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Verizon Preparing to Sell $15 Billion in Cell Tower/Wired Assets – Tex., Calif., and Fla., Landlines Likely for Sale

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2015 Consumer News, Verizon 1 Comment
Verizon's landline coverage map.

Verizon’s landline coverage map.

Verizon is working on a sale of its cellphone towers and a portion of its landline assets in a series of deals that could fetch the company more than $15 billion, according to a breaking report in the Wall Street Journal.

The company is looking to raise cash to pay down debt incurred when it bought out Vodafone’s 45% share of its wireless unit and to cover $10.4 billion in wireless licenses the company just won in a government auction last week.

The most likely targets in a landline sale are Verizon territories outside of the northeast.

Verizon has already dumped its landline assets in Hawaii (sold to Hawaiian Telcom), northern New England (sold to FairPoint Communications), West Virginia and many smaller city and suburban territories acquired from GTE (all sold to Frontier).

In its 2010 sale to Frontier, Verizon retained assets in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, central Texas and Southern California regions. But now all three states are prime targets for a sale. Likely buyers include Frontier Communications, which already has a major presence in Florida including a national call center, and CenturyLink, which acquired Qwest and has a large service area in the southwest and western United States. Frontier remains the most likely buyer, having aggressively expanded its landline network in legacy AT&T (Connecticut) and Verizon service areas.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam has shown little interest in maintaining Verizon’s wired assets or growing FiOS and has been willing to sell off major parts of Verizon’s landline network to continue prioritizing Verizon Wireless. McAdam led Verizon Wireless from 2006-2010, before being named CEO of Verizon Communications.

Verizon-logoHe foreshadowed the forthcoming landline sale in January when he told an investor conference he was willing to make significant cuts to Verizon’s wired networks.

“There are certain assets on the wireline side that we think would be better off in somebody else’s hands so we can focus our energy in a little bit more narrow geography,” he said at the time.

Verizon is also expected to follow AT&T’s lead in selling off much of its cell tower portfolio. It will lease access to the towers it sells.

Verizon maintains FiOS networks in Texas, California, and Florida, but that is not expected to deter the company from selling its landline assets. Frontier acquired Verizon FiOS properties in the 2010 sale in both the Pacific Northwest and Indiana. Those services operate under the Frontier FiOS banner today.

Google, Cablevision Challenge Traditional Cell Phone Plans, Wireless Usage Caps With Cheap Alternatives

freewheelLuxurious wireless industry profits of up to 50 percent earned from selling some of the world’s most expensive cellular services may soon be a thing of the past as Google and Cablevision prepare to disrupt the market with cheap competition.

With more than 80 percent of all wireless data traffic now moving over Wi-Fi, prices for wireless data services should be in decline, but the reverse has been true. AT&T and Verizon Wireless have banked future profits by dumping unlimited data plans and monetizing wireless usage, predicting a dependable spike in revenue from growing data consumption. Instead of charging customers a flat $30 for unlimited data, carriers like Verizon have switched to plans with voice, texting, and just 1GB of wireless usage at around $60 a month, with each additional gigabyte priced at $15 a month.

With the majority of cell phone customers in the U.S. signed up with AT&T or Verizon’s nearly identical plans, their revenue has soared. Sprint and T-Mobile have modestly challenged the two industry leaders offering cheaper plans, some with unlimited data, but their smaller cellular networks and more limited coverage areas have left many customers wary about switching.

Google intends to remind Americans that the majority of data usage occurs over Wi-Fi networks that don’t require an expensive data plan or enormous 4G network. The search engine giant will launch its own wireless service that depends on Wi-Fi at home and work and combines the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile while on the go, switching automatically to the provider with the best signal and performance.

googleCablevision’s offer, in contrast, will rely entirely on Wi-Fi to power its mobile calling, texting, and data services. Dubbed “Freewheel,” non-Cablevision customers can sign up starting in February for $29.95 a month. Current Cablevision broadband customers get a price break — $9.95 a month.

Cablevision’s dense service area in parts of New York City, Long Island, northern New Jersey and Connecticut offers ample access to Wi-Fi. Cablevision chief operating officer Kristin Dolan said its new service would work best in Wi-Fi dense areas such as college campuses, business districts, and multi-dwelling units.

New York City is working towards its own ubiquitous Wi-Fi network, which could theoretically blanket the city with enough hotspots to make Cablevision’s service area seamless. But the biggest deterrent to dumping your current cell phone provider is likely to be available coverage areas. Google’s answer to that problem is combining the networks of both Sprint and T-Mobile, offering customers access to the best-performing carrier in any particular area. While that isn’t likely to solve coverage issues in states like West Virginia and the Mountain West, where only AT&T and Verizon Wireless offer serious coverage, it will likely be sustainable in large and medium-sized cities where at least one of the two smaller carriers has a solid network of cell towers.

Comparing the Wireless Alternative Providers

  • Google Wireless will offer seamless access to Wi-Fi, Sprint and T-Mobile voice, SMS, and mobile data at an undetermined price. Likely to arrive by the summer of 2015;
  • Cablevision Freewheel depends entirely on Wi-Fi to power unlimited voice, SMS, and data. Launches in February for $29.95/mo ($9.95/mo for Cablevision broadband customers);
  • FreedomPop Wi-Fi ($5/mo) offers an Android app-based “key” to open unlimited Wi-Fi access to 10 million AT&T, Google, and cable industry hotspots nationwide for calling, texting, and mobile data;
  • Republic Wireless developed its own protocol to properly hand off phone calls between different networks without dropping it. Calling plans range from $5-40 a month. Less expensive plans are Wi-Fi only, pricier plans include access to Sprint’s network;
  • Scratch Wireless charges once for its device – a Motorola Photon Q ($99) and everything else is free, as long as you have access to Wi-Fi. Cell-based texting is also free, as a courtesy. If you need voice calling or wireless data when outside the range of a hotspot, you can buy “access passes” to Sprint’s network at prices ranging from $1.99 a day each for voice and data access to $24.99 a month for unlimited data and $14.99 a month for unlimited voice.
Scratch Wireless

Scratch Wireless

Google is pushing the FCC to open new unlicensed spectrum for expanded Wi-Fi to accommodate the growing number of wireless hotspots that are facing co-interference issues.

Wi-Fi-based wireless providers are likely to grow once coverage concerns are eased and there is reliable service as customers hop from hotspot to hotspot. The cable industry has aggressively deployed Wi-Fi access with a potential to introduce wireless service. Comcast is already providing broadband customers with network gateways that offer built-in guest access to other Comcast customers, with the potential of using a crowdsourced network of customers to power Wi-Fi coverage across its service areas. FreedomPop will eventually seek customers to volunteer access to their home or business networks for fellow users as well.

AT&T and Verizon are banking on their robust networks and coverage areas to protect their customer base. Verizon Wireless, in particular, has refused to engage in price wars with competitors, claiming Verizon customers are willing to pay more to access the company’s huge wireless coverage area. AT&T told the Wall Street Journal its customers want seamless access to its network to stay connected wherever they go.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo appeared unfazed by the recent developments. On last week’s conference call with investors, Shammo dismissed Google’s entry as simply another reseller of Sprint’s network. He added Google has no idea about the challenges it will face dealing directly with customers in a service and support capacity. While Google’s approach to combine the coverage of T-Mobile and Sprint together is a novel idea, Shammo thinks there isn’t much to see.

“Resellers, or people leasing the network from carriers, have been around for 15 years,” Shammo said. “It’s a complex issue.”

Investors are taking a cautious wait-and-see approach to the recent developments. Google’s new offering is likely to offer plans that are philosophically compatible with Google’s larger business agenda. Challenging the traditional business models of AT&T and Verizon that have implemented usage caps and usage pricing may be at the top of Google’s list. The new offering could give large data allowances at a low-cost and/or unlimited wireless data for a flat price. Such plans may actually steal price-sensitive customers away from Sprint and T-Mobile, at least initially. Sprint is clearly worried about that, so it has a built-in escape clause that allows a termination of its network agreement with Google almost at will.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Google Cablevision Challenge Wireless Industry 1-26-15.flv

The Wall Street Journal talks about the trend towards Wi-Fi based mobile calling networks. (1:59)

Verizon Cutting Wireline Broadband Investments: Still No FiOS Expansion, Less Money for Wired Networks

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon Communications signaled today it plans further cuts in investments for its wireline network, which includes traditional copper-based telephone service and DSL as well as its fiber-optic network FiOS.

“We will spend more CapEx in the wireless side and we will continue to curtail CapEx on the wireline side,” Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo told investors this morning. “Some of that is because we are getting to the end of our committed build around FiOS.”

Instead of expanding its FiOS fiber to the home network to new areas, Verizon is trying to increase its customer base in areas previously wired. It is less costly to reconnect homes previously wired for FiOS compared with installing fiber where copper wiring still exists.

Verizon continues to lose traditional landline customers, so the company is increasingly dependent on FiOS to boost wired revenue. The fiber network now accounts for 77% of Verizon’s residential wireline revenue.

Wherever FiOS exists, it has taken a significant number of customers away from cable competitors. FiOS Internet has now achieved 41.1% market penetration, with 6.6 million customers, up 544,000 from last year. Of those, the majority want broadband speeds they were not getting from the cable company. At the end of 2014, 59% of FiOS Internet customers subscribe to broadband speeds above 50Mbps, up from 46% at the end of 2013.

Verizon-logoDespite the success of FiOS, Verizon’s senior management continues to devote more attention to its highly profitable Verizon Wireless division, spending an even larger proportion of its total capital investments on wireless services.

In 2014, Verizon spent $17.2 billion on capital expenditures, an increase of 3.5% over 2013. But only $5.8 billion was spent on maintaining and upgrading Verizon’s landline and FiOS networks, down 7.7% over 2013. Verizon Wireless in contrast was given $10.5 billion to spend in 2014. The company is using that money to add network density to its increasingly congested 4G LTE network. In many cities, Verizon Wireless is activating its idle AWS spectrum to share the traffic load and is accelerating deployment of small cell technology and in-building microcells to deal with dense traffic found in a relatively small geographic area — such as in sports stadiums, office buildings, shopping centers, etc.

Verizon Wireless is branding its network expansion “XLTE,” which sounds to the uninitiated like the next generation LTE network. It isn’t. “XLTE” simply refers to areas where expanded LTE bandwidth has been activated. Unfortunately, many Verizon Wireless devices made before 2014 will not benefit, unable to access the extra frequencies XLTE uses.

With Verizon increasing the dividend it pays shareholders, the company is also cutting costs in both its wired and wireless divisions:

  • Verizon Wireless’ 3G data network will see a growing amount of its available spectrum reassigned to 4G data, which is less costly to offer on a per megabyte basis. As Verizon pushes more 4G-capable devices into the market, 3G usage has declined. But the reduced spectrum could lead to speed slowdowns in areas where 3G usage remains constant or does not decline as quickly as Verizon expects;
  • Verizon will push more customers to use “self-service” customer care options instead of walking into a Verizon store or calling customer service;
  • The company will continue to move towards decommissioning its copper wire network, especially in FiOS areas. Existing landline customers are being encouraged to switch to FiOS fiber, even if they have only landline service. Copper maintenance costs are higher than taking care of fiber optic wiring;
  • Verizon has accelerated the closing down of many central switching offices left over from the landline era. As the company sells the buildings and property that used to serve its network, Verizon’s property tax bill decreases;
  • Verizon will continue cutting its employee headcount. Shammo told investors in December, Verizon Communications cut an extra 2,300 employees that took care of its wired networks.

Verizon Wireless Arrives in Alaska; Helps Drive Alaska Communications Out of the Wireless Business

acs logoWhen Verizon Wireless finally fired up its network in Alaska in September of 2014, the writing was on the wall for at least one of Alaska’s homegrown wireless competitors.

Faced with competing against Verizon’s $115 million, state-of-the-art advanced LTE network that already supports new features like Voice over LTE (far ahead of what many customers in the lower 48 states get) Alaska Communications System Group, Inc., decided it was time to sell.

An ACS and GCI-shared cell tower. (Photo: Rosemarie Alexander)

An ACS and GCI-shared cell tower. (Photo: Rosemarie Alexander)

ACS’ 109,000 wireless customers won’t be going far. The buyer, General Communications, Inc., (GCI) is a co-investor in the Alaska Wireless Network that ACS also relies on to offer wireless service. Besides billing and rate plans, most ACS customers won’t notice much of a change after the $300 million sale is complete during the first quarter of this year. GCI will end up with about 253,000 customers after the transaction is finished, which represents about one-third of the Alaskan wireless marketplace. The sale will mean most Alaskans will have a practical choice of three major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and GCI.

ACS, weighed down by debt, wanted out of the wireless business because it has proven expensive to support a network serving a high-cost, low margin state like Alaska, where small communities are often far apart. Serving cities like Fairbanks and Juneau is one thing. Serving hundreds of settlements like Meyers Chuck (pop. 21) or towns like Unalakleet (pop. 688) is another.

Like many traditional rural or independent telephone companies, ACS sees gold in its future focusing on selling lucrative broadband service to residential and business customers, where profit margins often exceed 50 percent. There is plenty of room to grow if ACS invests in network upgrades. ACS currently only has a 20 percent share of Alaska’s broadband market, primarily selling DSL service. GCI, which sells cable broadband, has managed a speed advantage.

Both companies have reassured Wall Street that despite ACS’ renewed focus on broadband, there will be no fierce competition, no price wars, or lower prices for consumers. ACS will devote considerable resources into bolstering its business broadband marketing and has already secured contracts with the state government and a regional health consortium.

Despite the $300 million windfall, ACS plans to turn most of that money towards paying off its debts and possibly reinstating a dividend payout program for shareholders. The company is expected to only spend $35 million to $40 million annually on capital investment projects and executives promise they will only open their wallet for projects that guarantee a high return on that investment. As a result, ACS will likely not spend much on rural broadband expansion.

Competition Finally Starts Hurting Verizon Wireless; Holiday Margin Pressure and Higher Disconnects

Phillip Dampier December 8, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Verizon, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

Christmas Stocking with chunks of coal laying on a green textured backgroundFor years Verizon Wireless has charged some of the highest prices in the wireless industry because it could. But those days may finally be coming to an end as the company admits it is seeing an increase in customer disconnects, and the company announced it will spend more on subscriber promotions to win back old customers and attract new ones.

Verizon Wireless executives have repeatedly stressed they can charge ‘Cadillac prices on a Cadillac network’ that has traditionally outperformed the competition in coverage, 4G data, and customer service. But customers may be telling the carrier “enough as enough” as a growing number are attracted to offers of dramatically lower pricing from Sprint and T-Mobile.

In a statement issued to shareholders, Verizon Wireless reports it is not on track to have a completely Merry Christmas:

As the company is accelerating the upgrades of high-quality customers to 4G, total retail postpaid disconnects are trending higher both sequentially and year over year in this highly competitive and promotion-filled fourth quarter.

The company expects that the fourth-quarter impacts of its promotional offers, together with the strong customer volumes this quarter, will put short-term pressure on its wireless segment EBITDA and EBITDA service margin (non-GAAP, based on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) as well as its consolidated EBITDA margin (non-GAAP) and earnings per share.

Despite the growing number of customers leaving Verizon for more affordable alternatives, those remaining are willing to pay even higher prices upgrading to the latest smartphones and tablets equipped to take advantage of Verizon’s 4G LTE network. Customers are gradually moving away basic cell phones and towards smartphones and tablets.

Customers are also increasingly willing to abandon the upgrade subsidy in favor of early upgrades and device payment plans. Verizon reports almost one-quarter of customers are now enrolled in its Verizon Edge smartphone program, which budgets the cost of a new phone in installments charged to a cell phone bill. Just three months ago, Verizon had only enrolled 12% of its customers in the upgrade program.

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