After Exploiting Covid Broadband Program, Verizon Faces Unsurprising Opposition To Tracfone Merger
from the surely-they'll-behave-THIS-time dept
When last we checked in with Verizon, the company had just been caught exploiting the government’s Covid broadband relief program to upsell struggling Americans to more expensive plans. Now, as Verizon tries to gain regulatory approval for its $6.2 billion acquisition of Tracfone, consumer groups and a small cadre of Senators are wondering if a company that thinks nothing of exploiting struggling Americans in need is a good steward for a discount phone company whose client base is predominantly comprised of low-income Americans.
Five U.S. Senators recently wrote the FCC, rather timidly wondering if Verizon would use the acquisition to simply upsell these lower-income Americans to more expensive plans (spoiler: yes):
“Senators Richard Blumenthal, Sheldon Whitehouse, Dianne Feinstein, Ron Wyden and Ed Markey said in a letter “Verizon would have significant incentives and opportunities to push subscribers from Lifeline and inexpensive prepaid services to higher revenue plans.”
The amusing part here is that there’s 40 years of documented history showing how Verizon and AT&T’s overall strategy is to acquire everyone, then use that consolidation and reduced competition to relentlessly nickel and dime their subscribers. This is just a factual reality and the way publicly-traded companies are structured to take full tactical advantage of the market and weak regulatory environments to the benefit of investors. It’s not some errant opinion that this will happen again in the wake of yet another industry merger, it’s the likely outcome based on decades of history.
Yet the concern that they’d do so again here (spoiler: they will) is framed as some kind of radical theoretical or — as is the preference of the DC Beltway “he said, she said” reporting set — purely a partisan concern expressed only by Democrats. But the fact Congress could only cobble together five Democratic Senators interested in giving a shit shows you pretty clearly that apathy to this kind of mindless consolidation is very much a bipartisan sport.
1.7 million of Tracfone’s customers currently enroll in the FCC’s Lifeline program. Started under Reagan and expanded by Bush, the program doles out a measly $9.25 monthly credit that struggling Americans can use to get a discount off of their phone, wireless, or broadband bill (they have to choose one). It’s literally the very least the government can do to help poor people afford telecom services, but it’s been endlessly demonized by folks like Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai, who think even this half-assed effort is a bridge too far.
If this telecom merger follows the pattern of other U.S. telecom mergers, a bipartisan coagulation of lawmakers will trip over themselves to ignore warnings and approve the deal. They’ll then sign off on a bunch of flimsy conditions — most likely crafted by Verizon — that not only won’t really do all that much, but won’t be enforced or adhered to. Meanwhile, Verizon gets way with rather nebulous claims that this deal creates amazing synergies and benefits that you just can’t get without greater industry consolidation:
“The company said the proposed deal “will bring value and benefits to value-conscious consumers in a myriad of ways.”
Then in two to three years, when policymakers and the press have forgotten all about the deal, Verizon will exploit the consolidation to steadily raise rates. The very same policymakers who signed off on yet more consolidation in the space will then stand around with their hands on their hips and a dumb look on their face wondering how we got here. Right before signing off on yet another “growth for growth’s sake” telecom megamerger that benefits absolutely nobody outside of the Hamptons set. Rinse, wash, and repeat, with absolutely nobody learning anything from the experience.