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A Deal With Charter, Comcast Could Further Burden Sprint’s Poor-Performing Network

With Sprint and T-Mobile reportedly far apart in prospective merger talks, Sprint has given a two-month exclusive window to Charter Communications and Comcast Corp. to see if a wireless deal can be made between the wireless carrier and America’s largest cable operators. But any deal could initially burden Sprint’s fourth place network with more traffic, potentially worsening performance for Sprint customers until additional upgrades can be undertaken.

The two cable companies are reportedly seeking a favorable reseller arrangement for their forthcoming wireless offerings, which would include control over handsets, SIM cards, and the products and services that emerge after the deal. Both Charter and Comcast also have agreements with Verizon Wireless to resell that network, but only within the service areas of the two cable operators. Verizon’s deal is far more restrictive and costly than any deal Charter and Comcast would sign with Sprint.

Such a deal could begin adding tens of thousands of new wireless customers to Sprint’s 4G LTE network, already criticized for being overburdened and slow. In fact, Sprint’s network has been in last place for speed and performance compared with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon for several years. A multi-year upgrade effort by Sprint has not delivered the experience many wireless customers expect and demand, and Sprint has seen many of its long-term customers churn away to other companies — especially T-Mobile, after they lost patience with Sprint’s repeated promises to improve service.

PC Magazine’s June 2017 results of fastest mobile carriers in United States shows Sprint in distant fourth place.

At least initially, cable customers switching to their company’s “quad-play” wireless plan powered by Sprint may find the experience cheaper, but underwhelming.

Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son was initially aggressive about upgrading Sprint’s network with funds advanced by parent company Softbank. But it seems no matter how much money was invested, Sprint has always lagged behind other wireless carriers. In recent years, those upgrades seem to have diminished. Instead, Son has been aggressively trying to find a way to overcome regulator and Justice Department objections to his plan to merge Sprint with third place carrier T-Mobile USA. Likely part of any deal with Charter and Comcast would be a substantial equity stake in Sprint, or some other investment commitment that would likely run into the billions. That money would likely be spent bolstering Sprint’s network.

A deal with the two cable companies could also give Sprint access to the cable operators’ large fiber networks, which could accelerate Sprint’s ability to buildout its 5G wireless network, which will rely on small cells connected to a fiber backhaul network.

Less likely, according to observers, would be a joint agreement between Charter and Comcast to buy Sprint, which is currently worth $32 billion but also has $32.6 billion in net debt. Sprint’s talks with Charter and Comcast do not preclude an eventual merger with T-Mobile USA. But any merger announcement would likely not come until late this summer or fall, if it happens at all.

Wall Street is downplaying a Sprint/T-Mobile combination as a result of the press reports indicating talks between the two companies appear to have gone nowhere.

“We didn’t give a Sprint/cable deal high odds,” wrote Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research.  “While a single cable company entering into any transaction with Sprint has a strong likelihood of regulatory approval, a joint bid raises questions that add some uncertainty. However, the deal corroborates our view that Sprint isn’t as desperate as many thought and T-Mobile didn’t have the leverage that most seemed to assume.”

Malone

“An equity stake or outright acquisition is less likely in our view, but not out of the realm of possibility,” said Mike McCormack of Jefferies. “In our view, this likely suggests major hurdles in any Sprint/T-Mobile discussions and could renew speculation of T-Mobile and Dish should Sprint talks falter.”

Marci Ryvicker of Wells Fargo believes Comcast will be “the ultimate decision maker” as to which path will be taken. Amy Yong of Macquarie Research seems to agree. “We note Comcast has a strong history of successfully turning around assets and could contribute meaningfully to Sprint; NBCUniversal is the clearest example. But she notes Charter is likely to be distracted for the next year or two trying to integrate Time Warner Cable into its operations.

Behind the cable industry’s push into wireless is Dr. John Malone, Charter’s largest shareholder and longtime cable industry consigliere. Malone has spent better than a year pestering Comcast CEO Brian Roberts to join Charter Communications in a joint effort to acquire a wireless carrier instead of attempting to build their own wireless networks. But both Roberts and Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge have been reluctant to make a large financial commitment in the wireless industry at a time when the days of easy wireless profits are over and increasing competition has forced prices down.

For Malone, wireless is about empowering the cable industry “quad play” – bundling cable TV, internet, phone, and wireless into a single package on a single bill. The more services a consumer buys from a single provider, the more difficult and inconvenient it is to change providers.

Malone also believes in a united front by the cable industry to meet any competitive threat. Malone favored TV Everywhere and other online video collaborations with cable operators to combat Netflix and Hulu. He also advocates for additional cable industry consolidation, in particular the idea of a single giant company combining Charter, Cox, and Comcast. Under the Trump Administration, Malone thinks such a colossal deal is a real possibility.

Verizon Commits to Spend $1 Billion on New Fiber Buildout for Its 5G Network

Verizon Communications announced a deal Tuesday with a leading optical fiber manufacturer to supply up to 12.4 million miles of fiber cable annually for a large buildout of Verizon’s fiber network to power its forthcoming 5G wireless service.

Verizon’s $1.05 billion agreement with Corning, Inc., of Corning N.Y., will guarantee Verizon will have an ample supply of optical fiber available from 2018-2020 at a time when the company noticed a fiber cable shortage was causing problems for its current FiOS/5G fiber buildout now underway in Boston.

“This new architecture is designed to improve Verizon’s 4G LTE coverage, speed the deployment of 5G, and deliver high-speed broadband to homes and businesses of all sizes,” Verizon said in a statement. But Verizon did not make it very clear the expansion will primarily benefit Verizon Wireless, not Verizon Communications’ FiOS fiber to the home service.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, appearing exclusively on CNBC this morning, rejected the notion that the fiber buildout would represent a restart of Verizon’s long-suspended expansion of its FiOS fiber to the home service.

“When we deployed FiOS we would run a fiber cable into a neighborhood with six or eight strands in it,” McAdam said. “Now we’re going to drop off six or eight strands to every street light in every neighborhood so that allows you to deliver a gigabit of thruput into the home and allows you to do things like intelligent transportation, electric grid management, and water system management. You hear a lot about autonomous cars and things like that today that don’t work without 5G.”

Verizon’s Boston project represents the current CEO’s vision: a wireless-based network supported by an extensive fiber network. But instead of connecting fiber to homes, McAdam’s network connects fiber to tens of thousands of palm-sized “small cells” and other wireless infrastructure that will deliver services to individual neighborhoods instead of individual homes.

Critics still question whether Verizon’s 5G network will be able to sustain its speed and capacity claims outside of testing labs, especially as shared wireless network infrastructure faces future usage demands. Fiber to the home service does not require customers to share bandwidth the same way a wireless connection would and can manage much higher capacity.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam and Corning chairman and CEO Wendel Weeks appeared jointly on CNBC to discuss Verizon’s $1.05 billion agreement with Corning to guarantee up to 12.4 million miles of optical fiber a year from 2018-2020. (11:24)

Here’s What You Need to Know About Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable television operator, will compete for wireless customers with a new no-contract wireless plan that combines Verizon Wireless’ mobile network with Comcast’s installed base of 16 million hotspots installed in customer homes and businesses.

Xfinity Mobile will offer two plans — a pay as you go option for $12/GB and an unlimited calling, texting, and data plan that ranges from $45-65 a month. Customers spending about $150 or more on a Comcast X1 bundle of services will pay the lesser amount, while those with a more basic package will pay more. Customers must at least subscribe to Xfinity Internet service to qualify for the new wireless plan and live in a Comcast service area.

Comcast is powering its cell phone service with its MVNO agreement with Verizon Wireless, which grants the cable company the right to resell Verizon’s wireless network under the Xfinity brand. But Comcast hopes customers will use their devices the most while connected to an Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot, available in most Comcast customer homes and an extensive network of businesses. To make sure that happens, devices acquired from Comcast will come pre-configured to automatically connect to Comcast’s Wi-Fi, where available.

Comcast’s “unlimited” $65 plan — likely to be the most popular option, is between $15-25 less than what Verizon and AT&T charge their customers for a comparable plan, at least for accounts with just a single device attached. Like other “unlimited” plans, Comcast has a fine print data cap: 20GB of wireless data usage per month, after which it will throttle the customer’s connection until the next billing cycle begins. Comcast intends to always impose the speed throttle once 20GB is reached, not just in areas with congested cell towers. But throttled speeds will be a less maddening 1.5Mbps instead of the usual 128kbps most carriers use to punish their data-heavy users.

Overall, the plan may deliver some savings to current Comcast customers unfazed by signing up for a “quad play” bundle of wireless, phone, TV, and internet access, especially for those bringing a single wireless line to Comcast. Customers with multiple wireless devices on a family plan may want to do the math before signing up with Comcast. Unlike other wireless carriers, Comcast does not offer a discount for additional lines. For most, the price will be $65 a month for each line. For an account with four lines, that would amount to $260 a month — $75 more than what AT&T charges for a similar four-line plan.

Comcast may also attract some interest from light users or those with devices like tablets. Comcast’s $12/GB data plan has no limits or minimum charges. If a customer doesn’t use the plan, there are no charges. If a customer on this plan approaches 4GB of usage in a billing cycle, they can upgrade to Xfinity’s unlimited wireless plan ($45-65) mid-month and then use up to 20GB of data with no extra charges or speed throttles. Customers can put some devices on an unlimited plan and others on a pay-as-you-go plan on the same account.

Early adopters ready to sign up when the service launches this May or June will need to buy new devices from Comcast. The company will sell current generation Apple iPhones, Samsung Galaxy smartphones, and a budget option from LG Electronics. Customers can pay for devices upfront or receive interest-free financing.

Comcast’s interest in entering the wireless business represents the latest effort to keep customers locked into Comcast’s suite of products and services. The more services a customer bundles with Comcast, the more disruptive it will be to switch to another provider.

“The economics really work,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in January. “The goal of the business is to have better bundling with some of our customers who want to save on some of their bill and get a world-class product.”

Because Comcast will rely entirely on Verizon Wireless to provide cellular connectivity, the cost of getting into the mobile business is relatively low. Comcast struck a deal with Verizon several years ago giving the cable company “perpetual” access to Verizon Wireless, as well as any upgrades Verizon makes to its network in the future. However, Verizon still has the right to raise prices on Comcast, potentially slowing or stopping Xfinity Wireless from ever growing large enough to threaten Verizon’s profits.

Charter Communications is planning to introduce a similar wireless product in 2018.

Verizon Sued for “Knowingly Billing Customers for Fraudulent Charges”

Verizon will conveniently add fraudsters’ phone and service orders to your wireless bill until you catch the illegitimate charges and complain.

That is the basis of a new class action lawsuit filed in New York accusing the wireless company of billing customers for fraudulently obtained equipment and service.

Brooklyn lawyer Lowell Sidney told the New York Post it took five months of “autopay” charges almost $100 higher than normal before he noticed someone had obtained a new smartphone and service and billed it to his Verizon Wireless account.

“[Verizon] Fraud Services said that on Oct. 22, 2016, an unknown person entered a Best Buy store in Wesley Chapel, Florida, claimed to be [Sidney], and ordered a cellphone and phone service from Verizon,’’ the suit said. When Best Buy asked for ID, the imposter ran out of the store.

But that did not stop Verizon from running up Sidney’s bill for several months of phone financing installments and service charges.

Sidney’s lawyer told the newspaper it was clear the guy was a crook, but that did not stop Verizon from collecting money it knew didn’t belong to them.

Verizon’s fraud department confirmed Verizon’s corporate policy is not to notify customers about potential, suspected, or actual fraud. It is entirely up to customers to identify suspicious charges and prove to Verizon’s satisfaction those charges are illegitimate.

“The woman I spoke to was very candid — ‘That’s our policy,’” reported an outraged Sidney, and he’s suing to make the point Verizon should be doing a better job of protecting customers and should not be collecting money to which it is not entitled. He wants at least $75,000 in damages and wants other Verizon customers affected by fraud to receive settlements as well. He is also taking his business elsewhere after 17 years with Verizon.

“I am not sure if the competition provides comparable service, but to my knowledge, they don’t actively engage in defrauding their own customers,” Sidney said.

Sidney warns that “autopay” and electronic billing make it more difficult for consumers to scrutinize their bills and catch fraudulent charges because they have to seek out a monthly statement instead of getting one sent directly to them.

Wall Street Panic Attack: Verizon’s Unlimited Plan Will Destroy Profits, Network Reliability

Verizon Wireless’ new unlimited data plan threatens to destroy everything, fear Wall Street analysts in an open panic attack over the prospects of value destruction and network reliability damage.

“An unlimited offer is dangerous,” Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics LLC, told Bloomberg News. “If they sign up a lot of people, it will congest the network, and they run the risk of people saying ‘the network sucks’.”

The return of unlimited data at Verizon (with a protective right to throttle customer speeds after they consume 22GB of data during the month) seems to have triggered anxiety on Wall Street because Verizon was the most adamant about never offering unlimited plans again after dropping them in July, 2011. Part of that fear may have come from Verizon’s own former chief financial officer Fran Shammo who warned investors last fall:

“The majority of people don’t need unlimited plans. But the people who use unlimited plans can be abusive, they can really wreak havoc to your network. And at the end of the day, I continue to say you cannot make money in an unlimited video world. You just can’t do it because you need to generate the cash flow to keep up with your demand.”

What also concerns Wall Street is the increasing evidence an all-out price war provoked by T-Mobile and Sprint will threaten to close some doors on network monetization. Charging customers for data consumption has a growth prospect that would have guaranteed increasing average revenue per customer indefinitely. But unlimited plans mean consumers pay one flat price for data no matter how much they consume. Consumers love it. Wall Street analysts generally don’t.

Other analysts are concerned that Verizon, deemed the Cadillac Network because of its premium price and reputation, also happens to have the least amount of deployed wireless spectrum of all the four national carriers. As the nation’s largest carrier with 114 million users, a big spike in data consumption could affect Verizon’s network performance, some speculate.

Unlimited data plans promote usage and total wireless traffic is expected to grow between 70-80% annually, up from 50-60% under today’s tiered data plans, according to wireless analyst Chetan Sharma.

In response Verizon has rushed out executives to reassure Wall Street and investors Verizon’s network was built to take it.

“Our goal is to always offer a better performance, and I see a path to that,” Mike Haberman, Verizon’s vice president of network support, said in an interview with Bloomberg:

“Spectrum is only one element of a network,” he added. “How you put the network together is far more important.” In advance of its decision to start selling an unlimited data package, Verizon was busy with upgrades. The company just boosted network capacity by 50 percent with new systems that take separate radio frequencies and combine them into one large pathway, Haberman said. The company has also been adding more cell sites and transmitters in cities and connecting those sites with high-capacity fiber-optic lines.

CNBC reported Verizon’s new unlimited data plan is a “sign of weakness” for Verizon, which is facing challenges to its core wireless business. (4:30)

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  • Josh: Good grief. If they still have money, they HAVE to spend...I mean it's probably too late, but...what on Earth is wrong with these executives? I mean...
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  • LG: Same as Christopher's post above. Great work. The longer this goes on, the more I believe regulation and laws alone will not be enough. I'm thinkin...
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