A recent proposal being considered by the FCC that has raised the loudest outcry has been the status of mobile broadband in rural areas. Now that Verizon is discontinuing rural subscriber accounts, the FCC will be able to see those concerns come to life.
The company has decided to cut service to scores of customers in 13 states because those subscribers have used so many roaming charges, Verizon says it isn’t profitable for the company. Service will end for affected subscribers after October 17th.
Verizon claims customers who use data while roaming via other providers’ networks create roaming costs that are higher than what the customers pay for services. In rural communities, often mobile wireless is the best (albeit poor) or only option for Internet access, so subscribers use their phones to go online.
Subscribers are from rural areas in Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin.
In a letter sent to customers scheduled to be cut off, Verizon offered no option, such as paying more for more data or switching to a higher cost plan. Many of the people affected were enrolled in unlimited data plans:
“During a recent review of customer accounts, we discovered you are using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network. While we appreciate you choosing Verizon, after October 17th, 2017, we will no longer offer service for the numbers listed above since your primary place of use is outside the Verizon service area.”
Affecting Customers And Local Carriers
Apparently, Verizon’s LTE in Rural America (LRA) program, which creates partnerships with 21 other carriers, is the culprit. The agreements it has with the other carriers through the program allows Verizon subscribers to use those networks when they use roaming data, but Verizon must pay the carriers’ fees. Verizon has confirmed that they will disconnect 8,500 rural customers who already have little options for connectivity.
Philip Dampier at Stop The Cap! writes:
Verizon has leased out LTE spectrum covering 225,000 square miles in 169 rural counties in 15 different states. The company said more than 1,000 LTE cell sites have been built and switched on through the program, covering 2.7 million people.
But Verizon does not have the capacity to throttle or deprioritize traffic on third-party networks, meaning customers enrolled in an unlimited data plan can use as much data as they want on partner networks. There is a strong likelihood Verizon has to compensate those providers at premium rates for network traffic generated by their customers.
That means customers are at the highest risk of being disconnected if they are on an unlimited data plan and use their Verizon devices in areas served by these providers — all participants in the LRA program.
Earlier this summer, the company pulled a similar stunt, claiming that they were only disconnecting a small group of customers who used “vast amounts of data” outside the Verizon service area. According to Ars Technica, however, “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.”
Wireless carriers working with Verizon intend to pursue Verizon and hold them accountable for any damages they may suffer as a result of the policy change. Some of the local carriers that are working with Verizon to bring connectivity to rural areas are left with investments they made for the LRA program. The State Public Advocate Barry Hobbins told the Bangor Daily News:
“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,”
Wireless Partners serves areas in Maine and New Hampshire and participates in Verizon’s program to provide mobile wireless service. In order to provide better coverage, the Wireless Partners built 13 new towers in Washington County and, according to company spokesman Jason Sulham, Verizon’s decision “caught them completely by surprise and totally blindsided them.” In Washington County, approximately 2,000 customers have received the Dear John letters.
Sulham points out that Verizon’s decision negatively impacts public safety and economic development in the region. He says that Wireless Partners will take steps to push Verizon to reverse course.
Are You Paying Attention, FCC?
Recently, the FCC requested comments from the public regarding the timely and reasonable deployment of broadband to all Americans. There were several proposals the agency asked the public to consider, but one of the most concerning was the possibility that the FCC may decide to equate mobile broadband with wireline connectivity.
It’s difficult and expensive to use mobile broadband as one’s primary source of connectivity and those who do it often do so as a last resort. Rural residents and businesses already have few choices because national ISPs can’t find the profitability they seek in low-density areas. If mobile broadband is considered good enough for people in rural areas, they will forever be at the mercy of service disconnections due to low profits, like subscribers in these 13 states.
Lowering the bar by redefining rural connectivity will harm those who live and work there. Rural America needs high-quality wireline connections in their homes that are fast, affordable, and reliable. Mobile broadband is a complement. Verizon and similar companies wield too much power over these rural areas. The FCC’s proposal to equate mobile broadband and wireline connectivity will only make the problem worse.
As Hobbins said:
“[I]t’s not cost effective for them, now they’re going to pull the plug — and basically pull the plug on 2,000 customers — then that becomes an issue.”
You still have time to share you thoughts on mobile broadband in rural areas with the FCC. Reply comments are due October 5th.