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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.

Biden Nominates Broadband-for-all Advocate Rosenworcel to Lead FCC

Phillip Dampier October 27, 2021 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Jessica Rosenworcel, a champion of broadband access for low-income American households, is President Joe Biden’s choice for permanent chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the White House confirmed on Tuesday.

A Democrat who already serves as acting FCC chairwoman under Biden, she is expected to win U.S. Senate approval for a new term on the five-member telecoms regulator. Biden announced he intends to nominate her for a new term and a White House official said Biden will tap her to become the first woman to serve as permanent FCC chief.

Biden has waited more than nine months to make nominations for the FCC, which has not been able to address some issues because it currently has one vacancy and is divided 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans.

For the open seat, the White House confirmed to nominate Gigi Sohn, a former senior aide to Tom Wheeler, who served as an FCC chairman under President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Rosenworcel has overseen the FCC’s temporary $3.2 billion broadband subsidy program created by Congress in December that provides discounts on monthly internet service and on the purchase of laptops or tablet computers to more than 6 million lower-income American households or people afflicted by COVID-19.

She has said the lack of broadband access leads to a “homework gap” for lower-income Americans because most teachers assign homework that requires internet access.

The White House also confirmed Biden will nominate Alan Davidson, a senior adviser at Mozilla, as director of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the executive branch agency principally responsible for advising the White House on telecommunications and information policy issues. NTIA is also expected to oversee tens of billions of dollars in funding from Congress to expand internet access.

Last month, a group of 25 U.S. senators wrote to Biden in support of Rosenworcel, a former Senate staffer, for a new term and the chair role. They wrote “further delays will unnecessarily imperil our shared goal of achieving ubiquitous broadband connectivity.”

Rosenworcel and her staff did not respond late on Monday to requests for comment on the announcement expected as soon as Tuesday. Without being confirmed to a new term, Rosenworcel would need to leave the FCC at the end of the year.

She has said the FCC decision under then-Republican President Donald Trump in 2017 to overturn net neutrality rules had put the FCC “on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.”

The FCC under Obama, Trump’s predecessor, adopted the net neutrality rules in 2015 barring internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes.

Supporters of net neutrality say the protections ensure a free and open internet. Broadband and telecoms trade groups contend their legal basis from the pre-internet era was outdated and would discourage investment.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Howard Goller and David Gregorio

Cuomo Administration Capitulates on Affordable Broadband Law; State Laws Cannot Regulate Broadband Pricing

Cuomo

As expected, New York’s efforts to lower broadband pricing through a state mandate has been effectively killed in a Brooklyn federal court, putting an end to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to require providers to offer a $15 broadband tier to income-challenged state residents.

U.S. District Judge Denis R. Hurley, who signed a preliminary injunction preventing the mandate from taking effect on June 15, signaled the concept was likely unlawful in a memorandum attached to the injunction. Several telecom companies challenged the mandate in a lawsuit heard in Hurley’s courtroom, claiming states have no regulatory authority to set broadband terms or pricing. Hurley was clearly persuaded in their direction, and was pessimistic the state could ever show a legal way to regulate internet pricing, something currently reserved to the FCC. As a result, a settlement has been proposed dropping the affordable pricing mandate.

Hurley was also moved by arguments from several smaller New York providers that claimed the new mandate would force them to sell service below cost. Empire Access, a fiber to the home overbuilder based in Prattsburgh, filed a declaration with the court threatening to cancel a major expansion project to wire customers in Livingston and Broome counties, including the city of Binghamton, if the mandate was implemented, because it would likely lose federal funding.

Because of the state’s definition as to who would have qualified for the affordable broadband tier, many smaller companies in rural, economically challenged area of upstate New York claimed they would face substantial economic losses to their businesses. Empire claimed it would lose “approximately $2 million per year,” Heart of the Catskills claimed top-line revenue would decrease $1,364,000 annually, Delhi Telephone claimed it would lose at least $90,000 per month, and the Champlain Telephone Company notified the court that “nearly half (48%) of its existing broadband customers will qualify for discounted rates,” causing the company to lose money on each customer.

“While a telecommunications giant like Verizon may be able to absorb such a loss, others may not,” Judge Hurley wrote in his order.

Gov. Cuomo bristled after learning of the lawsuit, threatening to revoke the franchise of any company that refused to implement the  state’s affordable broadband program. But the governor has made empty threats before, including a promise in 2018 to revoke the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable because the company failed to live up to the deal commitments it made to state regulators. A settlement was eventually reached between the cable giant and the state, and it appears a settlement between the plaintiff telecom companies and the state will also end this dispute and lawsuit. It appears the state has capitulated and plans to walk away from the affordable broadband proposal, although it reserved the right to appeal the case.

Stop the Cap! predicts the state will work with larger providers to increase public knowledge of the companies’ existing affordable internet programs, which usually have similar qualifications to the affordable internet law Cuomo proposed. Cuomo Administration officials will also likely lobby the Biden Administration to toughen federal oversight of broadband service and suggest a possible federal mandate for an affordable service tier and a return to net neutrality under a regulatory framework that opens the door for future price and service regulation.

The court decision signals states the solution to broadband affordability will not be found in state laws or mandates that attempt to regulate broadband pricing, at least until the current federal law changes.

Frontier: Only the Customers With the Fastest Internet Speeds Get the Emergency Broadband Benefit

Some financially challenged customers subscribed to legacy DSL from Frontier Communications are finding they cannot qualify for the Biden Administration’s emergency internet discount program because their internet service is too slow.

WHEC-TV’s Jennifer Lewke heard from one Rochester, N.Y., area Frontier customer frustrated to discover the phone company refused to accept their application.

The discount comes from the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a temporary program offering financially distressed consumers $50 off their monthly internet bill until the funding for the program runs out.

The roadblock comes from Frontier, which created its own rule that only customers with 25 Mbps or faster internet service subscribed to select tiers of service can qualify for the discount. That eliminates many of Frontier’s most loyal DSL customers that have stayed with the company for over a decade, despite often getting internet speeds less than 10 Mbps.

News10NBC:

John Derycke of Rochester relies on the internet for a lot.

“My [Frontier] plan is $54.99 and then they tack on a $6.99 infrastructure charge,” he told News10NBC.

[…]

“I went to the site to verify eligibility, I qualify and that was on May 11, I called Frontier and I spoke to Monique and she told me everything’s great we’re good to go,” Derycke said.

But when his bill came the next month, there was no credit.

He didn’t like what he was told when he called.

“After being put on hold for 20 minutes, I finally got back with the woman and she immediately said you don’t qualify because you have 24 MB and you need 25,” Derycke said.

He says he then asked to talk with a supervisor who basically told him the same thing.

Derycke says he searched the EBB page and information and couldn’t find a requirement that a customer have a plan with a certain level of megabits to qualify.

Based on that phone call with Frontier, Derycke would have to switch to the dominant internet provider in western New York, Charter Spectrum, just to get the $50 monthly credit. Based on current promotions, that would likely leave Derycke paying nothing for internet service until the EBB program runs out of money, likely by the end of this year. After his Spectrum new customer promotion expires, Derycke would likely have a higher internet bill than he started with from Frontier. 

A Frontier spokesperson told News10NBC Frontier might find a solution sooner than that:

“While a limited number of customers have a grandfathered Frontier product that is not eligible for the Emergency Broadband benefit, we are committed to transitioning these customers to comparable eligible offerings so they can receive the financial benefits. Frontier is working closing with our customer to resolve the situation.”

Such limitations on the EBB program do not come from the federal government. Internet providers voluntarily participate in the EBB program, and can set whatever restrictions, terms, and conditions they would like to qualify.

WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y. reports some Frontier customers with legacy DSL internet service may find themselves locked out of the Biden Administration’s internet benefit program. (3:20)

Frontier Admits the DSL Service it Sells is Not High-Speed Broadband Service

Frontier Communications told a federal court judge last week that the DSL service it sells across much of its service area in New York State is not remotely “high-speed broadband service” and is not fit for purpose if New York’s Affordable Internet Law takes effect next week and requires Frontier to deliver at least 25/3 Mbps service to state residents.

“Simply put, Frontier New York’s DSL-based service is not a ‘high-speed broadband service’ within the meaning of the statute, and an unreasonable interpretation thereof could be read to mandate the massive efforts and expenditures that would be required to provide the high-speed service standards set forth in the [Affordable Internet] Statute,” Frontier wrote in a filing with the court.

New York’s Affordable Internet Law, now being challenged in federal court, would require internet service providers to deliver at least 25 Mbps broadband service for $15/month to low-income state residents.

Frontier fears that if that new law takes effect, it could face mandatory investments in the tens of millions to upgrade its dilapidated copper wire network across most of its service areas in New York. Frontier told the judge it cannot provide reliable service over its copper wire facilities even at 15 Mbps, and many addresses recently added to Frontier’s internet service area are only getting service at 10 Mbps.

“Any attempt to require the consistent delivery of 25 Mbps through copper loops would require different network architecture, new equipment at Frontier New York’s central offices, new equipment in the field, and alternative methods and procedures,” Frontier complained. “Any such changes would constitute a new service rather than an upgrade to Frontier New York’s existing DSL services. The extensive time, effort and  money required would require the reallocation of capital and resources that are focused on forward-looking projects rather than backward-looking technology.”

Frontier added that the state should look to other providers to deliver service that meets minimal qualifications for broadband — service it does not provide today to most of its New York customers.

“FCC data and mapping indicates that speeds equal to or exceeding 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload through technologies such as cable, fiber, fixed wireless and satellite are available across the state,” Frontier wrote.

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