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West Virginia Lawmakers Battle Slow Broadband; Propose to Fine ISPs for False Speed Claims

frontier speedFrontier Communications is the obvious target of an effort by members of West Virginia’s House of Delegates to embarrass the company into providing at least 10Mbps broadband service or face steep penalties if it does not stop advertising slow speed DSL as “High-Speed Internet.”

State lawmakers continue to be flooded with complaints about the poor performance of Frontier Communications’ DSL service, which customers claim delivers slow speeds, unreliable service, or no service at all.

Although Frontier frequently advertises broadband speeds of 10Mbps or faster, customers often do not receive the advertised speeds, and the service can be so slow it will not work reliably with online video services.

West Virginia’s broadband problems remain so pervasive, the state legislature this year will entertain several broadband improvement measures, including a proposal to spend $72 million to build a publicly owned middle mile fiber optic network. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris Walters (R-Putnam) claims the new fiber network would boost Internet speeds, improve service, and force down broadband pricing.

With cable broadband available only in major communities, much of West Virginia is dependent on DSL service from Frontier Communications, the telephone company serving most of the state. That is a unique situation for Frontier, which typically serves smaller and medium-sized cities in-between other communities serviced by larger providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest/CenturyLink. Frontier’s problems meeting customer expectations have been well heard in Charleston, the state capitol, if only because most members of the state legislature have Frontier customers in their districts.

Legislators have found they have little recourse over a business that operates largely without regulation or government oversight, as Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) told the Charleston Gazette. Shott heads the House Judiciary Committee and gets plenty of complaints from his constituents.

“[Customers] feel they never get the speed the Internet providers represent,” said Shott. “There doesn’t seem to be any recourse or regulatory body that has any ability to cause that to change.”

In the absence of regulation or direct oversight, a class action lawsuit on behalf of Frontier DSL customers in the state is still working its way through court. In December 2015, a separate action by West Virginia Attorney General Pat Morrisey resulted in a settlement agreement with Frontier. The company agreed to guarantee at least 6Mbps speeds for around 28,000 customers, or give them a substantial monthly discount off their broadband bill.

frontier wvShott’s bill, HB 2551, targets “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” of Internet Service Providers that advertise fast speeds but never deliver them. The bill would expose a violating ISP to damages up to $3,000 per customer, a $5,000 state fine, and allow customers to walk away from any outstanding balance or contract:

It is an unfair or deceptive act or practice and a violation of this article for any seller or Internet service provider to advertise or offer to provide “high speed Internet service” that is not at least ten megabytes per second.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, the consumer has a cause of action to recover actual damages and, in addition, a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $100 nor more than $3,000. No action brought pursuant to this subsection may be brought more than two years after the date upon which the violation occurred or the due date of the last scheduled payment of the agreement, whichever is later.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, any sale or contract for service is void and the consumer is not obligated to pay either the amount due, the amount paid or any late payment charge. If the consumer has paid any part of a bill or invoice, or of a late payment fee, he or she has a right to recover the payments from the violator or from any [collection agency] who undertakes direct collection of payments or enforcement of rights arising from the alleged debt.

The Attorney General of this state shall investigate all complaints alleging violations […] and has a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $500 nor more than $5,000 per violation, with each advertisement or contract to sell or provide “high speed Internet” being a separate violation. The Attorney General also has the power to seek injunctive relief.

As of today, the bill counts Delegates J. Nelson, Border, Kessinger, Arvon, Moffatt, A. Evans, Wagner, Cadle, and D. Evans as sponsors.

Delegate Shott

Delegate Shott

“The list of sponsors of this bill [HB 2551] are from a broad geographic area,” Shott told the newspaper. “They’ve identified this as a problem in their areas.”

Some legislators believe West Virginia should enforce the FCC’s latest minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps, but the Gazette reports that kind of robust speed definition could be difficult for a DSL provider to achieve without significant additional investment. Some worry companies like Frontier could have difficulty justifying further rural broadband expansion in a state traditionally challenged by its number of rural areas and difficult terrain.

Despite those difficulties, incumbent providers like Frontier, Suddenlink, and Comcast have not appreciated efforts to help expand public broadband networks in the state, including the proposal outlined in Sen. Chris Walters’ SB 315, which would authorize about $72 million to build a public middle mile fiber network that would be offered to ISPs at wholesale rates.

Frontier strongly objects to the project because it would use public dollars to compete with private businesses like Frontier. The phone company’s opposition raised eyebrows among some in Charleston, who note Frontier had no objections to accepting $42 million in state dollars in 2010 to construct and install a fiber network it now operates for hundreds of public facilities across the state and $283 million in federal dollars to expand rural broadband. The 2010 fiber project was rife with accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse. Critics allege Frontier overcharged the state, installing service for $57,800 per mile despite other providers routinely charging about $30,000 a mile in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Cable Television Association, representing cable operators in the state, called the project a money-waster, noting it would not result in a single new hookup for broadband service. Middle mile networks do not reach individual homes and businesses and the bill does not authorize the state to get into the ISP business.

Sen. Walters

Sen. Walters

Much of the support for the public network comes from smaller ISPs like Citynet, which predominately serves commercial customers, and equipment vendors like Alpha Technologies. Walters believes if West Virginia builds the network, broadband providers will come to use it. The state’s dominant cable and phone companies vehemently disagree. The cable association has launched an all-out PR war, hoping to attract opposition from conservative lawmakers with claims the project will mandate state and local governments to buy Internet connectivity exclusively from the state-owned network and would trample on corporate rights by using eminent domain to seize parts of the cable industry’s fiber networks to complete the state network.

Walters brushed away the accusations, telling the Gazette there is no mandate that state agencies use the network and there are no plans for the government to take any fiber away from a private company.

Cable operators prefer an alternative measure also introduced in the West Virginia Senate. SB 16 would grant tax credits of up to $500 per address for any phone or cable company that agrees to wire a previously unserved rural address. The bill would limit total tax credits to $1 million.

The difference between the two measures? Walters’ bill would use public money to build a public broadband network owned by the public and answerable to the state. The cable industry-backed proposal would use public money in the form of tax offsets to wire homes and businesses to broadband owned by private businesses answerable to shareholders.

Frontier Communications: New Logo, Same Old Service

Phillip Dampier January 11, 2016 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Frontier 1 Comment

frontier

Frontier Communications is making a splash in 2016 with a new logo and a press release explaining it:

Frontier Communications Corporation today announced a new logo. The evolved look reflects a transformed typeface, a brighter color palette, and a reimagining of the arc to represent the transfer of data and the importance of connectivity. The logo also uses the name Frontier Communications, instead of just Frontier, to avoid confusion in the marketplace. Today’s launch comes as the 81-year-old company prepares to close a $10.54 billion acquisition of Verizon’s wireline, broadband and FiOS assets in California, Florida and Texas at the end of March.

“2016 is the year of transformation for Frontier,” said Cecilia McKenney, Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer, who oversees marketing for the company. “Our company is growing and expanding into new markets: the perfect time to showcase a new logo. We are also in the process of refining a brand promise to be unveiled upon the closing of the $10.54 billion acquisition from Verizon at the end of this quarter.”

Unfortunately, nothing was mentioned about using the new logo as an opportunity to commit to significantly better and faster DSL service for large parts of Frontier’s legacy service areas, still serviced by copper wire networks that are often incapable of delivering anything faster than 3Mbps service.

“A logo change will not bring me usable Internet service at night,” said Ralph Tennant whose wife has struggled with Frontier DSL in her office for years in West Virginia.

“We can either get usage-capped Internet from Suddenlink or unlimited and unusable Internet from Frontier,” said Tennant. “Two bad choices not made better by a pretty new logo.”

Compare/Contrast: Taiwan’s Presidential Candidates Can’t Wait to Give Away Free Broadband

The three candidates contesting in the 2016 Presidential Elections are James Soong from the People First Party (PFP) (L), Eric Chu from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) (Center), and Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (R).

The three candidates running for President of the Republic of China are: James Soong from the People First Party (PFP) (L), Eric Chu from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party (Center), and Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (R).

Taiwan’s three presidential candidates, appearing in a nationwide debate on Sunday, promised to deliver improved High Speed Internet in the Republic of China, with some candidates committing to give broadband away for free to low and middle-income families.

Taiwan is making broadband expansion and improvement a top national priority, as the country races towards delivering gigabit wired broadband and 5G wireless service. The government wants to boost the country’s broadband ranking, now 33rd in the world.

Bringing speeds up while reducing broadband bills is the goal of Eric Chu, the candidate from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party. During his terms as leader of New Taipei and Taoyuan County, Chu presided over a major expansion of Internet penetration rates. Chu believes the next step is to make broadband service free of charge for low/middle-income residents and deliver nationwide free Wi-Fi to every centimeter of Taiwan.

Internet providers would still profit from selling faster access to customers willing to pay for it, but Chu’s policies continue a theme that broadband access is a basic human right, a position increasingly popular in the country. Voters appeared skeptical of Chu’s claims, however, because the KMT has garnered a reputation of being in bed with big business during its last two terms in office. But that has not stopped Chu from criticizing telecom executives for not doing more to invest and eventually offer next generation 5G wireless service in Taiwan.

James Soong, from the People First Party — considered to have a close (but frequently tense) alliance with the KMT  — predictably agreed with Chu, but also wants Taiwan to do more to protect Internet privacy and online safety. Soong wants to completely scrap the country’s legacy copper wire telecommunications infrastructure and replace it with fiber optics, delivering fiber service to every home and business in Taiwan. With a fiber upgrade, Soong is convinced Taiwan will achieve his goal of top-10 broadband status.

Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said when private companies don’t deliver, it is government’s responsibility to address the digital divide, by making high quality service affordable and fast. Taiwan’s telecom companies are paying close attention to the DPP candidate because polls make her the favorite to become the next president of Taiwan, after the election on Jan. 16.

“The use of broadband Internet service should be part of the people’s basic human rights,” she said. “It is also important to narrow the digital divide to improve educational opportunities for children in remote areas and develop children’s digital capabilities.”

With broadband being treated as a high priority issue in the presidential race, Taiwan’s largest broadband provider, Chunghwa Telecom – 中華電信, has announced the first commercial deployments of G.fast technology – the newest generation of DSL – across Taiwan.

Israeli chipmaker Sckipio demonstrated G.Fast technology at CES 2016 in Las Vegas this week, claiming it is faster than traditional DSL and cable broadband. In a limited demonstration, the company demonstrated download speeds achieving 750Mbps over traditional copper wire networks, about 50 times faster than average broadband speeds. Sckipio promised G.Fast technology will debut in the United States later this year.

Frontier Agrees to $150 Million Settlement for West Virginia DSL Customers; A 2nd Lawsuit Continues

frontier wvFrontier Communications had to be chased by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to improve broadband speeds for at least 28,000 DSL customers who thought they were buying 6Mbps DSL service but ended up with maximum speeds of 1.5Mbps or less.

Frontier today agreed to a settlement with state officials to spend an extra $150 million to boost DSL speeds for rural customers around the state and offer deep discounts for affected customers until they can receive at least 6Mbps service. Today’s settlement has no impact on a separate class action lawsuit brought by Frontier customers who accuse the company of throttling broadband speeds to save money and reduce traffic on its network.

The agreement is the largest, independently negotiated consumer protection settlement in West Virginia history and is expected to improve broadband service over the next three years.

“This agreement is a game changer for the Mountain State,” Morrisey said. “The settlement helps consumers receive the high-speed service they expected, while directing significant monies to help fix connectivity issues that consistently keep our state from achieving economic success.”

For at least two years, Frontier customers sent Morrisey’s office complaints stating they were not getting the speed and performance Frontier advertised for its DSL service. While the company told both customers and investors it had blanketed West Virginia with speeds “up to 6Mbps,” many customers discovered the phone company locked their modems to receive no better than 1.5Mbps.

Attorney General Morrisey

Attorney General Morrisey

Frontier denied any allegation of wrongdoing and says it entered into the settlement to resolve disputed claims without the necessity of protracted and expensive litigation. But it will cost the company at least $150 million in additional upgrades, not including the $180 million Frontier already earmarked for broadband expansion in West Virginia, partly subsidized by the ratepayer-funded Connect America Fund.

About 28,000 customers identified by Frontier with modems the company provisioned for service at speeds of 1.5Mbps or lower will begin seeing an ongoing credit applied to their bills beginning Jan. 25, 2016, reducing the price of Frontier’s DSL service to $9.99 a month.

Affected customers can verify if they are included in the settlement on a special website Frontier has set up for its West Virginia customers.

The discounts will continue individually for each customer until the company can demonstrate it can deliver the 6Mbps speeds customers in West Virginia paid to receive. New Frontier DSL customers with speeds no better than 1.5Mbps will also qualify for the discount. Those with modems locked at speeds above 1.5Mbps but still getting less than 6Mbps will not benefit from this settlement, but may still get relief from a separate class action lawsuit covering customers in the state being heard in Lincoln County.

Last week, Lincoln County Circuit Judge Jay Hoke rejected an effort by Frontier to have the class action case dismissed. The company insisted its terms and conditions forbade customers from taking Frontier to court, requiring them to pursue arbitration instead.

fine printJudge Hoke rejected Frontier’s arguments, finding the phone company “buried” the arbitration clause in fine print on its website and on the last pages of customer billing inserts. Hoke also ruled Frontier was attempting to retroactively apply its arbitration clause years after customers initially signed up for broadband service.

“We are finally going to get our day in court,” Michael Sheridan, a Frontier customer in Greenbrier County and Stop the Cap! reader told the Charleston Gazette. Sheridan is suing Frontier over its poor performance in West Virginia. “We think this lawsuit is the best chance we’ll ever have of bringing real Internet to rural West Virginia.”

Frontier argued if customers were dissatisfied with its DSL service, they could have canceled but never did. The company did not mention many of the affected customers have no other options for broadband service except satellite Internet, which receives poor reviews.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling,” said Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski. “In our view, arbitration provides for fair resolution of consumer concerns that is quicker, simpler, and less expensive than lawsuits in court. We plan to appeal.”

Frontier’s decision to appeal might take longer and cost more than addressing problems for at least some of the affected customers.

lincoln countyJudge Hoke also took a dim view of Frontier’s style of disclosing changes to its terms and conditions.

‘On the website, computer users must scroll to the bottom of the page and click on a “Terms & Conditions” link that’s “buried among 25 other links,” then click on two other links to find the arbitration provision that denies customers’ rights to a jury trial,’ Hoke wrote in his order. ‘There’s no button to click or box to check that allows customers to agree to Frontier’s terms. In monthly bills, the arbitration clause shows up one time on the “fourth and last page” of an insert and another time in “miniscule font,” Hoke found.

Customers would have to be psychic to guess Frontier had important news restricting their right to take a dispute to court.

“There is no reason whatsoever for a customer to turn to the last page,” Hoke wrote. “Additionally, the bills contain no prompting that customers should flip to the last page for information concerning Frontier’s desire to alter the customer’s right to a jury trial.”

While Frontier pursues its appeal at the state Supreme Court, Frontier is expected to lose million in revenue from the settlement with the Attorney General.

“The reduced rate gives Frontier a strong incentive to raise speeds for these customers,” Morrisey said.

Another provision in the settlement requires Frontier to pay $500,000 to the state’s Consumer Protection Fund. That payment will offset investigative and monitoring expenses in addition to helping defray the costs of transitioning consumers to higher Internet speeds.

Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said the company had planned to address the issues all along. He said the settlement will accelerate the improvements.

West Virginians seeking more information about the maximum speed their modem is provisioned to receive can call Frontier at 1-888-449-0217 for more information.

Those with further questions can contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at 800-368-8808 or visit the office online at www.wvago.gov.

Verizon: Ignore Our Adamant Denials of Not Being Interested in Selling Our Wired Networks

carForSaleDespite denials Verizon Communications was interested in selling off more of its wireline network to companies like Frontier Communications, the company’s chief financial officer reminded investors Verizon is willing to sell just about anything if it will return value to its shareholders.

In September, rumors Verizon planned to sell more of its wireline network where the company has not invested in widespread FiOS fiber-to-the-home expansion grew loud enough to draw a response from Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam at the Goldman Sachs 24th annual Communicopia Conference.

“When people ask me, and I know there’s some speculation that we might be interested in selling the wireline properties, I don’t see it in the near-term,” McAdam said.

Today, Shammo seemed to clarify McAdam’s pessimistic attitude about another Verizon landline sell off in the near future.

“We’re extremely happy with the asset portfolio we have right now, but as we always say we continue to look at all things,” Shammo said. “Just like the towers, we said we would not sell the towers and then we got to a great financial position and we sold our towers. If something makes sense [and] we can return value to our shareholders and it’s not a strategic fit we’ll obviously look at that.”

Shammo

Shammo

For most of 2014, Verizon denied any interest in selling its portfolio of company-owned wireless cell towers. In February 2015 the company announced it would sell acquisition rights to most of its cell towers to American Tower Corporation for $5.056 billion in cash.

Some analysts believe the early indicators that suggest Verizon is ready to sell include its lack of upgrades in non-FiOS service areas and Verizon’s willingness to walk away from up to $144 million from the second phase of the FCC’s Connect America Fund to expand Internet access to more of Verizon’s rural landline customers.

Verizon’s decision to take a pass on broadband improvement funds infuriated four southern New Jersey counties that claim Verizon has neglected its copper network in the state. As a result of allegedly decreasing investment and interest by Verizon, customers in these areas do not get the same level of phone and broadband service that Verizon customers receive in the northern half of New Jersey.

More than a dozen communities have signed a joint petition sent to the Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey’s telecom regulator, insisting the BPU take whatever measures are needed to preserve the availability of telecommunications services in southern New Jersey. The towns also want the BPU to consider funding sources to help improve broadband service that public officials claim is woefully inadequate. Outside of Verizon FiOS service areas, Verizon offers customers traditional DSL service for Internet access.

Verizon-logoThe communities:

  • Atlantic County: Estell Manor and Weymouth Township.
  • Gloucester County: South Harrison Township.
  • Salem County: Alloway Township, Lower Alloways Creek, Mannington Township, Township of Pilesgrove, and Upper Pittsgrove Township.
  • Cumberland County: Commercial Township, Downe Township, Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Maurice River Township, City of Millville, Upper Deerfield Township, and Fairfield Township.

Officials claim Verizon has pushed its wireless alternatives to customers in the region, including its wireless landline replacement. But officials suggest Verizon’s wireless coverage and the quality of its service is not an adequate substitute for wireline service.

Verizon's Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon’s Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon has proposed decommissioning parts of its wireline network in rural service areas and substitute wireless service in the alternative. At issue are the costs to maintain a vast wireline network that reaches a dwindling number of customers. Verizon reminds regulators it has lost large numbers of residential landline customers who have switched to wireless service, making the costs to maintain service for a dwindling number of customers that much greater.

But for many communities, the focus is increasingly on broadband, especially in areas that receive little or no cable service. Telephone companies serving rural communities are surviving landline disconnects by providing broadband service.

For companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream, investments in providing broadband service are among their top spending priorities. At larger phone companies like Verizon and AT&T, highly profitable wireless divisions get the most attention and are top spending priorities.

Speaking this morning at the UBS 43rd Annual Global Media and Communications Conference, Shammo told investors Verizon will continue to allocate the majority of its capital allocation around Verizon Wireless to help densify its wireless network. Verizon, Shammo noted, plans further spending cuts for its wired networks next year as FiOS network buildouts start to taper off.

This will make expansion and improvement of Verizon DSL unlikely, and may put further cost pressure on maintaining Verizon’s wireline networks, which could further motivate a sale.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo is likely looking at three alternatives for the future:

  1. Increase investment in Verizon Communications to further expand FiOS fiber optics;
  2. Look at cost savings opportunities to improve the books at Verizon Communications, including decommissioning rural landline networks (if Verizon can win regulator approval);
  3. Consider selling Verizon’s non-core wireline assets in areas where the company has not made a substantial investment in FiOS and refocus attention on serving the dense corridor of customers along the Atlantic seaboard between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Bradford County, Pa. Complains About Poor Service, Frontier Sends ‘Cease & Desist’ Letter

The slow lane

The best way Frontier Communications believes it can resolve service problems in Pennsylvania is to threaten those complaining with a cease and desist letter that accuses the complainant of misrepresenting Frontier’s excellent service.

Bradford County, Pa. officials learned this first hand when Commissioner Darryl Miller wrote to Frontier alerting them that service outages in northeastern Pennsylvania are becoming a public safety issue. The company responded with a letter warning the commissioner to end the criticism or else.

“We’re simply looking for answers,” Commissioner Miller told WNEP-TV’s investigations reporter Dave Bohman. Miller adds he thinks it’s heavy-handed to use the words, “cease and desist.”

Miller isn’t the only one looking for answers. WNEP interviewed Susan Moore, who lives alone in the rural community of Orwell. Her phone service went out of service at least once a week over the summer.

“I’ve got a lot of health issues,” she told the TV station. The implications of not having landline service became all too clear to Moore in August when she needed to send for an ambulance.

Bradford County, Pa.

Bradford County, Pa.

Moore pressed her lifeline call alert button which relies on Frontier phone service to reach medical aid in case she falls and cannot get up or has a medical emergency. Nothing happened. Her phone service was out again.

“Without the phone service, my Life Alert doesn’t work,” Moore said. “That’s when I decided, as much pain as I was in, I got in a car and drove 20 miles to get to a hospital.”

Bradford County officials hear stories like Moore’s so often, they now eclipse complaints about potholes and taxes.

The problems affect both traditional landline dial tone service and DSL. If outages are not the subject of the complaint, slow and unresponsive Internet access usually is. Some customers were told Frontier oversold its DSL service in Bradford County and the company is waiting for federal broadband subsidies to improve service in the area.

Frontier Communications vice president Elena Kilpatrick said Frontier will spend part of a $2 million broadband improvement subsidy to deliver better service in Bradford County over the next six years. At the same time Frontier is tapping a ratepayer-funded subsidy to improve its existing service, the company is spending $10.5 billion of its own money to acquire Verizon landline infrastructure and customers in Florida, Texas, and California.

Despite the fact it will take up to six years to fully spend the subsidy, Kilpatrick claims the company has already upgraded phone and Internet service and fixed several problems reported by customers. She defended the company’s use of a threatening “cease and desist” letter sent to Commissioner Miller, claiming Frontier wanted the “misrepresentation of the facts” to stop.

Despite Kilpatrick’s claims, the complaints keep rolling in.

Randy, a Frontier customer in Bradford County reports he endures Frontier outages just about every Saturday since October, despite repeated service calls. Janise Groover wrote a Frontier technician tried to blame cobwebs for interfering with her Wi-Fi signals and poor DSL speeds — problems that are still unresolved — for which she pays Frontier $103 a month. Janice Bellinger complained her Frontier DSL connection drops “three or four times a day.” Customers in Monroe, Luzerne and Sullivan counties echoed Frontier service is dreadful in their areas as well.

Customers experiencing problems with their phone service in Pennsylvania can file an informal complaint with the state Public Utilities Commission and the FCC.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WNEP Scranton Frontier Service Problems 11-16-15.mp4

WNEP in Scranton reports Frontier’s solution to a county commissioner’s complaints about service was to send him a “cease and desist” letter. (3:16)

Altice Attempts to Win Over N.Y. Regulators With Promise of Cablevision Fiber Upgrades

atice-cablevisionPatrick Drahi is hoping New York regulators will look more favorably on his proposal to buy Cablevision with a promise to upgrade more than three million of its customers in New York City to fiber-to-the-home service.

The New York Post reports Altice representatives have held private talks with the N.Y. Public Service Commission and the New York City Department of Information Technology, which regulates telecom services in the Big Apple, about fiber optic upgrades.

With news Drahi has proposed major salary and job cuts at Cablevision as part of an effort to wring $900 million in cost savings annually from the Bethpage, Long Island-based cable company, regulators are likely to express concern about the merger and its impact on customers. Promising a fiber upgrade appears to be a calculated effort to win those regulators over, reports the Post.

Altice is capitalizing on the recent negative publicity Verizon has received for failing to meet its obligation to deliver its FiOS service to any New Yorker that requests it. Cablevision is likely to face fewer hurdles performing fiber upgrades, because the company only serves New York City customers in Bronx and parts of Brooklyn, and already operates a hybrid fiber-coax network. Cablevision would only need to replace the last mile of coaxial cable between its fiber connection points and the customer. Verizon has to replace decades-old copper phone wiring in conduits often left in disrepair.

While promising to do better than Verizon, a closer look at Altice’s largest market – France, suggests Drahi’s company isn’t meeting customer expectations either.

Altice’s French operations have lost at least one million customers so far this year, mostly as a result of severe cost cutting. The company’s promise to upgrade 3.1 million New Yorkers to fiber service will likely draw scrutiny in France. Despite similar promises of fiber upgrades to its French customers, Altice admitted in April it has so far only managed to deliver fiber to the home service to fewer than 200,000 of its own SFR customers. At least 5.2 million others are still waiting, still relying on the company’s lower performing DSL service.¹

Union organizers are attempting to step up recruitment efforts at Cablevision in advance of an Altice takeover. The Cablevision99 Facebook page, run by the Communications Workers of America, has been warning Cablevision employees their job security and compensation may be at risk if the company is sold to Altice.

¹ page 21

Britain Adopting American Broadband Business Model: Less Competition, More Rate Hikes

british poundA decision by Great Britain’s broadband industry to follow America’s lead consolidating the number of competitors to “improve efficiency” and wring “cost savings” out of the business resulted in few service improvements and a much bigger bill for consumers.

A Guardian Money investigation examining British broadband pricing over the past four years found customers paying 25-30 percent more for essentially the same service they received before, with loyal customers facing the steepest rate increases.

It’s a dramatic fall for a market long recognized as one of the most competitive in the world. In 2006, TalkTalk — a major British ISP — even gave away broadband service for free in a promotion to consumers willing to cover BT’s telephone line rental charges.

But pressure from shareholders and investment bankers to deliver American-sized profits have spurred a wave of consolidation among providers in the United Kingdom, similar to the mergers of cable companies in the United States. Well known ISPs like Blueyonder, Tiscali, AOL, BE, Tesco, O2, and others in the United Kingdom have all been swallowed up by bigger rivals – often TalkTalk. As of last year, just four major competitors remain – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin, which together hold 88% of the market. If regulators allow BT’s takeover of EE, that percentage will rise to 92%.

talktalk-logo-370x229As consumers find fewer and fewer options for broadband, they are also discovering a larger bill, fueled by runaway rate increases well in excess of inflation. While consolidated markets in the United States and Great Britain increasingly lack enough competition to temper rate increases, heavy competition on the European continent has resulted in flat or even lower prices for broadband along with significant service upgrades. British consumers now pay up to 50% more for broadband than many of their European counterparts in Germany, France, the Benelux countries, and beyond.

Also familiar to Americans, the best prices for service only go to new customers. Existing, loyal customers pay the highest prices, while those flipping between providers (or threatening to do so) get much lower “retention” or “new customer” pricing. But only those willing to fight for a better deal get one.

In October, TalkTalk, responsible for much of the consolidation wave, raised broadband prices yet again — the second major price hike this year. Customers are reeling over the rate increases, despite the fact they still seem inexpensive by American standards. Landline rental charges are increasing from $25.40 to $26.91 a month, and are a necessary prerequisite to buying Internet access from TalkTalk. Its Simply Broadband entry-level package is jumping another £2.50 a month just four months after the last rate hike. That means instead of paying an extra $7.60 a month for broadband, customers will now pay $11.40. The average British consumer now pays an average of $57.79 a month for a phone line with enhanced DSL broadband service.

btIn France, competition is forcing providers to move towards fiber optic broadband and scrap DSL service. But French consumers are not paying a premium for upgrades necessitated by competition on the ground. While British households pay close to $60 a month, a comparable package in France from Orange known as L’essentiel d’internet à la maison costs only $36.50 a month, including a TV package and unlimited calling to other landlines. But the deal gets even better if you shop around. Free, a major French competitor, offers a near-identical package for just $32.19 a month. In the United States, packages of this type can cost $130 or more if you do not receive a promotion, $99 a month if you do.

In France, providers rarely claim they need to cap Internet usage or raise prices to cover the cost of investing in their networks. That is considered the cost of doing business in a fiercely competitive marketplace, and it forces French providers to deliver good value and service for money. Providers like Patrick Drahi/Altice’s SFR-Numericable attempted to reap more profits out of its cable business by cutting costs, discontinuing most promotions and marketing, and offshoring customer support to North African call centers. At least one million customers left for better service elsewhere in 2015.

logo_freeIn Britain, there are fewer options for customers to seek a better deal, and the remaining providers know it. As a result, marketplace conditions and an increasing lack of competition have made conditions right for rate increases. BT, Sky, Virgin, and Plusnet (controlled by BT) have all taken advantage and hiked prices once again this year between 6-10%, on top of other large rises.

Ewan Taylor-Gibson, broadband expert at uSwitch.com, told the Guardian, “it’s the existing customers that have borne the brunt of the increase in landline and package costs over recent years.”

Many British consumers are afraid of disrupting their Internet access going through the process of changing providers in a search for a better deal. Some report it can take a few days to a week to process a provider change that should take minutes (because most providers rely entirely on BT’s DSL network over which they offer service). Those willing to make a change are about the only ones still getting a good deal from British providers. Customers are starting to learn that when their new customer promotion ends, asking for an extension or signing up with another company is the only way to prevent a massive bill spike that Taylor-Gibson estimates now averages 89%.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

Providers with the largest increases use the same excuses as their American counterparts to defend them. BT claims a reduction in income from providing landline service is forcing it to raise prices to make up the shortfall. Critics suggest those increases are also helping BT recoup the $1.36 billion it controversially paid for the rights to carry Champions League football — money it could have invested in network upgrades instead.

The current government seems predisposed to permit the marketplace to resolve pricing on its own, either through competition among the remaining players or allowing skyrocketing prices to reach a level deemed attractive by potential new entrants into the market. The usually protective British regulator Ofcom also seems content taking a light hand to British ISPs, enforcing price disclosures as a solution to increasingly costly Internet service and making it easier for consumers to bounce between the remaining providers many think are overcharging for service.

Things could be worse. British consumers could face the marketplace duopoly or monopoly most customers in the United States and Canada live with, along with even higher prices charged for service. The Guardian surveyed telecom services across several European countries and found that, like in the UK, most customers are required to bundle a landline rental charge and broadband package together to get Internet access, but they are still paying less overall than North Americans do.

Here is what other countries pay for service:

United Kingdom: Basic BT home phone service with unlimited “up to 17Mbps” DSL broadband costs $31.12 per month, plus a monthly landline charge of $27.35 including free weekend calls. An unlimited calling plan with no dialing charges costs an extra $12 a month. Competitor TalkTalk charges $11.40 for unlimited broadband on its entry-level Simply Broadband offer, plus $26.91 for the monthly landline rental charge.

France: Many Orange customers sign up for the popular L’essentiel d’internet à la maison plan, which bundles broadband, a phone line with unlimited calling to other landlines, and a TV package available in many areas for $36.50 a month. Competitor Free.fr charges $32.19 for essentially the same package.

Germany: Deutsche Telekom offers its cheapest home phone/broadband package for $37.75 after a less expensive promotional offer expires. One of its largest competitors, 1&1, offers the same package for $33.29 a month after the teaser rate has ended.

Spain: Telefónica, Spain’s largest phone company, offers service under its Movistar brand combining an unlimited calling landline and up to 30Mbps Internet access for $46.21 a month. Its rival Tele2 offers a comparable package for a dramatically lower price: $29.11 a month.

Ireland: National telecom company Eircomis is overseeing Ireland’s telecom makeover, replacing a lot of copper phone lines with fiber optics. Basic broadband starts with 100Mbps service on the fiber network with a promotional rate of $26.82 for the first four months. After that, things get expensive under European standards. That 100Mbps service carries a regular price of $66.51 a month, deemed “hefty” by the Guardian, although cheaper that what North Americans pay cable companies for 100Mbps download speeds after their promotion ends. For that price, Irish customers also get unlimited calling to other Irish landlines and mobiles. If that is too much, rival Sky offers a basic phone and broadband deal for $32.18 with a one-year contract.

Frontier Makes Excuses for Customer Losses: People Moved Away

frontierFrontier Communications continues to face challenges keeping customers in its legacy copper wire service areas, where only modest investments in network upgrades have proved insufficient to stop customers shopping around for better service.

Company officials reported a loss of about 30,000 residential customers during the last quarter, a drop of nearly 1% of its total customer base. Nearly 2% of Frontier’s business customers also took their business elsewhere, leaving the company with 3.1 million remaining residential customers and 294,000 business customers.

Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy blamed many of the customer losses on customers moving.

“During the summer, we do tend to see an uptick in customer [losses] that might have double play and in some cases triple play, as they move or make their decisions about moving their homes to a different location,” McCarthy said, claiming that most of Frontier’s losses overall came from voice-only customers.

As Frontier expands rural broadband opportunities, the phone company is still adding Internet customers, picking up a net gain of 27,200 broadband accounts. The company depends heavily on broadband to replace revenue lost from landline disconnects.

“We continue to see more customers choose higher-speed broadband products,” McCarthy said on a conference call to investors earlier today. “In the third quarter, 47% of the broadband activity was above the basic speed tier of 6Mbps. More than 70% of our residential broadband customers are still utilizing our basic speed tier, so we have substantial opportunity to improve our average revenue per customer as they upgrade their service.”

McCarthy offered no statistics about how many of Frontier’s DSL customers can substantially upgrade their speeds using Frontier’s existing infrastructure. Many Frontier broadband customers have complained their speeds reflect the maximum capacity of Frontier’s network in the immediate area, and many claim they do not consistently receive the speed level Frontier advertises.

Service is appreciably better in areas upgraded before being acquired by Frontier. McCarthy said some areas of Connecticut, acquired from AT&T, are now able to get speed “in excess of 100Mbps over our copper infrastructure.”

“Over time, we will be expanding the technology we use for 100Mbps in Connecticut to more of our markets elsewhere,” McCarthy promised. “In our FiOS markets, we already offer speed up to one gigabit and we have seen the benefit of offering these higher speeds as customers choose speed tiers to match their lifestyle choices.”

Frontier also separately notified the Federal Communications Commission it has no immediate plans to slap usage caps or metered service on customers.

“Frontier does not apply usage-based pricing to any of its broadband offerings,” Frontier said in an FCC filing. “Frontier has no plans at this time to offer a metered broadband service. We continue to monitor the market and continue to consider a usage-based offering as an option.”

Frontier suggested several factors would be considered when discussing usage-based billing: “the FCC’s Open Internet rules, policies of other companies, consumer demand, network capacity, and cost, among other factors.”

AT&T Leveraging Its DirecTV Acquisition to Cut Customer Promotions, Raise Prices

yay attWith one less significant competitor in the marketplace, AT&T feels safe cutting back customer promotions to raise prices and profitability, even if it means losing customers.

AT&T’s original argument for acquiring DirecTV was to negotiate cost savings from cable programmers by qualifying for greater volume discounts available from combining 5.7 million U-verse TV customers with DirecTV’s roughly 20.3 million U.S. subscribers. But AT&T has now made it clear it is keeping those savings for itself.

“We have our target to get to $2.5 billion or more in savings,” said John J. Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, in a conference call with investors. “We already are realizing some of that in our content and supplier relationships. We really like our momentum here, and we are confident we can continue to expand margins and cut costs, even with pressure from our international operations.”

At the same time AT&T is enjoying billions in savings, in recognition of the fact its customers now have fewer competitors with whom they can do business, the time is right to cut back on money-saving promotional plans, effectively raising prices for customers.

“Because of our focus on profitability, we really got away from promotional pricing, and those customers who were cost-sensitive just had a propensity to churn,” Stephens said, referring to an industry term that means customers canceled service either because it got too expensive or they found a better deal elsewhere.

Stephens

Stephens

Stephens told investors its new pricing strategy, as expected, brought reductions in the number of U-verse video subscribers during the latest quarter. The company is also pushing more customers towards DirecTV and away from U-verse because programming costs are lower on the satellite platform. The new focus on profits means fewer customers are choosing AT&T and many existing DSL customers are resisting efforts to force them on to the U-verse platform.

“Net adds dropped with fewer promotions and shifting our focus to the lower content cost DirecTV platform,” Stephens admitted. “We added 192,000 IP broadband customers in the quarter, as migrations from our DSL base continued to slow. U-verse video losses also put some pressure on broadband numbers due to our high attachment rates.”

Stephens noted the customer growth declines occurred at the same time pressure on AT&T’s costs are dropping significantly. In October, the company signed an agreement with Viacom for its cable programming networks Stephens says represents “best-in-industry pricing,” made possible from the enhanced volume discounts AT&T now receives.

DirecTV will also allow AT&T to curtail additional U-verse expansion into its more rural service areas.

att directv“They don’t have television in these areas, or I should say we didn’t have a video offering,” Stephens said of AT&T’s rural customer base, mostly still dependent on DSL. With its ownership of a satellite TV provider, there is less urgency to expand rural U-verse. “These were generally out of the U-verse footprint, but now we do. And now we’ll be able to provide them with a video offering through DirecTV, and we’re very pleased with that. So we are hopeful that now this nationwide video service will help us in improving our overall broadband positioning.”

AT&T’s deal with the government to win approval of its merger with DirecTV committed the company to expand high-speed fiber optic broadband to at least 12.5 million customer locations and offer discounts to low-income customers. AT&T’s interpretation of the agreement means it will expand broadband service mostly in urban areas while continuing to allow its rural DSL broadband networks to lose customers.

“Over the last few years, the real trend has been a migration from DSL to IP broadband [eg. U-verse],” Stephens said. “And that’s been something that we’ve encouraged ourselves, and we’re beginning to complete that process or near completion where the DSL customers we have left is a much lower percentage than [those with U-verse] broadband capabilities from us.”

att cricket“I’m going to tell you, I think on the consumer side we’re down into the two million range on total DSL customers,” Stephens said. “[…] I would suggest to you it has changed dramatically over the course of four or five years, where it used to be 90% plus of our broadband base and now it’s a much lower percentage. So we’ve gone through that migration not completely, but almost completely.”

AT&T’s commitment to aid low-income customers is not clear, as customers report AT&T less willing to offer or extend money-saving promotions. On the wireless side of AT&T’s business, the company is increasingly pushing price-sensitive customers out of its network.

“Our focus is to provide the best customer experience while increasing profitability and not just chase customer counts,” Stephens said. “Our third quarter results drive that point home. We had our highest ever wireless service [profit] margins at 49.4%.”

In particular, AT&T is sacrificing its low-revenue feature phone customers by cutting back on handset choices and trying to shift certain prepaid customers to the less venerable Cricket brand. AT&T acquired Cricket from Leap Wireless in the spring of 2014. It completed a nationwide shutdown of Cricket’s competitive CDMA wireless network this fall and has pushed Cricket’s current customer base onto AT&T’s GSM network, often at a higher cost to customers.

Stephens reported AT&T Cricket customers now pay nearly $10 more a month than departing AT&T customers that maintained postpaid feature phones until the end of their two-year contracts.

“On the churn, first and foremost, yes, the feature phone churn is hitting us and having an impact on us, and those are decisions we made not to chase those customers,” Stephens informed investors. “[We] can’t make the math work not only on the pricing for those customers but the impact throughout our base.”

Stephens claimed profits are now AT&T’s number one priority.

“We’re going to be focused on profitable growth, not just chasing customer counts or specific targets,” Stephens said. “We’re going to really be focused on just getting the most profits out of the business.”

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