We occasionally get a good reminder of how poorly the large duopoly ISPs in the country treat their customers. The latest example comes from Verizon. The Washington Post reported how Verizon has been requiring customers to upgrade to more expensive data plans before being able to benefit from the $50 monthly discount offered by the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program.
The EBB program was funded with $3.2 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. The program provides up to a $50 discount off broadband bills to qualifying households. A household qualifies by being low-income and eligible for the FCC Lifeline program or has suffered a significant drop in household income due to the pandemic.
The EBB is a temporary plan that will last until the $3.2 billion is gone, at which point participants lose the $50 discount. We won’t know how long that will be until we get a count of the participants in the program, but I’ve seen several estimates that this might last for six to nine months.
The Washington Post article cites customers who called Verizon to ask for the EBB discount and were told that they could only get the discount if they first upgrade to a more expensive package. As an example, somebody paying $60 per month will be required to upgrade to $90 per month to get the discount. This likely means that over the next year that people who get the EBB discount will probably end up spending as much or more with Verizon than if they didn’t get the EBB discount.
As the article points out, this is likely not illegal on Verizon’s part, but it goes completely against the purpose of the EBB, which is to help out households who have had hard economic times during the pandemic. Many of the subscribers asking for the discount will be the same ones who have had trouble paying rent after losing a job due to the pandemic.
There is a huge list of ways that big duopoly ISPs have mistreated customers over the years, but this particular case might be the posterchild of ISP abuse. Somebody at the company figured out a way to gain a longer-term advantage for the company as part of a pandemic relief program.
I’m also willing to bet that this will turn out to be a story of how monopoly abuses come about. It’s extremely unlikely that an idea like this started in the Verizon Boardroom. Instead, I bet that somebody down the management chain saw this as an opportunity to increase bonuses as a reward for achieving a bunch of upsells. If that sounds familiar, it is exactly what happened at Well Fargo Bank a few years ago when employees were opening extra accounts for customers as a way to make higher bonuses.
This is how monopoly abuses occur – not from the boardroom, but from employees that take advantage of the market power of the company for personal gain. That personal gain could be in the form of bonuses, or maybe just in getting recognized to gain promotions. That’s the only way to explain away some of the amazing stories that have come out over the years from Comcast customer service. The chances are high that the folks who thought up this idea are in hot water at Verizon – not because they were doing the wrong thing, but because they were dumb enough to get caught and drive a story to the front page of the Washington Post.
These periodic headlines detailing monopoly behavior are always a good reminder for smaller ISPs to be careful because employees at smaller ISPs can undertake similar behavior if they see a personal gain from cheating. Most of my clients have eliminated the temptation for shenanigans by having simple products that are always at the same prices for customers. But when an ISP is willing to negotiate rates with customers there is too much chance of bad behavior by employees.