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Verizon Sues New York Over Tax Refund Regulators Want Spent on Network Improvements

Phillip Dampier July 27, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon No Comments

verizon repairVerizon Communications is taking the New York Public Service Commission to court over the regulator’s ruling that $8 million in property tax refunds rebated to the phone company through a tax certiorari proceeding should be spent on improving Verizon’s service quality in the state.

Verizon wants to pocket the refunds of $1 million from New York City, $2 million from Oyster Bay, and $5 million from Hempstead for the benefit of the company and its investors, but regulators are insisting Verizon use the money to boost “capital expenditures to address purported service quality and network reliability concerns about its New York network.”

The PSC has been monitoring Verizon’s landline performance in the state since at least 2010 under its Verizon Service Quality Improvement Plan proceeding. Local officials and customers have filed complaints with the PSC about extremely long repair times, service outages, unreliable service, and sub-par line quality for several years, especially in downstate areas around New York City that have not yet been upgraded to Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service.

Regulators want those issues resolved, particularly after Verizon made it clear it has suspended its FiOS expansion outside of New York City. Customers with long-standing service issues are often offered a controversial wireless landline replacement called Voice Link, that has earned mixed reviews, instead of a permanent repair of their existing service.

ny pscVerizon calls the regulator’s demands arbitrary and unwarranted confiscation of its property.

“The commission did something it had never done before — it allowed Verizon to retain the refunds as it had in the past but this time also imposed a spending mandate which required Verizon to use the funds for a particular purpose,” the company claimed.

Verizon used the company’s long and successful track record convincing New York regulators that Verizon’s wireline networks have faced hard times as it bled landline customers, so it deserved regulatory and rate relief. Because the PSC recognized Verizon’s marketplace challenges when it “found that a lightened regulatory approach for traditional incumbent telephone carriers was warranted and necessary in order to level the playing field and enable them to remain viable providers in the future,” it is unwarranted to suddenly now demand the company spend its tax refund on network improvements, Verizon argued in its lawsuit.

In the past, Verizon added, the PSC allowed the phone company to keep its tax refund money for itself, even as it reduced spending on its infrastructure. The company claimed that to be “a proper regulatory response to the financial stress Verizon claims it is and will be under as it continues its transition to an increasingly competitive market.”

Earlier this year, the commission began to take a more formal look at the mounting service complaints it was receiving from Verizon customers and found troubling evidence Verizon might not be taking its copper landline network as seriously as it once did, especially in areas where FiOS upgrades have not been scheduled.

“…[T]here may be an unwillingness on the part of Verizon to compete to retain and adequately serve its regulated wireline customer base, and warrants further investigation into Verizon’s service quality processes and programs,” minutes from a March commission meeting state.

Verizon: Forget About FiOS, We’re Moving to a Broadband Wireless World

Who needs FiOS when you can get 5G wireless service with a data plan?

Who needs FiOS when you can get 5G wireless service with a data plan?

Fran Shammo has a message for Verizon customers and investors: fiber optic broadband is so… yesterday. Your millennial kids aren’t interested in gigabit speed, unlimited use Internet in the home. They want to watch most of their content on a smartphone and spend more on usage-capped wireless plans.

Shammo is Verizon’s money man – the chief financial officer and prognosticator of the great Internet future.

Like his boss, CEO Lowell McAdam, Frammo has his feet firmly planted in the direction of Verizon Wireless, the phone company’s top moneymaker. If one ever wondered why Verizon Communications has let FiOS expansion wither on the vine, Mr. McAdam and Mr. Shammo would be the two to speak with.

This week, Shammo doubled down on his pro-wireless rhetoric while attending the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2016 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference — one of many regular gathering spots for Wall Street analysts and investors. He left little doubt about the direction Verizon was headed in.

Shammo

Shammo

“As we look at the world if you will, and we look at our ecosystem, […] the world is moving to a broadband wireless world,” Shammo told the audience. “Now, I am really – when I say world, I am really talking the U.S., right. So, but I do think the world is moving to a wireless world.”

In Shammo’s view, the vast majority of people want to consume content, including entertainment, over a 4G LTE (or future 5G) wireless network on a portable device tied to a data plan. Shammo predicted wireless usage will surpass DSL, cable broadband, and even FiOS consumption in 3-5 years. If he’s right, that means a mountain of money for Verizon and its investors, as consumers will easily have to spend over $100 a month just on a data plan sufficient to cope with Shammo’s predicted usage curve. In fact, your future Verizon Wireless bill will likely rival what you pay for cable television, broadband, and phone service together.

Millennials don’t want fiber, they want wireless data plans

Shammo argued millennials are driving the transition to wireless, claiming they already watch most of their entertainment over smartphones and tablets, not home broadband or linear TV. His view is the rest of us are soon to follow. Shammo claims those under 30 are turning down cable television and disconnecting their home broadband service because they prefer wireless. Others wonder if it is more a matter of being able to afford both. A 2013 survey by Pew data found 84% of households making more than $54,000 have broadband. That number drops to 54% when annual household incomes are lower than $30,000 per year. But those income-challenged millennials don’t always forego Internet access — some rely on their wireless smartphone to access online content instead.

A microcell

A microcell

Verizon Wireless may be banking on the same kind of “hard choice” many made about their landline service. Pay for a landline and a mobile phone, or just keep mobile and disconnect the home phone to save money. Usage growth curves may soon force a choice about increasing your data plan or keeping broadband service at home. Shammo is betting most need Verizon Wireless more.

Verizon FiOS is really about network densification of our 4G LTE network

Shammo continued to frame its FiOS network as “east coast-centric” and almost a piece of nostalgia. The recent decision to expand FiOS in Boston is not based on a renewed belief in the future of fiber, Shammo admitted, it is being done primarily to lay the infrastructure needed to densify Verizon’s existing LTE wireless network in metro Boston to better manage increased wireless usage. Shammo’s spending priorities couldn’t be clearer.

“Obviously, we said, we would build up Boston now, because it makes sense from a LTE perspective,” Shammo said. “We can spend $300 million over the next three years to make that more palatable to expand FIOS. So we will continue to expand that broadband connection via fiber where it makes financial sense for us.”

verizon 5gIn other words, it is much easier to justify capital expenses of $300 million on network expansion to Wall Street if you explain it’s primarily for the high-profit wireless side of the business, not to give customers an alternative to Time Warner Cable or Comcast. FiOS powers cell sites as well as much smaller microcells and short-distance antennas designed to manage usage in high traffic neighborhoods.

Shammo also believes Verizon must not just be a ‘dumb wireless’ connection. Controlling and distributing content is also critically important, and Shammo is still a big believer in Verizon’s ho-hum GO90 platform, which compared to Hulu and Netflix couldn’t draw flies.

Even Verizon CEO McAdam admitted a few weeks ago at another Wall Street conference GO90 was “a little bit overhyped.” Most of GO90’s content library is mostly short video clips targeted at millennials with short attention spans. The downside of making that your target audience is the rumor many who sampled the service early on have already forgotten about it and moved on.

Forget about congested home and on-the-go Wi-Fi and expensive fiber optics. Verizon will sell you 5G wireless (with a data plan) for everywhere.

Shammo believes the future isn’t good for Wi-Fi in the home and on-the-go. As data demands increase, he believes Wi-Fi will become slow and overcongested.

“There is a quality of service with our network that you can’t get with others,” Shammo said. “I mean, most people in this room would realize that when Wi-Fi gets clogged, quality of service goes significantly down. It’s an unmanaged network. You can’t manage that.”

Instead, Verizon will eventually deploy 5G wireless instead of FiOS in many areas without fiber optic service today. Frammo said 5G would cost Verizon a lot less than fiber, “because there is no labor to dig up your front lawn, lay in fiber, or be able to fix something.”

Shammo doesn’t believe 5G wireless will replace 4G LTE wireless, however.

“LTE will be here for a very long time and be the predominant voice, text, data platform for mobile,” Shammo said.

So instead of unlimited fiber optic broadband, Verizon plans to sell home broadband customers something closer to Wi-Fi, except with a data allowance. It’s a return to fixed wireless service.

Verizon Wireless' existing fixed wireless service is heavily usage capped and no cheap.

Verizon Wireless’ existing fixed wireless service is heavily usage capped and not cheap.

Just a few short years ago, Verizon was looking to fixed wireless as a replacement for rural DSL and landline service. Now Shammo sees the economics as favorable to push a similar service on all of its customers, except those already fitted for FiOS. That changes the dynamics on usage as well, because Verizon Wireless ditched unlimited service several years ago except for a dwindling number of customer grandfathered in on its old unlimited plan.

Current 4G LTE fixed wireless customers can expect 5-12Mbps speeds with data plan options of $60 for 10GB, $90 for 20GB, or $120 for 30GB. The 5G service would be substantially faster than Verizon’s current fixed LTE wireless service, but the company’s philosophy favoring data caps for wireless services makes it likely customers will pay much higher prices for service, higher than Verizon charges for FiOS itself.

Verizon Workers Return to Jobs After Union Declares Victory

cwaThe Communications Workers of America just proved there is strength in numbers. After 39,000 network technicians and customer service representatives employed by Verizon Communications went on strike April 13 after nearly a year without a contract, Wall Street pondered the potential impact of $200 million in lost business for Verizon’s FiOS, phone and television services.

Reports from customers and union observers suggested Verizon’s temporary workforce of strike replacements proved inept and unsafe, putting increasing pressure on Verizon executives to respond to union demands to share a piece of Verizon’s vast and increasing profits.

The CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have also been some of the strongest advocates of pushing Verizon to continue service upgrades, particularly for its FiOS fiber to the home service. The unions believe the fiber upgrades not only benefit the workers who install and maintain the optical fiber network, but also help Verizon sell more products and services to customers who would love an alternative to their local cable company. Although Verizon FiOS has a substantial presence in major Eastern Seaboard cities, vast areas of Verizon territory are still dependent on its aging copper wire networks that can handle little more than basic landline service and slow speed DSL.

The seven week strike was the largest and longest strike action in the United States since 2011, and attracted the attention of the Obama Administration and the two Democratic candidates for president. It was also one of the most effective, from the union’s point of view.

Verizon workers have been on strike since April 13.

Verizon workers have been on strike since April 13.

Verizon executives eventually agreed to ‘share the wealth’ with workers, offering to hire 1,400 new permanent employees and pay raises just above 10 percent. It was a long journey for the workers and the unions, which have fought for a new comprehensive agreement with the company for several years. The CWA last struck Verizon for two weeks after negotiations deadlocked in 2011. Their latest contract ended last August, leading the union to begin several months of “informational picketing,” which effectively meant workers visibly protested Verizon’s policies towards its employees but stayed on the job while doing so.

Conservative groups attacked the unions and defended Verizon officials in editorials and columns. Billionaire Steve Forbes called Verizon employees “bamboozled” and greedy. Unless workers capitulated to Verizon executives’ wise and realistic demands, “Big Labor” would reduce Verizon’s tech revolution to something that “looks more like Detroit than Silicon Valley.” Forbes had nothing to say about Verizon’s explosive growth in compensation and bonus packages for the company’s top executives, or its increased debt load from buying out Vodafone, its former wireless partner, or its generous dividend payouts and share buybacks to benefit shareholders.

Did Verizon Capitulate Because it Intends to Sell Off its Wireline Networks?

Is Verizon planning on selling off its wireline networks?

Is Verizon planning on selling off its wireline networks?

Some on Wall Street were visibly annoyed that Verizon capitulated. Some analysts predicted it was the beginning of the end of Verizon remaining in the wired networks business.

“They needed to end the strike and they bit the bullet,” said Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. He said he thinks the deal “reinforced their commitment to basically exiting [wireline], the least profitable, most problematic part of the business. [The new contract] gives Verizon four years basically to get rid of the unit. Let it be somebody else’s problem.”

That somebody else is likely Frontier Communications. Stop the Cap! has predicted for more than a year our expectation Verizon Communications will continue to gradually sell off its wired service areas, starting with those inland regions not FiOS-enabled, to Frontier as that smaller company’s capacity to borrow money to finance transactions allows. Frontier has a strong interest in staying in the wireline business, and is acknowledged to have stable and friendly relations with its unionized workforce, including former Verizon workers.

Jim Patterson, CEO of Patterson Advisory Group, believes Verizon’s recent investments in fiber optics signals it does intend to stay in the wireline business. But there is a careful line to be drawn between wireline investments in services like FiOS and those made to support its much more profitable wireless unit, Verizon Wireless.

Bruce Kushnick, executive director of New Networks Institute, is increasingly skeptical about Verizon’s FiOS spending priorities.

Shammo

Shammo

“According to the NY Attorney General, about 75% of Verizon NY’s wireline utility budget has been diverted to fund the construction of fiber optic lines that are used by Verizon Wireless’s cell site facilities and FiOS cable TV,” Kushnick wrote last week in a Huffington Post article that questions Verizon’s announced investments in wiring Boston with fiber optics for FiOS. “On the 1st Quarter 2016 Verizon earnings call, [chief financial officer Fran] Shammo said that the build out is for another Verizon company – Verizon Wireless—and it is going to be paid for by the wireline, state utility— Verizon Massachusetts; i.e., it is diverting the wireline construction budgets to do another company’s build out of fiber, to be used for wireless services.”

If Kushnick is right, Verizon may not care whether the service area(s) it sells are well-fibered or not. The fact Verizon recently sold FiOS-enabled service areas in Texas, Florida, and California to Frontier Communications may bolster Kushnick’s case. Shammo’s statements to Wall Street suggest Verizon is primarily attracted to investing in areas where it needs to improve its wireless service, not its landline, broadband, and television services, delivered over FiOS fiber optics.

“We’ll take one city at a time,” Shammo said on the same conference call. “Obviously we still don’t have Alexandria (Virginia) built out or Baltimore. So if we get to a position where we believe we’re going to need to invest in [wireless network/cell] densification in those cities, then that’s an opportunity for us to take a look at it. But at this time we’re concentrating on Boston.”

Unions Can Make a Big Difference for Workers

Nobody believes individual workers could have negotiated the kind of salary and benefits package the CWA and IBEW won for their organized workforces. The New York Daily News heralded the end of the strike as “score one for the middle class — and for the importance of collective bargaining.”

As wages continue to stagnate for most Americans, union supporters call organized labor the last bulwark against a global wage race to the bottom for the middle class. Challenged by cheap labor overseas, increasing health care costs, and government policies some claim only promote accelerating wealth for about 1% of the population, the CWA’s victory forced Verizon to share some of its profits with the workers that helped make those profits possible.

Share the wealth

Share the wealth

“Executives get performance bonuses, stock awards, and retention bonuses for doing a good job, so why shouldn’t we?” argued one picketer outside of a Wall Street event featuring a Verizon executive.

Verizon’s last “final offer” before capitulating was a 6.5% salary hike and little, if any, future job security. Now Verizon will have to hire additional permanent call center workers instead of outsourcing that work to Asian-based call centers. The unions also won other concessions that reduce compulsory relocation to other cities, canceled planned pension and disability insurance cuts, and the CWA got its first contract for Verizon’s previously non-unionized wireless retail force.

Unintended Consequences: Feds Let Telecom Companies Skirt Taxes While States Crack Down

Tax-FreeSome of America’s largest telecommunications companies continue to pay almost nothing in federal taxes even as state taxing authorities hungry for revenue  are getting more aggressive about denying access to tax loopholes and suing some for failing to pay their fair share.

Special interest-inspired “pro-business” loopholes have been a growing part of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan Administration. The premise seemed reasonable enough: high corporate taxes are simply passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business, so lowering them will trickle savings down to the consumer and also free capital to create more jobs. It has not worked that way, however. Product pricing for services like broadband have been based more on what customers believe the product is worth, not what it costs to deliver, and Verizon was among the companies cited for significant job cuts after its corporate tax rate plummeted. Regardless of corporate tax rates, providers continue to raise broadband prices, even as the costs to provide the service are declining. The old maxim of charging what the market will bear is alive and well. So where do the tax savings go? Into share buybacks, shareholder dividend payouts, increased executive salaries and bonuses, and lobbying.

Some states are discovering they have been leaving money on the table when they don’t insist on collecting owed state taxes, and as state budgets continue to be strapped with increasing medical and infrastructure-related expenses, taking companies to court who try to avoid their tax obligations is getting more popular.

One of the biggest potential windfalls could eventually fill New York State coffers with $300 million in damages and penalties courtesy of Sprint, which was accused of deliberately not billing customers for state taxes on its wireless services over seven years.

SprintYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Sprint’s effort to void an October 2015 New York Court of Appeals decision that would allow the state to proceed to court arguing Sprint intentionally failed to collect more than $100 million in taxes from New Yorkers from 2005 on. At the time, Sprint was attempting to rebuild its market share by luring customers with cheaper mobile service. One way to offer a lower price is to stop charging tax. In New York alone, municipalities lost $4.6 million a month as a result of the scheme.

Sprint has repeatedly argued the lawsuit is invalid because a 2000 federal law trumps a 2002 New York State law that covered state taxes. The court disagreed, and the fact a whistleblower at Sprint revealed what Sprint was up to didn’t help. The case will now likely head to state court or get settled.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-bannerWhile $300 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the money Verizon manages to dodge paying the Internal Revenue Service. The phone company is the poster child of corporate tax dodging according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders targeted Verizon because between 2008-2013, Verizon not only did not pay a nickel in federal taxes, it actually received a refund from the federal government after achieving a federal tax rate of -2.5%, despite booking $42.5 billion in profits. American taxpayers effectively subsidized Verizon when it got its refund check.

In the last two years, Verizon is paying federal taxes once again, but at a rate of 12.4%, well below the tax rate of most middle class Americans.

It’s a sensitive matter for Verizon, because CEO Lowell McAdam launched a full-scale media blitz trying to paint the Sanders campaign as inaccurate. McAdam claims Verizon actually paid a 35% tax rate in 2015, which would only be true if the company added the tax obligations it owes on the billions of dollars it stashes in overseas bank accounts. Foreign taxes don’t help the American taxpayer, suggest critics, and Citizens for Tax Justice consider McAdam’s claims “artificial.”

“In fact, over the past 15 years, Verizon has paid a federal tax rate averaging just 12.4 percent on $121 billion in U.S. profits, meaning that the company has found a way to shelter about two-thirds of its U.S. profits from federal taxes over this period,” the group claims. “In five of the last 15 years, the company paid zero in federal taxes. While there is no indication that this spectacular feat of tax avoidance is anything but legal (the company’s consistently low tax rates are most likely due to overly generous accelerated depreciation tax provisions that Congress has expanded over the last decade), few Americans would describe the company avoiding tax on $78 billion of profits as ‘fair.’”

unintendedBruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, claims Verizon also specializes in dumping most of its costs and “losses” on Verizon Communications, which owns its legacy wireline network, which helps them cut their tax obligations.

Too often, changes to the U.S. tax code have unintentional consequences, especially when corporations can hire tax attorneys that outclass those working for the federal government.

Fredric Grundeman helped draft a tax bill that was supposed to curb loopholes in the estate tax and though well-trained as a trusted attorney at the Treasury Department, the bill quickly backfired. The new law opened even larger loopholes than those it was originally written to close, allowing some of America’s richest families to pass on money to heirs with no tax implications at all. Grundeman admits legislators often don’t recognize a new tax law’s potential for abuse.

“How do I say it?” Grundeman told Bloomberg News back in 2013. “When Congress enacts a law, it isn’t always well thought out.”

That is also true on the state level.

Oregon officials push a button to exempt Google Fiber from a state property tax.

Oregon officials push a legislative button and give Google Fiber a tax break. Then Comcast shows up.

Oregon wants to attract Google Fiber to Portland, but Google objected to one of the state’s property tax provisions that affects companies that sell data services. Oregon partly sets the tax rate commensurate with the value of the provider’s brand name, among other factors. It’s all very vague, but not so vague that Google would miss it could pay an even higher tax rate that its competitors — Comcast and CenturyLink.

Oregon’s legislature voted to correct the problem by exempting providers that offer gigabit broadband. The tax law changes were tailored to benefit Google, assuming Comcast and CenturyLink would continue to drag their feet to upgrade their Oregon networks.

But the enterprising lawyers at Comcast promptly requested the same tax exemption that Google would get in return for building its fiber network in the state. The reason? Comcast had introduced its own gigabit Internet service on a much more limited scale.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) admitted Oregon had another law on its hands with unintended consequences. Barnhart told utility regulators this spring his fellow lawmakers never intended to give the tax break to Comcast, which charges hundreds of dollars for 2,000Mbps service. But nobody bothered to set any price guidelines in the law, meaning Google can charge $70 a month for gigabit service and get a tax break and Comcast can offer 2Gbps service in a limited number of locations, at the “go away” price of $300 a month, with start-up costs up to $1,000, and a multi-year contract, and get the exact same tax break.

Barnhart

Barnhart

Or maybe not, at least for now.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Revenue ruled Comcast is not eligible for that tax break, at least not this year, according to The Oregonian. The department wouldn’t explain why, citing taxpayer confidentiality. For good measure, the same department also rejected applications from Google Fiber and Frontier Communications (Frontier operates a very limited FiOS fiber to the home network in communities including Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham that it inherited from Verizon), claiming Google and Frontier’s gigabit networks were theoretical in Oregon and there needed to be gigabit service actually up and running to qualify.

That leaves Google in a classic catch-22. It won’t bring fiber to Oregon so long as it faces a stiff tax bill and tax authorities won’t forgive the tax until there is gigabit fiber up and running. For some taxpayers, what burns the most is the legislature paved the road to tax bliss to attract Google Fiber, but the only company that may actually ultimately travel down it is Comcast.

Big Headaches for Frontier Takeover of Verizon Landlines/DSL/FiOS in Texas, Florida, and California

As of late Monday afternoon, Downdetector.com still shows widespread outages for Frontier customers in North Texas, western Florida and parts of California.

As of late Monday afternoon, Downdetector.com still shows widespread outages for Frontier customers in North Texas, western Florida and parts of California.

Despite promises this past weekend’s transition from Verizon Communications to Frontier Communications would result in little more than “a logo change,” countless customers in the affected states of Florida, Texas, and California reported long service outages, website problems, and long holds waiting to talk to customer service representatives about when service would be back.

The outages were most widespread on Friday morning, April 1, when many subscribers awoke to discover they no longer had phone, television, or broadband service. A blitz on social media directed at Frontier quickly followed on Facebook and Twitter, many summing up their first experience with Frontier to be like “dealing with a third-rate phone company.”

Louise Thompson called the transition “a total fiasco” and some businesses lost thousands of dollars on Friday alone. The “Happy Grasshopper” was one of them, after losing Internet and phone service.

“We have 20 employees who can’t get any work done here today,” said owner Dan Stewart.

Gerard Donelan, a real estate appraiser who works from home in South Tampa, was still without service Friday afternoon. “I talked to customer service about 10:30. … He told me service was down in the Tampa Bay area, and he didn’t know when it was coming back, and there was nothing he could do,” Donelan told the Tampa Tribune. “What a joke. These guys were telling us just yesterday how seamless this was going to be. My next phone call is to Bright House.”

welcome frontierThe popular Zudar’s sandwich shop downtown was still unable to swipe credit cards or take phone or Internet orders at mid-afternoon. “It’s having a terrible effect on business,” said owner Eric Weinstein. “It’s absolutely an epic failure on their part. An amazing lack of customer service and communication.”

frontier texasThe City of Plano (Tex.) lost its website in the transition. Frontier shared its failure with AT&T mobile customers in parts of Florida, who found cell service not working because Frontier also took control of fiber links connecting many of AT&T’s cell towers to AT&T’s network. Many of those were down too.

“During the early morning of April 1, 2016, a technical issue occurred during the integration of the systems Frontier acquired from Verizon that impacted service to some enterprise and carrier customers in Florida, Texas and California.  As of 9:30 am eastern, the issue was resolved,” the company’s statement said.  “In addition, an unrelated fiber cut occurred that impacted customers in the Tampa market.”

Across all three states, Frontier officials hurried to downplay the impact of the service outages, which are continuing to this day for some customers. In some statements, Frontier claimed only about 500 business customers lost service, and there were no widespread problems. But many of the 3.7 million customers in Texas, Florida and California enduring the transition say those outages and problems affect residential accounts.

“There is ‘absolutely nothing widespread going on?'” asked Eric Petty, an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College. “What a bunch of liars. How stupid do they think their customers are?”

One of the biggest problems customers are encountering is the procedure to transition their online access from Verizon to Frontier. To begin that process, customers need a new Frontier ID, but that is easier said than done if you lack landline service. As part of the registration process, customers need to enter the account PIN number usually displayed on landline bills, but often missing from broadband-only service bills.

frontier floridaLee Allen of Dallas was one of many frustrated customers. He spent an hour trying to manage the Frontier MyAccount registration process and when he tried to sync his Verizon and Frontier account together, it was a flop.

Two calls to Frontier customer service and still no joy reports the Dallas Morning News.

“I’m in limbo,” he said Friday afternoon.”I’m self-employed and work from home. They are supposed to be a technology company. They should have been ready.”

Frontier says they are aware of this problem and are working on a solution.

In Los Gatos, Calif., it was an Internet-free weekend for most of the city’s former Verizon Internet customers, who also lost service on Friday. As of Sunday morning, they still didn’t have service, according to the San Jose Mercury News:

Los Gatos customers were assured the transition on April 1 would be smooth with no interruption to service. But that hasn’t been the case, said Beau Graeber, Fenesy’s neighbor who’s helping him contact the company and reconfigure his Internet.

“It’s a little frustrating,” Graeber said, adding that Verizon — now Frontier — is the only option for Internet and telephone service in Los Gatos, outside of cable or satellite providers. “For Ralph and some of my other neighbors, it’s a terrible inconvenience.”

frontier californiaConcerned customers with bills due this week are finding they don’t have enough access on Frontier’s website to arrange payment of their bill. Frontier says not to worry – “Until this process is completed on April 8th, you will only have very limited account access, even with a Frontier ID,” Frontier reports. “You can still use your Frontier ID to download the Frontier TV App, HBO GO, Watch ESPN, Disney and other popular entertainment Apps. If your bill is due during this period, rest assured that all late fees will be waived.”

Beyond total service outages and interruptions, other customers are reporting various problems with Frontier’s version of FiOS TV:

  • Frontier began migrating their 100,000 title On Demand library to FiOS on April 2. The process was supposed to be complete Saturday afternoon, but some customers are still having problems. Frontier: “We understand how important Video on Demand is to our customers. We apologize for the inconvenience and are working diligently to ensure the content is available as soon as possible. If you get a message that the service is ‘temporarily unavailable,’ you should reboot your set-top box to refresh the VOD service. To reboot, unplug your set-top box, wait at least 10 seconds, and then plug it back in. Please note, a reboot can take up to 3 minutes as the system refreshes your settings. If you continue to experience any issues accessing VOD, please call our Tech Support team at 1-877-600-1511.”
  • The Nickelodeon Jr. FiOS TV Widget/App was retired by Nickelodeon on March 31 prior to the transition to Frontier. It is, therefore, not available. Customers can still watch Nick Jr. on their home television. Customers can also access Nick Jr.’s programming via the web, at www.nickjr.com, or through Nickelodeon’s mobile apps for iOS and Android.
  • When searching for a Video on Demand title with the FiOS TV remote, customers may notice due to the transition from Verizon to Frontier, many of the movies and TV shows are not appearing in either “New Releases” or “Collections”. However, they can be found by scrolling down to “By Title” and then selecting “All” in order to find your choice. You can also search for your VOD by selecting the “B” button on your FiOS TV remote.

frontier new logoFrontier promised regulators things would go better for new Frontier customers after the company botched a similar transfer of AT&T customers in Connecticut that went so poorly, the company had to offer $50 service credits to affected customers.

“We have lessons to learn,” Frontier spokeswoman Kathleen Abernathy told Connecticut regulators at the time.

“They didn’t learn a thing,” said Stan Rogers, a transitioned Frontier customer outside of Allen, Tex. “I was there for the Connecticut switchover two months before I moved down here and now I get to experience the same thing all over again. To give you an idea of where Frontier is on the technology curve, they have sent me information about how to transition my Verizon e-mail address to AOL. Hello!”

North Texas resident Larry Allen agrees, “I didn’t think anything could drive me back to Comcast, but Frontier may do it. TV issues, email issues, Frontier can’t process my information to set up an account, horrible/outdated selection of movies on demand, [and] Frontier [is] not responding to emails for assistance.”

WTSP in Tampa reports Florida area customers didn’t get the easy transition from Verizon to Frontier they were promised. (2:22)

KTVT in Dallas reports Frontier service outages created headaches for customers across North Texas. (2:08)

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.

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.

Verizon Wireless Cutting Jobs, Regional Centers and Passing the Savings on to Themselves

Phillip Dampier October 28, 2015 Consumer News, Verizon No Comments

610px-Verizon-Wireless-Logo_svgVerizon Wireless has informed employees Wednesday that its national operation will be reorganized resulting in significant job cuts.

The nation’s largest wireless carrier also operates 20 regional offices to handle everything from operations to call center functions. Verizon intends to cut that number to six, with employees likely offered a limited number of positions if they agree to relocate. Verizon has a workforce of 177,900 as of the end of the third quarter. Sales and retail store employees will be unaffected in this round of job cuts.

Verizon will not be passing any savings from the cost cuts on to customers. In fact, the company recently announced rate increases of $20 a month for its remaining unlimited data plan users.

With almost 70 percent of Verizon’s revenue now coming from its highly profitable wireless operations, a reduction in regional offices could prove disruptive, especially if it results in a reduction in customer service representatives. Verizon would not specify exactly how many positions will be cut or how much was likely to be saved by consolidating offices, or which would be closed.

Sanders: ‘Verizon’s Greed Has No End;’ Company Accused of Declaring War on Middle Class

cwa sanders

Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called out Verizon’s employment practices in a speech Monday delivered in solidarity with Verizon workers conducting informational picketing as they continue to fight for a new contract with the phone company.

“Their greed knows no bounds,” Sanders told the crowd in Manhattan. “Verizon is a metaphor. You got corporate America making huge profits, their CEO’s getting huge compensation packages, and then with all of their money what they do is hire lawyers in order to make it harder for workers to survive in this country. Workers need decent pay raises, they need decent health care, and they need decent pensions.”

It was the first time any major presidential contender joined a worker protest since Jesse Jackson joined a protest against a strike-breaking firm in 1988.

“Let me get to the point,” Sanders said at a picket line outside of a Verizon Wireless store. “The middle class in this country is disappearing and what Verizon is doing to their workers is exactly what has got to be fought if we are going to rebuild the American middle class. What this campaign is about is that corporate America can’t have it all.”

verizon-protest“I think Verizon needs to hear from the American people,” Sanders added. “We want them to create more broadband. We want them to pay their workers a decent wage. We want them to sit down and negotiate a decent contract.”

A Verizon spokesperson dismissed Sanders’ speech as “a stunt.”

Sanders is no stranger to telecom issues in the northeastern U.S. He remains a fierce critic of FairPoint Communications, which acquired Verizon landlines in the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. After the company declared bankruptcy reorganization, FairPoint workers went on strike after the firm imposed the elimination of all retirement benefits, health care coverage, pensions, and job security.

Sanders sponsored a Thanksgiving dinner for the strikers and their families in Vermont at the Burlington High School. He is a frequent critic of corporate mergers in the telecommunications marketplace.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attacks Verizon’s corporate policies at a union picket outside a Verizon Wireless store in Manhattan. (5:25)

New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into Broadband Speeds and Performance

Schneiderman

Schneiderman

(Reuters) – New York state’s attorney general is probing whether three major Internet providers could be shortchanging consumers by charging them for faster broadband speeds and failing to deliver the speeds being advertised, according to documents seen by Reuters.

The letters, sent on Friday to executives at Verizon Communications, Cablevision Systems, and Time Warner Cable ask each company to provide copies of all disclosures they have made to customers, as well as copies of any testing they may have done of their Internet speeds.

“New Yorkers deserve the Internet speeds they pay for. But, it turns out, many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

In statements, spokesmen for the three companies expressed confidence in the speeds of their Internet services.

“We’re confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the AG to resolve this matter,” Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said.

Cablevision spokesman Charlie Schueler said the company’s Optimum Online service “consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds, including in FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and internal tests. We are happy to provide any necessary performance information to the Attorney General as we do to our customers.”

A Verizon spokesman said the company would cooperate with Schneiderman’s office. “Verizon is confident in the robust and reliable Internet speeds it delivers to subscribers,” the spokesman said.

BroadbandMap_rev1The attorney general’s investigation is particularly focused on so-called interconnection arrangements, or contractual deals that Internet service providers strike with other networks for the mutual exchange of data.

In the letters, Schneiderman’s office says it is concerned that customers paying a premium for higher speeds may be experiencing a disruption in their service due to technical problems and business disputes over interconnection agreements.

A 2014 study by the Measurement Lab Consortium, or M-Lab, found that customers’ Internet service tended to suffer at points where their broadband providers connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers, including Cogent Communications Group.

“Internet service provider interconnection has a substantial impact on consumer Internet performance – sometimes a severely negative impact,” the study said, adding that business relationships rather than technical issues were often at the root of the problem.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the 2014 study’s findings, coupled with consumer complaints and internal analysis, prompted the inquiry into Internet speeds.

Some of the letters also raise questions about speeds delivered by Time Warner Cable and Cablevision to consumers over “the last mile,” a term that refers to the point where a telecommunication chain reaches a retail consumer’s devices.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney, Christian Plumb and Jonathan Oatis)

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