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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

Phillip Dampier October 31, 2019 AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon Comments Off on 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.

Verizon Customers Get a Year of Disney+ for Free

Phillip Dampier October 22, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Disney+, Online Video, Verizon Comments Off on Verizon Customers Get a Year of Disney+ for Free

Some Verizon customers can receive 12 free months of Disney+, starting Nov. 12.

All Verizon Wireless Unlimited customers, new FiOS Home Internet, and 5G Home Internet customers qualify for the offer.

Customers must enroll for the offer between Nov. 12, 2019 and June 1, 2020. One subscription per account. Must be 18 years of age or older and a legal U.S. resident. After the 12-month promotional period, customers will be charged the prevailing subscription rate of $6.99+tax/month until canceled. Charges will be billed to your Verizon account. For New Mexico residents, Disney+ ends automatically after 12 months. Verizon is not zero-rating Disney+ usage, so it will count towards your total data usage.

Customers can get more information here: http://verizon.com/disneyplus.

The deal with Disney+ is an exclusive among U.S. wireless carriers. The Wall Street Journal reports under the latest agreement, Disney and Verizon will share the cost of providing the content to the carrier’s subscribers, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

“Giving Verizon customers an unprecedented offer and access to Disney+ on the platform of their choice is yet another example of our commitment to provide the best premium content available through key partnerships on behalf of our customers,” said Verizon Chairman and CEO Hans Vestberg. “Our work with Disney extends beyond Disney+ as we bring the power of 5G Ultra Wideband technology to the entertainment industry through exciting initiatives with Disney Innovation Studios and in the parks.”

Verizon and T-Mobile: Poor Neighborhoods Won’t Get 5G

Phillip Dampier October 7, 2019 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, T-Mobile, Verizon, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Verizon and T-Mobile: Poor Neighborhoods Won’t Get 5G

Verizon and T-Mobile are redlining their up and coming 5G wireless services to target wealthy neighborhoods and business districts while shunning the urban poor.

Dave Burstein examined the coverage maps of both carriers in cities like Manhattan and found a distinction in the service available in wealthy southern Manhattan and what upper Manhattan neighborhoods including Harlem and the mostly Latino Washington Heights are getting. For both companies, 5G is not much of a priority for Brooklyn either.

“I do not think T-Mobile specifically intended to exclude people of color, but that seems to be the practical effect,” Burstein wrote.

(Image: Dave Burstein)

Ronan Dunne, executive vice president & group CEO of Verizon Consumer confirmed that Verizon will be targeting 5G service to areas where it makes the most economic sense. He said that more than half of Verizon Wireless customers will continue to get 4G LTE-like speeds, with the rest eventually upgraded to 5G service.

“So we’ve taken a very clear view that we want to have both a coverage strategy and a capability strategy. And a very large majority of the volume of data that we carry on our networks goes to large, dense urban environments,” Dunne told investors recently. “So from a population point of view, it’ll be significantly less than half of the customers [getting 5G]. But from a data traffic point of view, it’s significantly more than half. So when it comes to the ability to use 5G as a significant capacity enhancement, there’s more of an opportunity to leverage that in the urban areas.”

In other words, Verizon plans to target population dense urban areas for 5G service the most, because that is where most of its data-loving customers live and where they network’s cost effectiveness may be the highest. Although the geographic coverage of 5G will seem relatively small, the population density of areas targeted for 5G service is not.

Dunne

Verizon has been touting its forthcoming nationwide 5G network, but Dunne has hinted to investors that the devil will be in the details. Not every customer will have access to Verizon’s super fast millimeter wave 5G service. In fact, at least half the country will be serviced by existing 4G LTE cell towers upgraded to provide 5G service on lower frequencies capable of reaching far beyond the coverage area offered by millimeter wave service. But that will also mean a much larger number of customers will share the same 5G network connection, potentially dramatically reducing speed and performance. Dunne said the performance of this type of 5G service “will approximate a good 4G service.”

Burstein notes in real terms, this will mean a significant difference in network speed. Verizon’s millimeter wave service will be capable of delivering 1-2 Gbps, while Verizon’s 5G upgrade of its existing 4G cell towers will deliver speeds in the low hundreds of megabits per second, potentially even slower on crowded cell sites.

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