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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuomo: 100% of New York State Should Have Access to 100Mbps Broadband by 2018

ny broadbandNew York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a goal that every resident of New York State should have access to at least 100Mbps broadband no later than 2018.

The governor will kick off his latest broadband expansion effort with the launch of his $500 million broadband expansion program, dubbed the New New York Broadband Fund, a follow-up to the state’s $70 million public-private effort to expand broadband that began in 2012.

Much of the money awarded in the 2012 broadband expansion effort went to Wireless Internet Service Providers, institutional broadband networks, middle-mile fiber projects not accessible to the public, and emergency service network upgrades. Another $5.2 million was awarded to Time Warner Cable to expand broadband service to 4,114 households in the Capital, Central, Finger Lakes, Mid-Hudson, Mohawk Valley, NYC, North Country, Southern Tier and Western regions of New York State. In June, many of the top funding recipients also received honors from the governor’s office in the first annual New York State Broadband Champion Awards.

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

Despite the money, the 2012 effort did not make a significant dent in the pervasive problem of broadband availability in upstate New York.

While Gov. Cuomo is committed to a target speed of 100Mbps within the next four years, more than one million New York households still cannot access broadband that achieves the state minimum — 6.5Mbps. That includes 113,000 businesses.

The governor’s solution is to subsidize private businesses with more tax dollars to resolve the broadband problem, with a significant part of the next round of funding likely to reach more institutional and public safety networks off-limits to the public, middle mile network expansion that can build state-of-the-art fiber rings that do not connect to end users, and an even bigger amount handed to Time Warner Cable (or Comcast if the state approves a merger with Time Warner Cable) and rural phone companies like Frontier Communications. Much of the money awarded to last mile providers like cable and phone companies will placate those that have stubbornly refused to expand further into rural areas unless taxpayers pick up some of the expense.

“In some of these areas, there’s just not a business case for these [service] providers to build out,” said David Salway, director of the New York State Broadband Program office. “The cost far exceeds what the revenue might be for that area.”

An unintended consequence of the broadband funding effort could be taxpayers subsidizing the establishment of for-profit monopolies in rural corners of the state. Although Salway told Capital NY he wanted to make sure New Yorkers had a choice, he clarified he was referring to a choice in technology, not service providers.

twcGreenThat must come as a relief for Verizon. The state’s largest phone company has petitioned state officials in the past for a gradual mothballing of New York’s rural landline network in favor of switching customers to wireless voice and broadband over Verizon’s cellular network. Theoretically, taxpayers could end up subsidizing the demise of rural New York landlines and DSL if Verizon seeks money from the rural broadband fund to expand its wireless tower network in rural New York. Time Warner Cable almost certainly will also seek more funding, probably in excess of the average $1,264 paid to the cable company for each of the 4,114 additional connections it agreed to complete during an earlier round of funding.

While rural broadband remains an important issue in New York, the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is on the front burner and Salway, like the governor, had little to say. But Salway did offer that he did not believe the merger “would reduce [access] as much as further our goal” for expansion.

Guidelines for grant recipients are expected to become available just after the governor’s State of the State presentation in January, with ground-breaking on projects likely to start by mid-summer of 2015.

AT&T, Verizon Break Out The Campaign Contribution Checkbooks Early, Sending $ to the Newly-Elected

Big Telecom is already trying to buy incoming members of Congress with lavish campaign contributions.

Big Telecom is already trying to buy incoming members of Congress with lavish campaign contributions.

Before constituents have a chance to make an impression on Capitol Hill’s incoming freshmen class, AT&T and Verizon have rushed significant campaign contributions to more than two dozen newly elected members of Congress.

Politico reports AT&T has cut checks to 31 new members of the House and Senate, Verizon sent 28 checks, and Comcast donated to 22 winners in the fall elections. Most of the money went to incoming Republicans who will control both the House and Senate starting in January.

All three companies are seeking allies in the fight against Net Neutrality and for a wholesale rewriting of the Communications Act, the nation’s most important telecom-related legislation.

Congressional observers predict revisiting the Communications Act would be a lobbyist bonanza, with potentially billions flowing into congressional coffers to win further industry deregulation. The last major overhaul in 1996 transformed broadcasting, allowing a handful of corporations to own the majority of radio and television stations and allowing large phone and cable companies to govern themselves with respect to broadband and competition. Cable and broadband prices soared as a result, while the number of competitors dropped due to industry consolidation.

The telecom companies are well ahead of technology players like Microsoft and Google, that have collectively sent contributions to fewer than a half-dozen incoming members and are barely active in Washington in comparison to the biggest phone and cable companies.

Big Cable, Telcos Spent $42 Million In 2013-2014 Lobbying for Deregulation, Against Net Neutrality

AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and the cable industry’s chief lobbying group spent $42.8 million during the 2013-2014 election cycle to weigh in on issues including burying Net Neutrality, outlawing community broadband competition, winning tax breaks for themselves, and avoiding consumer protection regulations.

A Common Cause analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Institute for Money in State Politics shows that the usual suspects poured money into political coffers on the state and federal level to influence lawmakers.

2014-contributions-from-net-1

On the federal level, murky party committees received the largest individual checks: a total of $862,223 for House and Senate Republicans and $552,605 for Democrats. Individual members of Congress also received their own contributions, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner ($98,175 from Comcast) and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor ($88,650 from Comcast, TWC, and National Cable and Telecom. Assn.) Pryor will need to spend his contributions quickly. He was de-elected by Arkansas voters last Tuesday.

Net Neutrality is a major topic on the minds of the cable and telco companies, as is ongoing deregulation and decommissioning rural landline service, and pushback on revelations AT&T and Verizon were only too happy to turn over your phone records to the federal government.

In the states, the bigger the issues coming up in the legislature, the bigger the campaign checks. In Florida, AT&T is the state’s single largest source of political donations, giving $1.53 million to state lawmakers in the past year and another $660,000 to Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his appointed heads of state agencies. AT&T is lobbying for eliminating Florida’s telecommunications tax, win the right to place cell towers wherever they wish without much interference from local officials, and further deregulation. Most of AT&T’s money goes into the hands of the state’s Republicans.

In New York and California, Democrats got a major chunk of money from Comcast and Time Warner Cable — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo received $60,800 each from both Comcast and Time Warner Cable (totaling $121,600). California Governor Jerry Brown received $54,400 from Time Warner Cable and $27,200 from Comcast. Both states are reviewing the merger of the two companies this year. AT&T and Verizon are also major donors – AT&T wants to dismantle the rural telephone network in California and Verizon is trying to convince the New York legislature to approve its own rural landline replacement – Voice Link. It also wants reduced scrutiny of its landline performance in New York and more access to New York City buildings where it faces resistance from property owners who want compensation from Verizon to install FiOS.

2014-contributions-from-net

Cablevision Calls Deal-Hunters and the Credit-Challenged “Shoplifters;” ‘Go Call Verizon Instead’

Phillip Dampier November 6, 2014 Cablevision, Competition, Consumer News, Verizon 1 Comment

Shoplifting-Is-Crime-Sign-S-7247Beggars can be choosers if you are running Cablevision, the northeast’s largest non-conglomerate cable company, still run by the Dolan family.

In a conference call with Wall Street analysts, company officials noted Cablevision had noticeably tightened its credit standards during the third quarter and has implemented incentives for slow-pay and no-pay customers to take a hike and not come back, even at the risk of subscriber losses.

“Certain of our promotional eligibility policies have put pressure on our net subscriber results,” reported Cablevision CEO James Dolan. “However, we believe that these policies are consistent with our goal of growing long-term shareholder value. For instance, during the third quarter, we tightened certain of our customer credit and payment policies. While these policy changes effectively reduce the number of available sales, they are expected to contribute a stronger base of customers over time.”

For more than a year, Cablevision has restricted promotional pricing and retention offers to keep customers from coming back for better deals when their existing promotion expires. Now it is stripping eligibility for promotional pricing for late-paying customers as well. Subscribers are leaving as a result. Video customers declined by 56,000 during the third quarter, high-speed data customers declined by 23,000, and voice customers declined by 33,000.

“We’re no longer marketing [to] subscribers who have a history of non-pay, so we’re not inviting them back in if they’re not good actors,” said Cablevision’s chief operating officer Kristin Dolan. “We’re requiring full payment in a number of areas where homes have a history of bad debt. And then we’re not doing promotions [for] those customers either. So if you have a history of bad debt with us, you can’t come back in on a promotional offer. [We’re] not letting people back into the bucket that are going to end up being problematic later on in their relationship with us.”

Mr. Dolan was scathingly critical of his biggest competitor, Verizon FiOS, claiming the company will stop at nothing to poach Cablevision’s customers.

“Verizon, in our opinion, continues on a path of pursuing the destruction of their own capital,” said Dolan. “We don’t believe that they’re profitable on any level in our service area. They just rabidly pursue us in an attempt to try and get customers. And I think our strategy is actually working quite well because we’re giving them all the customers that we think are the most expensive customers and the ones that provide the least free cash flow to us.”

Mrs. Dolan told analysts Cablevision is particular about the kinds of customers it wants to win back from competitors.

“I think if it’s a win back that we want to have, that’s a differentiator,” she said. “We’re not going to just chase subscriber numbers. We don’t want to invite people into our store if they’re going to shoplift.”

Wall Street Investors Suckered By Broadband, Wireless Myths on Usage Pricing, Network Investment

verizon-protestBig Telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T use phony numbers and perpetuate myths about broadband traffic and network investments that have conned investors out of at least $1 trillion in unnecessary investments and consolidation.

Alexander Goldman, former chief analyst for CTI’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants, is warning Wall Street and investors they are at risk of losing millions more because some of the largest telecom companies in the country are engaged in disseminating bad math and conventional wisdom that relies more on repetition of their talking points than actual facts.

Goldman’s editorial, published by Broadband Breakfast, believes the campaign of misinformation is perpetuated by a media that accepts industry claims without examining the underlying facts and a pervasive echo chamber that delivers credibility only by the number of voices saying then same thing.

Goldman takes Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam to task for an editorial published in 2013 in Verizon’s effort to beat back calls on regulators to oversee the broadband industry and correct some of its anti-competitive behavior.

McAdam claimed the U.S. built a global lead in broadband on investments of $1.2 trillion over 17 years to deploy “next generation broadband networks” because networks were deregulated.

Setting aside the fact the United States is not a broadband leader and continues to be outpaced by Europe and Asia, Goldman called McAdam’s impressive-sounding dollar figures meaningless, considering over the span of that 17 years, the United States progressed from dial-up to fiber broadband. Wired networks have been through a generational change that required infrastructure to be replaced and wireless networks have been through at least two significant generations of change over that time — mandatory investments that would have occurred with or without deregulation.

Over the past 17 years, the industry has gotten more of its numbers wrong than right. An explosion of fiber construction in the late 1990s based on predictions of data tsunamis turned out to be catastrophically wrong. University of Minnesota professor Andrew Odlyzko, the worst enemy of the telecom industry talking point, has been debunking claims of broadband traffic jams and the need to implement usage-based pricing and speed throttling for years. In 1998, when Wall Street was listening intently to forecasts produced by self-interested telecom companies like Worldcom that declared broadband traffic was going to double every 100 days, Odlyzko was telling his then-employer AT&T is was all a lot of nonsense. The broadband traffic emperor had no clothes, and statistics from rival telecom companies suggested Worldcom was telling tall tales. But AT&T executives didn’t listen.

fat cat att“We just have to try harder to match those growth rates and catch up with WorldCom,” AT&T executives told Odlyzko and his colleagues, believing the problem was simply ineffective sales, not real broadband demand. When sales couldn’t generate those traffic numbers and Wall Street analysts began asking why, companies like Global Crossing and Qwest resorted to “hollow swaps” and other dubious tricks to fool analysts, prop up the stock price and executive bonuses, and invent sales.

Nobody bothered to ask for an independent analysis of the traffic boom that wasn’t. Wall Street and investors saw dollars waiting to be made, if only providers had the networks to handle the traffic. This began the fiber boom of the late 1990s, “an orgy of construction” as The Economist called it, all to prepare for a tidal wave of Internet traffic that never arrived.

After companies like Global Crossing and Worldcom failed in the biggest bankruptcies the country had ever seen at the time, Odlyzko believes important lessons were never learned. He blames Worldcom executives for inflating the Internet bubble more than anyone.

A bubble of another kind is forming today in America’s wireless industry, fueled by pernicious predictions of a growing spectrum crisis to anyone in DC willing to listen and hurry up spectrum auctions. Both AT&T and Verizon try to stun investors and politicians with enormous dollar numbers they claim are being spent to hurry upgraded wireless networks ready to handle an onslaught of high bandwidth wireless video. Both Verizon’s McAdam and AT&T’s Randall Stephenson intimidate Washington politicians with subtle threats that any enactment of industry reforms by the FCC or Congress will threaten the next $1.2 trillion in network investments, jobs, and America’s vital telecom infrastructure.

Odlyzko has seen this parade before, and he is not impressed. Streaming video on wireless networks is effectively constrained by miserly usage caps, not network capacity, and to Odlyzko, the more interesting story is Americans are abandoning voice calling for instant messages and texting.

8-4WorldcomCartoonThat isn’t a problem for wireless carriers because texting is where the real money is made. Odlyzko notes that wireless carriers profit an average of $1,000 per megabyte for text messages, usually charged per-message or through subscription plan add ons or as part of a bundle. Cellular voice calling is much less profitable, earning about $1 per megabyte of digitized traffic.

Wireless carriers in the United States, particularly Verizon and AT&T, are immensely profitable and the industry as a whole haven’t invested more than 27% of their yearly revenue on network upgrades in over a decade. In fact, in 2011 carriers invested just 14.9% of their revenue, rising slightly to 16.3 percent in 2012 when companies collectively invested $30 billion on network improvements, but earned $185 billion along the way.

While Verizon preached “spectrum crisis” to the FCC and Congress and claimed it was urgently prioritizing network upgrades, company executives won approval of a plan to pay Vodafone, then a part owner of Verizon Wireless, $130 billion to buy them out. That represents the collective investment of every wireless provider in the country in network upgrades from 2005-2012. Verizon Wireless cannot find the money to upgrade their wireless networks to deliver customers a more generous data allowance (or an unlimited plan), but it had no trouble approving $130 billion to buy out its partner so it could keep future profits to itself.

Odlyzko concludes the obvious: “modern telecom is less about high capital investments and far more a game of territorial control, strategic alliances, services, and marketing, than of building a fixed infrastructure.”

That is why there is no money for Verizon FiOS expansion but there was plenty to pay Vodafone, and its executives who walked away with executive bonuses totaling $89.6 million.

As long as American wireless service remains largely in the hands of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, competition isn’t likely to seriously dent prices or profits. At least investors who are buying Verizon’s debt hope so.

Goldman again called attention to Odlyzko’s latest warning that the industry has its numbers (and priorities) wrong, and the last time Odlyzko had the numbers right and the telecommunications industry got its numbers wrong, telecommunications investors lost $1 trillion in the telecommunications dot.com bust.

As the drumbeat continues for further wireless consolidation and spectrum acquisition, investors have been told high network costs necessitate combining operations to improve efficiency and control expenses. Except the biggest costs faced by wireless carriers like Verizon are to implement strategic consolidation opportunities like the Vodafone deal, not maintain and grow their wireless network. AT&T is putting much of its spending in a proposed acquisition of DirecTV this year as well — at a cost of $48.5 billion. That could buy a lot of new cell towers and a much more consumer-friendly data plan.

Voice to text substitution (US)

year voice minutes billions texts billions
2005 1,495 81
2006 1,798 159
2007 2,119 363
2008 2,203 1,005
2009 2,275 1,563
2010 2,241 2,052
2011 2,296 2,304
2012 2,300 2,190

Cell phone network companies (if you can believe their SEC filings) are incredibly profitable, and are spending relatively little on infrastructure:

year revenues in $ billions capex in $ billions capex/revenues
2004 102.1 27.9 27.3%
2005 113.5 25.2 22.2
2006 125.5 24.4 19.4
2007 138.9 21.1 15.2
2008 148.1 20.2 13.6
2009 152.6 20.4 13.3
2010 159.9 24.9 15.6
2011 169.8 25.3 14.9
2012 185.0 30.1 16.3

Killing Off Affordable Rural Internet: BMI Loses $99 Sprint Unlimited, Gains 10GB Verizon Plan for $100

bmi.net-logoRural Americans who cannot get cable broadband or DSL will now pay more money for less service as wireless carriers continue to cancel affordable mobile broadband plans with a generous usage allowance in favor of premium-priced, stingy usage-capped wireless Internet.

Two weeks after Millenicom was forced to drop affordable Verizon wireless broadband service, Blue Mountain Internet received word its unlimited Sprint broadband reseller agreement was being terminated the following day, forcing the company to hurry out cancellation notices to affected customers.

“We received notification yesterday from our upline provider that our mobile broadband accounts utilizing the Sprint network (Net2) will all be cancelled on Friday, Oct. 31st, 2014,” the company wrote in an email to customers. “We apologize for the short notice but we just received notice yesterday.”

BMI had offered customers an unlimited use mobile broadband plan from Sprint for $99 a month. It has been replaced with a Verizon plan that costs a dollar more and comes with a 10GB monthly data allowance with a steep $20/GB overlimit fee. “Heavy users” can pay $120 a month for a monthly allowance of 20GB. Affected customers intending to switch to Verizon get a discount off the monthly plan price if they pay quarterly: $85 (10GB) or $100 (20GB).

Blue Mountain Internet Mobile Broadband Rental Prices & Plans

Package Network Traffic Traffic Email AV Optimizer Best Price Monthly Quarterly
      Optimized Accts Licenses Software paying quarterly 3 months
VMBB-HalfGig 1 1/2Gb 1.5Gb 1 1 Yes $19.99/Mo $24.95 $59.97
VMBB-1GB 1 1Gb 3Gb 1 2 Yes $34.95/Mo $39.99 $104.85
VMBB-3GB 1 3Gb 9Gb 1 2 Yes $52.95/Mo $59.99 $158.85
VMBB-5GB 1 5Gb 15Gb 1 2 Yes $69.99/Mo $79.99 $209.97
VMBB-10GB 1 10Gb 30Gb 1 2 Yes $84.95/Mo $99.99 $254.85
VMBB-20GB 1 20Gb 60Gb 1 2 Yes $99.99/Mo $119.99 $299.97
Plan Details: Network 1 Overages are charged at a rate of $20/Gigabyte – regardless of plan. Hardware options available or you can bring your own device (BYOD). Traffic optimizer software is free for Windows & Macintosh. Optimizer does not compress video or already compressed files.

EVDOinfo notes that with Millenicom and BMI losing their relationships with Verizon and Sprint respectively over the course of just one month, “it seems unlikely that we’ll see another [reseller] emerge with a no-contract, high-data plan using one of the major carriers’ networks.”

Millenicom customers were being offered a slightly different plan if they agreed to switch to a Verizon Wireless account: 20GB a month for $99 with a $15/GB overlimit fee. Customers signing up for a “More Everything” plan will pay considerably more. A 30GB plan with a mobile hotspot device costs $150 a month, not including fees and taxes. A one-year contract commitment usually applies.

Commentary: Verizon’s New Tech News Website Censors Out Net Neutrality, Electronic Spying, Credibility

“Verizon’s treatment of the news is a testament to the need for strong Net Neutrality protections.”

Sugarstring's logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Sugarstring’s logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Verizon Wireless’ launch of Sugarstring, a high-budget tech news website targeting millennial 20-somethings with tech and lifestyle news they can use seemed innocent enough until its editor revealed in a private e-mail Verizon considers reporting on electronic spying and Net Neutrality issues “verboten.

Verizon is deeply embroiled in both issues and evidently has no interest spending money enlightening the masses, so it has told its staff (but not you) both topics are forbidden.

The Daily Dot reported the revelation straight from Cole Stryker, Sugarstring’s editor.

“I’ve been hired to edit SugarString.com,” writes Stryker in a recruiting email to Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill. “Downside is there are two verboten topics (spying and net neutrality), but I’ve been given wide berth to cover pretty much all other topics that touch tech in some way.”

Verizon’s cavalier censorship policies say a lot about the company’s interest in controlling the messages that people see and read online. The news site is intended to be a high-profile destination for Verizon Wireless’ mobile customers and will logically get significant exposure from the company bankrolling it.

Verizon might argue that since it pays the bills, it has a right to decide what information should pass through its websites. It is hardly a big stretch for them to argue that if they own the wires over which you receive Internet service, they should have a say in what travels across those as well.

Censorship need not be crude and obvious as it often was on foreign propaganda broadcasts during the Cold War. Today’s “news management” is much more subtle and more insidious.

Take RT (formerly Russia Today), the Moscow-based 24/7 English-language news network. Although dropped by many major cable systems including Time Warner Cable after Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, the network is still growing and finding more places on the air around the world.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

RT is nothing like what shortwave listeners used to endure from English-language Radio Moscow World Service during the Communist years. You couldn’t miss that station. Broadcasting on up to 47 frequencies simultaneously, 24 hours a day, it was easily the most commonly encountered signal on the shortwave dial. Plodding features like, “On the Occasion of the 45th Anniversary of the Stunning Achievements of World Socialism,” or “The Voices of Soviet Public Opinion Demand Peace and Progress for the Non-Aligned World” (Part 36) were everything you might expect and less.

Radio Moscow boldly told listeners in its series, “The History of the Soviet Union, the Socialist Revolution, and Its Aims and Results,” that elections in the USSR were superior to those in other countries because the government took the money out of politics. Only by putting national infrastructure entirely in the hands of the people, along with public ownership of the means of production, can a nation achieve true democracy. They didn’t bother to mention the USSR was a one-party state, which made elections pro-forma, or that the entire Soviet economy was a basket case since the days of Leonid Brezhnev. (10:01) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Radio Moscow has been replaced by RT Television, which in the post-Soviet era now exists primarily to boost all-things Putin. The propaganda has been sharpened up by employing U.S. reporters and moving to the far more subtle practice of “self-censorship.” A former RT reporter fed up with increasingly strident propaganda over the matter of Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine quit live on the air. In a later interview on CNN, Liz Wahl told Anderson Cooper that RT’s staff was made up mostly of impressionable young people eager to win favor from RT’s management. They quickly learned and accepted that certain points of view or story subjects were either frowned upon or outright verboten. Instead of being sent to a gulag for disobedience, those straying from Putin’s party line were taken off stories, reassigned to menial work, or shunned. Who wants that?

Avoiding certain topics or points of view at the behest of corporate management (or the state) is just as insidious as directly slanting the news to one’s favor. Few real journalists would accept a job (or stay) at a news organization that was compromised by coverage limits or editorial interference that came from conflict with a corporate or political agenda.

That Verizon chooses to ban stories that embarrass Verizon, such as Edward Snowden’s revelations that Verizon voluntarily provided the National Security Agency (NSA) the phone records of all of its customers and is still actively engaged in tracking its customers’ web activities, does not mean it is going to block you from visiting CNN.com tomorrow. That Verizon doesn’t want to fuel the public consciousness of Net Neutrality is understanding considering the company has paid its lawyers plenty to fight the principle in court, openly admitting it favors paid fast lanes for traffic. But Verizon is clearly on a road that, if unchecked, eventually leads to content and traffic manipulation.

Verizon steps far over the line of jounalistic integrity informing editors to avoid both issues while saying nothing to readers and it isn’t the first time Verizon has crossed the line.

censorshipTim Karr from Free Press reminds us Verizon has a very different view about the First Amendment that the rest of us:

In a 2012 legal brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Verizon mangled the intent of the First Amendment to claim that the Constitution gives the phone company the right to control everyone’s online information. In the brief, which was part of the company’s successful bid to overturn the FCC’s Open Internet Order — Verizon argued that the First Amendment gives it the right to serve as the Internet’s editor-in-chief. The company’s attorneys claimed that “broadband providers possess ‘editorial discretion.'” even when they are “transmitting the speech of others.”

Verizon continued in this vein, asserting that “Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others.” And that means that Verizon could privilege its SugarString version of the news over the content of real news sites, because the company believes it should be able to “give differential pricing or priority access” to its own content.

What Verizon cannot “manage,” it wants the right to censor:

When it comes to a question of customer freedom vs. profits, Verizon follows the money every time:

In 2011, Free Press and others caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon’s $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots on their own. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

All of these examples challenge Verizon’s ongoing assertion it has no incentive to censor, block, or interfere with online content, making Net Neutrality unnecessary. You have just seen another example of why Net Neutrality is urgently needed. Verizon has demonstrated repeatedly it puts its own interests above its customers, so regulators should respond with a clear, unambiguous, and robustly enforced policy of Net Neutrality that protects the interests of you and I.

FCC Delays Wireless Spectrum Auction; Hires Investment Banker to Pitch Stations to Sell and Sign-Off

fcc2The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday it will postpone an important spectrum auction until 2016 after broadcasters filed suit against the regulator challenging its proposed format.

The FCC wants your free, over-the-air television dial to be a lot smaller with a deal that will pay broadcasters to sign-off their channels for good to benefit the wireless industry. Remaining stations will be moved to VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-30. The spectrum covering UHF channels 31-51 would likely then be sold in pieces to major wireless carriers including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and/or T-Mobile.

To entice broadcasters to voluntarily switch off their transmitters, the FCC has designed a spectrum auction that would provide tens of millions in proceeds to smaller stations and up to $570 million for a UHF station in Los Angeles to get off the air. Technically, stations giving up their channels don’t have to sign-off — they can move to low/lower-powered broadcasting, share channel space with another television station on a digital subchannel, or move to cable television exclusively.

To sell stations on the deal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hired Greenhill, a Wall Street investment bank, to prepare a presentation sent to every eligible television station in the country, encouraging them to sell their channels for some eye-popping proceeds:

(These numbers refer to full-power stations; in some markets there are also Class A stations, low-power stations that meet certain programming requirements. The estimated value of their spectrum is lower.)

In millions of dollars
MARKET Full-Power Stations
Maximum Median
New York $490 $410
Los Angeles $570 $340
Chicago $130 $120
Philadelphia $400 $230
Dallas-Fort Worth $67 $53
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose $140 $110
Boston $140 $93
Washington, D.C. $140 $130
Atlanta $91 $65
Houston $52 $45
West Palm Beach $100 $93
Providence, R.I. $160 $110
Flint, Mich. $100 $45
Burlington, Vt. $58 $17
Youngstown, Ohio $95 $90
Palm Springs, Calif. $180 $100
Wilkes-Barre-Scranton $150 $140

Source: The FCC

 

getoffThere is so much money to be made buying and selling the public airwaves — at least twice as much as broadcasters originally anticipated– spectrum speculators have also jumped on board, snapping up low power television station construction permits and existing stations with hopes of selling them off the air in return for millions in compensation. Wireless customers are effectively footing the bill for the auction as wireless companies bid for the additional spectrum. Television stations will receive 85% of the proceeds, the FCC will keep 15%.

take the moneyMajor network-affiliated or owned stations in major cities are unlikely to take the deal. But in medium and smaller-sized markets where conglomerates own and operate most television stations, there is a greater chance some will be closed down, moved to a lower channel, or transferred to a digital sub-channel of a co-owned-and-operated station in the same city. The most  likely targets for shutdown will be independent, CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates. In smaller cities, multiple network affiliates owned by one company could be combined, relinquishing one or more channels in return for tens of millions in cash compensation.

In Los Angeles, the stakes are especially high with auction prices estimated at up to $570 million for a high-powered UHF station like KDOC-TV.

“There is some real money to be had,” Bert Ellis, chief executive of Ellis Communications, which owns KDOC-TV, told the Wall Street Journal. “I think every broadcaster should take a very close look at this.”

Estimates show at least 80 significant U.S. cities will likely lose one or more channels, especially when the bid price well exceeds the value of an independent, ethnic or religious station. Many of these will go dark, move to cable or a less desirable lower power VHF channel, or sign an agreement with a remaining station to carry its programming on a sub-channel.

The National Association of Broadcasters filed suit against the FCC’s auction in August. The NAB wants the FCC to guarantee that stations that wish to stay on the air will not have their coverage area reduced or forced to pay to move to a new channel number assigned by the FCC as the regulator “repacks” a much smaller UHF band.

“We’ve said from day one, if stations want to volunteer to go out of business, that’s their prerogative. But for those stations that choose to remain in business, they should be held harmless,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

The spectrum auction is designed to address the wireless industry’s claim of a spectrum crisis, warning that if more frequencies are not found, wireless users will eventually see their service degraded.

T-Mobile: AT&T Gouges Us With Data Roaming Rates 150% Higher Than Average

bill shockT-Mobile has asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate AT&T’s “artificially high roaming rates” charged when its customers travel outside of T-Mobile’s home service area.

T-Mobile is heavily reliant on AT&T for roaming service outside of major cities and the country’s smallest national wireless carrier complains AT&T is using their market power to put it at a major disadvantage, which could force new limits on roaming access in some areas.

T-Mobile provided examples of the damage already done by AT&T’s roaming rates:

“Limitless Mobile has severely restricted its customers’ access to AT&T’s network ‘for the sole reason that AT&T’s data roaming rates are too high and by continuing roaming access, Limitless could not maintain a commercially competitive retail wireless data offering to the general public,’” T-Mobile told the FCC.

The Rural Wireless Association noted that competing carriers “cannot sustain the provision of data roaming services if [they] must provide that service at a loss.”

The problem of data roaming rates is getting larger as carrier agreements are due for renewal at many mobile providers. Independent cellular companies are finding AT&T unwilling to renew at prices and terms comparable to their existing contracts. Instead, they face renewal rates that average a minimum of 10 and as much as 33 times higher than the national carriers’ retail rates.

For example, T-Mobile’s agreement with AT&T includes a data roaming rate that is now 150 percent higher than the average domestic rate that T-Mobile pays for data roaming.

This is one thousand percent higher than the data roaming rate negotiated between Leap Wireless and MetroPCS prior to their respective acquisitions, wrote T-Mobile.

With the stark price increases, carriers have begun imposing limits, including speed throttling and data caps, on customers when roaming on AT&T’s network.

t-mobile-set-recordBecause of AT&T’s artificially high roaming rates, T-Mobile wireless customers roaming in South Africa have a better user experience than customers roaming on AT&T’s network in South Dakota, argues T-Mobile. Their speed is twice as fast, and their data usage is unlimited.

T-Mobile is asking the FCC to intervene by establishing some type of standard about what constitutes “commercially reasonable” roaming rates as part of its 2011 Data Roaming Order, designed to protect competition.

This year, carriers dependent on Verizon Wireless or AT&T to help deliver “nationwide coverage” are negotiating roaming access to the companies’ 4G LTE networks for the first time. Most roaming agreements used to only cover 3G service, delivered at a slower speed.

If carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile are unable to negotiate fair terms, both companies will be at a major competitive disadvantage, relegated to providing only regional coverage or charging higher prices for roaming service.

AT&T vice president of regulatory affairs Joan Marsh said T-Mobile’s request bordered on being illegal, in direct violation of the Telecommunications Act. Marsh argued T-Mobile and other carriers should be incentivized to build their own networks instead of relying on cheap roaming access from companies like AT&T. Marsh added any move by the FCC to set rates or benchmarks would be beyond the FCC’s mandate. Wireless carrier rates are deregulated and not subject to common carrier regulation.

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