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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.

Interference Alert: Wireless Carrier Coalition Advocates Barging Into Your Free Wi-Fi Space

Critics question the wireless industry's claim LTE-U and Wi-Fi can co-exist peacefully.

Critics question the wireless industry’s claim LTE-U and Wi-Fi can co-exist peacefully. (Image: EVOLVE)

Consumer groups and cable operators are warning the Federal Communications Commission a plan by the nation’s largest wireless carriers to introduce premium Wi-Fi services for their mobile customers may create serious interference problems for existing Wi-Fi users.

AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all members of EVOLVE, a group advocating for LTE-U and LAA, technologies that will depend largely on the unlicensed Wi-Fi bands to deliver wireless data to their mobile customers.

Cable operators fear the proposal will give mobile providers an unfair advantage, introducing more traffic into the already crowded Wi-Fi bands while mobile operators reserve the right to use a licensed control channel to shift their customers’ traffic back and forth between unlicensed and licensed spectrum at will. Cable industry critics of the plan claim allowing mobile operators to dump customer traffic into the Wi-Fi bands is likely to worsen interference, harming the cable operators’ investment in a growing network of Wi-Fi hotspots and in-home Wi-Fi.

Consumer groups agree with the cable industry.

The Open Technology Institute at New America, Public Knowledge, Free Press, and Common Cause have filed a joint statement with the FCC warning the agency “mobile carriers will have both the ability and strong incentives to use LTE-U and LAA to engage in anti-competitive behavior harmful to consumers,” all while making a tidy profit charging customers for the use of a service comparable to Wi-Fi, now a free alternative to the carriers’ 3G and 4G data networks.

The groups argue Wi-Fi standards were developed with unlicensed users in mind, able to co-exist peacefully with other similar Wi-Fi signals. The proposed LTE-U technology from wireless carriers is far less sensitive to neighboring signals.

“LTE-U/LAA is designed to be centrally controlled by a network anchored in a separate, exclusively licensed frequency band,” the consumer groups wrote. “3GPP, the mobile industry standards body, may ultimately design LAA in a manner that shares fairly with Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies; yet several studies filed by commenters demonstrate that the version of LTE-U that U.S. carriers plan to deploy by next year coexists poorly with Wi-Fi, degrading both throughput and latency (delay).”

LTEUWiFiCritics contend the wireless industry’s proposed service is not as likely to use “Listen Before Talk” effectively, a standard that checks for existing traffic before powering up on an unlicensed frequency. Consumer groups fear mobile carriers will have both the ability and a strong incentive to use LTE-U and LAA to charge consumers for the use of unlicensed spectrum and give themselves an unfair advantage by escaping the interference its own technology can cause other users.

“Carriers also have powerful incentives to use LTE-U to deter mobile market entry by ‘Wi-Fi First’ providers, such as wireline ISPs,” argue the consumer groups, also referring to independent providers like Republic Wireless that depend primarily on Wi-Fi for smartphone connectivity. “Carriers deploying LTE-U will have the apparent option to adjust their access points to introduce just enough latency to frustrate consumer use of real-time applications, such as video calling.”

Another incentive is money. For several years, wireless carriers have encouraged customers to offload their mobile data traffic to Wi-Fi. But since Wi-Fi traffic does not count against the customer’s usage allowance, it also reduces revenue opportunities. LTE-U is a variant of LTE, and carriers traditionally do count that traffic against a customer’s usage allowance. For the first time, mobile customers will accrue usage charges based on their use of unlicensed frequencies. For some, they may have no other choice.

Ellen Satterwhite, a spokesperson for WifiForward, a coalition of companies advocating for more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi, said LTE signals never play well with traditional Wi-Fi.

“When LTE and Wi-Fi signals collide, LTE wins,” Satterwhite said.

“The wireless carriers have completely changed their tune about Wi-Fi—because they have to,” said David Callisch, vice president of corporate marketing for Ruckus Wireless, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based maker of Wi-Fi hardware, whose customers include Verizon and AT&T. “Wi-Fi for them is like a train going down the track,” Callisch told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “You could get hit by it or you could jump on the train. They’re jumping on the train.”

“Carriers have historically hated Wi-Fi, because they can’t control it,” Callisch added. “They’ve always liked the licensed band, because they can buy it and they can control it and they can deliver a quality of service to customers over it. With Wi-Fi, you can’t do that.”

But with LTE-U they have the control they crave, able to use network management technology that prioritizes their customers over other conventional Wi-Fi users. Even better, they can charge customers for using it.

Both cable operators and consumer groups want engineers, not business executives, to carefully develop standards and rules that guarantee Wi-Fi users can co-exist with other users of unlicensed frequencies before the technology is switched on.

Frontier Plans to Finance Acquisition of Verizon Lines With $6.6 Billion in Junk Bonds

frontier-fast-buffalo-large-2To complete an acquisition of landline assets in California, Florida, and Texas from Verizon Communications, Frontier Communications is hoping to raise $6.6 billion in “speculative-grade debt” to finance the deal.

Frontier will begin selling the securities better known as “junk bonds” starting today with a target date of Sept. 15 or 16 to complete the sale, according to Bloomberg News.

Wall Street raised its eyebrows at the amount of the transaction — the second largest junk-rated deal since Valeant Pharmaceuticals sold almost $10 billion in junk bonds in March.

Frontier plans to offer a high yield to attract investors, some already favoring the company’s stock for its reliable shareholder dividend payout. Frontier has been a popular choice for investors relying on dividend income — money Frontier distributes to shareholders — that critics contend limit Frontier’s ability to improve its network of largely rural landlines.

analysisCalifornian consumers are among those most concerned about a Frontier takeover of landline and FiOS service. Verizon ventured far beyond its original service area extending from Maine to Virginia after it acquired independent telephone networks operated by General Telephone (GTE) and Continental Telephone (Contel) in 2000. In 2015, the company wants to return to its core landline service area in the northeast.

junk1David Lazarus, a consumer reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wonders how ratepayers will benefit from a Frontier takeover.

“Financial analysts are generally upbeat about the deal, but that reflects the projected benefits to the corporate players, not consumers,” Lazarus wrote.

Verizon’s claims the sale will help refocus the company on its “core markets” in the east and Frontier’s suggestion the Verizon acquisition will enhance Frontier’s footprint with “rich fiber-based assets” didn’t seem to excite Lazarus.

“I honestly wonder if corporate leaders know how ridiculous they sound when they spout such gobbledygook,” he added.

Lazarus suspects Verizon is worried the Obama Administration may eventually extend universal service obligations to broadband, which would force phone companies to deliver broadband to any telephone customer that wants the service, regardless of how much it costs to offer it. Universal Service remains an important legacy of wireline landline telephone service. Your landline survives under a regulatory framework not applicable to the wireless business, where both AT&T and Verizon Wireless now make the bulk of their profits.

junk2As AT&T and Verizon ponder ditching high-cost landline customers, so long as there are companies like Frontier willing to buy, the deal works for both. Verizon gets a tax-free transaction that benefits both executives and shareholders. An already debt-laden Frontier satisfies shareholders by growing the business, which usually makes the balance sheet look good each quarter.

Even as Frontier takes on a massive new tranche of debt, in the short-term the more landlines Frontier acquires, the happier shareholders will be. More customers equal more revenue — revenue that can assuage fears of Frontier’s eye-popping debt load. That added revenue often also means a nice dividend payout to shareholders, unless that money has to be diverted to debt payments or network improvements.

Unfortunately, like a Ponzi scheme, Frontier will have to continue acquiring new landline customers from other companies indefinitely to make it all work. If it can’t, or if customers continue to flee Frontier for more capable providers, revenue numbers will worsen, only making the company’s large debt obligations look even more ominous. Some shareholders think Frontier’s days of paying very high dividends are already behind them as the company takes on even more debt. The value of Frontier stock has dropped 35% in the last six months. In the second quarter of 2015, Frontier reported losses of $28 million. Last year at the same time, Frontier reported $38 million in profits.

junk3Those losses have to be reflected somewhere, and customers complain they are paying the highest price. West Virginians are among those that regularly accuse Frontier of chronically under-investing in broadband service in the state. Many rural communities obtaining broadband for the first time initially appreciated Frontier’s efforts, but have since grown critical of the performance of Frontier’s DSL service, which can slow to 1Mbps or less during the evenings because Frontier has oversold its network and not kept up with usage demands.

Frontier’s deal with Verizon allows it to acquire a large state of the art FiOS fiber to the home network Frontier has never been willing to build itself. Keeping an existing fiber network up and running is considerably less expensive than building one from scratch. That explains why Frontier customers in ex-Verizon FiOS areas enjoy relatively good service while legacy customers still connected to copper phone lines that were installed in the 1960s (or earlier) are stuck with uneven and slow-performing DSL that rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband — 25Mbps. Where customers have a choice between Frontier DSL and another wired provider, most choose fiber or coaxial-based Internet service. Frontier’s rural service focus protects the company by limiting the effects of that kind of competition.

In the near term, Frontier’s biggest threat could eventually come from wireless 4G LTE broadband from AT&T and Verizon Wireless, if the companies can deliver an affordable service for rural residents without a punishing low usage allowance. That remains a big “if.”

(Illustrations by Chris Serra.)

Wi-Fi Woo-Woo – Quack Science Convinces Boston Family to Sue School Over Wi-Fi/EHS Allergy

emf shield

Space age beekeeping or Total EMF protection? Shielding your head just got easier. Slip this sheer and roomy HeadNet on and it will “provide 99.7% shielding across the frequency range 10MHz – 3GHz and >94% at 5.6GHz,” thanks to its generous use of ‘Silver Supershield’ double Silver-plated nylon, claims its manufacturer. Your price: $80

A Boston area boarding school’s failure to accommodate a 12-year-old student’s allergy to Wi-Fi will force the Fay School to hire attorneys to defend itself in a lawsuit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All three plaintiffs have been kept anonymous, but their lawsuit clearly identifies what is responsible for their son’s headaches, itchy skin and rashes — the school’s Wi-Fi system.

The Courthouse News Service:

In spring 2013, the Fay School installed an industrial-capacity WiFi network into the school that was accessible in all classrooms. After the new network went live, “G” began coming home with headaches, itchy skin and rashes that would recede in the evening, and vanish over the weekend and during summer vacation when he was not near the school, the lawsuit claims.

When the child returned to school for the 2014 academic year, his symptoms got worse, resulting in him having to regularly leave school early.

The parents found that their child’s condition may have been caused by exposure to increased electromagnetic activity after learning that, right before their child began suffering the symptoms, the school had installed a new, industrial-strength WiFi network.

“Exposure to Wi-Fi emissions at the levels emitted by the type of Wi-Fi to which the children are exposed in Fay classrooms causes, in those persons affected, most notably children, the symptoms of EHS, which include severe headaches, fatigue, stress, sleep disturbances, skin symptoms such as prickling, burning sensations and rashes, muscle aches, nausea, nose bleeds, dizziness and heart palpitations,” the lawsuit states.

The Omega EMF protector comes in Ethernet or Wi-Fi versions. A similar device opened up by an RF engineer was found to contain plastic beads.

The Omega EMF protector comes in Ethernet or Wi-Fi versions. A similar device opened up by an RF engineer was found to contain plastic beads. A reviewer claimed it was also effective at repelling “the lizard people from touching me in the night.”

People claiming to suffer from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome, or EHS, claim wireless signals cause them pain and suffering. Others argue the condition also afflicts those exposed to electric lights, juicers, Keurig coffee makers, garage door openers, washing machines, microwaves, laptops, blenders, air conditioners, cotton candy makers, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, televisions, dishwashers, and fans. Some believe that mountains are effective blockers of radiation and have relocated to the Catskills or West Virginia to escape decent cell phone coverage and high quality broadband.

While medical authorities consider the symptoms reported by sufferers to be credible and believable, most experts strongly doubt electromagnetic activity is the cause. In the 1980s, high tension, high-capacity power lines were usually implicated by sufferers. But as cell phones became common, cell towers became the new targets. The presence of Wi-Fi, especially in public buildings and the classroom, have fueled the fire under a small army of activists dedicated to getting those services shut down, fearing their health impact on children.

To test the science, a 2009 double-blind study conducted by the National Institutes of Health on intolerance to electronic signals quickly found that when test subjects had no knowledge of whether they were being exposed to electromagnetic activity, all the symptoms of hypersensitivity vanished.

The Boston area family sued after claiming school officials had grown hostile over their requests to “test their student’s classroom.” The family also requested the school’s Wi-Fi network be disabled in all classrooms where their child was present and have wired Ethernet Internet access installed instead.

The World Health Organization’s firm conclusion that there is no link between EHS and Wi-Fi signals was not enough to assuage those worried about wireless. The WHO also declared EHS is not a credible medical diagnosis. Now, this does not mean the symptoms of people who think they have EHS are not real. But with no serious evidence wireless signals are the cause, skeptics suggest another environmental cause is more likely responsible for symptoms.

The two best ways to protect your pets from unnecessary exposure to cell phone signals. 1) Become a Sprint customer. 2) Buy this dog collar for $239.

The two best ways to protect your pets from exposure to robust cell phone signals: 1) Become a Sprint customer. 2) Buy this dog collar for $169.

Prior claims of EHS have often turned out to be exposure to mold and mildew, allergies, perfume exposure, poor air quality, or a yet to be diagnosed unrelated disease or medical condition.

But that has not stopped the creation of a cottage industry of companies marketing “EMF protection” devices to a worried public.

Until recently, an Amazon seller peddled the EarthCalm Omega WiFi Electromagnetic EMF Protection dongle (USB or Ethernet version, so evidently the plaintiff’s request to move the school to Ethernet-based Internet access would subject their child to additional pain and suffering.) A “Healthy Home Package” containing this and a “Home EMF Protection System” is priced to move at another seller for just $405.

A curious RF engineer received a similar wall unit years ago as a gag gift – one he could not resist opening.

“There was nothing more [inside] than a 1-inch long piece of masking tape folded over,” he wrote. “When I peeled apart the masking tape there were seven tiny plastic beads, like you would use on a necklace. That was it! That is their ‘circuit’.”

With the EarthCalm Omega out of stock, there are plenty of alternatives available from hundreds of websites that raise the alarm on the dangers of wireless signals and then make a living selling very expensive “protection” devices of questionable value.

The EMF meter is claimed to be useful for detecting EMF and for ghost hunting.

The EMF meter is claimed to be useful for detecting EMF and for ghost hunting.

Among them:

  • The Nova Resonator S-Series (in three fashion colors) — a metallic tube hung from a chain placed around the neck ($239)
  • The Quantum Cell: A metallic decal placed on the back of your cell phone, degrading or eliminating any cell phone reception ($129)
  • Aulterra the EMF Neutralizer: No it’s not a person, it’s a cheap cell phone signal degrader for the middle class ($29)
  • 4 Paws Pet EMF Protector: You wouldn’t let your dog be subjected to harmful Wi-Fi, would you? This dog collar is the “answer.” ($169)

The marketplace has grown so bloated with EMF protection sellers, they occasionally turn on one another. The manufacturer of the EMF Protection SmartShield360 Portable claims it is state-of-the-art, unlike those pushing “passive (not powered) pendants or stickers which claim to protect you.”

“SmartShield technology is light years beyond basic Schumann Resonance devices,” claims the manufacturer. It’s also light years away from the price of your basic Aulterra kit. SmartShield 360 will set you back $249 (plus $4.99 shipping).

In all seriousness, James “the Amazing” Randi believes such stories of wireless woo-woo can have a real cost.

“We do scientific research for a reason – to find out if things like EHS are real entities,” Randi writes. “What’s the use of such research if the results are going to be ignored.”

“Further, if people who believe they have EHS do not, they likely have some other condition – another condition which will go undiagnosed and untreated because they falsely believe EHS is the cause,” Randi adds.

Randi is also concerned the media treats these stories like catnip, sensationalizing the coverage without any sense of skepticism or fact checking.

“Reporters should have some sense of the topic they are covering, and whether or not they have sufficient background knowledge to know they are telling the true story,” he writes. “If you do a Google search for ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ [one will easily find] Wikipedia, which includes a decent discussion of the lack of scientific legitimacy. [Another] is for a published review showing that EHS sufferers cannot detect EMF. [A] third is to Skeptoid’s debunking of EHS, and [a] fourth is to the WHO review.”

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