A half-decade ago, Verizon executives decided they’d try and convert a stodgy old telecom monopoly into a sexy new advertising juggernaut. To accomplish this goal, Verizon bought both AOL and Yahoo, mashed them together into a new brand named Oath, and promised to challenge Google and Facebook’s dominance of online advertising.
But Verizon’s clumsy pivot has resulted in millions of frustrated DSL customers up and down the east coast who say Verizon’s fascination with video advertising has resulted in a systemic neglect of its core businesses.
While Verizon did initially spend $25 billion to upgrade a large swath of its network to fiber under the FiOS brand back in 2005, those deployments were frozen more than five years ago, leaving countless un-upgraded towns and cities (from Baltimore to Buffalo) left waiting for next-generation broadband. Years later, most of these areas are still waiting.
In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the company has been inundated with complaints that it’s not only refusing to upgrade millions of customers stuck on last-generation DSL, but in many instances is failing to make even rudimentary repairs to aging DSL lines.
Given Verizon’s political power on both the federal and state level, holding the company accountable for any of this has often proven difficult.
But the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has gained some traction in the fight by simply showing state regulators photos of what Verizon’s neglected infrastructure actually looks like.
Last year in Pennsylvania, the CWA was able to force Verizon to agree to upgrade a significant part of its broadband footprint by showing the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission photos of Verizon hardware in the wild:
And this week, the CWA was able to extract a similar settlement in New York after it documented how Verizon’s core business is falling into disrepair in many areas.
As part of the settlement deal, Verizon was forced to upgrade 54 central offices across the state, replace bad cable, defective equipment, and faulty back-up batteries—and to take down 64,000 double telephone poles or pole stumps, eyesores the union photos also highlighted in Pennsylvania:
The settlement is the result of a CWA campaign to pressure the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) to force Verizon to upgrade and repair its legacy broadband networks. The effort began back in 2015, when the CWA, 20 allied organizations, and 70 legislators filed a request for an investigation alongside evidence of Verizon neglect.
“For at least the past two decades—and with much greater frequency and concern since the PSC eliminated service quality penalties in 2005—I have heard repeatedly from members about the ways in which the company has virtually abandoned upkeep of the legacy system, and let it age and deteriorate,” the CWA’s Robert Master argued in testimony last year.
“I have heard a litany of complaints from every part of the state about the ways in which members are prevented by management from undertaking the kind of thorough repair and maintenance of the aging network that is necessary to ensure that customers receive consistently high quality service,” the CWA said at the time.
Nearly three years later, Verizon has been held accountable. Sort of.
In many of these states, Verizon was given billions in tax cuts and subsidies to deploy fiber optic network upgrades that were never actually delivered, meaning that rudimentary and essential repairs were the absolute least the company could do. One 1993 Verizon promise in Pennsylvania involved billions in subsidies for full fiber upgrades that never materialized.
New York City decided to sue the company last year after it failed to deliver promised fiber to the entire city. Cities like Philadelphia have raised similar concerns about unfulfilled Verizon promises. And over the last few years a coalition of New Jersey towns have banded together in protest over Verizon’s substandard service and sluggish, broken DSL.
In many of these markets, Verizon’s behavior was only noticed after the company refused to upgrade aging DSL lines in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The company tried to insist that many of these users could simply switch to wireless connections, intentionally ignoring the fact that wireless is often expensive, capped, and faces capacity issues not seen on fixed-line networks.
Verizon added insult to injury in some of these New Jersey areas by stating that customers that refuse Verizon’s specific definition of progress are scared of technological progress.
"This is a classic example of how some people fear new technology so they reactively reject it instead of accepting it, no matter how irrational that fear may be," a Verizon executive told the South Jersey Times last year. The spokesperson called concerns over neglected infrastructure "misplaced fear" resulting from "misinformation and misunderstanding about copper networks, fiber networks and the reliability of those networks."
Verizon did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
In theory, Verizon hoped to upgrade broadband in only the most profitable areas, pivot to wireless advertising, then either sell off or drive away millions of DSL subscribers it didn’t deem profitable enough to upgrade. It also hoped that nobody would much care that it took millions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies for services it never actually delivered.
But the company’s ad ambitions have left millions of neglected broadband subscribers in its wake, and a growing cable monopoly as the only real option for millions of underserved broadband subscribers. That in turn has only resulted in higher prices, more usage caps, and little to no incentive to fix what’s arguably some of the worst customer service in any industry.
And this is all occurring while these entrenched telecom duopolies literally write state laws preventing towns and cities from building their own broadband networks, even in areas it’s abundantly clear these companies have absolutely no interest in actually serving.