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FCC’s Ajit Pai Will Meet Privately With Wall Street Analysts in Closed Door Meeting

Phillip Dampier June 17, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Pai

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai will meet with Wall Street analysts at a Wells Fargo investors conference on Thursday closed to the public and news media.

Pai is expected to focus most of his remarks on the topics of 5G wireless networks and forthcoming spectrum auctions, but will also likely praise the Trump Administration’s overall deregulatory policies and achievements Pai feels point to the regulator’s recent successes. In attendance will be top executives from T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, and the powerful D.C. law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP that specializes in serving telecommunications industry clients. That firm will present a regulatory discussion entitled, “Will Washington Topple Tech and Telecom.”

A review of past investor conferences shows it is rare for a chairman of the FCC to appear at such private events, usually attended by professional analysts working for Wall Street investment firms and top executives from the businesses analysts cover for their investor clients. The propriety of public officials attending closed door events with the industries they regulate is controversial, particularly because topics discussed during informal meetings are not always disclosed to the public through “ex parte” notices filed with the Commission. But Pai has proven to be an industry-friendly chairman and formerly served as counsel for Verizon Communications.

A transcript of Pai’s formal remarks at the event will be published on the FCC’s website within a few days of his speech, and it likely Pai will speak on issues already a part of the agency’s public record. Normally the opportunity to strengthen personal ties between regulators like Pai and the regulated and a chance to meet Pai to exchange views is worth gold to many investors, but this specific event will be conducted entirely “virtually” online.

Defenders claim such meetings allow the FCC to become better informed about Wall Street investor concerns not discussed by corporate executives worried about any negative impact on their stock price. They also contend there is no opportunity for Pai to engage in “ex parte” discussions because the event is entirely webcast online. But critics note regulators that appear at such industry events rarely attend Question and Answer events open to the public. Critics view that as further evidence of the kinds of cozy D.C. relationships between the government and special interests many ‘good government’ groups decry as a conflict of interest.

Maryland Sues Cricket Wireless, AT&T For Selling Phones That Stopped Working A Year Later

Cricket Wireless and AT&T are being sued by Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh for allegedly selling phones both companies knew would stop working on Cricket’s network a year after the two companies merged.

Frosh announced the lawsuit on Monday, claiming both wireless companies violated the Maryland Consumer Protection Act.

Cricket formerly operated its own mobile network, which relied on CDMA technology. Customers were required to use devices compatible with that mobile standard to access the Cricket network. In July 2013, AT&T agreed to acquire Cricket Wireless’ parent, Leap Wireless, for $1.2 billion. The FCC approved the acquisition in March 2014. Cricket, now under AT&T’s ownership, continued to sell CDMA mobile devices to consumers for the next year. Frosh contends both companies knew AT&T was planning to decommission Cricket’s cellular network and move customers to AT&T’s own network, which uses GSM technology incompatible with CDMA.

Frosh

That left customers with devices that stopped working with their Cricket service, requiring many to purchase new phones compatible with AT&T’s GSM network. Other customers discovered their Cricket phones were locked exclusively to Cricket’s network, and the company refused to unlock the phones so they could be used on a competitor’s network. Many customers complained their costly smartphones were less than a year old before they stopped working. Cricket’s only solution was to buy a new device, often costing hundreds of dollars.

“Cricket and AT&T continued to market and sell a product to consumers they knew wouldn’t work after their merger was complete,” said Frosh. “This practice, we allege, was undertaken to maximize profit from the sale of expensive smartphones without regard for the harm it would cause consumers.”

The lawsuit is seeking restitution, an injunction preventing Cricket and AT&T from engaging in unfair or deceptive trade practices, as well as civil penalties and costs.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday, September 9, 2020, at the Office of Administrative Hearings in Hunt Valley, Md. For more information, Maryland residents can call the Consumer Protection Division hotline at 410-528-8662 or toll free at 1-888-743-0023.

AT&T’s Lawyers Use Media Reports Critical of Company’s Throttle Policy in Defense of Throttling Customers

AT&T throttles

How low can AT&T go? Customers retaining “unlimited data plans” that were discontinued in 2010 were throttled to as little as 127 kbps after using just 2 GB a month.

AT&T’s lawyers are asking a judge to accept media coverage exposing the company’s allegedly “secret” speed throttling policy for some of its wireless customers as a valid defense in a 2015 class action case that seeks to compensate some AT&T customers for misrepresenting its “unlimited data plan.”

AT&T last month asked the judge to have the long-running case thrown out, claiming AT&T well publicized its new speed throttling policy it imposed on a legacy unlimited data plan the wireless company stopped selling in 2010, but allowed existing customers to keep. By 2011, some customers still subscribed to the grandfathered unlimited plan started noticing data speeds plummeting to near dial-up if they used a lot of data. At first, AT&T appeared to impose a speed throttle on customers using over 10 GB of data per month, but by 2012, AT&T was accused of speed throttling unlimited customers after they used as little as 2 GB of data during a billing period.

The resulting class action lawsuit, filed in California, alleged that AT&T misrepresented its unlimited data plan as ‘unlimited,’ when in fact in practical terms it was not. The plaintiffs are seeking damages from AT&T to discourage the company from engaging in false advertising in the future, and to compensate customers that paid for an unlimited data plan that eventually became almost useless after customers used just over 2 GB a month.

AT&T’s defense partly relies on the company’s claim it extensively publicized changes to its legacy unlimited data plan as early as 2011, and the plaintiffs should have been aware of it. The Federal Communications Commission was aware of AT&T’s actions and just a month before the class action case was filed, the regulatory agency issued a notice of apparent liability to AT&T proposing a $100 million fine for unwarranted speed throttling.

AT&T’s attorneys have worked hard to stop the lawsuit over the last five years. In addition to claiming customers were notified of their excessive data usage through text messages and billing notices, AT&T last month sought to introduce a dozen media reports covering its speed throttling policy into the court record to convince U.S. District Judge Edward Milton Chen the plaintiffs don’t have a case and to get the lawsuit dismissed.

One of the news articles cited in AT&T’s May 14 filing was written by former DSL Reports’ author Karl Bode, who has been roundly critical of AT&T’s data caps for over a decade. Ironically, AT&T’s defense team is arguing Bode’s report, “AT&T Wages Quiet War on Grandfathered Unlimited Users” offers proof AT&T was not keeping its speed throttling policy “secret,” as at least one plaintiff claimed. Bode suggested AT&T had engineered its speed throttling plan to push grandfathered unlimited data plan customers off the plan in favor of more profitable plans offering a specified data allowance and overlimit fees.

Bode

“In other words, pay $30 for “unlimited” service where you’re actually only getting 2 GB of data before your phone becomes useless, or sign up for a 3 GB tier for the same price so you’re in line to get socked with the usage overages of tomorrow,” Bode wrote at the time.

His views have not changed in 2020.

“For nearly a decade AT&T has tap danced around the fact it misleadingly sold an ‘unlimited’ data plan packed with confusing limits. No amount of legal maneuvering can hide the fact that AT&T lied repeatedly to its customers about the kind of connection they were buying,” Bode told Stop the Cap! “Instead of owning its mistake, learning from it, and moving forward, AT&T’s now trying to point to critical news coverage from the era to falsely suggest consumers should have known better. It’s utterly nonsensical and speaks volumes about the lack of ethical leadership at a company that routinely sees some of the lowest customer satisfaction ratings in American industry.”

AT&T’s lawyers are not prepared to concede, however. Since the lawsuit was filed, AT&T’s legal team attempted to force the case into arbitration in 2016. That effort was successful until a 2017 California Supreme Court decision in another case gave the plaintiffs ammunition to claim that it was against California law to force consumers into arbitration. The Ninth Circuit court agreed, and the case reverted to district court, where AT&T immediately began efforts to have the case dismissed outright.

AT&T is not alone throttling so-called “heavy users” that have either legacy or current unlimited data plans. All major cellular companies enforce fine print policies that allow speed throttling after customers consume as little as 20 GB of wireless data during a billing cycle. The fact companies still advertise such plans as “unlimited” irks Bode.

“An unlimited data connection should come with no limits. If giant wireless carriers can’t respect the dictionary, they should stop using the word entirely,” Bode told us.

AT&T Exempts Its Own HBO Max Service from AT&T Wireless Caps

AT&T mobile customers can watch AT&T-owned HBO Max without fearing any impact on their data allowances, despite the fact competing services like Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix will not be given similar treatment.

The Verge confirmed with AT&T that customers with AT&T mobile service can watch an unlimited amount of HBO Max and not exceed data allowances or the soft cap of 22-50 GB a month that unlimited use plan customers have.

The practice of exempting some content from data caps is known as “zero rating” and critics of the practice contend it is an “end run” around net neutrality. AT&T defends itself claiming HBO Max is paying AT&T to sponsor customer usage.

“According to an AT&T executive familiar with the matter, HBO Max is using AT&T’s ‘sponsored data’ system, which technically allows any company to pay to excuse its services from data caps,” according to the story in The Verge. “But since AT&T owns HBO Max, it’s just paying itself: the data fee shows up on the HBO Max books as an expense and on the AT&T Mobility books as revenue. For AT&T as a whole, it zeroes out. Compare that to a competitor like Netflix, which could theoretically pay AT&T for sponsored data, but it would be a pure cost.”

In short, AT&T is moving money from one of its pockets to the other, which may tangentially benefit AT&T mobile customers, but will also leave competing streaming services at a disadvantage, allowing AT&T to give preferential treatment to its own streaming service, which may discourage subscriptions to other services.

Ars Technica confirmed AT&T is not extending the data cap exemption to customers with AT&T DSL or Fiber service.

This Internet Provider Earned a 94% Customer Satisfaction Score, and It Isn’t Comcast or Spectrum

One of America’s internet service providers managed to achieve a customer satisfaction score of 94%, an unprecedented vote of approval from consumers that typically loathe their cable or phone company.

What also makes this provider different is that it is owned by the public, and administered by the City of Fairlawn, Ohio. Fairlawn is a suburb of Akron, with a population of around 7,400 people. Akron is dominated by Charter Spectrum for cable and AT&T for telephone service. But the suburbs have been underserved by both companies for decades. As with many northeastern cities, the economic shift away from manufacturing towards high-tech businesses requires robust connectivity. But many communities are stuck with a cable company that will not service less populated areas in town and a phone company that is willing to leave many customers with low-speed DSL and nothing better.

When a community finds it cannot get gigabit fiber optic service for residents, it can either live with what is on offer instead or decide to do something about it. Fairlawn decided it was time to establish FairlawnGig, a municipal broadband utility that would provide gigabit fiber service to every resident in town, if they wanted it.

Broadband Communities reports local residents love the service they are getting:

The online survey results reveal overall satisfaction with FairlawnGig at an astoundingly high number of 94% with more than 3 out of 4 (77%) saying they are “very satisfied.”

Additionally, FairlawnGig 94% of residential customers rated the service they receive from FairlawnGig as “excellent” or “very good.”

FairlawnGig offers two plans to residents: 300/300 Mbps service for $55 a month or 1,000/1,000 Mbps service for $75. Landline phone service is an extra $25 a month, and the municipal provider has pointed its customers to online cable TV alternatives like Hulu and YouTube TV for television service. Incumbent cable and phone companies usually respond to this kind of competition with cut-rate promotions to keep the customers they have and lure others back. Spectrum has countered with promotions offering 400 Mbps internet for as little as $30/mo for two years. Despite the potential savings, most people in Fairlawn won’t go back to Spectrum regardless of the price. FairlawnGig’s loyalty score is 80, with 85% of those not only sticking with FairlawnGig but also actively recommending it to others.

Residents appreciate the service, deemed very reliable, and that technicians are local and accessible. The City says it works hard to ensure that customer appointments are kept and on time and representatives are available to assist customers with their questions and technical support needs. FairlawnGig claims its technicians spend extra time teaching customers about their services.

City officials candidly admit they were willing to build and launch the municipal fiber service even if it did not recoup its original investment for years to come. That is because the municipal fiber network has benefited the city in other ways:

  • It has attracted new residents to town and kept them there.
  • Several businesses launched or moved to be within FairlawnGig’s service area. Most are white collar businesses, such as IT firms, software and hardware engineers, and consultants.
  • A new orthopaedic hospital is being developed in the town, in part because FairlawnGig can provide connectivity up to 100 Gbps for things like medical imaging and video conferencing.
  • As businesses move in, so do workers looking for a shorter commute. Property values in the town have increased and realtors make a point to alert would-be buyers when a property is within FairlawnGig’s service area.

In short, Fairlawn officials see providing internet access as more than just a profit center. It is a public service initiative that is paying back dividends that will eventually exceed the $10 million investment taken from the city’s general fund to build the network. Taxes did not increase as a result of FairlawnGig either. Now other towns around Fairlawn and the city of Akron itself are showing interest in how to join forces to expand the public service well beyond Fairlawn’s town borders.

WOIO in Akron covered FairlawnGig back in January 2019 in this report explaining how a publicly owned fiber to the home service was delivering gig speed to this northeastern Ohio community. (2:31)

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