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AT&T and Verizon Reneging on Free Phone Deals; Customers Worn Out by Broken Promises

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Verizon, Video, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have reneged on promotions offering customers free phones and “buy one, get one free” deals that leave customers on the hook for hundreds of dollars in equipment charges.

With the holiday shopping season about to begin, phone promotions will be heavily advertised. But those deals may be too good to be true, according to consumer protection groups.

The Better Business Bureau said the problems customers are reporting are serious, and growing. Since the beginning of this year, BBB president (Southern Piedmont) Tom Bartholomy said the group has received almost 6,800 complaints about wireless provider advertising, sales, and promotional practices.

“We’re talking hundreds of complaints about a similar type of situation,” Bartholomy told WSOC-TV. “[It] points to an underlying cause, an underlying concern, with those types of promotions.”

WSOC’s consumer reporter has been inundated with complaints from his North Carolina viewers about broken promises:

Rachel Seighman lives in Monroe. She said, “(I) wanted to try to get a cheaper plan for my family. So, I tried AT&T out.”  She said she got her bill and “it was going to be about $60 higher per month than they said.” So, she called AT&T.  “I was told that the price they quoted me at was not correct,” she said.

Cynthia Emrich lives in Stanfield. She took advantage of an AT&T “buy one, get one free” offer for a Samsung phone. But, she said AT&T charged her for both phones.  “So I call them and they said it would straighten itself out, and it never did,” she told Action 9.  She said she called the company every month for 2 1/2 years. “It was frustrating every month.”

Denise Reid lives in Fort Mill. She said she went with a Verizon “buy one, get one free” deal for an iPhone, but that the company charged her full price.  “They could not give me a reason as to why,” she said.  “No reason as to why.”

Joseph Mayberry lives in Hickory. He told Action 9 a similar story. All four customers said they tried to resolve things on their own but couldn’t. “I would call someone.  I would go through the long story of what happened.  I would get to the supervisor level.  I’ve got emails saying I would be credited back and a phone call would follow.  Never got the phone call,” Mayberry said.

Many customers are tripped up by the fine print in promotional offers that frequently contain complicated conditions and opaque language. Some insist company representatives assured them that the promotion was valid only to find out later they were misled. In fact many promotions contain strict provisions that, if not followed precisely, invalidate the promotion.

Here are some common tricks and fine print traps you may encounter getting your “free” phone:

  1. Many “Buy 1, Get 1” promotions require the customer to activate and maintain a new line of service to qualify for a free phone, which can cost nearly $50 a month for a plan, including additional surcharges and taxes. Customers that fail to follow through on this condition or quickly terminate the extra line after moving the device to a different line on their account were often charged full price for both phones.
  2. Some promotions require customers to sign up for a “device payment agreement” to qualify for the free phone. That is actually a contract to pay off a device with monthly installment payments at 0% interest billed to your mobile account. The free device promotion is often tied to the payment agreement. If a customer buys the first phone and pays for it upfront there is no payment agreement, and no free phone. Some promotions require customers to maintain a device payment agreement for up to 30 months. If a customer violates any terms of the promotion, such as paying the phone off early or selling it, the company might bill you for the “free” phone.
  3. Some companies take months to begin crediting your account for the monthly installments that will appear on your bill. Customers will eventually see a monthly device payment charge and a corresponding credit in the same amount for your “free” phone. But until bill credits start to appear in 60-90 days, you are responsible for the installment charges.
  4. “Free” phone promotions often conflict with other service plans and features. Customers that have signed up to receive a new phone every two years may have to turn in their “free” phone and walk away from several delayed reimbursement credits before getting they can obtain their next new device.

Many customers underestimate the true cost of complying with the terms necessary to get that “free” phone. That realization usually comes too late to return it, leaving customers with several hundred dollars in equipment fees — a costly mistake that could ruin any holiday.

It is important to carefully study the terms and conditions of all wireless device promotions. The written contract is valid, promises from overeager salespeople are not. Be wary when you see “device payment agreement” or “activate and maintain a new line of service,” or “promo credit applied to account over 24 mos w/in 1-2 billing cycles; promo credit ends when balance paid or line terminated/transferred.” If you do, it could mean you will need to set up an installment payment plan for that “free” phone, keep it on your account as a new line of service for at least two years, and avoid paying it off in advance or attempt to move the phone to a different account or provider.

If negotiating with your provider has failed to resolve a conflict over the promotion, taking your case to the media over the terms of a possibly deceptive promotion can be effective in getting what you thought you were promised. When these customers contacted WSOC-TV and the station took the complaints back to AT&T and Verizon, the company quickly gave all four customers their free phones.

“Nobody would listen to me until [WSOC] actually reached out to them. And then within two hours, I got a phone call from AT&T,” Emrich told the station.  “If it wasn’t for Action 9, I would have never got that refund.”

AT&T claimed in a statement it honors all of its deals. Verizon tried to refer complaints about its promotions to the wireless industry lobbying group — CTIA. That group does not understand why Verizon did that and claims it isn’t familiar with cell phone promotions. Neither are most consumers.

WSOC-TV consumer reporter Jason Stoogenke investigates cell phone promotions that sound too good to be true. (3:36)

Verizon pulled out of a promo for a free iPhone for this North Carolina customer. Nobody knows why. (1:16)

Verizon messed up a promotion offering two phones for the price of one and left this customer out in the cold, telling him he needed to pay full price for both phones. (1:14)

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.

Verizon Offers “Voluntary Severance” Packages to 44,000 Workers to Shed, Outsource Employees

Phillip Dampier October 3, 2018 Verizon 1 Comment

Verizon Communications is on track to gradually cut up to a quarter of its workforce, and has now offered 44,000 employees “voluntary severance” packages, while also outsourcing many information technology jobs to India’s Infosys, Ltd., in a deal worth an estimated $700 million.

The Wall Street Journal received confirmation from Verizon this afternoon the company is seeking to reduce its workforce to cut $10 billion in costs and invest in its forthcoming 5G wireless network.

Analysts claim Verizon’s new CEO Hans Vestberg chose the voluntary layoff route in part to send a message to investors and Wall Street before the company embarks on a costly upgrade to its wireless network. Wall Street generally dislikes and downgrades companies starting large, long-term spending projects. By cutting its workforce and other expenses, Verizon hopes to offset some of the sting of that spending to appease investors.

To entice employees to retire, Verizon is offering three weeks’ pay for each year of service up to 60 weeks. But not every employee will qualify for the offer. About 2,500 Verizon workers employed in the company’s IT department have been notified their jobs are being transferred to Bengaluru, India-based Infosys, Ltd., where they will continue work for Verizon as outsourced contractors. Verizon has notified affected workers they do not qualify for the current voluntary severance offer and will lose their 2018 bonus if they refuse to accept a position at Infosys.

In all, about 30 percent of Verizon’s 153,100 employees have either been offered early retirement deals or are facing an involuntary transfer to Infosys. Affected employees are being told Verizon is investing “more in transforming the business versus running the business,” which may suggest additional outsourcing and third-party contracting arrangements may be forthcoming.

Infosys has a controversial record in the United States. The company has been accused of forcing high-paid American workers to train their low wage foreign replacements, often arriving from India on the H-1B visa. Those workers typically remain in the U.S. for about a year and temporarily manage job functions that eventually are transitioned to workers back in India or other developing countries.

Verizon claims it expects up to 1,000 workers to accept the voluntary severance offer, but has not indicated whether additional forced layoffs may follow.

Verizon has dramatically downsized since 2011, when it employed 195,900 workers — shedding more than 42,000 employees in the last seven years.

Verizon Denies Throttling Florence Victims, But Customers Deal with Slow Speeds

Verizon Wireless claims it is not intentionally slowing data services for its customers in North & South Carolina, despite growing complaints from customers about slow speeds.

Stop the Cap! has heard from nearly 20 readers in central and eastern North Carolina and they are displeased with Verizon’s performance.

“Signal is five bars but speed might as well be dial-up,” reports one reader. “I have consistently gotten 20 Mbps or better service for at least a decade from my home and workplace on Verizon’s network, but now the speed shows it starts at around 20 Mbps but quickly declines to less than 1 Mbps within 3-5 seconds. I have an unlimited data plan and have relied on it since Spectrum went out over the weekend.”

“Of course they are throttling us,” said Paul Ingell, who moved inland from New Bern to share a room with friends near Charlotte. “As soon as you go over 20 GB, the speed throttle game begins, and they are playing it. My bill reset date was today and by gosh speeds magically returned to normal. But my sister-in-law is still being throttled. Her phone delivers less than 1 Mbps sitting right next to mine and I get around 15 Mbps. We both own the same phones and have unlimited plans.”

The Washington Post covered the alleged Verizon slowdowns as well, and one Raleigh area reader claimed he is being throttled now as well.

“We lost power/cable and were using my Verizon unlimited data plan for internet access, and were very frustrated when attempting to access pages with dynamic content,” he wrote. “This is not typically a problem in central North Carolina, a high-coverage area. It seemed clear our data was being throttled.”

Another reader in New Bern who rode out the storm said Verizon service was very poor as he attempted to get news from CNN and Google during and after the storm. Browsing was almost impossible.

“E-mails and texts were the only reasonably quick way for me to get information. Other people complained of the same issue,” the reader wrote. “Having lost power and internet, the phone was our only contact with the outside.”

First word of the claimed throttling came from a reddit thread from AbeFroman21:

My family lives in a small town in eastern North Carolina, and we were just devastated by the hurricane. Our power has been out for five days now and internet service is gone as well. Two days ago my wife and I noticed that we couldn’t retrieve our email from our phone or check Facebook [for] updates from our community about the storm or when service would be restored.

We traveled into a bigger town and called Verizon to check and see if there was a data outage and when we could expect it to be restored. Only, I was told that my unlimited plan was deprioritized for being too low tier of a plan. But if I upgraded to a higher plan my service would be restored.

There’s no outage, just corporations sucking dry a community that as already lost so much. Thanks a**holes.

Verizon categorically denies it is throttling any customers in North Carolina.

“On North Carolina, we are not throttling,” said Richard Young, a Verizon spokesman. “The most likely scenario is that the customer, who can’t connect to the internet, is in an area that has lost cell service.”

Verizon Quits ALEC After Group Hands Microphone to Right-Wing Provocateur David Horowitz

Down one big member — Verizon

Verizon has quit the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate funded alliance between big business and Republican state lawmakers, after right-wing activist David Horowitz used a guest appearance at the 45th ALEC Annual Meeting in New Orleans to launch into a tirade against opponents of President Donald Trump, claiming Democrats are socialists bent on attacking traditional American values.

To rousing applause from many of the 1,500 legislators and lobbyists in attendance, Horowitz used two speeches to attack the LGBTQ community, people of color, public education, feminism, gender equality, and the rights of women to seek independent access to reproductive healthcare.

Specifically, Horowitz claimed public schools are “indoctrination and recruitment centers for the Democratic party and its socialist left” and that “school curricula had been turned over to racist organizations like Black Lives Matter and terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.” On a later panel, Horowitz told the audience Trump had not gone far enough attacking his enemies, and defended the president’s remarks calling a woman “a pig.” Those who disagreed were called “communists” by Horowitz.  He also argued the United States could only have been founded by Protestant Christians.

Horowitz speaks at ALEC conference in August 2018.

The incendiary remarks are nothing new for Horowitz, who repeatedly called President Barack Obama “a secret Muslim” and sponsors a website that claims Muslim migrants are carriers of infectious disease and predators with a “violent lust for ‘white’ women.”

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Wisc.) attends ALEC events often to learn more about what the opposition is doing. Her observations from this year’s conference reflect ALEC in disarray, as the formerly unified, corporate-focused group is becoming more fragmented as emboldened right-wing activists demand a voice at the table.

They want state’s rights, except when they don’t. The same contradiction is evident with their struggle with local control–sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. The defining factor is whether these levels of government promote the far-right ALEC agenda. It is getting harder and harder for ALEC to ignore these internal contradictions.

And there are visible cracks in ALEC world. Collectively, this was the messiest and least disciplined ALEC conference I have attended since 2013. In the energy task force, presentations were all over the place. A natural gas and electricity supplier went off script by openly discussing the billions in subsidies the oil and gas industry receives. There was silence in the crowded task force room, filled with fossil fuel producers and lobbyists.

[…] In the Health and Human Services task force, the Goldwater Institute and Buckeye Foundation were in a tizzy because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was still in existence and the left seemed to win that war, at least for now. How could it be, they moaned, when Republicans are in charge of EVERYTHING? They whined that the “debacle of last year was horrible” and that Congress wouldn’t touch another repeal with a 10-foot poll. So, 100 conservative groups came together to propose an alternative plan that guts the ACA, again. But the list was messy and confusing, and even the presenters seemed doubtful their plan would ever succeed.

But the biggest disaster I have ever seen at an ALEC conference was on a panel about the Convention of States (COS) project. COS is mobilizing in states to call an Article V Constitutional Convention for the purposes of amending the federal constitution by passing a balanced budget amendment, term-limits for federal judges, and who knows what else. One of the key speakers was right-wing provocateur David Horowitz. Horowitz is listed in a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report published by Alternet with the title “10 of America’s Most Dangerous Hatemongers”.

After converting from being a Marxist decades ago, Horowitz now runs his own right-wing think tank, bankrolled to the tune of $3.4 million by the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Horowitz gained recent fame as a key mentor of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, the man behind Trump’s family separation policy according to the Atlantic.

[…] ALEC is moving into dangerous territory. Despite the formidable infrastructure they have built over 45 years, their control of 33 state legislatures and their hordes of corporate cash that perpetually grease their wheels, the organization seems to be increasingly in disarray and in an identity crisis. While simultaneously distancing themselves from the chaos and corruption of President Trump, the reality is that they need him, and his hate-mongering, to further the foundation of their right-wing agenda–gutting the ACA and federal conservation standards, repealing workers’ rights, pushing down wages and privatizing public education.

And so the Horowitz’s of the world, who ALEC at least publicly has kept at a distance during my tenure, are now becoming part of the ALEC universe. Are ALEC supporters, including their corporate funders, willing to embrace this hate-mongering to continue to advance their corporate agenda?

Horowitz’s brand of politics may be popular with party activists, but corporate ALEC members are more concerned about their public image.

After Horowitz’s appearance, Verizon notified ALEC it was resigning from the group.

“Our company has no tolerance for racist, white supremacist or sexist comment or ideals,” a Verizon spokesperson said in a statement.

It is a severe blow to ALEC, which welcomed Verizon as a dues paying member in 1988, when Verizon lobbyist Ron Scheberle served as chairman of ALEC’s board.

ALEC’s damage control effort came in a statement to the press:

ALEC takes speaker vetting seriously and—in partnership with meeting sponsors—applies a rigorous process to identify speakers on important matters of public policy. Each speaker is apprised of the ALEC policy focus, how to address the audience and what issues not to discuss. ALEC does not work on social issues. Rather it focuses on limited government, free markets and federalism at the intersection of the economy and public policy.

In this case, the speaker was advised of the program parameters and did not abide the process.

Upon learning of concern following the conclusion of remarks, ALEC staff removed the video archive of the livestream and ceased promotion of the speech as the comments were inconsistent with the manner in which speeches are offered at ALEC.

ALEC was launched to give its corporate members and lobbyists direct access to state legislators to shepherd corporate ghost-written bills into state laws or at least heavily influence members’ bills to make them corporate-friendly. In some cases, corporate-written “model bills” were adopted word-for-word by some state legislatures and became law, with the help of Republican support and co-sponsors.

Rep. Taylor

Verizon and other telecom company members like Comcast and AT&T have benefited handsomely from membership in ALEC, successfully pushing through state laws for statewide video franchising, eliminating local control over cable television providers, pole attachment and zoning reform for wireless companies, working to eliminate universal service obligations and regulatory oversight for landline service, state bans on municipal broadband competition, and most recently working to stop states from writing their own net neutrality provisions to replace those lost on the federal level.

ALEC has always maintained close ties to Republicans and its deep pocketed corporate members. But until recently, it has usually shied away from headlining lightning rod social issues out of deference to its controversy-shy corporate members.

Horowitz’s remarks, live-streamed across the internet by ALEC, may have been the final straw for Verizon. In late August, 79 public interest and environmental groups co-signed a letter to ALEC members drawing attention to Horowitz’s remarks and asking companies to leave the group for good.

“Make no mistake, your continued financial support of ALEC is an endorsement of this dangerous vision for our country,” the letter said.

It’s also apparently bad for business.

David Horowitz speaking at 2018 ALEC Conference in New Orleans, La. on Aug. 10, 2018. (17:51)

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