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Your CenturyLink Internet Access Blocked Until You Acknowledge Their Ad

(Image courtesy of: Rick Snapp)

CenturyLink customers in Utah were rudely interrupted earlier this month by an ad for CenturyLink’s pricey security and content filtering software that left their internet access disabled until they acknowledged reading the ad.

Dear Utah Customer,

Your internet security and experience is important to us at CenturyLink.

The Utah Department of Commerce, Division of Consumer Protection requires CenturyLink to inform you of filtering software available to you. This software can be used to block material that may be deemed harmful to minors.

CenturyLink’s @Ease product is available here and provides the availability of such software.

As a result of the forced ad, all internet activity stopped working until a customer opened a browser session to first discover the notification, then clear it by hitting the “OK” button at the bottom of the screen. This irritated customers who use the internet for more than just web browsing.

One customer told Ars Technica he was watching his Fire TV when streaming suddenly stopped. After failed attempts at troubleshooting, the customer checked his web browser and discovered the notification message. After clicking “OK,” his service resumed.

A CenturyLink spokesperson told KSL News, “As a result of the new law, all CenturyLink high-speed internet customers in Utah must acknowledge a pop-up notice, which provides information about the availability of filtering software, in order to access the internet.”

In fact, according to a detailed report by Ars Technica, CenturyLink falsely claimed that the forced advertisement was required by Utah state law, when in fact the company would be in full compliance simply by notifying such software was available “in a conspicuous manner.”

CenturyLink chose to turn the Utah law to their profitable advantage by exclusively promoting its own product — @Ease, a costly ISP-branded version of Norton Security. CenturyLink recommended customers choose its Advanced package, which costs $14.95 a month. But parental filtering and content blocking tools are not even mentioned on the product comparison page, leaving customers flummoxed about which option to choose.

In effect, CenturyLink captured an audience and held their internet connection hostage — an advantage most advertisers can only dream about. CenturyLink countered that only residential customers had their usage restricted, and that because of the gravity of the situation, extraordinary notification methods were required.

But as Ars points out, no other ISP in the state went to this extreme level (and used it as an opportunity to make more money with self-interested software pitches).

Bill sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler (R), said ISPs were in compliance simply by putting a notice on a monthly bill or sending an e-mail message to customers about the software. Weiler added that ISPs had all of 2018 to comply and most had already done so. AT&T, for example, included the required notice in a monthly bill statement. CenturyLink waited until the last few weeks of the year, and used it as an opportunity to upsell customers to expensive security solutions most do not need.

With the demise of net neutrality, ISPs that were forbidden to block or throttle content for financial gain are now doing so, with a motivation to make even more money from their customers.

CenturyLink Accused of Playing Fast and Loose with Campaign Contribution Laws

Phillip Dampier April 19, 2018 CenturyLink, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Rep. Trujillo — a friend of CenturyLink

Rep. Carl Trujillo (D-Santa Fe), a New Mexico legislator embroiled in a hotly contested primary for New Mexico’s state legislature, is accused of violating the state’s campaign finance laws by concealing contributions from companies including CenturyLink, the single biggest contributor to his campaign during his last race in 2016.

Denie Cordova of Alcade filed a formal complaint with the New Mexico Secretary of State on Monday.

“Mr. Trujillo failed to disclose thousands of dollars on his campaign finance reports from donors related to CenturyLink and the oil and gas industry, which is against the law,” Cordova said. “Because his failure to disclose these contributions relate to these two industries solely, I believe his failure to disclose was willful.”

Cordova tracked where Trujillo’s campaign funds originated and discovered CenturyLink, along with several companies in the oil and gas industry, may be secretly funneling campaign money to Trujillo with the help of Rep. Patricio Ruilobo, a fellow Democrat who has contributed thousands of dollars to Cordova’s campaign.

“Unopposed again this year, Mr. Ruilobo has suddenly raised over $17,000, or a third of the amount he has raised since being initially elected,” Cordova wrote. “Mr. Ruilobo has received numerous contributions from businesses who have never donated to his campaign, but are contributors to Mr. Trujillo, such as Occidental Petroleum ($2,500), Chevron ($1,000); and Encana ($1,000). Did Mr. Trujillo funnel contributions from oil and gas through Mr. Ruilobo’s campaign account? These ‘pass-through’ contributions are illegal in the state of New Mexico.”

The complaint also alleges CenturyLink’s lobbyist, Johnny Montoya, gave Trujillo free baseball tickets that were never reported on disclosure forms. But in a more serious allegation, Cordova claims both CenturyLink and Trujillo violated New Mexico law by accepting money from the telecommunications company above the corporate limit.

Trujillo’s defense of CenturyLink’s contributions also raised eyebrows.

“One campaign contribution came from a telecommunications PAC [affiliated with CenturyLink], the other came from a telecommunications [company – CenturyTel], therefore, there is no violation,” Trujillo said. “She is claiming that they are from the same company, ($500 from CenturyLink, $2,500 from CenturyLink lobbyist Katherine Martinez) and that is completely untrue.”

CenturyTel is the old corporate name for what is now known as CenturyLink. Although the two entities still exist for business and regulatory reasons, they are both essentially the same company. Corporations often skirt campaign contribution laws by making multiple donations as an individual company, through an affiliated Political Action Committee (PAC), and through personal contributions from corporate executives and occasionally employees. While each distinct contribution is reported individually on disclosure forms, politicians do the math and understand where the combined contributions are coming from.

As for the baseball tickets, Trujillo waived them off.

“That is not a campaign contribution, there is no place to amend my report, it’s all within the limits of the Campaign Finance Act, so there’s no violation there,” he told the Los Alamos Monitor.

Trujillo has been criticized by some in his district, which covers a largely rural area from Santa Fe to the northern half of the county, for being too corporate friendly, a charge Trujillo strongly disputes.

Montoya

“I am probably the number one representative or senator in the state that receives the vast majority, 90 percent of my contributions, from grassroots organizations, individuals and small businesses,” he told the newspaper. “I raised a lot of money from many small businesses and individuals within the district. Those characteristics of my campaign funding are completely untrue.”

But at least some of Cordova’s charges seem to be accurate, particularly regarding large donations from energy companies like Encana Gas and Oil, which Trujillo had to send back.

“I sent many contributions back throughout my tenure as a legislator. I have probably sent 30 to 40 contributions back,” Trujillo said. When asked why he has had to return so many corporate contributions, Trujillo answered, “Because of what we’re dealing with now. Campaigns that have nothing to grab onto make desperate attempts to make somebody look bad. People refuse to run for office because of tactics like this.”

Trujillo also turned the spotlight back on Cordova and her complaint, which he called “suspicious,” noting it was a very detailed add filed by someone who lives outside his district. A Facebook page for Ms. Cordova reveals no political leanings or obvious interest in politics.

His opponent in the primary, Andrea Romero, has herself been the subject of some controversy. In February, a complaint filed by Northern New Mexico Protects claimed Romero spent over $1,850 on a single dinner, not including $307 for alcohol and baseball tickets, during a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. Romero is also under investigation in her role as former executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities — a group of towns that have banded together to deal with issues surrounding the Los Alamos National Laboratory. New Mexico’s state auditor is currently auditing the books of the coalition over financial irregularities relating to travel expenses.

Romero accused her complainant of having political connections to Trujillo and claimed the entire affair was politically motivated. Trujillo claims essentially the same, but has not directly accused Romero by name.

The larger issue for ethics in government observers is the money laundering of political campaign contributions to skirt campaign finance laws. The fact that many of Trujillo’s donors suddenly began making contributions to an Albuquerque legislator that has faced no significant opposition and has raised very little money in the past was intriguing. When that money turned into a legislator to legislator campaign contribution from Ruilobo to Trujillo, it looked suspicious.

Campaign finance reform advocates call it a shell game and a way to undermine campaign finance limits. But they admit in New Mexico it is both legal and common.

CenturyLink Ends Prism TV Service Expansion

Phillip Dampier April 10, 2018 CenturyLink, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 3 Comments

CenturyLink’s Prism TV

CenturyLink has stopped expanding its cable TV alternative Prism TV, and will no longer promote the service to its customers.

“Due to emerging market trends in video content and delivery, we do not plan to expand our Prism TV service offering,” CenturyLink spokesperson Francie Dudrey told Fierce Cable, in a statement delivered at the NAB Show yesterday. “We will continue to provide service and support to our current Prism TV subscribers and make the service available to qualified customers who request it in the markets where we currently offer Prism TV.”

As Stop the Cap! reported last month, CenturyLink is planning to pull back on residential broadband upgrades and services it was expecting to sell on its improved internet platform after the company announced senior management changes. One key sign CenturyLink was moving away from Prism TV was the sudden retirement of Duane Ring on March 30. Ring, a 34-year veteran at CenturyLink had been recently promoted to help oversee CenturyLink’s residential broadband upgrades and was instrumental to the launch of Prism TV in 2005.

Wall Street and activist shareholders had pushed CenturyLink hard to replace long time CEO Glen Post III, who had recently turned bullish on costly residential broadband upgrades. Post’s replacement, former Level 3 CEO Jeff Storey, wants to refocus CenturyLink on its more profitable commercial customers.

Ironically, Level 3 was acquired by CenturyLink in 2016. Now some of Level 3’s top executives will firmly control CenturyLink itself. Shareholder activists were pleased with CenturyLink’s new direction under Storey’s leadership, arguing CenturyLink shouldn’t be devoting significant resources or funding to its legacy phone and copper broadband businesses. CenturyLink will now move away from home broadband services and towards commercial and enterprise broadband, metro ethernet, and cloud/backup services. About two-thirds of CenturyLink customers are commercial enterprises.

CenturyLink will now promote DirecTV to its residential customers instead of Prism TV.

Longer term, a growing number of analysts suspect CenturyLink’s new management will want to sell off some or all of CenturyLink’s residential customers to refocus the business entirely on its commercial customers. The company refused to discuss that issue at this time. CenturyLink may find a difficult market for would-be buyers. Frontier Communications, a regular buyer of wireline assets, is itself mired in debt and financial difficulties.

Investors continue to be skeptical of the merits of costly network upgrades for the nation’s copper wire phone networks. In areas where fiber-enabled phone companies compete directly with cable, price wars can develop, reducing profits and the incentive to invest.

Strong Evidence CenturyLink Giving Up on Most Residential Broadband Upgrades

CenturyLink is ready to capitulate in its competitive war with the cable industry, conceding its residential broadband business is a money loser that will no longer get broad-based upgrades and investment under the management of incoming CEO Jeff Storey, who will refocus CenturyLink on its larger business/enterprise customers.

The independent phone company has sent strong signals it is going to focus only on residential customers that are cheapest and easiest to reach, promising to fund broadband urban and suburban upgrades only where costs are low and the chances of a significant return is high. In rural areas, CenturyLink will depend heavily on capital made available by the FCC’s Connect America Fund when choosing areas worthy of upgrades.

“We’ll focus more on return on investment, which includes rural capital from the CAF II program,” said Sunit Patel, CFO of CenturyLink.

Patel, along with CenturyLink’s incoming CEO, originally worked for Level 3 Communications, a business and enterprise internet company acquired by CenturyLink in 2016. Now top Level 3 executives, at the behest of Wall Street and shareholders, are gradually taking over the top management positions of CenturyLink, pushing out current CEO Glen Post III with an early retirement this spring. With Post leaving, there is clear evidence CenturyLink is embarking on a transformation away from low return residential phone and broadband service and towards the kind of high profit business and enterprise connectivity Level 3 has provided for years.

Wall Street increasingly sees CenturyLink’s residential business as costing the company a lot of money for network upgrades that simply don’t deliver shareholder expectations of return on that investment, especially as the cable industry continues to aggressively deploy faster speed service to its customers.

In the fourth quarter of 2017, CenturyLink lost another 105,000 broadband subscribers, bringing internet subscriber numbers down to around 5.7 million nationwide. That represents a 4.8% reduction year over year, despite repeated promises of upgrades to stem those customer losses.

Last November, Post blamed those losses on customers served by CenturyLink’s legacy copper/DSL service areas where speeds and performance are lowest.

Soon to be CenturyLink Ex-CEO and President Glen F. Post

“We saw a much higher than expected loss of customers at the 20 Mbps and below speeds in a lot of the markets where we have that,” Post said during a late fall earnings call, according to a Seeking Alpha earnings transcript. “We had a much higher loss there. I think a couple of reasons, first of all, you see cable rolling out more with more aggressive offers, higher speeds and just the demand for bandwidth in those markets.”

Last fall, Post emphasized his broad-based residential and commercial broadband upgrade transformation plan to stop those losses. Post committed CenturyLink would provide 90% of homes with at least 40 Mbps, 70% of homes and businesses with 100 Mbps and over 20% with 1 Gbps or higher no later than 2020.

That was before activist shareholders and Wall Street joined forces to successfully push CenturyLink’s board to replace Post with business-oriented Level 3 CEO Jeff Storey. CenturyLink stock had been down by about one-third of its value over the last nine months, which only aggravated investors to push harder for dramatic management changes at the phone company. Activists argued CenturyLink shouldn’t be devoting much attention to its legacy businesses. In their eyes, only “strategic/success” businesses are worthy of investment, and those include commercial and enterprise broadband, metro ethernet, and cloud/backup services. The revenue eating “legacy” businesses, namely residential landline and DSL service, represent a drain on profits and threaten the company’s shareholder dividend. About two-thirds of CenturyLink customers are commercial enterprises.

(Blue) CenturyLink (Orange) Level 3

On March 6, 2018 the company announced Post’s retirement effective the day of its annual shareholder meeting in May. Post had originally planned to leave at the end of 2018, but some shareholders were unwilling to wait that long.

Strategic changes in CenturyLink’s future were previewed at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom conference earlier this month, where Patel outlined the company’s new vision.

“On the consumer side, the focus will be on enabling higher broadband speeds,” Patel said, but added a caution. “We won’t be spending capital on 5-20 Mbps connections, but rather on 100 Mbps and higher speeds. In urban areas we want to make sure we’re spending the capital where the returns make sense so focusing on multi-dwelling units make more sense in urban areas.”

Since the company is now going to target upgrades only in areas that “make more sense,” Post’s goal of better broadband for all by 2020 seem doomed

Another key piece of evidence is the retirement of CenturyLink executive Duane Ring, who announced he is leaving after 34 years despite a recent promotion. Ring, who led CenturyLink’s 12-state midwest region, was also behind much of CenturyLink’s residential broadband enhancement effort, including the 2005 launch of Prism TV — CenturyLink’s cable-TV alternative, as well as deploying gigabit speed services in several midwestern states. In 2016, he oversaw the deployment of 500 Mbps service for multi-dwelling units in 44 Platteville, Wisc. buildings that included nearly 800 apartments.

Broadband industry analyst Dave Burstein already sees the writing on the wall.

“Their fiber and G.fast plans, modest already, have been cut,” he noted. “They simply aren’t competitive with cable, which by 2020 will have a gigabit to 90% [of customers]. I look at the network and say if they don’t cut the dividend, trouble is near. Depreciation was $3 billion more than capex the last three years. Dividends were higher than income.”

As cable broadband speeds increase and customers defect from CenturyLink, few may choose to come back, making investments in broadband upgrades even more questionable.

“The rumor is they will virtually abandon much of the wireline network,” Burstein noted. “They will temporarily draw cash out to upgrade where they have better prospects,” referring to areas Patel identified as worthy targets for upgrades.

Wyoming’s Rural Broadband Bill Rewritten by Telecom Lobbyists to Block Public Broadband

Cheyenne Mayor Marion Orr

An effort to pass legislation that would award state grants to help rural Wyoming communities get high-speed internet was dead on arrival as far as telecom industry lobbyists were concerned.

So they “fixed it” with a secret substitute bill quietly written by the state’s telecom companies.

The replacement legislation effectively turns the state grant program into a fund for the state’s dominant telecom companies — CenturyLink and Charter Communications.

Stop the Cap! has learned the replacement bill gives high priority to eliminating potential competition by blocking funding for communities to establish their own public broadband alternatives to the phone and cable company if those companies already offer service anywhere inside the community.

The bill also seeks to define the Wyoming government’s involvement in broadband as a non-adversarial partnership with the telecom industry, according to Wyoming Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-District 9).

Under the substitute bill, Rothfuss said the telecom industry will now have a say over how the state awards grant funds. The industry is concerned tax dollars could be given to their competitors to offer service in communities where CenturyLink and Charter already provide modest service. But nothing in the bill would keep either company from collecting state funds for themselves, to expand broadband into unserved areas.

The attempt to switch the bills during a state senate committee meeting was met with surprise and outrage by Cheyenne Mayor Marion Orr.

“I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn industry completely re-wrote proposed broadband legislation to their favor as a ‘substitute bill’ in legislative committee today,” Orr wrote on her Facebook page on Feb. 19. “The substitute bill is substantially different than the original bill. And it wasn’t posted online or anywhere for anyone except insiders to have access to. CenturyLink and Spectrum are bullies. It’s wrong, and they are hurting Cheyenne and other Wyoming communities from gaining affordable access.”

The committee working on the bill may have hoped to switch the bills without notice, but Orr was having none of that.

“As soon as I realized the committee was working a different version that none of us had access to – I spoke up,” she said. “The committee set it aside and will hear it again tomorrow night. This is NOT good governance and the committee realized it. I will stay on this. Guaranteed.”

The substitute bill appears to have subsequently passed and is still facing review by the state legislature.

Orr remains furious Wyoming’s telecom companies that have not delivered on ubiquitous, affordable broadband will now have more power than ever to determine who gets service, who pays to extend service, and what companies can provide it.

“It’s as important as turning on electricity, it’s as important as turning on a tap and having water, it’s an absolute must if we’re going to grow,” Orr said.

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