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AT&T and T-Mobile Borrow Billions to Bid on 5G Spectrum

Phillip Dampier January 13, 2021 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't, Wireless Broadband No Comments

AT&T is seeking to borrow $14 billion dollars to help finance the cost of acquiring 5G airwaves in a competitive auction that has drawn heavy bidding from wireless carriers.

The phone company is in talks with Bank of America to provide a one-year term loan that will likely be refinanced in the bond market and paid off over several years.

AT&T’s loan follows news that T-Mobile USA borrowed $3 billion from investors for its own 5G spectrum acquisitions.

The FCC expects to collect more than $80.8 billion from the auction of 280 megahertz of spectrum around 3.7-3.98 GHz—a portion of the satellite C-band. This is the FCC’s largest mid-band 5G spectrum auction to date. Analysts were expecting bids of around $47 billion, but wireless carriers seem motivated to grab as much 5G spectrum as possible.

AT&T’s loan will add to the company’s existing $159 billion in debts, making it the world’s largest non-financial corporate borrower. Much of AT&T’s debt came from its 2018 $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, Inc.

House Democrats Blast Telecom Companies for Data Caps, Rate Hikes

House Energy & Commerce Committee

Democrats serving on the House Energy & Commerce Committee today blasted the nation’s largest internet service providers for price increases and data caps placed on consumer broadband services at the height of a global pandemic, questioning the industry’s commitment to keeping Americans connected.

“Over the last ten months, internet service became even more essential as many Americans were forced to transition to remote work and online school. Broadband networks seem to have largely withstood these massive shifts in usage,” wrote Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr (N.J.), Mike Doyle (Penn.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.). “Unfortunately, what cannot be overlooked or underestimated is the extent to which families without home internet service — particularly those with school-aged children at home — have been left out and left behind.”

Pallone

The congressmen questioned nine providers after reading media coverage of rate hikes and the implementation of data caps by Comcast and the potential for Charter Spectrum to impose data caps as early as May 2021.

“This is an egregious action at a time when households and small businesses across the country need high-speed, reliable broadband more than ever but are struggling to make ends meet,” the three Democrats wrote.

In March 2020, many cable and phone companies relaxed a number of restrictions on customers in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Many volunteered to suspend data cap overlimit fees, provide affordable broadband options to the economically disadvantaged, offer free months of service, open restricted Wi-Fi hotspots, and discontinue collection efforts or service disconnects on customers falling behind on bills.

Despite the pledge, consumers filed a significant number of complaints with the Federal Communications Commission alleging the companies broke their promises, by far most often for not following through on free service offers or continuing aggressive collections of past due bills and shutting off service.

Consumer complaints filed with the FCC regarding the “Keep America Connected” pledge, received from March-November 2020. (Source: FCC)

The Energy and Commerce Committee has now sent letters to the CEOs of many providers, seeking answers to these questions as part of ongoing oversight of the industry:

  • Did the company participate in the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge?
  • Has the company increased prices for fixed or mobile consumer internet and fixed or phone service since the start of the pandemic, or do they plan to raise prices on such plans within the next six months?
  • Prior to March 2020, did any of the company’s service plans impose a maximum data consumption threshold on its subscribers?
  • Since March 2020, has the company modified or imposed any new maximum data consumption thresholds on service plans, or do they plan to do so within the next six months?
  • Did the company stop disconnecting customers’ internet or telephone service due to their inability to pay during the pandemic?
  • Does the company offer a plan designed for low-income households, or a plan established in March or later to help students and families with connectivity during the pandemic?
  • Beyond service offerings for low-income customers, what steps is the company currently taking to assist individuals and families facing financial hardship due to circumstances related to COVID-19?

The full letters are available below:

Altice USA

AT&T

CenturyLink/Lumen

Charter Communications

Comcast Cable Communications

Cox Communications

Frontier Communications

T-Mobile US

Verizon Communications

AT&T Stops Selling DSL Service

Phillip Dampier October 5, 2020 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Rural Broadband 3 Comments

AT&T stopped accepting orders for traditional DSL service from customers across its landline service area on Oct. 1, and will no longer allow existing customers to change speeds or transfer DSL service if they move to a new address.

AT&T sells three classes of wired internet service to residential customers:

  • DSL: Traditional, old-fashioned DSL is sold primarily in rural and exurban areas that were never upgraded to AT&T’s U-verse service. Download speed is typically between 1-6 Mbps. This service is no longer available to new customers.
  • U-verse: AT&T’s fiber-to-the-neighborhood service delivers 24 Mbps or faster download speed. AT&T uses fiber optic cables between the central switching office and the customer’s neighborhood, where it connects with existing copper wiring that runs down your street and into your home. Most AT&T internet customers are still served by U-verse.
  • Fiber: About 4.3 million former U-verse customers have been upgraded to AT&T Fiber, the company’s fiber to the home service. This upgrade eliminates the copper wiring that runs to your home, which provides for vastly faster internet speeds.

Only AT&T’s DSL service has been discontinued. The company claims about a half million customers still get DSL service from AT&T as of the second quarter of 2020. Most don’t choose DSL by choice. It is often the only option, because the customer lives in a rural area where no other options for internet service exist. That may leave some new customers with no options for wired internet service at all.

“We are focused on enhancing our network with more advanced, higher speed technologies like fiber and wireless, which consumers are demanding,” AT&T said in a statement. “We’re beginning to phase out outdated services like DSL and new orders for the service will no longer be supported after October 1. Current DSL customers will be able to continue their existing service or where possible upgrade to our 100% fiber network.”

AT&T has been slowly expanding its wireless 4G LTE home internet service in select rural areas, but the service is unlikely to reach all the areas now shut out of DSL service.

While AT&T’s rural customers have been left behind, prices for AT&T Fiber are coming down, at least for new customers. Spectrum and Comcast have offered attractive new customer promotions in areas served by AT&T, and the phone company is now responding with better offers. New customers can now get 100 Mbps from AT&T Fiber for $35 a month, 300 Mbps for $45 a month, and 1,000 Mbps for $60 a month (all promotions good for 12 months and do not include equipment fees or taxes).

AT&T Leaves Data Caps and Overlimit Fees on Hold Until September 30

Phillip Dampier July 1, 2020 Consumer News, Data Caps No Comments

AT&T has announced it will continue offering unlimited internet to all wired residential customers, with no overlimit fees, through Sept. 30:

“You’ve got a lot of things on your mind right now, so we’re going to help carry the load by continuing to waive home internet data overage charges for AT&T Internet customers through September 30. That means new and existing AT&T Fiber and AT&T Internet customers can continue to video conference, binge shows and movies, play video games, etc., and won’t see overage charges on their home internet bill.”

AT&T had usage capped its wired home internet customers at different levels, depending on the grade of service:

These usage caps are on hold until Sept. 30. Customers will not incur overlimit fees until after that date.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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