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.

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Companies: verizon

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Comments on “Verizon Hangs Up On Tens Of Thousands Of 'Unlimited' Wireless Customers For Using Too Much Data”

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Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

So, let’s see… accept money to build out wired service, then refuse to build out wired service, and refuse to maintain existing wired service, on the grounds that wireless is better. Build out wireless, then punish people for using data. Then withdraw wireless service with no warning and no alternative.

Yep, this sounds like a sector that needs only a light regulatory hand. Because rigorous competition and public shame will keep them honest. They’ve done such a great job so far!

Oh, and I’m totally all for Sprint buying T-Mobile because, you know, we don’t need all those carriers competing with each other.

David says:

Clever choice of words...

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.

Why "but"? This is perfectly consistent with Verizon’s statement that some of the customers kicked off were using as much as a terabyte or more a month. Verizon did not claim that all of the customers kicked off were using that much.

So this is a form of Collective Punishment.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


Like it depends upon what the definition of is, is, apparently there is more than one definition of unlimited. I suppose it would be too much to think that unlimited would have been defined in whatever contract those users signed.

My definition would include petabytes and petabytes and petabytes plus of data, which is a lot more than a terabyte.

David says:

Re: Definition

That’s perfectly consistent with Verizon’s and indeed the legal definition of “unlimited”: you can use as much data as you can get out of their infrastructure while your contract lasts.

It’s just that the contract has provisions for either party to end it. And as long as Internet is not handled as a utility, Verizon is free to cancel the contract at any time, as long as they keep with the contractual notification periods. They don’t even need to spell out the details of their cancellation triggers in advance: they can just do a fear and doubt number to keep people significantly below any actual limit.

So it makes sense to cancel a few people for using just few gigabytes and have them go public: the resulting reduction in network usage from the remaining fearful customers should more than make up for the loss of the single customers.

Definitely more cost-effective than actually extending capacity.

Anonymous Coward says:

First responders are already being impacted

(I train them. Sometimes I am them.)

One of the sad truths is that — despite numerous promises and a ridiculous expenditure of the public’s money — a decade and a half after 9/11/2001, first responder telecommunications are still a fractured mess. If it weren’t for ham radio operators — many of whom are aging and some of whom are victims of the disasters we respond to — we’d often be lost. (One guy in Houston manned his rig for 44 straight hours while the water rose around his house. Refuse to leave, refused to sleep. That’s a damn hero.)

But it’s now SOP for everyone to bring their “official” telecom gear, whatever that is, and as much of their personal telecom gear as they can, because making communications work in Houston or Key West or San Juan takes improvisation. Lots of it. I’ve watched individuals burn through their monthly bandwidth allocation in a few days because they have service and charged batteries, so they wind up relaying data for lots of others who don’t. The job gets done, information moves around, lives get saved…but it’s getting harder every year as wire lines are turned off and wireless carriers keep imposing nebulous restrictions, concealing them, making them impossible to measure, and cutting people off with no warning. (And this is optimistically presuming that cell towers survive. Which in many cases they don’t. As I write this there is not even one working anywhere in Puerto Rico.)

Given the accelerating pace of AGW and the resulting intensification of droughts/hurricanes/floods/etc. combined with the rapid expansion of vulnerable urban areas (e.g. Houston) we’re probably not that many years away from a mass casualty event that happens not because we couldn’t save them…but because we didn’t have working communications when we needed them. Yes, I am quite literally saying that people are going to die because of this…which is really not much of a stretch given how many close calls I’ve already seen.

If only there was a federal agency responsible for seeing that the nation had a robust and pervasive telecommunications infrastructure operator transparently and for the greater public good.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: First responders are already being impacted

If you can collect supplies, somewhere else, and bury them in some other budget, probably military, that is likely to be more practical than reforming local government. The trick is to figure out how to do the job with supplies, rather than local preparation.

In the case of the Elk River chemical spill, in Charleston, WV, in January 2014, the National Guard was able to provide 300,000 people with drinking water, because it had the necessary water tanker trucks, and could bring them in from all over. The city water had become poisonous enough that not only was it undrinkable, but it was unacceptable for washing as well. It was only good enough for flushing toilets. The military could perhaps have improved its performance by distributing suitable “sanitary supples” as well, drawing on reserves as far away as German or Japan.

For communications, one might want to accumulate fully automatic WiFi relay units, prefferably air-droppable, and capable of forming a mesh network. Presumably they would belong to the Air Force under normal conditions. You understand, of course, that all this stuff would officially be for foreign wars… Alternatively you can try to get as many people as possible to install such units on their rooftops, and the reason they will participate will be to get cheap or free internet access. MIT Project Roofnet was a dress-rehearsal for this. The idea is to try to use the leverage of military procurement to drive down costs to the point that things happen “spontaneously.”

Now, as for electric power, you can design a wind generator, with a very small rotor, to be efficient in hurricane conditions. The windmill would be vertical-axis– that works better in disturbed conditions, when the wind is swirling around in all directions at once. It probably doesn’t generate any current at all, at wind speeds below 60 MPH, but it continues to function up to 200 MPH. Aerodynamic force varies as the square of the wind speed, and aerodynamic power as the cube of wind speed. You can build such devices into the wiring of houses, or you can put them in autonomous devices, such as air-droppable Wi-Fi relays.

Ken Ward Jr., “300K lack water in Southern W.Va.,” Charleston Gazette, Friday, Jan 10, 2014

Anonymous Coward says:

The correwct response to this is to stop paying Verizon for their unlimited plans, and stop giving them money.

Sadly, the way the system is set up, to do that, you’d also need 5,000 EMPs or one North Korea’s worth of nuclear material. You’d also need a ouija board, the Mystery Machine and Basil, the Great Mouse Detective to find out who not to pay.

DannyB (profile) says:

Verizon Apologizes

Verizon would like to apologize for any unintended confusion about our Unlimited* data plan.

Most customers using our Unlimited* data plan are happy** with it.

Can you hear me now?

*unlimited means you may use any amount of data up to some unstated and continuously variable upper limit.
**happy means not willing to complain.

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