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Wall Street’s Latest Great Idea: Providers Should Charge More for 5G, But Only After You Are Hooked

“You’re giving it away… you are giving it all away!” — An unknown Wall Street analyst tossing and turning in the night.

America is simply not paying enough for wireless service. Thanks to dastardly competition introduced by T-Mobile and Sprint (potentially to be snuffed out in due course if their merger gets approved), wireless pricing is no longer a license to print money. Forced to offer one-size-fits-all affordable $40-50 unlimited plans, the prospects to grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) have never been worse because you can’t charge people for more service on an “unlimited plan” without admitting that plan is not exactly “unlimited.”

Wall Street analysts, already upset at the thought of carriers spending more than $100 billion on 5G network upgrades, are in a real tizzy about how companies are going to quickly recoup that investment. No matter that some wireless companies have profit margins in the 50% range and customers have paid providers for a service they were assured would keep up with the times and network demand. If there is to be a 5G revolution in the United States, some insist it must not come at the cost of reliable profits — so the industry must find a way to stick consumers with the bill.

It is not common for industry analysts to go public brainstorming higher prices and more customer gouging. After all, North Americans already pay some of the highest cell phone bills in the world, only mitigated (for now) by scrappy T-Mobile and Sprint. Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, was willing to go public in the pages of Fierce Wireless, arguing “operators should be considering charging a premium price for what will hopefully be a premium service.” That is likely music to the ears of AT&T and Verizon, both frustrated their pricing power in the market has been reduced by credible competition from a significantly improved T-Mobile.

Lowenstein fears the prospects of a “race-to-the-bottom 5G price war” which could arrive if America’s wireless companies offer a credible home internet replacement that lets consumers tell the local phone or cable company to ‘take a hike.’ Since wireless operators will bundle significant discounts for those who subscribe to both home and mobile plans, telecommunications services may actually cost less than what Wall Street was banking on.

Something must be done. Lowenstein:

In mobile, there’s been premium pricing for premium phones. And Verizon Wireless, for a few years when it had a clear network lead, was sort of able to charge a higher price for its service (but not a premium price). But today, there isn’t really premium pricing for premium services. That should change when 5G really kicks into gear.

So how do you extract more cash from consumers’ wallets? Create artificial tiers that have no relationship to the actual cost of the network, but could potentially get people to willingly pay a lot more for something they will initially get for a simple, flat price:

One simple way would be a flat premium price, similar to the “tiers” of Netflix for a higher number of devices or 4K/Ultra HD.  So, perhaps $10 per line for 5G, or $25 for a family plan. Another approach would be more akin to broadband, where there are pricing tiers for different levels of service performance. So if the base 4G LTE plan is $50 per month today, for an average 100 Mbps service, 5G packages could be sold in gradations of $10 for higher speeds (i.e. $60 for 300 Mbps, $70 for 500, $80 for 1 Gbps, and so on). An interesting angle on this is that some of the higher-end 4G LTE services such as Gigabit LTE (and beyond) could get incorporated into this, so it becomes less of a 4G vs. 5G discussion and more of a tier of service discussion.

I would also like to see some flexibility with regard to how one can purchase 5G capabilities. For example, a user might only need those premium 5G features occasionally, and might only be prepared to pay that higher price when the service is being used. Here, we can borrow from the Wi-Fi model, where operators offer a “day pack” for 5G, or for a certain city, location, or 5G-centic app or experience. 5G is going to be hot-spotty for awhile anyway, so why not use a Wi-Fi type model for pricing?

Even better, now with net neutrality in the ash heap of history, courtesy of the Republican-dominated FCC, providers can extract even more of your money by artificially messing with wireless traffic!

Lowenstein sees a brand new world of “app-centric pricing” where wireless carriers can charge even more to assure a fast lane for those entertainment, gaming, and virtual reality apps of the future, designed to take full advantage of 5G. Early tests have shown millimeter wave 5G networks can deliver extremely low latency traffic to customers from day one. That kills the market for selling premium, low-latency add-ons for demanding apps before companies can even start counting the money. So assuming providers are willing to purposely impede network performance, there just could be a market selling sub-100ms assured latency for an extra fee.

The potential of a Money Party only 5G can deliver is coming, but time is short to get the foundation laid for surprise toll lanes and “premium traffic” enhancements made possible without net neutrality. But first, the wireless industry has to get consumers hooked on 5G at a tantalizingly reasonable price. Charge too much, too soon and consumers may decide 4G LTE is good enough for them. That is why Lowenstein recommends operators not get carried away when 5G first launches.

“We don’t want to be setting ourselves up for a WiMAX-like disappointment,” Lowenstein writes. “The next 12-18 months are largely going to be ‘5G Experimentation’ mode, with limited markets, coverage, and devices. Heck, it’s likely to be two years before there’s a 5G iPhone in the United States, where iOS still commands nearly half the market.”

The disappointment will eventually be all yours, dear readers, if Lowenstein’s recommendations are adopted — when “certain milestones” trigger “rate adjustment” letters some day in the future.

Lowenstein sees four signs to start the pillaging, and we’ve paraphrased them:

  • Coverage: Wait until 30-40% of a city is covered with 5G, then jack up the price. As long as customers get something akin to 5G one-third of the time, they’ll moan about why their 5G footprint is so limited, but they will keep paying more for the scraps of coverage they get.
  • Markets: Price the service differently in each market depending on how stingy customers are likely to be at different price points. Then hike those prices to a new “nationwide” standard plan when 5G is available in the top 20-30 cities in the country. Since there may not be much competition, customers can take it or leave it.
  • Performance: AT&T and Verizon’s gotta gouge, but it’s hard to do it with a straight face if your 5G service is barely faster than 4G LTE. Lowenstein recommends waiting until speeds are reliably north of 100 Mbps, then you can let rip with those diamond-priced plans.
  • Devices: It’s hard to extract another $50-100 a month from family plan accounts if there are an inadequate number of devices that support 5G. While your kids “languish” with 4G LTE smartphones and dad enjoys his 5G experience, mom may shut it all down when the bill comes. Wait until everyone in the family can get a 5G phone before delivering some good old-fashioned bill shock, just like companies did in the golden days of uncompetitive wireless.

These ideas can only be adopted if a lack of competition assures all players nobody is going to call them out for pickpocketing customers. Ajit Pai’s FCC won’t interfere, and is even subsidizing some of the operators’ costs with taxpayer dollars and slanted deregulation to let companies construct next generation 5G networks as cheaply as possible (claiming it is important to beat China, where 5G service will cost much less). Should actual competition remain in the wireless market, all the dreams of rate-hikes-because-we-can will never come true, as long as one carrier decides they can grow their business by charging reasonable prices at their competitors’ expense.

FCC Seeks to Strip Broadband Oversight, Net Neutrality Authority from Local Governments

Phillip Dampier September 25, 2018 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 3 Comments

The Federal Communications Commission moved Tuesday to formally strip local franchise authorities from regulating cable companies’ non-video services, prevent town and city governments from enforcing their own net neutrality policies, and limit the amount of obligations cable companies owe communities in return for winning and keeping a cable television franchise agreement.

The Commission announced a notice of proposed rulemaking that most observers claim is a mere formality before the Republican majority formally adopts the proposal in what is being seen as a clear and sweeping victory for the cable television industry.

Under the FCC proposal, local franchising authorities that issue franchise agreements allowing cable television companies to provide service in a community will see their powers of oversight and regulation significantly cut, threatening existing agreements that require cable operators to wire public schools, libraries, and local government offices and offer certain other services, excluding Public, Educational, and Government access channels.

Some franchise agreements require cable operators to maintain a certain number of local cable customer service offices, support local infrastructure projects by placing fiber or service cables in shared conduits, offer services or scholarships to communities in need, and provide near-universal service availability in neighborhoods without regard to income. While communities would be allowed to continue requiring these extra benefits, the cost could be deducted from franchise fee payments made by cable operators to local governments. Currently, franchise fees are capped at a maximum of 5% of gross revenue, although cable companies and corporate-funded interest groups like FreedomWorks and Free State Foundation argue “in kind” required contributions found in some franchise agreements allow cities and towns to exceed that amount.

Cooper

The FCC also reiterated its intention to limit local franchising authorities to only regulating cable television services, disallowing them from writing rules, regulations, or requirements that govern a cable system’s non-television services, most notably telephone and broadband service. While some at the FCC suggest this ruling allows broadband and voice services to remain unregulated as intended, analysts suggest the real impact of this declaration is to lay a legal foundation to prohibit communities from imposing local net neutrality requirements on cable broadband services designed to replace the federal net neutrality rules that were vacated by the Republican majority on the Commission earlier this year.

“Congress has designated information services such as broadband for non-regulated or light-touch treatment,” said Seth Cooper, senior fellow from the conservative group Free State Foundation. “The Commission’s proposed rulemaking clarifies that local governments cannot leverage their cable franchising authority to regulate broadband services. This will help shore up important limits on local government regulation set out in the Communications Act.”

After passage, cable operators could complain to the FCC about requirements imposed by local governments or regulatory bodies requiring them to honor basic net neutrality principles. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has repeatedly voiced his view that only the federal government should be allowed to regulate the internet, and he is prepared to challenge state and local laws that attempt to create an end run around the decision to eliminate federal net neutrality protections.

“What we’re going to do is take a look on a case-by-case basis at each state law and determine the right course, but at a broad level, the internet is inherently an interstate service,” Pai told CNBC in June. “We don’t [want] every one of the 50 states and however many local jurisdictions to have a bite of the regulatory apple.”

The FCC has also asked for input on extending its authority to overrule similar franchising requirements on the state level as well, a significant expansion of the FCC’s authority that Mr. Pai himself has questioned when his predecessor, Chairman Thomas Wheeler, attempted to override state laws deterring or forbidding public/municipal broadband networks.

“In taking this step, the FCC usurps fundamental aspects of state sovereignty. And it disrupts the balance of power between the federal government and state governments that lies at the core of our constitutional system of government,” Pai complained in 2015. “What is clear, however, is that the FCC does not have the legal authority to override the decisions made by Tennessee and North Carolina. Under the law, it is up to the people of those two states and their elected representatives—not the Commission—to decide whether and to what extent to allow municipalities to operate broadband projects.”

But in Pai’s view, it is not up to those and other states to decide for themselves what type of level playing field will be provided to internet users if a sovereign state wishes to define those terms in the public interest.

FCC’s Ajit Pai talks net neutrality on CNBC in June 2018 and is skeptical of state efforts to preserve net neutrality rules, saying the internet “has to be regulated by the federal government.” (10:48)

Spectrum Continues to Yank Semi-Local TV Stations from Lineups Across the Country

Gone from Spectrum lineups across northern New England.

Many Spectrum cable television customers across the country have seen their broadcast TV lineups shrink as the company removes “duplicate” and “semi-local” stations, even as it hikes the cost of its Broadcast TV surcharge.

Southern Maine customers are the latest to be affected with the sudden removal of Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB-TV on June 5 — the last Boston area station on the television lineup.

“York (Maine) is part of the Portland TV market and we carry the designated in-market ABC affiliate — WMTW,” responded Andrew Russell, Spectrum’s director of communications for the northeast division. “We no longer carry the out-of-market ABC affiliate.”

Viewers trying to watch WCVB in southern Maine saw a screen stating “programming on this network is no longer available,” instead of local news and traffic information important for a number of southern Maine residents that commute down I-95 into the Boston area for work.

“I am fit to be tied,” York Beach resident Ken Morrison told the Bangor Daily News. “And I’m not alone. A lot of people are very upset about it.”

Subscribers in distant suburbs, exurban or rural areas between two major cities often had access (often for decades) to several stations in adjacent television markets. Each subscriber could choose the station serving the city that was most relevant in their lives. Prior to Spectrum and Time Warner Cable, cable systems in these areas were often locally owned and operated by smaller companies. These operators were responsive to the needs of their customers and distant over-the-air stations were often a part of the cable lineup from the 1970s forward. But as consolidation in cable industry continues, local lineups are now usually determined in a corporate office hundreds of miles away.

This Binghamton, N.Y. PBS station was thrown off the Spectrum lineup across several counties in the Southern Tier.

That could explain why Spectrum subscribers living in Tompkins and Cortland counties in New York suddenly lost WSKG-TV, the PBS affiliate from nearby Binghamton in favor of Syracuse-based WCNY-TV. Local residents do not consider themselves a part of Syracuse. Most consider themselves residents of the Southern Tier, which stretches along the New York-Pennsylvania border and includes Binghamton, Corning, Elmira, Hornell, Olean, Salamanca, Dunkirk, Jamestown, and Vestal. Residents will tell you they have more in common with their neighbors in northern Pennsylvania than Syracuse, but Spectrum apparently knew better and announced viewers in the two counties would now have to be satisfied watching a PBS station broadcasting to an audience at least 50 miles away.

Spectrum’s decision in this case does not appear to be a financial one.

“A public media organization like us gets no money from Charter to air our programming,” said WSKG’s management. “Our programming is provided to them for free, by law.”

WSKG believes what is actually behind Spectrum’s decision to change the lineup is the regionalization of their cable system head-ends, from which television programming is managed. Programming seen on Spectrum subscribers’ TV screens across much of the Southern Tier and part of the Finger Lakes region is now managed from Charter offices in Syracuse.

“In this case, because our tower is more than 70 miles from Syracuse’s head-end, where the signal originates, there’s a line of demarcation where they don’t have to carry our signal anymore,” said WSKG station president and chief executive, Greg Catlin. “In this case, that cut-off is Cortland and Tompkins County. They have every right to be doing what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean they have to do it.”

Subscribers were exceptionally unhappy to lose their Binghamton PBS station, and the station received a significant number of listener and viewer contributions from an area that is now cut off. The Southern Tier, like Pennsylvania to the south, is notorious for poor signals due to mountainous terrain, which limits television and FM radio reception. Verizon offers no competing television service in this part of New York, leaving residents with satellite television as the only possible alternative.

WPTZ in Plattsburgh is off Spectrum lineups in several parts of northern New York.

The first week of June was a significant date on the calendar for many residents in Spectrum’s northeastern service areas. In northern New York, Spectrum customers were notified they were losing WPTZ, the NBC affiliate in Plattsburgh, in favor of Syracuse’s NBC station WSTM-TV. That Syracuse station now produces news and current affairs programming for three Syracuse stations – WSTM itself, WTVH (CBS) and WSTQ (CW) under the “CNY Central” brand. But subscribers who lost WPTZ do not consider themselves a part of central New York and would more likely choose to visit Vermont than Syracuse.

In other parts of New England, Spectrum customers also lost WMUR-TV — the New Hampshire station with one of the best regarded news operations in northern New England, in favor of WVNY in Burlington, Vt. Newscasts on WVNY are produced by its sister station WFFF-TV. WMUR has a larger American audience than WVNY. In fact, this Vermont ABC affiliate has far more viewers in southern Québec and Montréal than it does in its own home market.

Back in Maine, the local congressional delegation is turning up the heat on Spectrum, so far to no avail. State Reps. Lydia Blume and Patricia Hymanson of York have written a letter to Spectrum demanding the company reinstate WCVB or reduce the cable television bills of affected customers to compensate. So far, Spectrum has done neither.

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Morrison told the Bangor newspaper Channel 5 “is the channel of the household. We watch it every day, multiple times a day,” he said. “Many people in the York area commute to Boston. The traffic reports on Channel 5 are essential.” WCVB was also the last Boston channel that could be accessed through Spectrum. Boston channels 4 and 7 have already been discontinued.

WMUR in Manchester, N.H. is gone for many New England Spectrum subscribers.

After contacting town officials, who hold the franchise agreement with Spectrum until it expires in 2022, Morrison learned a powerful lesson about deregulation. When a cable company lacks competition or regulation, it can do pretty much what it wants.

York town manager Steve Burns says his hands are tied, noting that Spectrum’s franchise agreement is written to automatically renew (for their convenience) unless the town wants to attempt to renegotiate.

“But negotiate how?” Burns asked. “Comcast is not going to come in and compete with Spectrum. They divvy up the territory. And there’s no one else.”

Spectrum has also made sure that Burns’ phone is among those that rings first when a customer has a complaint, noting Spectrum prints his name and number on each subscriber’s bill, listing him as the “franchise administrator” for the town.

“But it doesn’t mean anything,” Burns told the newspaper. “We have no authority. They decide the programming and the fees. I don’t think we’re important to them.”

So far, all Spectrum has been willing to do is mail out a channel request form to residents who complain, but there is scant evidence the cable company will restore the Boston station, because it has refused other similar requests from subscribers across the country.

For customers in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, they know only too well how responsive Spectrum is to channel requests. When Spectrum took over Time Warner Cable, local subscribers lost access to several stations (most recently WCVB as well), forcing some to watch local news from stations either in Albany, N.Y., or Springfield, Mass. At the same time, customers were notified Spectrum was increasing its Broadcast TV surcharge, for fewer channels.

Spectrum did not offer any significant response to U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, or Congressman Richard Neal when they contacted Charter Communications to complain. In Maine, it is the same story for Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, as well as Rep. Chellie Pingree.

Control Freak: Frontier Goes All Out to Limit Minnesota Investigation

Frontier Communications spent more time working on ways to keep Minnesota customers from turning up at upcoming public hearings to discuss their poor service than actually resolving those customers’ service troubles.

Minnesota has a big problem with Frontier. The company has been the subject of an unprecedented number of customer complaints and negative comments — 439 in just a five-week period from Feb. 12 – March 19, 2018 about poor service, repair crews that don’t show up, woefully inadequate internet service, poor billing and customer service practices, and false advertising. As a result, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) launched an investigation into Frontier’s service performance in the state (Note: most links in this article will require a free account at the Minnesota Department of Commerce to read. Register here.), which is about the same time Frontier’s top executives in the state began a campaign of damage control focused primarily on keeping internet complaints out of the public record.

The complaints, summarized below by the Minnesota PUC, are familiar to many Frontier Communications customers around the country:

Some parties allege being without telephone service for about a week’s time on multiple occasions. Such instances resulted in customers being unable to access 911 or connect medical devices dependent on land telephone lines. Missed incoming calls, noise on phone lines and other phone quality complaints are not infrequent. Nearly all comments mention that they are being charged for service product(s) not being provided as promised, often with related billing and cancellation disputes as a consequence.

Nearly all parties complain that Frontier’s customer service representatives provide inconsistent information on available service in the customer’s area and its price. Many report routinely being sold higher level (more costly) service or hardware as a remedy for service problems that remain or return after the recommended solution is in place. Customers often note being told later that the upgraded service they were sold is not available at their location.

Many complaints concern home service visits that require subsequent visits to correct or augment earlier actions, often with charges but no resulting remedy. Often customers say they experience long delays in getting repairs scheduled, must take lengthy time from work to await for service representatives to arrive only to find problems cannot be remedied. Missed service appointments, mistaken disconnections, unrequested service additions, installation and wiring errors are common complaints.

Customers frequently report discovering they are allegedly on a contract with penalties for ending service early even if they had explicitly refused to accept long term contracts. Apparently such contracts automatically renew without customer notice upon payment of the first month of the new period. Customers indicate being warned of damaging credit reports in addition to accumulating penalties if they do not pay disputed bills. Billing disputes also include promised discounts not being provided, penalties accumulating on disputed amounts, and checks being sent but not being credited to accounts.

Based on decades of experience, the PUC staff knew trouble when they saw it, and found the complaints about Frontier credible and serious.

“The total number of comments and complaints, often with detailed documentation, appears to indicate that widespread problems with service quality, customer service and billing exist,” PUC staffers wrote. “Customers express the very highest levels of frustration over service quality and over their interactions with Frontier representatives. Customers express despair over their billing and lack of alternatives. Finally, they express outright ‘gratitude for the hope that someone might come to their aid.”

Customers hoping for rescue discovered Frontier’s legal team instead, on a mission to do everything possible to limit the scope of the state’s investigation and discourage public participation by suggesting customers with internet complaints would not be welcome at the hearings.

Frontier, joined by fellow independent phone company CenturyLink, immediately realized the implications of holding public hearings about the performance of their DSL service in Minnesota. Both companies likely receive an even larger number of service complaints than regulators do, and here is just a sampling:

‘If you don’t like our service in the countryside, move to town!’

Graham Adams: “We have had Frontier for a little over 2 years and have had nothing but problems. Internet is constantly out for days sometimes weeks at a time. I think it’s preposterous they can charge me $42 a month for 5 Mbps service that is inconsistent at best. Because we live outside city limits Frontier is the only internet service available.”

Christopher Krolak:  “I have been a Frontier Communications customer for about 4.5 years. I live in an area where there isn’t a lot of competition for high speed internet. I pay $30 per month for “up to 6 Mbps” service but real world speeds are best case 2 Mbps and fall to 0.3 Mbps during peak times. When I’ve called about the large discrepancy between advertised speed and actual speed, Frontier has responded that the area I live in is only provisioned for about 2 Mbps speed and an infrastructure upgrade is required. Frontier is unwilling to give any timeline forecast for when such upgrade will be made.”

Sylvia Svihel: “We have been a customer of Frontier’s for 41 years as it has been the only land line in our area. Our phone, internet and Dish service are tied into the same package. The prices keep going up. We did upgrade our service for a faster speed but we see zero improvement on the speed…just an even higher bill. I have lost track of how many times we have contacted Frontier on lost service. They usually just say it’s the modem and to reboot it and everything will be OK. I reboot the modem, sometimes multiple times a day.”

Jay Johnson: “I have been a Frontier customer for internet for a long time. The service I pay for is “up to 6 Mbps” but I’d be lucky to get 1.2 Mbps. They have a monopoly in this part of Mille Lacs County. There are really no other options other than satellite or cellular and those are not really any better speed and certainly not price.”

Roger Wikstrom: “We have had Frontier service for 32 years. Beginning about 20 years ago we added internet service, which has always been unreliable. […]We complained many times and had dozens of service calls over the years. At one point, the technician told us we were out in the country, the brass at Frontier did not really care about our service, and that if we wanted good service from Frontier, we should move to town.”

Based on a growing record of complaints, the PUC sought to hold public hearings to gather more information from consumers and to better understand the problems being experienced by Frontier customers. Almost immediately, Frontier began to claim the complaints were few and far between, and most of the complaints seen on the record pertain to the company’s DSL internet service, which Frontier claims is not subject to oversight by the PUC and cannot be a subject on the agenda of the public hearings.

Frontier’s Lawyers: It would confuse customers and give them false hope if they believed the Commission can force Frontier to improve DSL service.

Frontier’s attorneys lecture the Minnesota Department of Commerce

Frontier’s attorneys have repeatedly objected to any investigation or hearings that cover anything beyond the performance of Frontier’s landline telephone service. Frontier was joined by CenturyLink, which also argues Minnesota no longer has any jurisdiction over broadband issues, noting a state court recently ruled telecommunications services are subject to state regulation and oversight, while “information services” like internet access are not.

Frontier was particularly irritated that the hearings could stray into an open mic session filled with consumers upset about Frontier’s DSL service. Unless customers were warned in advance the public meetings were not to include discussions about internet service, it “would create false expectations and confusion for customers.” In fact, if regulators permitted this, Frontier claims it would “violate federal law.”

“Holding public hearings directed to internet access service complaints would not be constructive because the Commission would be precluded from taking action concerning internet service rates or service quality using any information it may collect during the public hearings,” Frontier added.

Here is where the Republican-dominated FCC comes to the aid of Frontier and CenturyLink. At the insistence of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, stripping away state oversight of poorly performing telecom companies was a key industry benefit gained with the implementation of Pai’s “Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” implemented on Jan. 8, 2018. That FCC Order swept away former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s favored classification of broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which is subject to oversight, and instead put it firmly back in unregulated territory as an “information service.” That proved helpful to CenturyLink’s argument:

In making its decision the FCC broadly preempted state regulation and decided that “regulation of broadband Internet access service should be governed principally by a uniform set of federal regulations, rather than by a patchwork that includes separate state and local requirements.” The FCC expressly preempted any ‘public utility-type’ regulations, . . . akin to those found in Title II of the Act and its implementing rules . . .”

Frontier’s lawyers made so much noise about the prospect of internet complaints being heard at public hearings, the Commission elected to allow Frontier to draft the public hearing notices that would be inserted into customer bills and published in newspapers around the state. The Commission also allowed Frontier to clarify the limits of the Commission’s jurisdiction over internet service — a decision it would soon regret.

Minnesota is unusual because it is served by dozens of smaller, typically independent telephone companies, which include Frontier and its subsidiary Citizens Telecommunications of Minnesota.

Give Frontier an inch, and they take a mile, according to some company critics who told Stop the Cap! were astonished on April 30th when Frontier shared its draft notice with the public. The Minnesota attorney general’s office politely characterized Frontier’s notice as a “very narrow reading of the Commission’s jurisdiction over internet service.”

Here it is, as originally proposed by Frontier in April:

The jurisdiction of the MPUC includes telephone services, but does not include Internet services or the speed or quality of access or connections to the Internet or the communications services, such as Voice Over IP, that are provided using only the Internet.

The attorney general’s office objected to Frontier’s characterization of VoIP phone service as completely unregulated. A subsequent proposed revision by Frontier was not welcomed by the attorney general’s office either:

The jurisdiction of the MPUC includes telephone services, but does not include Internet access services or the rates, speed, quality, or availability of Internet services.

After motions to reconsider, the Commission ultimately reversed its earlier decision allowing Frontier to write its own text:

While the Commission does not want to mislead the public into believing the Commission has jurisdiction over matters that are solely within the province of federal entities, neither does the Commission want to erroneously disavow any aspect of the jurisdiction it does have over the goods and services that Frontier provides to its Minnesota customers.

Given the tension between these two objectives—and the fact that this dispute is arising in the context of drafting the language of a public notice—the Commission will resolve this matter by simply eliminating the requirement that the notice address the topic of the Commission’s jurisdiction over aspects of internet services.

Frontier DSL in Watertown: “47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook.”

While Frontier argues about jurisdiction issues, customers like Dr. Kathleen McCann — a dentist serving rural Watertown Township in Carver County, share their stories about how inadequate internet access directly harms local communities, and in her case, her patients.

Dr. McCann

“Frontier Communications is my only option for internet,” McCann told regulators. “My internet service is worse than dial-up. I am charged for ‘DSL High Speed Broadband’ on my monthly bill, but my download speeds are only averaging 2 Mbps and the upload speeds average 0.28 Mbps. As a dentist, I am not able to email dental X-rays. It took me 47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook recently.”

McCann added what is even worse than her DSL speed is Frontier’s service. She claims there are “frequent drops” every day, and a technician from Frontier measured an average of 20 small service outages a day. One day her service dropped 400 times. Outages can last days.

“The most recent Frontier internet outage began March 3 and as of March 7, there are at least 27 homes in my neighborhood still without internet service,” McCann added. “This is unacceptable, especially since many of these 27 Frontier customers are running their businesses entirely from home. Calls to Frontier, when finally answered after sometimes 40 minutes on hold, are ineffective.”

Public meetings to discuss Frontier service are scheduled in these areas of Minnesota (exact locations to be determined):

  • Ely: September 4, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • McGregor: September 5, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Wyoming: September 12, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Slayton: September 25, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Lakeville: September 26, 2018, at 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

AT&T’s Curious Decision to Abandon Data Throttling Appeal to Supreme Court

Last week, AT&T announced its intention to abandon an appeal of a decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granting the Federal Trade Commission the right to continue its lawsuit against AT&T for speed throttling its “unlimited data” wireless customers.

The notification came in a surprising four sentence notice filed with the court May 30:

At the May 10, 2018 case management conference in this matter, AT&T informed the Court that it expected at that time to request a 60-day extension from the Supreme Court of the deadline to file a petition for certiorari. See Audio Recording of May 10, 2018 Hr’g at 7:22. Since that hearing, AT&T has decided not to request such an extension and not to file a petition for certiorari to review the decision of the en banc Ninth Circuit, see 883 F.3d 848 (9th Cir. 2018). The deadline to file a petition for certiorari lapsed on May 29, 2018.

AT&T spokesman Mike Balmoris later told reporters: “We have decided not to seek review by the Supreme Court, to focus instead on negotiating a fair resolution of the case with the Federal Trade Commission.”

AT&T’s sudden change of heart surprised many observers, including some closely following the case at the 9th Circuit, which has held regular court supervised meetings to prepare for the widely expected Supreme Court challenge. AT&T notified the court in early May it would file its appeal as soon as May 29, and the court was preparing new discovery guidelines and deadlines between the two parties as the case proceeded.

AT&T had achieved a major victory in 2017 when a three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit agreed with AT&T’s argument that the FTC had no jurisdiction over the company because part of its business includes traditional telephone service, something defined in law as being regulated exclusively by the FCC. At the same time, the FCC did not seem to have jurisdiction either, because wireless data throttling took place over a network not subject to common carrier service regulations.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — San Francisco.

The Ninth Circuit then agreed to hear the case once again, this time “en banc” — meaning the full court would re-hear the case instead of a limited panel of three judges. In February, the court unanimously found the FTC did have regulatory jurisdiction over AT&T after all:

We conclude that the exemption in Section 5 of the FTC Act – “except . . . common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce” – bars the FTC from regulating “common carriers” only to the extent that they engage in common-carriage activity. By extension, this interpretation means that the FTC may regulate common carriers’ non-common-carriage activities.

[…] This statutory interpretation also accords with common sense. The FTC is the leading federal consumer protection agency and, for many decades, has been the chief federal agency on privacy policy and enforcement. Permitting the FTC to oversee unfair and deceptive non-common-carriage practices of telecommunications companies has practical ramifications. New technologies have spawned new regulatory challenges. A phone company is no longer just a phone company. The transformation of information services and the ubiquity of digital technology mean that telecommunications operators have expanded into website operation, video distribution, news and entertainment production, interactive entertainment services and devices, home security and more. Reaffirming FTC jurisdiction over activities that fall outside of common-carrier services avoids regulatory gaps and provides consistency and predictability in regulatory enforcement.

In short, AT&T’s “get out of regulatory oversight free”-card was revoked, much to its consternation. The company promised a fast appeal to the Supreme Court. The case concerned a number of observers, not the least of which was the Federal Communications Commission, which has been so concerned about AT&T’s novel argument to escape regulation, it filed a brief supporting the FTC with the court:

If the en banc Court were to adopt AT&T’s position that the FTC Act’s common-carrier exception is “status-based” rather than “activity-based,” contrary to the reasoned analysis of the district court below, the fact that AT&T provides traditional common-carrier voice telephone service could potentially immunize the company from any FTC oversight of its noncommon-carrier offerings, even when the FCC lacks authority over those offerings—creating a potentially substantial regulatory gap where neither the FTC nor the FCC has regulatory authority.

That approach is contrary to a common-sense reading of the relevant statutes and could weaken or eliminate important consumer protections. While AT&T may prefer to offer services in a regulatory no man’s land, the law does not dance to AT&T’s whims.

While AT&T publicly expressed confidence about its appeal right up to the day it abandoned it, minutes from the Ninth Circuit trial scheduling and progress conferences reveal AT&T and the FTC were already privately talking with each other to avoid further litigation:

“Parties reported that they are conducting settlement negotiations.”

All observers agree a successful appeal by AT&T to the Supreme Court could have put telecommunications laws and regulations into chaos. Had AT&T successfully restored the three-judge panel’s decision, any telecommunications company could walk away with impunity from FCC and FTC oversight by simply starting a small telephone company serving just a handful of customers. Just one product or service subject to common carrier rules could effectively immunize a phone or cable company from regulations indefinitely, or until Congress changed the law to close that loophole.

Some observers predict AT&T’s decision not to appeal is a prelude to an imminent, favorable permanent settlement of the four-year old case. The evidence strongly suggests AT&T will likely escape any significant monetary punishment, and affected consumers may not get significant (if any) compensation for AT&T’s prior acts:

  • The FCC shows no sign of following through on a 2015 press release threatening AT&T with $100 million in fines for its failure to properly disclose its speed throttling policy arbitrarily imposed on unlimited data customers who exceeded a company-defined amount of data usage. At the time the press release was issued, there were three Democrats and two Republicans serving on the Commission. Both of those Republicans opposed the fine and are now part of the Republican majority at the FCC under the Trump Administration. The FCC admitted in court papers that no further action has been taken to fine AT&T. The case was largely left in the hands of the FTC.
  • During the Obama Administration, the FTC claimed it was interested in pursuing refunds for affected customers and punishing AT&T for its throttling practices. Last week, Andrew Smith, the FTC’s new director of the Consumer Protection Bureau told an audience today’s priority it to monitor providers over traffic throttling and making sure those practices are transparently disclosed to customers. “We’re planning to examine current practices in the industry,” Smith said. “We’re looking for areas in which ISPs may be engaged in unfair or deceptive practices, and we will bring enforcement action as appropriate.”

Smith

For AT&T, the decision to drop its appeal may have come down to whether it preferred to temporarily escape regulatory oversight until an enraged Congress passed new laws to put AT&T and other telecom companies back under oversight, or living with the kind of “light-to-little touch” regulatory approach favored by the Trump Administration and its regulatory agencies. Whatever deal emerges between AT&T and the Trump Administration’s FTC will likely be “win-win” for the company and the regulator, with consumers offered only token relief.

The goals likely to be achieved in any settlement:

  • AT&T would clearly like to avoid a $100 million fine and other enforcement actions, so agreeing to ease throttling (something it has done already) and better disclose the practice would hardly create a problem for the company, especially if fines are dropped as a result.
  • The FCC’s new “net neutrality” policy depends almost entirely on effectively abdicating oversight responsibility to the FTC, something embarrassing and hard to justify if AT&T managed to permanently bar the agency from regulating the company.
  • The FTC can claim victory by telling consumers they are watching ISPs for undisclosed and unwarranted throttling, without opening up new legal challenges by outright banning of the practice, heavily fining violators, or collecting damages on behalf of customers victimized by prior bad acts.

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