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AT&T To Strand Some DSL Customers With Fixed Wireless; Rural Areas Unlikely to See Fiber Upgrades for Years

AT&T CEO John Stankey is still looking to wring costs out of the business, and the company’s rural landline customers are next to take the cut.

At this morning’s J.P. Morgan Technology, Media and Communications Conference for investors, Stankey said AT&T is considering mothballing landline facilities in rural parts of its service area and offer wireless service instead.

“We have a voice replacement service now, so that allows us to look at our options around the footprint […] and begin the work of starting to shed some of that footprint and reduce the number of square miles that have that fixed infrastructure in place [where] you’re never going to have an incentive to ultimately upgrade to fiber,” Stankey told investors, quickly correcting himself over use the word ‘never’ in favor of “the next several years.”

“The best way to serve them is with robust wireless infrastructure and stepped up investment in that case and we will do that,” he added.

AT&T has been testing fixed wireless replacement phone service in parts of the southern United States for several years, to very mixed reviews. In these trials, AT&T rural landline customers receive a wireless modem that connects with existing home phone lines. Internet service is provided over AT&T’s 4G LTE network.

Stankey

AT&T ceased marketing its DSL service last October, although some Stop the Cap! readers claim they still occasionally receive targeted invitations for DSL service in some areas. The company has allowed its current rural DSL customers to keep their service, but many don’t. The company lost almost 39,000 DSL customers in the first three months of this year, with so signs of stopping. Across AT&T’s landline footprint, which extends from the Great Lakes region to the South as far west as Texas and east to Florida, there are only about a half-million AT&T DSL customers remaining. Most of those customers keep the service because they have no other options.

If AT&T wins FCC approval to decommission its wired network in rural areas where it has no plans to provide fiber to the home service, customers will lose traditional landline phone service and DSL.

Stankey said any serious effort in that direction is unlikely to begin until 2023, largely because AT&T will not make the investments to bolster its rural wireless infrastructure until then.

The CEO also foreshadowed no immediate plans to follow Verizon into the 5G wireless home internet business. In fact, Stankey admitted AT&T’s network is likely inadequate to support the data demands of home broadband customers.

That leaves rural customers in AT&T’s service areas with no hope of high-speed upgrades unless a community broadband provider launches or a cable operator agrees to wire rural areas. There are still questions about the capacity next generation satellite internet service will have in rural areas and whether service will be adequate to meet today’s data demands.

AT&T’s customers in urban and major suburban areas have a brighter future, however. Stankey told investors AT&T will expand its fiber to the home service to another three million households in 2021 and at least four million more in 2022. Overall, AT&T plans to provide fiber service to around 30 million homes and businesses in its wireline service area. If adequate returns on investment can be realized, along with reduced upgrade costs to reach each home, Stankey suggested another 10 million customer locations could one day see fiber service as well.

$50 Emergency Broadband Benefit Is A Windfall for Telecom Companies, a Headache for Consumers

Confusion, frustration, and fine print are all a part of the deal signing up for the $50 Emergency Broadband Benefit, customers complain.

The Biden Administration’s efforts to help economically challenged Americans with their broadband bills is actually a windfall for some of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies, which will pocket the money earned while forcing some customers off discounted promotional and legacy plans they claim do not qualify for bill relief.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), rushed through in the early days of the new administration, is a $3.2 billion program that will offer qualifying consumers $50 off their monthly internet bill, at least until this fall when the money funding the program is expected to run out. Internet service provider participation is voluntary, but with billions of free money to be collected, most cable and phone companies are on board with the program. In fact, several are using the new benefit to earn even more money, by writing program rules that cynically exploit their income-challenged customers.

To qualify for the benefit, an individual is eligible if one member of the household:

  • Is a participant in one of the qualifying Lifeline programs: Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, FPHA, Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit;
  • Is a resident on a Tribal reservation and participates in one of the following programs: Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance; Tribally administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tribal TANF); Head Start (only those households meeting its income qualifying standard); or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR);
  • Has applied for and been approved to participate in the National School Lunch Program: receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision;
  • Has gross household income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines;
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, and the household had a total income in 2020 below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers. This includes those who are unemployed or experienced unemployment in 2020 and/or were furloughed.

Stop the Cap! has received a few dozen letters from consumers that thought qualifying under the ‘substantial loss of income’ condition would be easy. Instead, they are sharing horror stories about providers unilaterally rejecting their applications, quietly canceling promotional packages, forcing some off less expensive, grandfathered service packages no longer being sold, or requiring customers to upgrade to more costly packages that ultimately left them with a bigger bill than they started with.

In some cases, poor training of customer service representatives seems to be the biggest impediment between you and a cheaper monthly bill. Some companies, including Sparklight, did not seem to even be aware of the highly publicized program. Others, notably Charter and Comcast, gave different answers depending on the representative you reach.

The most cynical provider of them all, however, is Verizon. No ISP makes participation in the EBB program more difficult. The phone company dominates as the largest wireline phone company in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and Verizon Wireless is one of the three major wireless carriers. It appears to be using the EBB as a marketing opportunity to upsell customers or drive them off older legacy plans that cost less, even if that is the only plan available.

“Verizon told me flat out ‘no’ that DSL customers cannot receive the $50 discount,” said Ted Rogers. Verizon is his only option for internet service, and only barely so. “We get about 6 Mbps from Verizon, no cell signals at all, and cable internet is just a dream. We live almost a mile from the nearest neighbor.”

Rogers lost his job as a result of the pandemic and is now working two part-time jobs to make ends meet. He told us the broadband benefit would be nice, but in the end is not worth fighting the phone company to get.

“You really have nowhere to go when they reject you, because the program is voluntary,” Rogers told us. “The FCC just passes the complaint back to Verizon and the PSC says it does not regulate internet service.”

Collect the $50, and then even more by forcing customers to switch to more expensive service plans.

Early FiOS customers who signed up for plans they have kept for years are also running straight into a firm “no” from Verizon. The Washington Post shared the stories of several Verizon fiber customers who were told they must upgrade to a more costly plan to qualify for the $50 discount. One customer in Massachusetts would have to give up his internet-only plan costing $62 for basically the same service under a different name — for $79 a month. While the $50 discount will make his internet bill much lower through the summer, when funds run out, he will end up paying $17 more a month indefinitely.

A Virginia customer was told she would have to walk away from her current Verizon internet plan costing $79 a month and switch to a new one for $95 a month, just to get a $50 discount over the next 3-6 months. That is a $16 more a month. In Pennsylvania, a Verizon customer was told she could not get the $50 a month broadband benefit unless she signed up for a costlier TV package and start renting some set top equipment as well. Her bill, after the EBB benefit expires, will be “at least $50 a month higher.”

“In my case, it seems like EBB only benefits Verizon,” she told the Post.

Unlike most telecom companies that claim these kinds of stories are simple misunderstandings or confusion on the part of their customer service team, Verizon spokesman Alex Lawson stepped up to boldly confirm that yes, indeed, the $50 benefit was only good on “qualifying plans.” For everyone else (our phrase): tough luck. But Lawson claims these newer plans allow customers to drop home phone service and typically save customers money. But not always, especially on legacy plans that include all the services a customer wants and special promotional packages which are lost when customers switch plans.

For the record, Verizon limits EBB benefits to these service plans. Notice DSL is excluded and prepaid wireless customers have to speak to a representative to find out if they can qualify:

Mobile:

Verizon Mix & Match Unlimited
Start Unlimited
Play More Unlimited
Do More Unlimited
Get More Unlimited
Above Unlimited
Beyond Unlimited
Go Unlimited (Some Go plans may not be eligible- inquire with rep.)
Standalone Mobile Hotspot plans
Unlimited and Unlimited Plus plans (Standalone mobile hotspot service offerings are those without a smartphone line on the account).

Home:

Fios Mix & Match Internet, any speed
Verizon 5G Home Internet
Verizon LTE Home Internet

Comcast representatives offered a range of responses to customers inquiring about signing up for EBB.

“Talk to one representative, get one story, hang up and call back and you get a completely different story,” said Sha’qwanda, a Comcast customer in Baltimore. “They told me I don’t qualify because I am 15 days late on my bill, then another person told me the plan was only for people on Medicaid, then another person told me I would have to give up my promotion plan they rate locked for a year. My bill would have gone up $54 a month. I can’t afford that. Who is really getting rich here?”

A Philadelphia customer told us Comcast completely messed up their account trying to apply the benefit, canceling their services and charging them for unreturned equipment.

“We lost service the following morning,” the customer wrote us, wishing to remain anonymous. “When we called up, the representative couldn’t figure out what happened, except he saw in the notes we were signed up for EBB, then the account was closed. Our final bill was over $400.”

The Xfinity social media account reached out to us earlier today to clear up the misunderstanding.

If you are a Comcast customer and are having trouble enrolling in EBB, we suggest you tweet a message to @Xfinity and get assistance. We suspect the problem here is insufficient training of customer service representatives to manage enrollments properly.

Charter/Spectrum is using the EBB program as a pry lever to push stubborn customers still holding on to legacy Time Warner Cable or Bright House service plans to switch to Spectrum internet plans and pricing. If you do not make the switch, you won’t qualify for EBB benefits. This is a choice by Charter management, not a limitation imposed by their billing system. Some customers on other legacy plans were also told they do not qualify.

“I am still a subscriber of New York’s Everyday Low Priced Internet service that used to be $15 a month. They have raised the price since, but also effectively jailed me by saying I have to abandon this plan if I want to get the $50 a month off my internet bill,” said Jay, a customer in New York City. “I can never go back either they tell me. Who wrote the rules for this program? The cable companies are using this to force people like me into upgrades I do not want and cannot afford. It’s scandalous.”

Another customer wishing to remain anonymous noted the same month EBB became available, Charter announced rate increases on equipment rentals and the Broadcast TV Fee paid by cable television customers.

“They will be back to raise internet prices again soon, I am sure,” the customer predicted.

AT&T, not to be left behind, also insists that customers choose from a limited menu of premium price plans and can never return to the plan they gave up. Even worse, customers complain you have to call to enroll, and the lines are jammed:

“I waited an hour on hold and then AT&T hung up on me twice,” said Kate Derry from Chicago. “It’s busy signals or waiting on hold forever. It’s like calling the unemployment office during the pandemic. AT&T has decided it should not be easy to enroll in this and I wonder how many people just give up.”

Jon, an AT&T Fiber customer in Dallas seems to agree.

“I finally got through at around 8am Texas time and listened to a representative fumble their way through disclaimers and conditions,” Jon told Stop the Cap! “Several times she had to put her hand over the microphone and ask her supervisor for help. It took an hour to get everything set up, not including the time needed to assemble the qualifying documentation. I really doubt many people are going to go through all this for a few months of savings. There is no excuse for this not to be available for online enrollment.”

Georgia’s Rural Internet Expansion Runs Into Telecom Industry Lobbyist Buzzsaw

Gooch

A bill in the Georgia legislature that would divert a portion of a state fund that currently subsidizes rural landlines towards rural internet expansion ran into trouble last week after lobbyists representing AT&T and several small rural telephone companies announced opposition to the measure.

Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 65, is seeking to boost subsidy funds to expand high-speed internet in unserved areas of the state. His bill would designate up to $35 million annually towards construction of new broadband connections. Without the measure, state residents would instead see a reduction in Universal Access Fund (UAF) fees on their monthly phone bills beginning later this year. But if the bill passes, modest UAF charges would continue at 2020 levels for an additional nine years, expiring June 30, 2030.

Georgia’s Senate Regulated Industries Committee reviewed the current state of rural broadband funding in a meeting held last Thursday in Atlanta. Gooch noted Gov. Brian Kemp already set aside $20 million for rural broadband in the 2021 state budget, but he felt more needed to be done.

“Twenty million dollars […] is a good start,” Gooch said. “But we need to put more money into this year after year until the problem is fixed.”

Gooch’s measure has attracted 20 co-sponsors in the legislature so far:

Georgia’s cable and phone companies appear much less supportive of Gooch’s effort. Leading the charge against Gooch’s bill was AT&T Georgia. Kevin Curtin, AT&T’s assistant vice president of legislative affairs in Georgia, said diverting money from the UAF Fund to rural broadband expansion was unnecessary.

“There are many federal government programs doling out substantial amounts of funding to spread broadband,” Curtin said. AT&T has regularly pointed to the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) as the best source of rural broadband funding. The 10-year, $9.2 billion program has already designated $326.5 million for rural broadband expansion in Georgia. But it will take years for RDOF to dispense its available funds.

The state’s largest lobbying group for the cable industry does not care for the bill either.

“We want to continue to try to bring broadband to every Georgia citizen,” said Hunter Hopkins, interim executive director of the Georgia Cable Association. “Let’s just put more money in the general fund versus tinkering with the UAF.”

Rural Georgians are usually left waiting indefinitely for private industry investment to expand rural internet access. Instead, rural utility cooperatives are now stepping up to solve the rural broadband problem in parts of the state, often without waiting for government subsides.

Last week, Conexon, a fiber overbuilder and internet service provider teamed up with two member-owned utility co-ops with a plan to bring high-speed gigabit internet to 80,000 homes and businesses in 18 rural Middle Georgia counties.

The partnership will combine utility co-op investments of $135 million from Central Georgia EMC and $53 million from Southern Rivers Energy with $21.5 million from Conexon to build a new, 6,890 mile fiber to the home broadband network over the next four years that will serve residents in Bibb, Butts, Clayton, Coweta, Crawford, Fayette, Henry, Jasper, Jones, Lamar, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Newton, Pike, Putnam, Spalding, and Upson counties. Monroe County has also offered $1.3 million to incentivize the partnership to break ground in that county as quickly as possible.

Customers in rural Georgia have given up waiting for companies like AT&T and Windstream to expand high-speed internet service.

“The majority of members in our service area have no access to the quality, high-speed internet service they so desperately need. That changes today,” said Southern Rivers Energy President and CEO Michael McMillan. “We know electric cooperatives play a critical role in connecting underserved areas and we are proud to partner with Conexon to help bridge the digital divide for our communities. This partnership will enable thousands of rural Georgians to finally access the same online connections as those in more urban areas, while allowing us to maintain focus on our core mission – providing reliable, affordable electricity to our members.”

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

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