When Customers Use Their Data

In a recent disturbing announcement ,Verizon Wireless will be disconnecting service to 8,500 rural customers this month for using too much data on their cellphones. The customers are scattered around 13 states and are a mix those with both unlimited and limited data plans.

Verizon justifies this because these customers are using data where Verizon has no direct cell towers, meaning that these customers are roaming on cellular data networks owned by somebody else. Since Verizon pays for roaming the company say that these customers are costing them more in roaming charges than what the company collects in monthly subscription fees.

Verizon may well have a good business case for discontinuing these particular data customers if they are losing money on each customer. But the act of disconnecting them opens up a lot of questions and ought to be a concern to cellular customers everywhere.

This immediately raises the question of ‘carrier of last resort’. This is a basic principle of utility regulation that says that utilities, such as traditional incumbent telephone companies, must reasonably connect to everybody within their service territory. Obviously cellular customers don’t fall under this umbrella since the industry is competitive and none of the cellular companies have assigned territories.

But the lines between cellular companies and telcos are blurring. As AT&T and Verizon take down rural copper they are offering customers a wireless alternative. But in doing so they are shifting these customers from being served by a regulated telco to a cellular company that doesn’t have any carrier of last resort obligations. And that means that once converted to cellular that Verizon or AT&T would be free to then cut these customers loose at any time and for any reason. That should scare anybody that loses their rural copper lines.

Secondly, this raises the whole issue of Title II regulation. In 2015 the FCC declared that broadband is a regulated service, and that includes cellular data. This ruling brought cable companies and wireless companies under the jurisdiction of the FCC as common carriers. And that means that customers in this situation might have grounds for fighting back against what Verizon is doing. The FCC has the jurisdiction to regulate and to intervene in these kinds of situations if they regulate the ISPs as common carriers. But the current FCC is working hard to reverse that ruling and it’s doubtful they would tackle this case even if it was brought before them.

Probably the most disturbing thing about this is that it’s scary for these folks being disconnected. Rural homes do not want to use cellular data as their only broadband connection because it’s some of the most expensive broadband in the world. But many rural homes have no choice since this is their only broadband alternative to do the things they need to do with broadband. While satellite data is available almost everywhere, the incredibly high latency on satellite data means that it can’t be used for things like maintaining a connection to a school server to do homework or to connect to a work server to work at home.

One only has to look at rural cellular networks to understand the dilemma many of these 8,500 households might face. The usable distance for a data connection from a cellular tower is only a few miles at best, much like the circles around a DSL hub. It is not hard to imagine that many of these customers actually live within range of a Verizon tower but still roam on other networks.

Cellular roaming is an interesting thing. Every time you pick up your cellphone to make a voice or data connection, your phone searches for the strongest signal available and grabs it. This means that the phones of rural customers that don’t live right next to a tower must choose between competing weaker signals. Customers in this situation might be connected to a non-Verizon tower without it being obvious to them. Most cellphones have a tiny symbol that warns when users are roaming, but since voice roaming stopped being an issue most of us ignore it. And it’s difficult or impossible on most phones to choose which tower to connect to. Many of these customers being disconnected might have always assumed they actually were using the Verizon network. But largely it’s not something that customers have much control over.

I just discussed yesterday how we are now in limbo when it comes to regulating the broadband practices of the big ISPs. This is a perfect example of that situation because it’s doubtful that the customers being disconnected have any regulatory recourse to what is happening to them. And that bodes poorly to rural broadband customers in general – just one more reason why being a rural broadband customer is scary.