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Verizon’s N.J. Astroturfing Revisited: More ‘Phoney’ Pro-Verizon E-Mails Revealed

astroturf200New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities received more than 460 identical e-mails urging the regulator to approve Verizon’s proposed settlement permitting it to renege on broadband expansion commitments that would have brought high-speed Internet to every citizen in the state that wanted it.

More than a few of those e-mails were submitted with fake e-mail addresses or without the knowledge of the alleged senders. An Ars Technica piece this week confirmed Stop the Cap!’s own findings of the astroturf effort and found more customers denying they ever submitted comments to the BPU about the settlement.

“I am a customer only to Verizon and I was not contacted by them to submit anything,” one person told Ars. “If they did, I would’ve slammed them. They are gougers. If AT&T was where I lived, I would switch in a heart beat.”

When this customer was shown the e-mail he allegedly sent to state officials, he said, “That would mean someone did it on my behalf. I can assure you that I did not send that response.”

In other cases, Ars discovered some of Verizon’s vendors were misrepresenting the nature of the settlement and asking people they worked with or knew to sign the petition as part of a contest.

Verizon-logo“I hope you are doing well. I have a favor to ask,” one e-mail read. “I’m working on a project for our client, Verizon, and they need some signatures to an online petition. Verizon wants to expand its offerings in New Jersey, but needs approval from the state. Higher-speed Internet, more FiOS, etc.”

“All you need to do is enter your e-mail and zip code,” the message continued. “I appreciate it. We’re in a contest with another vendor to see how many people we can get to sign it. Just let me know yea or nay, so I can get the credit for it.”

Of course signing the petition would result in the exact opposite of more FiOS deployment and higher speed Internet access.

That online petition turned out to be hosted on the website of the astroturf group 60+ Association, which is funded by various corporations and works with D.C. lobbying firms who help corporate clients launch “social media” campaigns that appear to be spontaneous grassroots movements. The group only supports Republican candidates for office and is normally preoccupied with attacking health care reform with the major financial contributions it receives from the pharmaceutical industry. With Obamacare more or less settled, the group now also advocates for telecom companies without bothering to disclose any financial arrangement.

60plus

One of the lobbying firms associated with 60+ Association — Bonner & Associates, was implicated in a 2009 scandal when they were caught sending forged letters to members of Congress claiming to be from local minority and senior citizen groups. The lobbying firm quietly changed its name to Advocacy to Win (A2W), where it is still accepting clients that want to launch astroturfing campaigns.

One banking trade association gave glowing reviews for their work:

“You ran a well-honed operation recruiting, educating, and mobilizing grasstops/community leaders,” said the president of a ‘leading financial services trade association.’ The grasstops supporters you mobilized were well educated on the issue, advocated convincing arguments for our side, and most importantly were strongly vocal with stories of the local impact this issue would have on their customers/members of their organization.”

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Verizon Wireless to Acquire Central California’s Golden State Cellular

golden_state_cellular_logo_2The cell phone provider serving Yosemite National Park and the surrounding California counties of Tuolumne, Calav­eras, Amador, Alpine and Mari­posa has been acquired by Verizon Wireless.

The independent Golden State Cellular provides cell service in rural areas of the Mother Lode and cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, largely bypassed by larger carriers since 1989.

Verizon had maintained a minority interest in the cellular company for several years and provided roaming service for the company outside of its home areas.

GSC operates as a partnership between several regional independent telephone companies.

Verizon would provide funding for 4G LTE upgrades and potentially expand coverage in tourist areas around the region.

The acquisition is awaiting FCC approval.

 

 

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Surprise: Some Alabama Customers Unhappy About AT&T’s Experiment Ending Landline Service

att-logo-221x300AT&T customers in Carbon Hill, Ala. received an unwelcome surprise in their mailbox recently when AT&T informed them they will be part of an experiment ending traditional landline service in favor of a Voice over IP or wireless alternative.

Affected customers are involuntary participants in what AT&T calls an “exciting opportunity for our customers and for our company,” but many residents want no part of it.

The Wall Street Journal reports Carbon Hill city clerk Janice Pendley says some people in the former mining town are not pleased.

“Some of them like their landline, and they like it just the way it is,” she says.

AT&T’s experiment will force new and existing customers to switch to its more-expensive U-verse broadband platform, use a mobile phone, or a home landline replacement that works over AT&T’s cellular network. The FCC has granted AT&T permission to impose its experimental plan to end traditional landline service in two communities where regulatory protections for landline customers are weak to non-existent — Alabama’s Carbon Hill and Delray Beach, Fla.

Carbon Hill is a small town of around 880 households in extreme western Walker County. It is the kind of rural town AT&T would likely never consider for a U-verse upgrade. AT&T embarked on a second major push to extend U-verse into more communities last year, but also indicated it would strongly advocate for a wireless replacement for its landline network in the rest of its service areas. Because Carbon Hill is an experiment, AT&T will offer U-verse to at least part of the community regardless of the usual financial Return on Investment requirements AT&T usually imposes on its U-verse expansion efforts.

carbon hillAT&T is pushing forward despite the fact it  has no idea how it will offer service to at least 4% of isolated Carbon Hill residents not scheduled to be provided U-verse and not within an AT&T wireless coverage area. There are also no guarantees customers will be able to correctly reach 911, although AT&T says the technology “supports 911 functionality.” Serious questions among consumer advocates remain about whether the replacement technology will support burglar alarms, pacemakers and even systems used by air-traffic controllers.

The difficulties service Carbon Hill relate to its rural makeup and income profile. In Delray Beach, it is all about customer demographics. Half of the city is home to residents over 65 years old — the group most likely to prefer their existing landline service. Many are likely to be unhappy about a transition to new technology that will not work in the event of power interruptions, will require the installation of new equipment, or will be tied to a wireless platform that some say reduces the intelligibility of telephone conversations and often introduces audio artifacts like echo, background noise, and dropouts.

In both cities, customers only offered wireless-based service will no longer have access to DSL or wired broadband service of any kind. The wireless alternative from AT&T comes at a high cost and a low usage allowance.

The benefits to AT&T are unquestionable, however. The company will win almost universal deregulation as a Voice over IP or wireless telephone provider. Legacy regulations on customer service requirements, pricing, and obligations to provide affordable phone service to any customer that requests it are swept away by the new technologies. Competitors are also worried AT&T will be able to walk away from regulations governing open and fair access to AT&T’s network.

ip4carbon hillThe Wall Street Journal reports:

The all-Internet protocol “transition holds many promises for consumers, but losing access to affordable voice and broadband services cannot be part of that bargain,” wrote Angie Kronenberg, general counsel of Comptel, in a letter to the FCC last month on behalf of the small-carrier trade group, several companies and public-interest groups.

AARP said it believes AT&T’s plan has “numerous problems.” The technology might not be reliable enough or fail when calling 911 in an emergency, the advocacy group for seniors told regulators in its comment letter. The FCC is reviewing hundreds of comments received in response to AT&T’s request.

EarthLink piggybacks on the “incumbents as little as economically possible” and has laid nearly 30,000 miles of fiber-optic cables throughout the U.S. to help it reach more than a million customers, says Rolla Huff, a former EarthLink chief executive. Still, the company needs access to the connections built by AT&T and Verizon into buildings.

Telecom carriers such as Windstream in Little Rock, Ark., and sellers of broadband data services like EarthLink and XO Communications LLC, of Herndon, Va., have had the right to buy last-mile access at regulated prices since the last major overhaul of federal telecom laws in 1996.

tw telecomIf AT&T ends its traditional network, those competing service providers will have to negotiate with AT&T for access at whatever price AT&T elects to charge.

A preview of what is likely to happen has already been experienced by TW Telecom, an independent firm selling phone and Internet services to businesses over more than 30,000 miles of fiber lines. But that fiber network means nothing if a customer’s last mile connection is handled by a local phone company no longer subject to regulated pricing and access rules.

In Tampa, where Verizon has deployed FiOS as an unregulated replacement for its older, regulated copper-based network, TW Telecom learned first hand what this could ultimately mean:

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally-owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell's long distance network.

Rochester Telephone Corporation was born in 1921 after a merger between the Rochester Telephonic Exchange, a branch of the Bell Company of Buffalo and locally owned independent Rochester Telephone Company, which was not allowed to use Bell’s long distance network.

TW Telecom approached Verizon in 2012 to seek last-mile access to a Tampa, Fla., building being converted into a bank from a restaurant. Verizon had installed only FiOS at the building.

Verizon said no, telling TW Telecom to build its own connection or pay Verizon thousands of dollars to do the job. TW Telecom declined to pay and lost the customer’s business.

“When it happens, it’s devastating,” says Kristie Ince, who oversees regulatory policy at TW Telecom. Similar snarls have cost the company at least six customers since then. Other carriers say they have had similar clashes.

In Illinois, Sprint’s business phone network has run into a barricade manned by AT&T. Sprint needs AT&T to interconnect calls placed on Sprint’s network intended for AT&T’s customers. The two companies cannot agree on an asking price under the deregulation scheme so Sprint converts its Voice over IP calls to older technology still subject to regulation just so calls will successfully reach AT&T’s customers. AT&T promptly converts those calls back to Voice over IP technology as it completes them.

AT&T said it has “no duty” to connect its Internet protocol traffic with Sprint’s.

If the FCC keeps IP-based traffic deregulated, if and when the old landline network is decommissioned, AT&T will have the last word on access, potentially putting competitors out of business.

Our great-great grandparents experienced similar problems in the early days of telephone service, when high rates from the local Bell telephone subsidiary provoked local competition. But Bell companies routinely refused to handle calls placed on competitors’ networks, forcing customers to maintain a telephone line with both companies to reach every subscriber. Additionally, only Bell-owned providers had access to the long distance network – a competitive disadvantage to competing startups.

Regulatory changes, a handful of mergers and the eventual establishment of the well-regulated Bell System eventually solved problems which threaten to return if AT&T has its way.

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Google Fiber Threat Cited in Cincinnati Bell’s Decision to Sell Wireless Division to Verizon Wireless

cincinnati bellCincinnati Bell threw in the towel on its wireless mobile business Monday when it decided to sell its wireless spectrum licenses, network, and 340,000 customers for $210 million to its larger rival Verizon Wireless.

While most analysts say the transaction is the inevitable outcome of a wireless industry now dedicated to consolidation, at least one analyst said the threat of Google Fiber eventually entering the Cincinnati market may have also contributed to the decision to sell.

The future of Cincinnati Bell’s wireless division had been questioned for more than a year, ever since the arrival of the company’s newest CEO Ted Torbeck in January 2013. Cincinnati Bell, one of the last independent holdouts of the Bell System breakup that have not been reabsorbed by AT&T or Verizon, had struggled since Torbeck’s predecessor made some bad bets on acquisitions, including an investment in microwave communications provider Broadwing that left the company with more than $2 billion in debt in 2004. Another $526 million acquisition of data center Cyrus One left the company further in debt.

Torbeck

Torbeck

Torbeck promised a frank evaluation of Cincinnati Bell’s operations last year and keeping its declining wireless division no longer made sense with Torbeck’s focus on replacing the company’s aging copper wire network with fiber optics.

For years, Cincinnati Bell’s biggest competitor has been Time Warner Cable, which has taken away many of its landline customers. Cincinnati Bell’s mobile phone division was created to protect its core business, picking up wireless subscribers as customers dropped their landlines. But the cable company’s bundled service packages made landline service much less expensive than sticking with the phone company, and many wireless customers prefer a national wireless phone company offering better coverage and a wider selection of devices.

Rampant wireless industry consolidation has concentrated most of the cell phone market in the hands of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, giving those two companies access to the most advanced and hottest devices while regional carriers made do offering customers less capable smartphones. Its competitors’ march towards 4G LTE network upgrades also challenged Cincinnati Bell with costly capital investments in a 4G HSPA+ network that Torbeck recently decided no longer made economic sense.

Cincinnati Bell’s wireless revenue for 2013 was $202 million, a decrease of 17 percent from 2012. The company also lost 58,000 subscribers last year, an unsustainable drop that showed few signs of stopping.

610px-Verizon-Wireless-Logo_svg“Our business has been in decline for five or six years,” Torbeck told the Cincinnati Business Courier. “This is absolutely the right time to make this deal. It was probably the highest value we could get at this point in time.”

Torbeck believes Cincinnati Bell’s best chance for a future lies with with fiber optics, capable of delivering phone service along with a robust broadband and television offering that can effectively compete with Time Warner Cable.

“We’ve got to grow market share in Cincinnati and fiber optics is the way to do it,” Torbeck said in 2013. “We have about 25 percent of the city covered and we think from a financial perspective we can get to 65 or 70 percent so we’ve got significant growth opportunity there.”

fiopticsLast year, Cincinnati Bell had passed 184,000 homes with fiber optics – a 28 percent market share. But only 52,000 homes subscribed to Fioptics — Cincinnati Bell’s fiber brand. Time Warner Cable had managed to keep many of its wavering 446,000 customers loyal to the cable company with aggressive discounting and customer retention offers. But now that many of those discounts have since expired, Torbeck wants to reach 650,000-700,000 homes in its service area covering southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky and convince 50% of those customers to switch to fiber optics.

Torbeck isn’t interested in limiting his business to just greater Cincinnati either.

“At some point in time, we’d like to expand regionally into Indianapolis, Columbus,” Torbeck said. “Louisville is another opportunity. But that’s probably a little down the road. From a fiber standpoint, we could look at acquisitions and get into metro fiber. These are things we’re looking at, but these are things that are down the road. We got a lot of room for growth just here in Cincinnati.”

But financial analysts warned Cincinnati Bell’s enormous debt load limits the company’s potential to invest in expansion. Torbeck’s decision to sell off the company’s wireless unit is another step in reducing that debt and further investing in fiber optics expansion.

google fiberThe company’s unique position as the last remaining independent phone company that still bears the name of the telephone’s inventor may make the company a target for a takeover before Torbeck’s vision is realized. One analyst thinks Cincinnati Bell would be a natural target for Google, which has a recent record of repurposing fiber networks built by other companies as a cost-saving measure to further deploy Google Fiber.

“They are a small and cheap company with the infrastructure that Google could use,” said Brian Nichols. “My theory is that Google will buy undervalued companies like Cincy Bell to save on the mounting costs of buildouts, which could top $30 billion,“ Nichols wrote in an email to WCPO-TV.

Google did exactly that in Provo, Utah, acquiring struggling iProvo from the city government for $1 in return for agreeing to expand the fiber network to more homes.

Cincinnati’s local phone company would sell for considerably more than that, but it would still prove affordable for Google, which has a market value of $361 billion, about 470 times that of Cincinnati Bell.

cincCincinnati Bell has already spent about $300 million on Fioptics and plans to spend an extra $80 million this year on expansion. Before the network is complete, the phone company is likely to spend as much as $600 million on fiber upgrades. But the payoff has been higher revenue — $100 million last year alone, and a stabilizing business model that has reduced losses from landline cord-cutting. Telecom analyst Nicholas Puncer offers support for the investment, something rare for most Wall Street advisers.

“It’s a reasonable strategy,” Puncer said. “There’s only going to be more data going through networks in the future, not less. The way we consume content is going to be a lot different 10 years from now than it is today. This is their effort to be on the right side of that, giving people more options to receive that content.”

But if Google Fiber comes to town, it may not be enough.

“Google has an unprecedented luxury,” Nichols said in his email to WCPO. “They are [attaching] fiber to existing poles owned by AT&T (and other telecom companies), and then targeting areas where consumers agree for service before the network is even built. Given this demand, and its mere ability to operate in such a manner, I do think Cincinnati Bell will have major problems once that day comes (likely sooner rather than later). In fact, I don’t think they stand a chance of competing against Google.”

Cincinnati Bell said it will continue to offer wireless service for customers for the next 8 to 12 months. The company will notify customers with further details regarding transition assistance around the time of the closing, which is expected to be in the second half of 2014.

It was not immediately clear on Monday if the sale will impact jobs. Cincinnati Bell Wireless employs about 175 people, including retail store employees.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WKRC Cincinnati Cincinnati Bell selling wireless spectrum to Verizon 4-8-14.flv

WKRC in Cincinnati reports on what the sale of Cincinnati Bell Wireless to Verizon Wireless means for customers. (1:24)

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Non-Profit Supporters of N.J.-Verizon Broadband Settlement Have a Relationship With Verizon

TeleTruthVerizon has been upset with the tone and accuracy of many New Jersey residents who have written the state’s Board of Public Utilities urging them to reject a settlement offer than would allow Verizon to walk away from its commitment to deliver high-speed broadband to 100% of the state.

While calling many of its opponents misinformed about the company’s original commitments, a Verizon spokesperson targeted a particularly nasty response to one of its strongest critics — Teletruth’s Bruce Kushnick, who has accused Verizon of breaking its promises in New Jersey and substituting outdated DSL and expensive, usage-capped 4G wireless broadband as a broadband equivalent.

Northwest, central and southern New Jersey all lack solid broadband coverage. (Map: Connecting NJ)

Northwest, central and southern New Jersey all lack solid broadband coverage. (Map: Connecting NJ)

Kushnick has argued that Verizon has cooked the books, diverting funds that should have been spent on FiOS expansion into its more profitable wireless subsidiary Verizon Wireless instead. He wants New Jersey to conduct a thorough investigation of Verizon’s financial reporting and learn why the company has reneged on a broadband commitment that originally promised a minimum of 45/45Mbps high-speed broadband for 100% of the state by 2010 in return for rate deregulation and tax breaks. Verizon got the deregulation and tax breaks but much of the state is still waiting for the faster broadband it was promised.

Now Verizon wants the state to approve a settlement that will redefine its commitment from 45/45Mbps to 4Mbps DSL or wireless 4G broadband.

Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski said criticisms about the company’s performance in New Jersey are “way off base.” He said there never was any commitment to deploy FiOS across all of New Jersey because FiOS did not exist at the time of the original agreement.

“Nobody knew what FiOS was 20 years ago,” Gierczynski said. “It wasn’t until 2004 when FiOS came on the scene.”

What about the 45/45Mbps speed commitment?

“[The agreement] didn’t say a minimum of 45Mbps,” Gierczynski said, “it just says ‘up to’.”

Gierczynski particularly bristled over Kushnick’s ongoing criticisms of Verizon.

“For nearly two decades, he has made the same, tired baseless allegations over and over again about Verizon and its predecessor companies — not only in New Jersey but in other states as well,” Gierczynski told The Record in an email. “His specious arguments are devoid of fact, relying on misinformation and myths to prop up his claims. This filing is no different.”

With more than 1,000 comments on file with the BPU, Verizon invited the regulator to dismiss critics that demanded Verizon live up to its original commitments:

“The vast majority of comments opposing the Stipulation that have been posted by the Board to date were submitted via a standard form letter generated by the New Jersey State AFLCIO with the subject line “Tell Verizon to Live Up to the Opportunity New Jersey Agreement.”

“Other comments opposing the Stipulation offer inaccurate claims about what was contemplated by Opportunity New Jersey or what is in the Stipulation.”

AFL-CIO Letters:  These letters opposing the Stipulation appear less convincing when the locations of senders are examined— More than 25 are from people located outside of New Jersey and some appear to be from municipalities not in Verizon’s service territory. “

Verizon did not bother to mention the circulation of a pro-Verizon form letter that was submitted by hundreds of people, many Verizon employees and retirees, as reported last week by Stop the Cap!

Two of those letters were signed by Paul A. Sullivan, Verizon’s regional president of consumer and mass business markets in New Jersey and Tracy Reed, a Verizon manager… in Atlanta. Neither identified themselves as Verizon management.

Further concerns were raised by Kushnick when he found that the people and businesses Verizon touts as supporting Verizon’s position all have some relationship with Verizon:

  • New Jersey Technology Council — Board member,  Douglas Schoenberger, VP, Public Policy, Verizon NJ, Inc
  • The Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce — Donnett Barnett Verley, Director of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility, for Verizon New Jersey.  “I am responsible for Verizon’s philanthropic and community outreach efforts throughout the state. I serve as an active board member of …the Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce.”
  • Greater Paterson Chamber of Commerce — “Hi. I’m Rick Ricca, Director – External Affairs. I am responsible for the company’s relationship and interaction with municipal and county governments… I also serve on… Greater Paterson Chamber of Commerce.”
  • The Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey (“CIANJ”), Member of the Board, Sam Delgado V.P. Community & Stakeholder Affairs Verizon
  • Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce — “Verizon, a telecommunication company received the Member-to-Member Award for its important contribution to Elizabeth’s business.”
  •  Cooper’s Ferry Partnership —Verizon is on the Board of Directors. “The organization’s operational budget is currently divided into three main categories: board membership… investments from these valued partners that has allowed CFP to grow its mission and expand throughout the city of Camden.”
  • Puerto Rican Association for Human Development —“Verizon Presents $20,000 to PRAHD”
  • Latino Institute  — Our Partners and Funders, Verizon
  • Gudino, David Joseph — Associate General Counsel, Verizon Wireless
  • NJ SHARES —“Verizon New Jersey partners with NJ SHARES for Communications Lifeline outreach and enrollment efforts.”

“In fact, it’s hard to identify any legitimate group that supports the Verizon stipulation and is not funded by Verizon,” said Kushnick.

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Verizon’s Curious Allies, Employees Urge N.J. Regulators to Forget About FiOS Fiber Expansion

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities has heard from hundreds of New Jersey residents about a settlement proposal that would let Verizon off the hook for failing to keep a commitment to provide high-speed broadband service statewide no later than 2010.

Curiously, hundreds of those comments were identical e-mails originating from AOL, Hotmail, MSN and Yahoo mail accounts urging the state to show lenience to Verizon — to forgive and forget the company’s broken promises. No mailing addresses were included. But the attached names and e-mail addresses were enough for Stop the Cap! to discover many of those submitting comments used non-working e-mail addresses or claimed their names were submitted without their knowledge or permission. Many others were actually employed by Verizon or were retirees.

“The proposed stipulation is fair and balanced and under your guidance, will build on the success that the Board and Verizon have achieved in making the Garden State one of the most wired broadband states in the country,” writes David Gudino, who doesn’t disclose in his correspondence with the BPU that his name is included in a list of attorneys working for Verizon Wireless.

“I would like to declare my support for the proposed stipulation between your Board Staff and Verizon as it relates to Opportunity New Jersey,” says another on behalf of an organization getting contributions from Verizon. “The stipulation will help ensure continued deployment of advanced communications services. Access to these services will not only benefit New Jersey’s businesses and nonprofits, but consumers of all ages as well.”

new-jerseyBy “advanced communications services,” the letter’s signers should know very well that means more 4G LTE wireless broadband with stingy usage caps and high prices, not more FiOS fiber to the home service.

What proved especially surprising was finding so many customers claiming to be happy with Verizon’s broadband performance in New Jersey who are still relying on AOL dial-up accounts. Stop the Cap! contacted a random 150 signers of the identical letters by using their attached e-mail addresses, which are part of the public record. We asked the writers to expand on their views about Verizon’s performance in New Jersey, whether they were satisfied with their current Internet provider, whether they have broadband service, and where they learned about this issue.

Remarkably, 35 of the e-mail addresses turned out to be invalid, so we contacted an extra 35 and 12 of those e-mail addresses were invalid as well. We found this unsettling because the only identifying information attached to the pro-Verizon correspondence was a name and e-mail address. We couldn’t be sure the authors were New Jersey residents much less real people.

We received 18 replies. Several were Verizon retirees asked to sign letters of support for Verizon. Another five had no idea what we were talking about and denied they submitted any views, pro or con, about Verizon. Three of those were Comcast customers that said goodbye to Verizon more than a decade earlier. Many others were associated with groups that happen to receive financial support from Verizon. Several  had no broadband access and were using dial-up.

Stop the Cap! did not receive a single reply from any person ready to articulate informed views about the terms of the settlement offer. They were simply asked to lend their names and e-mail addresses to Verizon’s campaign and had never seen the settlement proposal or heard much about it.

bpuJudith Stoma’s family has worked for Verizon/NJ Bell since 1958. She’s 71 years old today and she supports Verizon, at least in its efforts to “lead the way with N.J. at the forefront of technology.” Abdicating on FiOS expansion in favor of the same old DSL service Verizon proposes in its settlement seems to run contrary to that goal.

In several other instances, some of Verizon’s “supporters” actually used a space provided in the form letter to vent their frustration with Verizon!

Michael DeNude was irritated he never got FiOS: “We live in Riverdale and have not benefited by any upgrade.”

Paula Thomas was annoyed that Verizon outsources its workforce: “Verizon already outsources their telephone [operator] service. They should also guarantee that U.S. Citizens are given preference in the ‘job growth’ they ensure will happen.”

William Barlen thinks it’s a shame the current state of broadband in the U.S. is lacking: “It is sad that we have dropped behind over 50 countries on broadband speed and deployment. If you do not support this work exactly what are you doing?”

Paul Minenna is concerned that without FiOS broadband, speedier Internet access is not forthcoming: “Please make sure that you keep NJ moving forward with top-notch technology access. This is not the time to slow down Internet access.”

John Zilg’s letter is the same as nearly every other in support of Verizon, until he was given the opportunity to include his own remarks, which are completely contrary to everything else in the letter: “It is critical to continue supporting what has already been put into place. I urge you to not change direction.”

It is easily apparent that among the letters in support of Verizon, more than a few were not at all informed about what they were signing, and in many cases actually held completely different views when someone took the time to inquire in more detail. We are also very concerned about the number of invalid e-mail addresses attached to letters that carried no mailing address. On an issue of this importance, it is disturbing to not be certain those communications represent the legitimate views of actual New Jersey residents.

These factors must be taken into consideration as the Board of Public Utilities ponders the public input.

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Math Problem: The Telecom Industry’s Bias Against Fiber-to-the-Home Service

Phillip "Spending $6k per cable customer is obviously a much better deal than paying half that to build a fiber to the home network" Dampier

Phillip “Spending $6k per cable customer is obviously a much better deal than paying half that to build a fiber to the home network” Dampier

Math was never my strong subject, but even I can calculate the groupthink of American cable and telephone companies and their friends on Wall Street just doesn’t add up.

This week, we learned that cable companies like Bright House Networks, Suddenlink, and Charter Communications are already lining up for a chance to acquire three million cable customers Comcast intends to sell if it wins approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable. Wall Street has already predicted Comcast will fetch as much as $18 billion for those customers and pegged the value of each at approximately $6,000.

But for less than half that price any company could build a brand new fiber to the home system capable of delivering 1,000Mbps broadband and state-of-the-art phone and television service and start banking profits long before paying off the debt from buying an inferior coaxial cable system. Yet we are told time and time again that the economics of fiber to the home service simply don’t make any sense and deploying the technology is a waste of money.

Let’s review:

Google Fiber was called a boondoggle by many of its competitors. The folks at Bernstein Research, routinely friendly to the cable business model, seemed appalled at the economics of Google’s fiber project in Kansas City. Bernstein’s Carlos Kirjner and Ram Parameswaran said Google would throw $84 million into the first phase of its fiber network, connecting 149,000 homes at a cost between $500-674 per home. The Wall Street analyst firm warned investors of the costs Google would incur reaching 20 million customers nationwide — $11 billion.

“We remain skeptical that Google will find a scalable and economically feasible model to extend its build out to a large portion of the U.S., as costs would be substantial, regulatory and competitive barriers material, and in the end the effort would have limited impact on the global trajectory of the business,” Bernstein wrote to its investor clients.

dealSo Google spending $11 billion to reach 20 million new homes is business malpractice while spending $18 billion for three million Time Warner Cable customers is confirmation of the cable industry’s robust health and valuation?

Bernstein’s firm never thought highly of Verizon FiOS either.

“If I were an auto dealer and I wanted to give people a Maserati for the price of a Volkswagen, I’d have some seriously happy customers,” Craig Moffett from Bernstein said back in 2008. “My problem would be whether I could earn a decent return doing it.”

Back then, Moffett estimated the average cost to Verizon per FiOS home passed was $3,897, a figure based on wiring up every neighborhood, but not getting every homeowner to buy the service. Costs for fiber have dropped dramatically since 2008. Dave Burstein from DSL Prime reported by the summer of 2012 Verizon told shareholders costs fell below $700/home passed and headed to $600. The total cost of running fiber, installing it in a customer’s home and providing equipment meant Verizon had to spend about $1,500 per customer when all was said and done.

Moffett concluded Verizon was throwing money away spending that much on improving service. He wasn’t impressed by AT&T U-verse either, which only ran fiber into the neighborhood, not to each home. Moffett predicted AT&T was spending $2,200 per home on U-verse back in 2008, although those costs have dropped dramatically as well.

Moffett

Moffett

Moffett’s solution for both Verizon and AT&T? Do nothing to upgrade, because the price wasn’t worth the amount of revenue returns either company could expect in the short-term.

It was a much different story if Comcast wanted to spend $45 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable however, a deal Moffett called “transformational.”

“What we’re talking about is an industry that is becoming more capital intensive,” Todd Mitchell, an analyst at Brean Capital LLC in New York told Bloomberg News. “What happens to mature, capital-intensive companies — they consolidate. So, yes, I think the cable industry is ripe for consolidation.”

Other investors agreed.

“This is definitely a bet on a positive future for high-speed access, cable and other services in an economic recovery,” said Bill Smead, chief investment officer at Smead Capital Management, whose fund owns Comcast shares.

ftth councilBut Forbes’ Peter Cohan called Google’s much less investment into fiber broadband a colossal waste of money.

“Larry Page should nip this bad idea in the bud,” Cohan wrote.

Cohan warned investors should throw water on the enthusiasm for fiber before serious money got spent.

“FTTH authority, Neal Lachman, wrote in SeekingAlpha, that it would cost as much as $500 billion and could take a decade to connect all the houses and commercial buildings in the U.S. to fiber,” Cohan added.

Cohan was concerned Google’s initial investment would take much too long to be recovered, which apparently is not an issue for buyers willing to spend $18 billion for three million disaffected Time Warner Cable customers desperately seeking alternatives.

An investment for the future, not for short term profits.

An investment for the future, not short term profits.

Municipal broadband providers have often chosen to deploy fiber to the home service because the technology offers plenty of capacity, ongoing maintenance costs are low and the networks can be upgraded at little cost indefinitely. But such broadband efforts, especially when they are owned by local government, represent a threat for cable and phone companies relying on a business model that sells less for more.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, and other large telecom companies is at the forefront of helping friendly state legislators ban community fiber networks. Their excuse is that the fiber networks cost too much and, inexplicably, can reduce competition.

“A growing number of municipalities are [...] building their own networks and offering broadband services to their citizens,” ALEC writes on its website. “ALEC disagrees with their answer due to the negative impacts it has on free markets and limited government.  In addition, such projects could erode consumer choice by making markets less attractive to competition because of the government’s expanded role as a service provider.”

The Fiber-to-the-Home Council obviously disagrees.

“Believe it or not, there are already more than a thousand telecom network operators and service providers across North America that have upgraded to fiber to the home,” says the Council. “The vast majority of these are local incumbent telephone companies that are looking to transform themselves from voice and DSL providers into 21st century broadband companies that can deliver ultra high-speed Internet and robust video services, as well as be able to deliver other high-bandwidth digital applications and services to homes and businesses in the years ahead.”

Stephenson

Stephenson

In fact, a good many of those efforts are undertaken by member-owned co-ops and municipally owned providers that answer to local residents, not to shareholders looking for quick returns.

The only time large companies like AT&T move towards fiber to the home service is when a competitor threatens to do it themselves. That is precisely what happened in Austin. The day Google announced it was launching fiber service in Austin, AT&T suddenly announced its intention to do the same.

“In Austin we’re deploying fiber very aggressively,” said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. “The cost dynamics of deploying fiber have dramatically changed. The interfaces at the homes, the wiring requirements, how you get a wiring drop to a pole, and the way you splice it has totally changed the cost dynamics of deploying fiber.”

Prior to that announcement, AT&T justified its decision not to deploy fiber all the way to the home by saying it was unnecessary and too costly. With Google headed to town, that talking point is no longer operative.

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Tricky TV Antics: Wyoming, Nevada TV Stations Moving to Delaware, New Jersey

Phillip Dampier March 31, 2014 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
KJWY-TV was a station in Jackson, Wyo. But now it serves Philadelphia, Pa.

KJWY-TV was a station in Jackson, Wyo. But now it serves Philadelphia, Pa.

Two small television stations in Wyoming and Nevada with audiences in the thousands have packed up and are moving to bigger cities after exploiting a loophole in FCC rules.

KJWY, Channel 2 in Jackson, Wyo. used to relay television programs from a Casper station for the benefit of the 9,500 people living in the Teton County community. The station operated with just 178 watts — the lowest powered digital VHF station in the country. KVNV, Channel 3 in Ely, Nev., originally relayed Las Vegas’ NBC affiliate for the benefit of 4,200 locals. Both stations were purchased at a very low-cost by a mysterious partnership of buyers back east.

Today, KJWY has a new call sign – KJWP. It’s still on Channel 2, but the station is now licensed to operate from Wilmington, Del, with its transmitter located just across the border in Philadelphia. It’s one of the rare few television stations in the eastern half of the country that have “K” call letters usually assigned to stations west of the Mississippi River. KVNV is expected to follow to its new home in Middletown Township, Monmouth County, N.J., later this year. Its transmitter will have nothing but open water between northern New Jersey and nearby New York City — its intended target.

The two stations’ original combined audiences likely never exceeded 10,000, because both stations had very limited range for their transmitters which served two very small communities. But in the big cities of New York and Philadelphia, the stations can now reach a potential audience north of ten million and collect advertising revenue the stations in Wyoming and Nevada could only dream about.

PMCM, LLC., obviously had this in mind when it acquired the two stations in 2009. The principals behind PMCM already own six Jersey Shore radio stations in Monmouth and Ocean County under the name Press Communications, LLC.

How Congress and the FCC Opened the Door

wor PMCM discovered a little-known law that was originally introduced to help spur the launch of VHF television stations serving small Mid-Atlantic states shadowed by nearby large cities. In 1982, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley attached an amendment to an unrelated tax bill that required the FCC to automatically renew the license of any commercial VHF station that agrees to move to a state without one. The new law superseded nearly all the FCC’s other licensing regulations. At the time the law was passed, the only two states that were without any commercial VHF stations were Delaware and New Jersey.

That summer, RKO General, embroiled in a major scandal over illegal billing irregularities and deceiving regulators, thought it could save its New York station – WOR-TV – from threatened license revocation by agreeing to move from New York City to Secaucus, N.J. In agreeing to move the station, WOR would also expand much-needed coverage of New Jersey news and current affairs. But viewers barely noticed and by 1987 RKO General’s bad behavior got them booted out of the broadcasting business altogether after what FCC administrative law judge Edward Kuhlmann called a pattern of the worst case of dishonesty in FCC history. WOR’s new owners changed the call sign to WWOR-TV and the station’s home remains in Secaucus.

Two things happened after the mess with WOR. Bradley’s law remained on the books and America’s adoption of digital over the air television for full power stations meant channel number changes for many stations by the time the transition was complete in 2009. WWOR-TV relocated to UHF channel 38 (while still promoting itself as Channel 9) and Delaware’s only remaining VHF station is non-commercial WHYY Channel 12, a PBS station better known as hailing from Philadelphia. Once again, New Jersey and Delaware were without commercial VHF stations, a fact that did not escape the notice of PMCM.

Me-TV Launches in Philadelphia and New York

KJWP_LogoAfter a lengthy court battle with the FCC, PMCM successfully moved and relaunched KJWP, Channel 2, on March 1 as Philadelphia’s Me-TV affiliate. Although the transmitter power was raised, the station’s digital VHF signal still doesn’t reach very far, so its owners invoked “must-carry” with area cable systems, which means cable systems must carry the channel so long as the station does not ask for any payment.

The station’s reach is defined by the FCC far beyond its actual broadcast signal. Officially, the station can demand cable carriage as far south as Dover, Del., as far west as Lancaster, Pa., almost all of southern New Jersey and into northern New Jersey. Today, Comcast and other cable systems carry KJWP across Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Verizon FiOS is adding the station by this weekend and it is also available via satellite TV local station packages. Unlike larger stations fighting to be paid by cable systems, KJWP is happy to be carried by all without charge because it can sell advertising to a much larger potential audience. It plans to produce local programming, including news, which opens up even more advertising opportunities.

KVNV remains on the air in Ely for now as a My Family TV affiliate, showing a mix of family friendly and religious programs. But its days as a Nevada broadcast station are numbered. KVNV will officially sign-off in Ely for good in a few months and relaunch operations across the New York City market as New York’s official Me-TV affiliate. Like with KJWP, KVNV will keep its original call letters and invoke must-carry, which means the station is likely to appear on northern New Jersey Comcast systems, Time Warner Cable in Manhattan and other boroughs, as well as Cablevision on Long Island and across parts of Brooklyn.

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As Usual, Big Telecom in the Running for Worst Company in America 2014

2014wciabracketdayfive

Our friends at The Consumerist invite you to participate in the 2014 Worst Company in America contest. Readers are invited to cast a series of votes — one each day — to help narrow the field to the truly abysmal, the god-awful, and the despised. The ultimate winner receives the Golden Poo award.

Not surprisingly, the nation’s biggest telecom companies are among the regular finalists. The big ones are all there — Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and AT&T.

Hated cable companies frequently beat down big banks like the vipers at Chase, where settlements in the hundreds of millions with the government for wrongdoing are almost a monthly occurrence. Voters would rather fly the Unfriendly Skies with Divided Airlines, Last Frontier Air — even US Scare — than deal with Comcast’s offshore customer service. The bad boys at Electronic Arts and Koch Industries bring knives to AT&T’s gunfight on good customer relations.

Over the last eight years, Comcast turned up as the big winner of the Golden Poo award in 2010 and either runner-up or third place in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2013. AT&T achieved third place in 2012. Time Warner Cable and Verizon are usually eliminated in the finals, but their regular appearance on the nominations list is not something they can be proud of. Time Warner Cable has already managed to beat back EA, big winner in 2012 and 2013. So this year they might go all the way to the top… or is it bottom?

Year Winner Runner-up Third place
2006 Halliburton Choicepoint Wal-Mart and US Government
2007 RIAA Halliburton Wal-Mart and Exxon
2008 Countrywide Financial Comcast Diebold and Wal-Mart
2009 AIG Comcast Bank of America and Ticketmaster
2010 Comcast Cash4Gold Bank of America and Ticketmaster
2011 BP Bank of America Comcast and Ticketmaster
2012 Electronic Arts Bank of America AT&T and Wal-Mart
2013 Electronic Arts Bank of America Comcast
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Time Warner Cable, Comcast Crash, Burn in Consumer Reports’ 2014 Ratings

consumer reportsDespite claims of improved customer service and better broadband, Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s customer satisfaction scores are in near-free fall in the latest Consumer Reports National Research Center’s survey of consumers about their experiences with television and Internet services.

Although never popular with customers, both cable operators plummeted in the 2014 Consumer Reports ratings — Time Warner Cable is now only marginally above the perennial consumer disaster that is Mediacom. Comcast performs only slightly better.

In the view of Consumers Union, this provides ample evidence that two wrongs never make a right.

“Both Comcast and Time Warner Cable rank very poorly with consumers when it comes to value for the money and have earned low ratings for customer support,” said Delara Derakhshani.  “A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers.”

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

Comcast ranked 15th among 17 television service providers included in the ratings and earned particularly low marks from consumers for value for the money and customer support.  Time Warner ranked 16th overall for television service with particularly low ratings for value, reliability, and phone/online customer support.

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Comcast and Time Warner Cable were mediocre on overall satisfaction with Internet service.  Both companies received especially poor marks for value and low ratings for phone/online customer support.

“In an industry with a terrible track record with consumers, these two companies are among the worst when it comes to providing good value for the money,” said Derakhshani.  “The FCC and Department of Justice should stand with consumers and oppose this merger.”

For as long as Stop the Cap! has published, Mediacom has always achieved bottom of the barrel ratings, with satellite fraudband provider HughesNet — the choice of the truly desperate — scoring dead last for Internet service. We’re accustomed to seeing the usual bottom-raters like Frontier (DSL), Windstream (DSL), and FairPoint (DSL) on the south end of the list. But now both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have moved into the same seedy neighborhood of expensive and lousy service. Comcast couldn’t even beat the ratings for Verizon’s DSL service, which is now barely marketed at all. Time Warner Cable scored lower than CenturyLink’s DSL.

Breathing an ever-so-slight sigh of relief this year is Charter Communications, which used to compete with Mediacom for customer raspberries. It ‘rocketed up’ to 18th place.

If you want top-notch broadband service, you need to remember only one word: fiber. It’s the magical optical cable phone and cable companies keep claiming they have but largely don’t (except for Verizon and Cincinnati Bell, among a select few). If you have fiber to the home broadband, you are very happy again this year. If you are served by an independent cable company that threw away the book on customer abuse, you are relieved. Topping the ratings again this year among all cable operators is WOW!, which has a legendary reputation for customer service. Wave/Astound is in second place. Verizon and Frontier FiOS customers stay pleased, and even those signed up with Bright House Networks and Suddenlink report improved service.

Ratings are based on responses from 81,848 Consumer Reports readers. Once again they plainly expose Americans are not happy with their telecom options. The average cost of home communications measured by the Mintel Group is now $154 a month — $1,848 a year. That’s more expensive than the average homeowner’s clothing, furniture or electricity budget. The same issues driving the bad ratings last year are still there in 2014: shoveling TV channels at customers they don’t want or need, imposing sneaky new fees along with broad-based rate increases every year, low value for money, and customer service departments staffed by the Don’t Care Bears.

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