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Internet Providers Get Ready To Cut Off Past Due Customers Unless They Agree to Payment Plans

Internet providers are preparing to cut off late-paying and non-paying customers as early as June 30, as the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep America Connected” pledge expires next week.

In March, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai invited providers to agree to waive late fees and put off disconnections and usage overlimit charges for several months as a result of the sudden economic shutdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. As the pledge expires, Pai is asking providers not to immediately disconnect customers who are past due, if they agree to enroll in payment plans to pay off accrued balances. But Pai ultimately stood on the side of the nation’s multi-billion dollar phone and cable companies as he expressed his understanding why some customers will be cut off anyway and turned over to collection agencies as early as next week.

“Broadband and telephone companies, especially small ones, cannot continue to provide service without being paid for an indefinite period of time; no business in any sector of our economy could,” Pai said in a statement.

Some customers have accumulated past due balances of over $1,000 in the past four months, when one combines wireless, cable-TV, internet, and landline charges. As a result, some large providers recognize the need for long-term repayment plans if they hope to preserve customer relationships. With unemployment over 13%, even their most loyal customers may find it difficult to keep up on bills that often exceed $100 a month, and are often much more.

Those customers that lose service for non-payment may forfeit future participation in low-cost internet programs for those on public assistance, and cannot restart service without coming to terms on past due balances. That could leave desperate customers at risk of losing access to job-seeking information, education, and news about the ongoing pandemic.

Some providers are gradually announcing new programs designed to keep service on, but only if customers contact providers and agree to commit to a repayment contract.

AT&T: The company disclosed 156,000 customers are currently enrolled in Keep America Connected-related programs. AT&T expects full payment of past due charges as early as June 30, or up to 90 days after the first past-due notice was issued, whichever is later. Customers can also keep service turned on by contacting AT&T and setting up an alternate payment arrangement.

Charter/Spectrum: The company has announced it will forgive a portion of past due balances and not require full repayment, if the customer or his/her job was directly impacted by the coronavirus. Spectrum’s offer of 60 days of free internet service introduced in March was accepted by at least 400,000 customers. But for most, the offer has since expired. Spectrum has worked to convert those at the end of the free offer into paid customers, but won’t disclose how much success they have had.

Comcast: Customers enrolled in the Xfinity Assistance Program are being given the option of repaying past due amounts in up to 12 equal monthly installments. After a repayment arrangement is made, some customers are persuaded to downgrade service to more affordable plans until past due amounts are repaid. Comcast’s offer of 60 days of free internet service has ended for most customers that enrolled shortly after it was introduced. Comcast has not announced a date when its 1,000 GB usage cap is scheduled to return in most service areas.

T-Mobile: For many, service will terminate if an account is well past due. Customers who want to keep their service must call T-Mobile to make payment arrangements, but T-Mobile did not disclose any formal repayment plans or payment forgiveness. It is imperative that customers call and discuss past due accounts before service is switched off.

Verizon: Verizon will continue service for “hundreds of thousands of customers” that enrolled in the Keep America Connected pledge program, as long as they agree to make regular payments as part of a special repayment plan that will be introduced for these customers in July. Customers will be billed a portion of their past due amounts along with current service charges until repayment has been made in full.

Of the country’s largest providers, only Charter/Spectrum has agreed to forgive some past due balances outright. Others will expect to be repaid and are likely to suspend service quickly if repayment plans also fall past due.

Verizon Is Giving Customers an Extra 15 GB of Data and Introducing New, Low-Cost Plans

Phillip Dampier March 23, 2020 Consumer News, Data Caps, Verizon, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Verizon does not want their customers to worry about their wireless and home internet bills during the COVID-19 crisis, so they are introducing some new affordable plans for low-income households, waiving late and overlimit fees, and giving wireless customers an extra 15 GB on their data allowance for the next month.

Among today’s announcements:

  • Company waiving all overlimit and late fees on customers that either exceed their data allowance or cannot pay their wireless bill.
  • Verizon’s Lifeline customers will receive two months of waived internet and voice service charges and may qualify for new discounted internet plans.
  • Wireless consumer and small business customers are getting an extra 15 GB of high-speed wireless and/or hotspot data from March 25 through April 30. There is no action needed as the data will automatically be added to your plan.

“We understand the hardships that many of our customers are facing, and we’re doing our part to ensure they have broadband internet connectivity during this unprecedented time,” said Ronan Dunne, CEO Verizon Consumer Group. “With so many Americans working and learning remotely from home, having access to reliable and affordable internet is more important than ever before.”

Effective April 3, Verizon is introducing a new broadband discount program for new FiOS Internet customers that qualify through the Lifeline program. Customers may select any Verizon FiOS speed among Verizon’s Mix & Match plans and receive a $20 discount per month. New customers can get FiOS Home Internet 200/200 Mbps service for $19.99/mo, 400/400 Mbps service for $39.99/mo, or gigabit service for $59.99/mo, with Disney+ included for one year and the first two months of the router rental charge waived (there is no router rental charge for gigabit plan customers).

The extra 15 GB of data won’t be much help for Verizon’s unlimited customers, but it also applies to hotspot service, which is usually limited.

“While more than half of our wireless customer base is on an unlimited data plan, including all of our FiOS and DSL broadband internet customers, we recognize there are many who may need additional connectivity during these trying times,” Ronan added. “We’re here for you and we’ll make sure you have what you need to stay connected.”

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint Face Huge Fines for Reselling Your Location Data to… Anyone

Phillip Dampier February 27, 2020 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon No Comments

The Federal Communications Commission will seek hundreds of millions of dollars in fines from America’s four largest wireless companies after company officials apparently lied to Congress and regulators about ending the lucrative sale of customer locations to third parties in early 2019.

The Wall Street Journal reported the FCC has sent Notices of Apparent Liability to Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint accusing the companies of continuing to sell the real-time locations of customers after telling Congress they would stop.

The companies allegedly routinely sold personal customer data to middlemen companies that had very few controls over who ultimately received that information. Clients included private investigators, debt collectors, police agencies, and even potentially ex-partners engaged in stalking. Customers have never been clearly informed that their location data was subject to resale to third parties, and privacy concerns were immediately raised after revelations data aggregators LocationSmart, Inc., and Zumigo, Inc., were selling data to inappropriate entities and individuals.

After being exposed in early 2019, all four carriers promised to end or curtail the practice, but an FCC investigation found carriers were not being forthright.

In January, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai disclosed the practice because of ongoing oversight by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which had demanded an investigation by the FCC early last year. In a letter to the Committee, Pai wrote that the agency found U.S. carriers “apparently” broke the law by continuing to sell location data.

“I am committed to ensuring that all entities subject to our jurisdiction comply with the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules, including those that protect consumers’ sensitive information, such as real-time location data,” Pai wrote.

Too little, too late, according to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who chairs the Committee.

(Image by Brad Jonas originally for Pando.com)

“Following our longstanding calls to take action, the FCC finally informed the Committee today that one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal privacy protections by turning a blind eye to the widespread disclosure of consumers’ real-time location data,” Pallone said in a statement in January, 2019. “This is certainly a step in the right direction, but I’ll be watching to make sure the FCC doesn’t just let these lawbreakers off the hook with a slap on the wrist.”

Today’s revelations infuriated Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) who tweeted:

“Ajit Pai has failed to protect consumers at every turn. This issue came to light after my office and dedicated journalists discovered how wireless carriers shared Americans’ locations without consent. He investigated only after public pressure mounted.”

Consumers often unwittingly share their real-time locations with cell phone providers whenever their phones are switched on and connected to a cellular or Wi-Fi network. Carriers have developed a lucrative business reselling that information to third parties, typically data aggregators that combine location information with data collected from other companies and sell it on. Buyers often include law enforcement agencies and private investigators, but one reporter found it simple as an individual to get real-time data about his location by paying $300 to a data aggregator. Privacy advocates worry that stalkers could easily track their victims through such services, with victims unaware their own cell phone company betrayed their location in return for money.

A Notice of Apparent Liability demands a written response from a targeted individual or company to explain why they should not be subject to the monetary penalty specified in the letter. Many companies win significant reductions or fine waivers through negotiations with the FCC. The Journal reports that so far, the FCC has not been willing to offer settlements, but that could change as carriers try to negotiate a settlement through the agency’s administrative process.

The article does not specify the exact fines targeted for each carrier. AT&T and Verizon have more than adequate financial resources to pay almost any fine in full. But a multi-million fine against T-Mobile and Sprint could complicate the final agreement between T-Mobile and Sprint to merge, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks. Under the revised merger agreement, both companies agreed to split any expenses related to liabilities up to $200 million, leaving Sprint investor-owner SoftBank responsible for the rest.

Verizon Puts 5G Wireless Home Broadband Expansion on Hold Until Late 2020

Dunne

Verizon will hold off on expanding its millimeter wave 5G wireless home broadband service until at least the second half of 2020, citing equipment availability issues.

Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and group CEO of Verizon’s Consumer Division, told attendees at a Citi investor’s conference that Verizon’s initial introduction of Home 5G was just a market test, and until newer high-powered wireless routers arrive that will be capable of more robust reception of the very high frequencies the service works on, Verizon will not expand the service further.

Dunne called the next generation of 5G home receivers “key” to Verizon’s wireless home broadband strategy. Dunne said the new equipment will let consumers receive more distant and weaker 5G wireless signals, allowing Verizon to expand coverage of the service to more households. The current generation of 5G receivers were designed for use in smartphones, which hampers in-home reception quality.

Verizon initially promised to serve about one-quarter of the United States with its wireless home broadband service, eventually capable of supplying 500/200 Mbps and more to subscribers. But Verizon’s goal to reach over 30 million households will take the company as long as seven years to reach.

Dunne also warned Verizon is prioritizing 5G coverage in urban commercial areas instead of suburban, rural, and residential neighborhoods. Verizon’s core 5G network will target dense urban areas, including commercial shopping, business, and entertainment venues like concert halls and sports stadiums where the company measures the highest traffic demand it hopes to satisfy with 5G. Verizon’s home 5G broadband service piggybacks on Verizon’s 5G mobile network, which means it will only be available in neighborhoods where Verizon has deployed its network of small cells.

“It’s very much a mobility strategy, with a secondary product of Home [5G], rather than us changing our overarching mobility deployment to try to accelerate Home at the expense of the overall 130 million customer base,” Dunne explained.

Verizon hopes to offer customers 5G-capable mobile phones for as little as $600 in the coming year and getting widespread adoption of 5G by Verizon customers is a long-term goal for Dunne. He added that once 5G becomes more widely available, Verizon and other wireless companies will consider shutting down Wi-Fi hotspots in favor of 5G.

“In a world of 5G millimeter wave deployments, we don’t see the need for Wi-Fi in the future, because we have a more secure network environment,” Dunne said. “Our view is that when fully deployed there are substantial environments where public Wi-Fi will be eliminated in favor of millimeter wave.”

Telecom Industry Slashes Investments for 2020-2021; Focus on Profit Margins New Priority

Telecom companies are cutting investment in their networks despite promises by Republican members of the FCC that repeal of net neutrality would inspire increased investment.

Charter, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have surprised Wall Street with dramatic cutbacks in spending and investment in their networks, with one provider admitting improving profit margins are now a bigger priority.

As a result, Wall Street analysts are revising down capital expenditure (Capex) estimates in reports to their investor clients.

“Comcast and Charter missed [third quarter] expectations for Capex and guided 2019 lower than previously planned,” reported Nomura in a note to investors. “We have lowered our combined 2019 Capex forecast for Comcast and Charter from $14.6 billion to $14.2 billion.”

AT&T’s drop in network spending was the most dramatic among the country’s top telecom companies. AT&T has declared an end to fiber broadband expansion and slashed spending forecasts from the $23 billion the company spent this year to as little as $20 billion next year, despite claiming it would dramatically expand its 5G service to over two dozen cities over the next 12 months.

In a recent conference call with investors, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said “now it’s time to reap the rewards of what we’ve been doing [and] begin to reward to shareholders these investments that we’ve been making over the last few years.”

Over the next three years, AT&T will pay shareholders $45 billion in dividends and spend $30 billion on buying back shares of AT&T stock to retire debt racked up buying Time Warner (Entertainment). In fact, AT&T will devote 50-75% of its free cash flow exclusively on retiring shares of AT&T stock, which is expected to benefit shareholders.

Verizon reported spending $4.4 billion in the third quarter on network upgrades, approximately $100 million less than expected. That is a concern because Verizon is trying to expand its costly 5G network, but is not devoting the investment dollars required to make such an upgrade happen without cutting investments elsewhere in the company. Verizon has told Wall Street analysts to expect stable Capex spending of $17-18 billion annually for 2019-2021. That will either mean Verizon’s 5G expansion will be modest or the phone company will have to slash investments in other areas, such as wireline, fiber to the home, or business services.

Many analysts expect 5G will be a top spending priority for AT&T and Verizon over the next several years, leaving little room in budgets for upkeep of the company’s legacy landline networks or its other products. Charter and Comcast have effectively stopped spending on large upgrade projects, also as part of improved profit-taking.

The spending realities are in direct conflict with the promises made by Republican members of the FCC. Trump-picked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai repeatedly claimed that banishing net neutrality would lead to significant increases in investment by the nation’s top telecom companies. In fact, the opposite has happened.

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