Verizon Hangs Up On Tens Of Thousands Of 'Unlimited' Wireless Customers For Using Too Much Data
from the invisible-barriers dept
Over the last few years, you may have noticed that Verizon is attempting a pivot from stodgy old telco to sexy new advertising juggernaut. Part of that effort has involved refusing to upgrade its lagging DSL infrastructure in countless towns and cities as it shifts its focus toward wireless and using its AOL and Yahoo acquisitions to sling videos and advertisements at Millennials. To justify its failure to upgrade its fixed-line network during this period (something it’s being sued for by cities like New York), Verizon has long proclaimed that wireless is a “good enough” replacement for fixed-line alternatives.
But the company is now inadvertently highlighting just how not-ready for prime time wireless connections truly are. Verizon has been taking heat over the last few weeks for kicking thousands of customers off of its wireless network in more rural areas. Why? The company insists these customers (at last count 8,500 customers utilizing 19,000 lines across 13 states) are being kicked off the Verizon wireless network for using a “substantial” amount of data. But Verizon is refusing to tell these users what “substantial” actually means, after marketing “unlimited” data plans to these users for much of the year:
Verizon said in June that it was only disconnecting “a small group of customers” who were “using vast amounts of data?some as much as a terabyte or more a month?outside of our network footprint.” But one customer, who contacted Ars this week about being disconnected, said her family never used more than 50GB of data across four lines despite having an “unlimited” data plan.
“Now we are left with very few choices, none of them with good service,” the customer told us. “I guess small-town America means nothing to these people. It’s OK?though I live in a small town, I know a lot of people, and I’m telling every one of them to steer clear of Verizon.”
The problems here are multi-faceted. Three years ago, Verizon Wireless launched something called its LTE in rural America program (LTEiRA). Under this program, Verizon partnered with rural carriers to help extend the reach of their networks by letting them lease access to Verizon?s 700MHz Upper C Block spectrum. Several of the companies that worked with Verizon on this program state the company hyped the program, hired companies to help extend the reach of rural networks, then began marketing unlimited data plans to customers in many of these rural areas.
But when the program wasn’t as profitable as Verizon hoped, it abruptly pulled the plug, leaving thousands in connectivity purgatory:
?It appears that Verizon induced these companies to build out in the rural areas around the country and then significantly promoted it by saying that they?re covering the rural areas, when it fact now, after putting those ads out, they?re now not covering the rural areas ? in fact, they?re cutting it back,? he says.
And without much advance notice.
?This move caught them completely by surprise and totally blindsided them as it did the customers in the region,? says Jason Sulham, speaking for Wireless Partners LLC.”
Again, Verizon isn’t bothering to inform these users what “substantial” usage even means, part and parcel of a sector that has long advertised wireless connections as “unlimited,” then saddled users with all manner of murky restrictions (part of the reason we have net neutrality rules). Some of the impacted users are telling news outlets they used as little as three gigabytes per month, so there’s every indication that Verizon Wireless isn’t being honest here as it tries to portray many of these folks as unreasonable data gluttons (which is traditionally par for the course).
In this case, Verizon’s decision to kick thousands of people off of the network is also having a dramatic impact on first responders in many of these rural areas, who say their ability to protect the public has been compromised:
“Law enforcement agencies in eastern Maine are criticizing a decision by Verizon Wireless to terminate cell service due to excessive cost. Police say the company?s decision will have an adverse effect on their work, and on the ability of residents to call 911.
Verizon officials remained tight-lipped Wednesday regarding the actual number of dropped customers, which some sources say could be as high as 2,000.”
Again, there’s nothing particularly revelatory about the fact that delivering wireless broadband to rural markets is expensive. Wireless spectrum is costly (often impossible for smaller companies), as is access to the fiber backhaul needed to feed wireless towers. But Verizon has spent the last decade insisting that freezing its deployment of FiOS fiber connections wasn’t a big deal because wireless would be “good enough” for the millions of subscribers left in a lurch. In fact, Verizon found itself repeatedly under fire after Hurricane Sandy for refusing to repair fixed line networks for just that reason.
Verizon’s decision to purge thousands of users off of the network for murky reasons comes as the FCC is looking — largely at Verizon and AT&T’s behest — to weaken the standard definition of broadband to include wireless. The goal: redefine broadband to declare an area competitive and served if wireless is present, justifying institutional apathy toward doing anything about the lack of competition in the space. Granted this effort ignores instances exactly like this one clearly demonstrating that — even with 5G on the horizon — wireless is not a magical broadband panacea for under-served areas.