BY BILL WEINBERG | Call me the last of an ancient breed.
I still have a landline, I’m still on DSL, and I refuse to use a cell phone. Fios, Verizon’s fiber-optic service, is not available in my building, and my attempt to switch to Spectrum cable service turned out to entail drilling through exterior walls — a deal-breaker in my aging East Village tenement. So this means I have no choice.
And, more to the point, I am happy this way. The audio quality on my phone is sterling. The signal doesn’t flutter in an out as cell phones do. My line never went out during the Superstorm Sandy blackout in 2012, when all my friends were cut off from the world.
But Sandy proved to be a turning point in my service. The copper cable that brings the phone signal to my receiver suffered water damage. Since then, service outages — both phone and Internet — have become increasingly frequent and lengthy.
From November 2018 through February 2019, I was completely without access, a perfectly dead line. I was forced, against my will, to get a cell phone just to be able to communicate at all. I was told, in my endless Kafkaesque interactions with Verizon, that the cable was again damaged. When I finally got through to “executive relations” (it took weeks of finagling), I was assured the problem would be fixed permanently.
After I filed complaints with the state Public Service Commission (PSC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the city Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DOITT), Verizon finally offered to give me a considerable discount off my bill for a year to make amends for my ordeal.
But the line went out again at the start of this March — initiating a solid week of my doing nothing all day but battling the Verizon bureaucracy to try to get my service restored. While I never got a straight answer from anyone in a position of responsibility, low-level technicians told me informally what I already knew — Verizon was letting the copper wires deteriorate in a bid to get everyone on wireless.
Now, I already knew this is illegal. I also knew it was an open secret.
As ExtremeTech reported back in 2016: “For the past few years, there have been persistent reports from across the country that Verizon was forcing end-users to switch away from copper networks by deliberately tearing out infrastructure, firing repair crews, forcing customers to wait months for repair, and then claiming to Congress that its fiber conversion is driven by demand. In reality, that demand is being manufactured.”
But the Fios conversion was also a false hope for many. In March 2017, nine years after Verizon promised to make Fios available to every household in New York City, the city sued the company, saying it had failed to keep that pledge. The 2008 “franchise agreement” called for Verizon to build a citywide Fios network by the end of 2014. But the city contended that Verizon had failed to make the service available to at least “tens of thousands” of New Yorkers.
That means thousands — at least — had been left without any reliable service at all. In September 2018, a public meeting was held at Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Bleecker St., at which irate landline users charged they had been left in the lurch by Verizon. On hand were state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick. But little seemed to come of it.
Finally, after this last outage, I realized I had to do more than futilely rage against the Verizon machine. I could no longer fume to myself, “I am entitled to this service under law, I pay for it every month, and I’m gong to get it, dammit!” I had to understand why I was not getting it, and how Verizon was getting away with defying the law.
So I tracked down and reached out to the resistance.
Verizon’s ‘tricky accounting’
Bruce Kushnick, a longtime telecom industry consultant, is now fighting to expose the artifice by which Verizon has been able to leave landline users high and dry — and is fighting to call a halt to it.
Kushnick accuses Verizon of “tricky accounting,” and has filed complaints with both the PSC and FCC challenging it, as well as filing federal litigation.
According to Kushnick, by 1996 Verizon (then known as NYNEX) was supposed to have 1.5 million households and businesses in its Downstate operating area — plus another half-million in the rest of its operating areas, from Maine to New York — wired for fiber-optic service. His source is the company’s 1993 annual report. By Kushnick’s calculation, this wiring has been only 40 percent completed to date.
Yet rates jumped 84 percent in New York between 2006 and 2009. Hikes were approved by the PSC, ostensibly to finance conversion to Fios, which was launched in 2005. On the books, Verizon New York lost an average $2 billion a year starting in 2009, a rate that continues even now.
What explains this contradiction? Kushnick says his research reveals that losses associated with wireless infrastructure and corporate operations (executive pay, lobbying, lawyers) “were being dumped into local service while they were raising your rates.”
“Local service should have gone down in price,” he explained. “They weren’t doing any construction or advertising, and they were cutting staff. It took us five years to figure it out, because nobody was auditing the books.”
This involved a kind of shell game between Verizon New York — the state utility — and Verizon Wireless, separate subsidiaries of Verizon Communications. (Perhaps tellingly, Verizon New York, the official utility, has no discrete Web site.) The idea was apparently a bait-and-switch on the public and state regulators — to leapfrog over Fios and go directly to wireless.
This despite the rate hikes specifically approved for Fios conversion, amounting to $3,000 extra per line between 2005 and 2017. And thousands of consumers left behind — stuck with unreliable copper-wire service, but with fiber-optic also stalled.
Kushnick and his team examined the financial statements that Verizon filed with the PSC, coupled with interviews with sources within the company’s workforce.
“What we found,” he said, “was the wireless company was taking the money that was supposed to be used for the upgrades of the network and diverting it to do the wires to the cell towers.”
Some in state government were also on to a flimflam. In a 2012 investigation, the New York State Attorney General’s Office found that 75 percent of Verizon’s construction budget was diverted. In a July 6, 2012, filing with the PSC, then-A.G. Eric Schneiderman wrote that Verizon’s claim to have made more than a billion dollars of investment in its landline network the previous year was “misleading.” Schneiderman charged: “In fact, roughly three-quarters of the money was invested in…wireless cell sites and its Fios offering.”
Schneiderman also charged Verizon with filing “misleading repair performance data” with the PSC under the Service Quality Improvement Plan (SQIP) that the commission had imposed on the company in 2010.
But meanwhile, Kushnick said, “Verizon stopped rolling out Fios in New York City.” Recalling the company’s 2008 deal with the Bloomberg administration to cover 100 percent of the city with Fios by 2014, he said: “They obviously failed to meet this deadline.”
Kushnick believes this is because “Verizon is planning on forcing customers onto more expensive wireless. All the wires they say they couldn’t fix? It was because they decided not to fix them — despite the fact that they had an obligation to fix them.”
Bamboozling the bureaucracy
Kushnick points to what he calls a “loophole” in the federal Communications Act of 1934, which established the responsibilities of licensed telephone utilities. Under Title II of the law, utilities are responsible for providing and maintaining what is called “common carrier.” This goes back to the concept of “common carriage” in English Common Law, which originally applied to transport on public roads. This service is a public trust, even if a private company is licensed to provide it. As a “carrier of last resort,” this service is a right afforded to all.
In contrast, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, drafted when the Internet was in its infancy, refers to “information services,” which are considered simply private property — held to be covered under Title I of the 1934 law, with fewer responsibilities to the public.
“They were going to take the common carriage and merge it with the Internet, which is private property, so it would all be Title I in FCC filings,” Kushnick said. Meanwhile, in Verizon’s dealing with the state PSC, it still presented phone service as Title II.
Under new FCC regs in 2005, Title I carriers do not have to be rented to competitors as Title II lines do. This meant Verizon no longer had an obligation to allow other Internet service providers (ISPs) to rent the lines. It effectively put the competing ISPs out of business and established Verizon as a de facto regional monopoly on ’Net access. Yet it was telling the state authorities — which set the rates — another story.
“Under Title I, they get rid of nearly all their obligations on the wires,” Kushnick asserted. “But under Title II they get to pass on the costs to rate payers. It’s a dysfunctional regulatory framework that is allowing them to play both sides of the fence, getting benefits but no penalties.”
Kushnick called this tactic “title shopping.”
In Kushnick’s view, the economic losses used to justify “shutting down the copper through attrition” are a bureaucratic creation — not any natural outgrowth of the market or technology.
“Verizon Wireless has a 50 percent profit margin because the utility is paying all these expenses that [Verizon Wireless] should be paying,” he said.
In a facetious reference to the public regulators that he believes are being thusly bamboozled, Kushnick called his advocacy group The Irregulators. In 2015, The Irregulators filed proceedings against Verizon with the FCC over perjury. They also filed a challenge to the FCC’s accounting rules in 2016 — in a memorandum actually drafted by Paul Hartman, former assistant chief of the FCC pricing policy division. The Irregulators argued that the PSC’s use of “corrupted” FCC accounting rules allowed the improper diversion of funds from common carrier.
These complaints were all rejected. So in 2019, The Irregulators sued the FCC in federal court, over the accounting practices.
On March 13, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit ruled that The Irregulators had no standing because the state had authority in the question, and the state is not bound by FCC rules.
Yet Kushnick considers this a paradoxical victory because it throws the responsibility back to the states. Irregulators attorney Scott McCollough called this the “briar patch” strategy — a reference to Southern folk tale in which Br’er Rabbit goads the fox into throwing him into the briar patch, where the fox himself would not follow him.
“So now we can go back to the state and tell them the feds say you have total jurisdiction,” Kushnick said. And he plans to take the fight beyond New York.
“Now we’re gonna go into various states, saying these are illegal cross-subsidies, and we want you to stop,” he explained. “We’re talking to people in California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania. We want an investigation into all the money taken from people who were told they were gonna get Fios and never got it because the money was diverted to wireless. That money should be used to get fiber optics for everyone in the state. And we want it to be an open Title II service, part of the state utility.”
He is clear on using the actual name of the technology — fiber optics.
“Not Fios, which is a private brand,” he stressed. “This would be a public service.”
This would also be a reversal of the deregulation dogma of the past generations, of course — which Kushnick sees as a total failure.
“These guys have no interest in really doing the wiring,” Kushnick charged. “All they want, basically, is to get deregulation so they can get more money from these same customers.”
With wireless Internet service, he emphasized, there are “data caps.” One Verizon Wireless plan, ironically dubbed Beyond Unlimited, actually imposes a 15 gigabyte limit — a source of customer complaints. To get more data, you have to pay more. Whereas, old-school DSL is more truly unlimited.
Kushnick also sees Superstorm Sandy as a turning point, a disaster deftly exploited by Verizon.
“Thousands in the East Village were without service for months following Sandy,” he said. “It was obvious [Verizon] wanted to cut off the copper and put everyone on wireless. I knew they weren’t going to fix the wires.”
There was some token pushback from the regulators. In 2012, PSC intervention — prompted by local outrage — succeeded in preventing the Fire Island landlines from being cut off. But that was a rare exception. Usually, Verizon got its way.
“There wasn’t enough money to get them to obey the law,” Kushnick said. “They outspent the public advocates.”
Give ’em enough rope
You don’t have to take Kushnick’s word for any of this. He has assembled impressive examples of Verizon execs themselves helpfully spilling the beans. Predictably, this is when they are speaking to investors rather than to regulators or the public.
“[C]ut the copper off,” said Lowell McAdam, then-C.E.O. of umbrella company Verizon Communications, speaking at the Guggenheim Securities Symposium on June 21, 2012.
McAdam said that in rural and marginal areas, “we have got LTE [Long-Term Evolution, the tech then used by Verizon Wireless] built that will handle all of those services, and so we are going to cut the copper off there. We are going to do it over wireless. So I am going to be really shrinking the amount of copper we have out there… .”
Francis Shammo, then-executive vice president of Verizon Communications, made clear that a key company aim in the wireless conversion is to undermine labor. Shammo stated at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference on Sept. 22, 2016, as awkwardly rendered in the official transcript:
“If you think about 5G, you put the fiber down the road… Then all of the labor and the expense of drilling up your driveway connecting the [ONT, Optical Network Terminal] to your house and all the labor involved with that, all that goes away, because now I can deliver a beam into your — into a window with a credit card size receptor on it that delivers it to a wireless router, and there’s really no labor involved… So the cost benefit of this is pretty substantial… .”
A few lonely voices in the regulatory bureaucracy are outraged at the betrayal of public trust. On June 7, 2018, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in her formal dissent from a decision to remove federal consumer safeguards on phone service, wrote:
“Imagine a grandmother living in a rural community. Her service provider wants to make big network changes because the cost of serving that remote area with traditional network technology now exceeds the revenue. That makes sense for the carrier. But for our grandmother, she just wants to know that her phone, her health monitor and her alarm system — all of which rely on her current network — continue to work… She wants to be able to navigate change… She wants information about what will involve a new service and at what cost. But today the FCC says she doesn’t need her carrier to provide her with this information… This is mean…to millions of Americans who will find that their carriers can switch out services without advance notice or consumer education, leaving them scrambling to find alternatives, reconfigure their homes and businesses in order to keep connected.”
Ever-changing corporation names
Kushnick also describes a kind of deception in the constantly changing corporation names. What is today known as Verizon New York has been a statewide utility since 1896, when it was launched as the New York Telephone Company. It was recognized as such under the 1934 Communications Act, which established the FCC.
This entity became part of the AT&T leviathan, and after its breakup in 1984 became NYNEX, which, in turn, became Bell Atlantic as the “Baby Bells” began to re-congeal in the ’90s. Following a merger with GTE, it became Verizon in 2000. Verizon Communications has spun off countless subsidiaries, and today also owns Aol.com, Yahoo and Huffington Post. Through all these changes it is oft forgotten that Verizon New York — today just one of those subsidiaries — remains a utility under state law.
“Nobody remembers that there’s a state utility,” Kushnick griped, wistfully. “You never hear it mentioned. By confusing everyone, they’re able to make a lot more money.”
What really derailed the Fios conversion plan was the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, in Kushnick’s view. Suddenly, placing cell sites around the city looked more lucrative than fiber-optic conversion. But here, a different spinoff entity would have responsibility — Verizon Wireless. And Verizon Wireless is not a part of the state utility.
An irony is that the “wireless” network still needs wires — or fiber-optic lines, to be more precise. Under the coming 5G network (the so-called “fifth generation” of wireless tech) these lines will connect to a lamppost “small cell site” that receives your signal and sends it on to other cell sites.
“They’ll be putting in fiber-optic wire right outside your house, but they won’t give you wires inside,” Kushnick said. And these wires, unlike the old copper ones, will not be protected as a public entitlement.
Kushnick also sees the anti-labor imperative at work here.
“The unions are attached to the old wires,” he said. The Communication Workers of America has a contract with Verizon, but most employees work for the state utility — not the wireless company. “With 5G, they’ll just start using contractors,” Kushnick predicted.
In fact, Verizon has been waging a vigorous campaign against efforts to unionize the wireless workforce. The CWA has taken Verizon Wireless before the National Labor Relations Board numerous times, charging unfair labor practices — and the company, in turn, has challenged these complaints in federal court.
“Our current labor laws are so dysfunctional and broken, that the company seems incentivized to violate the law,” Tim Dubnau, CWA deputy director of organizing, told me. He characterized Verizon Wireless as “viciously anti-union.”
After the 2016 strike at Verizon, managers at the wireless company were given a script with talking points to read out to workers considering unionization. As revealed in The Guardian, the script read: “We don’t believe unions are necessary at Verizon Wireless or that you or your coworkers will be well served by electing a union as your collective voice.” The script defined a union as “an organization whose income comes from taking a portion of the wages from the employees it represents.”
In terms of a long-range goal, Kushnick actually cited the breakup of Verizon.
“We should consider taking the wires from Verizon and giving them to the public, making public utilities actually publicly owned,” he declared. “If Verizon gave back all the money they took, they’d be given a dollar to transfer the assets.”
And under this vision, Internet access, as well phone service, would become a public trust. Kushnick echoed Bernie Sanders’s recent call for a national broadband utility.
5G and electromagnetic pollution
Rarely even asked is what are the potential health impacts of living immersed, 24/7, in the ubiquitous electromagnetic radiation (EMR) necessary for a wireless society?
Physicians for Safe Technology, in its page on “Wireless Technology and Public Health,” writes that a “precautionary approach is essential to reduce potential harm to the public and the environment… The increasing use of wireless devices and computers has spawned an abundance of research revealing a variety of health concerns including cancer, neurodevelopmental harm, neurodegeneration and reproductive abnormalities.”
According to PST, studies have indicated that “radiofrequency EMR” — the kind used in 5G, replacing the “microwave EMR” used in previous versions — “has broad effects on the body and negatively affects sperm, ovaries, liver, kidneys, the immune system, melatonin production, DNA, protein synthesis, the blood brain barrier, and nerve cell viability and function.”
But the 1996 Telecommunications Act bars local governments from citing health concerns to deny cell site licenses, as long as the sites comply with FCC regulations.
In his recent e-book, “Captured Agency: How the Federal Communications Commission Is Dominated by the Industries It Presumably Regulates,” Norm Alster writes: “In preempting local zoning authority — along with the public’s right to guard its own safety and health — Congress unleashed an orgy of infrastructure build-out… industry has had a free hand in installing more than 300,000 sites. Church steeples, schoolyards, school rooftops, even trees can house these facilities.”
Some politicians are also skeptical. Representative Dan Lipinski (D-IL) released a statement on Feb. 28, announcing that he had written a letter to FCC Chairperson Ajit Pai expressing dissatisfaction with the agency’s oversight on the matter: “I am disappointed by Chairman Pai’s response to my concerns about the FCC’s radiofrequency exposure safety standards. The FCC needs to be more transparent about its research and decision-making process related to 5G… I am exploring legislative remedies to ensure greater accountability and transparency.”
And in some countries, at least, localities are saying no to 5G altogether. Several municipalities in Italy have passed ordinances barring 5G installation on their turf.
The town of Keene, NH, on March 6 passed a similar measure, barring 5G installation pending further study. But in the more pro-corporate regulatory atmosphere of the U.S., the measure is likely to face legal challenge from the companies.
The Chicago Tribune on Aug. 21, 2019, reported that its testing revealed that several popular cell phones produced radiofrequency EMR levels in excess of the FCC’s Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) limits for exposure.
But radiofrequency and microwave EMR alike are forms of non-ionizing radiation, which activists charge is getting something of a pass from regulators. The FCC regulations are fundamentally aimed at keeping radiation below the ionizing level — that which actually causes heating of body tissue.
Ellen Osuna works with the group NYC 5G Wake-up Call, which held a protest against the new tech’s installation in New York City in January.
“The proliferation of wireless, at breakneck pace, rests on the completely false premise that our cells are only impacted by ionizing radiation,” she said. “This flawed assumption is convenient for industry’s profits but harmful to everyone — including workers in telecom and tech, who are saturating themselves.”
Osuna sees an insidious colonization of the urban landscape.
“Industry likes to use benign-sounding words like ‘small cells’ or ‘street furniture,’ and in some neighborhoods they’re even painted to blend into the surroundings,” she said of the 5G infrastructure. “Yet the maximum power output regulations are nowhere near protective. Exposure from these close-proximity antennas can be orders of magnitude higher than larger antennas, or macro-towers, placed higher up.”
“In marketing terms,” she said, “5G is intended to get people excited about the next cool thing. Pretend that data is limitless and should be delivered faster than immediately — without a thought to the tragic working conditions of those who mine minerals used in electronics; or the highly toxic process of manufacturing and discarding hundreds of millions of devices.”
Alas, the possible health implications of 5G are, at the moment, getting snide media coverage due to the celebrity-hyped theories about a link to the COVID-19 pandemic. Arson attacks on cell-phone towers in Britain have not helped. Osuna does not buy the crude theories being proffered — but she does fear that a proverbial baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.
“The media accounts are not looking at the more nuanced claims,” she asserted. “5G and [its forerunner] 4G could be among many factors, such as air pollution, that are attacking our immune systems and perhaps making us more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19. They are painting anyone questioning the effects of all this electromagnetic pollution as saying that COVID is ’caused’ by 5G.”
Studies have already revealed a correlation between places hit hardest by COVID-19 and those most impacted by air pollution. So theories about a similar link to electromagnetic pollution may not be that implausible.
Osuna does not dismiss a place for the new technology completely.
“There are medical applications of 5G that I don’t want to trivialize,” she said. “But that shouldn’t require the sad irony of blanketing everyone with health-eroding radiation.”
The Verizon Communications press office was contacted by both e-mail and voice message for this story. They failed to respond.