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Wireless Providers Create Challenges for Smartphone Upgrade Marketplace

samsung s7Smartphone manufacturers are dealing with sluggish sales for the newest and greatest phone models because American consumers are increasingly resistant to paying for top of the line devices.

Apple, Samsung, and others are facing some of their biggest challenges ever delivering upgrade features deemed useful enough to encourage consumers to spend the more than $600 that many high-end phones now command in the marketplace. As blasé new features fail to deliver a “must-have” message to consumers, many are hanging onto their existing phones and refusing to upgrade.

The decision by wireless providers to stop subsidizing devices backed by two-year contracts have delivered sticker shock to consumers looking for the latest and greatest. The Apple iPhone 7, expected to be announced this month, will likely carry a price of $650 — a serious amount of money, even if your wireless provider or Apple agrees to finance its purchase interest-free for 24 months. Despite the fact wireless providers charged artificially higher service plan rates to recoup the cost of the device subsidy over the length of the contract, consumer perception made it easier to justify paying $200 for a subsidized phone versus paying full retail price and getting cheaper service.

As a result, consumers are strategically holding on to their cell phones longer than ever and avoiding upgrade fever just to score a lower cell phone bill. The Wall Street Journal reports that since T-Mobile started the trend away from device subsidies in 2013, Citigroup estimates the smartphone replacement cycle has now lengthened to 29.6 months, considerably longer than in 2011 when upgrades were likely even before the two-year phone contract expired.

The average combined revenue earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged "price war."

The average combined monthly revenue (in $) earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged “price war.” (Image: Trefis)

Wireless providers don’t mind the change since they endured fronting the subsidy cost to phone manufacturers and slowly recouped it over the next two years. Not dealing with a subsidy would make the accounting easier. But AT&T and Verizon Wireless both understood the average consumer doesn’t have a spare $650 sitting around for a new device, much less the nearly $2,500 it would cost to outfit a family of four with a new top of the line smartphone every two years. So they entered the financing business, breaking the cost of the device into as many as 24 equal installment payments. Instead of paying $672 for a Samsung Galaxy S7, Verizon Wireless offers 24 equal installments of $28. That would be a distinction without much difference from the old subsidy system except for the fact some carriers are trying to sell their equipment financing obligations to a third-party, allowing them to move that debt off their books as well.

In fact, wireless providers are doing so well under the “no-contract/pay full price or installments” system, Wall Street analyst firm Trefis has started to ask whether the so-called wireless carrier “price war” is just a mirage. The firm notes (reg. req’d.) all the four major carriers are doing well and collecting an increasing amount of money from their customers than ever before. Much of that added revenue comes from customers bulking up data plans and being forced to pay for unlimited voice and texting features they may not need. But Trefis also points to reined in marketing spending at the carriers, who no longer have to entice customers into device upgrades as part of a contract renewal.

Things are looking worse for phone manufacturers that have relied on revenue based on the two-year device upgrade cycle in the United States. Apple is under growing pressure as its iPhone faces declining demand. In the U.S. alone, analysts predict iPhone sales will drop 7.1% this year. UBS predicts an even less optimistic 9% drop, followed by a 5% drop next year, even after iPhone 7 is introduced. AT&T has already reported some of the lowest upgrade rates ever during the first three months of 2016.

Another clue consumers are planning to hold on to their smartphones longer than ever — sales of rugged cases and screen protectors are up, as are smartphone protection/loss insurance plan sales, according to AT&T senior VP Steven Hodges. Parents even expect their children to give their phones better care.

Customers “realized it was a $500 to $700 device,” Hodges said at an industry conference held in June. “As such, they started taking care of them differently. You tell a kid this is only $49, the kid is going to use his phone as a baseball at times.”

Other customers are looking forward to benefiting from a dramatically lower bill after paying off their device in 24 months.

Kristin Maclearie has an iPhone 6 and she wants to keep it for the long term, if only to see her Verizon bill drop once she finishes her monthly payments. She told the Wall Street Journal as long as it keeps working, “I’ll just hang onto the one I have,” she said. “Unless something really cool comes out…but they’re always similar.”

Unlimited Data is Back (With Fine Print): T-Mobile/Sprint Push Unlimited Data Plans for All

Tmo1LogoSeveral years after wireless unlimited data plans became grandfathered or riddled by speed throttling, America’s third and fourth largest carriers have decided the marketplace wants “unlimited everything” after all and is prepared to give customers what they want, at least until they read the fine print.

T-Mobile Announces “The Era of the Data Plan is Over”: T-Mobile ONE

T-Mobile CEO John Legere used a video blog to announce a major shakeup of T-Mobile’s wireless plans this morning, centered on the concept of “unlimited everything.”

“The era of the data plan is over,” said Legere. T-Mobile’s new plan — T-Mobile ONE — does away with usage caps and usage-based billing and offers unlimited calls, texting, and data on the company’s 4G LTE network. The plan becomes available Sept. 6 at T-Mobile stores nationwide and t-mobile.com for postpaid customers. Prepaid plans will be available later.

tmoone

“Only T-Mobile’s network can handle something as huge as destroying data limits,” said Legere. “Dumb and Dumber can’t do this. They’ve been running away from unlimited data for years now, because they built their networks for phone calls, not for how people use smartphones today. I hope AT&T and Verizon try to follow us. In fact, I challenge them to try.”

Legere

Legere

T-Mobile claims the savings with its unlimited plan are enormous compared to its bigger competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Verizon’s largest LTE usage-capped data plan would cost a family of four $530/month. That’s $4,440 more than T-Mobile ONE will charge.

T-Mobile ONE costs $70 a month for the first line, $50 a month for the second, and additional lines are $20 a month, up to 8 lines with auto pay (add $5 per line if you don’t want autopay). Customers can add tablets for an extra $20 a month.

T-Mobile does offer some caveats in the fine print which are relevant to customers:

  • All video streaming on this plan is throttled to support a maximum of 480p picture quality. Higher video quality is available with an HD add-on plan for $25/mo per line;
  • Tethering is included with T-Mobile ONE, but it is painfully speed-limited to 2G speeds — around 70kbps, just a tad faster than dial-up. At that speed, a web page that will take less than five seconds to load on a 4G network will take 17-25 seconds. A 60 second YouTube video will take nearly five minutes to watch, and downloading apps or sharing images is often impossible because of timeouts. If you want 4G tethering, that will be $15 a month for 5GB, please;
  • Customers identified as among the top 3% of data users, typically those who use more than 26GB of 4G LTE data a month will find themselves in the same data doghouse T-Mobile’s Simple Choice customers are in. That means during peak usage periods on busy cell towers, heavier users are deprioritized on T-Mobile’s network, but we’re not sure if that results in slight speed reductions or the kind of drastic 2G-like experience these kinds of “fair usage” policies often deliver.

Our analysis:

bingeonWhile we’re happy to see unlimited data plans return to prominence, T-Mobile is continuing to punish high bandwidth applications, tethering, and usage outliers with frustrating speed throttles.

T-Mobile’s biggest source of increasing traffic is coming from online video. About a year ago, Legere introduced T-Mobile’s Binge On program, which offers streaming video from T-Mobile’s partners without it counting against your usage allowance. This program had the potential of causing problems with the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules.

Legere seemed to avoid trouble by revealing enough information about Binge On to make it clear why the program exists — to reduce video traffic’s impact on T-Mobile’s network. That might seem counterintuitive until one looks at what it takes to be a Binge On partner — allowing T-Mobile’s Binge On-related traffic to be “optimized” to Standard Definition video (around 480p). No money changes hands between T-Mobile and its Binge On partners.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a BingeOn participant.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a Binge On participant.

Binge On was an important factor in freeing up bandwidth on T-Mobile’s network. Some analysts suggest two-thirds of T-Mobile’s video traffic load disappeared after Binge On was introduced. Video is likely the single biggest bandwidth consuming application on wireless networks today. If a customer is watching on a smartphone or even a small tablet, 480p video is generally adequate and has a lower chance of stopping to buffer.

slowAnother clue about the impact of online video on T-Mobile’s network is the same video throttling strategy is built into T-Mobile ONE and applies to all online video, whether the provider partners with T-Mobile or not. Also consider the extraordinary cost of the optional HD Video add-on, which defeats video throttling: a whopping $25 per month per device. That kind of pricing clearly suggests 1080p or even 4K video is a major resource hog for T-Mobile, and customers looking for this level of video quality are going to pay substantially to get it.

T-Mobile is also clearly concerned about tethering, relegating hotspot and tethered device traffic to 2G speeds, which will quickly deter anyone from depending on it except in emergencies. Again, traffic is the issue. Some semi-rural customers unserved by cable but able to get a 4G signal from a T-Mobile tower may think of using T-Mobile as their exclusive source of internet access. At speeds just above dial-up, they won’t consider this an option.

We’re also disappointed to see 26GB of usage a month as the threshold for potential speed throttling. T-Mobile ONE is not cheap, and without more detailed information about how often those exceeding 26GB face speed slowdowns, how much of a slowdown, and how quickly those speed reductions disappear when the tower gets less congested would be very useful. Until then, customers are likely to interpret 26GB as a type of soft usage allowance they will not want to exceed.

T-Mobile ONE also delivers a powerful signal to Wall Street because it raises the lowest price a T-Mobile postpaid customer can pay to become a customer from $50 to $70 a month for a single line. That’s quite a burden for some customers who will have to look to prepaid plans or resellers to get cheaper service. Other carriers rushed to meet T-Mobile’s $50 2GB plan when it was introduced, which has served as an entry-level price range for occasional data dabblers. If those carriers don’t immediately raise prices as well, they will undercut T-Mobile. That could provoke an increase in cancellations among customers buying on price, not plan features. T-Mobile is banking consumers will appreciate unlimited data enough to pay extra for peace of mind.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans, T-Mobile ONE represents a price increase. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less with T-Mobile ONE.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans will see a price increase with T-Mobile ONE. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less.

sprintlogoSprint: Unlimited Freedom: Two Lines of Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data for $100/month

Not to be outdone by T-Mobile, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure today announced his own company’s overhaul of wireless plans, featuring the all-new Sprint Unlimited Freedom plan, which offers two lines of unlimited talk, text and data for $100 a month, with no access charges or hidden fees.

Starting Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint customers can sign up for the new plan, which costs $60 for the first line, $100 for two lines, and $30 for each additional line, up to 10. Sprint pounced on the fact its Unlimited Freedom plan for two is $20 less than T-Mobile charges.

Otherwise the two plans are remarkably similar — too similar for the CEOs of both companies that spent part of today engaged in a Twitter war.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

“Sprint’s new Unlimited Freedom beats T-Mobile and AT&T’s unlimited offer – only available to its DirecTV subscribers – while Verizon doesn’t even offer its customers an unlimited plan,” read Sprint’s press release.

unlimited freedom“Wireless customers want simple, worry-free and affordable wireless plans on a reliable network,” said Marcelo Claure, Sprint president and CEO. “There can be a lot of frustration and confusion around wireless offers, with too much focus on gigabytes and extra charges. Our answer is the simplicity of Unlimited Freedom. Now customers can watch their favorite movies and videos and stream an unlimited playlist at an amazing price.”

Sprint has also essentially joined the T-Mobile optimization bandwagon, limiting streaming video to 480p, but it goes further with optimization of games — limited to 2Mbps, and music — limited to 500kbps. There does not seem to be any option to pay more to avoid the “optimization” and Sprint is not offering a tethering option with this plan.

“While we initially questioned using mobile optimization for video, gaming and music, the decision was simpler when consumers said it ‘practically indistinguishable’ in our tests with actual consumers,” said Claure. “In fact, most individuals we showed could not see any difference between optimized and premium-resolution streaming videos when viewing on mobile phone screens. Both provide the mobile customer clear, vibrant videos and high-quality audio. Mobile optimization allows us to provide a great customer experience in a highly affordable unlimited package while increasing network efficiency.”

sprint

boostAlso, beginning Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint’s leading prepaid brand, Boost Mobile introduces its own unlimited offer, Unlimited Unhook’d:

  • Unlimited talk, text and optimized streaming videos, gaming and music
  • Unlimited nationwide 4G LTE data for most everything else
  • $50 a month for one line
  • $30 a month for a second line up to five total lines

In addition to the Unlimited Unhook’d plan, Boost Mobile will also unveil the $30 Unlimited Starter plan, which includes unlimited talk, text and slower network data (2G or 3G) with 1GB of 4G LTE data. Customers looking for more high-speed data can add 1 GB of 4G LTE data for $5 per month or 2 GB of 4G LTE data for $10 per month. Multi-line plans are also available for families looking to save some money for an additional $30 a month per line.

“There’s a lot of confusion and clutter in prepaid, but is doesn’t have to be that way. Boost Mobile is offering the simplest solution with plans that are easy to understand,” said Claure. “Boost has something for everyone, whether you need a truly unlimited plan with 4G LTE data or want to save extra money with a low-cost plan.”

Google Fiber Puts Expansion on Hold as It Contemplates Wireless Instead

google fiberFurther expansion of Google Fiber appears to be on hold as the company contemplates moving away from fiber to the home service towards a wireless platform that could provide internet access in urban areas for less money.

The Wall Street Journal today reports Google parent Alphabet, Inc., is looking to cities to share more of the costs of building faster broadband networks or using cheaper wireless technology to reach customers instead.

Six years after Google first announced it would finance the construction of fiber to the home networks, the company has made progress in wiring just six communities, many incompletely. Progress has been hampered by infrastructure complications including pole access, permitting and zoning issues, unanticipated construction costs, and according to one Wall Street analyst, the possibility of lack of enthusiasm from potential subscribers.

Google’s recent acquisition of Webpass, a company specializing in beaming internet access over fiber-connected wireless antennas between large multi-dwelling units like apartments and condos appears to be a game-changer for Google. Webpass was designed mostly to service urban and population dense areas, not suburbs or neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. Webpass’ reliance on wireless signals that travel between buildings removes the cost and complexity of installing fiber optics, something that appears to be of great interest to Google.

Google Fiber is planning a system that would use fiber for its core network but rely on wireless antennas to connect each home to the network, according to a person familiar with the plans. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said at the company’s shareholder meeting in June that wireless connections can be “cheaper than digging up your garden” to lay fiber. The only question is what kind of performance can users expect on a shared wireless network. Google’s plans reportedly do not involve 5G but something closer to fixed wireless or souped-up high-speed Wi-Fi. A web video on Webpass’ website seems to concede “you get best speeds with a wired connection.”

Even Google's wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Even Google’s wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Former Webpass CEO Charles Barr, now an Alphabet employee, argues wireless solves a lot of problems that fiber can bring to the table.

“Everyone who has done fiber to the home has given up because it costs way too much money and takes way too much time,” Barr said.

Barr’s statements are factually inaccurate, however. Fiber to the home projects continue in many cities, but if they are run by private companies, chances are those rollouts are limited to areas where a proven rate of return is likely. Large incumbent phone and cable companies are also contemplating some fiber rollouts, at least to those who can afford it. Many of the best prospects for fiber to the home service are customers in under-competitive markets where the phone company offers slow speed DSL and cable broadband speeds are inadequate. Rural communities served by co-ops are also prospects for fiber upgrades because those operations answer to their members, not investors. Community broadband projects run by local government or public utilities have also proven successful in many areas.

subBut like all publicly traded companies, Google must answer to Wall Street and their investors and some are not happy with what they see from Google Fiber. Craig Moffett from Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson has rarely been a fan of any broadband provider other than cable operators and Google Fiber is no different.

“One can’t help but feel that all of this has the flavor of a junior science fair,” Moffett said of Google Fiber, pointing out the service has managed to attract only 53,000 cable TV customers nationwide as of December. Moffett concedes there are significantly more broadband-only customers signed up for Google, but that didn’t stop him from suggesting Google Fiber has had very little impact on increasing broadband competition across the country.

Analysts suggest Google Fiber is spending about $500 per home passed by its new fiber network. But that is a fraction of the $3,000+ per customer often spent by cable operators buying one another.

Google’s wireless deployment will likely take place in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Less dense cities slated for Google Fiber including San Jose and Portland, Ore., may never get any service from Google at all, but they are likely to hear something after a six month wait.

Google is also reportedly asking cities if the company can lease access on existing fiber networks. Another tactic is requesting power companies or communities build fiber networks first and then turn them over to Google to administer. The latter seems less likely, considering there are successful public broadband networks operating on their own without Google’s help.

Verizon 5G: Finally a “Fiber” Broadband Service Verizon Executives Like

verizon 5gIt wasn’t difficult to understand Verizon’s sudden reticence about continuing its fiber to the home expansion program begun under the leadership of its former chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg. Starting his career with Verizon predecessor New York Telephone as a cable splicer, he worked his way to the top. Seidenberg understood Verizon’s wireline future as a landline phone provider was limited at best. With his approval, Verizon began retiring decades-old copper wiring and replaced it with fiber optics, primarily in the company’s biggest service areas and most affluent suburbs along the east coast. The service was dubbed FiOS, and it has consistently won high marks from customers and consumer groups.

Seidenberg

Seidenberg

Seidenberg hoped by offering customers television, phone, and internet access, they would have a reason to stay with the phone company. Verizon’s choice of installing fiber right up the side of customer homes proved highly controversial on Wall Street. Seidenberg argued that reduced maintenance expenses and the ability to outperform their cable competitors made fiber the right choice, but many Wall Street analysts complained Verizon was spending too much on upgrades with no evidence it would cause a rush of returning customers. By early 2010, Verizon’s overall weak financial performance coupled with Wall Street’s chorus of criticism that Verizon was overspending to acquire new customers, forced Seidenberg to put further FiOS expansion on hold. Verizon committed to complete its existing commitments to expand FiOS, but with the exception of a handful of special cases, stopped further expansion into new areas until this past spring, when the company suddenly announced it would expand FiOS into the city of Boston.

Seidenberg stepped down as CEO in July 2011 and was replaced by Lowell McAdam. McAdam spent five years as CEO and chief operating officer of Verizon Wireless and had been involved in the wireless industry for many years prior to that. It has not surprised anyone that McAdam’s focus has remained on Verizon’s wireless business.

McAdam has never been a booster of FiOS as a copper wireline replacement. Verizon’s investments under McAdam have primarily benefited its wireless operations, which enjoy high average revenue per customer and a healthy profit margin. Over the last six years of FiOS expansion stagnation, Verizon’s legacy copper wireline business has continued to experience massive customer losses. Revenue from FiOS has been much stronger, yet Verizon’s management remained reticent about spending billions to restart fiber expansion. In fact, Verizon’s wireline network (including FiOS) continues to shrink as Verizon sells off parts of its service area to independent phone companies, predominately Frontier Communications. Many analysts expect this trend to continue, and some suspect Verizon could eventually abandon the wireline business altogether and become a wireless-only company.

With little interest in maintaining or upgrading its wired networks, customers stuck in FiOS-less communities complain Verizon’s service has been deteriorating. As long as McAdam remains at the head of Verizon, it seemed likely customers stuck with one option – Verizon DSL – would be trapped with slow speed internet access indefinitely.

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion rises from the dead?

But McAdam has finally shown some excitement for a high-speed internet service he does seem willing to back. Verizon’s ongoing trials of 5G wireless service, if successful, could spark a major expansion of Verizon Wireless into the fixed wireless broadband business. Unlike earlier wireless data technologies, 5G is likely to be an extremely short-range wireless standard that will depend on a massive deployment of “small cells” that can deliver gigabit plus broadband speeds across a range of around 1,500 feet in the most ideal conditions. That’s better than Wi-Fi but a lot less than the range of traditional cell towers offering 4G service.

What particularly interests McAdam is the fact the cost of deploying 5G networks could be dramatically less than digging up neighborhoods to install fiber. Verizon’s marketing mavens have already taken to calling 5G “wireless fiber.”

“I think of 5G initially as wireless technology that can provide an enhanced broadband experience that could only previously be delivered with physical fiber to the customer,” said McAdam during Verizon’s second-quarter earnings call. “With wireless fiber the so-called last mile can be a virtual connection, dramatically changing our cost structure.”

McAdam

McAdam

Verizon’s engineers claim they can build 5G networking into existing 4G “small cells” that are already being deployed today as part of Verizon’s efforts to increase the density of its cellular network and share the increasing data demands being placed on its network. In fact, McAdam admitted Verizon’s near-future would not depend on acquiring a lot of new wireless spectrum. Instead, it will expand its network of cell towers and small cells to cut the number of customers trying to share the same wireless bandwidth.

McAdam’s 5G plan depends on using extremely high frequency millimeter wave spectrum, which can only travel line-of-sight. Buildings block the signal and thick foliage on trees can dramatically cut its effective range. That means a new housing development of 200 homes with few trees to get in the way could probably be served with small cells, if mounted high enough above the ground to avoid obstructions. But an older neighborhood with decades-old trees with a significant canopy could make reception much more difficult and require more small cells. Another potential downside: just like Wi-Fi in a busy mall or restaurant, 5G service will be shared among all subscribers within range of the signal. That could involve an entire neighborhood, potentially reducing speed and performance during peak usage times.

Verizon won’t know how well the service will perform in the real world until it can launch service trials, likely to come in 2017. But Verizon has also made it clear it wants to be a major, if not dominant player in the 5G marketplace, so plenty of money to construct 5G networks will likely be available if tests go well.

Ironically, to make 5G service possible, Verizon will need to replace a lot of its existing copper network it has consistently refused to upgrade with the same fiber optic cables that make FiOS possible. It needs the fiber infrastructure to connect the large number of small cells that would have to be installed throughout cities and suburbs. That may be the driving force behind Verizon’s sudden resumed interest in restarting FiOS expansion this year, beginning in Boston.

“We will create a single fiber optic network platform capable of supporting wireless and wireline technologies and multiple products,” McAdam told investors. “In particular, we believe the fiber deployment will create economic growth for Boston. And we are talking to other cities about similar partnerships. No longer are discussions solely about local franchise rights, but how to make forward-looking cities more productive and effective.”

If McAdam can convince investors fiber expansion is right for them, the company can also bring traditional FiOS to neighborhoods where demand warrants or wait until 5G becomes a commercially available product and offer that instead. Or both.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about how Verizon will ultimately market 5G. The company could adopt its wireless philosophy of not offering customers unlimited use service, and charge premium prices for fast speeds tied to a 5G data plan. Or it could market the service exactly the same as it sells essentially unlimited FiOS. Customer reaction will likely depend on usage caps, pricing, and performance. As a shared technology, if speeds lag on Verizon’s 5G network as a result of customer demand, it will prove a poor substitute to FiOS.

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

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

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

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

Smith

Smith

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

empty-office

$24 million spent and nothing to show for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

Rural Floridians endure more broken promises for better broadband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shammo

Shammo

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

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

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

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

A microcell

A microcell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low

Low

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

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

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

S

Frentzen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failed Consolidation Merger Keeps the Price Wars Going

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

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

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

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

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

At Cablevision, Profits Will Come Before Employees, Customers

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

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

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

mayotte reunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oman: Broadband for All By Any Means Necessary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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