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Californians Complained More About Telecom Companies Than Wildfire Outages Caused by PG&E

More Californians are complaining to state officials about their cable television, internet, and phone service than the energy utilities implicated in causing deadly wildfires that left customers without power for days or weeks.

California’s Office of Senate Floor Analyses prepared a report for elected officials contemplating extending deregulation of the state’s top telecommunications companies. It found deregulation has not always benefited California consumers, noting that several companies have been fined for allowing traditional phone service to fall below required service quality standards. As service deteriorates, lawmakers have tied the hands of state officials trying to enforce what service standards still exist. The report found that the telecom industry has been especially good at covering itself through lobbying and litigation to isolate and disempower consumers seeking redress.

“Many companies, including telecommunications providers, include arbitration clauses in their contracts that limit a consumer’s ability to form a class with other consumers to seek remedies for unfair business practices related to contracts,” the report notes. “These clauses frequently limit consumers to a specified arbitration process that limits the types of remedies consumers can obtain for unfair business practices.”

Customers with unreliable phone service pursuing complaints on the federal level with the Federal Communications Commission have also been dealt a blow by the Trump Administration and its Republican majority control of the FCC.

“It is unclear what kind of remedies consumers can obtain since the FCC has adopted an order limiting its own ability to establish requirements for these services,” the report found.

Deregulation has not stopped Californians from trying to get help from the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), however. The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch recorded 1,087 complaints about the state’s phone and cable companies in January 2019, compared with 677 complaints against the state’s energy utilities and 53 lodged against water utilities.

The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch reported communications-related complaints were significantly higher than other utilities. (Image: California Office of Senate Floor Analyses)

“Despite the occurrence of wildfires in which utility infrastructure was implicated, complaints regarding energy utilities remained largely consistent between November 2018 and January 2019,” the report found. “The data indicates that the communications sector generates a greater number of complaints to the CPUC than other utility sectors on average, and a much greater percentage of those complaints are for customer issues over which the CPUC has no regulatory jurisdiction.”

Earlier this year, California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), filed for bankruptcy protection after estimating it was liable for more than $30 billion in damages from recent wildfires. An investigation found equipment owned by PG&E was responsible for starting the worst wildfire in California history. The November 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. Yet the Customer Affairs Branch received fewer complaints about PG&E than it received regarding AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Frontier, Cox, and Comcast XFINITY.

Unintended consequences of deregulation have also caused several high profile scandals among telecom companies in the state. Some of the worst offenses were committed by cable and phone companies that further traumatized victims of catastrophic wildfires. An effort to implement new consumer protections for fire victims forced to relocate met fierce resistance from cable and telephone industry lobbyists. Some of those same telecom companies continued to bill wildfire victims for months for service at addresses that no longer existed. AT&T even billed customers that died in the fires.

A recent San Francisco Superior Court decision (Gruber v. Yelp) also found another consequence of deregulation. A judge ruled The California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) does not apply to calls made or received on “digital” phone lines better known as Voice over IP (VoIP). The judge found that since the CPUC does not regulate VoIP calls, and such calls are not legally defined as a traditional phone call, CIPA cannot apply.

More than six months after devastating wildfires swept across the North Bay in 2017, AT&T was still billing customers that died in that fire. KGO-TV reports. (3:31)

After promising to never again erroneously bill wildfire victims, AT&T did it again to those traumatized by the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and wiped the town of Paradise off the map. KOVR in Sacramento reports on one family pleading with AT&T to stop billing them for landline service at an address that no longer exists. (2:15)

FCC, Wireless Industry Take Aim At C Band Satellite Spectrum for 5G

Phillip Dampier September 9, 2019 Public Policy & Gov't, Video, Wireless Broadband No Comments

A major battle between satellite owners, broadcasters, and the telecom industry has emerged over a proposal to repurpose a portion of C Band satellite spectrum for use by the wireless industry.

Multiple proposals from the wireless and cable industry to raid C Band satellite frequencies for the use of future 5G wireless networks suggest carving up a band that has been used for decades to distribute radio and television programming.

Before the advent of Dish Networks and DirecTV, homeowners placed 6-12′ large rotatable satellite dishes in backyards across rural America to access more than a dozen C Band satellites delivering radio and television programming. Although most consumers have switched to much smaller fixed satellite dishes associated with Dish or DirecTV, broadcasters and cable companies have mostly kept their C Band dishes to reliably receive programming for rebroadcast.

Now the wireless industry is hoping to poach a significant amount of frequencies in the C Band allocation of 3.7-4.2 GHz to use for 5G wireless service. Competing plans vary on exactly how much of the satellite band would be carved out. One plan proposed by Charter Communications and some independent cable companies would take 370 megahertz from the 500 megahertz now used by C Band satellites and sell it off in at least one FCC-managed auction to the wireless industry. A more modest plan by an alliance of satellite owners would give up 200 megahertz of the band, allowing wireless companies to acquire 180 megahertz of spectrum. To reduce the potential of interference, both major plans offer to set aside 20 megahertz to be used as a “guard band” to separate satellite signals from 5G wireless transmissions.

Satellite dish outside of KTVB-TV in Boise, Ida. (Image courtesy: KTVB-TV)

Much like the FCC’s repack of the UHF TV dial, which is forcing many stations to relocate to a much smaller number of available UHF TV channels, most proposals call on the FCC to subsidize dislocated satellite broadcasters and users with some of the auction proceeds to help pay the costs to switch to fiber optic terrestrial distribution instead.

Broadcasters and satellite companies claim the cable industry proposal would leave U.S. satellite users drastically short of the minimum 300 megahertz of satellite spectrum required to provide radio and television stations with network programming. Many rural broadcasters have complained that the cable industry plan calling for a shift to fiber optic distribution ignores the fact that there is no fiber service available in many areas. Other objectors claim fiber outages are much more common than disruptions to satellite signals, putting viewers at risk of a much greater chance of programming disruptions.

With spectrum valued at more than $8 billion at stake, various industry groups are organized into coalitions and alliances to either support or fight the proposals. The Trump Administration has made it known it is putting a high priority on facilitating the development of 5G services to beat the Chinese wireless industry, which is already moving forward on a major deployment of next generation wireless networks. The FCC, with a 3-2 Republican majority, has signaled it is open to reallocating spectrum to wireless carriers for the rollout of 5G service. Unfortunately, much of this spectrum is already in use, setting up battles between incumbent users threatened to be displaced and the wireless industry, which sees big profits from acquiring and deploying more spectrum.

With serious money at stake, strains are emerging among some individual members of the different industry groups. Late last week, Paris-based Eutelsat Communications quit the largest satellite owner coalition, the C-Band Alliance. The move fractured unity among the world’s satellite owners, just as the FCC seems ready to move on a reallocation plan. Eutelsat will now lobby the FCC directly, reportedly because of concerns among shareholders that splitting off significant amounts of C Band spectrum is inevitable and could drastically reduce the value of Eutelsat’s share price. Eutelsat reportedly wants to independently participate in the FCC’s proceeding, potentially securing a larger amount of compensation from the FCC for the spectrum it will give up as part of a final reallocation plan.

Whatever compensation plan emerges will run into the billions of dollars. Satellite dishes will probably require new equipment to shield signals from interference, may require re-pointing to a different satellite (which could prove problematic for some equipment originally installed in the 1980s), and may even require the launch of additional satellites to provide more capacity in the newly slimmed C Band.

The FCC is expected to decide on the reallocation proposals this fall, with a signal repack likely to take between 18-36 months before the frequencies can be cleared for use by wireless operators.

Satellite owners, mobile carriers, and cable operators discuss reallocating part of the satellite C Band for use by 5G wireless networks. Sponsored by the industry-funded Technology Policy Institute. Sept. 3, 2019 (44:10)

Southern California Getting 200 Mbps Standard Internet from Charter Spectrum

Phillip Dampier September 4, 2019 Broadband Speed, Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video No Comments

Spectrum customers in Southern California are gradually getting a free upgrade to 200 Mbps — twice the usual Standard speed, starting with new customers.

Spectrum has been running commercials in the region promoting the company’s new entry-level internet speed of 200 Mbps, along with a free cable modem and no data caps. The current new customer promotion offers $44.99/mo for internet service for 12 months, or a package of TV and internet for $89.98 a month for 12 months (which does not include equipment fees or the significant Broadcast TV Fee, which will add at least $20 more to the TV side of your bill).

Some current customers in legacy Time Warner Cable areas are successfully getting the speed upgrade by asking customer service to re-provision their cable modem. Others are finding the new speed after briefly unplugging their modem, while others are still waiting for any upgrade at all. It is clear the company is soft-launching the speed upgrade and is taking some time before publicly announcing it to all of their existing broadband customers in the area.

About 45% of Charter Spectrum’s footprint supports 200 Mbps as the entry level internet speed, mostly in AT&T landline service areas in the Midwest. Charter has not said when the rest of their service areas will get the free upgrade, but considering the company is about to raise internet prices, bringing faster speeds soon might make the price hike sting a little less.

Spectrum is running this advertisement in Southern California, promoting 200 Mbps internet service. (0:59)

India Getting 100 Mbps Fiber-to-the-Home Service for Under $10/Month

Jio founder Mukesh Ambani formally announces the launch of Jio Fiber.

Starting Thursday, the first 500,000 of over 15 million Indians pre-registered for service will begin receiving fiber to the home broadband at speeds starting at 100 Mbps, bundled with free unlimited voice calling for under $10 per month.

Jio Giga Fiber will eventually serve more than 20 million Indian homes and businesses in over 1,600 communities, charging a fraction of the prices charged by North American cable and phone companies, and expects to remain profitable by selling extra services, including unlimited global calling plans and television service, to Indian consumers. To sweeten the deal, customers that commit to a year of service will receive a 4K LED TV and set-top box for free.

Jio has already laid over 186,000 miles of optical fiber and has an existing base of 500,000 trial customers across India that have been testing the service.

Jio is India’s largest wireless provider, with over 323 million subscribers, making it the third largest mobile operator in the world. It is also one the newest, having launched wireless service in late 2015 over an expansive 4G LTE network. The company was founded by Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani, one of Asia’s wealthiest men. His vision is to make telecommunications services affordable and available to the largest number of people possible, with an emphasis on making entry-level plans usable and affordable. His presence in the Indian telecom market has caused the same marketplace disruption T-Mobile has caused in the U.S.

Jio’s chief competitor, the state-owned BSNL telephone company, is rumored to be negotiating with several of India’s independent cable and internet providers to offer a competing joint bundle of TV, landline, and broadband services over optical fiber at prices under $9.75/month.

If both companies are successful, Indians will have access to some of the cheapest internet service in the world. 

Jio Fiber is designed to provide India with fiber broadband service as good or better than what is available in the United States and Canada, for a much cheaper price. Ambani noted the average broadband speed in the U.S. is now 90 Mbps, but Jio Fiber will beat that with plans starting at 100 Mbps. He has successfully navigated around skeptical investors by putting up more than $30 billion of his firm’s own money to back the telecom venture, instead of returning that money to shareholders in the form of dividend payouts and share buybacks. He can raise even more cash by selling and leasing back Jio’s extensive network of wireless cell sites.

Ambani sees Jio’s fiber network as a foundation for marketing additional products and services. Wealthier Indians will be invited to spend up to $139 a month on gigabit internet, a deluxe TV package with over 600 TV channels, a landline with unlimited international calling, and access to popular movies on the same day titles are released in Indian theaters. Customers with premium level service will also get free subscriptions to “most” popular video streaming services available in India (excluding Netflix and Amazon Prime Video). One downside to Jio’s plan — it comes with a 100 GB monthly data cap. Those exceeding it will see their speeds reduced to 1 Mbps for the rest of the current billing period. There is no word yet about the availability of unlimited use plans at an additional cost.

Jio has been strategically planning to introduce fiber service for several years and has purchased several Indian cable companies to help manage infrastructure, installation, and a network of retail stores that will act as a sales point for Jio’s wireless and fiber services.

Jio’s Mukesh Ambani introduces India to Jio’s new fiber to the home service, which will cost under $10 a month. (6:59)

AT&T Workers on Strike in 9 Southeastern States; Expect “Week-Long” Delays for Repairs, New Installs

Phillip Dampier August 27, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, Video No Comments

More than 20,000 AT&T workers are on strike in nine southeastern states. (Image: CWA Local 3)

AT&T customers in nine southeastern states can expect long delays getting new service installed and existing service repaired as a result of a strike by AT&T workers that began last weekend.

More than 20,000 AT&T technicians and customer service personnel that belong to the Communications Workers of America walked off the job on Saturday citing unfair working conditions including reduced paid sick time, increased responsibilities for overworked technicians, a mandatory requirement that employees be ready to report to work anytime day or night, and other work and benefit changes.

CWA officials claim their last official pre-strike talks with company officials were held August 20. A decision to strike was taken after AT&T sent corporate labor relations experts to the bargaining table with no authority to make contract decisions, which the union called “disrespectful.”

“It turns out that for over three months, we have been bargaining with people who do not have the real authority to make proposals or to reach an agreement with us,” officials at CWA Local 3 complained. “AT&T has also changed to rules of the game by changing our agreement about how we meet and bargain. As a result, CWA was forced to file unfair labor practice charges against AT&T for bargaining in bad faith.”

The strike affects AT&T residential and business customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Customers started noticing the impact of the strike almost immediately.

“My son started UAB today, and my daughter is starting school tomorrow,” said AT&T customer Cynthia Young in Clay, a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., who lost service a few days ago. “Everything they do nowadays is on Google Classroom or some other platform on the internet.”

Young told WBRC-TV that an AT&T technician did not appear for a scheduled repair call, and the company is now giving her and other customers “the runaround.”

“No one called. We had a scheduled appointment. I understand things are going on but someone could have called, or, I could have gotten a text message saying, ‘due to unforeseen circumstances we could not keep your appointment. We will be in contact with you to reschedule’. You know, something that’s just good business,” complained Young.

Another Birmingham customer was told repair appointments now take more than a week, and her last appointment resulted in a no-show by AT&T technicians.

AT&T claimed it was surprised by CWA’s decision to strike, which the company says came without warning.

“We’re surprised and disappointed that union leaders would call for a strike at this point in the negotiations, particularly when we’re offering terms that would help our employees,” AT&T said in a statement. “We remain ready to sit down with union leaders to negotiate a new, improved contract for our employees. We listen, engage in substantive discussions and share proposals back and forth until we reach agreement. We are prepared for a strike and in the event of a work stoppage, we will continue working hard to serve our customers.”

The workers four-year contract with AT&T expired on Aug. 3, but both sides agreed to continue talks to find a compromise. The decision to strike came after union officials learned they were negotiating with company representatives that had no authority to negotiate. CWA said further talks were pointless until AT&T sent negotiators that can sign a new agreement.

AT&T employees in the affected region tell Stop the Cap! that service calls are being managed by some managers and supervisors until out of area contractors and employees can be brought in. Only high priority outages and urgent maintenance work is being completed. Routine service calls and new installations are being scheduled more than a week out or postponed altogether. If the strike lingers into several weeks, customers should be prepared for no-show service calls and additional delays.

WAGA in Atlanta interviews a CWA representative about what AT&T is offering vs. what they are distorting in their PR campaign. (2:18)

WXIA in Atlanta visits an AT&T picket line and explains what the strike is all about. (2:08)

WBRC in Birmingham, Ala. reports some AT&T customers are finding long delays getting service installed or repaired. (2:04)

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