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Frontier Boost Speeds in Fiber Markets While Its DSL Customers Suffer

Frontier can boost speeds on its acquired fiber to the home networks, which offer almost unlimited capacity upgrades.

Frontier Communications is America’s feast or famine broadband provider, today announcing speed upgrades for its acquired Frontier FiOS and Vantage Fiber service areas while the company continues to pile up hundreds of complaints about poor quality DSL service in the northern U.S. where fiber upgrades are unlikely to ever happen.

Frontier today announced gigabit service (1,000/1,000 Mbps) is now available in its FiOS (California, Texas, Florida, and parts of the Pacific Northwest and Indiana) and Vantage Fiber (primarily Connecticut) service areas. The company also unveiled new plans offering 200/200 and 300/300 Mbps speed options in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington.

“Frontier is pleased to now offer a 200/200 Mbps service, the fastest, most efficient introductory broadband service available in our markets, plus eye-popping speed and capacity with our FiOS Gigabit for the home,” said John Maduri, executive vice president and chief customer officer at Frontier Communications. “Speed and reliability are hallmarks of FiOS Fiber broadband service. Two-way speeds over our all-fiber network make Internet tasks faster and more efficient, regardless of the time of day, while also enabling the many connected devices and streaming services in the home to work simultaneously and smoothly.”

Frontier’s fiber networks are only found in certain regions of the country, including 1.4 million homes in the Tampa Bay/six-county region along the central west coast of Florida, parts of Southern California, Dallas, and individual communities in Indiana, Oregon, and Washington that used to be served by Verizon.

Frontier’s Vantage Fiber network was largely acquired from AT&T’s U-verse service area in Connecticut, with more recent limited rollouts in North Carolina and Minnesota. Life for the unfibered masses in the rest of Minnesota is less sunny, with nearly 500 complaints against Frontier filed by frustrated consumers stuck with a company they feel has forgotten about them.

City Pages notes no company affirms the notoriety of a bad phone company like Frontier Communications, which still relies on a deteriorating copper wire network in most of its original (a/k/a “legacy”) service areas. Complaints about mediocre internet access, missing in action repair crews, and Soviet era-like delays to get landline service installed are as common as country roads.

City Pages:

The grievances read like a cannonade of frustration. They speak of no-show repairmen. Endless waits on hold. Charges for services never rendered. Outages that last for days.

“I have never dealt with a more incompetent company than Frontier,” writes one customer on Google Reviews. “I have no other choice for internet or phone service in my area…. It took me over three months just for Frontier to get to my house to even connect my service…. They also canceled multiple times for installation without calling. They just didn’t show up.”

These maladies aren’t exclusive to the outbacks. They also extend to Watertown Township, in the exurbs of Carver County.

“Frontier Communications is my only option for internet,” Kathleen McCann wrote state regulators. “My internet service is worse than dial-up…. As a dentist, I am not able to email dental X-rays. It took me 47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook recently.”

Frontier vice president Javier Mendoza at least admits most rural Minnesotans will be waiting for upgrades forever.

“The economic reality is that upgrading broadband infrastructure in the more rural parts of the state is not economically viable,” he says.

That leaves customers hoping some other entity will step up and serve the critical digital needs of one of America’s most important agricultural states. If not, the future is dismal.

“Those people are screwed,” Christopher Mitchell of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis nonprofit, tells the newspaper. “People who make business or real estate decisions are not going to move to that area.”

With that bleak assessment, several rural Minnesota communities are doing something remarkable — building their own public broadband networks. Even more surprising is that many of those towns are led by hardcore Republican local governments that have very different views about municipal broadband than the national party.

Life is rougher for Frontier’s legacy customers that depend on the company’s decades-old copper wire networks.

Some have joked they could change the mind of big city Republicans that are openly hostile to the concept of public broadband by making them spend two weeks without adequate internet access.

In the Minnesota backcountry, in the heart of Trumpland, broadband is about as bipartisan an issue you can find. Ten cities and 17 townships in Renville and Sibley counties went all-out socialist for suitable, super high-speed fiber optic broadband. RS Fiber, the resulting co-op, delivers superior internet access with fewer complaints than the big phone and cable companies offer in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Public broadband is no more a “big government” takeover than municipal co-ops were when they were formed to bring electric and phone service to rural farms during the days of FDR. Waiting for investor-owned utilities to find adequate profits before breaking ground came second to meeting the public need for reliable power and phone service.

Today, part of that need is still there, even with an incumbent phone company delivering something resembling service. Frontier DSL is internet access that time forgot, with customers comparing it to the days of dial-up. Speed tests often fail to break 1 Mbps. Cable companies won’t come anywhere near most of these communities, many inconveniently located between nothing and nowhere.

As long as Frontier remains “checked out” with make-due internet access, rural Minnesota won’t ever benefit from the kinds of fiber fast speeds Frontier is promoting on the fiber networks that other companies originally built. Frontier is not in the business of constructing large-scale fiber networks itself. It prefers to acquire them after they are built. That makes Frontier customers in legacy service areas still served with copper envious of the kind of speeds available in California, Texas, and Florida.

Investors continue to pressure Frontier to reduce spending and pay down its debts, piled up largely on the huge acquisitions of Verizon and AT&T landline customers Frontier effectively put on its corporate credit card. For Wall Street, the combination of debt repayments and necessary upgrade expenses are bad news for Frontier’s stock. The company already discontinued its all-important dividend, used for years to lure investors. A growing number of analysts suspect Frontier will face bankruptcy reorganization in the next five years, if only to restructure or walk away from its staggering debts.

Wall Street’s Latest Great Idea: Providers Should Charge More for 5G, But Only After You Are Hooked

“You’re giving it away… you are giving it all away!” — An unknown Wall Street analyst tossing and turning in the night.

America is simply not paying enough for wireless service. Thanks to dastardly competition introduced by T-Mobile and Sprint (potentially to be snuffed out in due course if their merger gets approved), wireless pricing is no longer a license to print money. Forced to offer one-size-fits-all affordable $40-50 unlimited plans, the prospects to grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) have never been worse because you can’t charge people for more service on an “unlimited plan” without admitting that plan is not exactly “unlimited.”

Wall Street analysts, already upset at the thought of carriers spending more than $100 billion on 5G network upgrades, are in a real tizzy about how companies are going to quickly recoup that investment. No matter that some wireless companies have profit margins in the 50% range and customers have paid providers for a service they were assured would keep up with the times and network demand. If there is to be a 5G revolution in the United States, some insist it must not come at the cost of reliable profits — so the industry must find a way to stick consumers with the bill.

It is not common for industry analysts to go public brainstorming higher prices and more customer gouging. After all, North Americans already pay some of the highest cell phone bills in the world, only mitigated (for now) by scrappy T-Mobile and Sprint. Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, was willing to go public in the pages of Fierce Wireless, arguing “operators should be considering charging a premium price for what will hopefully be a premium service.” That is likely music to the ears of AT&T and Verizon, both frustrated their pricing power in the market has been reduced by credible competition from a significantly improved T-Mobile.

Lowenstein fears the prospects of a “race-to-the-bottom 5G price war” which could arrive if America’s wireless companies offer a credible home internet replacement that lets consumers tell the local phone or cable company to ‘take a hike.’ Since wireless operators will bundle significant discounts for those who subscribe to both home and mobile plans, telecommunications services may actually cost less than what Wall Street was banking on.

Something must be done. Lowenstein:

In mobile, there’s been premium pricing for premium phones. And Verizon Wireless, for a few years when it had a clear network lead, was sort of able to charge a higher price for its service (but not a premium price). But today, there isn’t really premium pricing for premium services. That should change when 5G really kicks into gear.

So how do you extract more cash from consumers’ wallets? Create artificial tiers that have no relationship to the actual cost of the network, but could potentially get people to willingly pay a lot more for something they will initially get for a simple, flat price:

One simple way would be a flat premium price, similar to the “tiers” of Netflix for a higher number of devices or 4K/Ultra HD.  So, perhaps $10 per line for 5G, or $25 for a family plan. Another approach would be more akin to broadband, where there are pricing tiers for different levels of service performance. So if the base 4G LTE plan is $50 per month today, for an average 100 Mbps service, 5G packages could be sold in gradations of $10 for higher speeds (i.e. $60 for 300 Mbps, $70 for 500, $80 for 1 Gbps, and so on). An interesting angle on this is that some of the higher-end 4G LTE services such as Gigabit LTE (and beyond) could get incorporated into this, so it becomes less of a 4G vs. 5G discussion and more of a tier of service discussion.

I would also like to see some flexibility with regard to how one can purchase 5G capabilities. For example, a user might only need those premium 5G features occasionally, and might only be prepared to pay that higher price when the service is being used. Here, we can borrow from the Wi-Fi model, where operators offer a “day pack” for 5G, or for a certain city, location, or 5G-centic app or experience. 5G is going to be hot-spotty for awhile anyway, so why not use a Wi-Fi type model for pricing?

Even better, now with net neutrality in the ash heap of history, courtesy of the Republican-dominated FCC, providers can extract even more of your money by artificially messing with wireless traffic!

Lowenstein sees a brand new world of “app-centric pricing” where wireless carriers can charge even more to assure a fast lane for those entertainment, gaming, and virtual reality apps of the future, designed to take full advantage of 5G. Early tests have shown millimeter wave 5G networks can deliver extremely low latency traffic to customers from day one. That kills the market for selling premium, low-latency add-ons for demanding apps before companies can even start counting the money. So assuming providers are willing to purposely impede network performance, there just could be a market selling sub-100ms assured latency for an extra fee.

The potential of a Money Party only 5G can deliver is coming, but time is short to get the foundation laid for surprise toll lanes and “premium traffic” enhancements made possible without net neutrality. But first, the wireless industry has to get consumers hooked on 5G at a tantalizingly reasonable price. Charge too much, too soon and consumers may decide 4G LTE is good enough for them. That is why Lowenstein recommends operators not get carried away when 5G first launches.

“We don’t want to be setting ourselves up for a WiMAX-like disappointment,” Lowenstein writes. “The next 12-18 months are largely going to be ‘5G Experimentation’ mode, with limited markets, coverage, and devices. Heck, it’s likely to be two years before there’s a 5G iPhone in the United States, where iOS still commands nearly half the market.”

The disappointment will eventually be all yours, dear readers, if Lowenstein’s recommendations are adopted — when “certain milestones” trigger “rate adjustment” letters some day in the future.

Lowenstein sees four signs to start the pillaging, and we’ve paraphrased them:

  • Coverage: Wait until 30-40% of a city is covered with 5G, then jack up the price. As long as customers get something akin to 5G one-third of the time, they’ll moan about why their 5G footprint is so limited, but they will keep paying more for the scraps of coverage they get.
  • Markets: Price the service differently in each market depending on how stingy customers are likely to be at different price points. Then hike those prices to a new “nationwide” standard plan when 5G is available in the top 20-30 cities in the country. Since there may not be much competition, customers can take it or leave it.
  • Performance: AT&T and Verizon’s gotta gouge, but it’s hard to do it with a straight face if your 5G service is barely faster than 4G LTE. Lowenstein recommends waiting until speeds are reliably north of 100 Mbps, then you can let rip with those diamond-priced plans.
  • Devices: It’s hard to extract another $50-100 a month from family plan accounts if there are an inadequate number of devices that support 5G. While your kids “languish” with 4G LTE smartphones and dad enjoys his 5G experience, mom may shut it all down when the bill comes. Wait until everyone in the family can get a 5G phone before delivering some good old-fashioned bill shock, just like companies did in the golden days of uncompetitive wireless.

These ideas can only be adopted if a lack of competition assures all players nobody is going to call them out for pickpocketing customers. Ajit Pai’s FCC won’t interfere, and is even subsidizing some of the operators’ costs with taxpayer dollars and slanted deregulation to let companies construct next generation 5G networks as cheaply as possible (claiming it is important to beat China, where 5G service will cost much less). Should actual competition remain in the wireless market, all the dreams of rate-hikes-because-we-can will never come true, as long as one carrier decides they can grow their business by charging reasonable prices at their competitors’ expense.

AT&T’s Abandoned Wiring Oozing Lead On Customers’ Property

Phillip Dampier September 26, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments

Opening a lead insulated buried cable. Lead can be resealed with solder after repairs.

In the early to mid-1950’s, thousands of landowners between Houston and Dallas/Ft. Worth, Tex. were asked to grant a right of way and easement to what was then known as the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. (AT&T). After winning permission, AT&T buried a 4-6 inch wide copper telephone cable sheathed in lead to connect the two cities — 200 miles apart — together. Almost 70 years later, that cable is coming back to haunt the phone company.

Telecommunications companies have used copper phone wiring for over 100 years to deliver telegraph, telephone, and data services. AT&T’s “trunk lines” often contained dozens, if not hundreds of individual cable pairs used to connect regional long distance calls and distant central switching offices together. To protect the cables, phone companies relied on simple paper insulation until the mid-1950s to keep the cable pairs from making contact with other wires. Buried cables were traditionally sheathed in lead, a very popular and durable insulator that dependably kept moisture out while allowing technicians easy access to the cables within. As the 1960s approached, phone companies began to switch to plastic insulation, but paper and lead-wrapped copper wiring remains in service in some areas to this day, often in large cities.

As with most AT&T-owned underground cables, the one in Texas was wrapped in lead. The company used a network of subterranean concrete rooms and above ground small cinder block buildings for maintenance, offering technicians direct access to the cable and various network equipment. Landowners knew the additional infrastructure belonged to AT&T because the company placed their logo on it.

Ongoing technological advancements eventually allowed AT&T to transition service to fiber optic cables, and by 2010, the Houston-Dallas copper cable was decommissioned. AT&T employees removed its signage, sold the cinder block structures and abandoned the underground vaults.

But AT&T did not remove the cable, which remains unused and buried to this day, allegedly leaching dangerous lead into the ground. Property owners fearing AT&T’s cable may be fouling the soil and groundwater with lead contamination took AT&T to court in 2016, seeking a class action case against the phone company for abandoning its cable and easements.

AT&T’s Environment, Health, and Safety Division offered a presentation at the 2010 International Telecommunications Safety Conference warning about the perils of old lead-sheathed phone cables, claiming “underground cable presents real possibilities for overexposure to lead:”

  • Some older metropolitan areas may still have over 50% lead cable.
  • Buried cable leaches many compounds to the surface of the insulation: lead carbonate, lead monoxide, lead sulfate, lead chloride, lead dioxide, lead acetate, lead nitrate, and lead sulfide. Many of these compounds do not adhere tightly to the cable and are easily airborne.
  • Once in the soil, 83 and 98 percent of the released lead remains intact in the soil within 2 inches of the cables.

In addition to the cost of removing the unused cable, AT&T’s own safety engineers suggest removing old cables can also pose a significant health risk to employees and property owners if not done properly:

  • Extraction of cable from underground duct can release unexpected high levels of lead dust.
  • Wetting was not capable of controlling dust in many cases.
  • Location of employees to cable extraction is important.

Despite the health risks, a judge denied class certification of the lawsuit on Tuesday, ruling each affected property owner will have to bring a separate lawsuit against AT&T.

U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett issued the 11-page ruling against the claimants.

“Plaintiffs present the general retirement of underground coaxial and fiber optic cables, removal of signage/equipment for those cables, and planned release of some easements as class-wide proof that abandonment is a common question for the proposed class,” Judge Bennett wrote. “However, because the class does not deal with one easement, rather hundreds (if not thousands), each class member would need to present evidence of the definite acts revealing AT&T’s intent to abandon the particular easements associated with that member’s property.”

Bennett was also unpersuaded by claims that the abandoned AT&T cable created a presumption of imminent harm, and his ruling stated each property owner would have to provide evidence of the cable’s lead contamination on that owner’s land. In addition, each claimant would have to prove damages, assuming the statute of limitations had not run out years ago.

“Certainly, a separate soil analysis for each property would have to be present, along with evidence pertinent to determine the existence and cause of any contaminates on each of the properties,” Bennett wrote.

The law firm bringing the lawsuit plans an appeal.

Hulu’s New Owner Is Likely to Be Disney As Comcast Contemplates Selling Its Stake

Phillip Dampier September 25, 2018 Competition, Consumer News, Hulu, Online Video No Comments

Hulu could soon be in the hands of Disney, as a high stakes game of asset trading overseas could have a dramatic impact on the streaming service.

After a winning $39 billion bid to acquire British satellite TV company Sky, CNBC reports Comcast is willing to shed some of its assets back home, including its 30% minority stake in Hulu.

Analysts report Comcast has lost interest in the streaming venture because the cable company will face a permanently-reduced say in the venture after Disney completes its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, which controls 30% of Hulu. After the dust settles, Hulu will be 60% owned by Disney, 30% by Comcast and the remaining 10% held by AT&T, as part of its merger with Time Warner (Entertainment).

Originally formed in 2007 as an almost equal partnership between Disney, Comcast, and Fox, Hulu provides a controlled streaming platform for ABC, NBC, and FOX shows. Originally offering free, ad-supported access to recently aired network programs, Hulu has since grown dramatically under a subscription model, deepening its catalog of TV shows and movies and launching original content. In the last year, it launched its own cable-TV replacement service, offering streaming live television. Hulu is estimated to have 20 million paid streaming subscribers and an additional 1 million are signed up for Hulu with Live TV.

If Disney takes control of Hulu, CEO Bob Iger claims it will operate independently of Disney’s own, forthcoming subscription streaming service, set to debut in 2019. Iger said Disney may offer bundled discounts if customers subscribe to both Hulu and Disney’s own streaming service.

AT&T Tearing Up Yards in Dixon, Calif. for Fiber Build; Causes Evacuation After Gas Line Hit

Phillip Dampier September 6, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

Residents in Dixon, Calif. are being inconvenienced by AT&T’s fiber buildout. (Image: KOVR-TV)

AT&T’s contractors turned a Dixon, Calif. neighborhood into “a disaster zone” while attempting to install fiber optic cables for a forthcoming upgrade.

For almost half a year, AT&T’s outsourced construction crews have dug up yards around the growing community of 19,000, located 23 miles from Sacramento. The Valley Glenn neighborhood has seen the worst of it, according to homeowners who complain crews left concrete debris buried in their front yards, killed their lawns, and have been inconvenienced by heavy equipment partially blocking streets for months. Two weeks ago, an AT&T contractor crew hit a gas line, forcing the evacuation of the entire neighborhood.

Homeowner Natalie Avina sought help from Sacramento’s CBS station KOVR-TV, with the hope that drawing media attention to the debacle would force AT&T to ‘do the right thing.’

“They’ve ruined our front yard,” Avina told the station. “Everything’s been dug up. You know we take pride in our homes. You don’t want to come home and see this.”

Heather Craig, another homeowner, reports her lawn is struggling to recover.

“They put concrete instead of dirt back underneath our grass, so it’s dying,” Craig said.

Neighbors agree AT&T has been remiss on keeping the neighborhood informed about the duration of the construction and have not given them information about who to contact to discuss damages and concerns.

AT&T responded to the concerns earlier this week.

“As we work to expand and enhance our fiber network to deliver ultra-high speeds to the Dixon area, our goal is to minimize the effect on residents as much as possible,” AT&T said in a statement. “Unfortunately part of this project was not completed to our standards and we are working to fix it.”

Dixon homeowners are demanding AT&T pay for repairs after a contractor damaged lawns and sidewalks during fiber optic infrastructure installation. KOVR in Sacramento reports. (2:14)

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