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Google Fiber Testing New Landline Phone Service: Google Fiber Phone

Phillip Dampier February 1, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Google Fiber & Wireless No Comments

Google-Fiber-Rabbit-logoDespite predictions Google Fiber had no interest in offering customers landline telephone service, Google has quietly begun testing a new residential voice service called Google Fiber Phone that appeared to be powered by its Google Voice service.

Google hoped to keep the trial confidential, but one of its subscribers shared their invitation with the Washington Post:

We are always looking to provide new offerings to members of our Fiber Trusted Tester program which gives you early access to confidential products and features.

Our latest offering is Google Fiber Phone, which gives you the chance to add home phone service to your current Fiber service plan and offers several advanced features:

  • A phone number that lives in the cloud. With Fiber Phone you can use the right phone for your needs whether it’s your mobile device on the go or your landline at home. No more worrying about cell reception or your battery life when your home.
  • Voicemail the way it should be. Get your messages transcribed delivered directly to your email.
  • Get only the calls you want when you want. Spam filtering, call screening, and do not disturb make sure the right people can get in touch with you at the right time.

With Fiber Phone you have the option to get a new number or transfer an existing landline or cell number. If you’re interested in testing this product please fill out this form within one week.

Please be aware that testing Google Fiber Phone will require a service visit in which a Fiber team member will come to your home to install a piece of equipment. If you’re selected for this Trusted Tester group, we will be actively seeking your feedback – both good and bad – so that we can improve Fiber Phone once we launch it to all of our customers.

Please remember that the Trusted Tester Program gives you early access to features which are not yet available to the public, so please help us keep this confidential.

Thanks,

The Google Fiber Team

Google-voiceThe feature set sounds almost identical to Google Voice, which offers free phone service. For the first time, Google is prepared to allow customers to port existing landline numbers to its phone service. Previously, Google Voice customers could only port a cell phone number or select a new number to start the service.

Google Fiber has only sold single or double-play packages of Internet and/or television service. Customers looking for telephone service had to select a third-party provider like Vonage or Ooma or be technically proficient to get Google Voice service up and running with Voice over IP equipment. Including Google Fiber Phone would allow Google to sell a triple-play package.

The technician visit required is likely to involve wiring Google Fiber’s beta test phone line into a home’s existing telephone wiring, which will let customers use their current home and cordless phones.

Google has not announced a price for the service, but there is every chance it could come free with Google Fiber, which starts at $70 a month for 1 gigabit broadband service.

Despite the increasing frequency of announcements promoting new Google Fiber cities, Google’s currently operating fiber network remains modest. In October 2015, Bernstein Research estimated Google Fiber passed about 427,000 homes and 96,000 business locations, primarily in Kansas City and Provo, Utah, according to Multichannel News. Bernstein estimated Google Fiber has about 120,000 paid customers nationwide.

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)

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.”

Frontier Plans to Finance Acquisition of Verizon Lines With $6.6 Billion in Junk Bonds

frontier-fast-buffalo-large-2To complete an acquisition of landline assets in California, Florida, and Texas from Verizon Communications, Frontier Communications is hoping to raise $6.6 billion in “speculative-grade debt” to finance the deal.

Frontier will begin selling the securities better known as “junk bonds” starting today with a target date of Sept. 15 or 16 to complete the sale, according to Bloomberg News.

Wall Street raised its eyebrows at the amount of the transaction — the second largest junk-rated deal since Valeant Pharmaceuticals sold almost $10 billion in junk bonds in March.

Frontier plans to offer a high yield to attract investors, some already favoring the company’s stock for its reliable shareholder dividend payout. Frontier has been a popular choice for investors relying on dividend income — money Frontier distributes to shareholders — that critics contend limit Frontier’s ability to improve its network of largely rural landlines.

analysisCalifornian consumers are among those most concerned about a Frontier takeover of landline and FiOS service. Verizon ventured far beyond its original service area extending from Maine to Virginia after it acquired independent telephone networks operated by General Telephone (GTE) and Continental Telephone (Contel) in 2000. In 2015, the company wants to return to its core landline service area in the northeast.

junk1David Lazarus, a consumer reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wonders how ratepayers will benefit from a Frontier takeover.

“Financial analysts are generally upbeat about the deal, but that reflects the projected benefits to the corporate players, not consumers,” Lazarus wrote.

Verizon’s claims the sale will help refocus the company on its “core markets” in the east and Frontier’s suggestion the Verizon acquisition will enhance Frontier’s footprint with “rich fiber-based assets” didn’t seem to excite Lazarus.

“I honestly wonder if corporate leaders know how ridiculous they sound when they spout such gobbledygook,” he added.

Lazarus suspects Verizon is worried the Obama Administration may eventually extend universal service obligations to broadband, which would force phone companies to deliver broadband to any telephone customer that wants the service, regardless of how much it costs to offer it. Universal Service remains an important legacy of wireline landline telephone service. Your landline survives under a regulatory framework not applicable to the wireless business, where both AT&T and Verizon Wireless now make the bulk of their profits.

junk2As AT&T and Verizon ponder ditching high-cost landline customers, so long as there are companies like Frontier willing to buy, the deal works for both. Verizon gets a tax-free transaction that benefits both executives and shareholders. An already debt-laden Frontier satisfies shareholders by growing the business, which usually makes the balance sheet look good each quarter.

Even as Frontier takes on a massive new tranche of debt, in the short-term the more landlines Frontier acquires, the happier shareholders will be. More customers equal more revenue — revenue that can assuage fears of Frontier’s eye-popping debt load. That added revenue often also means a nice dividend payout to shareholders, unless that money has to be diverted to debt payments or network improvements.

Unfortunately, like a Ponzi scheme, Frontier will have to continue acquiring new landline customers from other companies indefinitely to make it all work. If it can’t, or if customers continue to flee Frontier for more capable providers, revenue numbers will worsen, only making the company’s large debt obligations look even more ominous. Some shareholders think Frontier’s days of paying very high dividends are already behind them as the company takes on even more debt. The value of Frontier stock has dropped 35% in the last six months. In the second quarter of 2015, Frontier reported losses of $28 million. Last year at the same time, Frontier reported $38 million in profits.

junk3Those losses have to be reflected somewhere, and customers complain they are paying the highest price. West Virginians are among those that regularly accuse Frontier of chronically under-investing in broadband service in the state. Many rural communities obtaining broadband for the first time initially appreciated Frontier’s efforts, but have since grown critical of the performance of Frontier’s DSL service, which can slow to 1Mbps or less during the evenings because Frontier has oversold its network and not kept up with usage demands.

Frontier’s deal with Verizon allows it to acquire a large state of the art FiOS fiber to the home network Frontier has never been willing to build itself. Keeping an existing fiber network up and running is considerably less expensive than building one from scratch. That explains why Frontier customers in ex-Verizon FiOS areas enjoy relatively good service while legacy customers still connected to copper phone lines that were installed in the 1960s (or earlier) are stuck with uneven and slow-performing DSL that rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband — 25Mbps. Where customers have a choice between Frontier DSL and another wired provider, most choose fiber or coaxial-based Internet service. Frontier’s rural service focus protects the company by limiting the effects of that kind of competition.

In the near term, Frontier’s biggest threat could eventually come from wireless 4G LTE broadband from AT&T and Verizon Wireless, if the companies can deliver an affordable service for rural residents without a punishing low usage allowance. That remains a big “if.”

(Illustrations by Chris Serra.)

Stop the Cap!’s Open Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission: No Rush to Judgment

letterhead

August 19, 2015

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

Case Number: 14-C-0370

Dear Ms. Burgess,

After years of allowing the telecommunications industry in New York to operate with little or no oversight, the need for an extensive and comprehensive review of the impact of New York’s regulatory policies has never been greater.

Let us remind the Commission of the status quo:

  • As Verizon winds down its FiOS initiative, other states are getting cutting-edge services like Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, CenturyLink Prism, and other gigabit-speed broadband service competition. In contrast, the largest telecommunications companies in New York have stalled offering better service to New Yorkers.
  • Time Warner Cable has left all of upstate New York with no better than 50/5Mbps broadband – a top speed that has not risen in at least five years.
  • Frontier Communications has announced fiber upgrades in service areas it is acquiring while its largest New York service area – Rochester, languishes with copper-based ADSL service that often delivers no better than 3-6Mbps, well below the FCC’s minimum 25Mbps definition of broadband.
  • Verizon Communications, the state’s largest telephone company, is accused of reneging on its FiOS commitments in New York City and has left upstate New York cities with nothing better than DSL service, giving Time Warner Cable a monopoly on 25+Mbps broadband in most areas. It has also talked openly of selling off its rural landline network or scrapping it altogether, potentially forcing customers to an inferior wireless landline replacement it calls Voice Link.

As the Commission is also well aware, there are a number of recent high-profile issues relating to telecommunications matters that have a direct impact on consumers and businesses in this state – some that are currently before the Commission for review. Largest among them is another acquisition involving Time Warner Cable, this time from Charter Communications. That single issue alone will impact the majority of broadband consumers in New York because Time Warner Cable is the state’s dominant Internet Service Provider for high speed Internet services, especially upstate.

These issues are of monumental importance to the comprehensive examination and study of the telecommunications industry in New York promised by Chairwoman Audrey Zibelman. The Charter-Time Warner Cable merger alone has the potential of affecting millions of New York residents for years to come.

Although this study was first announced to Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Honorable Jeffrey Klein, and the Honorable Dean Skelos in a letter on March 28, 2014, followed up by a notification that Chairwoman Zibelman intended to commence the study within 45 days of her letter of May 13, 2014, the first public notice seeking comments from stakeholders and consumers was issued more than a year later on June 23, 2015 (less than two months ago), with comments due by August 24, 2015.

With respect, providing a 60-day comment window in the middle of summer along with a handful of public hearings scattered across the state with as little as three weeks’ advance notice is wholly inadequate for a broad study of this importance. The Commission’s ambitious schedule to contemplate the state of telecommunications across all of New York State will likely be shorter than the review of the 2014-2015 Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger transaction which started May 15, 2014 and ended April 30, 2015.

We have heard from New York residents upset about how the Commission is handling its review. One complained to us the Commission had more than a year to prepare for its study while giving New York residents short notice to attend poorly advertised public hearings in a distant city, and two months at most to share their feelings with the Commission in writing. One woman described having to find a hearing that was, at best, 60 miles away and located at a city hall unfamiliar to those not local to the area, where suitable parking was inconvenient and difficult as she attempted a lengthy walk to the hearing location at the age of 69.

Several of our members also complained there are more suitable public-friendly venues beyond paid parking downtown city administration buildings or deserted campuses in the middle of summer break. Many asked why the Commission does not seem to have a social media presence or sponsor live video streaming of hearings where residents can participate by phone or online and avoid inconvenient travel to a distant city. Perhaps the Commission could be enlightened to see how New York’s telecommunications companies actually perform during such a hearing.

While we think it is very useful for the Commission to have direct input from the public, we are uncertain about how the Commission intends to manage those comments. We were disappointed to find no public outline of what the Commission intended to include in its evaluation of a topic as broad as “the state of telecommunications in New York.”

Too often, providers downplay service complaints from consumers as “anecdotal evidence” or “isolated incidents.” But if the Commission sought specific input on a topic such as the availability of FiOS in Manhattan, consumers can provide useful input on the exact location(s) where service was requested but not provided.

If the Commission received information from an incumbent provider claiming it was providing broadband service to low income residents, consumers could share on-point experiences as to whether those claims were true, true with conditions the Commission might not be aware of (paperwork requirements, onerous terms, etc.) or false.

If the Commission sought input on rural broadband, providers might point to a broadband availability map that suggests there is robust competition and customer choice. But the Commission could learn from residents asked to share their direct experiences that the map was inaccurate or outdated, including providers that only service commercial customers, or those that cannot provide service that qualifies as “broadband” by the Federal Communications Commission.

A full and open investigation is essential to finding the truth about telecommunications in New York. The Commission needs to understand whether problems are unique to one customer in one part of the state or common among a million people statewide. We urge the Commission to rethink its current approach.

New Yorkers deserve public fact-finding hearings inviting input on the specific issues the Commission is exploring. New Yorkers need longer comment windows, more notice of public hearings, and a generous extension of the current deadline(s) to allow comments to be received for at least 60 additional days.

Most critically, we need hearings bringing the public and stakeholders together to offer sometimes-adversarial testimony to build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can credibly defend its oversight of the telecommunications services that are a critical part of every New Yorker’s life.

The Commission’s policies going forward may have a profound effect on making sure an elderly couple in the Adirondacks can keep a functioning landline, if affordable Internet will be available to an economically-distressed single working mother in the Bronx, or if upstate New York can compete in the new digital economy with gigabit fiber broadband to support small businesses like those run by former employees of downsized companies like Eastman Kodak and Xerox in Rochester.

Yours very truly,

Phillip M. Dampier
Director

Verizon Wireline Workers Prepare to Strike Aug. 1; “Negotiations Are Going Poorly”

Phillip Dampier July 28, 2015 Consumer News, Verizon No Comments
Verizon workers attend a mass rally at Verizon headquarters on July 25, 2015. (Image: CWA)

Verizon workers attend a mass rally at Verizon headquarters on July 25, 2015. (Image: CWA)

If Verizon management and its unionized workforce cannot come to terms on a new contract by this Saturday, up to 39,000 Verizon landline workers from Massachusetts to Virginia will begin a strike industry observers predict could last for weeks.

Verizon Communications has increasingly shifted attention and investment away from its wireline networks, which include copper landline service and its FiOS fiber to the home network. The workforce of line technicians, installers, and engineers that are trying to keep Verizon’s wired networks running well are under pressure to accept concessions the company says reflect the reality of a dwindling number of landline customers and competition for its FiOS network.

As of Monday, representatives for the Communications Workers of America District 1, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2213 and IBEW New England Regional committees continued to call out Verizon for insisting on a list of benefit and job security reductions:

  • Eliminating protections against layoffs and mandatory transfers/temporary reassignment to different Verizon service areas, including those in other states;
  • No Cost of Living increases;
  • Adding Sunday as part of the basic work week;
  • Possible elimination of corporate profit-sharing;
  • Eliminating caps on overtime and limiting payouts to 1.5x regular pay;
  • Reduce the notice given to workers if Verizon has plans for any major technological change (ie. getting rid of rural landlines, selling FiOS, moving customers to wireless, etc.);
  • Reductions in medical benefits including higher deductibles, co-pays, premiums, and co-insurance;
  • Eliminating the union’s ability to negotiate retiree health care benefits, often at risk in other companies;
  • Eliminate the lump sum pension option and introducing new restrictions on pensions and new fees on 401K plans;
  • Eliminate accidental disability coverage;
  • Eliminate family care leave.

cwa_logoVerizon spokesman Rick Young countered that Verizon has offered workers a straight 4% wage increase but admitted many existing contract provisions are decades old and no longer reflect current business reality. Young added Verizon union network technicians are paid $160,000 a year on average in total compensation, including salary, pension and health care. But Verizon management is insistent on cutting back the company’s health care costs, noting Verizon successfully reduced the cost of covering nonunionized workers to about $16,700 per family while union workers still receive coverage worth $20,000-24,000 a year per family.

Union officials counter Verizon was able to manage that by slashing non-union employee benefits and forcing workers into high deductible medical plans that offer lower levels of coverage. In 2011, Verizon fought its unions over the same issues, including a company demand workers accept health care plans with a $5000 out-of-pocket deductible before medical coverage kicked in. That led to a contentious two-week strike.

“Negotiations are going poorly,” Communication Workers of America’s Bob Master told CBS News this week. “We are far apart.”

Verizon-logoWith 86 percent of union members voting to strike if negotiations fail, it seems an almost certainty workers will be on the picket lines by next week if negotiations remain unsuccessful. Workers believe Verizon’s profits have been shared mostly at the top through executive bonuses and ever-increasing compensation packages while ordinary workers are asked to forego benefits and job security.

In solidarity with Verizon customers, the unions are also fighting to force Verizon to further build out its FiOS fiber network to more customers and stop allowing its copper network to deteriorate to the point of unusability.

“On the one hand, Verizon refuses to build its high-speed FiOS network in lower-income areas and on the other, they are systemically ignoring maintenance needs on their landline network,” said Ed Mooney, vice president for CWA District 2-13, which covers Pennsylvania to Virginia.  “This leaves customers at the mercy of a cable monopoly or stuck with deteriorating service while Verizon executives and shareholders rake in billions.”

Trainor

Trainor

A highly critical audit of Verizon’s FiOS rollout in New York City found that Verizon failed to meet its promise to deliver high-speed fiber optic Internet and television to everyone in the city who wanted it, claims the union.  During its negotiations for a city franchise, Verizon promised the entire city would be wired with fiber optic cables by June 2014 and everyone who wanted FiOS would get it within six months to a year.  The audit found that despite claiming it had wired the city by November 2014, Verizon systematically continues to refuse orders for service.  The audit also found Verizon stonewalled the audit process.

The CWA also contends rates for basic telephone service have increased in recent years, even as Verizon has refused to expand their broadband services into many cities and rural communities, and service quality has greatly deteriorated. Verizon’s declining service quality especially impacts customers who cannot afford more advanced cable services, or who live in areas with few options for cable or wireless services.

But the company is not hurting for money, argues union officials.

“Verizon made $9.6 billion in profits in 2014 and reported $4.4 billion in profits just in the 2015 second quarter alone,” said Dennis Trainer, vice president of CWA District One in a statement.

“In 2012, during a time of great economic stress, the company came to the union and after 15 months of bargaining, including mediation, reached an agreement that the company said they had to have to survive,” wrote an official updating workers represented by CWA District 2-13 (Mid-Atlantic region) in a bargaining update. “Since then, every year they have made billions of dollars in profits and not one executive officer at Verizon has made a single sacrifice like they told us they needed us to do. The latest insult being [Verizon CEO] Lowell McAdam getting a 16% raise in one year while we have paid more in healthcare, lost pensions for new hires, froze pensions for current members, made significant changes in incidental absence payments and made other changes to our contract that have resulted in stressful working conditions and excessive discipline to our members.”

CWA officials in District 1, representing New York and New England workers, were more blunt in responding to an unsolicited email sent to every worker signed by Marc Reed, Verizon’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer.

“Reed suggests in his e-mail that he has a concern for you and your family,” wrote one official. “Ask yourself, if he really gave a shit about you and your family why is he proposing to gut the contract that provides for you and your family.”

Still Paying After All These Years: Verizon Raised NY Landline Rates for Phantom FiOS

Phillip Dampier July 15, 2015 Consumer News, History, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon 1 Comment

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon customers in New York are paying artificially higher telephone rates justified to encourage Verizon investment in FiOS fiber to the home upgrades most New York State communities will never receive.

Starting in 2006, the New York Public Service Commission granted Verizon rate increases for residential flat-rate and message-rate telephone service and a 2009 $1.95 monthly increase for certain residence local exchange access lines to encourage Verizon’s investments to expand FiOS fiber to the home Internet across New York State.

“We are always concerned about the impacts on ratepayers of any rate increase, especially in times of economic stress,” said then-Commission chairman Garry Brown in June 2009. “Nevertheless, there are certain increases in Verizon’s costs that have to be recognized. This is especially important given the magnitude of the company’s capital investment program, including its massive deployment of fiber optics in New York. We encourage Verizon to make appropriate investments in New York, and these minor rate increases will allow those investments to continue.”

After Verizon announced it was suspending further expansion of its FiOS project a year later, the company continued to pocket the extra revenue despite reneging on the investments the PSC considered an important justification for the rate increases.

nypsc

“The commission allowed Verizon rate increases in 2006 and 2008 based, in significant part, upon the assumption that the revenue from the higher rates would lead Verizon to invest in fiber optic lines, presumably for the benefit of wireline customers,” argues a coalition of state legislators, consumer groups, and unions. “Serious questions exist regarding the extent to which funds may instead have been used to build out the network for the benefit of wireless customers. Publicly available reports, while fragmentary, suggest that Verizon may have included construction costs for significant benefit of its wireless affiliate to be included in the costs of the Verizon New York wireline company, thus adding to its costs and tax losses.”

shellAlmost a decade later, Verizon is still receiving the extra revenue while some public officials complain Verizon is not meeting its commitments even in cities where Verizon has introduced FiOS service.

Last week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all future city contracts with Verizon be reviewed and authorized by City Hall. City officials complain Verizon promised in 2008 it would make FiOS available to every city resident no later than mid-2014. A year later, the service is still not available in some areas.

Verizon has blamed access issues and uncooperative landlords for most of the delays, but city officials are not happy with Verizon’s explanations.

“They [Verizon] have to demonstrate to us that they are good corporate actors if they want us to use our discretion in ways that benefit them,” the mayor’s counsel, Maya Wiley, told the New York Post.

Meanwhile, upstate New York residents now indefinitely bypassed by Verizon FiOS want a refund for the rate increases that were supposed to inspire Verizon to keep expanding fiber optics.

“Verizon has made at least $250 from me and every other upstate customer for nine years of broken promises,” said Penn Yan resident Mary Scavino. “Not only don’t they offer us fiber optics, we cannot even qualify for DSL service from them. If you can’t get Time Warner Cable in the Finger Lakes, you often don’t have broadband at all. It is them or nothing. Where did our money go?”

And, we're done. Verizon FiOS availability map also showing areas subsequently sold to Frontier.

And, we’re done. Verizon FiOS availability map also showing areas later sold to Frontier.

Fred, a Stop the Cap! reader in the city of Syracuse, thinks the PSC should immediately revoke the rate increases and force Verizon to refund the money to customers who will not get upgraded service.

“It’s not like Verizon cannot make money in a city like Syracuse,” writes Fred. “It’s clear the CEO thinks even more money can be made off Verizon Wireless customers off the backs of landline customers, and the PSC continues to look the other way while they do it.”

Verizon claims it has lost money on its copper wireline network for years, something the PSC seems to accept in its 2009 press release announcing rate increases:

The rate increases will generate much needed additional short-term revenues as the company faces the dual financial pressures created by competitive access line losses and the significant capital it is committing to its New York network. For 2008, Verizon reported an overall intrastate return of negative 6.7 percent and a return on common equity of negative 48.66 percent. The current trend in the market is toward bundled service offerings, and Verizon believes the proposed price changes to its message rate residential service will encourage the migration of customers towards higher-value service bundles.

That migration costs New York ratepayers even more for telephone service. Verizon’s website prompts customers seeking new landline service to bundle a package of long distance discounts and calling features that costs in excess of $50 a month before taxes, fees, and surcharges. Bundling broadband costs even more. Verizon does not tell customers ordering online they qualify for a bare bones landline with no calling features and pay-per-call billing for less than half the cost of Verizon’s recommended bundle.

Verizon's discount calling program "Message Rate B" is only available to Washington, D.C. residents who have been threatened with final disconnection by Verizon.

This Verizon discount calling program known as “Message Rate B” is only available to Washington, D.C. residents who have been threatened with disconnection or have an outstanding balance owed to Verizon. It costs $7.29 a month and includes 75 local calls.

More than three dozen New York State legislators also question whether Verizon’s “losses” are actually the result of Verizon’s purposeful “misallocation of costs” — moving expenses to the landline business even if they were incurred to benefit Verizon’s more profitable wireless division.

“The result has been massive cost increases for consumers, especially for the garden-variety dial tone service at the bottom of the technological ladder,” argues their 2014 petition. “For example, in New York City […] since 2006 the price of residential ‘dial tone’ service (one line item on the bill) went up 84%, while other services, such as inside wire maintenance, went up 132%.”

The petitioners claim there is evidence to dispute Verizon’s assertion its legacy copper network is as big of a money loser as the company suggests, thanks to “cooking the books” with accounting tricks. The petitioners want the PSC to order a review of Verizon’s books to be certain consumers are not being defrauded or manipulated.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-banner

Community leaders were arrested in 2013 during a protest outside Verizon’s NYC headquarters (at 140 West Street at the West Side Highway) to out the company for its history of avoiding taxes. (Image: Vocal NY)

From 2009-2013, Verizon New York reported losses of over $11 billion dollars, with an income tax benefit to Verizon Communications of $5 billion, and significant tax revenue losses for state, city and federal governments. Verizon New York has apparently paid no state, city or federal income tax for the last five years or more.

If Verizon is using accounting tricks to inflate the cost of legacy landline service while reducing costs to its wireless service, it could prove a win-win for Verizon and a lose-lose to ratepayers. Verizon could use its “losses” to argue for greater rate increases for landline customers while further reducing its tax obligations. On the wireless side, Verizon would enjoy praise from Wall Street analysts and shareholders pleased by the company’s apparently effective cost controls.

The best evidence of these techniques in action are the statements of company officials which suggest wireless costs are being paid by wireline customers.

Verizon’s chief financial officer, Fran Shammo, indicated to investors that Verizon wireline construction budgets are charged for expenses related to wireless service.

“The fact of the matter is wireline capital — and I won’t get the number but it’s pretty substantial — is being spent on the wireline side of the house to support the wireless growth,” Shammo told investors at Verizon at Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, Sept. 20, 2012. “So the IP backbone, the data transmission, fiber to the cell, that is all on the wireline books but it’s all being built for the wireless company.”

“It seems to me Verizon Wireless, already considered the Cadillac of wireless companies, doesn’t need a hidden subsidy from Verizon paid for by ratepayers all over the state,” Fred argues. “It seems very curious to me Verizon pioneered a large regional fiber optic upgrade that just a few years later it considers too costly to continue expanding, even as AT&T, Google, Comcast, and other companies are now entering the fiber business. A Public Service Commission that wants better broadband for New Yorkers ought to get to the bottom of this because it just doesn’t look right.”

Verizon: Take Our Phone Service Or You Get No DSL Broadband from Us

Phillip Dampier July 15, 2015 Consumer News, Internet Overcharging, Verizon 1 Comment

verizon-protestVerizon will not let you cancel their landline phone service unless you are also ready to lose DSL broadband as well.

It is one more way Verizon is trying to stem landline losses in areas where they offer less than stellar DSL service on lines the company has long since stopped upgrading.

“Verizon hasn’t offered standalone High Speed Internet (DSL) service for more than three years,” Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell told USA Today in an e-mail. “So, if a customer with HSI and voice service wants to disconnect his voice service, we will disconnect the voice service and the HSI service.”

Verizon claims this practice benefits customers by helping the company “competitively price service.”

Dropping landline service while keeping broadband has allowed some phone customers to save $20 a month or more by turning off their landline and moving to cheaper broadband-delivered telephone service. But not if their phone company happens to be Verizon.

For now, the best option customers have is to downgrade their landline service to the cheapest “message unit” plan available, which charges 7-9c for each outgoing call and has no calling features. But you will have to call Verizon to do it — Verizon hides the fact it even offers economy landline service on its website.

In contrast, AT&T, Frontier, CenturyLink, Windstream, and FairPoint all allow customers to choose broadband-only service.

Canada’s Choice: Privatized MTS Enriches Itself, Publicly Owned SaskTel Enriches Customers

Truth or Consequences: Does privatizing a government-owned telephone company encourage innovation and efficiency or serve to enrich a handful of executives and shareholders at the cost of customer service? Two essentially equal telephone companies serving the Canadian prairie provinces offer some useful insights.

sasktelThe provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are remarkably similar in their landscape and their sparse populations — 1.29 million in Manitoba and 1.13 million in Saskatchewan. Today, most are concentrated in or near a few large cities with many small agricultural towns scattered across great distances.

At the dawn of the 1900s, the “Sunny way” of Prime Minister Sir Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberal party was to push open the western frontiers and lay new railways across Canada. Part of the zeal for expansion came from a sense of growth and optimism, but there were also pervasive fears that without significant settlements in central Canada, the Americans could end up annexing huge swaths of empty Canadian agricultural lands for its own interests.

To prevent this and enhance its own national identity, Canada threw its doors open to immigration, especially to hard-working Americans from the midwest who were inundated with government-sponsored advertisements about a new life and opportunities that waited in the Canadian prairies.

The campaign worked. Between 1901 and 1906, the population of Saskatchewan surged from 91,279 to 257,763, 86.8% settled in rural farming areas. By 1911, the population almost doubled again to 492,432 with over 80% located away from the cities of Regina and Saskatoon. Next door in Manitoba, many new residents preferred areas south of Winnipeg, closer to the American border.

mtsServing this population boom depended heavily on Canadian railroads, which delivered settlers and laborers, medicine, farming equipment, and the latest news from Ottawa. The trains returned east with part of the harvest and various meats.

It was no surprise Canada’s telecommunications infrastructure (along with more than a few new towns) would grow up along its railway lines.

With Bell Canada preoccupied with its larger client base in Ontario and Quebec, both the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan established provincial, publicly owned, phone companies to take control of their telecommunications future. In 1908, the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS) was born, made up mostly of former Bell customers. In 1909, SaskTel was established as a publicly owned operation as well, again comprising former Bell customers in the province. Both MTS and SaskTel quickly bought out all the remaining private telephone companies still operating in their midst.

The Winnipeg Free Press notes both MTS and SaskTel successfully served their respective customers for nearly 90 years. In 1997, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative premier Gary Filmon broke his pledge to keep hands off MTS and privatized the company, claiming it would be more innovative in private hands.

That move would not be repeated in Saskatchewan, where every political party in office usually treated SaskTel as sacrosanct to the province’s economic development. Even the conservative Saskatchewan Party, which held power in the province from 1982-1991, never got around to privatizing the phone company, and a pledge to privatize crown corporations in the near future was just one of several issues that led to the party’s downfall in the election of 1991.

w canadaFor the last 18 years, Canadians have been able to see which province made the wisest choice. The newspaper concluded after nearly two decades, there is strong evidence MTS’ main priorities are to satisfy shareholders and commercial business customers, while rewarding their executives with handsome pay packages.

“Meanwhile, SaskTel appears to focus on customer service and satisfaction, being a good employer and on providing returns to their public shareholder: the people of Saskatchewan,” the Winnipeg Free Press concluded.

Evidence of SaskTel’s service ethic could be found last week when SaskTel was acknowledged as western Canada’s most dependable wireless carrier, according to a new study by market researcher J.D. Power.

“SaskTel ranks highest in overall network quality and performs particularly well in call quality, messaging quality and data quality,” J.D. Power said in its report.

SaskTel has never been reserved about its own accomplishments, particularly its success delivering innovative new services to sparsely populated regions across Saskatchewan:

  • SaskTel was the first telecommunications company in Canada to complete its rural individual line service program, eliminating all party lines in 1990;
  • SaskTel was at the forefront of Internet provision as the first in Canada to remove the long distance charges on dial-up Internet and the first in North America to offer high-speed service on phone lines through DSL technology;
  • SaskTel was among the first commercial users of fiber-optics in the world, today offering customers competitive cable television, broadband, and phone service.
Filmon

Filmon

MTS has not turned out to be the innovator it was promised to be as a private company. While SaskTel was becoming a world leader in converged fiber optic networks, supplying voice, data and video across a strand of fiber, MTS was raising rates on landline customers.

Today, a basic landline in Saskatchewan costs around $8 a month — 27% less than the cheapest MTS home phone service. Everything at MTS usually costs more, which has turned out very well for shareholders and executives. While MTS earns roughly double the profit of SaskTel, almost all goes to major shareholders and top executives. SaskTel has returned $497 million over the last five years to the provincial government as well as customers through an annual dividend payment. Over in Manitoba, MTS has proved to be innovative in avoiding its tax bill — only paying corporate taxes once in 10 years — and that was just $1.2 million in 2010. Creative accounting at MTS has allowed the profitable company to pay “a big fat zero in federal and provincial corporate income taxes,” according to the newspaper, and MTS does not expect to owe a penny in income taxes until 2020 at the earliest.

So where do MTS profits go? Last year, MTS former CEO Pierre Blouin received $7.8 million in compensation, well above his five-year average of $4.8 million. Blouin’s salary was more than 10 times higher than what SaskTel’s CEO receives annually.

The newspaper adds MTS directors are paid more than 10 times what SaskTel’s directors are paid. But even more disturbing, the man who made the Money Party possible for MTS — former premier Gary Filmon — had a cozy, well-compensated home waiting for him on the MTS board after he lost his re-election bid. He has used his time at MTS to feather his own nest with more than $1.4 million in director fees and compensation over 10 years, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares.

“None of this is meant to suggest SaskTel is an ideal company, but it appears abundantly clear this publicly owned and operated company provides better service at lower costs to its customers than the privatized MTS, and it also provides much larger benefits to the people of the province from its profits,” writes economist Toby Sanger. “Despite all this, the Saskatchewan government may be laying the groundwork for privatization of SaskTel. If this is what we can expect from the privatizations of other public utilities — higher fees for the public, lower-quality service, much higher compensation for CEOs and executives, higher corporate profits but much lower returns for the provinces — we can see why Bay Street [Canada’s Wall Street] is so excited about the privatization of Hydro One — and why the people of Ontario should be very worried.”

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