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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.

Are Cheap Chinese Christmas Lights Killing Your Wi-Fi?

Despite the UL label, these Walmart-sold Christmas lights have been recalled in Canada for causing "unfortunate incidents." In the U.S. consumers are on their own.

Despite the UL label on the cord, these Walmart-sold Christmas lights have been recalled in Canada for causing “unfortunate incidents.” In the U.S. they are still on the market and consumers are on their own.

The increasing prevalence of energy-saving LED holiday lights may help reduce your energy bill this Christmas, but are probably not doing any favors to your in-home Wi-Fi.

Chinese factories that produce billions of light string sets annually often have the attitude that quality control should take a back seat to selling price, and as such many of these cheaply produced sets experience a growing number of issues the longer they are in use. This year, Canadian regulators have ordered complete recalls of holiday lights manufactured by Taizhou Hongpeng Colour Lanterns or Ningbo EGO International Co. Ltd. The sets were implicated for interference, overheating, fire, shock, toxicity, and more.

The affected lights, sold until the fall of 2015, were available across North America in dollar stores, hardware warehouses, supermarkets, and department stores. Many were sold by Loblaws, Michaels (the CELEBRATE IT series) and Walmart’s “Holiday Time” brand lights. Up north, it’s time for those lights to go after sampling and evaluation by the federal agency led to clear evidence they posed serious safety risks.

In the United States, consumers are on their own. Despite adopting new safety regulations in June, the Consumer Product Safety Commission remains satisfied with a hands-off/business-friendly approach that relies primarily on voluntary recalls that begin after consumers self-report injuries from defective products.

The CPSC does not test Christmas light sets, despite the fact seasonal and decorative lighting products have been responsible for hundreds of fire and shock-related deaths and injuries over the years. CPSC is aware of 132 fatal incidents that occurred from 1980 through 2014 which led to 258 deaths, and 1,405 nonfatal incidents associated with seasonal and decorative lighting products.

Despite clear warnings from Health Canada’s own testing, the CPSC continues to allow manufacturers to sell dangerous light sets that are now recalled in Canada.

Assuming your Christmas tree lights don’t overheat or short out, regulators are also turning their attention to a less serious problem with the light sets: their potential to create interference problems.

Wi-Fi trouble waiting to happen.

Wi-Fi trouble waiting to happen.

Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s independent telecom regulator, has seen enough reports of Wi-Fi problems tracked back to Christmas lights to issue a caution.

The problem isn’t so much with the LED bulbs. The interference problems usually develop from the cheap transformers/switched mode power supplies used to regulate voltage for certain energy-saving lights. A poor quality unshielded light set, especially those with a built-in, programmed light show, is likely to throw audible hash across the AM radio dial. But it can also interfere with Wi-Fi reception in certain cases, especially if you turn your home and yard into the equivalent of the Vegas strip.

Despite the timely holiday themed Ofcom announcement, most of the lights sold in the United States have offered negligible interference so far — typically when the wireless router is located very near a Christmas tree or a powered holiday decoration. The biggest culprit that obliterates Wi-Fi is still the microwave oven. When running, many models can wipe out reception across a home or apartment.

Other factors that can make a difference include the distance between you and your router and whether the neighbors are sharing the same Wi-Fi channel you use.

Ofcom’s advice:

Move your router away from electrical devices: Halogen lamps, electrical dimmer switches, stereo or computer speakers, Christmas lights, TVs and monitors and AC power cords have all been known to cause interference to broadband routers. Keep your router as far away as possible from other electrical devices as well as those which emit wireless signals such as baby monitors etc.

Move your router to a different part of your home: The walls and furniture in your house act as an obstacle to the Wi-Fi radio frequencies. Ideally routers should be kept centrally within the home and placed on a table or shelf rather than on the floor.

Try restarting your wireless router: This may automatically select a less busy Wi-Fi radio frequency.

Our advice is to consider replacing or upgrading a misbehaving router that will not hold a Wi-Fi connection even in the best of circumstances and above all, make sure you have enabled wireless security to keep uninvited guests off your network.

Regulators Want to Know Why Vidéotron Has Room for Unlimited Data for Some Apps, Not Others

videotron mobileThe Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is asking some hard questions of Quebec-based mobile provider Vidéotron, which began zero-rating preferred partner music streaming services last summer that allow customers to stream all the music they want without it counting against their data cap.

The CRTC is examining whether the practice violates Canada’s Net Neutrality policies, which insist all content be treated equally.

“If, as Vidéotron has stated, congestion is manageable and there is no meaningful risk of service degradation as a result of offering Unlimited Music service, explain why Vidéotron did not either increase or eliminate data usage caps for your broader customer base instead of zero-rating certain applications or services,” the CRTC has asked.

Unlimited Music allows customers to stream Spotify, Google Play Music, Deezer and Canadian-owned Stingray Music without it counting against a customer’s allowance. Other streaming services do count, potentially putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

videotron_coul_anglais_webObservers say zero-rating enhances a customer’s perception that data has a measurable financial value, often arbitrarily assigned by competitors in a marketplace. If providers charge an average of $10 per gigabyte, customers will gradually accept that as the base value for wireless data, despite the fact many providers used to sell unlimited data plans for around $30. Zero rating content can be used in marketing campaigns to suggest customers are getting added value when a provider turns off the usage meter while using those services. Stream 3GB of music and a provider can claim that has a value of $30, but provided to you at “no charge.”

In the United States, most providers generally offer “bonus data” allowances in promotions instead of focusing on individual services. But T-Mobile goes a step further, also offering Music Freedom, a zero-rated music streaming service of its own.

Consumer reaction to the services are mixed. If a customer is a current subscriber to the preferred content, they often perceive a benefit from the free streaming. But customers looking to use a service not on the list may consider such plans unfair.

The CRTC will be awaiting Vidéotron’s formal answer.

Wireless Carriers’ Ho-Hum Economics of Wi-Fi Calling; The Real Money is Still in Data

telecom revenueThe year 2013 marked a significant turning point for phone companies that have handled voice telephone calls for over 100 years. For the first time, the volume of domestic telephone calls and the revenue generated from them was nearly flat. For the last two years, both are now in decline on the wireless side of the business as North Americans increasingly stop talking on the phone and text and message instead.

The U.S. wireline business peaked in the year 2000 with 192 million residential and office landlines. Over the next ten years, close to 80 million of those — 40 percent, would be permanently disconnected, replaced either by cell phones, cable telephone service, or a Voice over IP line. Wireless companies picked up the largest percentage of landline refugees, most never looking back.

Over one-third of more than $500 billion in annual revenue generated by telecom companies in 2013 came from voice services. Although that sounds like a lot, it’s a pittance of a percentage when compared to 2005 when AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless earned most of their revenue from voice calls. Ten years ago, wireless companies principally sold plans based on the number of calling minutes included, and many customers often guessed wrong, paying per minute for calls exceeding their allowance.

At first, this represented a revenue bonanza for the wireless industry, which earned billions selling customers minute-based calling plans that came with built-in cost-controlling deterrents for long-winded talkers — the concern of using up their calling allowance.

attverizonStarting in 2008, wireless industry executives noticed something peculiar. While revenue from texting add-on plans was surging, the growth in calling began to level off. Wireless voice usage per subscriber peaked at an average of 769 minutes in 2007 and began falling after that year. By 2011, the average customer was making 615 minutes of calls a month. As customers began downgrading calling plans, wireless carriers shifted their quest for revenue towards text messaging.

For awhile, texting earned wireless companies astounding profits that required little extra investment in their networks. SMS service at most carriers was effectively priced at $1,250 per megabyte, broken up into 160 byte single messages. In 2011, over 2.3 trillion text messages were exchanged. A message that cost a wireless carrier an infinitesimal fraction of a penny to send and receive cost consumers up to 20 cents or more apiece if they lacked an optional texting plan. To further boost revenue, some carriers like Verizon Wireless began to pull back offering customers a variety of tiered texting plans with different messaging allowances, switching instead to a single, more expensive unlimited texting plan. Many customers balked at the $19.95 a month price and began exploring other forms of messaging each other.

chetan sharmaThe industry’s demand for profit eventually threatened to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. At the same time wireless carriers were raising prices on text messages and forcing customers into expensive texting add-on plans, free third-party messaging apps began eating into texting volume. By 2012, the use of SMS declined for the first time, with 2.19 trillion text messages sent and received, down 4.9 percent from a year earlier.

It took little time for the wireless industry to realize the days of offering plans based on calling minutes and texting were quickly coming to an end. Younger users began the cultural trend of talking less, texting more — but using a growing number of free alternative apps to do so. As a result, both AT&T and Verizon shifted their plans away from focusing on revenue from calling and texting and instead moved to monetize data usage. Today, both carriers offer base plans featuring unlimited voice calling and texting almost as an afterthought. The real money is now made from selling packages of wireless data.

Wi-Fi calling allows customers to make and receive voice calls over a Wi-Fi connection, not a nearby cell tower. The prospect of bundling that option into a cell phone just a few years ago would have been unlikely at some providers, unthinkable at others. It was never considered a high priority at any traditional carrier, although T-Mobile began offering the service all the way back in 2007.

Since most calling plans now bundle unlimited calling, letting calls ride off the traditional cellular network is no longer much of an economic concern.

wifi callingSome even expect carriers to eventually embrace Wi-Fi calling, declaring it superior to alternatives like Hangouts and Skype, which require an app to handle the call. A Wi-Fi call can be received by anyone with a phone.

This month, the last holdout, Verizon Wireless, capitulated and announced it had won approval from the FCC to introduce Wi-Fi calling to customers, joining Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T. But Verizon plans to initially limit that service, offering an app that must be installed to make and receive Wi-Fi calls. The other three carriers integrate Wi-Fi calling directly into the primary phone call app already on the phone.

The introduction of the service is unlikely to have a significant economic impact on any wireless carrier. Most have ample room on their networks to handle cell call volumes. Whether a call is placed over Wi-Fi or traditional cellular service, it will ultimately end up on the same or a similar IP-based phone switch as it makes its way to the called party.

With little revenue-generating opportunities for voice calling or SMS messaging, companies have nearly stopped the practice of monetizing individual telephone calls, preferring to offer unlimited, all-you-want calling and texting plans that used to cost consumers considerable amounts of money.

Now wireless carriers see fortunes to be made slicing up and packaging gigabytes of wireless data, sold at prices that have little relation to actual cost, just as carriers managed with text messaging for the last 20 years. A Verizon Wireless customer using 12GB of data in October that kept a now-grandfathered unlimited data plan paid just under $30 for that usage. (This month Verizon raised the price of that coveted unlimited plan by $20 a month.) Verizon charges $80 for that same amount of data on its new “XL” data plan. Verizon’s cost to deliver that data to customers is lower than it was five years ago, but customers wouldn’t know it based on their bill. As always with the wireless industry, costs often have no relationship to the price ultimately charged consumers.

Verizon Wireless Giving Away Free GBs of Data to Those Who Ask

freegbSince Verizon Wireless stopped selling unlimited data plans and turned data into a precious commodity usually worth about $10 per gigabyte, the company can afford to give some of it away to their loyal customers.

This holiday season, Verizon Wireless is handing out up to 3GB of wireless data a month, but only to those who ask. As part of Verizon’s Thanksgiving promotion targeting holiday travelers, customers can get a free gigabyte for use immediately and another gigabyte to use next month just by clicking on a link. The offer can only be redeemed once per account on qualifying plans and is shared by all lines on an account.

Users who want even more free data can snag an extra 2GB a month for three months by downloading Verizon’s Go90 online video app (for iOS and Android) and registering for an account. Your confirmed registration will trigger an immediate gift of 2GB of wireless data for your current month’s data plan and an extra 2GB for the next three billing cycles as well. If Go90 proves uninteresting, you can uninstall it and still get free data during the length of the promotion.

This promotion is only good if you have a More Everything or Verizon Plan. It is not available if you use prepaid service, a different grandfathered plan, or do not keep your account in good standing. National and government accounts also do not qualify. Go90 videos are disabled for jailbroken or rooted devices, although you may still register and participate in the promotion if you use such a device.

Among Verizon’s other Thanksgiving promotions customers can grab on Wednesday, Nov. 25:

  • A free $5 iTunes Gift card while supplies last;
  • An unspecified number of free eBooks, music, movies, TV an app downloads from Amazon.com;
  • A free 30-day trial of Pandora One;
  • Up to $20 off a Lyft ride, where available;
  • Free airport Wi-Fi from Boingo;
  • Free 30-minute Gogo Wi-Fi session on select airlines.

Verizon’s website offers an option to send yourself a reminder to participate when the promotions become active next week.

We Oughta Go to Mexico: AT&T Dumps $7.4 Billion South of the Border on Its #3 Mobile Network

Mexican BorderWhile AT&T is in no hurry to expand and upgrade U-verse broadband to its wireline customers in the United States, the Dallas-based company has spent more than $7 billion trying to attract wireless customers in Mexico that so far don’t show much interest in the U.S. company.

AT&T last month reported it is losing big south of the border. After spending $4.4 billion to acquire two competing wireless companies in Mexico and committing another $3 billion to upgrade their networks to 4G service, customers are continuing to abandon the carrier.

The losses AT&T continues to incur improving wireless service in Tabasco, Veracruz, and Baja California has not bothered AT&T to date — in fact the company plans to dump even more money into the Mexican cellular market, despite achieving a market share of only around 8.5 percent, effectively making it about as relevant as Sprint in the United States. Its largest competitors are the gigantic América Móvil, which has nearly 70 percent of the market and Telefónica, which holds a 22 percent share.

So far, AT&T has been forced to support different websites for its two different carriers – Iusacell and Nextel Mexico. The former also maintains the Unefon brand, which targets low income Mexicans with cheap prepaid service.

Part of AT&T’s problem recouping its investment is the fact Mexicans cannot afford the pricing Americans pay for cell service. While AT&T charges $50+ for a low-end cell plan in Texas, just across the Mexican border AT&T offers a $13 basic plan offering 500 calling minutes and 500MB of data.

att mexicoAT&T’s decision to spend billions in Mexico while it reduces spending on further expansion of its U-verse network has nothing to do with Net Neutrality or Title II enforcement by the Federal Communications Commission. It is all about finding new customers. Wireless penetration has now topped 100 percent in the U.S. (because some families maintain multiple devices, sometimes with different carriers). In Mexico, less than 50% of the population has a cell phone and even fewer own smartphones. AT&T believes that gives it plenty of room to grow. AT&T believes wireless service brings the best potential for profits both inside and outside of the U.S., and the company thinks it can dramatically improve market share in Mexico and charge prices that will bring it a healthy return.

nextelTheir customers apparently disagree. In Mexico, for the first nine months of the year, AT&T lost 689,000 wireless subscribers — a decline of almost 8 percent. Even customers attracted to try AT&T for the first time often decide to leave, giving AT&T Mexico a churn rate exceeding 5% — five times worse than what AT&T experiences in the United States.

Some Wall Street analysts are critical of AT&T throwing good money after bad down south. Michael Hodel of Morningstar doesn’t like what he sees. The incumbent Mexican telecom giant América Móvil has kept the lion’s share of the market for years and has vastly more scale than AT&T. Hodel sees losses for AT&T until 2018.

iusacellOthers wonder how AT&T Mexico will be able to introduce the premium priced services it will depend on to get a return on its investment. The Mexican economy is unlikely to allow customers to pay substantially more for wireless service.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has told investors if AT&T builds a 4G network, customers will come and pay AT&T’s asking price.

“We are convinced that what we experienced in the U.S., we will experience in Mexico,” Stephenson said at an investor conference in May. “So you are going to see the mobile Internet revolution take off in Mexico. We intend to ride that wave.”

Free trade supporters and those who support the deregulation of the Mexican telecom market are trying to use AT&T’s experience as evidence that free markets and trade works.

“AT&T’s moves are the clearest evidence of success in Mexico’s reforms, and it’s hard to overstate the importance,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

For customers, it isn’t a matter of free trade. It’s good coverage at a reasonable price that matters most, and AT&T Mexico has not yet achieved that.

Arturo Diaz, originally an Iusacell customer in Mexico City, recently dropped his AT&T Mexico service.

“Their coverage is not very good outside of large cities and AT&T’s reputation is to raise prices, which they seem to do a lot in the U.S.,” Diaz said. “If you can afford a better phone and plan, you switch to América Móvil. With the stronger American dollar, the peso is devalued again, so more people will likely want a budget prepaid plan which they can get from Telcel. I’m not sure what AT&T is doing in Mexico and their plans from two different companies are a mess. I signed up with América Móvil last month.”

Stop the Cap! Testimony to N.Y. Public Service Commission Advocating Major Telecom Study

logoOctober 20, 2015

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

New York State’s digital economy is in trouble.

While providers claim portions of New York achieve some of the top broadband speeds in the country, the vast majority of the state has been left behind by cable and phone companies that have never been in a hurry to deliver the top shelf telecom services that New Yorkers need and deserve.

The deregulation policies of the recent past have resulted in entrenched de facto monopoly and duopoly markets with little or no oversight. Those policies, instead of benefiting New Yorkers, are ultimately responsible for allowing two companies to dominate the state’s telecommunications marketplace.

In virtually all of upstate New York, the services consumers receive depend entirely on the business priorities of local incumbent providers, not market forces or customer demand. As a result, New Yorkers face relentless, unchecked rate increases, well-documented abysmal and unresponsive customer service, and inadequate broadband provided by a workforce under siege from downsizing, cost-cutting, and outsourcing.

Certain markets, particularly those in the New York City area, have at least secured a promise of better broadband from Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home upgrade. But at least 100,000 New Yorkers have languished on Verizon’s “waiting list,” as the company drags its feet on Non Standard Installation orders.[1] In upstate New York, Verizon walked away from its FiOS expansion effort five years ago, leaving only a handful of wealthy suburbs furnished with fiber service while effectively abandoning urban communities like Buffalo and Syracuse with nothing better than Verizon’s outdated DSL, which does not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps.[2]

Cablevision’s broadband performance dramatically improved because of investment in network upgrades, and the company has been well-regarded for its broadband service ever since.[3] But the proposed new owner of Cablevision – Altice, NV — has sought “cost savings” from cuts totaling $900 million a year, which will almost certainly devastate that provider’s future investments, its engineering and repair crews, and customer service.[4]

At least downstate New York has the prospect for +100Mbps broadband service. In upstate New York, three providers define the broadband landscape for most cities and towns:

  • Time Warner Cable dominates upstate New York with its cable broadband service and has the largest market share for High Speed Internet. As of today, Time Warner Cable’s top broadband speed outside of New York City is just 50Mbps, far less than the 1,000Mbps service cities in other states are now on track to receive or are already getting.[5]
  • Verizon Communications is the largest ILEC in upstate New York. Outside of its very limited FiOS service areas, customers depend on Verizon’s DSL service at speeds no better than 15Mbps, below the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband;[6]
  • Frontier Communications has acquired FiOS networks from Verizon in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest, and AT&T U-verse in Connecticut. Frontier has made no significant investment or effort to bring FiOS or U-verse into New York State. In fact, in its largest New York service area, Rochester, there are significant areas that can receive no better than 3.1Mbps DSL from Frontier. The vast majority of Frontier customers in New York do not receive service that meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband, and some investors predict the company is “headed for financial disaster.”[7]

The competitive markets the DPS staff envisions in its report to the Commission are largely a mirage. When an ILEC like Frontier Communications admits its residential broadband market share “is less than 25% in our 27 states excluding Connecticut,” that is clear evidence the marketplace has rejected Frontier’s legacy DSL service and does not consider the company an effective competitor.[8]

While incumbent cable and phone companies tout ‘robust competition’ for service in New York, if the Commission investigated the market share of Time Warner Cable upstate, it would quickly realize that ‘robust competition’ has been eroding for years, with an ongoing shift away from DSL providers towards cable broadband.[9]

Frontier’s primary market focus is on rural communities where it often enjoys a monopoly and can deliver what we believe to be inadequate service to a captive customer base. The company is currently facing a class action lawsuit in West Virginia, where it is alleged to have failed to provide advertised broadband speeds and delivers poor service.[10]

Verizon’s ongoing investment in its legacy wireline network (and expansion of DSL to serve new customers) has been regularly criticized as woefully inadequate.[11] From all indications, we expect the company will eventually sell its legacy wireline networks, particularly those upstate, within the next 5-10 years as it has done in northern New England (sold to FairPoint Communications) and proposes to do in Texas, California, and Florida.[12] (Verizon also sold off its service areas in Hawaii, West Virginia, and much of its territory acquired from GTE.)

Across New York, service problems and controversial deals between telecom providers have made headlines. Here are just a few:

  1. Superstorm Sandy’s impact on Verizon’s legacy wireline network on Fire Island and in other downstate communities left many without service. Instead of repairing the damage, Verizon proposed to scrap its wireline network and substitute inferior wireless service with no possibility of wired broadband.[13] The DPS received a large number of comments from the public and local elected officials fiercely opposed to this proposal, one that Verizon eventually withdrew in the face of overwhelming opposition.[14]
  2. There are growing allegations Verizon may be underspending on its legacy wireline network and even worse, may be misallocating costs and revenues to deceive the Commission.[15] Some allege much of the company’s ongoing investments, charged to the wireline operation, in reality are for the benefit of its wireless network. This may have allowed Verizon Communications/New York to claim significant losses on its wireline books the company then argued justified rate increases on ratepayers.[16] A full scale accounting of Verizon’s books is essential for all concerned and corrective action may be necessary if these allegations are proven true.
  3. Verizon’s foot-dragging on FiOS buildouts in New York City led to a damning audit report commissioned by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer and oversight hearings were held last week by the City Council of New York.[17] [18] Despite Verizon’s creative definition of “homes passed,” a substantial number of New Yorkers cannot receive the benefits of “today’s networks” the DPS staff refers to. Instead, many are stuck with poorly-performing DSL or no service at all.[19] Regardless of whether fiber passes in front of, over, in between, or behind buildings, Verizon signed an agreement compelling them to give customers a clear timeline to establish FiOS service. It is apparent Verizon is not meeting its obligations.[20]
  4. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Comcast led the Commission’s staff to admit the majority of respondents to requests for public input were strongly opposed to the merger and without substantial modifications concluded would not be in the public interest.[21] Comcast eventually withdrew its proposal in the face of overwhelming opposition.
  5. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Charter Communications, where the DPS staff concluded as the application stood, there would be no public interest benefits to the transaction.[22]

Those are just a few examples of why aggressive oversight of telecommunications is critical for all New Yorkers. In most of these examples, the DPS never ruled one way or the other. The companies individually made their own decisions, and we believe they would have decided differently if they did not face grassroots opposition from consumers.

New Yorkers deserve an active DPS prepared to aggressively represent our interests, ready to investigate what Verizon is doing with its legacy wireline network, legacy wired broadband services, FiOS and Verizon Wireless. With Time Warner Cable having such a dominant presence in western and central New York, its sale should never be taken lightly, as it will impact millions of New Yorkers for years to come.

While the DPS seems prepared to passively wait around to discover what Time Warner Cable, Frontier and Verizon are planning next, the rest of the country is getting speed upgrades New York can only dream about.

Google Fiber and AT&T, among others, are aggressively rolling out 1,000Mbps fiber service upgrades in other states, while a disinterested Verizon refuses to invest further in FiOS expansion, leaving millions of New York customers with nothing better than DSL.

The lack of significant competition upstate is why we believe Time Warner Cable has not yet chosen any market in New York except New York City for its Maxx upgrade program, which offers substantially faster speeds and better service.[23] There is no compelling competitive reason for Time Warner to hurry upgrades into areas where they already enjoy a vast market share and no threat of a broadband speed race. So much for robust competition.

Charter’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable proposes a modest upgrade of broadband speeds to 60-100Mbps, but as we wrote in our comments to the DPS regarding the merger proposal, upstate New York would be better off waiting for Time Warner Cable to complete its own Maxx upgrades over what will likely be 100% of its footprint in the next 24-30 months.[24] Time Warner Cable Maxx offers maximum broadband speeds three times faster than what Charter proposes for upstate New York, while also preserving affordable broadband options for those less fortunate. Approving a Charter buyout of Time Warner Cable will only set upstate New York back further.

We confess we were bewildered after reviewing the initial staff assessment of telecommunications services competition in New York. Its conclusions simply do not reflect reality on the ground, particularly in upstate communities.

It was this type of incomplete analysis that allowed New York to fall into the trap of irresponsible deregulation and abdication of oversight that has utterly failed to deliver the promised competition that would check rate hikes, guarantee better customer service, and provide New York with best-in-class service. In reality, we have none of those things. Rates continue to spiral higher, poor customer service continues, and New York has been left behind with sub-standard broadband that achieves no better than 50Mbps speeds in most upstate communities.

This summer, the American Customer Satisfaction Index told us something we already know. Americans dislike their cable company more than any other industry in the nation.[25] A survey of more than 14,000 customers by ACSI found service satisfaction achieving a new all-time low, scoring 63 out of 100.

“Customers expect a lot more than what the companies deliver,” said ACSI managing director David VanAmburg, who called poor customer service from cable operators “endemic.”

This year, Time Warner Cable again scored the worst in the country. As the only cable provider for virtually all of upstate New York, if residents in New York are given a choice between Time Warner Cable and the phone company’s slow-speed DSL, they are still likely to choose Time Warner Cable, but only because they have no other choices for broadband that meets the FCC definition of broadband.

Providers are quick to suggest consumers can turn to so-called competitors like satellite broadband or wireless Internet from mobile providers. They conveniently ignore the fact satellite-delivered Internet is such a provider of last resort, less than 1% of New Yorkers choose this option. Those that have used satellite broadband tell the companies providing it they rarely achieve the claimed speeds and are heavily speed throttled and usage capped.[26] It’s also costly, particularly when measuring the price against its performance.

Mobile Internet, which some ILECs have advocated as a possible replacement for rural wireline networks, is also a very poor substitute for wired Internet access. Wireless broadband pricing is high and usage allowances are low. Attempts to convince New Yorkers to abandon Verizon landline service in favor of Verizon’s 4G LTE wireless replacement have led to consumer complaints after learning their existing unlimited Verizon DSL service would be substituted for a wireless plan starting at $60 a month with a 10GB usage allowance.[27]

A customer with a 6Mbps DSL line from Verizon consuming 30GB of usage a month – hardly a heavy user – pays Verizon $29.99 a month for DSL service during the first year. In contrast, that same customer using Verizon Wireless’ home 2-5Mbps wireless LTE plan will pay $120 a month – four times more, with the added risk of incurring a $10 per gigabyte overlimit fee for usage in excess of their allowance.[28]

None of this information is a secret, yet it seems to have escaped the notice of the DPS staff in its report. Part of the reason why may be the complete lack of public input to help illuminate and counter incumbent providers’ well-financed public and government relations self-praise campaigns. If only actual customers agreed with their conclusions, we’d be well on our way to deregulation-inspired broadband nirvana.

Except New Yorkers do not agree all is well.

Consumer Reports:

Our latest survey of 81,848 customers of home telecommunications services found almost universally low ratings for value across services—especially for TV and Internet. Those who bundled the three services together for a discount still seemed unimpressed with what they were getting for their money. Even WOW and Verizon FiOS, which got high marks for service satisfaction, rated middling or lower for value, and out of 14 providers, nine got the lowest possible value rating.

What is it about home telecommunications that leaves such a sour taste in customers’ mouths? When we asked Consumer Reports’ Facebook followers to tell us their telecom stories, the few happy anecdotes of attentive service technicians and reliable service were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of consumer woe involving high prices, complicated equipment, and terrible service.[29]

The effective competition that would rely on market forces to deter abusive pricing and poor customer service is simply not available in a monopoly/duopoly marketplace. New entrants face enormous start-up costs, particularly provisioning last-mile service.

The nation’s telephone network was first constructed in the early half of the last century by providers guaranteed monopoly status. The cable industry developed during a period where regulators frequently considered operators to be a “natural monopoly,” unable to survive sustained competition.[30] Many cable operators were granted exclusive franchise agreements which helped them present a solid business case to investors to fund a costly network buildout. The end of franchise exclusivity happened years after most cable operators were already well established.

Today, those marketplace protections are unavailable to new entrants who face a variety of hurdles to achieve success. Some are competitive, others are regulatory. Google Fiber, which provides competitive service in states other than New York, publishes a guide for local communities to make them more attractive prospects for future Google Fiber expansion.[31]

For many overbuilders, pole attachment issues, zoning and permitting are significant obstacles to making new service available to residential and commercial customers. New York must ensure pole owners provide timely, non-discriminatory, and reasonable cost access. Permitting and zoning issues should be resolved on similar terms to speed network deployment.

Because a long history of experience tells us it is unreasonable to expect a competing telephone or cable company to enter another provider’s territory, in many cases the only significant possibility for competition will come from a new municipal/co-op/public-owned broadband alternative.

The hurdles these would-be providers face are significant. Incumbent provider opposition can be substantial, especially on a large-scale buildout. In rural areas, incumbents can and do refuse to cooperate, even on projects that seek to prioritize access first to unserved/underserved areas currently bypassed by those incumbents.

The effort to wire the Adirondack Park region is a case in point. Time Warner Cable has refused to provide detailed mapping information about their existing network, making it difficult to assess the viability of a municipal and/or a commercial broadband expansion project into these areas. Time Warner Cable maintains it has exclusivity to granular map data showing existing networks for “competitive reasons,” effectively maintaining an advantageous position from which it can strategically apply for state broadband expansion funding to expand its network using public funds.

Time Warner Cable benefits from access to publicly-owned rights of way and sanctioned easements. Without this access, their network would likely be untenable. As a beneficiary of that public access, making granular map data available to broadband planners is a fair exchange, and nothing precludes Time Warner from building its network into those unserved/underserved areas – something that might deter a would-be competitor’s business argument to overbuild a high-cost, rural area. The Commission should ask itself how many rural New York communities have two (or more) competing cable companies serving the same customers. If the answer is none, Time Warner Cable does not have a valid argument.

There is ample evidence the Commission needs to begin a full and comprehensive review of telecommunications in this state. It must build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can build a case that oversight is needed to guarantee New Yorkers get the high quality telecommunications services they deserve.

Broadband and telephone service is not just a convenience. In September 2015, the Obama Administration declared broadband was now a “core utility,” just as important as telephone, electric, and natural gas service. Isn’t it about time the Department of Public Service oversee it as such?[32]

Respectfully submitted for your consideration,

Phillip M. Dampier

Director, Stop the Cap!

[1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/10/19/n-y-city-council-investigates-verizon-foot-dragging-fios-possible-contract-violations/
[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303410404575151773432729614
[3] https://www.fcc.gov/reports/measuring-broadband-america-2014
[4] http://variety.com/2015/biz/news/altice-group-patrick-drahi-cablevision-bid-1201599986/
[5] http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/310861/if-you-want-gigabit-internet-move-here/1
[6] https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-finds-us-broadband-deployment-not-keeping-pace
[7] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2888876-frontier-communications-headed-for-financial-disaster
[8] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2633375-frontier-communications-ftr-ceo-maggie-wilderotter-q3-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?part=single
[9] http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/051515release.html
[10] http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20141020/GZ01/141029992
[11] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[12] http://stopthecap.com/2015/05/05/fla-utility-says-negotiations-with-verizon-make-it-clear-verizon-will-exit-the-wireline-business-within-10-years/
[13] http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/22/technology/verizon-wireless-sandy/
[14] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/MatterManagement/CaseMaster.aspx?Mattercaseno=13-C-0197
[15] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[16] http://newnetworks.com/publicnn.pdf/
[17] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
[18] http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/10/verizon-tries-to-avoid-building-more-fiber-by-re-defining-the-word-pass/
[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/27/nyregion/new-york-city-and-verizon-battle-over-fios-service.html?_r=0
[20] http://www.nyc.gov/html/doitt/downloads/pdf/verizon-audit.pdf
[21] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={0A5EAC88-6AB7-4F79-862C-B6C6B6D2E4ED}
[22] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId=%7BC60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54%7D
[23] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
[24] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}
[25] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-most-hated-cable-company-in-america-is-2015-06-02
[26] https://community.myhughesnet.com/hughesnet?topic_list%5Bsettings%5D%5Btype%5D=problem
[27] http://www.verizon.com/home/highspeedinternet/
[28] http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/lte-internet-installed/
[29] http://www.consumerreports.org//cro/magazine/2014/05/how-to-save-money-on-triple-play-cable-services/index.htm
[30] http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Is_Cable_Television_Natural_Monopoly.pdf (p.255)
[31] https://fiber.storage.googleapis.com/legal/googlefibercitychecklist2-24-14.pdf
[32] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

Comcast, Frontier: It’s Too ‘Hilly and Woodsy’ to Bring Broadband to Rural Connecticut

no signalAn aversion of open, hilly landscapes and trees is apparently responsible for keeping residents of rural Connecticut from getting broadband service from the state’s two dominant providers — Comcast and Frontier Communications.

In the Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut, you can visit some of the state’s finest antique shops and Revolutionary War-era inns, tour vineyards and even establish roots in the Upper Naugatuck Valley in towns like Barkhamsted, Colebrook, Goshen, Hartland, Harwinton, Litchfield, Morris, New Hartford, Norfolk, Torrington, and Winchester. Just leave your cellphone, tablet, and personal computer behind because chances are good you will find yourself in a wireless dead spot and Internet-free zone.

Obtaining even a smidgen of cell phone service often means leaning out a second story window or worse, climbing the nearest church steeple. The wealthiest residents, often second-homeowners from New York or California, can afford to spend several thousand dollars to entice the cable company to extend a coaxial cable their way or buy commercial broadband service at eye-popping prices from Frontier Communications, which acquired AT&T’s wireline network in the state. But for many, dial-up Internet remains the only affordable or available option.

Despite the area’s significant number of high income residents ready and willing to pay for service, Comcast and Frontier blame hilly terrain and dense woods for staying away. Those excuses get little regard from residents who suggest it is all about the money, not the landscape.

Northwest Connecticut region is shown in green and the Litchfield Hills region in blue.

Broadband-challenged areas in northwest Connecticut are shown in green and the often “No signal” and “No Internet” Litchfield Hills region is shown in blue.

Despite the need for service, deregulation largely allows cable and phone companies to decide where to offer broadband service, and arguments about fulfilling a public need and performing a community service don’t get far with Wall Street and shareholders that constantly pressure companies to deliver profits, not expensive investments that may never pay off.

State Rep. Roberta Willis (D-Salisbury) told the Register Citizen News the status quo is not acceptable — telecommunications companies are not doing enough to build out their networks.

“You just can’t say it’s the topography and walk away,” she told the newspaper. “If electricity companies were deregulated like this there would be no electricity in my district.”

Comcast spokeswoman Laura Brubaker Crisco claims the company extended cable service nearly 62 miles in northwest Connecticut since 2005 (ten years ago) and completed nearly 100 projects extending fiber more than 10 miles in the past two years. But many of those projects overhauled Comcast’s existing middle-mile network and extended cable service to profitable new markets serving commercial customers, especially office parks and commercial storefronts. Comcast’s other priority was to reach new high-income residential developments being built as the area continues to grow. Rural customers who could not meet Comcast’s Return On Investment formula in 2005 are still unlikely to have service in 2015 unless population density increases in their immediate area.

Connecticut's effort to extend gigabit fiber statewide is dismissed as a waste of money by incumbent cable operators.

Connecticut’s effort to extend gigabit fiber statewide is dismissed as a waste of money by incumbent cable operators.

Crisco admits Comcast does not wire low density areas and isn’t surprised other providers won’t either.

Frontier prefers to blame the area’s topography for keeping broadband out.

David Snyder, vice president for engineering for the east region of Frontier Communications, told the newspaper “it’s just natural the investment and the time become more challenging.”

Frontier does say it has expanded broadband to 40,000 additional households in Connecticut since taking over for AT&T a year ago. But nobody seems to know exactly who can get broadband in the state and who cannot. The have-nots are the most likely to complain, and those businesses that serve visitors are in peril of losing business without offering reasonable Wi-Fi or Internet access. Rural families with school-age children are also at risk from having their kids fall behind those that can get broadband.

Wireless Internet Service Providers, which offer long-range wireless broadband in rural areas, complain the federal government is wasting money on studies instead of helping to underwrite solutions that can quickly bring Internet access to the rural masses.

Others believe talking to Frontier and Comcast is futile. They prefer to follow the lead of western Massachusetts, where 24 small communities across the region have joined forces to build a public fiber to the home broadband network. One estimate suggests 22 Connecticut towns covering 200,000 residents could be reached with a bond-financed fiber network completed by 2018. That network would likely reach more unserved customers than Frontier or Comcast will elect to serve over the next three years combined.

A separate effort to establish gigabit fiber broadband across the state — the CT Gig Project — promptly ran into a buzzsaw of opposition, primarily from incumbent telecommunications companies that refuse to offer that service now. With a threat to current profitable business models, it was not unexpected to hear opposition from Paul Cianelli, CEO of the New England Cable & Telecom Association — a cable company lobbying group.

He called public broadband unnecessary and “potentially disastrous.” He wants assurances no government subsidies or loan guarantees are given to the project. He also said providing gigabit service was unnecessary and faster Internet speeds were not important to the majority of customers in the state. Public broadband proponents respond Cianelli should tell that to the residents of Litchfield Hills and other unserved and underserved communities.

Got a Call from 1-800-922-0204? Careful. The Verizon Wireless “Refund” Scam is Back

Phillip Dampier October 5, 2015 Consumer News, Verizon, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

scamScammers are once again spoofing Verizon Wireless’ 1-800-922-0204 customer service number shown on a customer’s Caller ID in calls offering “refunds” ranging from $30-60 in return for personal information needed to “process a refund check or service credit.”

Verizon Wireless customers (including myself) have started receiving recent unsolicited calls from Verizon Wireless claiming an earlier billing error resulted in an overcharge to their wireless account. The amount of the credit varies, but is significant enough to get the attention of unwitting customers. The caller is asked to verify their Verizon Wireless “account password,” which is a critical piece of information not to be shared with unsolicited callers. Once exposed, anyone can call Verizon Wireless and make changes to your account.

Variations on this scam have been around since 2014. Last fall, callers were instructed to “apply for a refund” at phony websites run by the crooks, almost always detectable because the scammers registered web addresses close to Verizon’s legitimate address, but with two extra numbers attached. (eg. http://28verizon.com/, 27verizon.com, 48verizon.com, etc.) Most of these sites were shut down by early 2015.

Consumers usually believe the calls are genuine because their Caller ID reports the calling number originates with Verizon Wireless customer service. But such caller ID information can now be easily manipulated or faked, making it harder than ever to truly know who is calling.

610px-Verizon-Wireless-Logo_svgComplicating matters are Verizon’s own marketing calls to customers originating from the same 800 number, which are legitimate. In an effort to combat the scammers, customers can call Verizon Wireless back at 1-800-922-0204 and the automated call attendant will confirm any recent legitimate customer service calls (often for an “account review” or to tell you about a past due balance) made to your number recently.

The best way to avoid this fraud is to not answer unsolicited calls from unfamiliar numbers and refuse to share any personal information with an incoming caller you don’t know. That includes giving out your full name, address, any part of an account password or Social Security number, credit card number, bank account information, etc.

Any legitimate overpayment or overcharge would be automatically credited back by Verizon on your next bill or mailed to the last address on file if you are a former customer.

“I normally never answer a call with a Caller ID number I don’t recognize, but I was fooled because the number reported was Verizon Wireless customer service’s own number,” said Dylan, a Stop the Cap! reader who now admits he gave away too much information. “I foolishly gave them my account password, address, and phone numbers and only got suspicious when they asked for my Social Security number. That is when I knew and I hung up and called Verizon and changed my account password before the scammers did.”

“I learned my lesson.”

Sprint Raising the Price of Unlimited Data to $70; Existing Customers Will Still Pay $60

SprintSprint customers thinking about subscribing to an unlimited data plan may want to decide before Oct. 16, when Sprint raises the price of its cap-free plan for new customers by $10 to $70 a month.

Sprint and T-Mobile are the last remaining holdouts still offering unlimited data, and T-Mobile’s costs $80 a month. AT&T and Verizon Wireless still have a dwindling number of customers holding onto unlimited data plans discontinued a few years ago.

Current Sprint customers will be grandfathered in at their current rate, and Sprint has dropped any mention of de-prioritizing unlimited users’ data for the benefit of those on capped plans.

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure previously warned in July he was no fan of unlimited data and would be discouraging Sprint customers from keeping their cap-free plan. A $10 price increase for new customers won’t likely convince existing customers to give up unlimited data, but further price increases in the future might.

Sprint’s problem remains its wireless network, which has often performed poorly in consumer ratings. As video streaming becomes more popular, Sprint’s network may have some of the most trouble trying to keep up, slowing speeds for everyone. Alienating a loyal customer base that has put up with Sprint’s endless promises of a better network on the way may prove unwise if those customers continue defecting to T-Mobile.

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