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Corporate Welfare: Congress Gives Big Telecom Accelerated and Bonus Depreciation Extensions

Phillip Dampier December 16, 2015 AT&T, CenturyLink, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon 10 Comments

corporatewelfareIn the darkness of night, Congress on Tuesday handed some of America’s largest telecom companies a huge tax windfall allowing many to continue taking a special 50% depreciation bonus that slashes their tax bills on new equipment purchases, winning substantial reductions in their federal tax bills.

CenturyLink had been heavily lobbying House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other House leaders to extend a “temporary tax provision” that was designed to stimulate corporate spending on capital investments during the height of the Great Recession. Stimulus programs like these have allowed corporations like AT&T and Verizon to pay virtually no federal taxes at all for multiple years in a row. AT&T was the second biggest tax provision/corporate welfare recipient in the country, Verizon was fifth according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Between 2008-2012 taxpayers effectively covered the $19.2 billion in federal tax not paid by AT&T and $11.1 billion not paid by Verizon.

The two words that make it possible are: Accelerated Depreciation

Telecom companies, particularly those with wireless assets, are benefiting from the “temporary” stimulus program introduced by President George W. Bush in the last year of his second term because most are capital-intensive, spending regularly to expand, maintain, and upgrade their networks. CenturyLink has taken advantage of accelerated depreciation to invest billions in fiber network expansions to reach cell towers and businesses and on residential broadband speed upgrades the company claims would not have come so quickly without the tax savings.

Mobile companies like AT&T and Verizon Wireless are some of the largest beneficiaries of the stimulus program, using accelerated depreciation to write off expenses for cell tower expansion, network densificiation, and deployment of services like 4G LTE. In most cases, “accelerated depreciation” is technically a tax deferral, but because these companies maintain constant investment in network development and upkeep, the tax man never actually arrives at the door to collect.

Heavy lobbying from beneficiaries not only succeeded in getting the program’s expiration date extended, the Obama Administration agreed to expand it at the end of 2013. Companies slashed tens of billions off their tax bills as a result. A report from the Congressional Research Service, reviewing efforts to quantify the impact of depreciation breaks, found that “the studies concluded that accelerated depreciation in general is a relatively ineffective tool for stimulating the economy.”

Citizens for Tax Justice added:

Combined with rules allowing corporations to deduct interest expenses, accelerated depreciation can result in very low, or even negative, tax rates on profits from particular investments. A corporation can borrow money to purchase equipment or a building, deduct the interest expenses on the debt and quickly deduct the cost of the equipment or building thanks to accelerated depreciation. The total deductions can then make the investments more profitable after-tax than before-tax.

The latest budget bill, passed Dec 15-16, extends the tax breaks until 2018 when the bonus drops to 40%, 30% in 2019, and zero in 2020.

Verizon: Ignore Our Adamant Denials of Not Being Interested in Selling Our Wired Networks

carForSaleDespite denials Verizon Communications was interested in selling off more of its wireline network to companies like Frontier Communications, the company’s chief financial officer reminded investors Verizon is willing to sell just about anything if it will return value to its shareholders.

In September, rumors Verizon planned to sell more of its wireline network where the company has not invested in widespread FiOS fiber-to-the-home expansion grew loud enough to draw a response from Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam at the Goldman Sachs 24th annual Communicopia Conference.

“When people ask me, and I know there’s some speculation that we might be interested in selling the wireline properties, I don’t see it in the near-term,” McAdam said.

Today, Shammo seemed to clarify McAdam’s pessimistic attitude about another Verizon landline sell off in the near future.

“We’re extremely happy with the asset portfolio we have right now, but as we always say we continue to look at all things,” Shammo said. “Just like the towers, we said we would not sell the towers and then we got to a great financial position and we sold our towers. If something makes sense [and] we can return value to our shareholders and it’s not a strategic fit we’ll obviously look at that.”

Shammo

Shammo

For most of 2014, Verizon denied any interest in selling its portfolio of company-owned wireless cell towers. In February 2015 the company announced it would sell acquisition rights to most of its cell towers to American Tower Corporation for $5.056 billion in cash.

Some analysts believe the early indicators that suggest Verizon is ready to sell include its lack of upgrades in non-FiOS service areas and Verizon’s willingness to walk away from up to $144 million from the second phase of the FCC’s Connect America Fund to expand Internet access to more of Verizon’s rural landline customers.

Verizon’s decision to take a pass on broadband improvement funds infuriated four southern New Jersey counties that claim Verizon has neglected its copper network in the state. As a result of allegedly decreasing investment and interest by Verizon, customers in these areas do not get the same level of phone and broadband service that Verizon customers receive in the northern half of New Jersey.

More than a dozen communities have signed a joint petition sent to the Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey’s telecom regulator, insisting the BPU take whatever measures are needed to preserve the availability of telecommunications services in southern New Jersey. The towns also want the BPU to consider funding sources to help improve broadband service that public officials claim is woefully inadequate. Outside of Verizon FiOS service areas, Verizon offers customers traditional DSL service for Internet access.

Verizon-logoThe communities:

  • Atlantic County: Estell Manor and Weymouth Township.
  • Gloucester County: South Harrison Township.
  • Salem County: Alloway Township, Lower Alloways Creek, Mannington Township, Township of Pilesgrove, and Upper Pittsgrove Township.
  • Cumberland County: Commercial Township, Downe Township, Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Maurice River Township, City of Millville, Upper Deerfield Township, and Fairfield Township.

Officials claim Verizon has pushed its wireless alternatives to customers in the region, including its wireless landline replacement. But officials suggest Verizon’s wireless coverage and the quality of its service is not an adequate substitute for wireline service.

Verizon's Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon’s Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon has proposed decommissioning parts of its wireline network in rural service areas and substitute wireless service in the alternative. At issue are the costs to maintain a vast wireline network that reaches a dwindling number of customers. Verizon reminds regulators it has lost large numbers of residential landline customers who have switched to wireless service, making the costs to maintain service for a dwindling number of customers that much greater.

But for many communities, the focus is increasingly on broadband, especially in areas that receive little or no cable service. Telephone companies serving rural communities are surviving landline disconnects by providing broadband service.

For companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream, investments in providing broadband service are among their top spending priorities. At larger phone companies like Verizon and AT&T, highly profitable wireless divisions get the most attention and are top spending priorities.

Speaking this morning at the UBS 43rd Annual Global Media and Communications Conference, Shammo told investors Verizon will continue to allocate the majority of its capital allocation around Verizon Wireless to help densify its wireless network. Verizon, Shammo noted, plans further spending cuts for its wired networks next year as FiOS network buildouts start to taper off.

This will make expansion and improvement of Verizon DSL unlikely, and may put further cost pressure on maintaining Verizon’s wireline networks, which could further motivate a sale.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo is likely looking at three alternatives for the future:

  1. Increase investment in Verizon Communications to further expand FiOS fiber optics;
  2. Look at cost savings opportunities to improve the books at Verizon Communications, including decommissioning rural landline networks (if Verizon can win regulator approval);
  3. Consider selling Verizon’s non-core wireline assets in areas where the company has not made a substantial investment in FiOS and refocus attention on serving the dense corridor of customers along the Atlantic seaboard between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

The Stage Is Set to Kill Telco ADSL: Cable Operators Prepare for DOCSIS 3.1 Competitive Assault

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Next year’s upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 will support cable broadband speeds up to one gigabit shortly after introduction.

Telephone companies relying on traditional ADSL service to power their broadband offering will likely face a renewed competitive assault in 2016 that will further reduce their already-challenged market share in areas where cable companies compete.

Cable operators are hungry for profitable broadband customers and the best place to find new prospects is at the phone company, where DSL is still a common technology to deliver Internet access. But while cable Internet speeds have risen, significant DSL speed hikes have proven more modest in the residential market.

In 2016, the cable industry intends to poach some of the remaining price-sensitive holdouts still clinging to DSL with revised broadband offers promising more speed for the dollar.

Cable broadband has already proven itself a runaway success when matched against telephone company DSL service. Over the last year, Strategy Analytics found Comcast and Time Warner Cable alone signed up a combined 71 percent of the three million new broadband customers in the U.S.

“Cable operators continue to increase market share in U.S. broadband,” said Jason Blackwell, a director at Strategy Analytics. “Over the past twelve months, Comcast has accounted for 42 percent of new subscribers among the operators that we track.  Fiber growth is still strong, but the telco operators haven’t been able to shake off the losses of DSL subscribers.  In 2016, we expect to see a real battle in broadband, as cable operators begin to roll out DOCSIS 3.1 for even higher speed offers, placing additional pressure on telcos.”

That battle will come in the form of upgraded economy broadband plans, many arriving shortly after providers upgrade to the DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband platform. Currently those plans offer speeds ranging from 2-6Mbps. Starting next year, customers can expect economy plan prices to stay generally comparable to DSL, with promises of faster and more consistent speeds. A source tells Stop the Cap! at least two significant cable operators are considering 10Mbps to be an appropriate entry-level broadband speed for 2016, in keeping with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler’s dislike of Internet speeds below 10Mbps.

slowJust a few years earlier, most providers wouldn’t think of offering discounted 10Mbps service, fearing it would cannibalize revenue as customers downgraded to get lower priced service. Increasing demands on bandwidth from online video and multiple in-home users have gradually raised consumer expectations, and their need for speed.

Unfortunately for many phone companies that have neglected significant investment in their aging wireline networks, the costs to keep up with cable will become unmanageable unless investors are willing to tolerate significant growth in capital expenses to pay for network upgrades. Frontier Communications still claims most of their customers are satisfied with 6Mbps DSL, neglecting to mention many of those customers live in areas where cable competition (or faster service from Frontier) is not available.

Where competition does exist, it’s especially bad news for phone companies that still rely on DSL. Earlier this year, Frontier’s former CEO Maggie Wilderotter admitted Frontier’s share of the residential broadband market had dropped to less than 25% in 26 of the 27 states where it provides service. In Connecticut, the one state where Frontier was doing better, its acquired AT&T U-verse system has enabled the phone company to deliver broadband speeds up to 100Mbps. But even those speeds do not satisfy state officials who are seeking proposals from providers to build a gigabit fiber network in a public-private partnership.

DSL speed upgrades have been spotty and more modest.

DSL speed upgrades have been spotty and more modest.

Frontier’s recent experiments with fiber to the home service in a small part of Durham, N.C., and the unintentional revelation of a gigabit broadband inquiry page on Frontier’s website suggests the company may be exploring at least a limited rollout of gigabit fiber service in the state. But company officials have also repeatedly stressed in quarterly results conference calls there were no significant plans to embark on a major spending program to deliver major upgrades across their service areas.

Some phone companies may have little choice except to offer upgrades where cable operators are continuing to rob them of customers. In the northeast, where Frontier has a substantial presence, cable operators including Charter, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are committing to additional speed upgrades. Time Warner Cable’s current standard speed of 15Mbps will rise to 50-60Mbps in 2016, up to ten times faster than Frontier’s most popular “up to” 6Mbps DSL plan.

Most of the broadband customer gains won by Comcast and Time Warner Cable come as a result of DSL disconnects. AT&T said goodbye to 106,000 customers during the third quarter. Verizon managed to pick up 2,000 new subscribers overall, almost all signing up for FiOS fiber to the home service. No cable operator lost broadband market share, reported analyst firm Evercore. Leichtman Research offered additional insight, finding AT&T and Verizon were successful adding 305,000 U-verse and FiOS broadband customers, while losing 432,000 DSL customers during the same quarter.

The message to phone companies couldn’t be clearer: upgrade your networks or else.

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.

Google Invites Jacksonville, OKC, and Tampa to Contemplate Fiber; Northeast Need Not Apply

google fiberGoogle Fiber today announced it would accept applications from Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, and Tampa to become the next cities qualified for its fiber to the home service.

We’re inviting Oklahoma City, OK, Jacksonville, FL and Tampa, FL, to explore bringing Google Fiber to their communities, as we did last month with three other cities. These growing tech-hubs have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to small business growth. Their list of accolades is long—from Jacksonville’s title as a top 10 city for tech jobs, to Tampa Bay’s #2 spot on the list of best cities for young entrepreneurs, to Oklahoma City’s recognition as the #1 city to launch a business. One of our goals is to make sure speed isn’t an accidental ceiling for how people and businesses use the Web, and these cities are the perfect places to show what’s possible with gigabit Internet.

Google continues its informal boycott of the northeastern United States, where community interest in fiber service has been rebuffed through a lack of responsiveness.

The three latest cities will have to prove they can meet Google’s extensive list of requirements on everything from zoning to pole attachment access and fees. Things that tend to upset Google include endless zoning paperwork, intransigent bureaucracy, and dealing with an excess of county, city, town, and village governments (states in the northeast are also often notorious for layers of local government, all demanding compliance with local codes.) Communities are even expected to get their arborist on board.

google fiber 10 15

Local governments that take the attitude Google must win them over are unlikely to ever see the service. Those that bend over backwards to accommodate the fiber project are the ones managing successful applications. In other words, ask not what Google can do for you, ask what you can do for Google.

Tampa is the first city invited to apply that is also served by Verizon FiOS, although Verizon is in the process of selling its wired networks in Florida to Frontier Communications. Tampa’s cable competitor is Bright House Networks, itself in the process of being sold to Charter Communications. Jacksonville is Comcast and AT&T country and OKC is served by AT&T and Cox Communications.

Making it to the invitation list does not guarantee Google Fiber service, although most local governments are lobbied by their constituents to do whatever is necessary to secure fiber competition.

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)

New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into Broadband Speeds and Performance

Schneiderman

Schneiderman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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