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AT&T Recovering from Massive Outage in North Texas

Phillip Dampier October 16, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Video No Comments

AT&T’s Outage Map (DownDetector.com)

AT&T customers across northern Texas suffered a day-long outage selectively affecting television, phone, and internet service after an electrical fire at an AT&T facility in Richardson disrupted service and exposed the phone company’s lack of network redundancy.

Customers noticed the outage Monday morning at around the same time the Richardson fire department was dispatched to AT&T’s switching office at 1666 Firman Drive. Reporters on scene saw smoke marks on the side of the building, and a later incident report detailed an electrical fire that damaged part of the building and the primary and secondary backup electric systems.

An early tweet from AT&T claimed the outage was caused by a direct lightning strike on the building. AT&T has since retracted that assertion and claims the cause of the fire is currently under investigation.

AT&T’s smoke stained building in Richardson.

While causing a nuisance for residential customers, the extended outage caused financial losses for area businesses that rely on AT&T phone and internet services to take orders and process credit card transactions.

ATMs that were in service provided needed cash to spend in area establishments, because credit cards could not be accepted due to the outage.

Some customers wondered why AT&T did not have network redundancy to act as a backup after the fire. AT&T had no comment.

The company does not plan to issue service credits for the outage unless customers specifically ask for one.

Service was restored at around 10:30pm CT.

KTVT in Dallas reports service is restored for most AT&T customers in North Texas that experienced a day long service outage. (2:50)

KDFW in Dallas shows some of the damage a fire in Richardson caused to AT&T’s facilities serving the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. (1:37)

Wall Street’s Latest Great Idea: Providers Should Charge More for 5G, But Only After You Are Hooked

“You’re giving it away… you are giving it all away!” — An unknown Wall Street analyst tossing and turning in the night.

America is simply not paying enough for wireless service. Thanks to dastardly competition introduced by T-Mobile and Sprint (potentially to be snuffed out in due course if their merger gets approved), wireless pricing is no longer a license to print money. Forced to offer one-size-fits-all affordable $40-50 unlimited plans, the prospects to grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) have never been worse because you can’t charge people for more service on an “unlimited plan” without admitting that plan is not exactly “unlimited.”

Wall Street analysts, already upset at the thought of carriers spending more than $100 billion on 5G network upgrades, are in a real tizzy about how companies are going to quickly recoup that investment. No matter that some wireless companies have profit margins in the 50% range and customers have paid providers for a service they were assured would keep up with the times and network demand. If there is to be a 5G revolution in the United States, some insist it must not come at the cost of reliable profits — so the industry must find a way to stick consumers with the bill.

It is not common for industry analysts to go public brainstorming higher prices and more customer gouging. After all, North Americans already pay some of the highest cell phone bills in the world, only mitigated (for now) by scrappy T-Mobile and Sprint. Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, was willing to go public in the pages of Fierce Wireless, arguing “operators should be considering charging a premium price for what will hopefully be a premium service.” That is likely music to the ears of AT&T and Verizon, both frustrated their pricing power in the market has been reduced by credible competition from a significantly improved T-Mobile.

Lowenstein fears the prospects of a “race-to-the-bottom 5G price war” which could arrive if America’s wireless companies offer a credible home internet replacement that lets consumers tell the local phone or cable company to ‘take a hike.’ Since wireless operators will bundle significant discounts for those who subscribe to both home and mobile plans, telecommunications services may actually cost less than what Wall Street was banking on.

Something must be done. Lowenstein:

In mobile, there’s been premium pricing for premium phones. And Verizon Wireless, for a few years when it had a clear network lead, was sort of able to charge a higher price for its service (but not a premium price). But today, there isn’t really premium pricing for premium services. That should change when 5G really kicks into gear.

So how do you extract more cash from consumers’ wallets? Create artificial tiers that have no relationship to the actual cost of the network, but could potentially get people to willingly pay a lot more for something they will initially get for a simple, flat price:

One simple way would be a flat premium price, similar to the “tiers” of Netflix for a higher number of devices or 4K/Ultra HD.  So, perhaps $10 per line for 5G, or $25 for a family plan. Another approach would be more akin to broadband, where there are pricing tiers for different levels of service performance. So if the base 4G LTE plan is $50 per month today, for an average 100 Mbps service, 5G packages could be sold in gradations of $10 for higher speeds (i.e. $60 for 300 Mbps, $70 for 500, $80 for 1 Gbps, and so on). An interesting angle on this is that some of the higher-end 4G LTE services such as Gigabit LTE (and beyond) could get incorporated into this, so it becomes less of a 4G vs. 5G discussion and more of a tier of service discussion.

I would also like to see some flexibility with regard to how one can purchase 5G capabilities. For example, a user might only need those premium 5G features occasionally, and might only be prepared to pay that higher price when the service is being used. Here, we can borrow from the Wi-Fi model, where operators offer a “day pack” for 5G, or for a certain city, location, or 5G-centic app or experience. 5G is going to be hot-spotty for awhile anyway, so why not use a Wi-Fi type model for pricing?

Even better, now with net neutrality in the ash heap of history, courtesy of the Republican-dominated FCC, providers can extract even more of your money by artificially messing with wireless traffic!

Lowenstein sees a brand new world of “app-centric pricing” where wireless carriers can charge even more to assure a fast lane for those entertainment, gaming, and virtual reality apps of the future, designed to take full advantage of 5G. Early tests have shown millimeter wave 5G networks can deliver extremely low latency traffic to customers from day one. That kills the market for selling premium, low-latency add-ons for demanding apps before companies can even start counting the money. So assuming providers are willing to purposely impede network performance, there just could be a market selling sub-100ms assured latency for an extra fee.

The potential of a Money Party only 5G can deliver is coming, but time is short to get the foundation laid for surprise toll lanes and “premium traffic” enhancements made possible without net neutrality. But first, the wireless industry has to get consumers hooked on 5G at a tantalizingly reasonable price. Charge too much, too soon and consumers may decide 4G LTE is good enough for them. That is why Lowenstein recommends operators not get carried away when 5G first launches.

“We don’t want to be setting ourselves up for a WiMAX-like disappointment,” Lowenstein writes. “The next 12-18 months are largely going to be ‘5G Experimentation’ mode, with limited markets, coverage, and devices. Heck, it’s likely to be two years before there’s a 5G iPhone in the United States, where iOS still commands nearly half the market.”

The disappointment will eventually be all yours, dear readers, if Lowenstein’s recommendations are adopted — when “certain milestones” trigger “rate adjustment” letters some day in the future.

Lowenstein sees four signs to start the pillaging, and we’ve paraphrased them:

  • Coverage: Wait until 30-40% of a city is covered with 5G, then jack up the price. As long as customers get something akin to 5G one-third of the time, they’ll moan about why their 5G footprint is so limited, but they will keep paying more for the scraps of coverage they get.
  • Markets: Price the service differently in each market depending on how stingy customers are likely to be at different price points. Then hike those prices to a new “nationwide” standard plan when 5G is available in the top 20-30 cities in the country. Since there may not be much competition, customers can take it or leave it.
  • Performance: AT&T and Verizon’s gotta gouge, but it’s hard to do it with a straight face if your 5G service is barely faster than 4G LTE. Lowenstein recommends waiting until speeds are reliably north of 100 Mbps, then you can let rip with those diamond-priced plans.
  • Devices: It’s hard to extract another $50-100 a month from family plan accounts if there are an inadequate number of devices that support 5G. While your kids “languish” with 4G LTE smartphones and dad enjoys his 5G experience, mom may shut it all down when the bill comes. Wait until everyone in the family can get a 5G phone before delivering some good old-fashioned bill shock, just like companies did in the golden days of uncompetitive wireless.

These ideas can only be adopted if a lack of competition assures all players nobody is going to call them out for pickpocketing customers. Ajit Pai’s FCC won’t interfere, and is even subsidizing some of the operators’ costs with taxpayer dollars and slanted deregulation to let companies construct next generation 5G networks as cheaply as possible (claiming it is important to beat China, where 5G service will cost much less). Should actual competition remain in the wireless market, all the dreams of rate-hikes-because-we-can will never come true, as long as one carrier decides they can grow their business by charging reasonable prices at their competitors’ expense.

AT&T’s Abandoned Wiring Oozing Lead On Customers’ Property

Phillip Dampier September 26, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments

Opening a lead insulated buried cable. Lead can be resealed with solder after repairs.

In the early to mid-1950’s, thousands of landowners between Houston and Dallas/Ft. Worth, Tex. were asked to grant a right of way and easement to what was then known as the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. (AT&T). After winning permission, AT&T buried a 4-6 inch wide copper telephone cable sheathed in lead to connect the two cities — 200 miles apart — together. Almost 70 years later, that cable is coming back to haunt the phone company.

Telecommunications companies have used copper phone wiring for over 100 years to deliver telegraph, telephone, and data services. AT&T’s “trunk lines” often contained dozens, if not hundreds of individual cable pairs used to connect regional long distance calls and distant central switching offices together. To protect the cables, phone companies relied on simple paper insulation until the mid-1950s to keep the cable pairs from making contact with other wires. Buried cables were traditionally sheathed in lead, a very popular and durable insulator that dependably kept moisture out while allowing technicians easy access to the cables within. As the 1960s approached, phone companies began to switch to plastic insulation, but paper and lead-wrapped copper wiring remains in service in some areas to this day, often in large cities.

As with most AT&T-owned underground cables, the one in Texas was wrapped in lead. The company used a network of subterranean concrete rooms and above ground small cinder block buildings for maintenance, offering technicians direct access to the cable and various network equipment. Landowners knew the additional infrastructure belonged to AT&T because the company placed their logo on it.

Ongoing technological advancements eventually allowed AT&T to transition service to fiber optic cables, and by 2010, the Houston-Dallas copper cable was decommissioned. AT&T employees removed its signage, sold the cinder block structures and abandoned the underground vaults.

But AT&T did not remove the cable, which remains unused and buried to this day, allegedly leaching dangerous lead into the ground. Property owners fearing AT&T’s cable may be fouling the soil and groundwater with lead contamination took AT&T to court in 2016, seeking a class action case against the phone company for abandoning its cable and easements.

AT&T’s Environment, Health, and Safety Division offered a presentation at the 2010 International Telecommunications Safety Conference warning about the perils of old lead-sheathed phone cables, claiming “underground cable presents real possibilities for overexposure to lead:”

  • Some older metropolitan areas may still have over 50% lead cable.
  • Buried cable leaches many compounds to the surface of the insulation: lead carbonate, lead monoxide, lead sulfate, lead chloride, lead dioxide, lead acetate, lead nitrate, and lead sulfide. Many of these compounds do not adhere tightly to the cable and are easily airborne.
  • Once in the soil, 83 and 98 percent of the released lead remains intact in the soil within 2 inches of the cables.

In addition to the cost of removing the unused cable, AT&T’s own safety engineers suggest removing old cables can also pose a significant health risk to employees and property owners if not done properly:

  • Extraction of cable from underground duct can release unexpected high levels of lead dust.
  • Wetting was not capable of controlling dust in many cases.
  • Location of employees to cable extraction is important.

Despite the health risks, a judge denied class certification of the lawsuit on Tuesday, ruling each affected property owner will have to bring a separate lawsuit against AT&T.

U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett issued the 11-page ruling against the claimants.

“Plaintiffs present the general retirement of underground coaxial and fiber optic cables, removal of signage/equipment for those cables, and planned release of some easements as class-wide proof that abandonment is a common question for the proposed class,” Judge Bennett wrote. “However, because the class does not deal with one easement, rather hundreds (if not thousands), each class member would need to present evidence of the definite acts revealing AT&T’s intent to abandon the particular easements associated with that member’s property.”

Bennett was also unpersuaded by claims that the abandoned AT&T cable created a presumption of imminent harm, and his ruling stated each property owner would have to provide evidence of the cable’s lead contamination on that owner’s land. In addition, each claimant would have to prove damages, assuming the statute of limitations had not run out years ago.

“Certainly, a separate soil analysis for each property would have to be present, along with evidence pertinent to determine the existence and cause of any contaminates on each of the properties,” Bennett wrote.

The law firm bringing the lawsuit plans an appeal.

AT&T Tearing Up Yards in Dixon, Calif. for Fiber Build; Causes Evacuation After Gas Line Hit

Phillip Dampier September 6, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

Residents in Dixon, Calif. are being inconvenienced by AT&T’s fiber buildout. (Image: KOVR-TV)

AT&T’s contractors turned a Dixon, Calif. neighborhood into “a disaster zone” while attempting to install fiber optic cables for a forthcoming upgrade.

For almost half a year, AT&T’s outsourced construction crews have dug up yards around the growing community of 19,000, located 23 miles from Sacramento. The Valley Glenn neighborhood has seen the worst of it, according to homeowners who complain crews left concrete debris buried in their front yards, killed their lawns, and have been inconvenienced by heavy equipment partially blocking streets for months. Two weeks ago, an AT&T contractor crew hit a gas line, forcing the evacuation of the entire neighborhood.

Homeowner Natalie Avina sought help from Sacramento’s CBS station KOVR-TV, with the hope that drawing media attention to the debacle would force AT&T to ‘do the right thing.’

“They’ve ruined our front yard,” Avina told the station. “Everything’s been dug up. You know we take pride in our homes. You don’t want to come home and see this.”

Heather Craig, another homeowner, reports her lawn is struggling to recover.

“They put concrete instead of dirt back underneath our grass, so it’s dying,” Craig said.

Neighbors agree AT&T has been remiss on keeping the neighborhood informed about the duration of the construction and have not given them information about who to contact to discuss damages and concerns.

AT&T responded to the concerns earlier this week.

“As we work to expand and enhance our fiber network to deliver ultra-high speeds to the Dixon area, our goal is to minimize the effect on residents as much as possible,” AT&T said in a statement. “Unfortunately part of this project was not completed to our standards and we are working to fix it.”

Dixon homeowners are demanding AT&T pay for repairs after a contractor damaged lawns and sidewalks during fiber optic infrastructure installation. KOVR in Sacramento reports. (2:14)

AT&T and Comcast Successfully Slow Google Fiber’s Expansion to a Crawl

AT&T and Comcast have successfully delayed Google Fiber’s expansion around the country long enough to finish upgrades that can nearly match the upstart’s speedy internet service.

Nearly four years after Google Fiber announced it would offer gigabit speed in Nashville, most residents still have no idea when they will be able to have the service installed. Although officially announced in January 2015, Google has only managed to connect 52 apartment buildings and a limited number of single family homes in parts of Charlotte Park, Edgehill, Sylvan Heights, Sylvan Park, East and North Nashville, and Burton Hills. In all, less than 30% of the homes originally promised service actually have it, forcing Google to seek an extension from the Tennessee Public Utilities Board, which was granted last week.

Google’s problems originate within itself and its competitors. The company’s contractors have been criticized for damaging existing wiring, tearing up streets and yards, piercing water pipes causing significant water damage, and inappropriate microtrenching, which caused some of its fiber infrastructure in Nashville to be torn out of the ground by road repair crews.

But the biggest impediment keeping Google from moving faster is its two competitors — AT&T and Comcast, successfully collaborating to stall Google, giving the phone and cable company plenty of time to improve services to better compete. Both companies have also aggressively protected their customers from being poached by offering rock bottom-priced retention plans that some claim are only available in Google Fiber-ready areas.

“It’s still complicated,” Nashville Google Fiber Manager Martha Ivester told the Tennessean newspaper. “Building this fiber optic network throughout the whole city is a long process, and we never expected it wouldn’t be a long process. Obviously, we have had our challenges here.”

WZTV Nashville reports East Nashville residents were upset over road work related to Google Fiber that lasted for months, severely restricting residential parking. (2:37)

Google Fiber Huts – Nashville, Tenn.

Google’s ability to expand has been restrained for years, despite an informal alliance with city officials, primarily over pole attachment issues. Much of middle Tennessee is challenged by a difficult-to-penetrate layer of limestone close to the surface, making underground utility service difficult and expensive. Google’s negotiations with Nashville Electric Service (NES), which owns 80% of the utility poles in Nashville and AT&T, which owns the remaining 20%, have been long and contentious at times. To bring Google Fiber to a neighborhood, existing wires on utility poles have to be moved closer together to make room for Google Fiber. In real terms, that has taken several months, as AT&T and Comcast independently move at their own pace to relocate their respective lines.

An effort to use independent contractors to move all lines in unison — known as “One Touch Make Ready,” was fiercely opposed by AT&T and Comcast, claiming it would violate contracts with existing workers and could pose safety issues, despite the fact both companies use independent contractors themselves to manage wiring. Both companies successfully challenged One Touch Make Ready in court. A federal judge ruled that only the FCC could regulate poles owned by AT&T, while another judge ruled the city had no authority to order the municipally owned electric company to comply with One Touch Make Ready.

In August, the FCC issued an order allowing One Touch Make Ready to apply to AT&T’s poles, but NES still refuses to change its policy of relocating service lines one line at a time. The electric utility did not explain its reasons. AT&T also recently eased its position on One Touch Make Ready, but with NES still stonewalling, Google Fiber’s delays are likely to continue.

AT&T Fiber is being embraced by some customers tired of waiting for Google Fiber.

In the interim, both AT&T and Comcast have upgraded their respective systems. AT&T Fiber offers a fiber-to-the-home connection available in some areas while Comcast offers near-gigabit download speeds over its existing Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network. The upgrades have taken the wind out of Google Fiber for some tired of waiting.

Google has recently tried to speed progress using underground “shallow trenching” for installation, which buries cable as little as four inches deep. The company has amassed more than 24,000 permits to lay fiber under roads and yards in Nashville, which may speed some deployment, but for some it is too little, too late.

“It has been more than a year since we expected Google Fiber to serve us and they won’t tell us when they will get here, so I gave up and signed a two-year contract for AT&T Fiber service instead,” said Drew Miller. “Google Fiber just isn’t as exciting as it was when it was announced because other providers have similar service now and I get a better deal bundling it with my AT&T cellphone service.”

Attitudes like that obviously concern Google, as have reports that customers in Google Fiber-ready neighborhoods are getting very aggressively priced retention offers if they stay with their current provider.

“Comcast cut my bill from close to $200 to around $125 if I did not switch,” said Stop the Cap! reader Olivia. “I also got double internet speed. I don’t need a gigabit, so I stayed with Comcast. If I get close to their usage limit I will switch to Google then.”

Olivia notes her mother had exactly the same services from Comcast, but Comcast would not offer her the same promotion because she lived in an area not yet wired for Google Fiber.

With upgrades and aggressive customer retentions, the longer Google takes to string fiber, the fewer customers are likely to switch for what was originally “game-changing” internet speeds and service.

WTVF Nashville shows off Google’s microtrenching, burying fiber optic cables just a few inches underground. (2:36)

Pricing Comparisons

Google Fiber

  • Fiber 100: $50 a month, internet speeds up to 100 Mbps
  • Fiber 1000: $70 a month, internet speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, downloads and uploads
  • Fiber 100 + TV: $140 a month, internet speeds up to 100 Mbps, 155+ channels, premium channels (HBO, Showtime) available
  • Fiber 1000 + TV: $160 a month, internet speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, 155+ channels, premium channels (HBO, Showtime) available

AT&T

  • Internet-only: $50 a month for first 12 months, then $60 thereafter. $99 installation fee. Unlimited data costs an extra $30 a month. Early termination fee: $180 (pro-rated). Speeds range from 10 to 100 Mbps
  • Direct TV + Internet: $75/mo first 12 months, then $121. Customers pay a $35 activation fee and $30 a month for unlimited data. 155 channels. Speeds vary. 24 month contract required.
  • Internet 1000: $90 a month during first 12 months, then $100/mo thereafter. Bundled discount can reduce cost of package to $80-90. Up to 960 Mbps downloads. Early termination fee: $180 (pro-rated).

Comcast

  • Performance Starter: $20 a month, increases to $50 after two-year promotion. Up to 25 Mbps.
  • Blast!: $45 a month, increases to $80 a month after two-year promotion. 150 Mbps.
  • Gigabit (DOCSIS 3.1): $70 a month, increased to $140 after two-year promotion. 940/35 Mbps.

WSMV Nashville reports Google’s microtrenching has been problematic as road crews unintentionally dig up Google’s optical fiber cables mistakenly buried just two inches underground. (2:44)

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