate Republicans to hold hearings to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the open ninth seat on the court opens the door to a 4-4 tie vote on the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband as a utility, which would automatically affirm the lower court ruling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shammo

Shammo

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

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

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

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

A microcell

A microcell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unintended Consequences: Feds Let Telecom Companies Skirt Taxes While States Crack Down

Tax-FreeSome of America’s largest telecommunications companies continue to pay almost nothing in federal taxes even as state taxing authorities hungry for revenue  are getting more aggressive about denying access to tax loopholes and suing some for failing to pay their fair share.

Special interest-inspired “pro-business” loopholes have been a growing part of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan Administration. The premise seemed reasonable enough: high corporate taxes are simply passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business, so lowering them will trickle savings down to the consumer and also free capital to create more jobs. It has not worked that way, however. Product pricing for services like broadband have been based more on what customers believe the product is worth, not what it costs to deliver, and Verizon was among the companies cited for significant job cuts after its corporate tax rate plummeted. Regardless of corporate tax rates, providers continue to raise broadband prices, even as the costs to provide the service are declining. The old maxim of charging what the market will bear is alive and well. So where do the tax savings go? Into share buybacks, shareholder dividend payouts, increased executive salaries and bonuses, and lobbying.

Some states are discovering they have been leaving money on the table when they don’t insist on collecting owed state taxes, and as state budgets continue to be strapped with increasing medical and infrastructure-related expenses, taking companies to court who try to avoid their tax obligations is getting more popular.

One of the biggest potential windfalls could eventually fill New York State coffers with $300 million in damages and penalties courtesy of Sprint, which was accused of deliberately not billing customers for state taxes on its wireless services over seven years.

SprintYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Sprint’s effort to void an October 2015 New York Court of Appeals decision that would allow the state to proceed to court arguing Sprint intentionally failed to collect more than $100 million in taxes from New Yorkers from 2005 on. At the time, Sprint was attempting to rebuild its market share by luring customers with cheaper mobile service. One way to offer a lower price is to stop charging tax. In New York alone, municipalities lost $4.6 million a month as a result of the scheme.

Sprint has repeatedly argued the lawsuit is invalid because a 2000 federal law trumps a 2002 New York State law that covered state taxes. The court disagreed, and the fact a whistleblower at Sprint revealed what Sprint was up to didn’t help. The case will now likely head to state court or get settled.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-bannerWhile $300 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the money Verizon manages to dodge paying the Internal Revenue Service. The phone company is the poster child of corporate tax dodging according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders targeted Verizon because between 2008-2013, Verizon not only did not pay a nickel in federal taxes, it actually received a refund from the federal government after achieving a federal tax rate of -2.5%, despite booking $42.5 billion in profits. American taxpayers effectively subsidized Verizon when it got its refund check.

In the last two years, Verizon is paying federal taxes once again, but at a rate of 12.4%, well below the tax rate of most middle class Americans.

It’s a sensitive matter for Verizon, because CEO Lowell McAdam launched a full-scale media blitz trying to paint the Sanders campaign as inaccurate. McAdam claims Verizon actually paid a 35% tax rate in 2015, which would only be true if the company added the tax obligations it owes on the billions of dollars it stashes in overseas bank accounts. Foreign taxes don’t help the American taxpayer, suggest critics, and Citizens for Tax Justice consider McAdam’s claims “artificial.”

“In fact, over the past 15 years, Verizon has paid a federal tax rate averaging just 12.4 percent on $121 billion in U.S. profits, meaning that the company has found a way to shelter about two-thirds of its U.S. profits from federal taxes over this period,” the group claims. “In five of the last 15 years, the company paid zero in federal taxes. While there is no indication that this spectacular feat of tax avoidance is anything but legal (the company’s consistently low tax rates are most likely due to overly generous accelerated depreciation tax provisions that Congress has expanded over the last decade), few Americans would describe the company avoiding tax on $78 billion of profits as ‘fair.’”

unintendedBruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, claims Verizon also specializes in dumping most of its costs and “losses” on Verizon Communications, which owns its legacy wireline network, which helps them cut their tax obligations.

Too often, changes to the U.S. tax code have unintentional consequences, especially when corporations can hire tax attorneys that outclass those working for the federal government.

Fredric Grundeman helped draft a tax bill that was supposed to curb loopholes in the estate tax and though well-trained as a trusted attorney at the Treasury Department, the bill quickly backfired. The new law opened even larger loopholes than those it was originally written to close, allowing some of America’s richest families to pass on money to heirs with no tax implications at all. Grundeman admits legislators often don’t recognize a new tax law’s potential for abuse.

“How do I say it?” Grundeman told Bloomberg News back in 2013. “When Congress enacts a law, it isn’t always well thought out.”

That is also true on the state level.

Oregon officials push a button to exempt Google Fiber from a state property tax.

Oregon officials push a legislative button and give Google Fiber a tax break. Then Comcast shows up.

Oregon wants to attract Google Fiber to Portland, but Google objected to one of the state’s property tax provisions that affects companies that sell data services. Oregon partly sets the tax rate commensurate with the value of the provider’s brand name, among other factors. It’s all very vague, but not so vague that Google would miss it could pay an even higher tax rate that its competitors — Comcast and CenturyLink.

Oregon’s legislature voted to correct the problem by exempting providers that offer gigabit broadband. The tax law changes were tailored to benefit Google, assuming Comcast and CenturyLink would continue to drag their feet to upgrade their Oregon networks.

But the enterprising lawyers at Comcast promptly requested the same tax exemption that Google would get in return for building its fiber network in the state. The reason? Comcast had introduced its own gigabit Internet service on a much more limited scale.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) admitted Oregon had another law on its hands with unintended consequences. Barnhart told utility regulators this spring his fellow lawmakers never intended to give the tax break to Comcast, which charges hundreds of dollars for 2,000Mbps service. But nobody bothered to set any price guidelines in the law, meaning Google can charge $70 a month for gigabit service and get a tax break and Comcast can offer 2Gbps service in a limited number of locations, at the “go away” price of $300 a month, with start-up costs up to $1,000, and a multi-year contract, and get the exact same tax break.

Barnhart

Barnhart

Or maybe not, at least for now.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Revenue ruled Comcast is not eligible for that tax break, at least not this year, according to The Oregonian. The department wouldn’t explain why, citing taxpayer confidentiality. For good measure, the same department also rejected applications from Google Fiber and Frontier Communications (Frontier operates a very limited FiOS fiber to the home network in communities including Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham that it inherited from Verizon), claiming Google and Frontier’s gigabit networks were theoretical in Oregon and there needed to be gigabit service actually up and running to qualify.

That leaves Google in a classic catch-22. It won’t bring fiber to Oregon so long as it faces a stiff tax bill and tax authorities won’t forgive the tax until there is gigabit fiber up and running. For some taxpayers, what burns the most is the legislature paved the road to tax bliss to attract Google Fiber, but the only company that may actually ultimately travel down it is Comcast.

Another Fine Mess: Ex-Verizon Customers Still Complaining About Frontier

frontierThe 24-hour emergency hotline at Alcoholics Anonymous in Ventura County, Calif., rang only sporadically back in April and it wasn’t because Simi Valley, Ojai, and Thousand Oaks were overrun with teetotalers.  The director of the center blamed Frontier Communications for phone outages, which began right after it took over phone service for Verizon.

In Garland, Tex., Carolyn Crawford has had nothing but excuses about her service outage, which began April 11.

“When you call you receive scripted responses and when you send a message on Facebook you receive robotic responses,” Crawford told the Dallas Morning News.

In Florida, the Sarasota Tribune put an online form up to collect complaints about Frontier and had 662 registered over just one weekend. One complaint:

“It’s our seventh day with no phone, no Internet and no answers,” said Howard Duff of Bradenton.

He said he had spent 45 minutes to an hour on a cell phone before getting through to someone, then spent hours for several days with Frontier tech support, disconnecting and reconnecting equipment and relaying information about lights. On Thursday, when he reached a Frontier technician who wanted him to begin the same checks, Duff refused to go through it all again. Instead, he was given a repair ticket number and was told someone would contact him. He was still waiting Monday afternoon.

“They really don’t care about the people in Florida,” Duff said. “Who can we call? What can we do?”

txcaflmap

Frontier’s latest acquisition involves Verizon’s wireline networks in Texas, Florida, and California.

Back in late April, more than 11,000 comments from Frontier customers around the country have been posted to its Facebook page, mostly to complain about service problems. They affect both residential and business customers.

Michael Camp of Parker, Tex. says Frontier’s reliability has killed his business’ ability to make international business calls.

“It’s like trying to work in a Third World country,” he said.

The first challenge Frontier customers with service problems face is a dreaded interaction with Frontier’s customer service. The challenges can start right away, such as trying to prove to the phone company you actually are one of their customers.

At S.O.S Resale Boutique and Veteran’s Communication Center in Palm Desert, Calif., the non-profit group spent days trying to get Frontier to restore their phone and Internet service.

“The most frustrating part of the ordeal was that every time you would call, they would say you are not a customer and that you don’t have an account. I would keep arguing that we do,” Erica Stone, founding director of S.O.S., told KESQ-TV. Either way, Frontier didn’t bother to show up for a scheduled appointment anyway.

Mary Harmon, in Long Beach,  was told (after four calls) that a repair technician would come to her house on April 15. That date was changed to Monday, April 18 with a 10-hour window. She told the Long Beach Press Telegram she wasn’t holding her breath.

“I don’t have any faith in them,” Harmon said. I’m so fed up with everything that’s been going on.”

Harmon spent all day Monday at home waiting, only to get a call at 5:25pm that her appointment was rescheduled one week later to April 25.

Considering the onslaught of stories from readers like Harmon, that newspaper has taken to calling Frontier customers “victims.”

But it wasn’t all bad news.

“No Internet or cable,” wrote one customer on Twitter. “But the bill arrived on time.”

What Problems? Frontier Living in Denial

laurel and hardyThousands of complaints later, it is evident Frontier has gotten itself into another fine mess, one predicted in advance by Stop the Cap! each time Frontier decides it wants to buy up some more landlines. No matter how bad things actually got, the company regularly tells its shareholders tall tales that all went well, the problems were small, and the resolutions easy.

Just look at what Daniel McCarthy, Frontier’s CEO, told a Wall Street audience at the recent JPMorgan Global Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference.

“Two months into the integration, and I would describe this integration as, by and large, it has gone better than any one that we’ve done before,” McCarthy said. “If you look at the billing systems, the ERP, payroll, HR, every part of the integration has gone exceptionally well. We’ve actually got through all of our billing, and out the door, we’re back on normal cycles with customers. And we’ve moved to the point now where we’re moving forward with a normal business rhythm around trouble tickets and service orders in the market.”

Frontier customers are unconvinced Frontier’s Rhythm Method is working for them. Elizabeth Galvan of North Hills has another name for it: “a nightmare.” She has had continuous problems with her landline, including Internet outages, since Frontier took over.

Many Stop the Cap! readers also continue to share their grief over outages, billing problems, and the less than sympathetic customer service representatives they encounter.

“We were on hold with Frontier for two hours on Friday and they swore to us they’d be out Wednesday and fix things,” wrote Wanda from Sarasota, Fla. “If the good Lord Jesus himself told them they’d be sent to hell for lying, Frontier already has 1st Class tickets. My ex-husband lied less than this phone company. They told me ‘Miss Wanda, we are sorry we could not get out there but we called you to let you know.’ Oh really? On what phone, the one that hasn’t worked for two weeks? Then he thinks he puts me on hold to reschedule while he tells his friend now I have more time to get my hair done.”

Back in Dallas, Jeffrey Weiss from the Morning News pressed Frontier for a reality check on how bad the problems were.

Bright House is targeting disgruntled Frontier customers in Florida with special promotions.

Bright House is targeting disgruntled Frontier customers in Florida with special promotions.

“There are currently no widespread outages,” came the response from Frontier. “The isolated issues currently being addressed include either individual customer issues from the conversion or the day to day service issues that arise when operating a complex network. In addition, the recent extreme weather in the north Texas area may have impacted some customers’ service, while Frontier allocated resources to repair any damaged equipment in the path of the storm. The customer experience is always at the forefront of our company, and we are committed to each customer’s satisfaction. We are addressing service orders as quickly as possible, prioritizing repairs over new installations and coordinating both customer availability and the management of our ongoing queue of orders. In all cases, that means the next best available time.”

At that time, the Texas Public Utility Commission had collected at least 100 complaints about Frontier, reports spokesman Terry Hadley. Melinda White, Frontier’s regional president for the western region characterized the 2,500 service disruptions suffered by Californians as evidence things were going “relatively well.”

In Florida, the problems were substantial and widespread enough for competing cable operator Bright House to offer customers up to $240 to switch away from Frontier with a special promotion. But before customers sign up, they should be aware despite the ongoing issues, Frontier has no intention of letting anyone out of their contracts.

Frontier spokesman Bob Elek told the Tampa Bay Times, “While all customers will be eligible for service credits on a case-by-case basis, contracts will remain in force.”

That’s ironic, considering Frontier’s marketing pitch for the last several years assured customers there were no contracts or early termination fees. But Verizon had both, and Elek apparently feels if it is fair to give customers promotional pricing, it is fair to penalize them if they disconnect early, even if the service doesn’t work as advertised.

Fast forward more than a month and the problems… and Frontier’s excuses keep on coming.

Frontier’s Melinda White, regional president for the company’s western region, finally showed up on KNBC Los Angeles to apologize for weeks of frustration and service problems. (2:56)

Blame Verizon

Nearly two weeks ago, Frontier executives were grilled at an Assembly Informational Hearing called by Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), when he had a spare moment in-between shilling for AT&T’s universal service/landline abdication bill making its way through the California legislature.

Finger-pointing-225x3002Ironically, Gatto was upset with Frontier — a company that wants to stay in the landline/DSL business — because it couldn’t do the job, while earlier applauding AT&T for being willing to cut the phone lines of rural Californians and have them risk AT&T’s “one-bar” rural wireless service instead.

Members at the Assembly Informational Hearing implored Frontier to fix at least a month of problems the company has consistently denied was that big of a deal. A meeting of the minds between the politicians and Frontier seemed unlikely until Melinda White, Frontier West’s regional president found what she hoped would be a “Get Out of the Hot Seat Free” excuse card.

White told the Los Angeles Times that one reason for all the trouble is Verizon sent them “corrupted” or “incomplete” data on an unspecified number of remotely addressable items like network terminal boxes, modems, and those “interface” devices they slap on the sides of most homes and businesses. Frontier claims it sent initialization messages to those devices that were rejected, and unilaterally shut down in response, causing the large service outages Frontier claimed a few weeks earlier didn’t happen.

“We are sincerely sorry,” White said during the hearing. “Even one customer out of service is one too many.”

Even worse, Frontier claims it found those scamps at Verizon messed up another database containing serial numbers identifying older network terminal boxes, including hundreds located in Long Beach. You know what came next — more outages.

But wait, there’s more. The same phone company that proudly boasts it uses American workers to handle customer service matters had to admit it hired a call center in the Philippines to handle customer transition issues. It was instantly overwhelmed and the call takers were as bewildered as customers trying to deal with Frontier about service outages.

call center“Unfortunately, that did not work out — to our dismay,” White said.

Like a lot of things coming from Frontier, that is an understatement. Just ask countless customers who reserved repair appointments through this same call center that often forgot or couldn’t pass them on to the U.S. based technicians that were supposed to show up and fix the problems. Result: missed service calls and even angrier customers.

Knowing this, one would assume Frontier would quickly pull the plug on overseas call centers and hire — at attractive wages if needed — more U.S. based employees to get things moving sooner rather than later. White told the Los Angeles Times it would phase those foreign call centers out… later… by the end of July.

The Lawmaker and Regulator CYA Cakewalk

The Frontier buyout and takeover of Verizon landlines didn’t just happen at the behest of the two phone companies. In a state regularly accused of over-regulating business, California regulators and lawmakers both had direct influence on the Frontier-Verizon transaction. It got approved without much effort and only came back to haunt officials when it all went wrong.

Assembly member Jay Obernolte (R-Hesperia) claimed, “These issues have set a record for constituent calls.”

Exactly who is responsible requires the time-honored practice of finger-pointing that always extends outwards, never inwards.

approved-rubber-stampThe committee chairman, Mr. Gatto, and vice chairman, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, (R-Fresno), blamed the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) as much as Frontier because they approved the takeover deal.

But as California consumers just saw in an embarrassing capitulation to approve the Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House merger with deal conditions even worse than what the FCC got, there are questions whether the CPUC could properly vet a Dollar Menu at a McDonalds drive-thru, much less a multi-billion dollar Big Telecom merger:

“Hi, welcome to McDonalds, what can I get the CPUC today?”

“We’ll let you decide, whatever you think is best. We trust you!”

“Okay, drive through to the second window.”

CPUC executive director Tim Sullivan casually mentioned the possibility of an official investigation and the highly-improbable-to-believe possible reconsideration of the buyout. That comes a little late.

While they hold hearings in California, the complaints keep rolling in even into the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

If This is the New Frontier, We Prefer the Old One

30+ years of a dedicated customer relationship destroyed in less than three weeks with Frontier.

30+ years of a dedicated customer relationship that started around the time Back to the Future hit theaters was destroyed after about a month with Frontier.

Lynn Peterson in Sacramento has kept her phone service with Verizon (and its predecessors) since around the year Back to the Future arrived in movie theaters (July 3, 1985 for trivia fans). After a month or so with Frontier at the helm, she abandoned ship last week.

“My service just kept going out over and over again ever since Frontier became my provider,” Peterson told the Santa Monica Mirror. “Whenever I called customer service they seemed completely indifferent. I have now switched to Time Warner Cable.”

Abby Arnold also severed a bad relationship with Frontier last week, and like a clingy ex in breakup denial, they won’t let it go.

“After a month of trying to resolve issues, I left Verizon/Frontier and signed up with Time Warner,” Arnold wrote. “At least I can watch the Dodgers. One of the many issues in my saga is that I cannot get Frontier to acknowledge that I am no longer their customer. ‘Our system won’t let me cancel your account.’ Argh.”

Customers will have another opportunity to bring their complaints about Frontier to the CPUC’s attention this Wednesday from 4-6pm at a public hearing at Long Beach City Hall.

Texas Mops Up

Some of the worst damage done to Frontier’s reputation was in Texas. Some experts predict Frontier’s name will be mud in that state for months to years.

“My opinion is that Frontier’s brand, reputation, and trust will suffer in the short to medium term (months to years),” David Lei, associate professor of strategy at SMU’s Cox School of Business told the Dallas Business Journal. “The longer the problems persist in any situation for any business or service provider, the greater the customer anger. However, even a good communications/PR strategy remains insufficient in the wake of the scale of disruptions and the seemingly ‘easy’ task of scheduling technicians to houses within the promised time frame. Strategy execution always occurs at the customer level – dealing with each customer truthfully and forthrightly. Yet, it is probably difficult for Frontier’s management to openly acknowledge just how complex the integration task will remain for quite some time.”

Our Recommendations

Frontier has a long history of transition problems whenever it acquires landline networks from other providers, whether Verizon or AT&T. In some cases, these may prove to be nothing more than self-correcting minor inconveniences. But in states like West Virginia, Connecticut, and now Texas, Florida, and California, long outages got painful and expensive for customers, and in some cases could have been life-threatening. With each transition, Frontier claimed it learned how to improve on the process to better reassure customers problems would be few and isolated. But the evidence is overwhelming these problems are bigger than Frontier seems ready to admit. Frontier refuses to release outage statistics broken down by state. Are these transition outages comparable to the day-to-day experiences of a big independent phone company? Allowing the public to see outage numbers for Florida and compare them with West Virginia or New York, for example, would be illuminating.

Regulators can also give Frontier some added incentives to guarantee the transition experience goes “exceptionally well” in the real world, not just in company press releases. Those incentives come in the form of stiff fines and guaranteed, automatic rebates for any customer affected by a service disruption. Right now, Frontier still requires most customers to personally apply for service credits for outages and other disruptions. That is a real hassle if you’ve ever called Frontier by phone and waited on hold, sometimes for an hour or more. Being promised a credit does not guarantee it will actually appear on your bill either.

Consider the experience of Lake Elsinore resident Kristi Coy. Her husband can’t sell video conferencing equipment online because Frontier’s Internet is too slow.

Coy was offered a service credit, but only after the problem was fixed. After the visit, she called Frontier and waited on hold 90 minutes before finally hanging up.

“How much are they going to give me, $20?” she said. “How long will I have to stay on hold? An hour and a half to get a $20 refund? It’s not even worth the time.”

Frontier should have a regulator-reviewed transition plan with contingencies in place for unexpected problems. That plan should prioritize returning customers to service, even if it means backing out of a system transition. Maintaining reliable service should be the first priority, not cost-savings or convenience for the companies involved. A full audit of exactly what Frontier bought from Verizon could have uncovered the discrepancies and corrupted data White blamed for the outages before the transition began. But that costs time and money. The prospect of a regulator-imposed fine costing even more delivers the cost/benefit formula customers (and Frontier, apparently) needs to assure customer protection.

Regulators need to start scrutinizing these consolidation transactions much more carefully, and reject those from companies that have a significant record of failing their customers. Frontier’s disastrous transition in West Virginia in 2010 led to months of news coverage and a number of very serious outages. More than five years later, service complaints are still coming in, mostly focused on poor broadband service. In Connecticut, Frontier had to cough up costly service credits and promotions to stop a flood of customers headed for the exits over Frontier’s messy transition from AT&T. Suspiciously familiar problems including service outages, billing issues, and missed service calls plagued Connecticut in 2015 just as they do in 2016 in Texas, Florida, and California.

We warned regulators in each instance that Frontier’s repeated poor performance should give them pause. We recommended regulators either impose extra requirements as part of any approval agreement or reject these types of deals outright. They chose to believe Frontier instead. So while Frontier executives and shareholders enjoy the proceeds of enhanced revenue and their regular dividend payouts, customers that depend on Frontier, especially small businesses, are in trouble. Dagwoods Pizza Parlor in Santa Monica is just one example.

Dagwoods manager Mark Peters said Frontier’s lousy performance in Southern California “has the potential to destroy small businesses” like his. This past Memorial Day weekend was a partial bust for Dagwoods because their Frontier-supplied phone and Internet service was down again until Frontier finally showed up to fix it.

“It’s a bad situation,” Peters told the Santa Monica Observer. “We can’t take orders, and this is our big night of the week. We’re really bummed out about the whole situation.”

The time for excuses and explanations has come and gone. The time for action, fines, and automatic service credits is overdue, but better late than never.

WTVT in Tampa reports Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is now taking a hard look at Frontier’s performance in the state. (2:41)

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