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FCC Panel Recommends Taxing Websites and Giving the Proceeds to Big Telecom Companies

The telecom industry wants a new tax on broadband services to pay for rural broadband expansion.

Nearly two years after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the formation of a new federal advisory committee on broadband development, the telecom industry-stacked panel has recommended implementing a new tax on websites and online subscription services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video and turning over the proceeds to many of the same companies dominating the Committee.

The proposal is part of a large set of recommendations from the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) designed to promote and streamline broadband expansion, especially in rural areas. If adopted by the states, the new tax would create a large broadband deployment fund that could be accessed by telecommunications companies like AT&T and Comcast to expand service without having to pay back the funds or give up part ownership of the taxpayer-funded expansion.

What caught many by surprise was the sweeping impact the new tax could have on the internet economy, because online businesses, streaming services, and even many website owners could be subject to the tax, if enacted:

Entities that financially benefit from access to a broadband system located in the state, including advertising providers, shall contribute to the Broadband Deployment Fund.

A comprehensive piece by Jon Brodkin on Ars Technica points out defining the meaning of “entities” and “advertising providers” will be crucial to determine who will have to pay the tax and who won’t:

Article 11 of the BDAC’s model state code would create a Rural Broadband Deployment Assistance Fund, paid for by contributions from broadband providers and “Broadband Dependent Services.”

The definition of “Broadband Dependent Services” is where things get interesting. An earlier version of that definition—available in this document—reads as follows:

“Broadband Dependent Service” means a subscription-based retail service for which consumers pay a one time or recurring fee which requires the capabilities of the Broadband Service which the consumer has purchased and shall also include entities that financially benefit from access to a broadband system located in the state, including advertising providers.

The BDAC met on December 7 and pared that definition back a bit to exclude “entities that financially benefit from access to a broadband system.” Video is available here; the discussion on the definition starts around 2:04:45.

BDAC Chair Elizabeth Bowles, who also runs an Arkansas-based wireless Internet service provider called Aristotle, expressed concern that the original version of the definition “was including every small business in America,” potentially forcing them all to pay the new tax.

Nurse

AT&T has been one of the strongest advocates for the new tax, and argued it should be as expansive as possible.

“It basically is everybody [that should be taxed] because this is a societal objective,” said Chris Nurse, assistant vice president for state legislative and regulatory affairs at AT&T. “Universal service is a societal objective. We want to spread that $20 or $30 billion burden more broadly so the tax is low on everybody.”

Google Fiber policy chief John Burchett objected, claiming under AT&T’s vision, everyone who has an internet connection would be taxed. In his view, AT&T’s proposal was “absurd.”

As the debate raged on, it became clear AT&T was once again looking for a way to be compensated by companies like Amazon and Facebook — using its ‘pipes’ without contributing towards the cost of the network.

“Who are we cutting out and who are we leaving in?” Nurse asked. “Today it’s basically the telephone companies [who pay] and not Google and not Amazon and not Facebook, right? And they’re gigantic beneficiaries from the broadband ecosystem. Should they contribute or not? Someone has to pay.”

Burchett

In the end, the BDAC settled on adopting a compromise over what broadband entities will be subject to the new tax:

“Broadband Dependent Service” means a subscription-based retail service for which consumers pay a one time or recurring fee, and shall also include advertising-supported services which requires the capabilities of the Broadband Service which the consumer has purchased.

This compromise definition primarily targets the new tax on streaming video services — the ones AT&T itself competes with. But it will also cover any websites sponsored with online advertising — like Facebook and Google, ISPs, subscription services delivered over the internet, as well as AT&T’s broadband competitors.

The proposal also seeks to guarantee that rural residents be granted access to affordable broadband, but the industry-dominated Committee chose to define “affordable” as the cost of internet access in urban areas, which some would argue isn’t affordable at all.

The draft proposal has been criticized by many stakeholders, including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, representing electric cooperatives. The group implied the new proposal was just the latest attempt to get the telecom industry’s wish list enacted.

“Instead of focusing on solutions for unserved and underserved rural communities, many of the recommendations focus on issues specific to urban areas where broadband is already available,” said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson. “Ignoring the precedent of federal law and laws in 20 states, the state model code would treat co-op poles like those belonging to large investor-owned utilities. The state model code would also cap pole attachment rates in state statute, effectively making those rates permanent. This code, in effect, increases regulatory burdens while giving co-ops less time and less money to comply with those regulations.”

The National Multifamily Housing Council also objected to another proposal approved in the draft.

“Article 8 of the MSC grants broadband providers the unilateral right to install facilities in all multifamily residential and other commercial buildings and mandate construction of broadband facilities at the property owner’s expense without regard to the rights and concerns of the owner,” the organization claimed. “NMHC/NAA and its real estate industry partners argued that Article 8 of the MSC is riddled with many practical and legal problems. Among the most serious issues with the MSC is that it interferes with private property rights, disrupts negotiations and existing contracts between property owners and communications service providers and will lead to costly regulation and litigation at the state level without any assurance of actually spurring broadband deployment.”

AT&T would be among the biggest beneficiaries of the tax fund, already receiving $428 million annually from another rural broadband fund to expand wireless internet access in rural areas. If Nurse’s predictions are correct, the tax could collect $20-30 billion, far more than has ever been spent on rural broadband before.

Liccardo

Critics also contend the BDAC’s industry-friendly proposals are predictable for a Committee created by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and well-stacked with telecom industry executives and lobbyists. The former head of the BDAC was arrested by the FBI on fraud charges, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo quit the Committee in January, writing, “the industry-heavy makeup of BDAC will simply relegate the body to being a vehicle for advancing the interests of the telecommunications industry over those of the public” in his letter of resignation.

Whatever the BDAC ultimately decides, the final proposal has a long road to travel before becoming law. Each state can choose to adopt the proposal, part of it, or none of it. In the end, it is just a “model code” for states to consider. But it will be part of the argument made by the telecom industry that laws must be streamlined to prevent delays in deploying service, and that those benefiting from broadband should cover more of the costs to provide it.

Ironically, the person most likely to be embarrassed by the model code could be FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has almost universally rejected new taxes and fees on broadband services. But his approval is not required to advance the argument and the model code to the states, where the telecom industry’s lobbyists are waiting to begin advocating the passage of new state laws enacting its recommendations.

AT&T Still “Meh” on Fixed 5G Wireless; “We’re Focused on Mobility”

AT&T continues to gently discourage the media and investors from comparing its 5G strategy with that of its biggest competitor, Verizon, suggesting the two companies have different visions about where and how 5G and small cells will be deployed.

“We’ve done fixed wireless in our network on LTE as part of our Connect America Fund commitment from the government. We’ve been doing that for two years. And so we know the technology. We know it works, and it works for the purposes intended, which is real broadband,” said Scott Mair, president of operations at AT&T. “The challenge is the use case and the economics, right? So where does fixed wireless work? We’re focused on mobility.”

Mair echoes earlier sentiments from AT&T’s chief financial officer who has repeatedly told investors that AT&T sees fiber to the home service as a superior offering, and one economically within reach for the company in its urban and suburban service areas.

Speaking on Barclays Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications Broker Conference Call, Mair did not rule out 5G residential fixed wireless service in certain expensive-to-reach areas, but it is clear AT&T’s priority will be to bolster its mobile network, not invade the home internet access marketplace. Mair noted AT&T will deploy small cells to power its 5G services, but primarily to resolve congestion issues in high wireless traffic areas.

“If we’re there, we build small cells primarily for capacity,” noted Mair, adding the company believes “the mobility use case is probably the right place to be spending our time and effort.”

AT&T plans to target its first fixed or short-range 5G services on its business customers.

“We see initially enterprise businesses as being the area where the entry will be first,” Mair said. “We’ve thought about partnering with a manufacturing firm, and I really believe that manufacturing is going to be a key capability. When you look at a factory floor, it’s real-time telemetry, real-time analytics. You have factories that now need to be more nimble than ever in terms of being able to reconfigure for product changes very quickly.”

AT&T is also continuing to aggressively expand its fiber footprint, including the prospect of constructing fiber networks outside of AT&T’s traditional landline service area. But the company stressed it is building fiber networks in new ways that will maximize the company’s Return On Investment.

Mair

“So with our fiber build-out, fiber underlies everything we do, whether it’s wireline or wireless. And so fiber matters,” Mair said. “By middle of next year, we’ll be at 14 million homes passed and because we also have a deep fiber footprint, we’ll have another eight million businesses that we pass. That gives us 22 million locations that we can sell fiber-based services.”

AT&T’s fiber network planning has become very sophisticated these days. The more customers sharing a fiber connection, the faster construction expenses will be paid off.

When a business client contacts AT&T to arrange for fiber service, the company used to run a dedicated fiber cable directly to the business. These days, AT&T attempts to maximize the potential use of that fiber cable by routing it through areas that have a high potential of generating additional business for the company or traffic on its network. For example, a fiber connection furnished for a business might also be used to serve multiple dwelling units, like apartment buildings or condos, or rerouted to also reach other businesses that can be sold fiber services.

“I’m passing two [AT&T] cell sites that I’m paying someone else transport and backhaul for, where I can now put it on my own network,” Mair offered as an example. “I know where I’m going to be building small cells in the future. We can plan out that. We know where we’re going to be. I can route that fiber. So now I’ve optimized the route.”

Charter Spectrum CEO Says Company Using Tax Breaks to Buy Back Its Own Stock

Rutledge

Charter Communications is using the benefits of the Republican-promoted tax cut to buy back its own stock, because the only other option under consideration was using the money to buy up other cable operators.

“From a [mergers and acquisitions] perspective, I think cable is a great business. If there were assets for sale that we could do more of, we would do that,” said Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge at this week’s UBS Global Media & Communications Conference. “We’ve been buying a lot of our own stock back. Why? Because we think the cable business is a great business and we haven’t been able to buy other cable assets.”

Charter is not using the company’s lower tax rate to benefit Spectrum customers with lower bills or more extravagant upgrades. Instead, it is accelerating efforts to please shareholders and executives with efforts to boost its share price — something key to top executives’ performance bonuses.

With digital and broadband upgrades nearly complete in areas formerly served by Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks — the cable companies Charter acquired in 2016 — Rutledge told investors he can initiate additional upgrades without spending huge sums on infrastructure buildouts.

Gigabit speed is now available in most markets, and the company has doubled its lowest internet download speeds in areas where it faces significant competition from AT&T from 100 to 200 Mbps, boosting sales of Spectrum broadband service, according to Rutledge.

Today, about 60% of Spectrum customers are offered 100 Mbps, while the other 40% — mostly in AT&T service areas — are getting 200 Mbps.

Rutledge told investors he does not see much threat from Verizon FiOS or its newly launched 5G offerings, and has no immediate plans to upgrade service in Verizon service areas because neither offering seems that compelling.

“I saw that Verizon had some passings that they could do 800 Mbps in,” Rutledge said. “We have 51 million passings that we can do 1 gigabit in and we can go to 10 gigabits relatively inexpensively and I think we will because I think the world will go to 10 gigabits.”

Analysts are uncertain whether Rutledge’s comments are naïve or brave.

“We see 5G fixed wireless broadband [like that offered by Verizon] as the largest existential threat to broadband providers, by far,” wrote analysts at Cowen. Until now, most broadband competition for cable operators came from phone companies pitching DSL. Verizon retrenched on its FiOS offering several years ago. But AT&T has been more aggressive upgrading urban areas to fiber service, which has forced Charter to respond with higher speeds and better promotions.

Rutledge does not see Verizon’s 5G being a significant competitive threat for several years, and suspects Wall Street may once again punish Verizon for spending money on a wireless network less capable than what the cable industry offers today. Shareholders may also dislike watching Verizon distracted by the home broadband market when portable wireless revenues are much more important to the company.

Verizon officials claim about half of those signing up for its 5G service plan were not current Verizon customers. But the company would not say whether their new fixed wireless customers were coming largely from cable or DSL disconnects, which would prove marketplace disruption.

DirecTV’s Crazy December Customer Retention Deals Can Save You $90+ a Month

Phillip Dampier December 4, 2018 Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video 2 Comments

AT&T is responding to its deepening losses of satellite television customers by slashing prices for those threatening to leave by as much as $90 a month and throwing in Visa debit cards worth up to $300 if customers agree to stay.

AT&T lost at least 346,000 subscribers during the last quarter and is on track to break an all-time record of subscriber losses, primarily attributed to cord-cutting.

When Stop the Cap! readers called to cancel, they shared stories of outrageous discounts available to anyone willing to spend a few minutes on the phone to ask, including slashed pricing, discounted or free channel upgrades, and equipment improvements. Some customers are now paying as little as $5 a month after the discounts were combined.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Stop the Cap! reader Dylan Marshall. “My old promotion recently expired and I called to threaten them with cancellation and they cut my bill by $90 a month for a year, which means my video package is costing me $15 a month. Then they offered me a free year of NFL Sunday Ticket, a $200 Visa debit card, and every premium movie channel available for three months at no charge!”

“I got $70 off my package after my credits expired last summer,” said Sandra Bizek. “It is always such a hassle to call in every year to argue with them, but they were very receptive this year. I almost thought I was being greedy when I also asked them about a gift card, which they usually won’t offer. They put you on hold and then come back and offer one. I got $100, but I know others were offered $200-300, depending on how long they have been a customer.”

It is easiest to score a good promotion if you do not already have one on your account, but it is possible for everyone — even customers still under contract — to get a better deal. One customer negotiated $25 off a month in early 2018. He had to surrender that credit, but in return his new bill will be $85 less.

Are you overpaying for AT&T’s DirecTV?

“They don’t even argue with you anymore,” said Narash, another Stop the Cap! reader. “Within two minutes he gave me $70 off my video package and then he found another $20 credit a month he could add, making my multi-hundred TV channel package about $5 a month. I couldn’t understand the guy very well and I think he thought I was hesitating to accept his offer so he also came up with a $300 Visa gift card out of the blue. I said ‘yes.’ Oh wow.”

Here is how to get your discount:

  1. Start by calling (978) 890-3027. This is DirecTV’s customer retention center in Massachusetts. If your account is combined with your AT&T wireless phone and you are billed by AT&T, they may have to transfer your call to a different call center. You can also try DirecTV’s general customer assistance number – 1-800-531-5000 and say “cancel service” when the auto-attendant answers. Answer “no” to the question about moving.
  2. When the representative answers, let them know you are planning to cancel DirecTV because you have a better offer from another provider (try to research an offer from a competitor that would generally interest you and be ready to discuss it). Add that you wanted to give them the opportunity to save your business by lowering your bill and enhancing the services you now get.
  3. You will be placed on hold as a representative reviews your account and any retention offers you are qualified to receive. Pay careful attention to the length of the discounts and any terms that might lock you into a contract. If you do not like what you hear, thank them for their time and call back. The next deal may be much more lucrative.

Our readers offered some important tips to maximize your savings:

  1. Print out your current bill so you understand exactly what you are paying for services now. If a representative tries to get you to remove services to lower your bill, let them know you can keep the same services and lower your bill with one of their competitors.
  2. Explain to the representative that you wish to cancel service because it costs too much and you are considering switching to a provider like YouTube TV or Hulu. Avoid mentioning DirecTV Now, which is also owned by AT&T.
  3. Do NOT simply accept the first offer made to you. When they try to lock you in, prevaricate. Ask, “is this really the best you can do?” and remind the representative you can create your own package of just the channels you want from one of their online streaming competitors like YouTube TV. You really want the lowest possible price, so could they please check one more time.
  4. When you are satisfied you have gotten the best possible deal, ask them about the availability of a gift card that you have heard about others getting, to compensate for the months you paid for channels you are not really watching. You may be able to get that as well, typically in amounts ranging from $100-300. But do not make it a dealbreaker and be sure it does not lock you into a long term contract.
  5. If a representative offers you nothing or seems uninterested in assisting, thank them and hang up and call right back. During high call volumes, regular representatives may be taking cancellation calls instead of customer retention specialists who are trained to offer the best deals to keep your business.

If you called for a better deal, let us know in the comment section what you were offered.

AT&T Lays Foundation to Ditch DirecTV Satellite and U-verse TV in Favor of Online Streaming

Phillip Dampier November 14, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video, Rural Broadband 4 Comments

In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will be delivering television programming to its DirecTV and U-verse TV customers over the internet instead of satellite or the variant of DSL its U-verse product uses.

Appearing at Morgan Stanley’s European Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, AT&T chief financial officer John Stephens told investors AT&T will be able to slash costs of television delivery by eventually retiring satellite service and rolling its U-verse TV into a single, self-installed, DirecTV set-top box product that will rely on broadband.

“It’s a device that allows us to, instead of rolling a truck to the home, we roll a UPS or FedEx truck to the home and deliver a self-install box,” Stephens said. “This allows the customer to use their own broadband. We certainly hope it’s our own fiber but it could be on anybody’s broadband. And they get the full-service premium package that we would normally deliver off satellite or over our IP-based U-verse service.”

AT&T employees are currently beta testing the new box and the company hopes to begin rolling it out to subscribers in 2019. Assuming they respond positively to the online streaming experience, AT&T will begin transitioning DirecTV customers away from its existing satellite platform and towards internet delivery. Stephens said the benefits are obvious: no more installers, roof-top satellite dishes, and service calls to deal with signal problems.

“The key is, as we roll that out to full production or full availability to our customers, you will see subscriber acquisition costs come down significantly because it’s the cost of that box as opposed to the cost of an employee rolling a truck, climbing the roof and installing the satellite [dish],” Stephens added.

The transition to less costly delivery platforms may be just in time for AT&T, which saw historically large subscriber losses on its DirecTV satellite platform. Other providers reported significant losses as well, demonstrating cord-cutting is a growing trend in the pay television industry. DirecTV’s expensive fleet of satellites carry not only nationally distributed networks but hundreds of local television stations beamed regionally to customers. The economics of satellite television may become questionable if customers continue moving away from linear, live television. Internet delivery services are much less costly and offer more robust on-demand viewing options.

Rural Americans may face the consequences of any transition. They are least likely to have suitable broadband service capable of supporting DirecTV’s streaming video service and could lose access to television altogether if AT&T (and Dish) retire their satellite fleets. That may be a small concern to AT&T, which has 25 million subscribers, the vast majority of which have access to broadband internet.

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Recent Comments:

  • Dylan: Look at their prices. Absolutely ludicrous compared to many companies, especially Charter Spectrum. I pay $60 a month for 100/10 with unlimited data. ...
  • Paul Houle: For a long time communities have been frustrated in that they don't have any power to negotiate with cable companies. This town refused to enter into...
  • Ian S Littman: To be fair, you aren't wrong. Spectrum likely knows it won't have any competition for years in Lamar, so they'll quickly get take rates of >70% (re...
  • Ian S Littman: Are you in an area that can even get Spectrum service? Because in areas where they actually have to compete, they're actually pretty decent now. Yes,...
  • Ian S Littman: A more odd entry in that list is Chattanooga. The entire area has FTTH via EPB. Yet apparently folks can't swing the $57/mo starting price for 100 Mbp...
  • Ian S Littman: The issue here is that the NY PSC's threats have no teeth because, well, who will take over the cable systems if Spectrum is forced to sell? Either Al...
  • Bill Callahan: Phil, National Digital Inclusion Alliance just published interactive Census tract maps for the entire US based on the same ACS data. Two datapoints a...
  • Carl Moore: The idiots that run the cable companies must be also using drugs...a lot of people are cutting their cable services because of the higher rate and inc...
  • EJ: This will require a New Deal approach. Municipals need the ability to either be granted money or loaned money for broadband expansion. Until this is d...
  • Bob: I also got $1 increase for my 100/10 internet from Spectrum. A rep said it's for the speed increase that's coming in 2019. I complained that I was pro...
  • EJ: It makes sense to focus on wireless considering the government contract they have. The strange thing is they referenced fixed wireless in this article...
  • nick: Interesting how they conveniently leave out (Spectrum TV Choice) streaming service which is also $30/mo ($25/mo for the first 2 years)....

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