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House Democrats Blast Telecom Companies for Data Caps, Rate Hikes

House Energy & Commerce Committee

Democrats serving on the House Energy & Commerce Committee today blasted the nation’s largest internet service providers for price increases and data caps placed on consumer broadband services at the height of a global pandemic, questioning the industry’s commitment to keeping Americans connected.

“Over the last ten months, internet service became even more essential as many Americans were forced to transition to remote work and online school. Broadband networks seem to have largely withstood these massive shifts in usage,” wrote Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr (N.J.), Mike Doyle (Penn.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.). “Unfortunately, what cannot be overlooked or underestimated is the extent to which families without home internet service — particularly those with school-aged children at home — have been left out and left behind.”

Pallone

The congressmen questioned nine providers after reading media coverage of rate hikes and the implementation of data caps by Comcast and the potential for Charter Spectrum to impose data caps as early as May 2021.

“This is an egregious action at a time when households and small businesses across the country need high-speed, reliable broadband more than ever but are struggling to make ends meet,” the three Democrats wrote.

In March 2020, many cable and phone companies relaxed a number of restrictions on customers in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Many volunteered to suspend data cap overlimit fees, provide affordable broadband options to the economically disadvantaged, offer free months of service, open restricted Wi-Fi hotspots, and discontinue collection efforts or service disconnects on customers falling behind on bills.

Despite the pledge, consumers filed a significant number of complaints with the Federal Communications Commission alleging the companies broke their promises, by far most often for not following through on free service offers or continuing aggressive collections of past due bills and shutting off service.

Consumer complaints filed with the FCC regarding the “Keep America Connected” pledge, received from March-November 2020. (Source: FCC)

The Energy and Commerce Committee has now sent letters to the CEOs of many providers, seeking answers to these questions as part of ongoing oversight of the industry:

  • Did the company participate in the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge?
  • Has the company increased prices for fixed or mobile consumer internet and fixed or phone service since the start of the pandemic, or do they plan to raise prices on such plans within the next six months?
  • Prior to March 2020, did any of the company’s service plans impose a maximum data consumption threshold on its subscribers?
  • Since March 2020, has the company modified or imposed any new maximum data consumption thresholds on service plans, or do they plan to do so within the next six months?
  • Did the company stop disconnecting customers’ internet or telephone service due to their inability to pay during the pandemic?
  • Does the company offer a plan designed for low-income households, or a plan established in March or later to help students and families with connectivity during the pandemic?
  • Beyond service offerings for low-income customers, what steps is the company currently taking to assist individuals and families facing financial hardship due to circumstances related to COVID-19?

The full letters are available below:

Altice USA

AT&T

CenturyLink/Lumen

Charter Communications

Comcast Cable Communications

Cox Communications

Frontier Communications

T-Mobile US

Verizon Communications

Verizon Buying Prepaid Mobile Provider Tracfone in $6.25 Billion Deal

Phillip Dampier September 14, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Reuters, TracFone, Verizon 2 Comments

(Reuters) – Verizon Communications said on Monday it will buy pre-paid mobile phones provider Tracfone, a unit of Mexican telecoms giant America Movil in a $6.25 billion cash and stock deal.

Tracfone, which serves about 21 million subscribers through more than 90,000 retail locations across the United States, said more than 13 million of its subscribers rely on Verizon’s network under an existing agreement. Verizon is the largest U.S. wireless carrier by subscribers.

The U.S. wireless industry is concentrated in the hands of three mobile carriers due to several mergers in recent years: T-Mobile, which in April completed its $23 billion merger with Sprint to solidify its position in the United States; AT&T, and Verizon.

America Movil, which was created from a state monopoly, is Mexico’s largest telecoms operator by far and is controlled by the family of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, the Latin American nation’s richest man.

Verizon has not historically invested in prepaid compared with its rivals, such as T-Mobile, which revamped its MetroPCS prepaid brand and bought Sprint, which had a large prepaid business.

Verizon’s purchase of Tracfone comes at a time when the pandemic has ravaged the economy and Americans are cutting back on spending.

Tracfone had become popular with the lower end of the ultra-competitive U.S. telecoms consumer market and Verizon plans to provide new products for that segment after this “strategic acquisition,” said Hans Vestberg, chairman and chief executive of Verizon.

“This transaction firmly establishes Verizon, through the Tracfone brands, as the provider of choice in the value segment, which complements our clear leadership in the premium segment,” added Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and group CEO, Verizon Consumer Group.

Shares of Verizon were up more than 1% in morning trading. American Movil shares jumped more than 3.5% when the Mexican market opened.

The deal includes $3.125 billion in cash and $3.125 billion in Verizon stock.

Credit Suisse is acting as financial adviser to Verizon on the deal, which is expected to close in the second half of 2021.

Reporting by Ayanti Bera in Bengaluru and Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Sheila Dang; Editing by Vinay Dwivedi, Will Dunham and Dan Grebler

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

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

Pai

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

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

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

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

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

Frontier Urgently Trying to Restructure $17 Billion Debt as Chapter 11 Looms

Frontier Communications is preparing a detailed plan for bondholders explaining how the company hopes to cut its $17 billion in debt before it faces the possibility of bankruptcy.

The Wall Street Journal reports Frontier is ready to begin formal negotiations with those holding its debt to create a new payback plan before it faces the first of several repayment deadlines for bonds running into the billions, starting in 2022. But the strategy is risky because if any of the company’s major bondholders disagree, it could put Frontier on a fast track to Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Frontier’s debt problems are a consequence of its decision to expand its wireline footprint through acquisitions of castoff copper landline networks being sold primarily by Verizon Communications and AT&T. Critics have repeatedly called out Frontier for bungling network transitions with extended service outages, billing problems, and other customer service-related failures that left customers and some state regulators frustrated and alienated. The company is still facing regulatory review in states like Connecticut, where it failed to properly manage a customer cutover from AT&T’s systems to its own, and in Utah, West Virginia, California, and Florida where similar cutovers from Verizon Communications left more than a few customers without service and months of billing problems.

As a result, Frontier lost many of the customers it acquired, with many unwilling to consider doing business with the phone company ever again.

Although Frontier’s latest acquisitions of Verizon landline customers in California, Texas, and Florida included large Verizon FiOS fiber to the home territories, Frontier customers continue to disconnect service at a greater pace than the phone company’s chief cable competitors — Comcast and Charter Spectrum. Customer defections are even worse in large sections of Frontier’s stagnant “legacy” markets — service areas that have been managed by Frontier or its predecessor Citizens Communications for decades. That is because almost all of those legacy markets are still serviced by decades-old copper wire networks, many capable only of providing low speed DSL internet access.

Frontier’s large debt load is cited as the principal reason the company cannot embark on upgrade efforts to replace existing copper wiring with optical fiber. In fact, virtually all of Frontier’s fiber service areas have been acquired from AT&T or Verizon. Frontier executives have attempted to placate shareholders by promising to aggressively manage costs. But promises of dramatic savings have proved elusive and frequent media reports have emerged covering extensive service outages, poor network maintenance, ongoing billing and customer service issues, and inadequate staffing to address a growing number of service outages and problems. In several states, repeated 911 outages have triggered regulator investigations with the prospect of stiff fines.

Three Frontier insiders have privately shared their insights with Stop the Cap! about ongoing frustrations with the company and the most recent developments.

“Upper management has no comprehension that in many of our markets, customers have choices and they abandon us when all we can sell is DSL service at speeds often less than 12 Mbps,” one senior regional executive told us. “Our retention efforts are so poor these days, representatives are not really expected to rescue accounts because in most cases there is no legitimate reason to do business with us. In some states where there are high mandated surcharges, we cost more than our cable competitors.”

Another mid-level executive in one of Frontier’s largest legacy markets — Rochester, N.Y., said morale is low and a growing number of colleagues believe the days to bankruptcy are short.

Frontier Communications debt load.

“Our loyal customers are literally dying off, as their adult children disconnect decades-old landline accounts,” said an executive who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “The customer numbers have been ugly for a long time and are getting worse. Our recently retired customers who have had DSL and voice service with us since the 1990s are disconnecting because some have gone with Spectrum and others are moving out of the area. Some of these customers hate Spectrum and won’t do business with them no matter the price, but we are losing their business anyway when they move out of state.”

The Rochester executive noted Frontier has an impossible job trying to sell its internet and voice products against Charter Spectrum.

“Their offers are $40 a month for 100 Mbps internet and $10 for unlimited local and long-distance calls,” the executive noted. “Ours costs nearly $30 just for the phone line after taxes and fees, and how can you sell someone DSL that delivers less than 6 Mbps to many parts of a market still served by copper trunk lines to a central office several miles away? They also find out they have to lease our modem at an additional fee and there are other fees in the contract many customers have learned to look for. Answer: you can’t.”

A Frontier executive in Ohio shared a similar story.

“We hold our own in our rural markets where we can offer a customer better than dial-up internet, and our service is very good if you live in an area where we expanded broadband thanks to FCC subsidies. Some of these new areas are even served by fiber,” the executive explained. “The problem with this is fewer people live in rural areas and these places cost a lot more to maintain when we dispatch service crews or have to run new cable. For Frontier to be truly successful, we have to get better internet service into our larger older markets, but that means pulling copper off poles and putting up fiber and there is just no interest from the higher ups to spend the money to do this. So instead the company bought new territories to keep revenue numbers up, but we are also quickly losing many of those customers to cable too. I really don’t know what we will do when wireless companies offer 5G internet.”

Some Frontier bondholders recognize Frontier must reduce its debt to have the financial resources to expand fiber service. Others want the company to shed its legacy copper service areas (while keeping FiOS/U-verse enabled markets) either to regional companies willing to invest in upgrades or to hedge funds that would likely ring whatever remaining value still exists out of these abandoned service areas. Some suspect these hedge funds would also load up the spinoff companies with even greater debt to facilitate dividend payouts and other investor-friendly rewards.

It will be up to state and federal regulators to protect Frontier’s customers as the two emerging groups of conflicting bondholders angle to protect their investments, perhaps at the risk of reliable phone and internet service.

The Wall Street Journal:

One, including Elliott Management and Franklin Resources, pushed for an exchange of their bonds at a discount to their face value for new secured debt that would be paid before unsecured debt in a potential bankruptcy.

Still, bondholders including GoldenTree Asset Management have warned the company against doing such a swap since 2018, arguing it violated the terms of their bonds.

The company this week reached out to Houlihan Lokey, which represents a group of bondholders that includes GoldenTree—as well as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Oaktree Capital Management and Brigade Capital Management—to sign up to view a confidential restructuring proposal, a person familiar with the matter said. That group has yet to gather enough holders to form a majority, people familiar with the matter said.

Verizon Suspends Planned $10 Extra Charge for 5G Service

Phillip Dampier April 25, 2019 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Verizon, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Verizon Suspends Planned $10 Extra Charge for 5G Service

Verizon Communications has indefinitely suspended plans to charge customers an extra $10 a month for access to Verizon’s extremely spotty and uneven 5G service, which launched earlier this month in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Early adopters were told Verizon would waive the extra $10 fee for the first three months of service. But after receiving mixed reviews about Verizon’s 5G performance and very limited coverage area after launch, Verizon decided to withdraw the charge until further notice.

“This is some of the blowback you get from being first” in offering smartphone 5G service, John Hodulik, an analyst at UBS Group AG, told the Wall Street Journal. “It didn’t make sense to charge people extra money for a service that they’re rarely going to use.”

AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson sent signals to shareholders AT&T was also considering charging a premium rate for customers upgrading to 5G technology in the next two or three years.

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