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FCC Approves Verizon’s Acquisition of TracFone

The Federal Communications Commission today approved Verizon’s acquisition of low-cost carrier TracFone Wireless, which will bring a familiar brand for prepaid wireless service under the wireless giant’s corporate umbrella.

Sources indicate there were enough votes in favor of the deal late last week for FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to distribute an approval order on Friday ahead of the formal vote.

The approval means Verizon will control the country’s largest wireless carrier for low income subscribers enrolled in the federal government’s Lifeline program, which offers substantial discounts on phones and service. About 1.7 million customers currently use TracFone under the Lifeline program, and Verizon committed to the FCC that it would continue participating in the program for at least the next seven years. The company also promised to maintain TracFone’s existing rate plans for at least three years and would continue to promote and educate consumers about Lifeline service.

A separate agreement with the California Public Utilities Commission commits Verizon to provide subsidized wireless service to low-income California residents for at least 20 years, and a free phone to qualified customers starting in late 2022.

“Verizon welcomes the FCC’s approval today of our TracFone acquisition,” said Kathy Grillo, Verizon SVP & DGC, public policy and government affairs, in a statement. The deal will provide customers with the best of both worlds: more choices, better services and new features thanks to Verizon’s investment and innovation. Customers will benefit with enhancements in devices, network performance and innovative products and services — as well as a continued commitment to Lifeline.”

TracFone was one of the country’s largest independent wireless brands. The company was formerly a unit of Mexico’s America Movil, controlled by billionaire Carlos Slim.

Spectrum Drops Gigabit Install Fee to $19.99, Was $50-200

New customers in competitive service areas can pay less for gigabit service, but anyone can get the higher speed tier for a $19.99 “activation fee.”

Charter Communications has slashed its arbitrary installation and activation fee for Spectrum’s gigabit broadband service to $19.99 for new and upgrading customers.

For years, customers paid fees ranging from $49.99 to $199.99 just to sign up for gigabit internet speed. Ongoing service pricing ranges from a promotional price of $89.99 a month in competitive service areas to $134.99 a month for broadband-only service where competition is lacking or non-existent.

Real world speed tests show Spectrum Internet Gig performing at around 940 Mbps for downloads and just shy of 40 Mbps for uploads.

Current customers might be able to order the speed upgrade online through Spectrum’s customer service portal. No service call is required.

Some customers might need a new modem to take advantage of gigabit speed. Spectrum can swap out existing modems at their cable store locations or by mail.

Cox Waives Its Own Data Cap When It Faces Unlimited 5G Home Wireless Competition

Phillip Dampier September 22, 2021 Broadband "Shortage", Competition, Consumer News, Cox, Data Caps No Comments

With unlimited home wireless broadband from T-Mobile and Verizon starting to take a dent out of Cox Communications’ customer base, the cable operator is shoring up a defensive position by waiving its arbitrary data cap for existing customers signed up for gigabit speed service in select areas.

“We’re showing our appreciation by giving you free unlimited data for two years,” reads the postcard sent to one of Stop the Cap’s readers in Phoenix. “Now you can stream away without worrying about overages.”

Phoenix residents currently have a choice of up to four different providers — Cox Cable, CenturyLink, Verizon 5G Home Internet, or T-Mobile’s 5G fixed wireless home broadband. Verizon and T-Mobile both offer service with no data caps, but coverage remains selective, especially for Verizon.

Customers must receive the postcard offer and redeem it with Cox to waive their data cap, and the offer is not transferable. It applies only to subscribers with gigabit speed and after 24 months, Cox’s 1.25 TB data cap returns.

The fact Cox is willing to waive its own arbitrary data cap for marketing and competition reasons further demonstrates that artificial limits imposed on internet service have nothing to do with congestion, “fairness,” or network management.

 

Sellout: Biden’s Broadband Stimulus is a Shadow of Its Former Self

After weeks of tense negotiations to secure bipartisan support for the Biden Administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus measure, the White House appears to have largely capitulated to Republican efforts to water down funding to expand broadband service into a $65 billion package that will doubtless be a financial bonanza to the country’s largest phone and cable operators.

The Biden Administration’s original proposal for $100 billion in broadband funding was dedicated to wiring rural areas as well as focusing funding on new entrants like community-owned networks that could deliver internet access to unserved and underserved locations without having a profit motive. The original proposal also would have prioritized funding for future-capable fiber internet, with some advocating that networks be capable of delivering at least a gigabit of speed to customers to qualify for funding. The Administration also promoted the idea of affordable broadband, combatting the growing digital divide exacerbated by internet pricing out of reach of the working poor.

What emerged on Sunday as a “bipartisan agreement” with Republicans on infrastructure stimulus is almost a travesty — slashed almost by half and now effectively a veritable gift to Big Telecom. The industry spent hundreds of millions lobbying Congress and got almost everything it wanted. If passed in its current form, those same phone and cable companies will pocket much of the money for themselves.

Here is how consumers were sold out:

Reduced speed requirements are a dream come true for cable operators.

The bipartisan measure proposes to water down speed requirements to qualify for government stimulus funding to a underwhelming 100/20 Mbps. That speed is tailor made for cable operators, which traditionally offer upload speeds just a fraction of their download speeds. Gone is any condition requiring gigabit-capable networks, at a time when more providers than ever are marketing near-gigabit speeds. That could quickly lead to the emergence of a speed divide, with rural Americans stuck with slower broadband technology from companies that will have no financial incentive to upgrade in these areas.

Addressing affordability is now mostly wishful thinking.

The latest proposal’s idea of solving the broadband affordability issue is to admit there is a problem and declare the need for some kind of low-cost broadband option, but apparently does not specify pricing, who is qualified to get cheaper service, and who will oversee that such programs remain affordable. That allows providers to keep writing the rules of their own token, voluntary efforts to offer discounted internet, like those that disqualify current customers and requires enrollees to jump through various qualification hoops to sign up. The stimulus program will also spend billions of dollars effectively paying a portion of disadvantaged Americans’ internet bills, at the current high prices many ISP’s charge. That is a direct subsidy to big cable and phone companies that can continue charging whatever they please for access, knowing the government will now pay $30-50 of the bill.

Republicans have made sure there is not a whiff of rate regulation or consumer protection mandates in the measure. It also abandons establishing a fixed rate, affordable internet tier for as little as $10 a month. That original proposal would have given cable and phone companies as little as $10 a month from the federal government, much less than collecting up to $50 a month from the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which pays a portion of regular-priced service. The $14 billion being set aside to continue subsidizing Americans’ internet bills at Big Telecom’s monopoly or duopoly prices could be better spent building and expanding internet services where no service or competition exists now.

Digital redlining is A-OK

The watered down compromise measure chastises companies for only incrementally expanding fiber service, mostly to wealthy neighborhoods, but stops short of banning the practice. This wink and a nod to redlining primarily benefits phone companies like AT&T and Frontier, which can now cherry-pick rich neighborhoods for fiber upgrades most likely to return the biggest profits. Phone companies and fiber overbuilders will continue to skip over urban poor neighborhoods and the highest cost rural areas which have always been the hardest to reach.

Sky is the Limit pricing with onerous data caps are fine with us.

Nothing in the measure will give preference to providers willing to offer affordable, flat rate service without the hassle of data caps. Neither will it discourage applicants that plan to use public tax dollars to subsidize expanding service that comes at high prices and with paltry usage limits.

Light Reading reported Wall Street analysts were generally pleased with the outcome, noting the negotiations resulted in stripping out oversight and price regulation and the measure won’t fund potential competitors. It also noted Big Telecom and its associated trade organizations spent more than $234 million on lobbying. Comcast topped the list of spenders at more than $43 million, with AT&T coming in second at $36 million. Both the cable and wireless industry also spent tens of millions on lobbying. They got their money’s worth. Taxpayers won’t.

The Magic of Broadband Competition: Sparklight Without Competition vs. Sparklight With Competition

America’s most costly large cable internet service provider is Sparklight, formerly known as Cable One. Its internet plans are usually data-capped and it barely offers new customers a pricing break before high regular prices apply. Sparklight primarily services small cities and towns, many income-challenged, in the middle of the country. Customers do not have much to rave about, because Sparklight puts its own profits far ahead of its customers. The cable operator was among the first to slap on data caps and was the nation’s most aggressive at getting rid of costly cable television channels.

About the only thing that does move Sparklight’s pricing is the presence of a formidable competitor. In Meridian and Garden City, Ida., TDS Fiber (formerly TDS Telecom) has been bringing gigabit fiber to the home service to area residents at prices low enough to motivate Sparklight customers to abandon the cable company. That motivated Sparklight to improve their plans and lower prices.

First, let’s examine the internet rate card for ordinary Sparklight customers typically stuck choosing either the cable company or DSL from Frontier, AT&T, or Windstream:

Sparklight regular pricing nationwide

Notice the entry-level internet plan (100/10 Mbps) costs $55 a month, does not mention the $10.50/mo modem rental fee (required if you choose the company’s Wi-Fi service), an internet service surcharge of $2.75/mo (not charged in all areas), and a stingy data cap of just 350 GB, which is at least 100 GB less than what the average U.S. broadband household now consumes each month. Internet overlimit fees are $10 for each additional block of 100GB of data in excess of your allowance, up to a maximum of $50 a month. Unlimited service costs an extra $40 a month.

When you add it all up: for an unlimited (100/10 Mbps) internet service plan with in-home Wi-Fi, Sparklight charges $108.25 a month.

If you happen to live in a competitive service area, such as Meridian and Garden City, Ida., speeds are faster, prices are lower, and data caps are nowhere to be found:

Pricing for Sparklight in Meridian and Garden City, Ida.

Customers still face a $10.50/mo charge to lease a cable modem, and that $2.75/mo internet surcharge fee might also apply.

The prospect of competition could cut dramatically into company profits, which is one reason telecom companies are fiercely lobbying the Biden Administration not to fund municipal broadband projects or supply funds to a new competitor as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Plan.

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