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AT&T Exec Admits Wireless Network Built On Backs of Landline Customers

att mobileAn AT&T executive casually told an audience attending the Wells Fargo 2016 Convergence & Connectivity Symposium that a significant part of AT&T’s wireless network was built with money intended for AT&T’s landline network.

“I came more from the wireline [landline] business and had always a little bit of frustration for me because for many years before I picked up operations in construction and everything for the wireless side of the business, in the wireline world, I was spending a lot of money that was directly supporting the wireless operation, but it showed up as wireline spend,” said Bill Smith,  who has been with AT&T for 37 years and has served as president of AT&T’s Technology Operations since January, 2010. “So we’re not that good at allocating those expenditures.”

Smith’s admission gives further evidence that AT&T has been shortchanging investment in wireline and fiber networks for years, to the benefit of AT&T’s profitable wireless business.

Smith

Smith

When mobile networks were first being constructed, there was concern that private investment, not landline ratepayers, be responsible for covering the costs of building wireless infrastructure. Both AT&T and Verizon submitted regular rate increase requests to state regulators during the period, claiming additional compensation was needed to cover the costs of landline network upkeep and upgrades. In most cases, regulators approved those rate increases.

Smith’s admission suggests AT&T systematically allocated expenses associated with its wireless network on the wireline side of the business ledger, reducing the amount available to maintain landline service. Had regulators known, they would have likely rejected the rate increase requests and, more importantly, required AT&T to stop spending landline ratepayer funds on wireless networks.

By depleting funds designated for wired networks, AT&T ultimately made a cheaper choice about the type of advanced network it would deploy. AT&T rejected Verizon’s choice of FiOS fiber to the home service because it was ‘too expensive.’ AT&T’s less costly solution, U-verse, relies on fiber to the neighborhood, with existing copper wiring remaining in place between the nearest fiber link and the telephone interface box on the back of your home or business.

Smith also handily defeated his employer’s justifications for data caps, telling the audience AT&T has strong capacity with plenty to spare, noting increasing traffic demands on AT&T’s networks are nothing new for the company.

“But getting back to the capacity question, I don’t lay awake at night worried about that,” Smith said. “Yeah there are a lot more demands coming in to the business, but there is nothing new about that. We’ve lived through many, many cases of new applications, new waves causing increases in consumption. I feel very good about where we are. The density of our network is very strong, and as I mentioned, I think we lead the industry in terms of U.S. footprint in the density of our network and that’s great. Also we have things like small cell coming on the horizon.”

 

Middle Mile Madness: Rural Florida Blows $24 Million on Wireless Network Serving Nobody

12126179-florida-rural-broadband-alliance-logoA word to the wise: using public money to build a middle mile broadband network without any customers lined up to sign up is a disaster waiting to happen.

In April, the disaster arrived in the form of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing on behalf of the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA), which threw away $24 million in federal grants on a network that was so unviable, the contractor that was supposed to run it apparently ran away instead, resulting in confusion and an eventual declaration it was “doomed to fail” anyway.

The sordid story started almost seven years ago when Florida’s Heartland Regional Economic Development Initiative (FHREDI) and Opportunity Florida (OF) — two non-profit organizations dedicated to spurring economic development across rural Florida, discovered federal grant money was available for rural Internet expansion as part of the Obama Administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The two groups fashioned a broadband proposal they were confident would win approval. At the time, rural broadband across northwest and south-central Florida was dismal at best, with only 39% of homes covered. Largely unserved by cable and barely served with DSL from AT&T and other telephone companies, the two groups believed a wireless network would be the best solution for Hardee, DeSoto, Highlands, Okeechobee, Glades, Hendry, Holmes, Washington, Jackson, Gadsden, Calhoun, Liberty, Gulf and Franklin counties.

empty-office

$24 million spent and nothing to show for it.

Although $24 million is not an insubstantial sum, it was clearly never adequate to build a comprehensive rural broadband network reaching homes and businesses. Instead, the two groups envisioned a “middle mile” network funded by the government, with central offices in Orlando and Tallahassee equipped with microwave dishes and computer servers. Unlike most middle mile networks, the one proposed by the FRBA would rely on a network of microwave towers instead of fiber optics, and would ultimately serve all of its customers over a wireless network.

When complete, the wireless network was supposed to deliver up to 1Gbps capacity throughout the region, relying on leased space on existing cell towers to support microwave links that would bounce signals from one area to the next. Initially promising to serve more than 174,000 homes and 16,400 businesses, the one immediate flaw noticed by those skeptical of the proposal was the lack of a definitive plan to sell Internet service to paying residential and business customers. The brochures suggested existing commercial Internet Service Providers would magically step into that role. Early critics called that “wishful thinking.”

Despite what some felt was an untenable business plan and an incomplete application, the group won its federal “BTOP” grant of $24 million in 2010 and began a very lengthy planning process using well-paid consultants to get the network fully scoped out and built. Within a year, controversy quickly threatened to swamp the project, and a congressional oversight investigation quickly found evidence of wasteful spending and put its funding on hold. That would hardly be the first allegation raised against the FRBA and those overseeing it. By 2013, the Columbia County Observer had run more than a dozen stories reporting irregularities and other problems with the project. Few were noticed more than the report Rapid Systems, Inc., one of the contractors on the project, had filed a $25 million lawsuit replete with soap operatic allegations against FRBA for not being paid for its work.

Rapid Systems CEO, Dustin Jurman and CFO/VP Denise Hamilton. (Image: Columbia County Observer)

Rapid Systems CEO, Dustin Jurman and CFO/VP Denise Hamilton. (Image: Columbia County Observer)

Rapid Systems alleged everything from fraud and double-dipping to sexual promiscuity over what it called the “FRBA Fraud Scheme.”

At the heart of the lawsuit were allegations money was being misspent, “to pay inflated salaries to employees, who then fled to South America, and that grant money was used for inflated fees to consulting companies which were owned by FRBA principals.”

Rapid Systems claimed FRBA was very generous paying management consulting fees of $10,000 a month to an entity known as the Government Service Group (GSG), along with a pro rata share (3% of the grant) for a “Grant Compliance Fee” and an additional 13% of the grant as a “Capital Improvement Program Administrative Fee.” And you thought only Comcast and Time Warner Cable were creative conjuring up fees. When added up, it appeared just one consultant — GSG — would walk away with 16% of the entire grant — nearly $4 million in total “management fees” before a single broadband connection would be made.

The lawsuit also claimed the grant money was gorged on by the leadership of both non-profits, one who allegedly relocated to South America the lawsuit states in another aside. The two “were being paid fees in the amount of $8,500 a month to themselves cloaked as administrative and community outreach funds,” according to the lawsuit.

Phillip Dampier: To be a credible supporter of community broadband, it is responsible to call out the disasters so that they are not repeated.

Phillip Dampier: To be a credible supporter of community broadband, it is responsible to call out the disasters so they are not repeated.

Meanwhile, the public eagerly awaiting something better than the non-broadband AT&T and some independent phone companies were supplying in the region couldn’t get answers about the project’s progress. Neither could the media, which reported the business phone number for the FRBA would ring unanswered for hours or days. Those hired to provide community outreach about the broadband project were frequently unable to answer even basic questions about the network or its status, or where the principals involved in the project even met.

By 2014, Opportunity Florida’s Facebook page claimed the network was 90% complete. But the project now decidedly downplayed how many homes and businesses would get service. Instead, the middle mile network promoted itself as an institutional network, dedicated primarily to serving “community anchor institutions:”

The FRBA system provides lower cost, high capacity broadband to Community Anchor Institutions, commonly referred to as “CAIs.” CAIs include local government and public agencies including schools, libraries and hospitals. The NTIA grant was initiated with these unserved or underserved CAIs as the intended target. Most government and public services have moved, or are in the process of moving, to paperless transactions and record-keeping and need the additional broadband and Internet based capabilities. Another benefit of the FRBA system will be capacity to schools and libraries as both those institutions face online and digital mandates.

Commercial ISPs willing to use the network to offer service to individual non-institutional customers were invited to visit an Opportunity Florida webpage (now gone) for more information. There is no evidence any major ISP ever bothered. In fact, even institutional users didn’t seem very interested. We remain unclear if there was ever a single paying customer on the network, despite a report filed by the NFBA with the federal government that claimed through September 30, 2012, the NFBA had 11 anchor institutions, zero residents, and zero businesses hooked up to its network.

A year later, the Columbia County Observer went further and called some of those involved in evangelizing the project “clueless,” and based on the post-mortem of what has happened since, they may be right.

Those directly involved in the project have since displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about its operations and practices, or what has become of the $24 million:

The unfortunate "I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing" brigade.

The unfortunate “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing” brigade answers questions from the media.

  • Gina Reynolds, the last executive director of FHREDI, which administered FRBA, claimed the network was running fine when she left in the summer of 2015 to start her own economic development consultancy. She may be among the very few that got out before the project ultimately fell apart. Although FHREDI managed to pay her for her services, it suddenly lacked any resources to pay anyone to replace her after she left;
  • Greg Harris, a Highlands County commissioner and FHREDI director, disclosed at a recent county commission meeting FRBA was in Chapter 7 bankruptcy and the group that oversaw it — FHREDI, was being dissolved. But like the phoenix rising from the ashes, some of those involved in FHREDI and FRBA are now associating themselves with a new group called the Florida Heartland Economic Region of Opportunity (FHERO). Says Harris: “We didn’t really know what FHREDI was doing. They were spending most of their opportunity on FRBA and the rural broadband. It got away from what we really needed to focus on.”
  • Terry Burroughs, an Okeechobee County commissioner, is FHERO’s chairman. But last year, the ex-telephone company executive was a FHREDI board member. His memory is excellent about where the taxpayer-funded equipment to run the network eventually ended up: in warehouses in Lake Placid and Tallahassee. But his answers were more vague when asked how things went so wrong. Burroughs tried to put substantial distance between himself and the failed wireless broadband network: “When I first got on the board, they were trying to negotiate with a contractor. Gina [Reynolds] was working with that, and it went on and on and on. There was probably a network at some given time, but I don’t think a last mile ever deployed. When I got there, the last mile was dark. … I never knew of a paying customer. They were trying to build a telephone company, and they were doomed to failure.”
  • Paul McGehee, business development manager for Glades Electric and a FHERO director, did an even better job explaining he knew nothing, saw nothing, and heard (almost) nothing: “The operator who was contracted to run it as a company stepped away from it,” McGehee said, adding he could not recall the contractor’s name. The flaw in FRBA’s plan, according to McGehee, was that while the grant bought the equipment, there were no federal funds for operations. “No one wanted to step up and operate the network, and there was no way to pay the tower leases… The end product wasn’t a viable sustainable thing.”

fhrediToo bad nobody bothered to consider that before spending $24 million of the taxpayers’ money on a non-viable network.

Commissioner Jim Brooks didn’t seem too bothered by the admissions of total failure. After hearing an explanation about the network’s demise and the money spent on it, he told his fellow commissioners he “didn’t have a problem with it.”

A multitude of articles that have documented this disaster (including our own from September 2011) illustrates what can happen when over-enthusiastic consultants overwhelm projects with happy talk not recognized as such by a board that has little or no understanding of the technology, the broadband business, or, in this case, the project itself. The claims and projections consistently simply bore no reality… to reality. What is even more concerning is some of those consultants didn’t work for free, and may have tapped a substantial portion of the total available grant for themselves.

It is also remarkable and disappointing to read candid assessments about a project “doomed to failure” from those with direct knowledge and or involvement only after the liquidator from the federal government turns up. As stewards of public taxpayer money, one expects more than a shrug of the shoulders and a quiet shuffle dance out of FHREDI into a new, reincarnated “rural economic development” initiative. How can we trust the same mistakes won’t be made again?

We remain strong supporters of community broadband, but messes like this hand potent ammunition to corporate-ISP-funded think tanks that use these kinds of failures to sully all public broadband projects. We must call out of the bad ones to be seen as credible supporting the good ones. It also never hurts to learn from others’ mistakes.

Among the biggest reasons this project was a flop (beyond the dubious skills of those in charge of overseeing it) was its size, scope, and technology choice. The biggest challenge to any rural broadband project is always “the last mile” — the point where the connection leaves a regional fiber network and reaches a nearby neighborhood’s utility poles and finally enters your home. It also happens to be the most costly segment of the network, and often the hardest to fund with government subsidies. But it is the one that makes the difference for individual homeowners and businesses who either have broadband or don’t.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Like too many middle mile projects of this type, the story initially fed to the press and supporters is that such networks will somehow alleviate rural broadband problems. Only later do supporters realize they are actually getting an institutional middle mile network that will offer service to hospitals, schools, and public safety buildings — not to homes and businesses. Ordinary citizens cannot access such networks unless a commercial ISP shows interest in leasing it to resell, which is unlikely. The closest most will ever get to experiencing an institutional network they paid for is staring at the fiber cable stretched across the utility poles in front of your house.

FRBA was too ambitious in size and scope, and a credible consultant should have advised those in charge to get credible evidence that a network built with grant money could be sustained without it going forward. If not, scale back the project or don’t apply for the grant.

This project proposed a wireless backbone to power a large regional wireless network. Winning support among anchor institutions was predictably difficult, because many already have existing contracts with commercial telecom companies. With government funding available in many instances, an institution can get full fiber or metro Ethernet service easier than a rural farmer can get 6Mbps DSL from a disinterested phone company.

The evidence shows there were few takers — institutional or otherwise — of what FRBA had to offer. Did the project organizers not see this lack of interest as a problem as the network prepared to launch? After launch, there were almost immediate signs it lacked enough of a customer base to sustain itself. Did the project backers assume the government would bail out the network or dump millions more into it to make it viable to sell to homes and businesses? Such assumptions would have been irresponsible.

There are too many underutilized middle mile or institutional fiber networks already built with taxpayer dollars that remain off-limits to those who paid to build them. Utilizing those networks by extending grant funding for last mile projects would be helpful, as would sufficient subsidies to assure middle mile construction is followed by last mile construction and actual service. We remain big believers in fiber to the home service. Although expensive, such projects are best positioned for success and future viability and can take advantage of the massive amount of dark fiber already laid in many areas. Some cities prefer to run the networks themselves, others contract day-to-day operations out to independent operators. Either would be preferable to a network that took six years to build and fail, without any evidence it could attract, support and sustain enough customers to support anything close to viability.

Verizon: Forget About FiOS, We’re Moving to a Broadband Wireless World

Who needs FiOS when you can get 5G wireless service with a data plan?

Who needs FiOS when you can get 5G wireless service with a data plan?

Fran Shammo has a message for Verizon customers and investors: fiber optic broadband is so… yesterday. Your millennial kids aren’t interested in gigabit speed, unlimited use Internet in the home. They want to watch most of their content on a smartphone and spend more on usage-capped wireless plans.

Shammo is Verizon’s money man – the chief financial officer and prognosticator of the great Internet future.

Like his boss, CEO Lowell McAdam, Frammo has his feet firmly planted in the direction of Verizon Wireless, the phone company’s top moneymaker. If one ever wondered why Verizon Communications has let FiOS expansion wither on the vine, Mr. McAdam and Mr. Shammo would be the two to speak with.

This week, Shammo doubled down on his pro-wireless rhetoric while attending the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2016 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference — one of many regular gathering spots for Wall Street analysts and investors. He left little doubt about the direction Verizon was headed in.

Shammo

Shammo

“As we look at the world if you will, and we look at our ecosystem, […] the world is moving to a broadband wireless world,” Shammo told the audience. “Now, I am really – when I say world, I am really talking the U.S., right. So, but I do think the world is moving to a wireless world.”

In Shammo’s view, the vast majority of people want to consume content, including entertainment, over a 4G LTE (or future 5G) wireless network on a portable device tied to a data plan. Shammo predicted wireless usage will surpass DSL, cable broadband, and even FiOS consumption in 3-5 years. If he’s right, that means a mountain of money for Verizon and its investors, as consumers will easily have to spend over $100 a month just on a data plan sufficient to cope with Shammo’s predicted usage curve. In fact, your future Verizon Wireless bill will likely rival what you pay for cable television, broadband, and phone service together.

Millennials don’t want fiber, they want wireless data plans

Shammo argued millennials are driving the transition to wireless, claiming they already watch most of their entertainment over smartphones and tablets, not home broadband or linear TV. His view is the rest of us are soon to follow. Shammo claims those under 30 are turning down cable television and disconnecting their home broadband service because they prefer wireless. Others wonder if it is more a matter of being able to afford both. A 2013 survey by Pew data found 84% of households making more than $54,000 have broadband. That number drops to 54% when annual household incomes are lower than $30,000 per year. But those income-challenged millennials don’t always forego Internet access — some rely on their wireless smartphone to access online content instead.

A microcell

A microcell

Verizon Wireless may be banking on the same kind of “hard choice” many made about their landline service. Pay for a landline and a mobile phone, or just keep mobile and disconnect the home phone to save money. Usage growth curves may soon force a choice about increasing your data plan or keeping broadband service at home. Shammo is betting most need Verizon Wireless more.

Verizon FiOS is really about network densification of our 4G LTE network

Shammo continued to frame its FiOS network as “east coast-centric” and almost a piece of nostalgia. The recent decision to expand FiOS in Boston is not based on a renewed belief in the future of fiber, Shammo admitted, it is being done primarily to lay the infrastructure needed to densify Verizon’s existing LTE wireless network in metro Boston to better manage increased wireless usage. Shammo’s spending priorities couldn’t be clearer.

“Obviously, we said, we would build up Boston now, because it makes sense from a LTE perspective,” Shammo said. “We can spend $300 million over the next three years to make that more palatable to expand FIOS. So we will continue to expand that broadband connection via fiber where it makes financial sense for us.”

verizon 5gIn other words, it is much easier to justify capital expenses of $300 million on network expansion to Wall Street if you explain it’s primarily for the high-profit wireless side of the business, not to give customers an alternative to Time Warner Cable or Comcast. FiOS powers cell sites as well as much smaller microcells and short-distance antennas designed to manage usage in high traffic neighborhoods.

Shammo also believes Verizon must not just be a ‘dumb wireless’ connection. Controlling and distributing content is also critically important, and Shammo is still a big believer in Verizon’s ho-hum GO90 platform, which compared to Hulu and Netflix couldn’t draw flies.

Even Verizon CEO McAdam admitted a few weeks ago at another Wall Street conference GO90 was “a little bit overhyped.” Most of GO90’s content library is mostly short video clips targeted at millennials with short attention spans. The downside of making that your target audience is the rumor many who sampled the service early on have already forgotten about it and moved on.

Forget about congested home and on-the-go Wi-Fi and expensive fiber optics. Verizon will sell you 5G wireless (with a data plan) for everywhere.

Shammo believes the future isn’t good for Wi-Fi in the home and on-the-go. As data demands increase, he believes Wi-Fi will become slow and overcongested.

“There is a quality of service with our network that you can’t get with others,” Shammo said. “I mean, most people in this room would realize that when Wi-Fi gets clogged, quality of service goes significantly down. It’s an unmanaged network. You can’t manage that.”

Instead, Verizon will eventually deploy 5G wireless instead of FiOS in many areas without fiber optic service today. Frammo said 5G would cost Verizon a lot less than fiber, “because there is no labor to dig up your front lawn, lay in fiber, or be able to fix something.”

Shammo doesn’t believe 5G wireless will replace 4G LTE wireless, however.

“LTE will be here for a very long time and be the predominant voice, text, data platform for mobile,” Shammo said.

So instead of unlimited fiber optic broadband, Verizon plans to sell home broadband customers something closer to Wi-Fi, except with a data allowance. It’s a return to fixed wireless service.

Verizon Wireless' existing fixed wireless service is heavily usage capped and no cheap.

Verizon Wireless’ existing fixed wireless service is heavily usage capped and not cheap.

Just a few short years ago, Verizon was looking to fixed wireless as a replacement for rural DSL and landline service. Now Shammo sees the economics as favorable to push a similar service on all of its customers, except those already fitted for FiOS. That changes the dynamics on usage as well, because Verizon Wireless ditched unlimited service several years ago except for a dwindling number of customer grandfathered in on its old unlimited plan.

Current 4G LTE fixed wireless customers can expect 5-12Mbps speeds with data plan options of $60 for 10GB, $90 for 20GB, or $120 for 30GB. The 5G service would be substantially faster than Verizon’s current fixed LTE wireless service, but the company’s philosophy favoring data caps for wireless services makes it likely customers will pay much higher prices for service, higher than Verizon charges for FiOS itself.

AT&T Ghostwritten Bill Would Allow End of Rural Landline/DSL Service in California

att californiaIn California, AT&T’s money and influence has the power to bend reality for some members of the California legislature.

This spring, AT&T is lobbying hard for a bill it largely wrote itself that vaguely promises 21st century technology upgrades if the state’s politicians agree to near-total deregulation and permission to scrap landline service and DSL for rural residents.

Assembly Bill 2395, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), allows AT&T to decommission wired service across the state, so long as the company replaces it with any alternative capable of connecting customers to 911. Smoke signals might qualify, but most suspect AT&T’s true agenda is to replace its legacy wireline network with wireless service in areas where it has no interest upgrading its facilities to offer U-verse.

Members of the Assembly’s Utilities & Commerce Committee were easily swayed to believe the company’s claims this will represent a massive upgrade for California telecommunications. At least that is what the company is saying in their lobbying pamphlets. In April, committee chairman Michael Gatto (D-Los Angeles), one of the bill’s strongest advocates, told his fellow committee members it was safe to trust AT&T’s assurances it was not using the bill to kill rural landline telephone service.

“We have a very, very good perspective on history in this committee and you can rest assured that nobody will tear up any copper line infrastructure,” said Gatto, who gradually became less sure of himself as he pondered the impact of AT&T scrapping the one option many rural Californians have to connect to the outside world. “The cost of it, to tear up every street in the United States and take out the copper is not going to happen. At least, I don’t think it’ll happen…. This committee will not let it happen.”

Low

Low

Despite that less-than-rousing endorsement, and the fact the bill’s language would allow AT&T to do exactly that, the bill sailed to approval in the committee. It was also endorsed by a range of non-profit and business groups, including the Boys & Girls Club, Black Chamber of Commerce, Do It Yourself Girls, The Latino Council, NAACP-Los Angeles, San Jose Police Officers’ Association, and the United Women’s Organization — almost all regular recipients of “contributions” from AT&T.

Consumer groups are largely opposed to the measure, because it gives AT&T near carte blanche to disconnect rural residents and leave them with inferior and more expensive wireless alternatives. It also scraps most oversight over AT&T’s business practices in the state, which are not stellar. Those living in rural areas are opposed even more.

The Rural County Representatives of California, representing the interests of local leaders in 35 rural counties across the state, came out strongly against AB 2395, pointing out earlier deregulation efforts and a largely hands-off California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) helped create the digital divide problem that already exists in the state, and AT&T’s bill proposes to make it worse.

S

Frentzen

“While AB 2395 offers the promise of a more modern communications system for California, the bill devises a scheme that minimizes consumer protections and provides avenues for telecommunication providers to abandon their current subscribers from ever experiencing these modern telecommunications options,” said the group. “RCRC would have far more comfort with relinquishment proposals if California’s telecommunications stakeholders, including the CPUC, had met their obligations in providing near universal access. And that access included quality, demand-functions found in other areas of the state. Unfortunately, much of California has either no connectivity (unserved) or inferior connectivity (under-served). Until this digital divide is eliminated, we cannot support changes in the regulatory and statutory environment which furthers this gulf between who gets access and who does not.”

While AT&T continues to deny it will do anything to disconnect rural California, the company vehemently opposes efforts to drop language from the bill that would grant them the right to retire landline service. AT&T’s lobbyists insist the legislature can still trust the company, an idea that failed to impress Shiva Frentzen, the supervisor of El Dorado:

Trust is something that you earn. It’s built over time. We have a rural county each constituent, all your consumers, pay into the infrastructure, but we don’t see the high-speed coming to the rural parts of the county because it does not pencil out. For larger companies to bring the service in those areas – the infrastructure costs a lot and the monthly service does not pay for it. So that is the experience we’ve had with larger providers like yourself. We have not had the trust and the positive experience for our rural county, so that’s why we are where we are.

Editor’s Note: My apologies to Steve Blum, who didn’t get full credit for gathering most of the quotes noted in this piece. We’ve linked above (in bold) to several of his articles that have followed the AT&T lobbying saga, and we’ve added his blog to our permanent list of websites we can recommend.

Altice Caught in Panama Papers Scandal; Tapping Junk Bond Market (Again) to Raise Quick Cash

drahiPatrick Drahi’s Altice — new owner of Suddenlink and presumed next owner of Cablevision — has been caught dealing with the scandalous Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in helping wealth-soaked billionaires and politicians evade taxes.

Altice’s name came up in the Panama Papers, a leak of over 11 million documents taken from the law firm. Although admitting it had dealings with Mossack Fonseca in 2008 and 2010, an Altice official claimed it was only for “incidental transactions for reasons of strict confidentiality and in perfectly legal conditions with no tax impact, let alone foreign, near or far, for any purpose of evasion, concealment, or tax optimization.” But critics are asking why a Swiss national running a cable conglomerate in Francophone Europe would hire an obscure law firm in Panama City to manage those “incidental transactions.”

Failed Consolidation Merger Keeps the Price Wars Going

Altice has been having a tough April. First, its participation in a three-way plot to consolidate the French wireless industry and end ongoing competitive price wars that benefit consumers turned out to be for nothing. Orange and Bouygues Telecom were set to merge, but likely only after divesting certain assets to Altice’s Numericable-SFR. The transaction fell apart when the two larger carriers couldn’t guarantee they’d each make a financial killing from the deal, and antitrust authorities were grumbling they might be willing to hammer anything that would likely boost prices for French consumers.

Last year, Wall Street was very pleased with Altice’s strategy of buying up other telecom companies, squeezing costs out of their operations through pay cuts, layoffs, and stiffing vendors, and then using customer revenue to leverage even more acquisitions. Altice enjoys significant support from asset managers like Vanguard, BlackRock, T. Rowe Price, and Fidelity. But their portfolios began taking beatings after Altice’s financial performance became an open question. More than a million customers dropped Altice-owned SFR-Numericable in the last year, citing poor performance.

Loaded in Debt, Altice Jumps into Junk Bond Market Twice in One Week

junk3The company’s massive debt load also continues to be a major concern. This week, Altice dipped into the junk bond markets not once, but twice, seeking to refinance their enormous debts. Yesterday, Altice went looking for $2.75 billion. Today it was expected to be back looking for $1.5 billion more, which is the third time Drahi has looked for money from investors comfortable with significant risk.

Drahi’s buyout of Cablevision in a $17.7 billion deal was financed with similar junk bonds and leveraged loans. If his acquisition is approved, it may have a profound impact on Cablevision customers in downstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

At Cablevision, Profits Will Come Before Employees, Customers

Drahi is insisting on driving Cablevision’s profit margins to as high as 50% while promising to slash $1 billion in costs out of the operation. Much of those savings will come from salary and job cuts at Cablevision and Newsday, the last remaining daily newspaper printed on Long Island.

“I don’t like to pay salaries,” Drahi said. “I pay as little as I can … No one in our company is making more than a couple hundred thousand a year.”

Altice CEO Dexter Goei noted there were more than 300 Cablevision employees making $300,000 or more a year. Their days are likely numbered. But that will only be the beginning.

mayotte reunion

Mayotte and Reunion are French territories off the coast of East Africa near Madagascar.

“I suspect Altice is going to come in and slash jobs, streamline operations and work to identify the quickest method of becoming profitable,” said Kevin Kamen, an area media broker. “One of the first places they’ll target for job consolidation will be Newsday, mark my words. They will also cut jobs at Cablevision in the long-run. Wherever they can save cost overruns and produces efficiency they will. Trust and believe. They are not about to invest billions in a sinking ship. I would also expect to see price increases across the board within a year for all subscribers regardless of how competitive the market is.”

French Competition Authority Fines Altice $17 Million for Sabotaging a Future Competitor

But before Drahi can put his earnings in the bank, he will have to share them with the French government, which today fined Altice $17 million dollars for breaking promises to French regulators.

In 2014, Altice won approval of its acquisition of Francophone mobile carrier SFR after agreeing to divest certain assets in places where it would give Altice a virtual monopoly on service. In the Indian Ocean region, the acquisition of SFR by Altice would give the Drahi operation a combined 66% market share in Reunion, 90% in Mayotte. To preserve competition, French regulators insisted Altice sell its Outremer Telecom operations in the two French territories to a third party. Until that sale was complete, Altice agreed to protect the economic viability, marketability, and competitiveness of the soon to be sold unit.

Instead, the Competition Authority discovered Altice suddenly jacked up the price of Outremer Telecom’s service between 17-60% and allowed customers to walk out of their contracts without any financial penalty. As a result, the future owner of Outremer Telecom would own a business that had already lost a substantial number of customers as a result of the price hike, out of character for a provider with an earlier reputation of low priced service.

Regulators suspect Altice might have intentionally sabotaged the business they were required to eventually spin-off, giving their own operation a competitive advantage.

Oman: Broadband for All By Any Means Necessary

omanOman has declared an all-out war on the digital divide, with the country’s broadband provider pledging every citizen will have broadband access within four years, using any means necessary.

With around 50% of the population living in Muscat, the capital of the Arabian Gulf nation, Oman has a pervasive rural broadband problem. The country is hurrying to rid itself of aging copper wire phone infrastructure, replacing it largely with fiber optics, which will reach 80% of the population by 2020. The absolute monarchy that rules Oman has made it clear it considers broadband service an essential utility, as important as electricity and clean water.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who has led the nation since 1970, decreed Oman must gradually create a knowledge-based economy, particularly as dependence on fossil fuel revenue is expected to diminish during the 21st century. Sultan Qaboos has presided over the Vision 2020 plan, which seeks to cultivate Oman’s information and communication technology economy.

oman broadband coTo accomplish this, every inch of the sultinate must have access to fast broadband speeds.

Talib Al Rashadi, business relations manager at Oman Broadband, made it clear he intends to bring Internet access through fiber optics, wireless service, and even satellite to the remotest sections of the country.

“The speed that we used to have one year ago was not more than 20 or 25Mbps,” said Al Rashidi. “Today, we have speeds of 100 to 150Mbps and even gigabit speeds. This is a very high speed, which enables some other applications, such as smart cities, smart governance and others.”

But that is just the beginning. By 2018, all major population centers of other governorates outside of Muscat will be covered with fiber to the home service. Oman is widely expected to pass the United States and Canada in broadband performance and coverage within the next four years. But it will need to do something about the cost of service to be recognized as a true world leader. An unlimited 60Mbps broadband line costs the equivalent of $156 a month. Although many Omanis’ enjoy a high standard of living, broadband at that price remains expensive.

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Altice to New York Public Service Commission: Butt Out of Our Cablevision Buyout!

nosyBillionaire cable magnate and Swiss luxury property connoisseur Patrick Drahi excels at “take it or leave it” offers on behalf of Altice, the cable conglomerate he founded.

The potential new owner of Cablevision, which serves customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut has rejected recommendations that Cablevision customers share equally in the proceeds of the $17.7 billion deal. Altice’s lawyers have countered that 15% is more than enough.

Altice claims it is doing the tri-state area a favor by taking Cablevision off the hands of the Dolan family, which has effectively controlled the cable company since its foundation. Altice claims customers will get tangible benefits from the deal:

  • Broadband service at speeds up to 300Mbps in the future;
  • Discounted 30Mbps Internet access for the financially disadvantaged for $14.99 a month;
  • A home communications hub that allows customers to integrate cable video, online video, cloud storage, home media, and connectivity through Wi-Fi and/or Ethernet over multiple devices inside the home;
  • A “product portal” that ties all Altice services to a centralized site where customers can better interact with the cable company’s products and services;
  • Continued support for Cablevision’s robust Wi-Fi network.

Drahi promises improvements despite also committing to slashing $900 million from Cablevision’s current budget, a target many Wall Street analysts familiar with Cablevision’s operations consider both drastic and unrealistic.

Altice1Critics of the deal include consumer groups concerned about the poor performance of other Drahi-run cable systems and Cablevision’s organized labor force, unhappy about Drahi’s statements to Wall Street that he prefers to pay only minimum wage wherever possible. Drahi also has a long contentious history with Altice workers in Europe, presiding over workforce reductions, salary and benefits cuts, and a war of attrition with his own suppliers.

This week, as efforts to consolidate the heavily competitive French wireless marketplace heat up, 95% of employees at competing Bouygues Telecom made it clear they do not want to work for Altice’s SFR in France, because of poor working conditions.

Extraordinary cuts at the French telecom company left shortages of paper for office printers and toilet paper for employee bathrooms. Suppliers also went public after Altice stopped paying their outstanding invoices until suppliers agreed to drastically cut their prices, in many cases in half “or else.”

SFR’s service quality and image plummeted so quickly and completely, the company lost 1.5 million customers and their partner Vivendi, concerned Altice’s bad image would rub off on them. They sold their remaining 20 percent stake in SFR to Mr. Drahi.

Drahi

Drahi

“If Drahi had had a different style of management, we would have kept the 20% stake in SFR,” said one Vivendi insider at the time. “But he had very bad press as a result of his management style. We didn’t want to be associated with any of that.”

Suddenlink and Cablevision customers may not have much of a choice. Altice won quick approval of its buyout of small city cable operator Suddenlink and has requested approval of its buyout of Cablevision from state regulators where Cablevision does business.

The staff at the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) recognized Drahi’s reputation in Europe and that many of his deal commitments for Cablevision seemed vague, insufficient and somewhat non-committal. Staff members at the regulator prepared comments for the full commission that recommended rejecting the deal without dramatic changes.

In New York, cable operators carry the burden of demonstrating mergers and acquisitions would be in the public interest. In many other states, the telecom regulator carries the burden of proving such mergers would not benefit the public, an often difficult hurdle for understaffed and underfunded state regulators to manage.

optimumNew York regulators usually insist that state residents share in the proceeds of any sale that comes before the commission for review. In most cases, this is in the form of an agreement to invest in infrastructure or service improvements, improve customer service standards, and protect jobs. As with Time Warner Cable and Charter, the staff recommended the commission first consider a roughly 50/50 share of any deal savings or synergies, evenly split between customers and shareholders.

Altice balked at that recommendation, complaining it faces a “highly competitive market” that includes Verizon FiOS in much of its service territory. As a result, Cablevision customers deserved less… much less.

“[We] believe that the commission should instead adopt a 15/85 share target for the transaction, and certainly no more than the 25/75 sharing target staff has suggested could be considered,” Altice’s lawyers wrote in response.

Altice implied as other cable companies were operating almost as a monopoly facing little threat from phone companies, it was competing with Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service in 60% of its service area.

ny psc“The contrast between the competitive landscape faced by Cablevision as compared to other large cable operators in New York State is stark,” the lawyers wrote. “Verizon FiOS is available in just two Comcast communities, 3% of Time Warner Cable communities, and zero Charter communities in the state.”

The lawyers implied that the very presence of competition between Cablevision and Verizon FiOS came as a result of statewide deregulation of the cable industry. Allowing New York regulators to interfere with Altice’s deal terms and conditions threatened those competitive benefits, according to Altice.

“Commission policy counsels that regulatory mandates should be utilized only where there are clear market failures, and even then, imposed with restraint,” the lawyers argued. “Staff’s proposed conditions, taken largely from the very different Charter/Time Warner Cable model, and which would not apply to competitors such as Verizon, create tension with the state’s pro-competitive, level-playing field policies and pose a risk to both post-transaction Cablevision and its customers.”

Altice is maxing out its credit cards. (Image: FT)

Altice is maxing out its credit cards. (Image: FT)

Altice argues that because competition exists, “it is reasonable to assume that a substantial portion of synergy savings will be re-invested in network infrastructure and new technologies—including research and development associated with such investment—rather than simply returned to customers or shareholders.”

Except that has not proven true with other telecom operators. Last year, Comcast bought back more than $2 billion of its stock, or 35.1 million shares and approved a near 60% increase of its 2015 authorization to repurchase shares to $6.75 billion. In February, Comcast boosted its dividend payout to shareholders by 10% and planned to repurchase another $5 billion of its own stock during 2016. Last year, Verizon announced it was returning capital to its shareholders through a $5 billion accelerated share-repurchase program and raised its dividend payout to the highest level (56.5¢ per share) since at least 2000. From 2012-2014, AT&T paid out nearly $27 billion to investors through its own share repurchase program. This quarter, it announced a 48¢ share dividend payout, also the highest amount since at least 2000.

Altice also argued New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut customers did not deserve a bigger share of Cablevision’s synergy savings because Altice also has to contend with its purchase of Suddenlink.

“The Commission should instead take into consideration Suddenlink’s operations, which Altice acquired at the end of 2015, just as it took into account all of the U.S. entities comprising New Charter post-closing,” Altice’s lawyers argued. The hole in that argument, deal critics claim, is that Altice doesn’t extend the synergy savings from its deal with Suddenlink to anyone except itself.

Altice also pushed back on other PSC staff recommendations:

  • Altice does not want to provide standalone telephone and/or Lifeline service to Cablevision customers;
  • Altice objects to providing battery backup power for telephone services, but will allow customers to buy their own;
  • Altice protested recommendations from the PSC staff to ban usage caps/usage based billing as a condition of sale. Altice claims usage caps may benefit customers and objects to a rulemaking that prohibits Cablevision from imposing them while leaving their competitors free to cap at will. “Cablevision’s competitors are launching aggressive service offers that Cablevision will have to match or beat—and if the company is subject to regulatory restrictions its competitors do not face, it will be handicapped in keeping up with market demands,” Altice argued.
  • New York City should have no say whether this sale is approved or not, claiming the sale does not trigger the city’s right of review.

If the PSC is unimpressed with Altice’s arguments, the cable operator has one other: federal and state law prohibits the commission from imposing most of the terms and conditions its staff recommended. The presentation is unlikely to win much favor at the PSC, particularly because Altice concedes almost nothing and objects to nearly everything on the staff’s menu of deal conditions.

The Communications Workers of America has also attacked the deal, arguing much of Altice’s presentation to the PSC is less than meets the eye. The CWA notes Altice intends to erect a money silo around Cablevision, purporting to protect its finances and operations from the rest of Altice’s telecom empire. But that also means Altice will invest none of its own money in Cablevision upgrades and service improvements, relying on Cablevision’s existing resources, credit lines, and debt obligations to cover the costs. Considering Drahi’s management style, that is likely to drive up debt.

The Financial Times reports Altice has already run up debt, ballooning over the past two years from €1.7 billion in 2012 to just over €50 billion by the end of this year, assuming its acquisition of Cablevision goes through. The warning signs of high leverage are already clear to some investors: With Cablevision’s acquisition, Altice would have net debt at about seven times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) — compared with about four times for its European units.

With jitters over European banks, interest rates, oil and gas, and the general state of the stock market, investors are expressing concern.

“From a general valuation perspective, companies with high leverage start becoming a source of fear,” one Altice investor told the Financial Times.

The PSC will likely adopt many of the staff recommendations regardless of Altice’s objections if it approves the sale. Some of those conditions are likely to include broadband service improvements, a low-income discounted Internet access program, and coverage area expansion into currently unserved areas.

Bad Karma: Sprint and Data Caps Kill Neverstop Plan; Customers Claim Bait & Switch

Karma's very expensive $150 startup equipment package.

Karma’s very expensive $150 startup equipment package.

After customers spent $150 on a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device promising unlimited LTE wireless Internet access for $50 a month, Karma – the company offering the service – has put a stop to its “Neverstop” plan four months after introducing it.

“Karma is a bitch,” complained one customer who spent $250 with Karma trying to find a replacement for Clear’s now discontinued WiMAX service for his rural home. “After spending hundreds for nothing, it should be obvious to everyone why Karma turned off the comment section on its website.”

Neverstop customers have been through a rough ride during the brief life of the service, which started last November. Customers were promised unlimited 5Mbps service for $50 a month, after buying the $150 in required hardware. But not long after the plan was introduced, customers discovered their speeds were throttled to as low as 1.5Mbps to discourage customers from excessively using the service.

Insiders tell us the likely cause of the plan’s demise is Sprint, the wireless company Karma contracts with to offer the service. Sprint reseller contracts are closely guarded, but there is a clear track record of wireless companies taking action against resellers that place unexpected burdens on their networks. Millenicom, a similar provider that won customers largely through word-of-mouth, saw its unlimited offerings curtailed long before Karma announced its Neverstop plan, because wireless companies didn’t appreciate the fact some Millenicom customers relied entirely on the service for Internet access in the home.

Karma-Neverstop

Karma sold a plan that encouraged heavier data usage and then punished customers for using it.

Karma officials claim most of their customers never exceeded 15GB a month, but apparently enough did to get Sprint’s attention. Karma’s own internal research found that despite its insistence Neverstop was not a home broadband replacement, at least 60% of their customers used it exactly for that purpose. A handful of customers ran up hundreds of gigabytes of usage from online video, cloud storage/backup, and file trading. But a larger percentage used the service because they had no access to DSL or cable broadband, and used about as much data as the average household – an amount deemed by Sprint and/or Karma as “unsustainable.” Karma quickly moved to impose universal speed reductions on the service, dropping from 5Mbps to 1.5Mbps in an effort to curtail usage.

“Bait and switch,” complained Shannon Krakosky on Karma’s Facebook page. Many of the company’s earliest customers found the throttles arrived just as their 45-day return window for the expensive equipment expired, saddling them with a $150 paperweight. The company’s Black Friday offer inspired still more customers to sign up at a discount, only to find the equipment backordered, arriving at around the same time the traffic reduction speed throttles were announced.

Just one week before the speed reductions took effect, new customers were enticed with a year-end signup offer, further increasing traffic loads. Then customers received this:

[We] were surprised to learn how many of you are also using it heavily at home. We’ve seen lots of you binge watch Netflix in HD all day, back up your hard drives over the internet, and even connect your Xboxes through ingenious means. It’s a glimpse of how the internet should be, and we love it… but it’s putting a strain on the service and it’s not what the product is meant for today.​

After spending $150 on hardware for $50 unlimited LTE service, less than four months later these are your new choices.

After spending $150 on hardware for $50 unlimited LTE service, less than four months later these are your new choices.

But usage should have never surprised Karma, considering the firm marketed Neverstop in November and December as the perfect answer for “heavier usage, streaming, downloading….”

Only after imposing a speed throttle — later increased to 2.5Mbps — came changes in how Neverstop marketed its service. In early January, Neverstop was now sold as the perfect solution for “daily usage, worry-free browsing, on-the-go work, travel, occasional streaming, and more.” Also gone was the marketing that promoted unlimited usage. The new message to customers: lay off.

Many customers were unhappy about the sudden changes and have filed false advertising complaints with the Better Business Bureau and several state attorneys general.

Karma continued to modify its Neverstop plan later in January, claiming to relent on speed throttling and moving to impose a 15GB usage cap on Neverstop instead. The company claimed the usage cap would allow it to restore 5Mbps service, but most customers complained their speeds remained slow. In effect, customers were being asked to continue paying $50 a month for a shadow of the service originally advertised.

As of late last week, Karma revisited customers again to announce the once unlimited wireless data experience of Neverstop was being stopped… permanently.

van Wel

van Wel

Karma CEO Steven van Wel told Verge the company came to the realization that Neverstop was unsustainable after observing a month of customer usage following January’s adjustments. Even with the restrictive throttling, half of Neverstop customers reached the 15GB cap before the end of their billing cycle, and there was no way for them to easily continue high-speed service, whether by changing plans or paying overage fees. Just one month earlier van Wel told Verge only a few customers were likely to exceed their 15GB cap.

“You bait and switched us again,” came a chorus of complaints before Karma switched off public comments on all but its Facebook page.

“Poor business at best,” added Daniel Frisch. “Sell a customer one thing and then switch it to something completely different. You sold me an unlimited data device at a reasonable price and now you have gone from throttling that data to a high-priced limited data plan like everybody else.”

Karma’s latest plan is called Pulse and Neverstop customers will gradually find their existing Neverstop service transitioned to the new plan over the coming month, which will sell 5GB of service for $40 a month. Many complain there are better deals available elsewhere.

Stop the Cap! will continue to seek out options for rural or on-the-go customers who depend on wireless Internet access where DSL and cable broadband are not available. For now, we cannot recommend Karma because of the company’s unstable service plans and the high upfront cost of equipment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shammo

Shammo

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

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

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

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

Verizon-logoThe communities:

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

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

Verizon's Home Phone Connect base station

Verizon’s Home Phone Connect base station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • CE: Did your friend already have TWC service or were they a new customer?...
  • GEORGE DESHAIES: Please consider coming to western ny. Been waiting for 25 years for good svc....
  • Len G: "We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal,” In other words: "We a...
  • Len G: My god is that a complicated bill. I thought mine was bad. Leave it to AT&T to be THE sleaziest company since Comcast. I was watching C-Span to...
  • Len G: "AT&T's less costly solution, U-verse, relies on fiber to the neighborhood, with existing copper wiring remaining in place between the nearest fib...
  • Dan: OK, it's not a dongle, it is a wireless hot spot. But computer supply stores will usually carry standard wireless dongles that you can use with statio...
  • Dan: If this is a USB connected dongle, it can be connected to a non-mobile PC as well (at the end of a cable if necessary to raise it to a better physical...
  • cruzinforit: Here is the cable occurence screen, this is where we'd assign service to individual boxes, so DVD boxes have DVR service. Maybe you only want hustler ...
  • cruzinforit: To be fair, there is a 6 week training course when you are hired, and most of that is devoted to icoms training and practice, and you learn really qui...
  • Phillip Dampier: Thanks for sharing some enlightening information. I can imagine a new person being confounded by some of this. Turnover is the enemy of ICOMS I guess....

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