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Verizon’s 18-Day Phone, DSL Outage in Tribeca

Phillip Dampier August 16, 2017 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon 6 Comments

Verizon has left an undetermined number of its landline customers in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City without phone or DSL service since Aug. 4 and has no plans to restore it before Aug. 22.

The phones at The Architect’s Newspaper stopped ringing almost two weeks ago and Verizon blames a cable cut they are in no hurry to deal with. The phone company has informed complaining customers they will have to wait at least 18 days before they will have a dial tone once again.

The outage is affecting Verizon’s legacy copper wire infrastructure which dominates in areas where Verizon FiOS is still not widely available. The newspaper filed a complaint with the N.Y. Public Service Commission in hopes it will prompt Verizon to work faster, but the company has shown no sign of that happening so far.

“If you are affected by this outage and have already reported the same to Verizon, we will see a better response if you also join us in filing a complaint with the Commission,” the newspaper asks its readers.

Spectrum Customer Service Reps Apologizing for Awful Pricing

…for our outrageous pricing!

Spectrum’s customer service agents are apologizing to customers for the rate shock they are experiencing when their existing Time Warner Cable or Bright House Networks promotions expire and customers find out the Spectrum plans and pricing being offered instead turn out to be nothing close to the deals customers used to get.

“You may get a call asking about my performance today, the survey is about me and my job today only,” a customer service agent explained to Jason, a Spectrum customer in Elmhurst, N.Y., who shared his experience on DSL Reports. “It doesn’t have anything to do with how you feel about Spectrum or TWC. If you are upset about the new pricing, please use the comments portion to explain. I look forward to hearing your feedback.”

Customer service representatives are on the front line of delivering bad news to cable customers facing double-digit rate increases, especially when customers realize they also receive fewer TV channels after changing plans.

“I’m guessing these agents must be getting destroyed in the surveys, [and] having worked retail where these types of surveys are used, I felt bad for the reps,” explained the Spectrum customer. “I know in my neighborhood, everyone seems to have their TWC promos expiring in the next month or so and are very unhappy.”

That unhappiness is getting worse as word about Charter Communications’ mid-year rate increase is showing up on customer bills. Broadband prices are increasing at least $1 a month, the Broadcast TV Surcharge is rising to $7.50 a month, and set-top box equipment rentals also increased by $1 a month for each piece of equipment starting in August 2017.

Premium speed broadband customers are now also facing a higher internet bill.

Spectrum’s Ultra tier, which is 100Mbps in some markets, 300Mbps in others, is increasing to $119.99 a month, up from $104.99 in most markets. The increase is less if you also subscribe to Spectrum TV, which reduces the rate to $113.99 a month. Spectrum rate cards from around the country do not yet reflect the $1 rate increase for traditional Spectrum 60/5Mbps internet (100Mbps in select markets):

Low income customers enrolled in Spectrum’s Everyday Low Price (ELP) internet package — a carryover from Time Warner Cable — also got the rude shock of a $5 rate increase on a service that used to cost $14.99 a month. That represents more than a 33% rate hike, which is just fine with Charter.

“In some of our markets the price has increased for the ELP package,” said spokesperson “Julie_R”. “Notifications were sent via bill statements and became effective with the August statements. Our ELP package is not a promotion.  From time to time, Spectrum makes decisions to adjust the pricing for our products and services to account for network investments.  We understand that value is important.  ELP is still a very good value at $19.99.”

The rate increase does not apply to New York State residents, where regulators placed significant deal conditions on the Charter/Time Warner Cable merger to help protect consumers in that state.

We have also been receiving reports from readers that Spectrum’s Internet Assist (SIA) program, designed for the elderly and income-challenged, is not easy to enroll in and customer service representatives have rejected a number of applicants for a variety of reasons. SIA offers a 30Mbps broadband connection for $14.99 a month to those qualified for:

  • The National School Lunch Program (NSLP); free or reduced cost lunch
  • The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the NSLP
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) ( ≥ age 65 only) Programs that do not qualify for Spectrum Internet Assist: Social Security Disability (SSD), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Social Security Retirement and Survivor Benefits are different from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and do NOT meet eligibility requirements.

The biggest problems encountered so far:

  • Representatives lack information about the program and attempt to upsell customers to regular pricing and packages.
  • Bundling additional services with SIA can be more expensive than just choosing a traditional bundled package sold to everyone, especially if it is a new customer promotion.
  • There is considerable confusion over the qualifications for SSI recipients. Be sure to recognize you must be 65 or older and note SSD, SSDI, and certain other programs noted above do not qualify you to receive SIA.

We are continuing to monitor the SIA program looking to ensure Spectrum is making the program available to customers that qualify for it.

Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

AT&T: Using taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to subsidize 4G LTE upgrades for its customers.

With taxpayer subsidies on the horizon, phone companies cut back investing their own money on rural broadband expansion hoping taxpayers would cover funding themselves.

That is the conclusion of Dave Burstein, a long-standing and well-respected industry observer and publisher of Net Policy News. Burstein is concerned the unintentional consequence of Obama and Trump Administration rural broadband funding programs has been fewer homes connected than what some carriers would have managed on their own without government subsidies.

“Since 2009, carrier investment in broadband in rural areas has gone down drastically,” Burstein wrote.

As a result, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans to spend $4.53 billion from a public-financed Mobility Fund over the next decade to advance 4G LTE service, primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support. Burstein suspects much of that money could end up being unnecessarily wasted.

“Under current plans, most of the money is likely to go where telcos would build [4G] without a subsidy, [or will be used to] buy obsolete technology, or give the telcos two or three times what the job should cost,” Burstein wrote. “Any spending on wireless except where towers or backhaul is unavailable should be assumed wasteful until proven otherwise.  Realistic costs need to be developed and subsidies allocated on that basis.”

AT&T’s rural fixed wireless expansion program, funded substantially by U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers, is a case in point. AT&T is receiving almost $428 million a year in public funds to extend wireless access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says. Much of that investment is claimed to be spent retrofitting and upgrading existing cell towers to support 4G LTE service. But AT&T claims 98% of its customers already have access to 4G LTE service — more than any other carrier in the country, so AT&T is actually spending the money to bolster its existing 4G LTE network, something more likely to benefit its cell customers, not a few thousand fixed wireless customers.

(Source: AT&T)

“An AT&T exec in California said communities didn’t need to worry about the impact of the CAF-funded project, since it was almost all going to be on existing towers,” Burstein wrote, allaying fears among members of the public that money would be spent on lots of new cell towers. “I don’t know what loophole AT&T is using to get the money, but it’s a pretty safe guess they would have upgraded most of them without the government paying. 4G service now reaches all but 3-5 million of the 110-126 million U.S. households. Probably half [of the less than five million] targeted would soon be served without a subsidy – if the telcos knew no subsidy was likely. Before spending a penny on subsidies, the FCC needs to do a thorough assessment of what would be built without government money.”

Burstein

Wireless executives were delighted when the U.S. government in 2009 committed to spending $7 billion in taxpayer funds on broadband stimulus funding as part of a full-scale economic stimulus program to combat the Great Recession.

“Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 had promised to bring affordable broadband to all Americans,” Burstein noted. “The clamor to reach these last few million was so loud, telcos became confident the government would pay for it if they just stopped their own investment. They aren’t stupid and refused to spend their own money. Before 2009 and the expected huge stimulus program, most telcos expanded their networks each year, based on available capital funds.”

Burstein believes some phone companies became better experts at milking government money to pay for needed network upgrades than frugally spending public funds on rural broadband expansion. As a result, after eight years and massive spending, Burstein notes fewer than two million of the “unserved” six million homes were reached by wireline or wireless broadband service when the funding ran out.

Under Chairman Pai’s latest round of rural broadband funding, Burstein believes much of this new money is also at risk of being wasted.

“[Pai] needs to dig into the details of what he’s proposing,” Burstein wrote. “Nearly all cells with decent backhaul will be upgraded to 4G; Verizon and AT&T have already reached 98% of homes. Government money should go to building towers and backhaul where that’s missing, not filling in network holes the carriers would likely cover.”

Rural advocacy groups have been frustrated for years watching rural telephone companies deliver piecemeal upgrades and service expansion, often to only a few hundred customers at any one time. When they learn how much was spent to extend broadband service to a relatively few number of customers, they are confused because companies often spend much less when they budget and pay for projects on their own without government subsidies.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Burstein is currently suspicious about the $200 million approved in subsidy funding to extend rural broadband in parts of upstate New York. Burstein notes Pai is factually wrong about his claim that the hundreds of millions set aside for New York would be spent on “unserved areas of rural New York.”

“Most of that money will not go to unserved areas,” Burstein reports. “Some grants are going to politically connected groups. I’ve read the rules and the approved proposals. The amounts look excessive based on the limited public details.”

Telephone companies have become skilled negotiators when it comes to wiring their rural service areas. Most want more money than the government has previously been willing to offer to help them meet their Return On Investment expectations. Burstein noted that under normal circumstances, a government program offering a 25% subsidy to extend rural broadband into areas considered unprofitable to serve would be enough in most cases to get approval from rural phone companies like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications. But many phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest (now a part of CenturyLink) did not even file applications to participate in early funding rounds. Qwest’s lack of interest was especially problematic, because the former Baby Bell served the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions where some of the worst broadband accessibility problems persisted.

Burstein claims Jonathan Adelstein, then Rural Utilities Administrator, had to double his subsidy offer to get Qwest’s attention with a 50% subsidy.

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

“Qwest refused, demanding 75%,” Burstein noted. “That was probably twice the amount necessary and Adelstein rightly refused. They knew the government had few ways to reach those unserved without paying whatever the telcos demanded. A few years later, Qwest is part of Centurylink. Many of those lines are now upgrading under [public] Connect America Funds with what amounts to a greater than 100% subsidy.”

Net Neutrality appeared to have no impact on telephone company investment decisions, even in rural areas. The investment cuts followed a trend that began even before President Barack Obama took office. Wireless carriers slash investments in rural areas when management is confident the government is motivated to step in and offer taxpayer dollars to expand rural broadband service. When those funds do become available, a significant percentage of the money isn’t spent on constructing new infrastructure to extend the reach of wired and wireless networks into unserved rural areas. Instead, it pays for expanding existing infrastructure that may coincidentally reach some rural customers, but is still primarily used by existing cellular customers.

“In many extreme rural areas, only the local telco has the ability to deliver broadband at a reasonable cost,” noted Burstein. “You need to have affordable backhaul and a local staff for repairs. Because the ‘unserved’ are in very small clusters, often less than 100 homes, it’s usually impractical for a new entrant to bring in a backhaul connection.”

Instead, AT&T is attempting to fill some of the gaps with fixed wireless service from existing cell towers. While good news for customers without access to cable or DSL broadband but do have adequate cellular coverage to subscribe to AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service, that is not much help for those in deeply rural areas where AT&T isn’t investing in additional cell towers to extend coverage. In effect, AT&T enjoys a win-win for itself — adding taxpayer-funded capacity to their existing 4G LTE networks at the same time it markets data-cap free access to its bandwidth-heavy online video services like DirecTV Now. That frees up capital and reduces costs for AT&T’s investors. But it also alienates AT&T’s competitors that recognize the additional network capacity available to AT&T also allows it to offer steep discounts on its DirecTV Now service exclusively for its own wireless customers.

Verizon Running Short of LTE Capacity in Large Cities like New York

OpenSignal’s State of American Wireless Networks – Aug. 2017

Verizon Wireless customers are seeing declining wireless internet speeds and the greater potential for congestion because Verizon Wireless is experiencing the impact of some overburdened cell sites in some of its largest markets.

Walter Piecyk from BTIG Research reports over the last few weeks, Verizon has begun using the last 10MHz of PCS spectrum left in its inventory in New York City, nine months earlier than expected.

Verizon’s reserve spectrum in PCS Band 2 near 1900MHz is not as ideal as lower frequency spectrum better able to manage inside buildings in a city as densely packed as New York, but if that is all the company has left for immediate use, that is what it will use. The newly activated frequencies, first uncovered by Milan Milanovic, are not yet operational across all of Verizon’s extensive cell network in the Big Apple. Verizon’s need to activate its last remaining PCS frequencies suggests former chief financial officer Fran Shammo may have been overly optimistic when he claimed Verizon was only using 40% of its spectrum inventory. That may be true in smaller cities, but is no longer the case in large metropolitan areas.

“This latest action also means that the only spectrum Verizon has left to convert to LTE in NYC is the 25MHz of 800MHz spectrum that the FCC gave it for free in 1984,” wrote Piecyk. “Unfortunately, that 800MHz spectrum is being used to support CDMA voice traffic and legacy 3G data for enterprise/IoT applications. Meanwhile, Dish sits on 125MHz of vacant spectrum in NYC.”

BTIG Research has been carefully tracking Verizon’s deployment of its spectrum for years. In New York, LTE expansion has depended heavily on spectrum acquisitions and enabling LTE+, which bonds frequencies together to increase speed and capacity.

BTIG Research Tracks Verizon Wireless’ LTE Deployment in NYC

  • 20 MHz: December 2010 – launched LTE on the 20MHz of 700MHz spectrum it bought in the 2008 700MHz auction for $0.46/MHz/POP for the Northeast regional license and $0.77/MHz/POP nationwide.
  • 40 MHz: December of 2013 – XLTE-branded rollout of AWS spectrum, which mainly included the spectrum it bought from Cable in 2011 for $0.69/MHz/POP, but also the spectrum it acquired in the 2006 AWS-1 auction, where it spent $1.33/MHz/POP for the Northeast regional license and $0.73/MHz/POP overall.
  • 20 MHz: December of 2014 – LTE conversion begins on PCS spectrum. Verizon purchased 10MHz from Northcoast as part of a larger transaction valued at $1.58/MHz/POP in 2003, 10MHz covering NYC from NextWave for $4.63/MHz/POP in 2004, and 20MHz from NextWave in 2005 as part of a larger transaction valued at $2.85/MHz/POP. (Link)
  • 10 MHz: Q1 of 2016 – This enabled Verizon to deliver 15MHz x 15MHz connections on Band 2, thereby improving speeds. When this happened we predicted the remaining PCS spectrum would be used in early 2018. (Link)
  • 10 MHz: Q3 of 2017 – Once again, this was spotted by Milanovic (Link), who notes that it has not been deployed on all sites. This effectively expands the Band 2 deployment to a 20MHz x 20MHz deployment.

The company has also attempted to increase capacity with network densification, which adds more cell sites to divide up the traffic load. But activating a new cell site can take years, especially if Verizon encounters zoning and permitting problems or public opposition. Small cells can ease congestion in particularly dense traffic areas, but are not enough alone to deal with increasing network traffic.

Verizon’s own business practices have also complicated things for the wireless company. Ditching two-year contracts and subsidized phones in favor of customers acquiring devices at retail prices financed through wireless carriers like Verizon have led to a slowdown in subscriber upgrades as consumers hold on to their devices for longer.

Most phones acquired in the last year or two now support Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which means phone calls travel over Verizon’s LTE network, not the legacy CDMA network Verizon has used for well over a decade. Verizon has to dedicate a significant amount of prime spectrum in the 850MHz band for its CDMA network. Although Verizon claims it has migrated “more than 50%” of its voice traffic to the newer, more efficient VoLTE standard, that is below analysts’ expectations.

Piecyk thinks it may be possible Verizon has been slow to convert because of the record low phone upgrade rate of its customers. As a result, it cannot repurpose its CDMA spectrum for LTE use. Discussions with Verizon engineers suggest the company may eventually cut back CDMA spectrum, but will likely still keep 5 x 5MHz reserved for CDMA voice calling for at least the next four years to support its customers with older devices.

As part of its network densification effort, Verizon is once again relying on fiber optic buildouts, some of which it may take on itself in areas where it does not provide landline service. Verizon will be placing cables with 1,700 strands of fiber, so it is obviously thinking about future network demands.

Before it can deploy additional upgrades or acquire more spectrum, customers can anticipate more “network management” techniques, suspects Piecyk, especially now that unlimited data plans are for sale again. Verizon already limits its “unlimited” plan to 22GB of usage per month, before wireless data speeds are throttled. OpenSignal believes Verizon’s recent speed drops are a result of its unlimited plans putting more pressure on its network.

“We suspect management will now follow T-Mobile’s lead and suppress video quality like BingeOn to help with the rise in network traffic,” Piecyk wrote. “They might also discuss control of overall peak data speeds. However, if no mobile applications require more than 10Mbps service, would it make any sense to suppress the speeds on your customers’ phone? What’s the benefit other than offering a convenient excuse on why your speed tests are slower than the competition?”

Crown Castle Buys Lightower Fiber for $7.1 Billion; Sets Stage for 5G in Northeast

Phillip Dampier July 20, 2017 Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Antenna tower operator Crown Castle International has announced it will buy privately held Lightower Fiber Networks for about $7.1 billion in cash to acquire the company’s extensive fiber assets across the northeastern United States that will be used to connect small cell 5G networks.

The acquisition will allow Crown Castle to market an extensive fiber backhaul network in large cities like New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, as well as smaller cities particularly in upstate New York, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and northern New England. Crown Castle, which already owns many of the cell towers where AT&T and Verizon place their equipment, will now be able to market fiber backhaul connectivity for AT&T and Verizon’s forthcoming 5G networks.

LIghtower’s fiber footprint.

Lightower’s fiber network was originally focused on major markets like Boston, New York City, the District of Columbia, and Chicago. Its partner, Fibertech — acquired by Lightower in 2015, focused on 30 mid-sized cities from Indiana to the west to Maine in the east. The network’s customers are large companies and independent ISPs. In Rochester, where Lightower maintains a Network Operations Center, Greenlight Networks relies on a fiber backhaul network originally built by Fibertech to connect its fiber-to-the-home broadband service. That fiber is likely to soon be shared with AT&T, Verizon, and potentially T-Mobile and Sprint to power any 5G buildouts in the region.

“Lightower’s dense fiber footprint is well-located in top metro markets in the northeast and is well-positioned to facilitate small cell deployments by our customers,” said Crown Castle CEO Jay Brown in a statement. “Following the transaction, we will have approximately 60,000 route miles of fiber with a presence in all of the top 10 and 23 of the top 25 metro markets.”

This acquisition marks Crown Castle’s first major diversion outside of its core market — leasing out the cell towers it owns or acquires.

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