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Canadian Mobile Operators Raking in Fat Coronavirus Profits With Bill Shock

Canadians are opening cell phone bills that have skyrocketed as a result of usage from work-at-home initiatives to stop the spread of COVID-19, a health crisis that is also fattening profits at some of the country’s biggest mobile operators.

Rosette Okala of Pickering, a suburb of Toronto, was stunned to receive her Rogers Mobile bill this month for $540, up from the usual $160 she is used to paying.

“I almost dropped,” Okala told CBC News. She is a pharmaceutical employee whose job requires being online. Her 12-year-old son has been online more too, doing schoolwork.

The part of Pickering where Okala lives does not have wired internet service available, so she relies on internet service from her mobile provider, like hundreds of thousands of other Canadians do. Pickering is hardly a tiny town either. With a population of 92,000, the city is immediately east of Toronto in the Durham Region. Despite that, there are sections of the city still waiting to get wired internet service.

Using the internet in areas considered to be “rural Canada” by providers is not cheap. Rogers offers customers a $145/mo wireless internet plan that includes 100 GB of usage. Customers that exceed that do so at their peril, facing overlimit fees of $5/GB.

“This is just a slap in our face,” said Okala. “We [rural customers] pay huge bills just to be able to do something basic that most people take for granted.”

Okala hoped her employer would help cover her phone bill. Rogers has been reluctant to help, despite a showy ad campaign from the cable and wireless giant promising customers “we are in this together and are here to help.” When it comes to billing matters, talk is cheap and help is hard to find.

Pickering, Ont.

Okala said she spent hours on the phone with a Rogers representative trying to negotiate a lower bill. Rogers eventually offered a paltry $30 credit and a payment plan to pay off her balance. A second attempt resulted in an improved offer of $100 credit, an upgrade to a different service plan, and 50% off monthly service fees for 24 months. But Rogers still wanted to be paid at least $440, at least until the CBC pointed out it would share Okala’s story with the rest of Canada for free. Rogers suddenly offered to take another $230 off Okala’s March bill and give her the mobile hotspot hub she was leasing for free.

John Burbidge, a University of Waterloo economics professor in North Dumfries living in a town of 10,000 near Cambridge, Ont., got schooled in the mobile broadband business by Bell Mobility, which sent him a bill for $650, including nearly $400 in usage charges. Burbidge was confused by an email from Bell, Canada’s largest phone company, which claimed it was waiving overlimit usage fees for customers during the pandemic. He missed the fine print advising that fee waiver only applied to Bell’s DSL and fiber wired customers, not wireless data plans. Burbidge argued it was unfair to exempt some customers from usage fees, while continuing to charge them to others.

“If rural Canadians are expected to work and do school work from home, decent and reasonably priced access to the internet is a basic right. Bell should not be allowed to gouge rural customers,” Burbidge told Canada’s public broadcaster.

Bell told the CBC the company was offering customers an extra 10 GB on customer data allowances and a $10 credit off the cost of using a mobile hotspot connected to Bell’s mobile network. As a courtesy, Bell agreed to credit Burbidge’s account $350 for March and take 60% off overlimit fees in April, but he is on his own after that. Burbidge’s current plan charges $180 a month for up to 100 GB a month, with a $5/GB overlimit fee.

“It’s really sad to hear,” Laura Tribe, executive director of consumer group OpenMedia told the CBC. “Data caps are definitely unnecessary. We see them as a punitive mechanism to make sure that people suppress the amount of data that they use and overpay when they go over what they want.”

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), an industry lobbying group representing the country’s wireless companies, claims data caps are necessary to prevent overwhelming Canada’s wireless networks, which could make calling 911 impossible. But voice calls can travel over different spectrum than data traffic, and no wireless company or the CWTA would admit if their networks were close to being overhwhelmed by traffic as a result of millions of Canadians working from home.

Tribe says the traffic spikes that have come from the coronavirus crisis prove her point. Even with data usage at all-time highs, no provider is claiming their network is close to capacity. That should call into question whether there is any need at all for mobile data caps.

“They’re a way to increase profits and suppress the usage of the networks,” said Tribe.

Idaho Students Harmed by Unreliable Broadband; State Senator Wants Internet to Be Public Utility

Sen. Nelson

Idaho internet access is inadequate to support tele-learning services, hurting the state’s ability to move towards online education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. David Nelson (D-Boise) told his constituents that “now, more than ever, Idahoans need reliable broadband.”

At the moment, they are not getting it.

Nelson:

“The Moscow School District is providing instruction online for middle and high school students but about 20% of students don’t have strong enough Wi-Fi or can’t afford the internet access needed for classes at home. To make online learning available to all students, Moscow School District has turned school parking lots into Wi-Fi hot spots and is providing wireless hot spots to some students. In the Potlatch School District, they have distributed 300 laptops and Chromebooks, but 20% of kids don’t have internet access. Potlatch is also creating Wi-Fi hot spots for some families.

“In mountainous Benewah County, St. Maries School District has a harder job. Cell service is spotty and line-of-sight internet connections are hard to come by. More than 70% of St. Maries students and teachers do not have access to reliable internet. The school district found they must send home weekly packets because they cannot do online instruction. St. Maries teachers work in their classrooms daily because neither they nor their students have reliable internet for online teaching. Instead, the teachers spend their time creating the paper worksheets for families to pick up.

“St. Maries students only get packets, while other schools teach online. Does that live up to Idaho’s constitutional requirement of a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools? Idaho needs more investment in broadband infrastructure, but we aren’t going to be able to fix this in the midst of a crisis. I wish we had been investing in broadband infrastructure instead of cutting taxes significantly when times were good.

“Our limited, unreliable broadband is often overtaxed. Internet that was already struggling to serve our communities is now unable to keep up with the unprecedented demand from educators, people working from home, families ordering groceries online, and nearly every other Idahoan using the web to stay connected. Even the time to clear a credit card payment at a grocery store has increased.”

Internet access in rural states like Idaho is mostly a mixture of cable internet in larger cities and towns and DSL service in suburban areas. Rural communities often have to rely on wireless internet, where available, or satellite internet access. A few communities have a co-op utility that doubles as a broadband provider, but in most cases rural Idaho only gets what CenturyLink, Frontier, and other telephone companies are willing to provide.

“Last year, the governor’s Broadband Task Force found that North Central Idaho has the least access to functional broadband in the state,” Nelson noted. “Since schools have closed due to coronavirus, North Idaho school districts are experiencing the consequences of Idaho’s lack of investment in broadband infrastructure.”

After years of trying to convince private telecom companies to do the right thing by their customers and expand internet access, Nelson points out the current COVID-19 crisis is a perfect example of why states like Idaho can no longer afford to wait.

“The coronavirus pandemic has made it more obvious than ever that reliable internet access is a public utility that all Idahoans need,” Nelson said.

Rural New York Legislators Slam Charter Spectrum’s Request to Limit Rural Broadband Funding

With an estimated 90,000 New Yorkers stranded without broadband service, a proposal from Charter Communications to block funding for future projects is coming under fire from a bipartisan group of rural legislators.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission to exclude certain census blocks for funding under the agency’s new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The cable company claims it intends to privately fund expansion of internet service in those areas, and does not welcome government-subsidized competition.

“Good cause plainly exists to grant the waiver to avoid overbuilding areas in which Charter has already begun the process of deploying service and is investing private capital well in excess of $600 million,” company officials wrote. “This will ensure scarce universal service support is deployed to close the gap/digital divide in actually unserved areas. The commission has previously granted rule waivers where, as here, the purposes of the rule would be disserved by its strict application, and where waiver would affirmatively serve the public interest.”

Many of the rural homes Charter claims it intends to serve have been waiting for internet access for well over a decade. Many were hopeful that wait would end shortly after the cable company agreed to expand service to an additional 145,000 rural New York households as part of an agreement with state regulators approving its merger with Time Warner Cable. But a March 2020 audit conducted by the Comptroller of New York found Charter was not meeting its commitments:

“[…] It has been over three years since the merger was approved. Network expansion should have already been provided to approximately 126,875 unserved or underserved premises based on the 2016 Commission Order approving the merger. As of July 2019, Charter had only extended its network to 64,827 premises. Based on the original Order, 62,048 additional customers should have received access to these services. Charter now has until September 2021 to complete the network expansion of 145,000 premises previously scheduled to be completed by May 2020.”

Barrett

Some New York legislators believe Charter is out of line asking the FCC to exclude funding for other rural broadband projects while taking its time meeting its own commitments.

“Charter’s waiver request is simply self-serving and will in no way benefit the residents of upstate New York who, even in the year 2020, are struggling to access adequate broadband by any provider,” Rep. Didi Barrett (D-Hudson) wrote in a letter to the FCC. “Charter’s petition is a blatant attempt to reduce competition and leave consumers with no choice but to wait around for Charter to finish a job that should already be complete. In Upstate New York, tens of thousands of residents and businesses are still waiting for internet service because of Charter’s years-long effort to renege on their obligations to New York State and the people who live in rural communities. We must continue to call Charter out until every household and business is served as planned under their agreement with New York State.”

Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik from Schuylerville agrees with many of Barrett’s views, blasting Spectrum for seriously delaying its rural rollout commitments. Stefanik worked with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to change the qualification requirements for the RDOF program, which originally would have excluded New York from receiving funding. If the FCC adopts Charter’s request, it would block much of her district from receiving broadband funds, either because Charter previously indicated it would (eventually) offer service or because the state previously supplied broadband subsidies, which would also seem to disqualify RDOF grants.

“I have heard directly from constituents and local elected officials that this decision would have a severe impact on their ability to gain rural broadband access, which is essential, especially during this time of crisis,” Stefanik said. “Charter’s request would exclude parts of the North Country from this critical federal funding, and I will work with my upstate colleagues and the FCC to keep it available.”

WNYT in Albany reports rural New York communities like Stillwater have waited years for Charter Spectrum to provide broadband service. The addresses Spectrum grudgingly will serve in the area are routinely quoted installation fees starting at $8,000. (2:16)

Frontier Communications Declares Bankruptcy; Documents Show Company Spent Millions to Retain Customers

Phillip Dampier April 16, 2020 Consumer News, Frontier 2 Comments

Frontier Communications filed for bankruptcy reorganization protection this week with more than $10 billion in debts and departing customers, despite retention efforts that cost the company more than $5 million a month.

The company had warned investors it was considering restructuring and failed to make a timely bond payment to cover a portion of its debts. Frontier had been in negotiations with debt holders for several months, attempting to secure a Restructuring Support Agreement that would reduce debt in return for an equity stake in the company. At least 75% of unsecured bondholders are reportedly on board with a deal that would free up money to spend on fiber optic upgrades.

Most of Frontier’s legacy customers are served by a deteriorating copper wire network designed for basic landline phone service. The company’s DSL internet service has been roundly criticized for being slow and unreliable. Instead of upgrading copper customers to fiber service, Frontier instead spent billions acquiring new territories from other phone companies, notably Verizon Communications and AT&T. The acquisitions did not deliver the financial returns the company expected, and customers canceled service after Frontier botched billing and service transitions that left some without service for weeks.

Today, Frontier has about four million customers, 3.5 million broadband subscribers and 18,300 employees operating in 29 states. The company has arranged a debtor-in-possession loan of $460 million from Goldman Sachs Bank to continue operating during the bankruptcy reorganization. It also expects to receive an additional $1.35 billion in cash later this month from the sale of its territories in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington to Northwest Fiber.

Frontier also divulged new details about its deteriorating business to the Bankruptcy Court:

  • Frontier estimates it spends approximately $1,000 for each new residential customer and $2,500 for each new commercial customer.
  • Almost all of its new customers sign up for service under a sales promotion. “On average, [Frontier] spends approximately $1.3 million per month on marketing campaigns.”
  • Customer retention efforts are crucial for Frontier, which has been losing customers at an alarming rate. Frontier uses three enticements to convince customers to stay: “Save Offers,” “Roll-Off Offers,” and “Discretionary Credits.”
  • “Save Offers” are a classic retention tool, offering enticements to customers threatening to cancel. Frontier offers free premium channels, reduced rates, and/or discounted service upgrades to convince customers not to leave. Frontier disclosed it pitches approximately 24,000 Save Offers each month, a sign many customers are prepared to cancel their accounts.
  • “Roll-Off Offers” are made to customers calling to complain about their bill after their new customer promotion ends. Frontier regularly offers complaining, bill-shocked customers a new, less generous promotion going forward. For example, an expiring new customer discount of $60/month might be replaced with a $30/month discount if the customer agrees to stay. These offers typically last six months to a year and still leave the customer eventually paying regular prices. Frontier disclosed that it loses many more complaining customers than it keeps after promotions expire. About 16,000 customers per month (or roughly one-fourth of customers complaining about an expiring promotion) are retained as customers because of a roll-off offer.
  • “Discretionary Credits” are one-time bill credits given when customers call with service complaints, reports of damage done to private property by Frontier, or missed time guarantees for service calls. Frontier admitted it is currently paying out an average of $3.9 million a month in Discretionary Credits to upset customers.

Post bankruptcy, Frontier has proposed undertaking a modest fiber upgrade program in its more profitable territories where a significant return on investment for fiber upgrades can be demonstrated. That is unlikely to include many of Frontier’s rural service areas.

Frontier’s Network is Falling Apart in West Virginia; Audit Finds Company Needs to Improve Maintenance

Frontier provides service to all but around a half dozen communities in West Virginia.

A comprehensive independent audit of Frontier Communications operations in West Virginia found the phone company is not keeping up with network maintenance, causing increased service problems for the company’s customers.

The significantly redacted 164-page report produced by Schumaker and Company found plenty of room for improvement for Frontier’s landline and broadband services.

The report was commissioned under order by the West Virginia Public Service Commission after the regulator received almost 2,000 customer complaints about Frontier’s service. The PSC’s demand for an audit also received the support of over 700 Frontier customers in the state.

Despite several redactions, the report offers clues about the quality of Frontier’s infrastructure for landline and internet services in West Virginia.

Frontier provides service for all but a half dozen localities in the state. Because of West Virginia’s mountainous topology, significant portions of the state do not receive adequate cellular service, making wired landlines still an essential safety tool in some areas. Despite that, Frontier’s relatively poor performance has driven away a significant number of its customers. Some subscribe to cable phone service, but most now depend on cell phones.

A Frontier crossbox in use in West Virginia.

The PSC allowed Frontier to offer a redacted public version of the auditor’s report after Frontier cited confidential business information and the Commission’s lack of regulatory oversight over the company’s DSL internet service. The redactions were substantial, blotting out significant information such as the age of Frontier’s network and equipment in different corners of the state, the condition of the company’s large number of utility poles, outage statistics, budgeting and investment numbers, repair programs, and basic information about the company’s employees and its broadband service offerings. The PSC staff filed its own recommendation that such redactions be rejected, noting Frontier is the unique carrier of last resort in West Virginia, with no competitor likely to attempt similar service. Staff members also claimed the telecom industry would find data specific to West Virginia not very useful elsewhere.

Despite the redactions, it is easy to deduce Frontier has a significant problem. Its copper landline network is gradually succumbing to a lack of regular maintenance, which can cause prolonged service degradation and outages. The audit specifically cites Frontier’s growing challenges dealing with a copper wire network that has been on utility poles for decades. Some wiring is likely to have been installed during the Johnson or Nixon Administration. The audit found that previous owner Verizon embarked on two significant copper line replacement programs, one in 1974 and the other in 1983 — 46 and 37 years ago, respectively. No large scale replacements have been undertaken since.

Phone companies like Frontier have been losing landline customers for years. The audit estimated that “more than half (57%) of American homes only have wireless communications. The displacement is even more pronounced when viewed through the prism of demographics. Over three quarters (76.5%) of young adults (aged 25-34) live in homes with only wireless connections.” In 2018, Frontier told the PSC 37 percent of its access lines were permanently disconnected between 2010 and 2017, bringing the number of customers down from 613,443 to 385,832. A 2017 Center for Health Statistics study found that roughly 53 percent of all West Virginia adults use wireless services exclusively, while another 10 percent use wireless services most of the time, with almost 22 percent of West Virginia adults still using landline services exclusively or most of the time. Frontier holds on to a larger percentage of customers than that with the sale of its rural DSL internet service.

Frontier heavily redacted the independent audit about its performance.

Frontier’s largest service problems result from its indefinite reliance on splicing damaged or degraded line pairs servicing individual customers. With fewer customers, the company has more choices of alternative line pairs it can use to restore service for customers affected by service interruptions. The audit found many line splices were decades old and often were responsible for eventual larger scale service outages, especially when repairs were inadequately completed exposing the entire cable to the elements. The audit also found no formal tree trimming operation was in place at the company, which meant trees inevitably overgrew into the company’s lines. In storms, trees can disrupt service by blowing into cables or even tearing wires off utility poles. The report also noted that technicians often drove around and spotted network defects and other problems likely to eventually cause service outages, but there was no formal reporting and mitigation strategy, which often left repairs delayed for months or years.

Frontier is also facing a talent flight, as network engineers that have serviced the lines since they were operated by Verizon are preparing to retire in large numbers. That could create even greater problems as inexperienced new technicians unfamiliar with the state of Frontier’s network gradually replace them.

Despite these problems, the auditors found Frontier was still earning a healthy amount of revenue in West Virginia. Oddly, that assertion was hotly disputed by Frontier itself, claiming that conclusion was “flatly wrong” and it had been losing money in the state every year since 2012.

“The auditors did not properly account for pensions, post-employment healthcare, and other benefits paid by Frontier nor for interest costs on the money Frontier borrowed to invest in West Virginia,” wrote Allison Ellis, Frontier’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs. “When those expenses are taken into account, it is clear that Frontier has invested more in the state than it has recouped.”

Auditors recommend that Frontier establish a more robust network engineering effort, aggressively repairing line issues before they become apparent to customers and improving its reporting systems to track service problems from start to finish. It also recommended increasing the amount of fiber in the network to reduce service issues and maintenance expenses and allow for better internet speeds. Finally, it recommends customers receive additional compensation for repeated service outages.

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