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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.

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.

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