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Google Unveils Project Fi Wireless Service: $20/Mo Voice/Text + $10/GB Data Plan That Credits Back Unused Data

google fiGoogle today unveiled their new wireless service, dubbed Project Fi, the first wireless carrier that combines the coverage of two competing cellular providers — Sprint and T-Mobile — to deliver affordable wireless service and a data plan that rebates back any unused portion of your monthly allowance. There are no term contracts, early termination fees, or overlimit penalty charges.

Google’s calling plan starts with Fi Basics for $20 per month. This includes:

  • Unlimited domestic talk and text;
  • Unlimited international texts;
  • Low-cost international calls;
  • Wi-Fi tethering;
  • Coverage in 120+ countries (Unlimited international texts are included in the plan, Cellular calls cost 20c per minute. If calling over Wi-Fi, per-minute costs vary based on which country you’re calling and you’re charged only for outbound calls.)

There is no unlimited data plan, presumably because neither T-Mobile or Sprint was willing to allow Google to offer one. Google tries to turn that into a plus by telling customers they should only pay for the data they actually use. The 2G/3G/4G data plan is $10/GB, sold in 1GB increments up to 10GB. Whatever data you do not use is converted into a cash amount credited to the following month’s bill. Instead of rolling over data, you roll over dollars. If you exceed your allowance, there are no penalty overlimit fees. Instead, you are charged $10 for an additional gigabyte of usage, with the same privilege of getting a cash credit applied to your next bill for any data you didn’t use.

Google assumes you will spend most of your time connected to Wi-Fi, where it offers free Wi-Fi calling and texting. If you lose your Wi-Fi connection, the phone will connect to either Sprint or T-Mobile’s network without losing a call in-progress. Another unique aspect of the service is that your mobile phone number lives in the cloud, so you can talk and text with your number on just about any phone, tablet or laptop using Google Hangouts.

The Nexus 6 is a real handful. It's also the only phone that will currently work on Google Fi.

The Nexus 6 is a real handful. It’s also the only phone that will work on Google Fi.

Google Project Fi relies on Sprint and T-Mobile’s combined networks to deliver coverage, trying to satisfy customers seeking Verizon or AT&T-like coverage. Google’s service seamlessly chooses Wi-Fi first, followed by Sprint or T-Mobile depending on which offers the best 4G signal at your location.

Although the service has been anticipated for some time, there are some caveats to consider before rushing to sign up.

First, you cannot sign-up immediately, you can only request an invitation. As with many other new Google projects, invitation-only service means it could be days, weeks, or even a month before you can sign-up.

Second, a view of Google’s coverage map shows Project Fi has substantially reduced dead spots, but has not eliminated them. Project Fi would likely appeal to Sprint or T-Mobile customers now frustrated by their suburban coverage. Chances are good that between the two carriers, one will deliver a robust signal even if the other does not. But rural areas have always been bypassed by both carriers and this makes Project Fi a bad choice if Sprint and T-Mobile are not good options where you live or work.

For example, much of eastern Kentucky, virtually the entire state of West Virginia, and western Virginia offer little to no 3G/4G coverage. Google Fi only promises 2G coverage in these areas, through a roaming agreement T-Mobile or Sprint has with a larger carrier.

Third, unless you already own a Nexus 6, you will be spending at least $650 to buy a new smartphone. Google will initially only support the Nexus 6 for Project Fi, because it is the only phone capable of switching between Google’s wireless partners. It comes in your choice of colors, if your choice is “Midnight Blue.” The smartphone offers two storage sizes—32GB ($649) and 64GB ($699). You can buy the Nexus 6 up front or finance your phone at 0% interest or fees for 24 months at $27.04/month for the 32GB option or $29.12/month for the 64GB option. A credit check is required for the financing option.

Fourth, there are no family plan options. Each phone is assigned to its own account. If you intend to switch your family of four, you will be dealing with four individual accounts (and a whopping $2,600 to acquire four Nexus 6 phones). Because of the invitation-only approach now in effect, it may take some time to get all of your family members up and running.

Finally, Google intends that its mobile service effectively sells itself. That means they are not offering promotions to sign up and will not pay your existing carrier to cover any early termination fees. You can port your current landline or mobile telephone number to the service. Google does not disclose any fees for doing so.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Google Project Fi 4-22-15.mp4

Google produced this introductory video about its new wireless service: Google Project Fi. (1:56)

UK Regulator: Don’t Call Your Wireless Service Unlimited and Then Throttle Heavy Users to Death

virgin-media-union-logo“Unlimited data” must mean exactly that in the United Kingdom if you hope to survive a challenge with British regulators over advertising and tariff claims.

Virgin Media thought itself clever offering “VIP” mobile customers two choices for service: £15 for a package that included 3GB of mobile data or £20 for “unlimited” data. Unlimited sounds like a great deal. For just $7.41 more, a customer could turn their stingy 3GB plan into unlimited data paradise. Or so one would think until navigating a nearly impenetrable thicket of fine print that suggested “you should expect speeds delivered up to 384kbps (3G). Actual speeds experienced may be higher or lower and will vary by device and location.”

Seven complainants discovered something interesting about their “unlimited data plan.” It sped along at an average speed of 6Mbps until they hit 3.5GB of usage during any billing cycle. After that, speeds were consistently reduced to 384kbps. They quickly learned Virgin had a secret throttling plan in place for their unlimited customers, couched in vague and misleading fine print that suggested customers should treat anything over 384kbps as a veritable gift from the mobile gods.

Why hide the fact Virgin has a “fair use policy” similar to many other wireless carriers that promise unlimited data only to throttle speeds after customers reach a certain amount of usage? Look again at Virgin’s pricing.

A customer could choose a £15 plan that included 3GB of usage or spend an extra £5 for what actually turns out to be just 500MB of regular speed data. If customers realized that, they would likely keep the £5 in their wallet. Instead, it went straight into Virgin’s bank account.

Virgin’s response is familiar to any customer who thought they bought an unlimited plan only to discover it cannot reasonably be used once an arbitrary limit is reached. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) summarized Virgin’s reply:

They said within all of their advertising, whenever they referred to “unlimited data” in connection with their mobile tariffs, they included an explanation within the small print that customers should expect speeds of up to 384kbit/s.  They said the restriction imposed on customers was moderate in respect of the service being advertised.

They noted that the body copy of the ad did not make any reference to internet speeds, and said that Virgin Mobile customers were never prevented from accessing the internet, no matter how much data they used.  They therefore maintained that access to data for any customer was entirely unlimited.  They said, where a customer exceeded 3.5GB in any 30-day period, they would still be able to use the internet on their device at 3G speeds.  They said that 2% of Virgin Media customers ever reached the limit in a 30-day period, which they considered was a tiny minority. They said that the customers using more than 3.5GB of data each month would be those customers who would be more aware of the advertised expected speed, and that the average consumer would therefore not have been misled.

asaThat last sentence in particular did not amuse the regulators. In the United Kingdom, making a claim of “unlimited service” means that any limitations imposed on that service affecting speed or usability must be at most moderate and clearly disclosed. Virgin failed on both.

Average 3G speeds in Britain are now 6.1Mbps and that speed does not vary much between providers. The ASA ruled that slashing speeds to a fraction of 6Mbps went way beyond the rules.

“Given the speeds we understood consumers were likely to achieve before the [throttle], we considered that they were likely to notice the drop in speeds once the restriction was applied, as had a number of the complainants,” wrote the ASA. “We considered that a reduction in speed from an average we understood to be approximately 6 Mbit/s to 384 kbit/s once the limit was reached, was more than a moderate reduction. Because we considered the limitation imposed on speeds to be more than moderate, we concluded that the claim ‘unlimited data’ was misleading.”

As a result, Virgin Media was told not to claim that a service was ‘unlimited’ if the limitations that affected the speed or usage of the service were more than moderate.

Thurman, N.Y.’s Rural ‘White Space’ Wireless Network Debuts; Speed, Capacity Blows DSL and Satellite Away

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels just don't exist.

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels often just don’t exist. In a medium-sized city like Rochester, only 11 UHF channels are available, a number likely to dwindle to close to zero if the FCC successfully reallocates much of the UHF band to wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon.

A dozen homes in the middle of the Adirondacks now have access to Internet speeds far faster than what Verizon and Frontier DSL can deliver and without the usage caps or speed throttling common with satellite Internet access.

Thurman, N.Y.’s public-private “white space” wireless network survived months of political wrangling, debate, and even intentional signal interference created by someone intent on disrupting the project. For a community that some maps depict with zero residents, the 1,200 people of Thurman are now more known than ever, winning national attention for one of the first next generation rural wireless networks to use unused space on the UHF dial to provide Internet access.

A dozen homes are the first to receive the service, with nearly 80 more on the way during phase one of the project. A $200,000 New York state broadband grant helped get the project off the ground and defray the cost of equipment installed in each subscriber’s home. But the initial cost isn’t cheap, even with the grant. New customers pay an upfront equipment fee of $292 for a receiver that costs the project up to $600. The monthly service charge is $50. Despite the price, it’s worth it to a lot of subscribers.

“The white space service is truly amazing,” said John Schroeter of Kenyontown, noting he uses the Internet for genealogical research and relied on dial-up access for the last 15 years. “I can go from one web page to another without waiting forever.”

Schroeter told Denton Publications that web pages often failed to load with dial-up, even after hours of waiting. Now he can manage to complete days of research in about an hour, without having to drive 15 miles to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot.

Despite the fact Verizon and Frontier Communications both run their own fiber cables on the same utility poles in the region, at least 75% of the 400 homes in Thurman have no access to broadband Internet, living out of reach of even basic DSL. Many end up in the parking lot of the town hall to use Wi-Fi. Others depend on prohibitively expensive satellite access. None of the existing options were ideal. Sheila Flanagan, proprietor of Nettle Meadow Farm complained it took her hours to prepare even a small number of shipping labels to send her cheese products across the country with UPS. Speeds were so slow, she was forced to drop Williams-Sonoma as a client.

thurmanThe concept of white space wireless Internet access has already taken hold in Europe but has dragged in the United States as existing UHF television stations, wireless carriers, wireless microphone manufacturers and others who use the same frequencies white space data services also depend on defend their turf. Since white space services are unlicensed and intended for two-way communications, fears that Internet users would degrade wireless microphones or TV reception meant special care had to be taken to lower the potential for interference.

Since rural areas lack a crowded television dial, are often outside of the coverage areas of wireless carriers, and are unlikely to host many wireless mics, white space broadband would seem like the natural solution.

The project in Thurman faced a number of obstacles to overcome anyway. There were philosophical objections from tea party conservatives who objected to tax dollars paying for the “luxury” of Internet access when satellite service is available. Some residents wanted a fiber to the home solution, one that was likely financially out of reach for the small community. Still others wanted the money spent on a fiber link between the town and Time Warner Cable, that might then be enticed to wire homes in the rural community. In the end, the community decided to go ahead with an advanced wireless network, citing a number of factors familiar to many living in rural areas:

  1. thurman-nySince the town is located entirely within the Adirondack Park, there are prohibitions on placing communications towers on nearby peaks or other high spots that could spoil the view;
  2. The heavily forested and mountainous area made a traditional Wireless ISP project difficult because those networks need line of sight communications. White space wireless signals easily penetrate through trees and can stay intact across hilly terrain;
  3. Although not as bandwidth capable as fiber optics, white space networks are capable of delivering 10Mbps broadband per UHF channel. Most networks bond multiple UHF channels together to support even faster speeds and expand capacity;
  4. The chances of creating interference for other spectrum users was low in Thurman, which is a four-hour drive from New York and far enough north of Albany to avoid interfering with signals from the state capital. Even wireless carriers hug their cell towers along I-87, a respectable distance away;
  5. The network has redundant backhaul access to fiber from both Verizon and Frontier, neither of which show the slightest interest in expanding services into the community on their own;
  6. The grant was limited in scope and white space broadband qualified so it proved the most economical choice for a community that was no stranger to fights over money, engaging in political battles over issues like the cost of building a salt shed and auditing the on-hand count of trash bags.
The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

Tests provided the project managers with an idea where to place needed wireless antennas, often hidden within tree canopies. But at least one disgruntled resident made a point of creating intentional interference on the channels the project managers were testing, committing a federal offense along the way. That was quickly overcome and the equipment has been placed and will soon be joined by installations in nearby neighborhoods, broadening the reach of the service.

Recent advancements in white space technology have also allowed speed and capacity to improve dramatically. Equipment now transmits its exact GPS-identified location to a national database which sends back an authorized list of “white space” channels each transmitter can use to provide the service. If a new licensed broadcaster takes to the airwaves, a database update will lock out that channel in the area, preventing interference.

Although exact speed data was not available at press time, Sally Feihel demonstrated she could successfully stream an episode of a classic Andy Griffith Show on her iPod at the same time a videoconference was underway and someone else was downloading a movie, all without skipping a beat. In fact, there is so much speed and capacity built into the system, its managers say speed throttles and usage caps are completely unnecessary.

Most users agreed the wireless network far outpaced satellite and DSL and some believed it was even faster than Time Warner Cable Internet access they experienced elsewhere. (Time Warner Cable doesn’t come near the community today.)

Constructing the network only took several months, but the politics that often surrounds public-private initiatives and the need for grant funding in income-challenged rural America can tie up projects much longer than that. The need for decent and affordable Internet access often will cross party lines, especially in rural communities.

New York’s state broadband expansion fund could help expand similar projects to other bypassed areas of the state. That investment may actually save taxpayers from paying high broadband bills indefinitely.

Residents are eagerly waiting for the next expansion to begin down Valley, Garnet Lake and Glen-Athol Roads. Moving beyond that may take more grant funding.

“White space is saving us $90 per month, and it’s far faster than satellite ever was,” another resident said.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MetroFocus A New way to Bring Broadband to Rural Towns in Upstate New York 2014.mp4

MetroFocus showed the initial planning and testing phases of Thurman’s new white space wireless network, including interviews with town officials and a tour of the community. (4:23)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Dynamic Spectrum in Action How TV White Space Devices Work.mp4

TV white space wireless broadband networks are designed to avoid interference with other licensed spectrum users. See how the technology works in this short video. (2:27)

Verizon: Our Legacy Landline Service Areas are Not a Part of Our Future Growth Strategy; Verizon Wireless Is

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon Communications does not see its remaining landline customers as part of the company’s future growth and customers should not be surprised if Verizon sells more of its legacy network to other telephone companies including Frontier, Windstream, and CenturyLink.

Speaking at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference 2015 on March 2, Verizon chief financial officer Fran Shammo made it clear to investors Verizon will dump “non-core” assets that do not align with the company’s future long-term growth strategy, even in areas where FiOS predominates.

Shammo told investors Verizon’s growth strategy is predicated on Verizon Wireless, which will continue to get most of the company’s attention and future investment.

“It’s all around the wireless network and I’ve consistently said before, you should anticipate that wireless CapEx continues to trend up while wireline continues to trend down,” Shammo said.

The bulk of Verizon’s investments in its wired network are being made in areas that are already designated as FiOS fiber to the home service areas. Shammo explained that the company is required to invest in FiOS expansion to comply with agreements signed in cities like New York and Philadelphia to make the service widely available in those communities. Beyond those commitments, Shammo signaled the company isn’t planning any significant new spending to upgrade the rest of its legacy copper network.

“We continue to invest in those things that we believe are the future growth of the company,” Shammo said, and anything involving its wired networks outside of Verizon’s core FiOS service area in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic states probably doesn’t qualify.

Verizon-logoWhat will happen in Verizon service areas that are not considered priorities?

“For the right price and right terms, if there’s an asset we don’t believe is strategic to Verizon and can return shareholder value, we’ll dispose of that asset,” Shammo said.

An example of that strategy was Verizon’s sudden announcement in February it would sell its wireline assets in Florida, California, and Texas to Frontier Communications for $10.54 billion. Although a significant part of those service areas are served by FiOS after Verizon invested more than $7 billion on upgrades, Verizon still plans to abandon customers and walk away from that investment because it is not part of Verizon’s future growth strategy.

“If you look at Florida, Texas, and California, these are three island properties,” Shammo told investors. “FiOS is a very small footprint of those properties compared to the copper [except in] Florida because it was just Tampa. But you look at that and you say strategically there’s really not much we can do with those properties because they are islands.”

Verizon will spend the proceeds from its latest landline sale on the wireless spectrum it just acquired and will pay down some of the debt incurred after buying out Vodafone’s former ownership stake in Verizon Wireless. The company has also undertaken a massive share repurchase program, planning to buy back 100 million shares by 2017 to help its shareholders. To ease investor concerns about some of Verizon’s latest strategic moves, it also announced plans to buy back an extra $5 billion worth of shares in the second quarter of this year.

A close review of the latest Verizon sale to Frontier shows the extent Verizon believes in its wireless business at the cost of its legacy copper and FiOS networks. That comes as no surprise to Verizon observers who note its current CEO used to run Verizon Wireless.

Shammo, as featured on a recent cover of CFO Studio magazine.

Shammo, as featured on a recent cover of CFO Studio magazine.

“It’s been clear for years that Verizon has wanted out of the copper business,” said Doug Dawson from CCG Consulting. “They first sold off large portions of New England to Fairpoint. Then in 2010 they sold a huge swath of lines in fourteen states to Frontier including the whole state of West Virginia. And now comes this sale. It’s starting to look like Verizon doesn’t want to be in the landline business at all, perhaps not even in the fiber business.”

Verizon’s latest sale involves “higher margin properties than the rest of our wireline business,” Shammo said, in part because large parts of the urban service areas involved were previously upgraded to FiOS.

“So if you look at Dallas, we were over 50% penetrated both in TV and broadband,” said Shammo. “So, it was a very highly penetrated market that was delivering a lot of cash flow and delivering a lot of earnings. So by just divesting of the three properties, if you just did it on an apples-to-apples basis, there would be dilution.

Giving up that amount of cash flow — needed to win back the $7 billion in FiOS upgrade investments Verizon made in the three states — would normally concern investors worried about the “stranded costs” left over from investments that were never fully repaid. But Verizon has a plan for that: an “Involuntary Separation Plan” (ISP) for more than 2,000 Verizon employees, a polite way to describe job-cutting layoffs.

“We have a year to plan for this and the plan is similar to what we did with the last time we rolled properties out from Frontier,” Shammo said. “We will plan to offset the stranded cost and those plans are already being worked. You saw a little bit of that in the fourth quarter where we gave some ISPs to the represented employee base and we had 2,100 people come off payroll.”

Verizon’s growing preoccupation with Verizon Wireless leaves some analysts questioning the company’s wisdom giving up high-profit FiOS broadband in favor of wireless at a time when competition among wireless companies is finally emerging.

“Verizon reports an overall 41% market penetration for its data product on FiOS networks,” said Dawson. “Data has such a high profit margin that it’s hard to think that FiOS is not extremely profitable for them. The trend has been for the amount of data used by households to double every three years, and one doesn’t have to project that trend forward very far to see that future bandwidth needs are only going to be met by fiber or by significantly upgraded cable networks.”

Considering the wireless market is maturing and most everyone who wants a cell phone already has one, there are questions about where Verizon sees future growth in a business where it is getting harder to attract new customers.

“Verizon was a market leader getting into the fiber business. FiOS was a bold move at the time,” Dawson reflects. “It’s another bold move to essentially walk away from the fiber business and concentrate on wireless. They obviously think that wireless has a better future than wireline. But since they are already at the top of pile in cellular one has to wonder where they see future growth?”

Verizon Wireless Admits Spectrum Isn’t The Holy Grail; There Is No Wireless Spectrum Shortage

A Verizon executive told investors there is no wireless spectrum shortage in the United States and Verizon has historically purchased and warehoused spectrum it had no intention of using immediately.

Fran Shammo, chief financial officer of Verizon Communications, drew attention to Verizon’s controversial spectrum acquisition policy as part of a conversation with investors about the recent FCC auction that sold 65 megahertz of wireless frequencies for an unprecedented $44.9 billion, far and away the highest ever seen in a spectrum auction.

“In every purchase of spectrum up to this auction, the scale was that it was more efficient to buy spectrum than it was to build capacity because the scale was spectrum was cheaper to build on capacity,” Shammo said.

preauction

Before the auction, there were significant differences in Verizon Wireless’ network capacity in different cities. In New York City, Verizon controls 127MHz. In Los Angeles and San Francisco it manages with 107MHz, but only has 97MHz to work with in Philadelphia, San Diego and Chicago.

Verizon Wireless has always held spectrum it acquired at auction but never put into widespread use on its network. But bidding during the FCC’s most recent Auction 97 made bidding and warehousing unused frequencies an expensive proposition, more expensive than beefing up Verizon’s existing network with additional cell towers, microcells, and other technology to make the most use of existing spectrum assets.

“This auction flipped [our acquisition] equation in certain markets,” Shammo said in reference to Verizon’s bidding strategy. “And so we became much more diligent on what markets we strategically wanted and [which] we were willing to let go because when you looked at it, if I was to get what I wanted initially when I went in, I would have spent an extra $6 billion when I could create the same capacity with $1.5 billion by building it.”

In the most recent auction, Verizon Wireless considered spectrum acquisitions crucial in California, where it added frequencies in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. But Verizon gave up bidding on spectrum for densely populated New York and Boston where the asking price grew too high. That forces Verizon Wireless to increase the efficiency of its existing network in those cities. It will do so by deploying more cell towers to divide the traffic load, as well as adding microcells and other small-area solutions in high traffic urban areas.

Despite not getting everything it wanted, Verizon took the auction results in stride, claiming its network was fully capable of handling growing traffic loads even in areas where it failed to win new spectrum.

“People think that spectrum is the Holy Grail and if you don’t have enough spectrum, you can’t have the capacity,” Shammo said. “But actually that’s not true now because technology has changed so much. If you look at small cell technology, diversified antenna systems, and when you think [about] Chicago, if you walk down the street, you see small cells on lamp posts. So, the municipalities are starting to open up to that small cell technology.”

postauction

AT&T paid $18.2 billion for nearly 250 licenses, compared with $10.4 billion Verizon will spend on 181 licenses. The presence of Dish Networks in the bidding clearly irritated AT&T and Verizon, primarily because the satellite dish provider incorporated two “designated entities” — SNR Wireless LicenseCo and Northstar Wireless — as bidding partners, winning up to 25% off their bids as part of a “small business discount.” The two DEs won over $13 billion in licenses with $3 billion in savings.

AT&T accused Dish of circumventing auction activity rules and distorting the bidding.

“As a result, Dish the corporate entity won no licenses,” said Joan Marsh, AT&T’s vice president of federal regulatory matters. “The Dish DEs, who each enjoyed a 25% discount, won substantial allocations.”

Marsh complained Dish already controls around 81MHz of spectrum that remains unused for wireless telecom services.

Dish also made life difficult for large carriers who have learned to predict the likely bidding strategies of their competitors based on experience. Many were surprised Dish managed to both bid up prices and win a substantial percentage of spectrum, all for a wireless business it has yet to build.

T-Mobile was not happy either. CEO John Legere called the auction “a disaster for American wireless consumers.” T-Mobile suffered considerably in the auction, outspent by Dish & Friends 132 times for important wireless licenses.

“Three companies alone spent an insane $42 billion between them, grabbing a ridiculous 94 percent of the spectrum sold at this auction,” Legere wrote, referring to AT&T, Dish Network and Verizon Wireless. “This whole thing should scare the hell out of you and every other wireless consumer in the U.S., because there is another important auction next year, and the results have to be different if wireless competition is going to survive.”

With the auction over, Verizon Wireless will continue to shift its spectrum usage around to accommodate network changes. Verizon will continue to emphasize enlarging 4G LTE services while gradually reducing the percentage of its network used for other purposes. Verizon expects to shut off its CDMA voice network in the early 2020s and is reducing the amount of spectrum dedicated to supporting its legacy 3G network.

HissyFitWatch: Bell Loses Net Neutrality Case, Threatens to Bury Complaining Consumers In Legal Fees

The first "bricks of paper" arriving from Bell's attorneys in the case of Bell v. Ordinary Canadian consumers

The first legal “bricks of paper” arriving from Bell’s attorneys in the case of Bell v. Ordinary Canadian consumers arrived at the home of Jean-François Mezei of Pointe-Claire, Que.

A Manitoba university student and consumer groups who won their case against Bell’s preferential treatment of its mobile streaming video service are now being threatened with demands they personally cover Bell’s legal expenses as the phone company appeals the ruling in court.

The dispute involves Bell Mobile TV Service — a $5/mo optional add-on that allows Bell’s mobile customers to stream up to 10 hours of video programming, some of it from Bell-owned television networks like CTV, without it counting against the customer’s usage cap. Each additional hour costs $3. The service prices usage based on time, not data usage, which lets Bell stream very high quality video to customers. Competitors like Netflix do not have this option and their customers are billed based on the amount of data consumed, which is around 800 percent higher than what Bell Mobile TV charges.

University of Manitoba graduate student Benjamin Klass filed a complaint with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 2013 accusing Bell of violating Net Neutrality and creating an anti-competitive marketplace for online video. ​Twelve of the 43 channels available on Mobile TV — including CTV, TSN and The Movie Network — are owned by Bell Media, a subsidiary, like Bell Mobility, of the media behemoth BCE.

Klass alleged the practice was a clear violation of Canada’s laws governing broadcasting: “No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage.”

The CRTC agreed with Klass and in late January ruled in favor of Klass’ complaint, giving Bell and Quebec-based Vidéotron (which offers a similar service) until the end of April to close them down in their present form.

BCE, the parent of Bell Mobility, told the CBC it was “shocked” by the CRTC’s ruling, suspecting the complaining groups mislead regulators into thinking Bell favored its own content over others.

“There’s a hint here that the government believes Bell Mobile TV delivers only Bell Media content,” spokesman Jason Laszlo said. “They should know we offer mobile TV content from all of Canada’s leading broadcasters in English and French.”

Bell_Mobility logoLaszlo added Bell-owned content only comprises 20% of Bell Mobile TV programming and that the ruling would deprive more than 1.5 million current Bell Mobile TV subscribers from getting the service after the spring deadline to shut it down.

The CRTC and consumer groups argue that is beside the point.

“At its core, this decision isn’t so much about Bell or Vidéotron,” CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais said at a breakfast luncheon in London, Ont., in late January. “It’s about all of us and our ability to access content equally and fairly, in an open market that favours innovation and choice. The CRTC always wants to ensure ­— and this decision supports this goal ­— that Canadians have fair and reasonable access to content. It may be tempting for large vertically integrated companies to offer certain perks to their customers. But when the impetus to innovate steps on the toes of the principle of fair and open access to content, we will intervene.”

Consumer group OpenMedia says Bell’s motivation isn’t to create a level playing field or provide customers with more options for online video. It’s about artificially inflating the cost of accessing services like Netflix and other independent video companies that are innovating away from the traditional pay television package.

“Bell is doing everything in its power to make the Internet more like cable TV,” said OpenMedia campaigns manager Josh Tabish. “They want the power to pick and choose what we see by forcing competing services into a more expensive toll lane online.”

Klass (Image: CBC)

Klass (Image: CBC)

Bell’s legal strategy going forward is an homage to the one American wireless companies used for years to avoid Net Neutrality.

Bell Mobility argues that Bell Mobile TV is a broadcasting service, not a telecommunications service and therefore doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Telecommunications Act.

Since the CRTC was not receptive to that argument, Bell is taking the matter to the Federal Court of Appeal, asking it to overturn the CRTC ruling and grant the company court and legal costs paid for by the Canadian consumers that brought the original complaint.

Jean-François Mezei of Pointe-Claire, Que. is among them and has been the unhappy recipient of several parcels containing “bricks of paper” from FedEx he suspects is just the beginning.

Mezei has been tweeting about ongoing developments in the case, and asked Bell, “how come you have no press release bragging about how Bell Mobility is suing individual citizens who participated in [the CRTC complaint]?”

Klass told CBC News he hasn’t yet made up his mind how to respond to the court filing, but admitted it is unnerving.

“In that regard, it really strikes me as a method of intimidation,” he said. “Right off the bat, it has a chilling effect. It appears that Bell is simply pursuing the argument, that it unsuccessfully made to the CRTC, through the court.”

Google, Cablevision Challenge Traditional Cell Phone Plans, Wireless Usage Caps With Cheap Alternatives

freewheelLuxurious wireless industry profits of up to 50 percent earned from selling some of the world’s most expensive cellular services may soon be a thing of the past as Google and Cablevision prepare to disrupt the market with cheap competition.

With more than 80 percent of all wireless data traffic now moving over Wi-Fi, prices for wireless data services should be in decline, but the reverse has been true. AT&T and Verizon Wireless have banked future profits by dumping unlimited data plans and monetizing wireless usage, predicting a dependable spike in revenue from growing data consumption. Instead of charging customers a flat $30 for unlimited data, carriers like Verizon have switched to plans with voice, texting, and just 1GB of wireless usage at around $60 a month, with each additional gigabyte priced at $15 a month.

With the majority of cell phone customers in the U.S. signed up with AT&T or Verizon’s nearly identical plans, their revenue has soared. Sprint and T-Mobile have modestly challenged the two industry leaders offering cheaper plans, some with unlimited data, but their smaller cellular networks and more limited coverage areas have left many customers wary about switching.

Google intends to remind Americans that the majority of data usage occurs over Wi-Fi networks that don’t require an expensive data plan or enormous 4G network. The search engine giant will launch its own wireless service that depends on Wi-Fi at home and work and combines the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile while on the go, switching automatically to the provider with the best signal and performance.

googleCablevision’s offer, in contrast, will rely entirely on Wi-Fi to power its mobile calling, texting, and data services. Dubbed “Freewheel,” non-Cablevision customers can sign up starting in February for $29.95 a month. Current Cablevision broadband customers get a price break — $9.95 a month.

Cablevision’s dense service area in parts of New York City, Long Island, northern New Jersey and Connecticut offers ample access to Wi-Fi. Cablevision chief operating officer Kristin Dolan said its new service would work best in Wi-Fi dense areas such as college campuses, business districts, and multi-dwelling units.

New York City is working towards its own ubiquitous Wi-Fi network, which could theoretically blanket the city with enough hotspots to make Cablevision’s service area seamless. But the biggest deterrent to dumping your current cell phone provider is likely to be available coverage areas. Google’s answer to that problem is combining the networks of both Sprint and T-Mobile, offering customers access to the best-performing carrier in any particular area. While that isn’t likely to solve coverage issues in states like West Virginia and the Mountain West, where only AT&T and Verizon Wireless offer serious coverage, it will likely be sustainable in large and medium-sized cities where at least one of the two smaller carriers has a solid network of cell towers.

Comparing the Wireless Alternative Providers

  • Google Wireless will offer seamless access to Wi-Fi, Sprint and T-Mobile voice, SMS, and mobile data at an undetermined price. Likely to arrive by the summer of 2015;
  • Cablevision Freewheel depends entirely on Wi-Fi to power unlimited voice, SMS, and data. Launches in February for $29.95/mo ($9.95/mo for Cablevision broadband customers);
  • FreedomPop Wi-Fi ($5/mo) offers an Android app-based “key” to open unlimited Wi-Fi access to 10 million AT&T, Google, and cable industry hotspots nationwide for calling, texting, and mobile data;
  • Republic Wireless developed its own protocol to properly hand off phone calls between different networks without dropping it. Calling plans range from $5-40 a month. Less expensive plans are Wi-Fi only, pricier plans include access to Sprint’s network;
  • Scratch Wireless charges once for its device – a Motorola Photon Q ($99) and everything else is free, as long as you have access to Wi-Fi. Cell-based texting is also free, as a courtesy. If you need voice calling or wireless data when outside the range of a hotspot, you can buy “access passes” to Sprint’s network at prices ranging from $1.99 a day each for voice and data access to $24.99 a month for unlimited data and $14.99 a month for unlimited voice.
Scratch Wireless

Scratch Wireless

Google is pushing the FCC to open new unlicensed spectrum for expanded Wi-Fi to accommodate the growing number of wireless hotspots that are facing co-interference issues.

Wi-Fi-based wireless providers are likely to grow once coverage concerns are eased and there is reliable service as customers hop from hotspot to hotspot. The cable industry has aggressively deployed Wi-Fi access with a potential to introduce wireless service. Comcast is already providing broadband customers with network gateways that offer built-in guest access to other Comcast customers, with the potential of using a crowdsourced network of customers to power Wi-Fi coverage across its service areas. FreedomPop will eventually seek customers to volunteer access to their home or business networks for fellow users as well.

AT&T and Verizon are banking on their robust networks and coverage areas to protect their customer base. Verizon Wireless, in particular, has refused to engage in price wars with competitors, claiming Verizon customers are willing to pay more to access the company’s huge wireless coverage area. AT&T told the Wall Street Journal its customers want seamless access to its network to stay connected wherever they go.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo appeared unfazed by the recent developments. On last week’s conference call with investors, Shammo dismissed Google’s entry as simply another reseller of Sprint’s network. He added Google has no idea about the challenges it will face dealing directly with customers in a service and support capacity. While Google’s approach to combine the coverage of T-Mobile and Sprint together is a novel idea, Shammo thinks there isn’t much to see.

“Resellers, or people leasing the network from carriers, have been around for 15 years,” Shammo said. “It’s a complex issue.”

Investors are taking a cautious wait-and-see approach to the recent developments. Google’s new offering is likely to offer plans that are philosophically compatible with Google’s larger business agenda. Challenging the traditional business models of AT&T and Verizon that have implemented usage caps and usage pricing may be at the top of Google’s list. The new offering could give large data allowances at a low-cost and/or unlimited wireless data for a flat price. Such plans may actually steal price-sensitive customers away from Sprint and T-Mobile, at least initially. Sprint is clearly worried about that, so it has a built-in escape clause that allows a termination of its network agreement with Google almost at will.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Google Cablevision Challenge Wireless Industry 1-26-15.flv

The Wall Street Journal talks about the trend towards Wi-Fi based mobile calling networks. (1:59)

AT&T to Federal Trade Commission: Our Speed Throttling is None of Your Business

Image courtesy: cobalt123AT&T has asked a federal judge in California to throw out a lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission over wireless speed throttling, claiming the federal regulator has no authority over how AT&T manages its network.

The FTC filed a lawsuit in October 2014 alleging AT&T was throttling the speeds of its grandfathered “unlimited data” customers by as much as 90 percent and failed to sufficiently disclose the practice in violation of the FTC Act.

Although AT&T discloses its network management policies in broad terms deep within its website, the original complaint charges AT&T failed to directly notify customers identified as the ‘heavy unlimited users’ targeted for wireless speed reductions reportedly as low as 56kbps for up to 30 days or more.

AT&T’s lawyers claim the FTC has no jurisdiction to file the lawsuit because a portion of AT&T’s business — cellular voice service — is defined by the Communications Act as a regulated common carrier service by the Federal Communications Commission. The FTC had argued AT&T’s mobile data services are unregulated and do not fall under the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction.

AT&T’s attorneys argue two apparently contradictory assertions about wireless regulation that both require the court, in AT&T’s view, to dismiss the FTC’s case:

  1. AT&T acknowledges that its mobile data services are not subject to Title II regulatory oversight by the FCC as a common carrier service. Therefore, federal agencies like the FTC have no jurisdiction to interfere in AT&T’s private business decisions on issues like data caps and speed throttling because it is an unregulated service;
  2. AT&T claims the FCC has asserted sweeping authority over wireless services under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Therefore it should be up to the FCC alone (and not the FTC) to decide the fairness of AT&T’s network management practices. But AT&T doesn’t remind the court this is the same authority that large telecom companies sued into impotence by successfully arguing the FCC exceeded its mandate attempting to assert jurisdiction on data services to enforce concepts such as Net Neutrality and attempting to fine Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer network traffic.

ftcAT&T calls the FTC’s claims it can intervene in services not regulated by the FCC “irrelevant,” arguing once one of AT&T’s services is subject to the FCC’s common carrier regulation, all of its services become untouchable by the FTC.

“The FTC lacks jurisdiction to prosecute this action because AT&T is a common carrier subject to the Communications Act and therefore outside the FTC’s authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act. 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2),” argues AT&T. “Indeed, the FTC itself has recognized that, as drafted, the exemption altogether removes common carriers such as AT&T from its jurisdiction and has asked Congress to modify the statute. So far, Congress has refused.”

“But whether AT&T’s network management program is ‘unfair’ and whether its disclosures were ‘inadequate’ are issues for the FCC to decide, and in fact the FCC is in the process of so deciding, just as Congress intended,” AT&T said. “Congress drafted Section 5 to avoid subjecting common carriers like AT&T to precisely this sort of conflicting authority of separate federal agencies over the same conduct.”

Should the FCC find AT&T in violation of its transparency rules, AT&T will have a strong legal case to have that ruling tossed as well on the grounds the agency has no mandate from Congress to regulate mobile data services under Section 706/Title III of the Communications Act — the same case other telecom companies have successfully argued in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Ironically, AT&T’s apparent regulatory loophole will vanish should the FCC order that broadband services of all kinds be reclassified as Title II telecommunications services as part of the ongoing effort to implement strong Net Neutrality policies.

AT&T Out of In-Flight 4G LTE Air-to-Ground Wireless Data Business; Will Focus on Overseas Acquisitions

Phillip Dampier November 10, 2014 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

att_logoAT&T has decided it is too risky to get into the in-flight connectivity business and has pulled the plug on a plan to launch 4G LTE air-to-ground wireless data service in the United States.

“As AT&T explores opportunities for future growth and diversification, expanding our international presence has remained an area of interest,” an AT&T spokesperson told Runway Girl Network, an air transport intelligence news service. “On Friday we announced our intent to acquire Mexico wireless company Iusacell. After a thorough review of our investment portfolio, the company decided to no longer pursue entry into the Inflight Connectivity industry.  We are focusing our capital on transformative investments, such as international and video.”

The sudden cancellation of the project came as a surprise, because AT&T had been planning an extensive network that would offer Wi-Fi to in-flight passengers and was discussing partnerships with vendors and airlines in late September.

AT&T bought Iusacell instead, for $2.5 billion. The Mexican cell carrier serves 8.6 million subscribers across 70% of Mexico. AT&T could eventually rebrand the venture as “AT&T” and market it as America’s first “North American Mobile Service,” covering over 400 million consumers and businesses in Mexico and the United States without roaming charges for AT&T customers who often travel to Mexico.

Iusacell’s network is fully compatible with AT&T’s GSM network, but lacks 4G LTE data service.

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.

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