New York City Sues Verizon For Fiber Optic Bait And Switch
from the a-sucker-born-every-minute dept
For years now, we've highlighted Verizon's tendency to grab all manner of tax breaks and subsidies from a town or city -- in exchange for fiber optic upgrades that are often never delivered. All up and down the eastern seaboard, Verizon was given the keys to the kingdom in franchise and other agreements filled with loopholes that let the telco, time and time again, promise one thing, then deliver another. And because the company enjoys immense lobbying power over regional regulators and state legislatures, Verizon has never really been held accountable for this behavior.
New York City has been a particular point of contention. In 2008, former mayor Mike Bloomberg and Verizon signed (behind closed doors) a new franchise agreement promising "100% coverage" of FiOS across the city by 2014. As some local reporters had warned at the time (and were promptly ignored), the city's deal with Verizon contained all manner of loopholes allowing Verizon to wiggle over, under and around its obligations. And wiggle Verizon did; a 2015 city report found huge gaps in deployment coverage -- particularly in many of the less affluent, outer city boroughs.
New York City had long promised to sue Verizon over its failures, and this week made good on that promise. A lawsuit filed by the city (pdf) says that Verizon only ultimately reached 2.2 million out of the city's 3.3 million residences with FiOS. The city is seeking a declaration that Verizon is in breach of its deployment obligations, as well as an order to complete the project as promised. The contract required that Verizon "pass" nearby apartments and buildings with fiber. But according to the city, Verizon's definition of "pass" meant "getting the fiber line somewhere close to the building, maybe":
"Verizon's current position, as stated in correspondence and meetings with the City, is that fulfilling the "premises passed" obligation does not, with respect to a given premises, necessarily involve running fiber immediately in front of or behind the premises. Rather, Verizon has asserted, it should be deemed to have'þassed" an individual building if it has run fiber to a nearby intersection and could access the building with further deployment of fiber."
This is pretty much the standard MO for Verizon, and any city surprised by it hasn't been paying attention. In addition to the flaky definition of "passed" (long a fluctuating, morphing determination in telecom for just this purpose), Verizon's agreement contained numerous provisions allowing it to buy or wiggle its way out of deployment obligations if certain television adoption metrics weren't met. All told, countless cities have signed contracts just like this one without really reading them. They then turn around in a few years feeling swindled (like Philadelphia just did).
As such, it's not entirely clear how much luck New York City will have in the courts, but Mayor Bill De Blasio's office has apparently had enough of playing deployment patty cake with the company:
"Verizon must face the consequences for breaking the trust of 8.5 million New Yorkers. Verizon promised that every household in the city would have access to its fiber-optic FiOS service by 2014. It's 2017 and we're done waiting. No corporation - no matter how large or powerful - can break a promise to New Yorkers and get away with it."
The problem is Verizon has "gotten away with it" pretty much constantly -- across a wide swath of its territory -- with zero repercussions, for the better part of a generation. In town after town, state after state, the most "punishment" Verizon tends to see is belated, toothless public hearings that serve little purpose other than to let swindled residents vent. That's because while Verizon's known for building networks, its expertise is really legacy turf protection and lobbying, and those campaign contributions go a very, very long way.
Ideally, cities could avoid all of this by actually reading contracts before they sign them (and making negotiations public and transparent, which didn't happen in New York). On a "positive" note, now that Verizon's busy gobbling up failed 90s internet brands in an apparent quest to pivot to slinging ads at Millennials -- it has largely given up on fixed-line broadband entirely, meaning that its bunk FiOS deployment promises are also taking an extended hiatus.