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California Governor Vetoes Rural Broadband Development Bills; AT&T and Frontier Benefit the Most

Gov. Newsom

California’s efforts to address the state’s ongoing rural broadband problems made little headway in 2019, as Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the past week vetoed (or allowed to expire) the only two broadband measures surviving the treacherous journey through the California legislature.

Assembly Bill 1212 would have made rural broadband a priority for Caltrans — California’s Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Resources, including broadband on recommended lists of projects for funding consideration by two of the state’s largest pension investment funds: the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System. Current state law only allows pension boards to invest in in-state infrastructure projects that meet certain fiduciary responsibilities. By expanding investment projects to include telecommunications, funding from two major pension funds might have been unlocked and made available to future rural internet projects.

Assembly Bill 417, also known as the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Act, included several measures targeting rural farming. Two passages in the bill would have included broadband expansion as a new priority for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (DFA):

Due to the central role of agriculture in rural California, it is necessary to achieve a detailed understanding of the economic value that agriculture brings to rural communities and to identify opportunities to improve agricultural productivity, including by increasing broadband access, advancing agricultural innovation, technology, and education, and supporting a well-trained, productive rural workforce, to benefit rural communities.

[…] Making recommendations to the secretary on actions to further the development of rural agricultural economies, including, but not limited to, increasing broadband access, providing technical, resource, and regulatory compliance assistance, advancing agricultural innovation and technology, establishing programs for education and workforce development, and evaluating recreation and tourism opportunities.

Several other proposed measures, including AB 1409 which would have created a fund for providing wireless hotspots for students and Wi-Fi service on school buses was killed last spring behind closed doors in the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. The annual attempt by AT&T and other telecom companies to write their own laws to deregulate themselves (this time AB 1366), was suddenly pulled from committee consideration by its author back in September.

That the two mild measures made it through the legislature to the governor’s desk was not surprising considering the sheer number of minor bills that pile up on Newsom’s desk. But for both to suffer quiet deaths through veto or expiration despite almost no public opposition speaks to the power of Sacramento insider politics.

Newsom’s explanation for killing AB 1212 was hardly compelling, as he explained he felt the measure was “unnecessary” because “existing law already encourages public retirement systems to invest in state infrastructure.” But that explanation ignores decades of state government bureaucracy, where agencies zealously guard their funding and protect their own existing project priorities to the hilt. AB 417 would have expanded the mission of the DFA, something the governor argued should only be done in the state budget and only within the specific context of the broader mission of the department, whatever that means. The head of the DFA was likely thrilled anyway.

Telecom consultant Steve Blum notes Caltrans and other state agencies were unlikely to ever consider rural broadband a funding priority, unless it was intended for their own use. Blum also believes the most likely suspects responsible for convincing the governor to kill both bills were the heads of the departments themselves.

“The simplest explanation for Newsom’s vetoes is that Caltrans, DWR and/or DFA staff asked him to do it, because those are jobs they don’t want to do,” Blum wrote on his blog. “That sort of opposition was why a Caltrans dig once policy bill was watered down in 2016.”

Blum believes the state’s largest phone companies will benefit the most from the outcome of the 2019 legislative session.

“Newsom’s vetoes bolster AT&T’s and Frontier’s rural monopoly business model, which redlines poorer and less densely populated communities and leaves them with low speed DSL service, if they’re lucky enough to get anything at all,” he wrote.

The loss of AB 1212 and 417 won’t change much for Californians waiting for rural broadband. Neither measure would have led to any immediate improvement in internet access in the less populated areas of the state. But the measures would have set a foundation to bring two more state agencies into the fight to tackle rural broadband issues.

Ultimately, just as in other states, a large amount of money will have to be found to wire those still without internet access. Governments and regulators can either make rural internet expansion a contingency of future merger deals or other business-government transactions or find suitable funding to subsidize the cost of internet expansion by for-profit companies, rural co-ops, or local governments willing to tackle the problem on the local level.

AT&T Charges Customers to Recoup Cost of Tax It Never Paid

Phillip Dampier October 14, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

AT&T customers in Portland, Ore. discovered their cell phone bills increased this summer because the wireless company decided to pass along the costs of Portland’s Clean Energy Tax to its customers. Except AT&T is exempt from paying the tax, but wants customers to pay to recoup costs the phone company is not paying.

Portland’s Revenue Bureau told Willamette Week it classifies cell phone providers as utilities, and they are exempt from the tax.

Scott Karter, a manager in the Revenue Bureau, said it was up to AT&T to decide if it will refund customers for the charges it has collected since August.

“The code does not specifically address amounts that might be over-collected from customers,” Karter said.

AT&T had no comment.

AT&T Ditches Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands to Raise Money to Cut Debt, Buy Back Its Own Stock

AT&T will sell its operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to John Malone’s Liberty Latin America, Ltd., setting up a virtual market monopoly for Liberty, which already owns cable operator Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico.

Liberty Latin America has agreed to pay $1.95 billion in cash to acquire 1.1 million AT&T cellular, landline, and internet customers in both U.S. territories.

AT&T intends to use the proceeds of the sale to reduce debt and allow the company to lay the foundation to buy back more of its own shares, pleasing investors. AT&T had originally sought up to $3 billion for the Caribbean networks, partly acquired from a 2009 acquisition of Centennial Communications, which cost AT&T less than $1 billion.

Analysts say the low selling price shows AT&T is feeling pressure from activist investor Elliott Management, which has been pushing AT&T to divest non-core assets. The selling price was also impacted by the distressed state of AT&T’s infrastructure and customer base, impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which damaged both the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents.

Liberty already has a major presence in Puerto Rico through its cable system — Puerto Rico’s largest pay television and broadband provider. Cable tycoon John Malone will effectively control Puerto Rico’s largest wireless phone and cable company. Claro, Puerto Rico’s landline provider, will be its chief competitor.

The two companies said they expect the deal to close within six to nine months.

Frontier Urgently Trying to Restructure $17 Billion Debt as Chapter 11 Looms

Frontier Communications is preparing a detailed plan for bondholders explaining how the company hopes to cut its $17 billion in debt before it faces the possibility of bankruptcy.

The Wall Street Journal reports Frontier is ready to begin formal negotiations with those holding its debt to create a new payback plan before it faces the first of several repayment deadlines for bonds running into the billions, starting in 2022. But the strategy is risky because if any of the company’s major bondholders disagree, it could put Frontier on a fast track to Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Frontier’s debt problems are a consequence of its decision to expand its wireline footprint through acquisitions of castoff copper landline networks being sold primarily by Verizon Communications and AT&T. Critics have repeatedly called out Frontier for bungling network transitions with extended service outages, billing problems, and other customer service-related failures that left customers and some state regulators frustrated and alienated. The company is still facing regulatory review in states like Connecticut, where it failed to properly manage a customer cutover from AT&T’s systems to its own, and in Utah, West Virginia, California, and Florida where similar cutovers from Verizon Communications left more than a few customers without service and months of billing problems.

As a result, Frontier lost many of the customers it acquired, with many unwilling to consider doing business with the phone company ever again.

Although Frontier’s latest acquisitions of Verizon landline customers in California, Texas, and Florida included large Verizon FiOS fiber to the home territories, Frontier customers continue to disconnect service at a greater pace than the phone company’s chief cable competitors — Comcast and Charter Spectrum. Customer defections are even worse in large sections of Frontier’s stagnant “legacy” markets — service areas that have been managed by Frontier or its predecessor Citizens Communications for decades. That is because almost all of those legacy markets are still serviced by decades-old copper wire networks, many capable only of providing low speed DSL internet access.

Frontier’s large debt load is cited as the principal reason the company cannot embark on upgrade efforts to replace existing copper wiring with optical fiber. In fact, virtually all of Frontier’s fiber service areas have been acquired from AT&T or Verizon. Frontier executives have attempted to placate shareholders by promising to aggressively manage costs. But promises of dramatic savings have proved elusive and frequent media reports have emerged covering extensive service outages, poor network maintenance, ongoing billing and customer service issues, and inadequate staffing to address a growing number of service outages and problems. In several states, repeated 911 outages have triggered regulator investigations with the prospect of stiff fines.

Three Frontier insiders have privately shared their insights with Stop the Cap! about ongoing frustrations with the company and the most recent developments.

“Upper management has no comprehension that in many of our markets, customers have choices and they abandon us when all we can sell is DSL service at speeds often less than 12 Mbps,” one senior regional executive told us. “Our retention efforts are so poor these days, representatives are not really expected to rescue accounts because in most cases there is no legitimate reason to do business with us. In some states where there are high mandated surcharges, we cost more than our cable competitors.”

Another mid-level executive in one of Frontier’s largest legacy markets — Rochester, N.Y., said morale is low and a growing number of colleagues believe the days to bankruptcy are short.

Frontier Communications debt load.

“Our loyal customers are literally dying off, as their adult children disconnect decades-old landline accounts,” said an executive who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “The customer numbers have been ugly for a long time and are getting worse. Our recently retired customers who have had DSL and voice service with us since the 1990s are disconnecting because some have gone with Spectrum and others are moving out of the area. Some of these customers hate Spectrum and won’t do business with them no matter the price, but we are losing their business anyway when they move out of state.”

The Rochester executive noted Frontier has an impossible job trying to sell its internet and voice products against Charter Spectrum.

“Their offers are $40 a month for 100 Mbps internet and $10 for unlimited local and long-distance calls,” the executive noted. “Ours costs nearly $30 just for the phone line after taxes and fees, and how can you sell someone DSL that delivers less than 6 Mbps to many parts of a market still served by copper trunk lines to a central office several miles away? They also find out they have to lease our modem at an additional fee and there are other fees in the contract many customers have learned to look for. Answer: you can’t.”

A Frontier executive in Ohio shared a similar story.

“We hold our own in our rural markets where we can offer a customer better than dial-up internet, and our service is very good if you live in an area where we expanded broadband thanks to FCC subsidies. Some of these new areas are even served by fiber,” the executive explained. “The problem with this is fewer people live in rural areas and these places cost a lot more to maintain when we dispatch service crews or have to run new cable. For Frontier to be truly successful, we have to get better internet service into our larger older markets, but that means pulling copper off poles and putting up fiber and there is just no interest from the higher ups to spend the money to do this. So instead the company bought new territories to keep revenue numbers up, but we are also quickly losing many of those customers to cable too. I really don’t know what we will do when wireless companies offer 5G internet.”

Some Frontier bondholders recognize Frontier must reduce its debt to have the financial resources to expand fiber service. Others want the company to shed its legacy copper service areas (while keeping FiOS/U-verse enabled markets) either to regional companies willing to invest in upgrades or to hedge funds that would likely ring whatever remaining value still exists out of these abandoned service areas. Some suspect these hedge funds would also load up the spinoff companies with even greater debt to facilitate dividend payouts and other investor-friendly rewards.

It will be up to state and federal regulators to protect Frontier’s customers as the two emerging groups of conflicting bondholders angle to protect their investments, perhaps at the risk of reliable phone and internet service.

The Wall Street Journal:

One, including Elliott Management and Franklin Resources, pushed for an exchange of their bonds at a discount to their face value for new secured debt that would be paid before unsecured debt in a potential bankruptcy.

Still, bondholders including GoldenTree Asset Management have warned the company against doing such a swap since 2018, arguing it violated the terms of their bonds.

The company this week reached out to Houlihan Lokey, which represents a group of bondholders that includes GoldenTree—as well as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Oaktree Capital Management and Brigade Capital Management—to sign up to view a confidential restructuring proposal, a person familiar with the matter said. That group has yet to gather enough holders to form a majority, people familiar with the matter said.

Californians Complained More About Telecom Companies Than Wildfire Outages Caused by PG&E

More Californians are complaining to state officials about their cable television, internet, and phone service than the energy utilities implicated in causing deadly wildfires that left customers without power for days or weeks.

California’s Office of Senate Floor Analyses prepared a report for elected officials contemplating extending deregulation of the state’s top telecommunications companies. It found deregulation has not always benefited California consumers, noting that several companies have been fined for allowing traditional phone service to fall below required service quality standards. As service deteriorates, lawmakers have tied the hands of state officials trying to enforce what service standards still exist. The report found that the telecom industry has been especially good at covering itself through lobbying and litigation to isolate and disempower consumers seeking redress.

“Many companies, including telecommunications providers, include arbitration clauses in their contracts that limit a consumer’s ability to form a class with other consumers to seek remedies for unfair business practices related to contracts,” the report notes. “These clauses frequently limit consumers to a specified arbitration process that limits the types of remedies consumers can obtain for unfair business practices.”

Customers with unreliable phone service pursuing complaints on the federal level with the Federal Communications Commission have also been dealt a blow by the Trump Administration and its Republican majority control of the FCC.

“It is unclear what kind of remedies consumers can obtain since the FCC has adopted an order limiting its own ability to establish requirements for these services,” the report found.

Deregulation has not stopped Californians from trying to get help from the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), however. The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch recorded 1,087 complaints about the state’s phone and cable companies in January 2019, compared with 677 complaints against the state’s energy utilities and 53 lodged against water utilities.

The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch reported communications-related complaints were significantly higher than other utilities. (Image: California Office of Senate Floor Analyses)

“Despite the occurrence of wildfires in which utility infrastructure was implicated, complaints regarding energy utilities remained largely consistent between November 2018 and January 2019,” the report found. “The data indicates that the communications sector generates a greater number of complaints to the CPUC than other utility sectors on average, and a much greater percentage of those complaints are for customer issues over which the CPUC has no regulatory jurisdiction.”

Earlier this year, California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), filed for bankruptcy protection after estimating it was liable for more than $30 billion in damages from recent wildfires. An investigation found equipment owned by PG&E was responsible for starting the worst wildfire in California history. The November 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. Yet the Customer Affairs Branch received fewer complaints about PG&E than it received regarding AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Frontier, Cox, and Comcast XFINITY.

Unintended consequences of deregulation have also caused several high profile scandals among telecom companies in the state. Some of the worst offenses were committed by cable and phone companies that further traumatized victims of catastrophic wildfires. An effort to implement new consumer protections for fire victims forced to relocate met fierce resistance from cable and telephone industry lobbyists. Some of those same telecom companies continued to bill wildfire victims for months for service at addresses that no longer existed. AT&T even billed customers that died in the fires.

A recent San Francisco Superior Court decision (Gruber v. Yelp) also found another consequence of deregulation. A judge ruled The California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) does not apply to calls made or received on “digital” phone lines better known as Voice over IP (VoIP). The judge found that since the CPUC does not regulate VoIP calls, and such calls are not legally defined as a traditional phone call, CIPA cannot apply.

More than six months after devastating wildfires swept across the North Bay in 2017, AT&T was still billing customers that died in that fire. KGO-TV reports. (3:31)

After promising to never again erroneously bill wildfire victims, AT&T did it again to those traumatized by the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and wiped the town of Paradise off the map. KOVR in Sacramento reports on one family pleading with AT&T to stop billing them for landline service at an address that no longer exists. (2:15)

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