Worried About Tracfone Merger Approval, Verizon Pretends It Didn't Exploit COVID Emergency Program
from the with-friends-like-these dept
Prodded by Congress, a few months back the FCC launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a $3.2 billion program designed to provide folks struggling economically during COVID a little extra help affording broadband. Under the program, users get a $50 discount off their broadband bill, a total that jumps to $75 for those living on tribal areas. As we’ve well covered, regional telecom monopolization and corruption results in Americans paying some of the highest prices in the world for broadband, a problem that hits low income consumers and marginalized communities the hardest.
While the program does little to fix US broadband’s bigger competition issue, it’s certainly helping folks; roughly a million folks signed up the first week. And while the majority of the 825 participating ISPs are engaging in the program in good faith, it’s not particularly surprising that some ISPs decided to try and game the system to make an additional buck. Charter, for example rejected users from signing up if they didn’t agree to pay for a more expensive broadband tier once the program ends, which appears to violate the program rules.
More problematic is Verizon, which got caught forcing users to sign up for even more expensive tiers if they wanted to apply to the program, resulting in some users being forced to pay more for broadband than if they’d never signed up for government help in the first place:
“Annie Styles from Arlington, Va., who pays $79 per month for her Internet, says Verizon told her she would have to switch to a plan that would cost her closer to $95. ?I stopped pursuing it with them after the math didn?t work out,? she says.”
Not too surprising coming from a company criticized in 2018 for capping California firefighters’ “unlimited” wireless plan during an historic wildfire, then trying to upsell them to more expensive plans as they tried to battle the blaze. Only once the press highlighted Verizon’s latest COVID relief gamesmanship did they back away from it, issuing an odd press release pretending that none of this had ever happened, and any changes to their approach were entirely of their own making. The company has also been trying to do damage control at the FCC, claiming people didn’t experience the thing they clearly experienced:
“Verizon is defending its practice of forcing customers to switch plans to get a government-funded $50-per-month discount, telling the Federal Communications Commission that this is not the same thing as “upselling.” Verizon has partially backtracked from this restrictive policy but told the FCC it will take “about a month” to deploy a billing-software update that will let more home-Internet customers get the discounts without changing plans.”
Again, not too surprising for a company that spent millions of dollars trying to neuter the FCC and net neutrality, then used a fake journalist to pretend it wasn’t actually doing that.
Verizon’s particularly sensitive because the company is currently trying to gain regulatory approval for its acquisition of Tracfone, a prepaid wireless carrier predominately used by low income Americans. Consumer groups like Public Knowledge have been warning the FCC (pdf) that a company that thinks nothing of exploiting a program designed for low income Americans might just not be the best steward of a company catering to low income consumers. But I’d wager the Biden FCC approves the deal anyway, given America’s obsession with the illusory benefits of near-mindless telecom consolidation.