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Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

AT&T Ghostwritten Bill Would Allow End of Rural Landline/DSL Service in California

att californiaIn California, AT&T’s money and influence has the power to bend reality for some members of the California legislature.

This spring, AT&T is lobbying hard for a bill it largely wrote itself that vaguely promises 21st century technology upgrades if the state’s politicians agree to near-total deregulation and permission to scrap landline service and DSL for rural residents.

Assembly Bill 2395, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), allows AT&T to decommission wired service across the state, so long as the company replaces it with any alternative capable of connecting customers to 911. Smoke signals might qualify, but most suspect AT&T’s true agenda is to replace its legacy wireline network with wireless service in areas where it has no interest upgrading its facilities to offer U-verse.

Members of the Assembly’s Utilities & Commerce Committee were easily swayed to believe the company’s claims this will represent a massive upgrade for California telecommunications. At least that is what the company is saying in their lobbying pamphlets. In April, committee chairman Michael Gatto (D-Los Angeles), one of the bill’s strongest advocates, told his fellow committee members it was safe to trust AT&T’s assurances it was not using the bill to kill rural landline telephone service.

“We have a very, very good perspective on history in this committee and you can rest assured that nobody will tear up any copper line infrastructure,” said Gatto, who gradually became less sure of himself as he pondered the impact of AT&T scrapping the one option many rural Californians have to connect to the outside world. “The cost of it, to tear up every street in the United States and take out the copper is not going to happen. At least, I don’t think it’ll happen…. This committee will not let it happen.”

Low

Low

Despite that less-than-rousing endorsement, and the fact the bill’s language would allow AT&T to do exactly that, the bill sailed to approval in the committee. It was also endorsed by a range of non-profit and business groups, including the Boys & Girls Club, Black Chamber of Commerce, Do It Yourself Girls, The Latino Council, NAACP-Los Angeles, San Jose Police Officers’ Association, and the United Women’s Organization — almost all regular recipients of “contributions” from AT&T.

Consumer groups are largely opposed to the measure, because it gives AT&T near carte blanche to disconnect rural residents and leave them with inferior and more expensive wireless alternatives. It also scraps most oversight over AT&T’s business practices in the state, which are not stellar. Those living in rural areas are opposed even more.

The Rural County Representatives of California, representing the interests of local leaders in 35 rural counties across the state, came out strongly against AB 2395, pointing out earlier deregulation efforts and a largely hands-off California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) helped create the digital divide problem that already exists in the state, and AT&T’s bill proposes to make it worse.

S

Frentzen

“While AB 2395 offers the promise of a more modern communications system for California, the bill devises a scheme that minimizes consumer protections and provides avenues for telecommunication providers to abandon their current subscribers from ever experiencing these modern telecommunications options,” said the group. “RCRC would have far more comfort with relinquishment proposals if California’s telecommunications stakeholders, including the CPUC, had met their obligations in providing near universal access. And that access included quality, demand-functions found in other areas of the state. Unfortunately, much of California has either no connectivity (unserved) or inferior connectivity (under-served). Until this digital divide is eliminated, we cannot support changes in the regulatory and statutory environment which furthers this gulf between who gets access and who does not.”

While AT&T continues to deny it will do anything to disconnect rural California, the company vehemently opposes efforts to drop language from the bill that would grant them the right to retire landline service. AT&T’s lobbyists insist the legislature can still trust the company, an idea that failed to impress Shiva Frentzen, the supervisor of El Dorado:

Trust is something that you earn. It’s built over time. We have a rural county each constituent, all your consumers, pay into the infrastructure, but we don’t see the high-speed coming to the rural parts of the county because it does not pencil out. For larger companies to bring the service in those areas – the infrastructure costs a lot and the monthly service does not pay for it. So that is the experience we’ve had with larger providers like yourself. We have not had the trust and the positive experience for our rural county, so that’s why we are where we are.

Editor’s Note: My apologies to Steve Blum, who didn’t get full credit for gathering most of the quotes noted in this piece. We’ve linked above (in bold) to several of his articles that have followed the AT&T lobbying saga, and we’ve added his blog to our permanent list of websites we can recommend.

Google Fiber Announces $10 Landline Phone Service

google phoneAlthough tens of millions of Americans have pulled the plug on landlines in favor of their mobile phones, there is still a market for affordable landline phone service, especially if you hate talking on cellphones.

Today Google Fiber has announced Fiber Phone, a new $10 phone line with unlimited local/nationwide calling, Google Voice rates for international calls, and package of phone features and voicemail that includes reliable access to 911.

Customers signing up will get a portable Voice Over IP box similar in style to those supplied by cable companies and VoIP providers like Vonage. It is designed to connect to your home’s existing phones and your Google Fiber service, but can also be taken with you on trips.

“We’ll be introducing Fiber Phone in a few areas to start,” Google writes in a blog post. “Over time, we’ll roll out Fiber Phone as an option to residential customers in all of our Fiber cities. Once we bring the service to your area, you can sign up and get the service through a simple installation process. To stay updated on the latest, sign up here.”

Google Fiber has offered TV and broadband service in a “double play” package since its start, but steered clear of phone service due to the complexity of local, state and federal regulations, especially pertaining to 911 service. Google apparently has overcome those challenges.

Verizon Takes N.Y. Landline Customers to the Cleaners: Finds $1,500

Phillip Dampier March 28, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon, Video No Comments

ShakedownVerizon’s loyal landline customers are subsidizing corporate expenses and lavish spending on Verizon Wireless, the company’s eponymous mobile service, while their home phone service is going to pot.

Bruce Kushnick from New Networks Institute knows Verizon’s tricks of the trade. He reads tariff filings and arcane Securities & Exchange Commission corporate disclosures for fun. He’s been building a strong case that Verizon has used the revenue it earns from regulated landline telephone service to help finance Verizon’s FiOS fiber network and the company’s highly profitable wireless service.

Kushnick tells the New York Post at least two million New Yorkers with (P)lain (O)ld (T)elephone (S)ervice were overcharged $1,000-$1,500 while Verizon allowed its copper wire network to fall into disrepair. Kushnick figures Verizon owes billions of dollars that should have been spent on its POTS network that provides dial tones to seniors and low-income customers that cannot afford smartphones and laptops.

Verizon’s copper network should have been paid off years ago, argues Kushnick, resulting in dramatically less expensive phone service. What wasn’t paid off has been “written off” by Verizon for some time, Kushnick claims, and Verizon customers should only be paying $10-20 a month for basic phone service. But they pay far more than that.

To ensure a proper rate of return, New York State’s Public Service Commission sets Verizon’s basic service charge of regulated phone service downstate at $23 a month. Deregulation has allowed Verizon to charge whatever it likes for everything else, starting with passing along taxes and other various fees that raise the bill to over $30. Customers with calling plans to minimize long distance charges routinely pay over $60 a month.

Unregulated calling features like call waiting, call forwarding, and three-way calling don’t come cheap either, especially if customers choose them a-la-carte. A two-service package of call waiting and call forwarding costs Verizon 2-3¢ per month, but you pay $7.95. Other add-on fees apply for dubious services like “home wiring maintenance” which protects you if the phone lines installed in your home during the Eisenhower Administration happen to suddenly fail (unlikely).

verizonIn contrast, Time Warner Cable has sold its customers phone service with unlimited local and long distance calling (including free calls to the European Community, Canada, and Mexico) with a bundle of multiple phone features for just $10 a month. That, and the ubiquitous cell phone, may explain why about 11 million New Yorkers disconnected landline service between 2000-2016. There are about two million remaining customers across the state.

New York officials are investigating whether Verizon has allowed its landline network to deteriorate along the way. Anecdotal news reports suggests it might be the case. One apartment building in Harlem lost phone and DSL service for seven months. Another outage put senior citizens at risk in Queens for weeks.

“They don’t care if we live or die,” one tenant of a senior living center told WABC-TV.

Verizon claims Kushnick’s claims are ridiculous.

“There is absolutely no factual basis for his allegations,” the company said.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WABC New York Seniors vent against Verizon after phone service outage 3-9-16.flv

WABC’s “7 On Your Side” consumer reporter Nina Pineda had to intervene to get Verizon to repair phone service for a senior living center that lasted more than a month. (2:50)

FairPoint’s ‘Moosepoop’: Abdicating Its Responsibilities One Customer at a Time

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint's deregulation logic "moosepoop."

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint’s deregulation logic “moosepoop.”

In 2007, Verizon Communications announced it was selling its landline telephone network in Northern New England to FairPoint Communications, a North Carolina-based independent telephone company. Now, nearly a decade (and one bankruptcy) later, FairPoint wants to back out of its commitments.

In 2015, FairPoint stepped up its push for deregulation, writing its own draft legislative bills that would gradually end its obligation to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” which guarantees phone service to any customer that wants it.

The company’s lobbyists produced the self-written LD 1302, introduced last year in Maine with the ironic name: “An Act To Increase Competition and Ensure a Robust Information and Telecommunications Market.” The bill is a gift to FairPoint, allowing it to abdicate responsibilities telephone companies have adhered to for over 100 years:

  • The bill removes the requirement that FairPoint maintain uninterrupted voice service during a power failure, either through battery backup or electric current;
  • Guarantees FairPoint not be required to offer provider of last resort service without its express consent, eliminating Universal Service requirements;
  • Eliminates a requirement FairPoint offer service in any area where another provider also claims coverage of at least 94% of households;
  • Eventually forbids the Public Utilities Commission from requiring contributions to the state Universal Service Fund and forbids the PUC from spending that money to subsidize rural telephone rates.

opinionSuch legislation strips consumers of any assumption they can get affordable, high quality landline service and would allow FairPoint to mothball significant segments of its network (and the customers that depend on it), telling the disconnected to use a cell phone provider instead.

FairPoint claims this is necessary to establish a more level playing ground to compete with other telecom service providers that do not have legacy obligations to fulfill. But that attitude represents “race to the bottom” thinking from a company that fully understood the implications of buying Verizon’s landline networks in a region where some customers were already dropping basic service in favor of their cell phones.

FairPoint apparently still saw value spending $2.4 billion on a network it now seems ready to partly abandon or dismantle. We suspect the “value” FairPoint saw was a comfortable duopoly in urban areas, a monopoly in most rural ones. When it botched the conversion from Verizon to itself, customers fled to the competition, dimming its prospects. The company soon declared bankruptcy reorganization, emerged from it, and is now seeking a legislative/regulatory bailout too. Regulators should say no.

fairpointLast week, even FairPoint’s CEO Paul Sunu appeared to undercut his company’s own arguments for the need of such legislation, just as the company renewed its efforts in Portland to get a new 2016 version of the deregulation bill through the Maine legislature.

“We’ve operated in and we have experience operating basically in duopolies for a long time,” Sunu told investors in last week’s quarterly results conference call. “Cable is a formidable competitor. Look, they offer a nice package and a bundle and they – in certain areas, they certainly have a speed advantage. So we recognize that and so our marketing team does a really good job of making sure that our packages are competitive and we can counter punch on a both aggregate and deconstructive pricing.”

“Our aim is not to be a low cost, per se,” Sununu added. “What we want to do is to make sure that people stay with us because we can provide a better service and a better experience and that’s really what we aim to do. And as a result, we think that we will be able to change the perception that people have of Fairpoint and our brand and be able to keep our customers with us longer.”

Paul H. Sunu

Paul H. Sunu

Of course customers may not have the option to stay if FairPoint gets its deregulation agenda through and are later left unilaterally disconnected. In fact, while Sunu argues FairPoint’s biggest marketing plus is that it can provide better service, its agenda seems to represent the opposite. AARP representatives argued seniors want and need reliable and affordable landline service. FairPoint’s proposal would eliminate assurances that such phone lines will still be there and work even when the power goes out.

At least this year, customers know if they are being targeted. FairPoint is proposing to immediately remove from “provider of last resort service” coverage in Maine from Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Sanford, Brunswick, Scarborough, Saco, Augusta, Westbrook, Windham, Gorham, Waterville, Kennebunk, Standish, Kittery, Brewer, Cape Elizabeth, Old Orchard Beach, Yarmouth, Bath, Freeport and Belfast.

At least 10,000 customers could be affected almost immediately if the bill passes. Customers in those areas would not lose service under the plan, but prices would no longer be set by state regulators and the company could deny new connection requests.

FairPoint argues that customers disappointed by the effects of deregulation can simply switch providers.

fairpoint failure“The market determines the service quality criteria of importance to customers and the service quality levels they find acceptable,” Sarah Davis, the company’s senior director of government affairs, wrote. “To the extent service quality is deficient from the perspective of consumers, the competitive marketplace imposes its own serious penalties.”

Except FairPoint’s own CEO recognizes that marketplace is usually a duopoly, limiting customer options and the penalties to FairPoint.

Those customers still allowed to stay customers may or may not get good service from FairPoint. Another company proposal would make it hard to measure reliability by limiting the authority of state regulators to track and oversee service complaints.

Company critic and customer Mike Kiernan calls FairPoint’s legislative push “moosepoop.”

“FairPoint has been, from the outset, well aware of the issues here in New England, since they had to demonstrate that they were capable of coping with the conditions – market and otherwise – in their takeover bid from Verizon,” Kiernan writes. “Yet now we see where they are crying poverty (a poverty that they brought on themselves) by taking on the state concession that they are trying desperately to get out from under, and as soon as possible.”

Vermont Public Radio reports FairPoint wants to get rid of service quality obligations it has consistently failed to meet as part of a broad push for deregulation. (2:23)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Kiernan argues FairPoint should be replaced with a solution New Englanders have been familiar with for over 200 years – a public co-op. He points to Eastern Maine Electrical Co-Op as an example of a publicly owned utility that works for its customers, not as a “corporate cheerleader.”

Despite lobbying efforts that suggest FairPoint is unnecessarily burdened by the requirements it inherited when it bought Verizon’s operations, FairPoint reported a net profit of $90 million dollars in fiscal 2015.

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.)

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