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French Press: U.S. Consumers Ripe for Fleecing By Cable Magnates Like Altice’s Patrick Drahi

The French press continues to report, with some bewilderment, that U.S. consumers are being fleeced by the country’s biggest telecom companies while politicians do nothing to regulate a duopoly market or force more competition to stop the pick-pocketing. The Francophone press is responding to reports that cable baron Patrick Drahi is vacuuming up profits from his American subsidiary Altice USA — which owns Cablevision and Suddenlink — and is likely to get much bigger in 2017, all thanks to the U.S. regulatory landscape.

“Americans live under a corrupt politician-sanctioned broadband monopoly in many places, and this assures telecoms operators in the United States can earn astounding profit margins impossible in European markets,” notes Giga France.

Le Figaro reported this month Altice’s directors had an easy job figuring out where much of the global conglomerate’s future profits would come from: the United States.

“Given the structure of the telecom market, [Altice’s] margin for growth in France is low, whereas in the United States it is considerable,” the newspaper reported. The reason is a persistent lack of competition, made possible by politicians that accepted the recommendations of lobbyists and corporate special interest think tanks on how to structure the broadband market.

Drahi

In the United States, providers have won near-absolute control of their networks and need not share access with competitors. Large telecom companies argued that requiring shared access to their infrastructure would threaten investment and stall broadband network deployment. Ironically, some even argued it would lead to reduced competition. But the reverse turned out to be true and the United States has fallen far behind in competition and network quality, while more traditionally regulated markets in Europe now enjoy low prices, faster internet speeds, and a larger number of competitors vying for consumers’ business.

Wall Street indirectly conspires to keep the status quo by discouraging the entry of new fixed line providers, claiming it will destroy shareholder value and consume billions of investor dollars constructing competing networks that will be unlikely to attract enough subscribers fast enough to give shareholders a timely return on their investment.

With a provider-friendly Trump Administration in power, and more importantly the installation of Ajit Pai, a notorious telecoms-friendly regulator as chairman of the FCC, Altice’s directors consider 2017 to be one of the most inviting years for expansion in the United States.

Le Figaro reports there is plenty of opportunity for Altice’s empire to become more dominant in North America. In France, its SFR unit now holds a 25% share in the fixed line market, but that number is unlikely to grow much considering ongoing price wars that come from fierce competition in France. In the U.S., Altice only holds barely 3% of the market, and Drahi has made no secret he would like to become at least the second-largest provider in the United States.

Les Echos suggested Altice is quietly preparing a full-scale ambush on the U.S. market starting with a much-anticipated IPO expected this year. Wall Street doesn’t welcome Altice entering the U.S. cable business as a market disruptor. Instead, investment banks are willing to loan huge sums to Altice for the purpose of acquiring telecom companies, maintaining the existing duopoly of one cable and one phone company for the majority of Americans.

“In the past, every time he introduced a publicly traded asset, Drahi proceeded with acquisitions: Numericable, in 2013, SFR the following year; and by 2015 Cablevision and Suddenlink in the U.S.A.,” reports Les Echos.

In France, up to four providers compete head to head for fixed line telecom customers. In other parts of Europe, telecom networks are often forced open to competitors. Neither is the case in the States, and consumers are paying very high telecom bills as a result.

Les Echos notes the U.S. cable business is so lucrative, “never before has a French company made such an important investment in the country of Uncle Sam.”

Suddenlink and Cablevision: Consistent source for fat revenue growth for Altice.

Drahi told investors more than a year ago he wanted to eventually generate 50% of Altice’s business overseas, primarily in the profitable U.S.

Altice has so far only bought up smaller cable operators, but observers expect Drahi will aim for much larger targets, including the possibility of buying out a wireless provider or even targeting Comcast, AT&T, or Charter. Les Echos quotes Vincent Maulay, an analyst at Oddo who notes that Drahi may be able to collect future assets inexpensively if Verizon decides to move on an acquisition of Charter. Regulators will likely force the combined company to shed cable assets in New York State where Verizon and Charter currently compete. That would allow Drahi’s Cablevision to pick up divested service areas, perhaps even in Manhattan.

Earthlink Kills New Customer Promotion for Existing Charter/Spectrum Customers

Nine years after Earthlink began promoting its $29.99 six-month offer for alternative broadband service for Time Warner Cable customers, the completion of Charter Communication’s takeover of Time Warner Cable has eliminated a clever way for customers to get broadband rate relief.

For almost a decade, savvy broadband-only Time Warner Cable customers have been able to bounce between new customer promotions at Time Warner Cable and Earthlink. When a year-long promotion with Time Warner Cable ended, a customer could switch seamlessly to Earthlink for six months and pay just $29.99 a month — charged to their Time Warner Cable bill. When the Earthlink promotion ended, customers were entitled to enroll as a new Time Warner Cable broadband customer and pay a lower rate for up to one year. After that, back to Earthlink.

No more.

Charter Communications closed that loophole this month and now prohibits existing Charter/Spectrum customers from getting promotional rates from Earthlink.

Once Charter customers end a broadband-only new customer promotion, currently $44.95 a month for one year, the rate jumps to $64.99… and stays there indefinitely.

The new restrictions appear in fine print on Earthlink’s website:

Charter Communications eliminated lower-cost broadband options for its customers, but claims its single remaining advertised offer (60Mbps in non-Maxx areas, 100Mbps in former TWC Maxx cities) offers a greater value because it is faster than Time Warner Cable’s Standard Internet 15Mbps plan and ends Time Warner’s practice of charging a $10 modem rental fee.

But it also costs more than earlier promotions at Earthlink ($29.99) and Time Warner Cable ($34.95).

Charter has junked Earthlink’s former promotion for Time Warner Cable customers.

“My broadband bill is now double what it used to be because I cannot switch to a broadband promotion with Charter as my Earthlink promotion ends this month,” reports Jim Deneck, a former Time Warner Cable customer in South Carolina. “I was paying $30 a month and now Spectrum wants to charge me $65 a month. The modem fee savings is irrelevant to me because I bought my modem years ago.”

Charter/Spectrum customers hoping for a better promotion from Earthlink are now also out of luck.

“After Spectrum pricing took effect in my area, my bill went up $30 a month,” writes Stop the Cap! reader Gennifer in Maine. “I was hoping to switch back to Earthlink but after placing an order with Earthlink, a representative from Charter/Spectrum called me and denied my request. It’s false competition. Since when is it okay to sign up with one company and then get a call from another telling me I am not allowed to take my business elsewhere. It’s monopoly abuse!”

Earthlink is entirely dependent on Charter Communications allowing them to resell service over Charter’s cable lines. Earthlink has been cautious not to outcompete either Charter or its predecessor Time Warner Cable, and charges roughly the same rates as a customer would get direct from either cable operator. The only benefit of the arrangement for customers was the ability to bounce between new customer promotions to pay the new customer rate indefinitely, but Charter has made sure that practice stops.

Gennifer did manage to ultimately outwit Charter, but at the cost of time and inconvenience.

“I called Spectrum and canceled my service and we signed up as a new customer under my husband’s name,” Gennifer writes. “Unfortunately, Charter won’t process an order at an address with existing service so you have to cancel and turn in equipment first and then place an order under a different name to qualify for a promotion. They really don’t want to give their customers a break or a discount. I wish we had other options.”

Competition: UK Sees Broadband, TV, and Phone Costs Decline 9% While Prices Way Up in USA

Phillip Dampier March 20, 2017 Competition, Consumer News No Comments

The average household in the United Kingdom pays 9% less for broadband, phone, and television service than a decade ago, even though data usage has exploded and the country is embarked on a massive broadband upgrade effort. Contrast that with reports the average household in the United States is facing rate increases averaging 8-10% annually, even though the costs to deliver service have been declining for years.

According to a Ofcom report reviewing price trends, the average British resident today pays an average of $164.35 a month for broadband, television, landline and mobile phone services. Many U.S. households spend close to that amount before including their mobile phone bill.

In Great Britain, where competing companies have open access to the country’s telephone network, the average price of an entry-level broadband and landline package dropped at least 25% to $42 a month. A similar package from Charter Communications costs $64.98 a month for the first year, before prices rise to over $80 a month in year two. In the United Kingdom, a triple play package of phone, TV, and internet access now averages $53.14 a month. In the United States, it averages well over $100 a month.

The British, like their North American counterparts, are voracious consumers of internet data, consuming 132GB per household in 2016, up from 8GB in 2008. But despite increased usage, the cost of internet service in Britain has dropped, even with heavy investment in fiber optic network upgrades.

In Great Britain, multiple providers compete by offering services over existing telecom networks. In the last three years, customers have been able to choose from 551 different dual and triple play offers from several different companies, up from 294 just three years ago. Most now choose discounted bundles of multiple services under a single provider. But customers can still choose a plan that most closely fits their needs. In the United States, some providers like Charter Communications are eliminating most ions for customers, preferring to sell a more-costly, one-size fits all broadband and phone option.

“50 Shades of Grey” Community Broadband Ban Bill Ties the Hands of Missouri Communities

Emery

It’s 2017 and a lot of Missouri residents are still tortured by the lack of access to basic broadband service, and if a community broadband ban bill becomes state law it will remain that way for years to come.

SB 186 is essentially a copy of last year’s community broadband ban that eventually died in the legislature. Just like last year, many of the sponsors and promoters of the latest attempt to impose a municipal broadband ban have close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and receive copious amounts of money from Missouri’s largest telecom companies. Some even win awards from the state’s biggest telecom lobbyists.

State Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) loves the headlines he attracts from throwing ideological bombs into the public debate (he called homosexuality a mental illness, compared public education to slavery and a pathway to prison, and questioned whether former president Barack Obama was actually an American citizen). But he is not in touch with the rural residents in his state who have had their pleas for broadband service ignored by AT&T and other telecom companies for years.

Emery is a big fan of ALEC and serves as a Missouri state chairman. In 2015 he told an audience at an ALEC event he found the group’s efforts inspiring and helpful. ALEC acts as a giant clearinghouse for corporate-inspired legislation that ends up in the hands of friendly state legislators. ALEC’s model bills, including one banning municipal broadband, win passage in part because state legislatures do not get the kind of media attention and public scrutiny seen in Washington. SB 186, its predecessor, and other similar bills introduced in other states are frequently ghostwritten by telecom company lawyers and lobbyists and are designed to stop municipal broadband networks before they can get started.

Emery’s current bill is designed to apply a “scorched earth” response to communities trying to find ways to get rural broadband service up and running after a decade of being ignored by private telecom companies. It’s corporate protectionism and welfare at its finest, with a thicket of language that would force public providers into price and speed regulation. Emery’s bill would interfere with the types of loan agreements communities could contemplate to provide the service, and the language required for a mandatory referendum is heavily slanted to suggest such service is redundant and unnecessary. Emery’s bill also offers assurances his business friends could get gigabit speeds from community-owned providers, but not necessarily consumers.

Like the failed broadband hit bill introduced in Virginia, SB 186 is an ironic piece of legislation, heavy-handed with regulation and micromanagement and anchored with bureaucratic requirements designed to guarantee disappointment and costly failure. Emery’s career in public life has been spent railing against costly and unnecessary overregulation, yet his bill exemplifies both in action.

SB 186 also protects the status quo for broadband in Missouri, which is dreadful outside of major cities. It would assure incumbent telecom companies won’t face any service-improving competition and keep municipalities off their turf. For example, Columbia Water and Light has a “dark fiber” institutional fiber network at its disposal that is woefully underutilized. In addition to helping provide some connectivity for local government functions, the city-owned network also leases connections to hospitals and other public buildings, as well as some businesses. But the utility does not sell internet service itself.

The city believes much of the fiber network’s capacity is sitting un-utilized and could prove a valuable asset to the local connectivity economy. With the fiber already in place, expanding the network could be a cost-effective/common sense way to reach city residents that want better internet service than what incumbents are offering, and the city is more than willing to open the network up to those incumbents as well. SB 186 could eliminate that option in Missouri, just to protect the same private companies that have delivered underwhelming service for years.

In cities like Centralia, now exploring enhanced smart grid technology to improve the area’s electricity infrastructure, SB 186 would make the upgrade much more costly. Smart grid technology relies on fiber optic technology, often laid deep into neighborhoods and office parks. Only a tiny portion of that capacity is used to monitor utility infrastructure. The rest of the bandwidth on the fiber optic cable — already in place, could easily offer gigabit broadband service to every resident and business, especially if the city wires fiber to or near individual utility meters. That wouldn’t be allowed under SB 186 either, so communities like Centralia could not recoup some of the cost of the fiber optic technology by selling broadband service. That’s great news for companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Charter Communications. It’s also a relief for the phone companies who need not invest in their networks to offer something better than 20th century DSL.

Rural America: not a broadband-a-plenty

Emery offers two contradictory defenses for his bill:

  1. It is necessary to protect taxpayers from municipal broadband which Emery calls “unsuccessful, leaving ratepayers to cover debt costs.” But when asked by local media for any examples of a Missouri public broadband project that has failed, he could not.
  2. “We need more private-sector opportunities and not drive them out or hinder offerings coming into a community.”

In other words, Emery believes all public broadband networks are failures -and- they represent a major threat to private telecom companies that will be discouraged from investing in broadband expansion because a publicly owned competitor could be ready to “drive them out.”

Of course, neither is true. In rural Missouri there is no line of eager telecom companies seeking to expand broadband service into unprofitable rural communities and where only one broadband provider exists, there is no pressure to improve service quality or speed. In the first instance, there is no investment by private companies to discourage and in the second, the presence of a new provider encourages upgrades and investment. It’s a concept called “competition.” Sen. Emery would have a difficult time providing the name(s) of telecom companies that exited a community because of the presence of a municipal broadband alternative.

Rural farms are among the least likely places to get adequate internet service.

Sen. Emery’s family has a feed and grain business background, and those businesses (as well as Missouri’s farmers) are among the hardest hit economically by the lack of suitable broadband. But Emery is now far away from the business his father and grandfather ran. These days, he harvests big dollar contributions from some of the country’s largest corporations and much of his last campaign was financed by just two families — one with a vendetta against unions and the other — Rex Sinquefield — bucking to be Missouri’s own version of the Koch Brothers, who has his own private agenda he’d like enacted into law. Sinquefield has close ties to the Grow Missouri PAC, that also has close ties to the Club for Growth, ALEC, and the Koch Brothers’ backed Americans for Prosperity. Birds of a feather flock together.

Missouri’s biggest telecom companies are also generous contributors to Sen. Emery, which isn’t a surprise considering his bill and voting record directly benefits their businesses in the state. That may explain why the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association — the state’s top cable lobbying group — gave Emery its Legislator of the Year award. Not to be outdone, the phone companies’ Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association gave Emery its own Leadership Award. Anyone who can introduce a bill that eliminates the best prospect of competition in suburban and rural Missouri for years is probably worthy of both.

In return for favors like that, some familiar names appear at the top of Emery’s list of campaign contributors:

  • AT&T ($6,000)
  • Comcast ($4,000)
  • Verizon Communications ($4,000)
  • CenturyLink ($3,500)
  • Charter ($2,000)
  • Time Warner Cable ($1,500)
  • Charter Communications ($1,325)
  • Sprint ($1,000)

Emery clearly listens to their interests more than average Missouri consumers still searching for broadband service.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last summer that there are significant gaps in broadband coverage even in St. Louis County, where one million residents live. “Fringe suburban spots” too costly to meet Return On Investment requirements guarantee no service, indefinitely. In St. Clair County, 5,000 homes are without broadband for the same reason. In large parts of the state, what constitutes broadband no longer meets that definition — 25Mbps, as established by the FCC. Every telephone ratepayer pays a “universal service fee” on their phone bill, in part to extend broadband into rural areas. But that extension has been spotty because not every phone company accepts the money and the conditions that come with it to broaden their reach. That leaves many rural Missourians with <1Mbps DSL service. That’s the case in Wildwood, where streaming media is out of the question because internet speeds are too low.

The Broadband Berlin Wall: Wildwood, Mo. — Broadband service is easily available to the east of Highway 109. But to the west, service is spotty to non-existent.

Wildwood — in western St. Louis County, is living in “Third World conditions,” even though “we’re not in rural Timbuktu,” according to resident Marilyn Gilbert. It’s also comparable to Cold War-era Berlin, except in reverse. Eastern Wildwood offers residents broadband options from both Charter and AT&T. But the Broadband Berlin Wall dividing the community — Highway 109, separates the broadband haves’ from the have-nots’. The larger part of Wildwood to the west, now growing with new housing and businesses, is a broadband swamp with few, if any choices for local residents.

Gilbert “enjoys” AT&T DSL and speeds that never come close to 1Mbps. It is her only option.

“I tried to download my Windows update and it timed out,” she said. “The amount of time you waste waiting for things to open up or download!”

Remember, this is in St. Louis County, the old home for the headquarters of Charter Communications, which dominates the city of St. Louis.

Despite earning billions every year from the broadband business, Charter has refused to extend its lines of service into the western half of Wildwood, despite efforts to attract the company that date back six years. Residents report broadband availability is among their top concerns taken to local officials, who have in turn sought help from Charter, AT&T, and the state legislature.

The city of Wildwood’s efforts were met with a demand by Charter to pay the cable company $3 million in taxpayer funds to extend service. The city said no.

“The comment we hear constantly is that kids need high-speed (internet) in order to access their school work,” said Wildwood councilman Larry McGowen. “These days, internet is just like another utility. It has become every bit as important in people’s lives as electricity.”

But it apparently is not important enough to allow Wildwood and other communities the option of constructing their own local broadband solutions for residents if Emery’s bill becomes law.

Ironically, the same companies that refuse to extend their service into rural Missouri are also vehemently opposed to letting local governments do it in their absence.

The stalemate has caused some residents to sell their homes and move, just to get internet access. David Norell left town because he couldn’t survive with satellite internet service, which costs $80 a month and offers spotty service with a low data allowance.

That makes Emery’s bill, and others like it, a travesty. Banning local communities from doing the job large for-profit companies won’t seems nothing short of corporate protectionism. After all, as critics of Emery’s bill charge, how can a local government unfairly compete with a company that doesn’t compete at all? Also of concern is the fact those residents that do get token DSL service from AT&T may be trapped using it forever if Emery’s bill keeps better and faster service from co-ops and other public broadband options off the table.

If it seems like Sen. Emery is putting the interests of big telecom companies – many dues-paying members of ALEC – above those of his constituents, perhaps he is. Consider the fact Emery is a state chairman at ALEC, an organization that included this loyalty pledge in its draft state chair agreement:

I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization (ALEC) first.

Emery has taken heat for his ongoing love affair with ALEC before, including an ethics complaint about a $3,000 meal at the Dallas Chop House where Emery ate. ALEC’s corporate members picked up the tab. That kind of unethical conflict of interest, along with the aforementioned loyalty pledge, infuriated the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Mr. Emery and his ilk can believe what they want, but they should play no part in allowing corporations to hide their agendas, and their lobbying expenses, by pretending to be something they are not. The proof is in ALEC’s actions, which as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank outlined, hid itself behind closed doors in a meeting last week in the nation’s capital, pushing reporters away while claiming they had nothing to hide.

No, ALEC exists solely to hide. To hide money. To hide agendas. To hide its hijacking of democracy.

Lawmakers who care about the constitution and their commitment to voters should be fleeing faster than the corporations who realize ALEC is simply a bad investment.

Emery at a 2015 ALEC event.

It was not an isolated incident. Ed and his wife Rebecca Emery also enjoyed a $141.10 meal paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Association. It’s safe to assume nobody had just a small salad. Other meals and drinks were courtesy of AT&T and CenturyLink. (Peabody Energy footed the bill for the Emerys’ taxi rides back and forth.)

When the wining and dining ended, the lobbyists were back with campaign contribution checks in hand.

These kinds of municipal broadband bans are toxic to economic development for rural communities that already face built-in economic and infrastructure disadvantages. The 21st century digital knowledge economy has the potential to make rural America equally competitive, assuming there is adequate infrastructure in place to participate.

Relying on private investment alone can work in urban areas where broadband profits are easy because the essential infrastructure to provide the service was constructed and paid for decades ago, originally to deliver telephone and television service. Rural areas suffer from deteriorated wireline infrastructure some phone companies want to abandon altogether and no cable broadband service at all.

Charter and AT&T first answer to shareholders. Local governments answer to their residents. Legislators are supposed to do the same. For Mr. Emery, loyalty to the interests of ALEC and the state’s telecommunications companies seems clear. It’s too bad his bill suggests a lot less loyalty to the voters in his district that need internet access or better broadband are will assuredly not get it if this bill ever becomes state law.

Wall Street Panic Attack: Verizon’s Unlimited Plan Will Destroy Profits, Network Reliability

Verizon Wireless’ new unlimited data plan threatens to destroy everything, fear Wall Street analysts in an open panic attack over the prospects of value destruction and network reliability damage.

“An unlimited offer is dangerous,” Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics LLC, told Bloomberg News. “If they sign up a lot of people, it will congest the network, and they run the risk of people saying ‘the network sucks’.”

The return of unlimited data at Verizon (with a protective right to throttle customer speeds after they consume 22GB of data during the month) seems to have triggered anxiety on Wall Street because Verizon was the most adamant about never offering unlimited plans again after dropping them in July, 2011. Part of that fear may have come from Verizon’s own former chief financial officer Fran Shammo who warned investors last fall:

“The majority of people don’t need unlimited plans. But the people who use unlimited plans can be abusive, they can really wreak havoc to your network. And at the end of the day, I continue to say you cannot make money in an unlimited video world. You just can’t do it because you need to generate the cash flow to keep up with your demand.”

What also concerns Wall Street is the increasing evidence an all-out price war provoked by T-Mobile and Sprint will threaten to close some doors on network monetization. Charging customers for data consumption has a growth prospect that would have guaranteed increasing average revenue per customer indefinitely. But unlimited plans mean consumers pay one flat price for data no matter how much they consume. Consumers love it. Wall Street analysts generally don’t.

Other analysts are concerned that Verizon, deemed the Cadillac Network because of its premium price and reputation, also happens to have the least amount of deployed wireless spectrum of all the four national carriers. As the nation’s largest carrier with 114 million users, a big spike in data consumption could affect Verizon’s network performance, some speculate.

Unlimited data plans promote usage and total wireless traffic is expected to grow between 70-80% annually, up from 50-60% under today’s tiered data plans, according to wireless analyst Chetan Sharma.

In response Verizon has rushed out executives to reassure Wall Street and investors Verizon’s network was built to take it.

“Our goal is to always offer a better performance, and I see a path to that,” Mike Haberman, Verizon’s vice president of network support, said in an interview with Bloomberg:

“Spectrum is only one element of a network,” he added. “How you put the network together is far more important.” In advance of its decision to start selling an unlimited data package, Verizon was busy with upgrades. The company just boosted network capacity by 50 percent with new systems that take separate radio frequencies and combine them into one large pathway, Haberman said. The company has also been adding more cell sites and transmitters in cities and connecting those sites with high-capacity fiber-optic lines.

CNBC reported Verizon’s new unlimited data plan is a “sign of weakness” for Verizon, which is facing challenges to its core wireless business. (4:30)

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