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AT&T Getting Pushback from Consumer Groups Over Dropping Landline Service in Illinois

Phillip Dampier April 20, 2017 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

A telecommunications bill largely written at the behest of AT&T now working its way through the Illinois legislature would allow AT&T to discontinue landline telephone service in the state, potentially eliminating traditional phone service that more than a million Illinois residents and businesses still depend on.

“The Illinois Telecom Act is up for review in the 2017 legislative session, and AT&T is pushing two deregulation bills—Senate Bill 1381 and House Bill 2691,” says the Citizen’s Utility Board (CUB) website. “The bills would open the door for the company to end traditional home phone service in Illinois and push consumers onto less affordable and reliable alternatives.”

Consumer advocates urged Illinoisans to visit SaveOurPhoneService.com to send messages to the General Assembly against AT&T’s deregulation bills, or they can also call a special toll-free hotline, at 1-844-220-5552, to talk to their legislators.

With Illinois’ Telecommunications Act under review and set to expire July 1, AT&T’s bills would:

  • Abolish the state requirement that AT&T serve traditional landline customers. That authority would be ceded to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Illinois would be stripped of any meaningful oversight to protect AT&T’s 1.2 million business and residential landline customers from inferior service.
  • Abolish low-cost calling plans. The General Assembly mandates that AT&T offer three “Consumer’s Choice” plans, which were created by CUB under a legal settlement. Illinois’ best local phone deals, which cost about $3 to $20 a month, have saved callers millions of dollars, and are under a state-mandated price freeze.

For many in Illinois still bypassed by AT&T’s U-verse fiber-to-the-neighborhood system, the measure could leave customers with just two choices for home phone service – a local cable operator or a wireless mobile provider — both potentially more expensive and less reliable than basic landline service.

“It doesn’t take someone with an economic degree that one option, one unregulated option for people, isn’t very cheap. So I’m sure cable is sitting back licking their chops,” said Citizens Utility Board director of governmental affairs Bryan McDaniel.

Some Chicago-area residents, like Michele Charous and Carol Kolen, prefer traditional landline service for its cost and reliability. A significant percentage of older residents still depend on affordable rotary dial landline phone service from AT&T — a service the phone company now wants to scrap.

AT&T claims more than 90% of Illinois customers have either replaced landline service for a cell phone or have switched to digital U-verse phone service from AT&T or a cable operator. But AT&T doesn’t mention its network upgrades have bypassed large rural sections of the state, and its U-verse phone service can cost more than a traditional landline.

Kolen and Charous claim their AT&T landline service has proven reliable for decades, while cell service has not, especially in an emergency.

Katherine Panny adds she is in her 80s, does not have a cellphone or a computer and has a rotary dial phone on her kitchen wall. She said she likes it.

“I depend on this landline with my life,” she said.

“We are not at the point we can guarantee that this is going to work all the time,” added Kolen.

AT&T’s part supplier.

“I would be just isolated because how would I be able to talk anybody if the battery died or I forgot to charge it what would I do,” Charous said.

“For a lot of people a landline is there most reliable and affordable lifeline to vital services,” said Jim Chilsen, of the Citizens Utility Board. “Our fear is that, what AT&T really wants to do is push consumers onto phone options that tend to be more expensive and tend to be less reliable.”

AT&T Illinois and Midwest president Paul La Schiazza gave some stark admissions to reporters about the state of AT&T’s wireline network in Illinois.

By the end of this year, “less than 10 percent of the households [in Illinois] will have an old style, voice-only line in their home,” La Schiazza said. AT&T is losing about 1,000 traditional landline customers a day. Maintenance on the traditional telephone system is also getting more difficult, and the phone company is turning to some unique sources for parts these days.

“Believe it or not, even AT&T at times, has to go to eBay to scrounge for parts to keep these ‘old-style’ switches running,” he said.

WMAQ in Chicago reports some Illinois consumers are worried AT&T is about to pull the plug on their landline home phone service. (2:38)

FCC Considering Making It Easier for Telcos to Kill Landline/DSL Service

The FCC has circulated a draft rulemaking that proposes to make it easier for phone companies to end landline and DSL service in areas they are no longer interested in maintaining existing infrastructure.

“We propose eliminating some or all of the changes to the copper retirement process adopted by the Commission in the 2015 Technology Transitions Order,” according to the draft, which would allow phone companies to end service “where alternative voice services are available to consumers in the affected service area.”

The proposed new policy would depart significantly from the one put in place during the Obama Administration because it would end assurances that competing providers would have reasonable and affordable access to wholesale broadband and voice services after phone companies mothball their copper wire networks in favor of wireless or fiber alternatives. If the FCC proposal passes, incumbent phone companies like Verizon and AT&T could end rural landline and DSL service and not make provisions for competitors to have access to the technology alternatives the phone companies would offer affected customers.

Verizon immediately praised the FCC proposal, saying it was “encouraged the FCC has set as a priority creating a regulatory environment that encourages investment in next-generation networks and clears away outdated and unnecessary regulations,” wrote Will Johnson, senior vice-president of federal regulatory and legal affairs at Verizon. “This action is forward-looking, productive and will lead to tangible consumer benefits.”

Previous attempts by Verizon to discontinue landline and DSL service did not lead to “tangible consumer benefits” as Verizon might have hoped. Instead, it led to a consumer backlash, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Verizon elected not to rebuild its copper wire infrastructure in affected coastal communities in New York and New Jersey. Instead, it introduced a wireless landline replacement called Voice Link that proved unpopular and caused a revolt among residents on Fire Island. The wireless replacement did not support data, health monitoring, credit card transaction processing, faxing, and was criticized for being unreliable. Verizon eventually relented and opted to expand its FiOS fiber to the home network on the island instead.

Verizon also attempted to market Voice Link to New York residents in certain urban and rural service areas affected by extended service outages in lieu of repairing its existing infrastructure. Under the proposed changes, the FCC would ease the rules governing the transition away from copper-based services, which include traditional landline service and DSL, in favor of wireless technology replacements and fiber optics.

Because telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon have made mothballing rural wireline infrastructure a priority, the FCC strengthened its rules in 2015 by doubling the notification window from 90 to 180 days, giving more time for affected customers to make other service arrangements or complain to regulators that there were no suitable alternatives. The FCC wants to roll back that provision to its earlier 90-day notification window in response to telephone company complaints that maintaining copper wire infrastructure is expensive and diverted investment away from next-generation networks.

AT&T has been lobbying for several years to win permission from state legislatures to abandon copper wireline infrastructure, mostly in rural areas, where the company has chosen not to upgrade to fiber optic networks. AT&T claims only about 10% of their original landline customer base still have that service.

Both Verizon and AT&T have shown an interest in moving rural consumers to more proprietary wireless networks, preferably their own, where consumers would get voice and data services. But consumer advocates complain customers could lose access to competitive alternatives, may not have a guarantee of reliable service because of variable wireless coverage, could pay substantially more for wireless alternatives, and may be forced to use technology that either does not support or works less reliably with home security systems, medical monitoring, faxing, and data-related transactions like credit card processing.

Other consumer groups like AARP and Public Knowledge have complained that shortening the window for a transition away from basic landline and DSL service to alternative technology could disproportionately affect the customers most likely to still depend on traditional wireline service — the elderly, poor, and those in rural areas.

AT&T Wants to Walk Away from Universal Landline Service in Illinois

AT&T is seeking permission to walk away from its decades-long commitment to provide universal access to landline service in Illinois, which could mean the eventual end of landline phone and wired broadband service in parts of the state.

An Illinois Senate committee approved a bill in March effectively ghostwritten by AT&T that will end the phone company’s legal obligation to provide wired services. AT&T claims 90% of consumers have already dropped landlines in Illinois, switching to cell phone or Voice over IP services. But the company would not say how many consumers still get wired broadband service from AT&T.

AT&T is laying the groundwork to eventually mothball its copper wire networks. Customers in urban areas would likely be serviced by AT&T’s fiber-copper U-verse network while rural areas would be served entirely by AT&T’s wireless cellular network. The company has already received approval to drop landline service in 19 of the 21 states where it provides landline service. AT&T Illinois president Paul La Schiazza said the company won’t approach the FCC about switching the network off for good until it gets approval in all 21 states.

If AT&T wins the right to pull the plug, it need only provide customers with 60 days notice. The bill also currently qualifies only one company in Illinois to discontinue service almost immediately — AT&T. Despite that, the bill has won support from independent phone companies in the state including Frontier Communications.

La Schiazza complains the government has treated AT&T unfairly by requiring it to provide service while other companies can cherry-pick service areas.

“What we’re left with in Illinois is we’re not guaranteed any customers, we’re not guaranteed any return … yet we still are required to provide an old-style, voice-only telephone line to every customer in our service territory,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “No competitor is required to do that. They can pick and choose whatever customers they want to serve and they can use whatever available technology that they want to.”

But AT&T’s competitors never enjoyed a legacy as a government-sanctioned monopoly, and do not benefit from rights-of-access, government tax credits, and mature network infrastructure over which it can offer service almost anywhere. AT&T also wins an end to the universal service mandate that has been a part of telecom public policy for decades, which means some rural state residents will not be able to get any telephone or internet service from AT&T or any other provider.

AT&T claims it will invest the money it currently puts into wireline network maintenance into ‘services consumers actually want,’ which has traditionally been its wireless network. AT&T’s preferred solution for rural service is to bolster its wireless network and convert existing wired customers into wireless ones. But that gives some state legislators pause, and efforts to decommission landline service by Verizon in rural New York and Superstorm Sandy-ravaged communities along the New York and New Jersey shoreline met with howls of protest from customers about inferior service.

Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, warned AT&T’s proposal was good for AT&T but potentially bad news for rural, older, and poor residents. Scarr submitted testimony to the Illinois Senate’s Telecommunications and Information Technology Committee that argued the current bill SB1381 was favorable to AT&T’s corporate agenda but failed to preserve time-honored traditions of universal service, consumer protection, competition, and public safety.

Scarr pointed out several recent wireless failures including several 911 outages that disrupted access to emergency services nationwide and AT&T’s inability to offer reliable wireless service during mass events. He also questioned whether AT&T would actually invest adequately in improving coverage in Illinois.

“I don’t think we can take away the old policy without replacing (it with a) new one and just pray to the gods of the markets to provide everything,” Scarr said. “I’m quite confident that’s not going to work out for all Illinoisans, especially since we don’t have real competition in broadband.”

Three More Frustrated Frontier Employees Speak Out: Our Customers Deserve Better

lilyFrustration at Frontier Communications doesn’t stop with customers. Employees are also speaking out about the company’s inability to manage their growing acquisitions and offer good service to customers. Others are confused about major company priorities and initiatives that suddenly get dropped, and customer service representatives feel like they are cheating customers selling them products and services that are better in name only.

Three employees this month provided unsolicited letters asking Stop the Cap! to publicize the problems at Frontier because their managers are not listening and they want corporate management to step in and make necessary changes.

“Sally” (we have chosen pseudonyms to protect the authors’ identities) is a customer service representative at a major Frontier call center in Florida. She is saddened by the company’s “Wells Fargo” culture — pushing customers to buy products and services they don’t need just to make their sales numbers.

“Frontier has been pushing us hard to sell customers on our Frontier Secure suite of products, which adds anything from $5 to $25 to your bill and is supposed to protect you from identity theft, damaged devices, viruses, and provide technical support for your electronics,” Sally tells Stop the Cap! “Unfortunately, it sounds much better than it actually is because there are so many exclusions and restrictions. I’ve heard complaints from customers who bought into the program thinking it would protect their home computer, but then after a lightning strike did its damage, it turns out Frontier doesn’t cover “home-made” computers which means anything other than a computer you buy in a store and never upgrade.”

Sally recounts stories about her managers pushing Frontier Secure at every opportunity, because the profits that come from providing services many customers will never use are astounding.

Frontier has a plain jane blog.

Frontier has a plain jane blog.

“They even push us to sell virus protection on tablets and smartphones like the iPhone, which is generally ridiculous,” Sally wrote. “What is horrifying to me is that the people most likely to say yes to our sales pitches are our elderly customers who have simple landlines and we’re not even sure they have a computer to protect. But they like the identity protection, which is supposed to monitor your credit and cancel your credit cards if your identity is stolen. What we don’t tell you is you can do most of that yourself for free and if you call a bank to report identify theft, they can notify every bank to either put a hold on your credit or reissue new cards. It costs nothing.”

Sally says Frontier’s “Premium Technical Support” often relies on employees Googling for instruction manuals and then reading them back to customers. That service starts at $12.99 a month.

“Instead of selling people better internet access or more reliable phone service, we’ve gone into gimmicks and it’s embarrassing,” reports Sally.

“Jim” is a former Verizon senior technician who is now working for Frontier Communications in Texas. He says he spends several hours a day navigating confusion between Verizon’s long-standing processes for managing network issues and his new supervisors who are dealing with Frontier’s completely different corporate culture.

frontier new logo“If you ever wondered why it takes so long to get something done with Frontier, I can tell you — it’s the bureaucracy and a culture clash between the two companies,” writes Jim. “Working for Verizon’s wireline division was already stressful over the years because they were not investing very much in wired services and we’d learn to manage that by hoarding things and trying to keep issues as local as possible, but Frontier is a giant headache. When a customer needs something from us, often we cannot give the customer a good estimate of when he or she will get what they need because we don’t know ourselves. But we are told to ‘be optimistic’ or ‘be vague’ which is why there are a lot of broken deadlines or disappointments. They never tell us to lie, but we cannot level with customers either because many will bolt to Time Warner Cable or Charter if we told them the God honest truth. We have business and residential customers promised certain broadband performance by sales that we cannot give them because they are not FiOS-enabled. If you were promised 75Mbps and got 6Mbps, you’d start shopping around, too.”

Jim writes the cutover between Verizon and Frontier would have gone much smoother if the company culture of “not in my job description” was not so pervasive.

Who cares if the fine print is in English.

Who cares if the fine print is in English.

“Frontier was given old data from Verizon because we haven’t spent serious money on certifying the accuracy of our databases in years and nobody bothered to verify it before acting on it, and that is why a lot of customers lost their service,” writes Jim. “Verizon is at fault here too because when you work at a giant company like this you learn the company culture is to know your job responsibilities and don’t exceed them. Frontier people seem to be more flexible to a point, but they are also real good at avoiding getting caught holding the bag when something goes wrong, so important tasks or ongoing problems can be neglected because nobody wants to get the blame or feel like they are exposed when management shows up wondering why things aren’t working right.”

“It can be a career and promotion death sentence to be someone willing to stick their neck out and solve problems if your manager or their manager doesn’t like what you’ve done, actually helped create the problem you are trying to solve, or if you are perceived as ‘too negative.'”

Paul, a Frontier Communications employee in the mid-Atlantic region, echoes Jim’s concerns that managers don’t really appreciate hearing criticism. Paul is one of the many workers tasked with keeping Frontier’s website and e-commerce functions up and running. A former Verizon worker, Paul has been shocked by the ineptness of management that has resulted in some serious embarrassments at Frontier.

Frontier’s website is unique among significantly sized telecom companies because one cannot actually place an online order for service or even provide accurate speed and pricing information because the company gave up on trying to make sure those features were reliable. Paul reports managers were warned about the functionality problems but refused to listen.

“[They tell] employees to take ownership of issues, yet when we try to do that very thing we are overruled and our opinions are discounted at every turn,” writes Paul. “Prior to the very first rollout of [Frontier’s redesigned] website I informed [management] that the site had severe performance issues, but was told […] I needed to keep my opinions to myself and the vice president decided to launch the site anyway.”

As a result, Frontier’s website crashed and remained offline and/or disabled for a week, reports Paul.

Another satisfied customer in Texas?

Another satisfied customer in Texas?

Out of the blue “priorities” also suddenly arise that require workers to scramble, with less than excellent results. One day, managers told the software team there was an urgent need to launch Spanish language functionality for the website. But because of the rush, employees not well-versed in the language produced a Spanish-language website that has been derided by customers for its frequent use of “Spanglish” and lack of professionalism.

“They pushed Spanish language very hard and told us that it HAD to be in production before the April 1st cutover with Verizon because of the high frequency of Verizon customers that were used to this feature,” writes Paul. “Once we put it out there, every time there is an issue with Spanish on our site they tell us that it’s only one percent of traffic so they aren’t all the that concerned with it. Then when there is an issue with it they ask us why we didn’t test it. But they refused to give us the needed time to test it because they just wanted to push it out the door and move on to the next project.”

Paul also echoes what Sally in Florida is concerned about — a lack of integrity in Frontier’s marketing department.

“I have never worked for a more unethical company and I used to work for Verizon so that is saying something,” writes Paul. “[Frontier charges] customers for ‘Digital Phone Service,’ but it’s really just copper facilities. They call it “Digital” because it is working out of a digital switch. They change verbiage to make something sound better than what it really is. They say we have a 100% U.S.-based company but then hire IT folks overseas to do some of the work. They spend more money on sponsoring football teams than they do upgrading equipment and infrastructure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picker

Picker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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