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Verizon Workers Set to Strike Company Starting Wednesday

Phillip Dampier April 11, 2016 Consumer News, Verizon, Video 1 Comment

verizon strikeAfter ten months of informational picketing and on-the-job protests for a new contract agreement, nearly 40,000 Verizon workers from Massachusetts to Virginia will go on strike starting at 6:00am Wednesday, April 13 if a settlement cannot be reached.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) argue Verizon has dropped the ball on customers and employees, refusing to negotiate in good faith and not investing in better broadband and phone service for millions of its customers.

The two unions are among the strongest proponents of forcing Verizon to further expand its FiOS fiber-to-the-home service, which has been effectively on hold for several years as the company pours resources into its vastly more profitable wireless division – Verizon Wireless.

In addition to refusing further upgrades, unions accuse Verizon of gutting job protection, outsourcing an increasing amount of work, freezing pensions, closing call centers, and offshoring jobs to Mexico and the Philippines. While customers endure months-long phone outages and poor DSL broadband service Verizon has only grudgingly improved, the company made $39 billion in profits over the last three years, and $1.8 billion in profits over the first three months of this year. But it won’t spend the money on expanding FiOS or its workers.

Trainor

Trainor

“The company’s greed is disgusting. [CEO] Lowell McAdam made $18 million last year—more than 200 times the compensation of the average Verizon employee,” the CWA said in a statement. “Verizon’s top five executives made $233 million over the last five years. Last year alone, Verizon paid out $13.5 billion in dividends and stock buybacks to shareholders. But they claim they can’t afford a fair contract.”

The union says Verizon’s priorities are all wrong.

“It’s not just workers who are getting screwed,” the CWA wrote. “Verizon has $35 billion to invest in the failing internet company, Yahoo, but refuses to maintain its copper network, let alone build FiOS in underserved communities across the region. And even where it’s legally committed to building FiOS out for every customer, Verizon refuses to hire enough workers to get the job done right or on time.”

“We’re standing up for working families and standing up to Verizon’s corporate greed,” said CWA District 1 vice president Dennis Trainor. “If a hugely profitable corporation like Verizon can destroy the good family supporting jobs of highly skilled workers, then no worker in America will be safe from this corporate race to the bottom.”

Members of CWA District 1/Local 13500.

Members of CWA District 1/Local 13500.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been a close ally of the CWA and has supported the union’s fight with Verizon. The CWA has returned the favor, encouraging the Vermont senator to stay in the race against Hillary Clinton.

Verizon workers complain they are being treated like servants by the company.

“Verizon is already turning people’s lives upside down by sending us hundreds of miles from home for weeks at a time, and now they want to make it even worse,” said Dan Hylton, a technician and CWA member in Roanoke, Va., who’s been with Verizon for 20 years. “Technicians on our team have always been happy to volunteer after natural disasters when our customers needed help, but if I was forced away from home for two months, I have no idea what my wife would do. She had back surgery last year, and she needs my help. I just want to do a good job, be there for my family, and have a decent life.”

A strike could have a significant effect on service calls and maintenance of Verizon’s infrastructure, particularly its deteriorating copper wire network still in service across much of its territory outside of the largest cities in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region. Particularly vulnerable areas include upstate New York, Maryland, suburban and rural Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and western Virginia.

Verizon recently completed a sale of its landline service areas in Florida, California, and Texas to Frontier Communications, and these three states will not be affected by a walkout.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CWA Verizon Poster Child for Corporate Greed 4-2016.mp4

The CWA released this ad depicting the income disparity between average Verizon workers and its CEO. (30 seconds)

Verizon Takes N.Y. Landline Customers to the Cleaners: Finds $1,500

Phillip Dampier March 28, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon, Video No Comments

ShakedownVerizon’s loyal landline customers are subsidizing corporate expenses and lavish spending on Verizon Wireless, the company’s eponymous mobile service, while their home phone service is going to pot.

Bruce Kushnick from New Networks Institute knows Verizon’s tricks of the trade. He reads tariff filings and arcane Securities & Exchange Commission corporate disclosures for fun. He’s been building a strong case that Verizon has used the revenue it earns from regulated landline telephone service to help finance Verizon’s FiOS fiber network and the company’s highly profitable wireless service.

Kushnick tells the New York Post at least two million New Yorkers with (P)lain (O)ld (T)elephone (S)ervice were overcharged $1,000-$1,500 while Verizon allowed its copper wire network to fall into disrepair. Kushnick figures Verizon owes billions of dollars that should have been spent on its POTS network that provides dial tones to seniors and low-income customers that cannot afford smartphones and laptops.

Verizon’s copper network should have been paid off years ago, argues Kushnick, resulting in dramatically less expensive phone service. What wasn’t paid off has been “written off” by Verizon for some time, Kushnick claims, and Verizon customers should only be paying $10-20 a month for basic phone service. But they pay far more than that.

To ensure a proper rate of return, New York State’s Public Service Commission sets Verizon’s basic service charge of regulated phone service downstate at $23 a month. Deregulation has allowed Verizon to charge whatever it likes for everything else, starting with passing along taxes and other various fees that raise the bill to over $30. Customers with calling plans to minimize long distance charges routinely pay over $60 a month.

Unregulated calling features like call waiting, call forwarding, and three-way calling don’t come cheap either, especially if customers choose them a-la-carte. A two-service package of call waiting and call forwarding costs Verizon 2-3¢ per month, but you pay $7.95. Other add-on fees apply for dubious services like “home wiring maintenance” which protects you if the phone lines installed in your home during the Eisenhower Administration happen to suddenly fail (unlikely).

verizonIn contrast, Time Warner Cable has sold its customers phone service with unlimited local and long distance calling (including free calls to the European Community, Canada, and Mexico) with a bundle of multiple phone features for just $10 a month. That, and the ubiquitous cell phone, may explain why about 11 million New Yorkers disconnected landline service between 2000-2016. There are about two million remaining customers across the state.

New York officials are investigating whether Verizon has allowed its landline network to deteriorate along the way. Anecdotal news reports suggests it might be the case. One apartment building in Harlem lost phone and DSL service for seven months. Another outage put senior citizens at risk in Queens for weeks.

“They don’t care if we live or die,” one tenant of a senior living center told WABC-TV.

Verizon claims Kushnick’s claims are ridiculous.

“There is absolutely no factual basis for his allegations,” the company said.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WABC New York Seniors vent against Verizon after phone service outage 3-9-16.flv

WABC’s “7 On Your Side” consumer reporter Nina Pineda had to intervene to get Verizon to repair phone service for a senior living center that lasted more than a month. (2:50)

Wireless Carriers’ Ho-Hum Economics of Wi-Fi Calling; The Real Money is Still in Data

telecom revenueThe year 2013 marked a significant turning point for phone companies that have handled voice telephone calls for over 100 years. For the first time, the volume of domestic telephone calls and the revenue generated from them was nearly flat. For the last two years, both are now in decline on the wireless side of the business as North Americans increasingly stop talking on the phone and text and message instead.

The U.S. wireline business peaked in the year 2000 with 192 million residential and office landlines. Over the next ten years, close to 80 million of those — 40 percent, would be permanently disconnected, replaced either by cell phones, cable telephone service, or a Voice over IP line. Wireless companies picked up the largest percentage of landline refugees, most never looking back.

Over one-third of more than $500 billion in annual revenue generated by telecom companies in 2013 came from voice services. Although that sounds like a lot, it’s a pittance of a percentage when compared to 2005 when AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless earned most of their revenue from voice calls. Ten years ago, wireless companies principally sold plans based on the number of calling minutes included, and many customers often guessed wrong, paying per minute for calls exceeding their allowance.

At first, this represented a revenue bonanza for the wireless industry, which earned billions selling customers minute-based calling plans that came with built-in cost-controlling deterrents for long-winded talkers — the concern of using up their calling allowance.

attverizonStarting in 2008, wireless industry executives noticed something peculiar. While revenue from texting add-on plans was surging, the growth in calling began to level off. Wireless voice usage per subscriber peaked at an average of 769 minutes in 2007 and began falling after that year. By 2011, the average customer was making 615 minutes of calls a month. As customers began downgrading calling plans, wireless carriers shifted their quest for revenue towards text messaging.

For awhile, texting earned wireless companies astounding profits that required little extra investment in their networks. SMS service at most carriers was effectively priced at $1,250 per megabyte, broken up into 160 byte single messages. In 2011, over 2.3 trillion text messages were exchanged. A message that cost a wireless carrier an infinitesimal fraction of a penny to send and receive cost consumers up to 20 cents or more apiece if they lacked an optional texting plan. To further boost revenue, some carriers like Verizon Wireless began to pull back offering customers a variety of tiered texting plans with different messaging allowances, switching instead to a single, more expensive unlimited texting plan. Many customers balked at the $19.95 a month price and began exploring other forms of messaging each other.

chetan sharmaThe industry’s demand for profit eventually threatened to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. At the same time wireless carriers were raising prices on text messages and forcing customers into expensive texting add-on plans, free third-party messaging apps began eating into texting volume. By 2012, the use of SMS declined for the first time, with 2.19 trillion text messages sent and received, down 4.9 percent from a year earlier.

It took little time for the wireless industry to realize the days of offering plans based on calling minutes and texting were quickly coming to an end. Younger users began the cultural trend of talking less, texting more — but using a growing number of free alternative apps to do so. As a result, both AT&T and Verizon shifted their plans away from focusing on revenue from calling and texting and instead moved to monetize data usage. Today, both carriers offer base plans featuring unlimited voice calling and texting almost as an afterthought. The real money is now made from selling packages of wireless data.

Wi-Fi calling allows customers to make and receive voice calls over a Wi-Fi connection, not a nearby cell tower. The prospect of bundling that option into a cell phone just a few years ago would have been unlikely at some providers, unthinkable at others. It was never considered a high priority at any traditional carrier, although T-Mobile began offering the service all the way back in 2007.

Since most calling plans now bundle unlimited calling, letting calls ride off the traditional cellular network is no longer much of an economic concern.

wifi callingSome even expect carriers to eventually embrace Wi-Fi calling, declaring it superior to alternatives like Hangouts and Skype, which require an app to handle the call. A Wi-Fi call can be received by anyone with a phone.

This month, the last holdout, Verizon Wireless, capitulated and announced it had won approval from the FCC to introduce Wi-Fi calling to customers, joining Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T. But Verizon plans to initially limit that service, offering an app that must be installed to make and receive Wi-Fi calls. The other three carriers integrate Wi-Fi calling directly into the primary phone call app already on the phone.

The introduction of the service is unlikely to have a significant economic impact on any wireless carrier. Most have ample room on their networks to handle cell call volumes. Whether a call is placed over Wi-Fi or traditional cellular service, it will ultimately end up on the same or a similar IP-based phone switch as it makes its way to the called party.

With little revenue-generating opportunities for voice calling or SMS messaging, companies have nearly stopped the practice of monetizing individual telephone calls, preferring to offer unlimited, all-you-want calling and texting plans that used to cost consumers considerable amounts of money.

Now wireless carriers see fortunes to be made slicing up and packaging gigabytes of wireless data, sold at prices that have little relation to actual cost, just as carriers managed with text messaging for the last 20 years. A Verizon Wireless customer using 12GB of data in October that kept a now-grandfathered unlimited data plan paid just under $30 for that usage. (This month Verizon raised the price of that coveted unlimited plan by $20 a month.) Verizon charges $80 for that same amount of data on its new “XL” data plan. Verizon’s cost to deliver that data to customers is lower than it was five years ago, but customers wouldn’t know it based on their bill. As always with the wireless industry, costs often have no relationship to the price ultimately charged consumers.

Verizon Wireless Giving Away Free GBs of Data to Those Who Ask

freegbSince Verizon Wireless stopped selling unlimited data plans and turned data into a precious commodity usually worth about $10 per gigabyte, the company can afford to give some of it away to their loyal customers.

This holiday season, Verizon Wireless is handing out up to 3GB of wireless data a month, but only to those who ask. As part of Verizon’s Thanksgiving promotion targeting holiday travelers, customers can get a free gigabyte for use immediately and another gigabyte to use next month just by clicking on a link. The offer can only be redeemed once per account on qualifying plans and is shared by all lines on an account.

Users who want even more free data can snag an extra 2GB a month for three months by downloading Verizon’s Go90 online video app (for iOS and Android) and registering for an account. Your confirmed registration will trigger an immediate gift of 2GB of wireless data for your current month’s data plan and an extra 2GB for the next three billing cycles as well. If Go90 proves uninteresting, you can uninstall it and still get free data during the length of the promotion.

This promotion is only good if you have a More Everything or Verizon Plan. It is not available if you use prepaid service, a different grandfathered plan, or do not keep your account in good standing. National and government accounts also do not qualify. Go90 videos are disabled for jailbroken or rooted devices, although you may still register and participate in the promotion if you use such a device.

Among Verizon’s other Thanksgiving promotions customers can grab on Wednesday, Nov. 25:

  • A free $5 iTunes Gift card while supplies last;
  • An unspecified number of free eBooks, music, movies, TV an app downloads from Amazon.com;
  • A free 30-day trial of Pandora One;
  • Up to $20 off a Lyft ride, where available;
  • Free airport Wi-Fi from Boingo;
  • Free 30-minute Gogo Wi-Fi session on select airlines.

Verizon’s website offers an option to send yourself a reminder to participate when the promotions become active next week.

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.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bernie Sanders Verizon Rally 10-26-15.mp4

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

Stop the Cap! Testimony to N.Y. Public Service Commission Advocating Major Telecom Study

logoOctober 20, 2015

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

New York State’s digital economy is in trouble.

While providers claim portions of New York achieve some of the top broadband speeds in the country, the vast majority of the state has been left behind by cable and phone companies that have never been in a hurry to deliver the top shelf telecom services that New Yorkers need and deserve.

The deregulation policies of the recent past have resulted in entrenched de facto monopoly and duopoly markets with little or no oversight. Those policies, instead of benefiting New Yorkers, are ultimately responsible for allowing two companies to dominate the state’s telecommunications marketplace.

In virtually all of upstate New York, the services consumers receive depend entirely on the business priorities of local incumbent providers, not market forces or customer demand. As a result, New Yorkers face relentless, unchecked rate increases, well-documented abysmal and unresponsive customer service, and inadequate broadband provided by a workforce under siege from downsizing, cost-cutting, and outsourcing.

Certain markets, particularly those in the New York City area, have at least secured a promise of better broadband from Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home upgrade. But at least 100,000 New Yorkers have languished on Verizon’s “waiting list,” as the company drags its feet on Non Standard Installation orders.[1] In upstate New York, Verizon walked away from its FiOS expansion effort five years ago, leaving only a handful of wealthy suburbs furnished with fiber service while effectively abandoning urban communities like Buffalo and Syracuse with nothing better than Verizon’s outdated DSL, which does not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps.[2]

Cablevision’s broadband performance dramatically improved because of investment in network upgrades, and the company has been well-regarded for its broadband service ever since.[3] But the proposed new owner of Cablevision – Altice, NV — has sought “cost savings” from cuts totaling $900 million a year, which will almost certainly devastate that provider’s future investments, its engineering and repair crews, and customer service.[4]

At least downstate New York has the prospect for +100Mbps broadband service. In upstate New York, three providers define the broadband landscape for most cities and towns:

  • Time Warner Cable dominates upstate New York with its cable broadband service and has the largest market share for High Speed Internet. As of today, Time Warner Cable’s top broadband speed outside of New York City is just 50Mbps, far less than the 1,000Mbps service cities in other states are now on track to receive or are already getting.[5]
  • Verizon Communications is the largest ILEC in upstate New York. Outside of its very limited FiOS service areas, customers depend on Verizon’s DSL service at speeds no better than 15Mbps, below the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband;[6]
  • Frontier Communications has acquired FiOS networks from Verizon in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest, and AT&T U-verse in Connecticut. Frontier has made no significant investment or effort to bring FiOS or U-verse into New York State. In fact, in its largest New York service area, Rochester, there are significant areas that can receive no better than 3.1Mbps DSL from Frontier. The vast majority of Frontier customers in New York do not receive service that meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband, and some investors predict the company is “headed for financial disaster.”[7]

The competitive markets the DPS staff envisions in its report to the Commission are largely a mirage. When an ILEC like Frontier Communications admits its residential broadband market share “is less than 25% in our 27 states excluding Connecticut,” that is clear evidence the marketplace has rejected Frontier’s legacy DSL service and does not consider the company an effective competitor.[8]

While incumbent cable and phone companies tout ‘robust competition’ for service in New York, if the Commission investigated the market share of Time Warner Cable upstate, it would quickly realize that ‘robust competition’ has been eroding for years, with an ongoing shift away from DSL providers towards cable broadband.[9]

Frontier’s primary market focus is on rural communities where it often enjoys a monopoly and can deliver what we believe to be inadequate service to a captive customer base. The company is currently facing a class action lawsuit in West Virginia, where it is alleged to have failed to provide advertised broadband speeds and delivers poor service.[10]

Verizon’s ongoing investment in its legacy wireline network (and expansion of DSL to serve new customers) has been regularly criticized as woefully inadequate.[11] From all indications, we expect the company will eventually sell its legacy wireline networks, particularly those upstate, within the next 5-10 years as it has done in northern New England (sold to FairPoint Communications) and proposes to do in Texas, California, and Florida.[12] (Verizon also sold off its service areas in Hawaii, West Virginia, and much of its territory acquired from GTE.)

Across New York, service problems and controversial deals between telecom providers have made headlines. Here are just a few:

  1. Superstorm Sandy’s impact on Verizon’s legacy wireline network on Fire Island and in other downstate communities left many without service. Instead of repairing the damage, Verizon proposed to scrap its wireline network and substitute inferior wireless service with no possibility of wired broadband.[13] The DPS received a large number of comments from the public and local elected officials fiercely opposed to this proposal, one that Verizon eventually withdrew in the face of overwhelming opposition.[14]
  2. There are growing allegations Verizon may be underspending on its legacy wireline network and even worse, may be misallocating costs and revenues to deceive the Commission.[15] Some allege much of the company’s ongoing investments, charged to the wireline operation, in reality are for the benefit of its wireless network. This may have allowed Verizon Communications/New York to claim significant losses on its wireline books the company then argued justified rate increases on ratepayers.[16] A full scale accounting of Verizon’s books is essential for all concerned and corrective action may be necessary if these allegations are proven true.
  3. Verizon’s foot-dragging on FiOS buildouts in New York City led to a damning audit report commissioned by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer and oversight hearings were held last week by the City Council of New York.[17] [18] Despite Verizon’s creative definition of “homes passed,” a substantial number of New Yorkers cannot receive the benefits of “today’s networks” the DPS staff refers to. Instead, many are stuck with poorly-performing DSL or no service at all.[19] Regardless of whether fiber passes in front of, over, in between, or behind buildings, Verizon signed an agreement compelling them to give customers a clear timeline to establish FiOS service. It is apparent Verizon is not meeting its obligations.[20]
  4. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Comcast led the Commission’s staff to admit the majority of respondents to requests for public input were strongly opposed to the merger and without substantial modifications concluded would not be in the public interest.[21] Comcast eventually withdrew its proposal in the face of overwhelming opposition.
  5. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Charter Communications, where the DPS staff concluded as the application stood, there would be no public interest benefits to the transaction.[22]

Those are just a few examples of why aggressive oversight of telecommunications is critical for all New Yorkers. In most of these examples, the DPS never ruled one way or the other. The companies individually made their own decisions, and we believe they would have decided differently if they did not face grassroots opposition from consumers.

New Yorkers deserve an active DPS prepared to aggressively represent our interests, ready to investigate what Verizon is doing with its legacy wireline network, legacy wired broadband services, FiOS and Verizon Wireless. With Time Warner Cable having such a dominant presence in western and central New York, its sale should never be taken lightly, as it will impact millions of New Yorkers for years to come.

While the DPS seems prepared to passively wait around to discover what Time Warner Cable, Frontier and Verizon are planning next, the rest of the country is getting speed upgrades New York can only dream about.

Google Fiber and AT&T, among others, are aggressively rolling out 1,000Mbps fiber service upgrades in other states, while a disinterested Verizon refuses to invest further in FiOS expansion, leaving millions of New York customers with nothing better than DSL.

The lack of significant competition upstate is why we believe Time Warner Cable has not yet chosen any market in New York except New York City for its Maxx upgrade program, which offers substantially faster speeds and better service.[23] There is no compelling competitive reason for Time Warner to hurry upgrades into areas where they already enjoy a vast market share and no threat of a broadband speed race. So much for robust competition.

Charter’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable proposes a modest upgrade of broadband speeds to 60-100Mbps, but as we wrote in our comments to the DPS regarding the merger proposal, upstate New York would be better off waiting for Time Warner Cable to complete its own Maxx upgrades over what will likely be 100% of its footprint in the next 24-30 months.[24] Time Warner Cable Maxx offers maximum broadband speeds three times faster than what Charter proposes for upstate New York, while also preserving affordable broadband options for those less fortunate. Approving a Charter buyout of Time Warner Cable will only set upstate New York back further.

We confess we were bewildered after reviewing the initial staff assessment of telecommunications services competition in New York. Its conclusions simply do not reflect reality on the ground, particularly in upstate communities.

It was this type of incomplete analysis that allowed New York to fall into the trap of irresponsible deregulation and abdication of oversight that has utterly failed to deliver the promised competition that would check rate hikes, guarantee better customer service, and provide New York with best-in-class service. In reality, we have none of those things. Rates continue to spiral higher, poor customer service continues, and New York has been left behind with sub-standard broadband that achieves no better than 50Mbps speeds in most upstate communities.

This summer, the American Customer Satisfaction Index told us something we already know. Americans dislike their cable company more than any other industry in the nation.[25] A survey of more than 14,000 customers by ACSI found service satisfaction achieving a new all-time low, scoring 63 out of 100.

“Customers expect a lot more than what the companies deliver,” said ACSI managing director David VanAmburg, who called poor customer service from cable operators “endemic.”

This year, Time Warner Cable again scored the worst in the country. As the only cable provider for virtually all of upstate New York, if residents in New York are given a choice between Time Warner Cable and the phone company’s slow-speed DSL, they are still likely to choose Time Warner Cable, but only because they have no other choices for broadband that meets the FCC definition of broadband.

Providers are quick to suggest consumers can turn to so-called competitors like satellite broadband or wireless Internet from mobile providers. They conveniently ignore the fact satellite-delivered Internet is such a provider of last resort, less than 1% of New Yorkers choose this option. Those that have used satellite broadband tell the companies providing it they rarely achieve the claimed speeds and are heavily speed throttled and usage capped.[26] It’s also costly, particularly when measuring the price against its performance.

Mobile Internet, which some ILECs have advocated as a possible replacement for rural wireline networks, is also a very poor substitute for wired Internet access. Wireless broadband pricing is high and usage allowances are low. Attempts to convince New Yorkers to abandon Verizon landline service in favor of Verizon’s 4G LTE wireless replacement have led to consumer complaints after learning their existing unlimited Verizon DSL service would be substituted for a wireless plan starting at $60 a month with a 10GB usage allowance.[27]

A customer with a 6Mbps DSL line from Verizon consuming 30GB of usage a month – hardly a heavy user – pays Verizon $29.99 a month for DSL service during the first year. In contrast, that same customer using Verizon Wireless’ home 2-5Mbps wireless LTE plan will pay $120 a month – four times more, with the added risk of incurring a $10 per gigabyte overlimit fee for usage in excess of their allowance.[28]

None of this information is a secret, yet it seems to have escaped the notice of the DPS staff in its report. Part of the reason why may be the complete lack of public input to help illuminate and counter incumbent providers’ well-financed public and government relations self-praise campaigns. If only actual customers agreed with their conclusions, we’d be well on our way to deregulation-inspired broadband nirvana.

Except New Yorkers do not agree all is well.

Consumer Reports:

Our latest survey of 81,848 customers of home telecommunications services found almost universally low ratings for value across services—especially for TV and Internet. Those who bundled the three services together for a discount still seemed unimpressed with what they were getting for their money. Even WOW and Verizon FiOS, which got high marks for service satisfaction, rated middling or lower for value, and out of 14 providers, nine got the lowest possible value rating.

What is it about home telecommunications that leaves such a sour taste in customers’ mouths? When we asked Consumer Reports’ Facebook followers to tell us their telecom stories, the few happy anecdotes of attentive service technicians and reliable service were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of consumer woe involving high prices, complicated equipment, and terrible service.[29]

The effective competition that would rely on market forces to deter abusive pricing and poor customer service is simply not available in a monopoly/duopoly marketplace. New entrants face enormous start-up costs, particularly provisioning last-mile service.

The nation’s telephone network was first constructed in the early half of the last century by providers guaranteed monopoly status. The cable industry developed during a period where regulators frequently considered operators to be a “natural monopoly,” unable to survive sustained competition.[30] Many cable operators were granted exclusive franchise agreements which helped them present a solid business case to investors to fund a costly network buildout. The end of franchise exclusivity happened years after most cable operators were already well established.

Today, those marketplace protections are unavailable to new entrants who face a variety of hurdles to achieve success. Some are competitive, others are regulatory. Google Fiber, which provides competitive service in states other than New York, publishes a guide for local communities to make them more attractive prospects for future Google Fiber expansion.[31]

For many overbuilders, pole attachment issues, zoning and permitting are significant obstacles to making new service available to residential and commercial customers. New York must ensure pole owners provide timely, non-discriminatory, and reasonable cost access. Permitting and zoning issues should be resolved on similar terms to speed network deployment.

Because a long history of experience tells us it is unreasonable to expect a competing telephone or cable company to enter another provider’s territory, in many cases the only significant possibility for competition will come from a new municipal/co-op/public-owned broadband alternative.

The hurdles these would-be providers face are significant. Incumbent provider opposition can be substantial, especially on a large-scale buildout. In rural areas, incumbents can and do refuse to cooperate, even on projects that seek to prioritize access first to unserved/underserved areas currently bypassed by those incumbents.

The effort to wire the Adirondack Park region is a case in point. Time Warner Cable has refused to provide detailed mapping information about their existing network, making it difficult to assess the viability of a municipal and/or a commercial broadband expansion project into these areas. Time Warner Cable maintains it has exclusivity to granular map data showing existing networks for “competitive reasons,” effectively maintaining an advantageous position from which it can strategically apply for state broadband expansion funding to expand its network using public funds.

Time Warner Cable benefits from access to publicly-owned rights of way and sanctioned easements. Without this access, their network would likely be untenable. As a beneficiary of that public access, making granular map data available to broadband planners is a fair exchange, and nothing precludes Time Warner from building its network into those unserved/underserved areas – something that might deter a would-be competitor’s business argument to overbuild a high-cost, rural area. The Commission should ask itself how many rural New York communities have two (or more) competing cable companies serving the same customers. If the answer is none, Time Warner Cable does not have a valid argument.

There is ample evidence the Commission needs to begin a full and comprehensive review of telecommunications in this state. It must build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can build a case that oversight is needed to guarantee New Yorkers get the high quality telecommunications services they deserve.

Broadband and telephone service is not just a convenience. In September 2015, the Obama Administration declared broadband was now a “core utility,” just as important as telephone, electric, and natural gas service. Isn’t it about time the Department of Public Service oversee it as such?[32]

Respectfully submitted for your consideration,

Phillip M. Dampier

Director, Stop the Cap!

[1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/10/19/n-y-city-council-investigates-verizon-foot-dragging-fios-possible-contract-violations/
[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303410404575151773432729614
[3] https://www.fcc.gov/reports/measuring-broadband-america-2014
[4] http://variety.com/2015/biz/news/altice-group-patrick-drahi-cablevision-bid-1201599986/
[5] http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/310861/if-you-want-gigabit-internet-move-here/1
[6] https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-finds-us-broadband-deployment-not-keeping-pace
[7] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2888876-frontier-communications-headed-for-financial-disaster
[8] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2633375-frontier-communications-ftr-ceo-maggie-wilderotter-q3-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?part=single
[9] http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/051515release.html
[10] http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20141020/GZ01/141029992
[11] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[12] http://stopthecap.com/2015/05/05/fla-utility-says-negotiations-with-verizon-make-it-clear-verizon-will-exit-the-wireline-business-within-10-years/
[13] http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/22/technology/verizon-wireless-sandy/
[14] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/MatterManagement/CaseMaster.aspx?Mattercaseno=13-C-0197
[15] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[16] http://newnetworks.com/publicnn.pdf/
[17] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
[18] http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/10/verizon-tries-to-avoid-building-more-fiber-by-re-defining-the-word-pass/
[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/27/nyregion/new-york-city-and-verizon-battle-over-fios-service.html?_r=0
[20] http://www.nyc.gov/html/doitt/downloads/pdf/verizon-audit.pdf
[21] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={0A5EAC88-6AB7-4F79-862C-B6C6B6D2E4ED}
[22] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId=%7BC60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54%7D
[23] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
[24] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}
[25] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-most-hated-cable-company-in-america-is-2015-06-02
[26] https://community.myhughesnet.com/hughesnet?topic_list%5Bsettings%5D%5Btype%5D=problem
[27] http://www.verizon.com/home/highspeedinternet/
[28] http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/lte-internet-installed/
[29] http://www.consumerreports.org//cro/magazine/2014/05/how-to-save-money-on-triple-play-cable-services/index.htm
[30] http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Is_Cable_Television_Natural_Monopoly.pdf (p.255)
[31] https://fiber.storage.googleapis.com/legal/googlefibercitychecklist2-24-14.pdf
[32] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

Got a Call from 1-800-922-0204? Careful. The Verizon Wireless “Refund” Scam is Back

Phillip Dampier October 5, 2015 Consumer News, Verizon, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

scamScammers are once again spoofing Verizon Wireless’ 1-800-922-0204 customer service number shown on a customer’s Caller ID in calls offering “refunds” ranging from $30-60 in return for personal information needed to “process a refund check or service credit.”

Verizon Wireless customers (including myself) have started receiving recent unsolicited calls from Verizon Wireless claiming an earlier billing error resulted in an overcharge to their wireless account. The amount of the credit varies, but is significant enough to get the attention of unwitting customers. The caller is asked to verify their Verizon Wireless “account password,” which is a critical piece of information not to be shared with unsolicited callers. Once exposed, anyone can call Verizon Wireless and make changes to your account.

Variations on this scam have been around since 2014. Last fall, callers were instructed to “apply for a refund” at phony websites run by the crooks, almost always detectable because the scammers registered web addresses close to Verizon’s legitimate address, but with two extra numbers attached. (eg. http://28verizon.com/, 27verizon.com, 48verizon.com, etc.) Most of these sites were shut down by early 2015.

Consumers usually believe the calls are genuine because their Caller ID reports the calling number originates with Verizon Wireless customer service. But such caller ID information can now be easily manipulated or faked, making it harder than ever to truly know who is calling.

610px-Verizon-Wireless-Logo_svgComplicating matters are Verizon’s own marketing calls to customers originating from the same 800 number, which are legitimate. In an effort to combat the scammers, customers can call Verizon Wireless back at 1-800-922-0204 and the automated call attendant will confirm any recent legitimate customer service calls (often for an “account review” or to tell you about a past due balance) made to your number recently.

The best way to avoid this fraud is to not answer unsolicited calls from unfamiliar numbers and refuse to share any personal information with an incoming caller you don’t know. That includes giving out your full name, address, any part of an account password or Social Security number, credit card number, bank account information, etc.

Any legitimate overpayment or overcharge would be automatically credited back by Verizon on your next bill or mailed to the last address on file if you are a former customer.

“I normally never answer a call with a Caller ID number I don’t recognize, but I was fooled because the number reported was Verizon Wireless customer service’s own number,” said Dylan, a Stop the Cap! reader who now admits he gave away too much information. “I foolishly gave them my account password, address, and phone numbers and only got suspicious when they asked for my Social Security number. That is when I knew and I hung up and called Verizon and changed my account password before the scammers did.”

“I learned my lesson.”

Frontier Plans to Finance Acquisition of Verizon Lines With $6.6 Billion in Junk Bonds

frontier-fast-buffalo-large-2To complete an acquisition of landline assets in California, Florida, and Texas from Verizon Communications, Frontier Communications is hoping to raise $6.6 billion in “speculative-grade debt” to finance the deal.

Frontier will begin selling the securities better known as “junk bonds” starting today with a target date of Sept. 15 or 16 to complete the sale, according to Bloomberg News.

Wall Street raised its eyebrows at the amount of the transaction — the second largest junk-rated deal since Valeant Pharmaceuticals sold almost $10 billion in junk bonds in March.

Frontier plans to offer a high yield to attract investors, some already favoring the company’s stock for its reliable shareholder dividend payout. Frontier has been a popular choice for investors relying on dividend income — money Frontier distributes to shareholders — that critics contend limit Frontier’s ability to improve its network of largely rural landlines.

analysisCalifornian consumers are among those most concerned about a Frontier takeover of landline and FiOS service. Verizon ventured far beyond its original service area extending from Maine to Virginia after it acquired independent telephone networks operated by General Telephone (GTE) and Continental Telephone (Contel) in 2000. In 2015, the company wants to return to its core landline service area in the northeast.

junk1David Lazarus, a consumer reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wonders how ratepayers will benefit from a Frontier takeover.

“Financial analysts are generally upbeat about the deal, but that reflects the projected benefits to the corporate players, not consumers,” Lazarus wrote.

Verizon’s claims the sale will help refocus the company on its “core markets” in the east and Frontier’s suggestion the Verizon acquisition will enhance Frontier’s footprint with “rich fiber-based assets” didn’t seem to excite Lazarus.

“I honestly wonder if corporate leaders know how ridiculous they sound when they spout such gobbledygook,” he added.

Lazarus suspects Verizon is worried the Obama Administration may eventually extend universal service obligations to broadband, which would force phone companies to deliver broadband to any telephone customer that wants the service, regardless of how much it costs to offer it. Universal Service remains an important legacy of wireline landline telephone service. Your landline survives under a regulatory framework not applicable to the wireless business, where both AT&T and Verizon Wireless now make the bulk of their profits.

junk2As AT&T and Verizon ponder ditching high-cost landline customers, so long as there are companies like Frontier willing to buy, the deal works for both. Verizon gets a tax-free transaction that benefits both executives and shareholders. An already debt-laden Frontier satisfies shareholders by growing the business, which usually makes the balance sheet look good each quarter.

Even as Frontier takes on a massive new tranche of debt, in the short-term the more landlines Frontier acquires, the happier shareholders will be. More customers equal more revenue — revenue that can assuage fears of Frontier’s eye-popping debt load. That added revenue often also means a nice dividend payout to shareholders, unless that money has to be diverted to debt payments or network improvements.

Unfortunately, like a Ponzi scheme, Frontier will have to continue acquiring new landline customers from other companies indefinitely to make it all work. If it can’t, or if customers continue to flee Frontier for more capable providers, revenue numbers will worsen, only making the company’s large debt obligations look even more ominous. Some shareholders think Frontier’s days of paying very high dividends are already behind them as the company takes on even more debt. The value of Frontier stock has dropped 35% in the last six months. In the second quarter of 2015, Frontier reported losses of $28 million. Last year at the same time, Frontier reported $38 million in profits.

junk3Those losses have to be reflected somewhere, and customers complain they are paying the highest price. West Virginians are among those that regularly accuse Frontier of chronically under-investing in broadband service in the state. Many rural communities obtaining broadband for the first time initially appreciated Frontier’s efforts, but have since grown critical of the performance of Frontier’s DSL service, which can slow to 1Mbps or less during the evenings because Frontier has oversold its network and not kept up with usage demands.

Frontier’s deal with Verizon allows it to acquire a large state of the art FiOS fiber to the home network Frontier has never been willing to build itself. Keeping an existing fiber network up and running is considerably less expensive than building one from scratch. That explains why Frontier customers in ex-Verizon FiOS areas enjoy relatively good service while legacy customers still connected to copper phone lines that were installed in the 1960s (or earlier) are stuck with uneven and slow-performing DSL that rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband — 25Mbps. Where customers have a choice between Frontier DSL and another wired provider, most choose fiber or coaxial-based Internet service. Frontier’s rural service focus protects the company by limiting the effects of that kind of competition.

In the near term, Frontier’s biggest threat could eventually come from wireless 4G LTE broadband from AT&T and Verizon Wireless, if the companies can deliver an affordable service for rural residents without a punishing low usage allowance. That remains a big “if.”

(Illustrations by Chris Serra.)

Verizon Wireless Kills Phone Subsidies, Contracts: Some Customers Will Pay More

610px-Verizon-Wireless-Logo_svgThe days of the wireless phone subsidy are numbered with today’s announcement Verizon Wireless will end all smartphone subsidies and service contracts next week. It’s a path we’ve predicted at Stop the Cap! since at least 2013.

In an effort to “simplify” wireless pricing, Verizon Wireless is radically shaking up its wireless plans starting Aug. 13 — raising prices for its lightest users, ending the two-year phone contract, and requiring customers buy or finance their devices at the full retail price. Instead, customers will pay $650 up front for a phone like Apple’s iPhone 6, or finance it for around $27 a month for the next two years.

Phone plans are changing as well. Eliminated are “individual” and “family plans.” In their place, there is just one plan with four data options:

  • Access Fee (includes unlimited voice/text): $20/mo per phone, $10/mo per tablet or portable hotspot, $5 for connected devices (eg. watches)
  • Shareable Data Option: $30 (Small – 1GB), $45 (Medium – 3GB), $60 (Large – 6GB), or $80 (X-Large – 12GB)  —  Overlimit Fee is $15/GB

Average and heavier users will save a few dollars with Verizon’s new plans. The “Medium” plan is $5 less than Verizon used to charge and the “Large” plan is $10 less. You get 2GB of extra data for your $80 comparing Verizon’s older plan and its newer one. The benefits seem less compelling when you realize just a few years ago Verizon charged $30 for unlimited use data plans.

Budget customers will find Verizon’s new plans the least attractive. Customers with 6GB or less data plans used to pay a $15 access fee. Now they will pay $5 more per phone. Those who want Verizon’s cheapest 500MB plan for $20 are out of luck. That plan is being dropped, according to Verizon, because customers were confused over the difference between MB and GB. Customers now on that low-end plan will probably be able to keep it, but may eventually have to choose a “Small” data plan for $10 more per month. Budget customers used to pay around $35 a month. Now they will pay at least $50.

Heavy data users may be concerned Verizon’s top data plan tops out at 12GB. The company plans to privately offer bigger data buckets to customers, but only if they visit a Verizon Wireless store to discuss their needs.

Current customers still on contract will not see any changes immediately. Verizon will continue to charge the $40 a month access fee for contract customers until the contract expires, after which the fee will drop to $20. Customers on More Everything plans can stick with their existing plans for now, as well as add lines. There are no plans to force customers to change service plans at this point.

Expect AT&T to take a similar path towards the elimination of subsidized devices. Because customers will likely finance their $600+ smartphones, it isn’t likely consumers will face dramatically changed pricing as a result of Verizon’s plan changes. But device manufacturers can no longer get away with promoting their phones at a $200 price point. In fact, the sticker shock of the retail price of smartphones may eventually force manufacturers to produce more affordable phones for the marketplace.

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