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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.”

Stop the Cap! Will Participate in New York State’s Review of Charter-Time Warner Merger

stop-the-capStop the Cap! will formally participate in New York State’s regulator review of the proposed merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

“We will be submitting documents and testimony to the New York State Department of Public Service on behalf of consumers across the state that need a better deal from their cable company,” said Phillip Dampier, the group’s president. “A review of the current proposal from Charter is inadequate for New York ratepayers and most of Charter’s commitments for better service and lower prices expire after just three short years.”

Stop the Cap! will urge regulators to insist on significant changes to Charter’s proposal that will permanently guarantee a broadband future with no compulsory usage caps/usage-based billing, Net Neutrality adherence, affordable broadband to combat the digital divide, and upgrades that deliver faster broadband than what Charter currently proposes outside of New York City.

Dampier

Dampier

“Upstate New York is at serious risk of falling dramatically behind other areas where Google Fiber and other providers are moving towards a gigabit broadband future,” Dampier said. “In most of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Albany buying the FCC’s definition of broadband means calling a cable company that now delivers no better than 50Mbps to residential customers. Verizon FiOS expansion is dead and obsolete/slow DSL from Frontier and Verizon should have been scrapped years ago.”

Stop the Cap! worries that with limited prospects for a major new competitor like Google in Upstate New York, broadband speeds and service will not keep up with other states. Verizon has devoted most of its financial resources to expanding its wireless mobile network, which is too expensive to use as a home broadband replacement. Frontier claims to be investing millions in its networks, but has delivered only incremental improvements to their DSL service, which in most areas is still too slow to qualify as broadband.

“Frontier is more interested in acquisitions these days, not upgrades,” Dampier argued.

“Although we have some entrepreneurs managing to deliver competitive fiber service in limited areas, it will likely take years before they will reach most customers,” Dampier added. “Upstate New York cannot wait that long.”

Big City Telecom Infrastructure is Often Ancient: Conduits 70+ Years Old, Wiring from 1960s-1980s

A panel electromechanical switch similar to those in use in New York until the 1970s.

A panel electromechanical switch similar to those in use in New York until the 1970s. They were installed in the 1920s.

As late as the 1970s, New York Telephone (today Verizon) was still maintaining electromechanical panel switches in its telephone exchanges that were developed in the middle of World War I and installed in Manhattan between 1922-1930. Reliance on infrastructure 40-50 years old is nothing new for telephone companies across North America. A Verizon technician in New York City is just as likely to descend into tunnels constructed well before they were born as is a Bell technician in Toronto.

Slightly marring last week’s ambitious announcement Bell (Canada) was going to commence an upgrade to fiber to the home service across the Greater Toronto Area came word from a frank Bell technician in attendance who predicted Bell’s plans were likely to run into problems as workers deal with aging copper infrastructure originally installed by their fathers and grandfathers decades earlier.

The technician said some of the underground conduits he was working in just weeks earlier in Toronto’s downtown core were “easily 60-70 years old” and the existing optical fiber cables running through some of them were installed in the mid-1980s.

At least that conduit contained fiber. In many other cities, copper infrastructure from the 1960s-1980s is still in service, performing unevenly in some cases and not much at all in others.

Earlier this year, several hundred Verizon customers were without telephone service for weeks because of water intrusion into copper telephone cables, possibly amplified by the corrosive road salt dumped on New York streets to combat a severe winter. Verizon’s copper was down and out while its fiber optic network was unaffected. On the west coast, AT&T deals with similar outages caused by flooding. If that doesn’t affect service, copper theft might.

munifiber

Fiber optic cable

Telephone companies fight to get their money’s worth from infrastructure, no matter how old it is. Western Electric first envisioned the panel switches used in New York City telephone exchanges until the end of the Carter Administration back in 1916. It was all a part of AT&T’s revolutionary plan to move to subscriber-dialed calls, ending an era of asking an operator to connect you to another customer.

AT&T engineer W.G. Blauvelt wrote the plan that moved New York to fully automatic dialing. By 1930, every telephone exchange in Manhattan was served by a panel switch that allowed customers to dial numbers by themselves. But Blauvelt could not have envisioned that equipment would still be in use fifty years later.

As demand for telephones grew, the phone company did not expand its network of panel switches, which were huge – occupying entire buildings – loud, and very costly to maintain. It did not replace them either. Instead, newer exchanges got the latest equipment, starting with more modern Crossbar #1 switches in 1938. In the 1950s, Crossbar #5 arrived and it became a hit worldwide. Crossbar #5 switches usually stood alone or worked alongside older switching equipment in fast growing exchanges. It occupied less space, worked well without obsessive maintenance, and was reliable.

It was not until the 1970s that the Bell System decided to completely scrap their electromechanical switches in favor of newer electronic technology. The advantages were obvious — the newer equipment occupied a fraction of the space and had considerably more capacity than older switches. That became critical in New York starting in the late 1960s when customer demand for additional phone lines exploded. New York Telephone simply could not keep up with and waiting lists often grew to weeks as technicians looked for spare capacity. The Bell System’s answer to this growth was a new generation of electronic switches.

The #1 ESS was an analog electronic switch first introduced in New Jersey in 1965. Although it worked fine in smaller and medium-sized communities, the switch’s software bugs were notorious when traffic on the exchange reached peak loads. It was clear to New York Telephone the #1 ESS was not ready for Manhattan until the bugs were squashed.

Bell companies, along with some independent phone companies that depended on the same equipment, moved cautiously to begin upgrades. It would take North American phone companies until August 2001 to retire what was reportedly the last electromechanical switch, serving the small community of Nantes, Quebec.

ATT-New-York-central-office-fire-300x349

A notorious 1975 fire destroyed a phone exchange serving lower Manhattan. That was one way to guarantee an upgrade from New York Telephone.

On rare occasions, phone companies didn’t have much of a choice. The most notorious example of this was the Feb. 27, 1975 fire in the telephone exchange located at 204 Second Avenue and East 13th Street in New York. The five alarm fire destroyed the switching equipment and knocked out telephone service for 173,000 customers before 700 firefighters from 72 fire units managed to put the fire out more than 16 hours later. That fire is still memorialized today by New York firefighters because it injured nearly 300 of them. But the fire’s legacy continued for decades as long-term health effects, including cancer, from the toxic smoke would haunt those who fought it.

The New York Telephone building still stands and today also houses a street level Verizon Wireless retail store.

New York Telephone engineers initially rescued a decommissioned #1 Crossbar switch waiting to be melted down for scrap. It came from the West 18th Street office and was cleaned and repaired and put into emergency service until a #1 ESS switch originally destined for another central office was diverted. This part of Manhattan got its upgrade earlier for all the wrong reasons.

Throughout the Bell System in the 1970s and 80s, older switches were gradually replaced in favor of all electronic switches, especially the #5 ESS, introduced in 1982 and still widely in service today, serving about 50% of all landlines in the United States. Canadian telephone companies often favored telephone switches manufactured by Northern Telecom (Nortel), based in Mississauga, Ontario. They generally worked equally well as the American counterpart and are also in service in parts of the United States.

The legacy of more than 100 years of telephone service has made running old and new technology side by side nothing unusual for telephone companies. It has worked for them before, as has their belief in incremental upgrades. So Bell’s announcement it would completely blanket Toronto with all-fiber service is a departure from standard practice.

For Bell in Toronto, the gigabit upgrade will begin by pushing fiber cables through existing conduits that are also home to copper and fiber wiring still in service. If a conduit is blocked or lacks enough room to get new fiber cables through, the Bell technician predicted delays. It is very likely that sometime after fiber service is up and running, copper wire decommissioning will begin in Toronto. Whether those cables remain dormant underground and on phone poles for cost reasons or torn out and sold for scrap will largely depend on scrap copper prices, Bell’s budget, and possible regulator intervention.

But Bell’s upgrade will clearly be as important, if not more so, than the retirement of mechanical phone switches a few decades earlier. For the same reasons — decreased maintenance costs, increased capacity, better reliability, and the possibility to market new services for revenue generation make fiber just as good of an investment for Bell as electronic switches were in the 1970s and 1980s.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Reconnecting 170000 Phone Customers in NYC After a Major Fire 1975.mp4

AT&T produced this documentary in the mid-1970s about how New York Telephone recovered from a fire that destroyed a phone exchange in lower Manhattan and wiped out service for 173,000 customers in 1975. The phone company managed to get service restored after an unprecedented three weeks. It gives viewers a look at the enormous size of old electromechanical switching equipment and masses of phone wiring. (22:40) 

Charter Asks FCC to Approve Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger; Stop the Cap! Urges Changes

charter twc bhCharter Communications last week filed its 362 page redacted Public Interest Statement laying out its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, to be run under the Charter banner.

“Charter may not be a household name for all Americans, but it has developed into an industry leader by implementing customer and Internet-friendly business practices,” its statement reads.

The sprawling document is effectively a sales pitch to federal regulators to accept Charter’s contention the merger is in the public interest, and the company promises a range of voluntary and committed service upgrades it says will improve the customer experience for those becoming a part of what will be America’s second largest cable operator.

Charter’s proposed upgrades fall under several categories of direct interest to consumers:

Broadband: Charter will commit to upgrade customers to 60Mbps broadband within 30 months (about 2.5 years) after the deal is approved. That could mean some Time Warner Cable customers will still be serviced with standard speeds of 15Mbps as late as 2018. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program will be effectively frozen in place and will continue in only those areas “consistent with Time Warner Cable’s existing deployment plans.” That will leave out a large sections of the country not on the upgrade list. Charter has committed to impose no data caps, usage-based pricing or modem fees, but only for three years, after which it will be free to change those policies at will.

Wi-Fi: Charter promises to build on Time Warner’s 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, most in just a few cities, and Bright House’s denser network of 45,000 hotspots with a commitment to build at least 300,000 new hotspots across Charter’s expanded service area within four years. Charter will also evaluate deploying cable modems that also act as public Wi-Fi hotspots. Comcast already offers over 500,000 hotspots with plans for many more, making Charter’s wireless commitment less ambitious than what Comcast today offers customers.

Cable-TV: Charter has committed to moving all Time Warner and Bright House systems to all-digital service within 30 months. Customers will need to lease set-top boxes designed to handle Charter’s encryption system for all cable connected televisions. Among those boxes includes Charter’s new, IP-capable Worldbox CPE and cloud-based Spectrum Guide user interface system.

Video on the Go: Charter will adopt Time Warner Cable’s streaming platform and apps to provide 300 streaming television channels to customers watching from inside their homes (a small fraction of those channels are available while outside of the home). Customers will not be able to watch on-demand recorded DVR shows from portable devices, but can program their DVRs from apps or the website.

Discount Internet for the Poor: Charter references the fact its minimum entry-level broadband speed is 60Mbps so that does not bode well for Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced Internet $14.99 slow-speed Internet plan. Instead Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ mysterious broadband program for low-income consumers.

Based on Charter’s initial proposal, Stop the Cap! will urge state and federal regulators to require changes of these terms before approving any merger. Among them:

  1. All existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House service areas should be upgraded to meet or exceed the levels of service offered by Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program within 30 months. It is not acceptable to upgrade some customers while others are left with a much more modest upgrade program proposed by Charter;
  2. Charter must commit to Net Neutrality principles without an expiration date;
  3. Regardless of any usage-cap or usage-based pricing plans Charter may introduce after its three-year “no caps” commitment expires, Charter must permanently continue to offer unlimited, flat rate Internet service at a reasonable price as an alternative to usage-priced plans;
  4. Customers must be given the option of opting out of any leased/provided-modem Wi-Fi hotspot plan that offers a wireless connection to outside users without the customer’s consent;
  5. Charter must commit to a more specific Wi-Fi hotspot program that details towns and cities to be serviced and proposed pricing for non-customers;
  6. Charter must allow customers to use their own set-top equipment (eg. Roku, Apple TV, etc.) to receive cable television service without compulsory equipment/rental fees. The company must also commit to offering discount alternatives such as DTAs for secondary televisions and provide an option for income-challenged customers compelled to accept new equipment to continue receiving cable television service;
  7. Charter must retain Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced $14.99 Internet plan regardless of any other low-income discount program it offers. If it chooses to adopt Bright House’s program, it must broaden it to accept applications year-round, simplify the application process and eliminate any waiting periods;
  8. Charter must commit to independent verification of customer quality and service standards and adhere to any regulatory guidelines imposed by state or federal regulators as a condition of approval.
  9. Charter must commit to expansion of its cable network into a reasonable number of adjacent, unserved areas by committing a significant percentage (to be determined) of measurable financial benefits of the merger to the company or its executives towards this effort.

Stop the Cap! will closely monitor the proceedings and intends to participate on both the state (New York) and federal level to guarantee any merger provides consumers with an equitable share of the benefits. We will also be examining the impact of the merger on existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House employees and will promote merger conditions that protect jobs and limit outsourcing, especially overseas.

Some Time Warner Cable Customers Get a Small Speed Boost Thanks to Overprovisioning

Phillip Dampier June 29, 2015 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 6 Comments

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable customers in parts of the northeast have noticed their broadband speeds increased slightly over the last several days.

Stop the Cap! reader Howard Goldberg was among those who noticed Time Warner’s broadband performance in upstate New York has improved, at least for upper tiers.

“Over the past 24 hours, Speedtest.net (against the TWC site in Syracuse, and many others) is reporting 60-62Mbps down and 6.0-6.2Mbps up, an increase from 55/5.5Mbps we have had over the past few years,” Goldberg notes. He is subscribed to Time Warner Cable Ultimate, marketed in upstate New York as 50/5Mbps service.

We noticed the same thing late last week here in Rochester as speed test results now consistently top 60Mbps when using a Time Warner Cable-based server. The upstream speed increase was less visible, but still measurable.

Goldberg also reports ping times have dropped from the 18-22ms range to 13-15ms when using the Syracuse, N.Y. test site, which could also point to a more responsive Internet connection overall.

Cable companies occasionally deliver speeds that are actually faster than what they sell, known as overprovisioning, to improve customer satisfaction and boost their performance in the Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing national speed test program, designed to verify if providers are actually providing the speeds they are marketing to customers.

Are Time Warner customers in other areas seeing similar results? Report your findings in the comment section.

Empire Access Expands Fiber to the Home Service Across Western N.Y./Southern Tier

empireA Prattsburgh, N.Y. family-owned company has picked up where Verizon left off and is busily wiring up small communities across western New York and the Southern Tier with fiber to the home service, giving both Verizon and Time Warner Cable some competitive headaches.

Empire Access is concentrating its service in areas where Verizon FiOS will never go and Time Warner Cable maxes out at 50/5Mbps. The company recently launched service in downtown Batavia in Genesee County and will be launching serving in Big Flats later this year.

Empire promises no data caps or usage-based billing and offers 100/20Mbps at introductory prices ranging from between $45-65/mo. Gigabit broadband speed is also available.

Where it has franchise agreements with local communities, Empire also offers cable television packages ranging from $31.45-73.40, with up to 130 channels. The packages are not as comprehensive as those from Time Warner Cable, but customers may not mind losing a dozen or two niche cable channels to save up to $30 a month off what Time Warner charges. Nationwide home phone service is also an option.

Empire relies heavily on two public/non-profit fiber backbone networks to deliver service. The Southern Tier Network comprises a 235-mile long fiber backbone that runs through Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties. Further north, Axcess Ontario provides backbone connectivity across its 200+ mile fiber ring around Ontario County.

fiber backboneWith the help of public and non-profit broadband infrastructure, residents in small communities across a region extending from Sayre, Pa., north to Batavia, N.Y., will have another choice besides Verizon or Frontier DSL, Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Residents in some communities, like Hammondsport and Bath — south of Keuka Lake, love the fact they have a better choice than Time Warner Cable. Empire has reportedly signed up 70 percent of area businesses and has more than a 20% residential market share in both villages after a year doing business in the Finger Lakes communities.

Empire targets compact villages with a relatively affluent populations where no other fiber overbuilder is providing service. It doesn’t follow Google’s “fiberhood” approach where neighborhoods compete to be wired. Instead, it provides service across an entire village and then gradually expands to nearby towns from there.

Most western New York villages are already compact enough to attract the attention of cable companies, predominately Time Warner Cable, which has an effective broadband monopoly. Verizon and Frontier offer limited slowband DSL, but Verizon has stopped expanding the reach of its broadband service and will likely never bring FiOS fiber to the home service to any western N.Y. community outside of a handful of suburbs near Buffalo.

empire-access-truckThe arrival of Empire reminds some of the days when the first cable company arrived to wire their village. Word of mouth is often enough to attract new customers, but a handful of local sales agents are also on hand to handle customer signups. From there, one of the company’s 80+ employees in New York handle everything else.

Bryan Cummings, who shared the story of Empire Access with us, “is pretty stoked.”

“Bye, bye Time Warner Cable,” Cummings tells Stop the Cap!.

Time Warner has treated most of western New York about as well as its service areas in Ohio, often criticized for not keeping up with the times. With fiber overbuilders Empire Access in the Finger Lakes region and Southern Tier and Greenlight Networks in Rochester, the fastest Internet options are not coming from the local phone and cable company anymore.

WSKG in Binghamton explores fiber broadband developments in the Southern Tier of upstate New York. Empire Access is providing the fast fiber broadband Verizon, Frontier, and Time Warner Cable won’t. (3:54)

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

At present, Empire Access provides service in:

  • Village of Arkport
  • City of Batavia
  • Village of Bath
  • Village of Canisteo
  • Village of Hammondsport
  • City of Hornell
  • Village of Montour Falls
  • Village of Naples
  • Village of North Hornell
  • Village of Watkins Glen
  • Village of Waverly (N.Y.)
  • Boroughs of Sayre, Athens, and South Waverly (Pa.)
  • Borough of Troy (Pa.)

Communities on Empire’s radar for future expansion include Urbana, Dansville, Wayland and Cohocton. Further out, there is some consideration of larger cities like Corning and Elmira, as well as other towns in far northern Pennsylvania. With Empire’s expansion into Naples, the company also has many options in affluent and growing communities in Ontario County, south of Rochester.

Verizon is Still Pushing Voice Link Wireless Home Phone Service

Verizon Voice Link

Verizon Voice Link

The Communications Workers of America today claimed Verizon is refusing to repair broken landlines and is once again trying to steer customers to a controversial wireless landline replacement Verizon calls Voice Link.

“Verizon is systematically abandoning the legacy network and as a consequence the quality of service for millions of phone customers has plummeted,” Bob Master, CWA’s political director for the union’s northeastern region, told the Wall Street Journal.

The CWA will file public information requests this week with state regulators in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania seeking more detailed information about how Verizon is utilizing Voice Link.

Stop the Cap! has received several messages from Verizon customers over the last six months, most in New York City, that were offered Voice Link as a temporary solution to ongoing landline service problems including no dial tone, intermittently failing lines, and those with crosstalk or static problems.

“It is crazy how long Verizon can take to fix a phone line in Manhattan,” wrote our reader Helen. “The problems started in February and we lost service for what turned out to be almost a month. We had four broken repair appointments and every date they promised it would be fixed it wasn’t. Can you imagine a whole month without a phone line?”

Helen tells us that Verizon started leaving messages on her voicemail apologizing for the problems, but offered Voice Link, a wireless landline replacement in the interim.

“At least it was something I told my husband, but he didn’t like the idea because Verizon would probably forget about us after putting it in,” she said. “I won the argument but we lost in the end because Voice Link never worked properly.”

Verizon FiOS is coming to Fire Island.

Helen complained Voice Link made phone calls difficult to understand and often her phone didn’t ring when calls came in.

“Everyone sounded like they were underwater and it was hard to understand people,” she said. “Callers would tell me they heard five rings when calling me, but I only heard one, if that.”

“We switched to Time Warner Cable phone service and it was installed fast,” she said. “But then the fax machine wouldn’t work right so we still need Verizon after all.”

Helen’s apartment building is not yet wired for FiOS because of problems the building management allegedly had with Verizon technicians in the past. She is willing to sign up, but thinks Verizon is not doing itself any favors treating customers badly when their old landlines fail.

“It makes you think how long it will take them to show up if a rat chews through a fiber cable next year.”

The fact Verizon offers Voice Link to customers while phone repairs go uncompleted for extended periods worries the CWA, who accused Verizon of “steering” customers to the wireless replacement.

Verizon spokesman Rich Young says about 13,000 customers have decided to keep Voice Link as a permanent solution to their landline woes and have never gone back to their old copper service.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Verizon Voice Link A Reliable Alternative.mp4

Verizon calls its Voice Link wireless landline replacement a reliable alternative in this promotional video produced in 2013. (2:24)

Thomas MacNabb, Verizon’s director of operations, also defends Voice Link, claiming it represents Verizon giving customers the best possible service when weather-related outages arise.

But retired AT&T executive W. Kenneth Lindhorst counters Voice Link is no upgrade, relying on old 1990s technology, and does not work with credit card machines, faxes, security and home medical monitoring, or wireless data.

“They come in with the implication that they are upgrading services in the neighborhood. They do not tell you that they are switching from a regulated basic to an unregulated service,” Lindhorst said. “They don’t like to be regulated by government. They don’t like their customers to be protected by government.”

Lindhorst is part of Don’t Hang Up On New Jersey, a group fighting Verizon’s efforts to replace Superstorm Sandy-damaged telephone lines with Voice Link. Two bills in the New Jersey legislature: A2459/S278 are seeking a one year moratorium on Verizon replacing damaged copper wiring with any alternative technology, including wireless, until further studies can be done.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Verizon Voice Link Hanging Up On NJ.mp4

Verizon Voice Link is “hanging up on New Jersey” according to a consumer advocacy group. An interview with retired AT&T executive W. Kenneth Lindhorst suggests Verizon wants to use the service to escape regulatory oversight. (2:00)

A Tale of Two Territories: Frontier Plans Upgrades for Newly Ex-Verizon/AT&T Customers While Legacy Areas Suffer

frontier-fast-buffalo-large-2The new CEO of Frontier Communications is promising more fiber to the home service and advanced ADSL2+ and VDSL2 service to dramatically boost Internet speeds… if you happen to live in a Verizon territory Frontier is planning to acquire in Texas, California, or Florida. For Connecticut customers that used to belong to AT&T, Frontier also plans to spend money to further build out AT&T’s U-verse platform to reach more suburban customers not deemed profitable enough to service by AT&T.

For legacy Frontier customers in other states? Frontier plans nothing beyond what it already provides — usually dismally slow DSL.

Speaking to investors during the JP Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, Frontier CEO Daniel McCarthy said upgrades offer the company new earnings opportunities, but a closer analysis reveals those benefits will only reach customers in areas where Verizon and AT&T already did most of the work and spent the money required to build advanced network infrastructure.

Verizon has spent millions upgrading customers in Texas to its FiOS service and has a significant fiber to the home presence in California and Florida. Because fiber infrastructure is already largely in place, Frontier will not have to spend huge sums to build a new network. Instead, it will spend incrementally to expand service to nearby service areas.

Mediocre broadband in upstate New York.

Mediocre broadband in upstate New York.

“The FiOS penetration is much higher, specifically in Texas, but we think there’s a lot of opportunity to drive FiOS penetration in Florida and California,” McCarthy said. “We see that as a big opportunity.”

Fierce Telecom notes Frontier won’t have to make a large investment outside of installing new DSLAMs in remote terminals or local Central Offices to deliver higher speeds over copper. Frontier will likely depend on VDSL2 technology on short copper line lengths in suburban areas and ADSL2+ in rural locations.

“I think in this case it might be replacing some electronics, but it’s not a heavy lift from a construction perspective,” McCarthy said. “By putting in a shelf and next-generation capabilities, whether it’s VDSL, ADSL2+, or all the different flavors you can use to serve the different loop lengths in a market you achieve the ability to bring a fresh product set into an area at a fairly low cost.”

While Frontier is willing to invest money in areas that are easy to upgrade, it has proven itself reluctant to consider major upgrades in its legacy service areas where it acquired traditional copper-based landline networks.

“The new states will clearly have new growth opportunities,” McCarthy said. “In Florida there has been a revival of housing in certain areas and subdivision growth in Texas and California.”

In Connecticut, Frontier will build on the acquired AT&T fiber/copper network with a modest expansion of U-verse.

frontier u-verse“We actually see growth opportunity in Connecticut,” McCarthy said. “As we go through and look at the Connecticut property, one of the things that have been a recent development from a technology perspective allows us to serve lower density parts of the state of Connecticut with U-verse product that was limited by densities and loop lengths in the past.”

Although the company often touts millions in upgrade investments, most legacy service areas see only modest service improvements, while the company continues to score very poor in customer satisfaction, especially in states like West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. With Frontier’s ongoing focus on newly acquired service areas, long-standing customers in other states are feeling neglected.

In upstate New York, the prevalence of Frontier Communications’ low speed DSL on the company’s legacy copper network has dragged down overall broadband speed ratings to some of the lowest in the country. Frontier territory Rochester, N.Y., in particular, is now among the worst cities in the northeast for overall broadband speed performance, now rated at just 21.42Mbps. The national average is 36.22Mbps. In comparison, Buffalo scores 24.31Mbps, Cleveland: 22.57Mbps, and NYC 55.56Mbps.

Fla. Utility Says Negotiations With Verizon Make It Clear Verizon Will Exit the Wireline Business Within 10 Years

FPL_logo_PMS2925A Florida utility company has told federal regulators it is certain Verizon has a plan to exit its landline and wired broadband businesses within the next ten years to become an all-wireless service provider.

Florida Power & Light argued in a regulatory filing with the Federal Communications Commission it was clear Verizon had plans to exit its wireline business after the phone company suddenly informed regulated utilities like FP&L it no longer seemed interested in fighting over pole attachment fees and pole ownership and use issues. FP&L suggests that is a radical change of heart for a company that has fought tooth and nail over issues like pole attachment fees for years.

“Verizon has made it clear it intends to be out of the wireline business within the next ten years, conveying this clear intent to regulated utilities in negotiations over joint use issues and explaining that Verizon no longer wants to be a pole owner,” FP&L wrote to federal regulators. “Indeed, the current proposed [$10.54 billion sale of Verizon facilities in Florida, Texas and California] proves this point.”

Verizon has fought repeatedly with the Florida power company over the fees it pays FP&L to attach copper and fiber cables to the power company’s poles. Verizon Florida has repeatedly accused FP&L of charging unjust fees and at one point withheld payments to the utility worth millions.

In February, the FCC dismissed Verizon’s complaint for lack of evidence in the first-ever decision in a pole attachment complaint case involving an incumbent telephone company under a joint use agreement with an electric utility. The power company accused Verizon of lying when it promised concrete benefits to consumers if the FCC reduced joint use pole attachment rates. Suddenly, Verizon no longer seems to be interested in the issue.

verizon“Verizon has not increased its efforts to deploy wireline broadband in the last three years; and there is no evidence that Verizon has used the capital saved on joint use rates for the expansion of wireline broadband,” FP&L officials write. “Indeed, all of the evidence shows that Verizon is abandoning its efforts to build out wireline broadband.”

The power company is not about to just wave goodbye to Verizon. It filed remarks opposing the sale, claiming the benefits will end up in the pockets of executives and shareholders while customers get little or nothing. FP&L wants the FCC to enforce concrete conditions that guarantee Frontier will invest in upgrades to Verizon’s network, especially in non-FiOS service areas.

FP&L added it supports forward technological progress for the benefit of consumers, but the price of that progress should not be the abandonment of wireline customers, contractual obligations, and past promises to the FCC. The utility wrote it is not opposed to Verizon becoming a fully wireless company, but it should only be allowed to do so after it ensures that “its wireline house is in order.”

As things stand today, the utility argues Verizon is looking to abdicate on its obligation to deliver universal service and is no longer interested in maintaining its wired networks. FP&L points to Verizon’s efforts in 2013 to discard damaged wired facilities in favor of Voice Link, Verizon’s wireless landline replacement, in states including New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

“There should be no doubt that Verizon’s strategy to abandon wireline service in favor of wireless service extends beyond New York and Florida and beyond storm damaged and rural areas,” argues FP&L.

The utility points to Verizon’s successful effort to relieve itself of obligations to build a statewide fiber network in New Jersey that was supposed to be complete by 2010.

“Verizon, quite simply, has failed to build out wireline broadband in New Jersey because Verizon has no interest in doing so,” said FP&L. “As the sale of wireline facilities in Florida, Texas, and California […] clearly demonstrates, Verizon obviously is no longer interested in the wireline broadband business and sees its financial future in the wireless industry.”

Cablevision to Loyal Customers: Thanks for Paying Higher Prices for Cable Service When You Didn’t Have To

take the moneyIf you are a long time Optimum customer, the CEO, management, and shareholders of Cablevision would like to thank you for driving average monthly cable revenue per customer 4.8% higher from a year ago to $155.34 a month.

A few years ago, Cablevision developed a Stalinist approach to repeat customer promotions and retentions: nyet.

Despite mounting competition from Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Cablevision has held the line on repeatedly discounting its service for customers who complain their rates are too high.

“Our disciplined approach to pricing, promotional eligibility and customer credit policies has not wavered,” Kristin Dolan, chief operating officer, told investors on a morning conference call.

As a result, the average customer staying with Cablevision paid almost five percent more for service than they did a year earlier — more than $155 a month.

optimum“The main drivers of our increased revenue per customer came from a combination of rate increases, but also lower proportion of subscribers on promotion,” said Brian G. Sweeney, chief financial officer. “We had a number of fixed rate increases January 1 of this year related to cable box fees, an increase in our sports and broadcast TV surcharge, as well as the pass-through of PEG fees to certain customers.”

Cablevision elected to stop competing on price in 2013, telling customers they are entitled to one customer retention deal and that is all. As a result, Cablevision has been losing customers even as it gains revenue. Although it managed to pick up 7,000 net new broadband customers during the quarter, Cablevison lost 6,000 customer relationships, 28,000 video customers — double the number from a year ago, and 14,000 voice customers. That represents 11 consecutive quarters of video subscriber losses.

The customers that remain are meeting Cablevision’s earnings expectations as others leave for better deals elsewhere.

Kristin and James Dolan

Kristin and James Dolan

Cablevision admits many of its subscriber losses come from customers willing to shop around for a better deal. They usually find one. Although Verizon has tightened customer retention deals itself in response to Cablevision’s retention policies, Frontier U-verse in Connecticut continues to compete for new business on price, at least initially as part of new customer promotions.

Kristen Dolan argues Cablevision’s quality of service keeps customers loyal and brings many ex-customers back.

“We do a significant amount of [customer] win-backs every year and we really focus on why people are coming back and it’s not just about price,” Dolan said.

But some customers believe it is more about the price than Cablevision might think.

“The only reason I left Cablevision was because they wouldn’t negotiate and match a better deal Verizon offered me,” said Rob Hastings of Syosset, N.Y., who canceled service in 2013. “When Cablevision wouldn’t cut their price I left.”

Many of the customers coming back to Cablevision this year are, in fact, their old customers dealing with a rate reset from Verizon as promotions expire.

“When my Verizon FiOS rate shot up, I went back to Cablevision as a ‘new customer’ on a promotion,” said Hastings. “When that expires, I’ll bounce back to Verizon. Whoever gives me the best price gets my business as I am sure not going to pay extra to stay a loyal customer.”

cablevision service areaTo further combat promotion-bouncing, Cablevision is embracing its broadband product line and marketing new cord-cutting packages to customers that offer reduced-size cable television packages and free over the air antennas for local stations. The cable company also recently announced it would offer cable customers Hulu subscriptions. Jim Dolan, Cablevision CEO, believes broadband is where the money is and customers are willing to pay higher prices to get Internet access even when video package pricing has its limits.

“You’re seeing the video product begin to lose margin and not just among the little operators like us, but even some of the big operators,” said Dolan. “Our philosophy is we think of video as akin to the eggs and the milk in a convenience store. You have to have it, but you don’t make a lot of money on it. Now connectivity is a whole other basket. It’s more like the soda and chips aisle, and if you provide great connectivity, because it provides great value to the consumer, you can differentiate yourself and you can charge more and the margins are good on it.”

Dolan doesn’t think much of his competitor’s slimmed down cable packages either.

“Verizon’s known to embellish [and] use misleading messaging in their marketing to get the phones to ring,” said Dolan. “I think that’s partially how we view these packages. I can tell you that the packages that we’re offering provide a lot more flexibility.”

To further differentiate it from its competitors, Cablevision continues to emphasize its Wi-Fi network of hotspots across metro New York City. The company also recently became the first major U.S. cable operator to launch a mobile phone service that uses its network of Wi-Fi hot spots. Although not willing to divulge customer numbers, Kristin Dolan did say unique weekly visits increased 16% on average to Cablevision’s website, presumably to explore the Freewheel Wi-Fi calling product.

Cablevision’s highlights for the first three months of 2015:

  • Fiber to the Press Release: Cablevision was the first cable company to introduce 1-gigabyte residential service in the tri-state area. The service launched to a single new multi-tenant building in Weehawken, N.J. No further expansion is planned at this time;
  • Discounted Internet for the Cord Cutter on a Budget: Cablevision expanded the availability of $34.90/mo Internet Basics (5/1Mbps) across its entire service area. It includes an over-the-air antenna.
  • Third Party Set-Top Boxes: Cablevision is interested in providing a less expensive, open standard, set-top box platform in the future to customers that don’t want to pay for a large cable box.

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