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The Very Definition of Antitrust: AT&T and T-Mobile Deal is a Consumer Disaster

Consumer Reports underlines the point: America's worst cell phone company promises America better things by merging with America's second-worst cell phone company. Is this a good deal for America or just for AT&T and T-Mobile?

This morning’s announced deal of a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile is what antitrust rules were made to prevent.  This bold merger would not have even been attempted had the two companies believed they could not get it past supine regulators and members of Congress who receive substantial contributions from AT&T.

Ordinary consumers can see right through AT&T’s business plans, so why can’t our regulators and policymakers?  In a word, money.

The FCC’s own National Broadband Plan delivers clear warnings that the growing concentration in the wireless industry will hamper better broadband in the United States, not enhance it.  Reduced consumer choice and competition takes the pressure off carriers to innovate, expand, and keep wireless costs under control.

Reducing the number of players on the field delivers countless benefits to carriers and their shareholders.  But for consumers, there is nothing but a few promised spoonfuls of sugar to help the industry’s agenda go down — with vague promises of better rural service, faster wireless data, and new handsets.

In a truly-competitive marketplace, Washington regulators need not exact promises of better service from mega-sized carriers: the much-vaunted “free market” would deliver them naturally, as competitors invest and innovate to succeed.  But that kind of market is increasingly disappearing with every merger.

Nowadays, officials at the FCC and Justice Department are willing to accept deals if they promise some token bone-throwing, at least until the company lobbyists inevitably manage to get those conditions discarded during the next round of deregulation — cutting away rules that “tie the hands” of companies picking your pockets.

Money makes the impossible very possible, and AT&T intends to spend plenty to earn plenty more down the road.  Let’s review how the game will be played, and what you can do to stop it.

The “Free Market” Crowd Sells Out

Randolph May is willing to sell robust competition down the river if it means he can get 4G network access faster.

When the chorus of capitalism capitulates on the most important formula for success in a deregulated marketplace — robust competition on a level-playing field, we know there is a problem.  Take Randolph May.  He works for the free market think tank Free State Foundation.  Watch what happens when even the most ardent supporter of ‘letting the marketplace sort things out’ twists and turns around admitting America is facing a future duopoly in wireless:

“In an ‘idealized’ marketplace, the more competitors the better. But the telecom marketplace is not an idealized market. It is one that requires huge ongoing capital investments to build broadband networks that deliver ever more bandwidth for the ever more bandwidth-intensive, innovative services consumers are demanding,” he says.  “My preliminary sense is that the benefits from the proposed merger, with the promise of enhanced 4G network capabilities implemented more quickly than otherwise would be the case, outweigh the costs. Even after the merger, the wireless market should remain effectively competitive with the companies that remain.”

That’s a remarkable admission for someone who normally argues that marketplace fundamentals are more important than individual players.

May is willing to sell a robust competitive marketplace down the river in return for 4G — a standard AT&T is hurrying to bring to its customers threatening to depart for better service elsewhere.  With this deal, disgruntled customers will have one fewer choice to turn to for service.

Make no mistake: a free, unregulated wireless marketplace requires more than two national carriers and a much-smaller third (Sprint) to deliver real competition.

The Dollar-A-Holler Phoney Baloney Astroturf Groups

AT&T will waste no time trotting out comments from non-profit groups essentially on their payroll who will peddle filings with regulators promoting AT&T’s business agenda in return for substantial sized donation checks to their causes.  The usual suspects, which include groups serving minority communities, will tout the “wonderful things” the deal will bring to their constituencies.

Already out this morning is this curious remark picked up by Broadcasting & Cable from Debra Berlyn, who claims to represent consumers as part of a group called the Consumer Awareness Project:

Beryln's consumer group has a few problems: It's not a group, it doesn't represent consumers, and she is an industry consultant.

“Wireless acquisitions over the course of the past decade have not led to price increases for consumers and, in fact, the statistics show that prices have declined during this period. While some consumer voices have focused on the loss of a wireless competitor in relation to AT&T’s recently announced plans to acquire T-Mobile USA, the news for consumers should be seen in another light with a focus on the benefits that this merger can bring to consumers across the U.S.”

Perhaps the first goal of any group trying to make consumers aware of anything is to actually have a website associated with your group.  The “Consumer Awareness Project” forgot this important first step, but we eventually found the “group” using a re-purposed web address, “consumerprivacyawareness.org,” and note they have only recently become significantly active on this issue, now peddling AT&T’s agenda with gobbledygook.

When Berlyn isn’t pounding out prose to benefit AT&T, she is making guest appearances in Comcast’s corporate blog or being a favorite source of industry-connected groups like the nation’s largest broadband astroturf effort, Broadband for America.

In fact, after some digging, one learns there are no actual consumers involved with the “Consumer Awareness Project.”  The entire affair is actually a project of a Washington, D.C., lobbying-consultancy firm — Consumer Policy Solutions, which counts among its services:

  • Federal advocacy: Legislative and regulatory advocacy work before Congress, federal agencies and the administration.
  • State and local advocacy: Policy development and implementation and grassroots mobilization.

That is the very definition of interest group “astroturf.”  But my favorite section of this company’s website is the promise paying clients will get Berlyn’s experience “in communicating complex language and issues into easily understandable, applicable messages for consumers.”

Such as: AT&T’s merger with T-Mobile is good for consumers, even if it raises prices and reduces competition.

I’m sold.

The Cowardly Lion & A Myopic Justice Department

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's cowardly cave-ins set the stage for AT&T's bold merger move, believing they have government oversight under their control.

The first hurdle this deal will need to overcome is among Washington regulators, most of whom are either way over their heads understanding the implications of super-sized mergers like this or are simply terrified of going out on a limb with a multi-billion dollar company that can create headaches for your agency in Congress.

AT&T will sell this deal within a very limited context of the deal itself, and urge regulators to ignore “emotional” issues about the increasingly concentrated wireless marketplace.  Verizon did much the same with its acquisition of Alltel — urging regulators to ignore the fact they were removing a player in the market and focus instead on the benefits Verizon’s size and scope could bring to existing Alltel customers.  Of course, in many areas Alltel served, customers were free to do that themselves simply by signing up for Verizon service.

Dan Frommer, a senior staff writer at Business Insider, delivers a TripTik outlining AT&T’s roadmap to deal approval:

“AT&T believes its experience with regulatory review has given it a good picture of what’s realistic and what isn’t from an approval standpoint, and believes it can frame the deal in a way that won’t be rejected,” he writes.  “AT&T says the Feds are looking at “the facts” — hinting that they aren’t acting based on emotions or politics. Though, no doubt, there will be plenty of jockeying in the press and among lobbyists from those on both sides of the deal.”

But Frommer wades in too deep and drowns his credibility claiming the combination of some of the largest wireless carriers in the country still leave plenty of competitors.  Besides Verizon, there is just a single national player of consequence remaining – Sprint.  MetroPCS and Cricket deliver service in urban areas in selected cities. US Cellular, Cellular South, and several others deliver service to an even smaller number of communities, entirely dependent on large carriers for roaming coverage.

The Justice Department’s typical solution to antitrust concerns is to force limited concessions like divestiture of assets in particularly concentrated markets.  In most cases, companies agree because those assets are often redundant and would be sold anyway, or cover such a limited area as to be inconsequential to the greater deal.  Former Alltel customers found themselves traded first to Verizon and then divested away to AT&T.

Most of the customers divested away from T-Mobile’s future with AT&T will likely end up switched to Verizon, hardly a success story for increased competition.

FCC lawyers will likely review this transaction with a narrow scope, too.  Instead of contemplating the implications of the inevitable duopoly that could result, the FCC will likely find itself negotiating over individual details of the deal without considering an outright rejection of it.

AT&T admits they are on a mission to monetize data usage.

At the FCC, Julius Genachowski’s performance as a regulator has been nothing short of a disaster, pleasing almost nobody in the process.  His “cowardly lion” approach to regulation has delivered rhetoric without substance and a whole lot of broken promises.  Genachowski has proven to be unable to stand up to the companies he is tasked with regulating.  With two Republican commissioners likely to favor the deal and Michael Copps almost certainly in opposition, it will be up to Julius Genachowski and Mignon Clyburn to vote this deal up or down.

But regulators are also responsive to Congressional pressure and dramatic backlash by consumers, such as what happened just a few years ago when big media companies lobbied to relax media ownership rules.  When consumers (and voters) revolt, regulators will change their tune… and fast.

What You Can Do

Consumers can make a difference in what comes next for T-Mobile and AT&T.  The first step is to make this an issue with your member of Congress and two senators.  Let them know you have profound concerns about another huge wireless merger.

There is simply no tangible benefit that can outweigh the loss of another important competitor in the American wireless marketplace.

AT&T’s bottom-rated service will not become any better acquiring the second-to-last rated service.  The company must invest in its network to compete, not simply pick off competitors to save money.  The loss of T-Mobile would mean only three national carriers, and it is highly unlikely Sprint would be able to withstand pressures on Wall Street to merge themselves away, probably to Verizon.

Tell your elected officials the AT&T/T-Mobile deal is a consumer nightmare and should not be approved under any circumstances.

[flv width=”360″ height=”290″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Glenchur Says Regulatory Risk Substantial for ATT 3-21-11.mp4[/flv]

The always optimistic Bloomberg News says AT&T’s deal could still get past regulators, but there is a substantial risk as well.  Consumers can help make that risk unsustainable by telling the Obama Administration and Congress better broadband does not come from a duopoly, no matter how well-intentioned.  (4 minutes)

Special Report: The Rise and Fall (And Rise Again) of Alltel

Alltel's logo, in use before 2006

Alltel Wireless is back.  Two years after Alltel was bought by Verizon Wireless, some 900,000 customers in Georgia, Illinois, North and South Carolina, Ohio and Idaho not included in the transition to Verizon will remain Alltel customers under new management.

For many customers, that suits them just fine.  In fact, with an increasing number of complaints from the 13.2 million former Alltel customers forced into a shotgun cellular wedding with Verizon or AT&T, many wish they could have the choice to return to Alltel themselves.

The demise of Alltel is another classic example of a telecommunications deal that made sense (and dollars) for Wall Street and a handful of Alltel executives, but left thousands of employees out in the cold in the unemployment line and customers coping with broken promises and higher bills.

It’s a story familiar to most of our readers, because the game plan for most telecom mergers and acquisitions delivers all of the benefits to a select few and ends up costing consumers plenty.  That these deals get almost routine approval from the Federal Communications Commission is ironic, considering that same agency commissioned studies that unsurprisingly found increased consolidation and lack of competition in the wireless marketplace.

The end of Alltel is a great example of what happens when an industry achieves near-total deregulation. Lobbyists sell deregulation as directly benefiting consumers with increased competition, more innovation, and lower prices.  In reality, from broadcasting to broadband, deregulation sparks escalating rounds of mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts.  Wall Street doesn’t want increased competition — it wants fewer options, less costly innovation, and higher prices to sustain profits.  When Wall Street speaks, most of these companies listen.

Since 1996, when the Telecommunications Act was passed, more than two dozen telecommunications companies have been swallowed up in mergers and buyouts.  Consumers find themselves with new providers and higher bills.  But not everyone is hurting from laissez-faire tele-economics.  For a handful of top executives, the result has been riches beyond their wildest dreams.  Even when they are forced out through merger deals, the golden parachutes that follow brings tears of joy.  Just ask Alltel’s last CEO — Scott T. Ford — he said goodbye to Alltel in 2007 with a parting bonus of nearly $150 million dollars.

Alltel’s History — Keeping It In the Family

Alltel’s history in the telephone business traces all the way back to 1943, with the formation of the Allied Telephone Company of Little Rock, Arkansas.  Back then, telephone service in the U.S. was mostly a monopoly of AT&T and several smaller independent phone companies. Allied’s business began as a pole and wiring provider for those phone companies.  In 1983, Alltel – the traditional phone company – was created from a merger between Allied Telephone and Mid-Continent Telephone.  In 1985, Alltel Wireless service began from its first cellular system in Charlotte, N.C.  In less than a decade, the wireless division would expand service in smaller cities and towns across mid-America and the south, often where larger carriers didn’t want to provide service.

Just about everything in the telecommunications industry changed with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  The law that promised to open the doors to better service and more competition actually deregulated most of the industry into an “anything-goes” circus of money-fueled mergers, buyouts, and consolidation.  Important consumer protections were discarded along the way.

The implications of the Act were well understood by corporate executives in the industry, and companies spent millions to lobby for its passage.  They considered it a down-payment for better days to come.  The biography of Alltel’s then-CEO Joe T. Ford noted the passage of the law changed everything, even leading to a violation of an agreement he made with his son when he was only 12 years old:

Scott T. Ford, the president and chief executive officer of the Alltel Corporation, made his first business deal at the age of 12 with his father, Joe T. Ford. The two agreed that Scott would never work at Alltel. Joe wanted to spare his son what he himself had endured since coming to work for his father-inlaw, Hugh Wilbourne Jr., in 1959. After the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, however, the Fords rethought their agreement, and, at age 35, Scott Ford became executive vice president of Alltel. Within two years he was appointed CEO, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Wilbourne, who formed Allied Telephone Company in 1943 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

All that hard work by earlier generations was about to pay some serious dividends in a laissez-faire telecommunications world.

Beebe literally drew his own road map depicting his idea of success - remaining on top after a flurry of mergers and ongoing industry consolidation

The Dot.com Boom… for Some

At the end of the 20th century, the telecommunications industry was in the middle of the dot.com boom.

The impact of the 1996 Telecom Act did fuel change among traditional telecom companies.  While some new players were wildly upgrading networks and building fiber optic networks to sustain the dot.com book, most of the traditional phone and cable companies were spending their time and attention on mergers and leveraged buyouts.  The Baby Bell-AT&T empire that was broken up in the mid-1980s was nearly restored to its former glory with super-sized Verizon and AT&T.  Independent phone companies which operated for a century were suddenly the targets of buyouts, now consolidated by regional players like CenturyTel, Embarq, Alltel and Citizens.

Alltel didn’t just buy up other independent phone companies.  It also bought wireless providers and soon merged its landline and wireless divisions into a single company.  This was the era when the “full service phone company” was trendy — capable of delivering local, long distance, and wireless service all from one company, usually on one bill.

Alltel’s executives, like then-Alltel group president Kevin Beebe, delivered presentations to Wall Street bankers like Credit Suisse/First Boston promoting Alltel and its made-for-consolidation balance sheet.  He literally drew his own road map showing his route to success, depicting himself on top after successive mergers with smaller players.

Unfortunately, the high-powered, cash rich days of the dot.com deal were about to end.  By the start of the new century, it was all over.  An oversupply of infrastructure was built to support web-based businesses that would never launch.  Many of those already in business shuttered their virtual doors.  Venture capital for telecommunications projects dried up.  But there was still plenty of money to be made in wireless, and Alltel did obtain financing to launch mergers and buyouts with as many small cell phone providers as possible.  By the early 2000s, the mentality in the telecommunications business was “small is bad.”  The only path to success was to buy your competition, or be bought by them.

The business of mergers and acquisitions earned countless millions for Wall Street banks, who charged fees to help structure the deals and usually helped finance them.  Executives always won, even if a merger brought an end to their career at the company.  Golden parachutes kept the top floor happy.  The only losers were the soon-to-be-ex-employees and middle management declared redundant and escorted from the building.  They were the “cost savings” promoted as a benefit of the merger months earlier.  Meanwhile, customers were stuck dealing with the transition changes, service interruptions, and the eventually higher bill that always result from reduced competition.

During the first half of this decade, it was Alltel doing the acquiring — spending fortunes to acquire other regional wireless phone companies:

  • 2002: Alltel acquires 700,000 wireless customers from CenturyTel Inc. in Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Texas and Wisconsin for $1.5 billion.
  • 2003: Alltel purchases wireless properties in Mississippi from Cellular XL.
  • 2004: Alltel acquires wireless properties from MobileTel, U.S. Cellular and TDS Telecom.
  • 2005: Alltel merges with Western Wireless Corp., acquires wireless properties from Public Service Cellular, certain wireless assets from Cingular and exchanges properties with U.S. Cellular of Chicago to meet divestiture requirements related to Alltel’s merger with Western Wireless Corp. Alltel agrees to purchase Midwest Wireless for $1 billion in cash.

Despite the shopping spree, Alltel’s executives like Beebe continued to let it be known Alltel itself was “well-positioned for wireless consolidation” — available for a buyout… for the right price.  By 2006, Alltel had become the fifth largest telecommunications company in the country, with operations in 34 states.  Thanks to lengthy roaming agreements with Sprint and Verizon Wireless, Alltel could deliver national service even from a regional network.

Alltel also enjoyed a satisfied customer base, thanks to innovative calling plans and services that were unheard of from other cell companies.  In 2006, it introduced the popular My Circle calling plan, which allowed customers to make unlimited wireless calls to up to ten numbers, regardless of whether they were landlines or other Alltel wireless customers.  That same year, U Prepaid was introduced, which included unlimited calling and text messaging to a pre-designated number — perfect for those needing to call home.  Alltel prepaid customers could also roam on many other carrier’s networks without paying enormous roaming fees.

Alltel Sells Out Its Landlines

Until the 1996 Telecom Act, most publicly-owned telephone companies were considered a safe utility stock.  In rural communities, many of the phone companies that established service where AT&T’s Bell System did not have been around since the 1890s.  Often owned by a family or cooperative, these independent phone companies popped up when Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents expired.  The companies were hardly growth hotbeds, traditionally serving communities that saw little growth and lots of expenses from the wide-open country they had to wire.

After deregulation, venture capital moved aggressively into the wireless and cable sectors.  For the first time, many rural phone companies faced competition from rural cellular providers and cable companies experimenting with “digital phone” service delivered over cable television lines.  But unlike the phone company, these providers were not required to deliver service to everyone.  Most of these services would only challenge the phone company in population centers within towns and villages, that also happened to be where most of their customers lived and worked.

The business model was changing.  As rural phone companies began losing customers to cable and wireless providers, some of them looked to mergers and acquisitions to reduce costs and improve revenues to keep revenue stable, even as customers disconnected.  To maintain interest and  investment from stockholders, many traditional publicly-held phone companies began paying shareholders increased dividends, which attracted attention from Wall Street.

On July 11, 2004, one independent phone company set a new bar for dividends and probably changed the long term business models of rural phone companies for years to come.  Citizens Communications Corporation, as part of a corporate re-shuffle, announced the resignation of its then-CEO Leonard Tow, changed its name to Frontier Communications, and announced an incredible one-time payout of a $2 dividend for every share of common stock, and an ongoing annual $1 dividend, payable every quarter.

With a payout like that, investors began demanding increasing dividends from other phone companies, Alltel included.  To pay that kind of dividend, you need revenue, and slow-growth rural phone companies cannot just generate millions in new revenue selling voicemail, long distance plans, and caller-ID.  That kind of money comes from new lines of business, such as broadband, or from cash-generating mergers and buyouts.

Broadband required millions of dollars in new investments, increasing short term costs and having to wait several years to see a return.  Mergers and acquisitions delivered fast cash and instant results — short term benefits Wall Street loves to see.

So while phone companies continued to lose landline customers at rates up to 7 percent per year, another round of frenzied consolidation through mergers and buyouts erupted.

Rural Phone Company Deals
From 2004 forward, an explosion in mergers and acquisitions tempered only by a shrinking number of available targets by 2009 led to more than two dozen consolidations among independent phone companies. (Source: Stifel, Nicolaus & Company)
No. of deals
Deal value [in millions of dollars]

For Alltel, already established with a strong wireless division, seeing the long term prospects of trying to sustain its landline business as it lost customers seemed pointless.  In December 2005, Alltel announced it was dumping its 3,000,000 landline customers, combining them with another 500,000 customers of Irving, Texas-based Valor Communications in a $9.1 billion dollar tax-free deal to create a new independent landline company — Windstream Communications.

Alltel would henceforth be a wireless phone company-only, and a much richer one at that.  Unfortunately, despite its ranking as America’s fifth largest wireless provider, Alltel still remained a regional player, far behind its fourth largest rival T-Mobile.  With a dwindling number of wireless companies to acquire, speculation grew Alltel itself would soon become a takeover target.

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KLRT Little Rock Alltel Sold to Goldman Sachs 5-20-07.flv[/flv]

KLRT-TV in Little Rock covered the announced acquisition of Alltel by Goldman Sachs on May 20, 2007 in these three reports.  (15 minutes)

Goldman Sachs Moves In

Within two years, Alltel’s independence would come to an end.  In 2007, Alltel formally opened an auction to sell the company’s wireless assets to the highest bidder.  But in a surprise move, company executives suddenly canceled the auction and accepted a $26 billion leveraged buyout takeover offer from TPG Capital and the buyout arm of Goldman Sachs.  Now, Wall Street investment bankers would own and control Alltel outright.

Speculation in the financial press about why Alltel canceled the auction and didn’t even entertain other bidders for the company raised eyebrows at the time.  The windfall payouts to Alltel’s executives disclosed in later Securities & Exchange Commission filings may have had something to do with it.  Company executives won the equivalent of the Powerball Lotto:

  • CEO Scott T. Ford received nearly $150 million dollars.
  • Richard Massey, former chief strategy officer and general counsel walked away with almost $50 million.
  • Alltel Chief Operating Officer Jeff Fox cleared more than $70 million.
  • C.J. Duvall, who was EVP of human resources earned nearly $10 million.
  • Kevin Beebe, group president of operations went home with more than $60 million.

That’s quite a haul for the top floor executives at Alltel heading for the exits.

But Goldman Sachs had no intention of running its own phone company for long.  Analysts predicted the investment bank would hold onto Alltel for a year or two in hopes of selling it at a premium to one of the other wireless carriers, probably AT&T or Verizon.

That’s exactly what happened, except it only took seven months.

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg In-Depth Look Goldman and TPG to Buy Alltel 5-21-07.flv[/flv]

Bloomberg News took an in-depth look at the 2007 Alltel acquisition by Goldman Sachs and ongoing wireless consolidation. (Corrected Video) (5 minutes)

Verizon Takes Over – The Dog & Pony Approval Circus

With the collapse of the banking sector in 2007 and 2008, Goldman Sachs needed to get rid of assets to raise money.  The subprime mortgage mess left banks with $386 billion in asset writedowns and credit losses.  By putting Alltel up for sale, Goldman would earn $28.1 billion, enough to pay off the loans financing Alltel’s buyout months earlier, and even come out ahead.

The buyer, Verizon Wireless, sought to combine Alltel’s rural cell tower network with its own to expand coverage and pick up a stronger presence in middle America.

In the high stakes, high cost consolidation of telecommunications in the United States, what few regulatory hurdles Verizon would face getting the deal approved meant bringing forth the dog and pony show from Verizon’s lobbyists.  The Federal Communications Commission could alter or even kill its deal.  To make sure that didn’t happen, Verizon counted on the usual assortment of “dollar a holler” advocacy groups, heavy lobbying in Congress, and other friendly allies to help get the deal approved.

Unsurprisingly, Verizon can always count on help from free market allies and alleged community service groups with whom it has a financial relationship or contributes executive talent to serve on their boards.  Most of these have no involvement in telecommunications matters, except when it interests or impacts Verizon.  Suddenly they spring to action, conveniently submitting similar comments supporting whatever Verizon had on the agenda before the FCC.

[flv width=”640″ height=”500″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Little Rock Alltel-Verizon Merger Compilation 2008-2009.flv[/flv]

KLRT and KTHV-TV in Little Rock, Ark., where Alltel was headquartered, ran a series of reports explaining the impact the Verizon-Alltel merger would have on Alltel’s service and jobs in Little Rock. (23 minutes)

Selected Members of the Verizon Friendship Crew Filing Comments Supporting the Verizon Purchase of Alltel (click the names to read their letters to the FCC):

Alltel's service areas were carved up between three major providers - Verizon, AT&T, and ATN

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Verizon Buying Alltel 6-5-08.flv[/flv]

Bloomberg News considered the business/industry implications of the Verizon-Alltel merger in these reports. (9 minutes)

Consumers Get Broken Promises & More Expensive Service

The benefits list of what Verizon promised to bring Alltel customers was heavily redacted in FCC filings as “highly confidential.”  What was promised, in public, was that Verizon would deliver improved service to Alltel customers who could continue with their existing service plans..

What consumers really got were major headaches, bad service, and much higher bills.  Former Alltel customers continue to tear up Verizon Wireless’ support forums with page after page of complaints.  As one former Alltel customer puts it, “we are the abandoned children of the redheaded stepchild.”

Some readers of Stop the Cap! shared their own experiences with the Alltel sale. Penny writes:

I first had Midwest Wireless that was bought out by Alltel which was just bought out by Verizon. With each switch I had to change my phone because something on the new system would not work on my old “previous provider” cell phone. Verizon has yet again said that for the “data charges” I can not block anything as my cell phone is too old and that I need to get a “Verizon” phone. My phone is not even a year old.

Enough about phones, data charges, rude customer service. You want to talk about dishonesty and unfair practices…just say Verizon.

In May I called and asked what I should do about leaving for a trip in which I would go out of my phone zone. The customer assistant that I talked to informed me that to avoid roaming charges I should temporarily switch to a national plan. I asked several times if I would be able to go back to my previous plan and was promised that I could set the start and end date for the new national plan. Well can you guess what they did? Yep they did the old bait and switch and from what I know about law….or what I thought about law was that this practice is illegal. Verizon started the new plan almost after I got back from my trip and plus would not set me back to my old plan. So now I had over 2 times the old bill plus roaming charges and less minutes. All I can say is my last call to Verizon was asking when my contract was up and what the termination fee is. By the way the $200 might be well spent.

Penny was switched away from her grandfathered Alltel plan to a new Verizon service plan, and potentially also ended up with a brand new two year contract, without new phones to accompany it.  Any Verizon customer on a grandfathered service plan should never consider allowing a customer service representative to make substantial plan changes — you could lose your old plan.  Grandfathered customers can make certain changes from the Verizon website (adding text plans, changing calling features on phones, etc.) without terminating their existing plan, but be cautious.  Once you lose an old plan, you may never get it back.

Steve, another Stop the Cap! reader, writes:

I was with Alltel for 15 to 20 years and a very happy customer — never a problem. Then Verizon took over and it has been a problem ever since. First off let me tell you that we are truck drivers and travel all over the US. We were in Texas when our laptop died so we went and bought a new one.  Our Alltel air card would not work in the new computer. This was at the time when Verizon was taking over, so we had to go to Verizon and get a new air card. By the way we had unlimited with Alltel. The sales person in Verizon sold us a new card and got us on the road again. From that day forward we have had to visit a Verizon store about our bill every month. Last month was the final straw. We did not like the 5 gig limit to begin with and did not trust it so we were watching it closely so we thought. When the MB’s got up near 4100 we called Verizon and they said you are no where near your 5 gig. Well when the bill came in it said we used over 8 gig and instead of our bill being 200.00 it was over 400.00 for the month . Since this has happened we have already dropped their phone service and may have to drop the Internet and pay the penalties.

Verizon's wireless modem

Steve ran into the problem former Alltel customers frequently encounter when traveling or moving outside of their old Alltel service area.  Many Verizon representatives are not well trained about their new Alltel customers.  Until the transition is complete, many Alltel customers still use equipment that gives priority to Alltel’s network first.  If not correctly provisioned, equipment may not work properly outside of areas where Alltel had service.

[flv width=”640″ height=”500″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WTVT Tampa Verizon Alltel to refund charges 6-24-09.flv[/flv]

Alltel and Verizon were accused of bill cramming in the state of Florida — subjecting customers to monthly charges for “free” ringtones and other services.  The Florida Attorney General’s office ordered refunds for all affected Floridians.  Cell phone companies have an incentive to allow these services to get away with loading up customers’ bills with unauthorized charges — they receive a cut of the action.  WTVT-TV in Tampa reports.  (3 minutes)

Verizon’s 5GB usage cap also includes a steep overlimit penalty.  We’ve seen reports that customers who use service around the country do not immediately see correct numbers for data usage.  That can cause a sudden traffic spike as usage from other areas finally shows up on one’s account.  Verizon customers should have the ability to opt-out from overlimit penalties.  When their 5GB is used up, they should be presented with a screen that requires them to acknowledge they wish to continue using the service and face the consequences on their bill.

Verizon’s tricks and traps for Alltel customers always pay off for Verizon, almost never for customers:

  1. Verizon is doing everything possible to get Alltel customers to “upgrade” their service to Verizon plans so they can get them away from Alltel’s legacy plans offering more features for less money.  Once a customer renews a contract with a new Verizon phone or makes a significant change to their service plan, they are switched to a new Verizon plan… often including tricks and traps.  Unlimited texting costs extra on Verizon, as do many other features.  Customers who mistakenly buy what they thought was a comparable service plan learn the errors of their ways when the $1,100 Verizon bill arrives a month later.  Forgetting to add text and data plans can be an expensive mistake on Verizon’s network.
  2. Dangling a free or discounted phone upgrade for former Alltel customers often also requires an “upgraded” service plan… from Verizon.  If you want a new subsidized phone, you may lose your old Alltel plan.
  3. In many areas, Alltel phones gravitate towards Alltel’s legacy cell network.  That means the phone will choose a weaker cell tower formerly operated by Alltel instead of a closer Verizon cell site.  A roaming/software upgrade normally would correct this and help route calls to the best possible cell site, but customers overwhelmingly complain that doesn’t happen with Alltel-provided phones.  Customers are encouraged to choose a new Verizon phone instead… with a new Verizon service plan.

[flv width=”512″ height=”308″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WTKR Hampton Roads Norfolk NC man overcharged 400 dollars when switching from Alltel to Verizon 1-19-10.flv[/flv]

This former Alltel customer in North Carolina was charged $400 for an unjustified early termination fee when his service switched to Verizon Wireless as part of the merger.  Despite repeated calls, Verizon-owned Alltel turned his account over to a collection agency. Verizon told him to pay off the Alltel collection agency account and they’d credit him $400.  He paid and then Verizon refused to credit his account and turned him over to their collection agency who started calling him at work.  They also ruined his credit.  It took WTKR-TV in Hampton Roads, Virginia airing this story on the 6 o’clock news to get Verizon’s attention after seven months.  (2 minutes)

Things are even more complicated in areas where the FCC has forced Alltel to divest its wireless assets and not transfer them to Verizon.  In most areas, those customers will shortly discover they are becoming part of AT&T’s wireless family, as AT&T bought the majority of those divested markets.  AT&T, however, does not operate with the same wireless standard Alltel and Verizon do.  AT&T phones work on the GSM standard while Alltel and Verizon work on CDMA.  For the time being, AT&T will simply operate the existing CDMA network Alltel used to own, but eventually every affected customer will get a free upgrade to a new GSM phone.  That upgrade better come quick for frequent travelers who are former Alltel customers switched to AT&T.  They’ll find getting service from AT&T outside of their home areas difficult on a network that uses an entirely different standard.  AT&T will likely have to maintain roaming agreements with Verizon for former Alltel customers until conversion is complete.

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/South Dakota Alltel ATT 6-24-10.flv[/flv]

KELO and KSFY-TV, both in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, informed South Dakota’s former Alltel customers they’d soon have AT&T as their cell phone company, making Apple’s iPod available in stores in the state for the first time. (3 minutes)

A handful of customers won’t end up with either Verizon or AT&T.  In parts of Wisconsin, Element Mobile will take control of their Alltel account. But nearly a million customers will find their former Alltel service is now provided by… Alltel?

The Return of Alltel Wireless


Allied Wireless Communications Corp., which is staffed by former Alltel employees, has acquired the remaining leftover pieces of Alltel’s network, including its name, for $223 million dollars.  The all-new Alltel will have the same logo and calling plan features the old Alltel offered, and for 900,000 customers, it will be as if they never left.

“We feel like it’s putting the bank back together here in Little Rock,” Wade McGill, chief administrative officer for Alltel Wireless and AWCC told RCR Wireless. The original Alltel Corp. was headquartered in Little Rock, Ark., before being acquired by Verizon Wireless for $28 billion in early 2009. As part of the acquisition, Verizon Wireless was forced to divest some markets, a majority of which were acquired by AT&T Mobility for $3 billion, with most of the rest picked up by what will remain Alltel.

The company will have extensive roaming agreements for nationwide coverage and will focus on maintaining high quality customer care.

“The ability to retain the brand was key in these markets and you can’t underestimate the value of that,” McGill noted, adding that more than 50% of its current customer base have been Alltel customers for more than six years.

“We need to have a laser focus on the customer experience and being local,” McGill explained, citing a common mantra of rural carriers forced to compete against large, nationwide operators. “That’s how we want to think about our plans moving forward. … I think our plan is to grow organically at first and just focus on providing excellent customer service and support.”

But that doesn’t preclude Alltel from starting to expand operations to other parts of the country, perhaps even in areas now taken over by Verizon.

The new Alltel will remain a CDMA provider with plans to move to the LTE standard, which will deliver a 4G-like experience.

Going Back to the Future

In the end, many of the 13 million former Alltel customers probably wish they could have their old Alltel back, too.

Instead, they got wheeled and dealed away, first by an investment bank/casino that later used taxpayer dollars to bail itself out of its own greed, then by Verizon and AT&T who promise a future of higher bills and poorer service for many trapped in two year contracts. Too often, what’s in the best interests of consumers are an afterthought in these kinds of transactions, even today. Despite the FCC’s own findings that wireless competition is shrinking in a consolidating wireless world, they still found a way to green light deals like this that reduce competition even further.

Wall Street Journal Says Net Neutrality A Boon To Bandwidth Hogging, Ignores Industry’s Own Self-Interest

net_neutralityA Wall Street Journal article this morning calls the imminent introduction of Net Neutrality policy “a boon for consumers […] to use their computers or cellphones to enjoy videos, music and other legal services that hog bandwidth.”

The article refers to the widely expected announcement today by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski that Net Neutrality should be adopted as the fifth principle governing Internet service in the United States.

But Journal reporter Amy Schatz’s judgment about who wins and who loses in the Net Neutrality debate is framed by the flawed broadband provider arguments she adopts as reality:

The proposed rules could change how operators manage their networks and profit from them, and the everyday online experience of individual users. Treating Web traffic equally means carriers couldn’t block or slow access to legal services or sites that are a drain on their networks or offered by rivals.

The rules will escalate a fight over how much control the government should have over Internet commerce. The Obama administration is taking the side of Google, Amazon.com Inc. and an array of smaller businesses that want to profit from offering consumers streaming video, graphics-rich games, movie and music downloads and other services.

Setting aside the inappropriate use of the word “hog” to define broadband usage, which comes straight out of the broadband industry’s public relations strategy, Schatz ignores the fact some of the biggest drains on these networks will soon come from the industry’s own efforts to dominate online video — TV Everywhere.

In fact, the excuses for imposing Internet Overcharging schemes in 2009 do not reference much beyond online video growth as a justification to impose speed throttles and price increases on consumers.

Schatz adopts industry positions as fact in a number of places throughout her piece, which belongs on the Editorial page of the Journal:

If the FCC does force U.S. wireless carriers to open their networks to data-heavy applications like streaming video, it could push them beyond the limited capacity they have. Already, in areas like New York and San Francisco, a high concentration of iPhones has caused many AT&T customers to complain about degrading service.

In fact, many wireless carriers already provide their own wireless video to customers, and don’t seem to be engaging in a lot of hand-wringing over that.  Should Net Neutrality force open the wireless platform, the quality of the service, not the provider’s self interest will govern the success and failure of individual applications.  AT&T, which has earned massive revenue from its exclusive iPhone arrangement with Apple, can and should continue to invest some of that revenue into expanding their network to meet the demand.  If they cannot, it is an open question why they would allow any online video or other data-heavy applications on their networks until those networks can handle the traffic.

In such a scenario, wireless carriers may have to rethink how much they charge for data plans or even cap how much bandwidth individuals get, said Julie Ask, a wireless analyst at Jupiter Research.

This ignores the fact providers have already rethought about how much they charge for data plans.  Some providers are now compelling subscribers to choose data plans as part of their two year service agreements, while the industry is replete with 5GB usage caps on wireless data services today.  Someone should ask Ask what she thinks is forthcoming that hasn’t already happened.

The FCC’s proposal will take into account the bandwidth limitations faced by wireless carriers, according to people familiar with the plan, and would ask how such rules should apply to current networks.

…which takes the wind out of the sails of the argument Net Neutrality would be ruinous to wireless providers.

The proposals come as the FCC faces a federal appeals court case over its authority to regulate Web traffic. Comcast is fighting an FCC decision last year to ding it for violating the agency’s “net neutrality” principles when it slowed traffic for some subscribers who were downloading big files. Comcast said it didn’t violate any rules because the FCC had never formally adopted any, but it did change how it manages its network.

In reality, Comcast’s speed throttle targeted files small and large, all because they were delivered over a specific network Comcast didn’t like: peer to peer.  That’s a protocol that relies on a group of people obtaining files by sharing pieces already downloaded with one another until the file is complete for everyone.  That involves uploading and downloading file pieces, often over a lengthy period.  Comcast’s network was built with the assumption most customers would download far more than they upload, and peer-to-peer challenged that model with its file sharing methodology.  The surge in upload traffic challenged their network at times, so Comcast decided to throttle the maximum speeds consumers could use while engaged in peer-to-peer file sharing.

Republicans are likely to oppose the FCC’s new proposal — both at the FCC and in Congress — arguing that the FCC is trying to fix problems that don’t exist and that the agency should take a more hands-off approach to the fast-changing industry.

“With only a few isolated instances of complaints alleging net neutrality-like abuses ever having been filed, it is a mistake,” said Randolph May, president of Free State Foundation, a free-market oriented think tank.

It’s difficult to fathom exactly how much more “hands-off” the agency can get with respect to broadband, an unregulated service in the United States.  That “hands-off” policy was responsible for the establishment of de facto monopoly/duopoly broadband service in most American cities, wireless broadband that charges nearly the same price for the same usage capped service, and is tinkering with Internet Overcharging to leverage that market status into higher pricing for all consumers.

May’s argument is akin to calling the fire department only after a fire has consumed half of your home, not when the smoke detector first goes off.

As a result, both the cable companies and phone companies had incentives to create conditions on the Internet — either through pricing or slowing or speeding up certain sites — to favor their own content.

This sentence, buried towards the end of the piece, exemplifies exactly why Net Neutrality is so important.  Let’s put this fire out before it burns out of control.

Ex FCC Commissioner Earns Her Pay As Pro-Telecom Industry Hack – Advocates for Internet Overcharging

Phillip Dampier July 10, 2009 Data Caps, Editorial & Site News 6 Comments
Here comes the Astroturf

Here comes the Astroturf

Deborah Taylor Tate, a Bush-appointed ex-commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission is now earning her paycheck regurgitating telecommunications industry talking points of behalf of the astroturf group, the Free State Foundation.

In an editorial in today’s Washington Times (thanks to reader Mitchell for alerting us about it), Tate perfectly falls in line with the talking points Stop the Cap! readers can repeat in their sleep, right down to ripping off AT&T’s “grandmother” analogy from several weeks ago.  Her employer, the Free State Foundation, has a long history of advocating pro-industry positions in opposition to consumer interests.  Having a former credentialed FCC official doing the industry talk is designed to impress.

Tate, who was never impressive as an FCC commissioner and maintains her ongoing unimpressive credentials at FSF, phones it in with a fact-free piece entitled, “Paying for Use is Fair,” in which she directly advocates for Internet Overcharging schemes, attempting to convince readers it will somehow save them money on their broadband service.

Her efforts to tell the story of “paying for what you use” will be comical to those in the communities where such “experiments” were conducted, because Tate either doesn’t know or care about the details of the market experiments she writes about.

Most broadband consumers would be astounded that some members of Congress want to block our ability to pay for broadband Internet use in precisely the same way we now pay for other commodities: Pay more if you use more; pay less if you use less.

Most consumers would be astounded an ex-FCC commissioner got the basic facts wrong about the basis of such pricing schemes.  No broadband provider has ever offered a “pay for what you use” pricing scheme.  They have only offered “pay MORE for what you use, and a lot more if you use more than you thought.”

This comes on the heels of Time Warner’s rapid retreat from a pilot test of pay-for-use broadband pricing, bowing to congressional pressure and protests from consumer groups. Studies have indicated the top 25 percent of users have consumed 100 times more bandwidth than the bottom 25 percent. So, what is fair about one-price-fits-all if someone uses 100 times more than you do?

At least Tate barely acknowledges another basic truth about these pricing schemes: the overwhelming majority of Americans do not want this kind of pricing model, and more than half would leave their existing provider if they tried to force them into one.

The “studies” Tate writes about do not exist.  They are claims by the providers themselves, which have never allowed for an independent review of the raw data the companies claim to base their findings on.  Nor does it account for the industry’s “need” to increase every consumer’s broadband bill with overcharging schemes based on limited consumption allowances and credit card-like overlimit penalties and fees.  Indeed, this is an industry with profits well into the billions of dollars whose costs are actually declining, along with their willingness to invest in growing their networks.  One need only review quarterly and annual financial reports issued by the providers’ themselves to learn the truth.  These companies are not hurting for profits.

Even where monopolies exist, pricing has generally been based on the notion that customers are charged more if they consume more and less if they use less. Obviously, beyond basic necessity, they could exercise some self-control, and could even save money through metering that measured consumption. This is especially true in an environment where consumers have options for providers of broadband, cell phones and now, in many cases, electricity.

Broadband pricing has been flat rate since the service was launched by phone companies providing DSL and cable operators launched cable modem service in most areas of this country.  That’s because broadband has been cheap, capacity plentiful, and profits high.  Absolutely nothing has changed in that equation, except a desire by broadband providers to dramatically grab additional profits, reduce demand with threats of overlimit fees or service being cut off for overuse, and attempts to invest less in their networks.  Controlling online video is critical for most of the providers who find that a competitive threat to their television service business model.

Tate doesn’t bother to contemplate increased competition, seeming happy enough to acknowledge monopolies do exist and then moving on to something else.  That mimics the FCC’s position over the past eight years, so that comes as no surprise either.

Whether run by local co-ops, governments or profit-making firms, any network has substantial capital costs to build out infrastructure, provide service, expand capacity and meet higher demand, particularly at peak periods. The same network cost issues also apply to Internet service providers. Expanding bandwidth and capacity for the exponential growth of Internet traffic is expensive. Updating security applications to prevent cybercrime are increasingly necessary for government, business and individuals, driving up costs even further. The supply of fiber optic cable and computer servers is not infinite, and we are already facing network constraints. We have all experienced the network being slowed by periods of heavy usage. Broadband providers — just like wireless providers — should be allowed to use a consumption model without government interference as long as consumers know and understand what they are paying for.

To date, there has been a surprising uniformity in billing for broadband Internet service. But why should a grandmother who checks e-mail once a day or makes an occasional purchase online be charged the same monthly rate as a researcher downloading massive data files or teenagers watching full-length movies every day? Why not provide consumers the freedom to monitor and control their own use — and to benefit from volume-based rate packages?

AT&T should consider legal action against Tate for plagiarizing their talking points.  In fact, her entire argument is part of the grand Re-education campaign we’ve written about since Time Warner Cable temporarily shelved their overcharging scheme back in April.  The “exaflood” nonsense, the “it’s expensive to spend money to upgrade our networks” whining, and the hissyfit over consumers using their service just as these same providers marketed them are all in there.

Deborah Taylor Tate: The Marie Antoinette of Internet Pricing

Deborah Taylor Tate: The Marie Antoinette of Internet Pricing

At least Tate is consistent — she never cared about consumers like you and I during her stay on the FCC, and she still doesn’t care about consumers by doing the bidding of groups like the Free State Foundation.

What do Washington Times readers think?  Not much of Tate or her positions.  Among them:

“Wow, did you just pull a page out of the telecom’s lobbyist manual to come up with this article?  They are doing this to prevent new technologies from making them an antiquated model, and they are doing it to get more money out of the customer. I promise it has nothing and I mean nothing to do with saving your grandma a single cent.”

“Are you being paid by the cable co? Seriously. Do you even realize with the utter lack of competition and the fact that the cable company enjoys a monopoly in most all of their markets, pricing for use is utterly bad for consumers.”

“Bill is right, you’re just reading talking points at this point, and not looking at the actual economics or technology behind it.”

“Deborah, Please take a moment to think for yourself instead of shilling for an industry. Metered billing has nothing to do with customer choice, please don’t pretend that it does. This is about making more money off of existing usage, while avoiding upgrading of networks and services.”

“So for instance, using the same logic and same company, when I call for traditional phone service, they are quick to sell me an “Unlimited” minute plan for $40.00/month.”

“Metered usage is nothing more than a money grab by the content providers. Their current business model is being threaten by media content being available via streaming services.”

In the end, consumers like you and I pay part of our monthly broadband bill to providers that are cutting checks to astroturf groups to advocate against consumer interests.  Imagine if they spent some of that money on their network upgrades, and a little less funneled to inside-the-beltway hackery written by underwhelming ex-officials-turned-insider-special-interests.

Redefining Net Neutrality to Mean Whatever You Want

Phillip Dampier June 5, 2009 Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon 1 Comment

Politico published an article this week attempting to navigate the waters of the nation’s telecommunications regulatory policies, as seen in the eyes of the Federal Communications Commission.  As Stop the Cap! readers already know, Net Neutrality has a tendency to be defined in many different ways.  It’s the color-changing Magic Sprinkles of regulatory policy.  Everyone has a favorite color.

We define Net Neutrality as giving equal access and treatment to all data on broadband networks without favor or foe.  Usage caps indirectly impact on Net Neutrality because they can artificially limit consumption with the potential of exempting “preferred partner” content. Another example: “digital phone” products from the bandwidth provider that are excused from consumption meters violate Net Neutrality principles when the competition doesn’t get the free pass your own product does.

Obama’s appointments to the FCC claim to support Net Neutrality principles and state they will keep those in mind as they regulate telecommunications for at least the next four years.

“In the beginning of the storm, we were in this frenzy because of statements being made by the CEOs about charging websites and application providers for different levels of access to reach Internet users. That got policymakers engaged, and the president made it his No. 1 tech agenda item,” he said. “Now we have a brand-new government. The community is looking to see what is going to happen. If things don’t happen in a timely way, you will see the back end of that storm.”

Tom Tauke

Tom Tauke

Tom Tauke, executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications at Verizon tried to put banana colored sprinkles on a watermelon flavored ice cream cone when he attempted to conflate the concept of Net Neutrality with wireless phone companies handing out free phones to victims of stalkers and domestic violence.  Huh?  Under Net Neutrality, the stalkers should also get phones?

Tauke also demonstrated either a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept, or deliberately tried to muddy the waters of Net Neutrality. Verizon has traditionally despised and has lobbied against Net Neutrality for years.

In Tauke’s eyes, Net Neutrality protections may somehow impact parents’ abilities to monitor and control their children’s access to the Internet, interfere with identify theft control measures, and force an end to protecting your wireless cell phone call from deterioration because too many kids at the mall are texting on the same network.

Bizarroworld definitions like that cheapen the reality that enforced Net Neutrality will go a long way to protect consumers from predatory practices of a different kind — greedy providers looking for another payday by demanding compensation to move your web page, video, or download along at a “reasonable” speed.  Those unfortunate enough to not pay may find the very definition of “broadband” redefined as well… “Internet access mildly faster than dial-up most of the time, except on weekends when ‘freeloaders’ have to wait until after 11pm.  Material owned, controlled or partnered with us are always exempt, of course.”

Meanwhile, the rest of Verizon thinks American broadband is highly competitive, fast, and that companies are implementing new pricing and service “options” to bring “greater value” (ie. mandated usage caps) to their customers. A preview of the remarks Verizon will make at today’s Free State Foundation panel on broadband was highlighted on Verizon’s Policy Blog:

Link Hoewing, V.P. for Internet and technology policy for Verizon, previews his discussion about the health of the U.S. broadband marketplace. The Capitol Hill panel he references is hosted by the Free State Foundation and will take place 6/5/09.

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