The History of Verizon, Part Four (November 2000 to December 2000)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post continues my comprehensive history about the expansion of Verizon. This most recent installment takes the story through the end of 2000. Part One, which concerns itself with April to August 2000, can be found here. Part Two, which concerns itself with August 2000, can be found here. Part Three, which concerns itself with September and October 2000, can be found here.]

forsaledcLike any mushrooming company hoping to discharge its spores upon every square mile in a new field, Verizon had its lobbyists. In 1999 and 2000, Verizon, BellSouth, and SBC gave more than $7.1 million to political parties and federal campaigns, ensuring that they were among the top 25 donors. The funds were well-timed, arriving in Washington just as Congress was in the process of loosening restrictions.

AT&T perhaps had the most to lose from attempting to influence the reordering of the telecom guard. Faced with the October surprise of splitting itself up into four parts, AT&T alone had contributed $4.3 million during the 2000 election cycle. It was facing complaints from its investors.

Meanwhile, the telecommunications companies were beginning to enter more long-distance markets. Verizon, of course, knew when to steer clear of federal legislation or, more accurately, precisely when to time its actions in relation to governmental and competitive developments. Near the close of 2000, it withdrew its application for Massachusetts long-distance services. (Verizon was then under scrutiny from other telecom providers. In April 2001, it would receive federal approval in Massachusetts, where the competition would heat up.)

stockmarketdudeBy the end of October, Verizon may have been doing okay in the stock market. But its third-quarter profit was flat. The money that Verizon had spent to dominate DSL and long-distance markets with discount pricing had remained the same from the year earlier. Verizon profits in Q3 2000 were $1.99 billion, whereas Bell Atlantic profits had been $2 billion a year earlier. The m.o. involved spending and undercutting. But this seemed enough to assuage Wall Street.

Profits needed to come from somewhere. But there was also the matter of eager consumers trying to find the cheapest possible price on DSL. Local telephone service was the logical place to start jacking up prices. On November 1, 2000, while Verizon New Jersey proposed to double basic telephone rates from $8.19 a month to anywhere from $15-17 a month, regulators called a hearing. Elderly customers complained that they would be saddled with undesired expenses and undesired services. Verizon’s argument was that it cost them much more than $8.19 a month to provide basic telephone service to its customers, but Verizon spokeswoman Soraya Rodriguez did confess that there wasn’t much in the way of competition for local service

These sentiments were in sharp contrast to the Bell Atlantic days. In 1992, Bell Atlantic had brokered a deal with Trenton. They would rewire Jersey lines if the state loosened Bell Atlantic from a regulative loophole that forced it to lower rates if it made an unreasonable profit. In 1997, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities had stood its ground. The result was that Trenton had managed to get its line rewired and New Jersey customers had experienced some of the cheapest local telephone service in the country. But Anthony Wright, the program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, would organize opposition to the plan and score a victory later in the year. This was, however, not the end of Verizon’s efforts to squeeze profits out of local telephone service, as subequent 2004 efforts in the Northwest would eventually reveal. (Indeed, in early 2008, Verizon would play this card again when telephone deregulation was on the table. Regulation was retained, but, by 2011, local Verizon telephone service in New Jersey will be set at $16.54 a month. Verizon, as it turned out, could fight just as hard as New Jersey Citizen Action could.)

Verizon had, by this time, seemingly escaped from the lingering smoke wafting from the August strike. In New York State, the backlog for new lines had been eliminated by October 23, 2000. Or so Verizon claimed. In November, there were still reports of new apartments waiting for service in a 33-story tower declared “The Ultimate in Brooklyn Heights Luxury.”

Verizon continued to expand. Verizon Communications owned 40% of Venezuela’s national telephone company. And there was the $1.5 billion acquisition of Price Communications Wireless, which served the Southeast, but also faced $550 million in debt that Verizon also took on. And, as previously documented, Verizon backed out of the NorthPoint deal.


But what was particularly interesting was the amount of debt held by seven major telecommunications companies. In August 2000, Lehman Brothers analyst Ravi Suria wrote a report titled “The Other Side of Leverage,” which pointed to the weaknesses of vendor financing. Vendor financing was precisely what Verizon specialized in. It was a practice that permitted customers to buy their own equipment through unseen financial burdens managed by the company. Suria pointed out that the telecom companies had increased their share of the convertibles market from 5% in 1998 to 20% in 1999. (A convertible is a type of security that can be converted into another form of security — such as a share in a company.) Verizon had managed to pass off much of its debt through their convertibles, because there was no way to squeeze out significant profit from the networks at the time and there was no way to cover the interest payments on accumulating debt. Over the course of four years, the combined debt and convertible bonds of the seven telecoms that Suria was studying had dwarfed to $275 billion. As the New York Times‘s Gretchen Morgenson observed, this was a significant change from the $160 billion in junk bonds generated between 1983 and 1990.

And yet even Suria seemed convinced that there were promising possibilities in the telecom industry. Perhaps Verizon’s faith emerged from the possibilities of keeping customers on-board for life. After all, if you could wipe out the competition, eventually the customer would have no other choice but the Verizon network. And if you could lock a Verizon Wireless customer into a two-year contract, you could then tell your investors that convertibles were merely a “temporary” high-yield debt taken on while waiting for the almighty profits. Perhaps vendor financing represented a new method for Verizon to utilize Ricardo’s comparative advantage theory.

jamesluskThe equipment vendors buying into this infrastructure had to be somewhat concerned about this high-stakes gamble, but the possibilities of profit seemed to negate financial pragmatism. In Lisa Endlich’s Optical Illusions, Endlich reports that, in 1996, Lucent’s Controller was initially skeptical about expanding on such a significant lending risk. Jim Lusk, the Controller at the time, was an old-fashioned finance type who needed to see how the money was going to pay out and who believed that Lucent should stick to selling equipment rather than lending money, even he turned around for a contract that secured 60% of Sprint PCS’s contract. The cost? $1.8 billion, with payment of principal deferred for four years. Small wonder then when, four years later, Lucent was in bad shape, with the CEO replaced and investors demanding an overhaul. But then, by the end of 2000, the nine largest telecom equipment suppliers had a combined $25.6 billion in vendor financing loans to customers.

While such measures of financing may seem extraordinary from the perspective of 2009’s deep recession, keep in mind that such actions came shortly after the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s. But, as we shall later see, Verizon’s investments in other properties were predicated on these companies, in turn, subsisting through additional vendor financing strategies. (By August 2001, Verizon was forced to write off half of its $5.9 billion investment portfolio.)

verizonfoundationVerizon also established the Verizon Foundation, with the intent to distribute 4,000 grants of $70 million, through an all-online process. This, of course, replicated the funds and the efforts of the Bell Atlantic Foundation. (Not counting for inflation, this figure would remain more or less consistent throughout the years. In 2008, the Verizon Foundation awarded $68 million in grants, roughly 6.4% of its profits from Q1 2008. The Verizon Foundation’s financial statements can be examined here.)

There were also advertising costs. The tab at Draft Worldwide and Zenith Media was $500 million.

The now ubiquitous practice of SMS text messaging was, near the end of 2000, not widely practiced in the United States. This was a bucolic and more innocent time in which people ate dinner with each other and actually had to wait several hours before telling other friends who they were hanging out with. You might say that before 9/11 “changed everything,” SMS “changed everything.”

While businessmen in Japan and Europe texted each other during meetings, it was not until the fourth quarter of 2000 that telecom communities began rolling out two-way SMS service, and cell phone customers could send text messages to each other of no more than 160 characters. The problem, in the United States, involved conflicting and competing standards.

It is necessary to begin at the beginning and briefly (but, by no means, sufficiently) explain these developments. In the early 1980s, emerging cellular telephone systems were creating numerous incompatibilities and frustrations. Enter a group of fussy European telecommunications administrators determined to solve the problem with a compatible system called Global System for Mobile, or GSM. At the risk of skipping over some vital SMS/GSM history and leaving out a good deal of important and interesting figures, let’s just say that they sorted everything out. (I hope to expand this section in the future.)

On December 3, 1992, in the United Kingdom, the first SMS message was sent by engineer Neil Papworth through the Vodafone network (before it was merged into Verizon Wireless). It read MERRY CHRISTMAS. But it would take seven years before the phrase, “Text me,” would enter into the lingua franca.

It took some time. But upon establishing a cost of about 10 cents per message, text messaging became popular in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, where many of the GSM originators resided. In October 2000, 157 million European wireless customers were SMS-ready. 9 billion SMS messages were sent every month. The price point created a premium that seemed affordable to teenagers and doctors alike, but this was a lucrative markup that remains a source of controversy today. (Indeed, in October 2008, Verizon Wireless had plans to tack on an additional 3 cents per text message.)

chatboardThe SMS standard used in Europe was GSM, but the US used three separate standards: TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access), CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), and a GSM variation that, much like the American NTSC television standard abandoned in 2009, was incompatible with numerous global territories. A Verizon Wireless customer in 2000 could not send a text message to a AT&T Wireless customer. And this lack of global SMS compatibility, together with the then-awkward requirement of typing an email address before sending a text, didn’t exactly win customers over.

AT&T Wireless got many of its customers hooked on text messages by offering SMS for free through February 2001. (AT&T would initially charge $4.99 for 500 messages a month, a considerable bargain compared to Verizon’s text message rates today.)

One unexamined consideration is whether Verizon, which owned and maintained all the pay phones in the New York subway stations, deliberately let these pay phones fall into disrepair. After all, why not move these disgruntled pay phone customers onto cell phone plans? And why not work with the city to establish a cell phone network within the cavernous subway system? Verizon, as it turns out, was better at repairing pay phones in 2000 than the year before under Bell Atlantic. According to the Straphangers Campaign, 18% of subway station pay phones were broken in October and November of 2000 (compared to 25% in August 1999). Whether the drop came from reduced crime or reduced pay phone use, it is difficult to say. But as Farouk Abdallah of the Straphangers pointed out at the time, Verizon’s contract with the MTA called for 95% of the pay phones to be “fully operative and in service at all times.”

payphonebellPay phones, however, were on the wane. When the City of New York announced that it would construct 2,262 new public pay phones, a number of Upper East Side residents, who presumably possessed the expendable income needed to pay for a cell phone, complained about the 1,000 pay phones appearing in their neighborhood. Never mind that only half of New York residents had cell phones and 20% of residents in poorer neighborhoods didn’t even have regular phones. The pay phone kiosks would be an eyesore. Verizon, interestingly enough, did not apply to operate the new phones.

Three months before the United States would enter a nine-month recession in 2001, shares in Verizon fell $3.94 on December 20, 2000 to $51.88. Despite the 3,500 DSL lines that Verizon claimed it was installing daily, Verizon seemed more interested in promulgating financial projections for 2001 and 2002 rather than coughing up any data about the present. (Lucent, that seemingly dependable equipment vendor who had bet the farm on vendor financing, announced two days later that it would lose more than it had anticipated and that layoffs were forthcoming.)

And the customers wanted more. They wanted nationwide coverage that wasn’t lossy. Analysts suggested that the infrastructure wasn’t there and couldn’t support the dramatic uptick in customers. Could the customer understand that a cell phone was entirely different from a landline? Did they know the difference between an analog and a digital phone? Did they understand that using all those minutes in the package was a trap to get customers reliant upon cell phones? Did they consider that maybe it was the telecom companies who held all the cards in the relationship? Or perhaps increasing and often unreasonable demands were a way for the customer to feel that he had some power or confidence?

The History of Verizon, Part One (April to August 2000)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an experiment to see how blogging might be used to make sense of a rather enormous series of events. In an effort to understand why Verizon (formerly Bell Atlantic) became such a dominant force in the telecommunications industry, I am initiating the first in an open-ended series of inquiries that will be relying upon newspaper articles, public records, interviews, and any additional information I can get my hands on. My first step is to assemble a timeline with the available information. From here, I will then begin interviewing related parties to put these facts into perspective. I will be updating all of the posts as new information comes in. Please feel free to contribute any additional thoughts or leads in the comments section.]

[Subsequent installments: Part Two (August 2000). Part Three, which covers the months of September and October 2000, can be found here.]

In April 2000, Bell Atlantic was working out the details of a merger with GTE it had initiated the previous year. The deal was nearly done, awaiting FCC approval. But Bell Atlantic’s wireless communication unit needed a new name. Bell Atlantic’s wireless unit was in the process of merging with the wireless division of Vodafone AirTouch.

Bell Atlantic had been formed in 1983. It was one of seven Baby Bells that had been formed in the aftermath of an antitrust suit filed against AT&T by the Department of Justice. Seventeen years later, with the Bell Atlantic-GTE merger set to make the new entity the largest local telephone carrier in the nation, Bell brass believed that the Bell brand was too old school, too dowdy, to fit in with the then contemporary emphasis on cutting-edge technology.

“‘We believe that we need to separate ourselves on a going-forward basis from the tradition and the limited perspective that a Bell name assigns to us,” said Bell Atlantic executive Bruce S. Gordon at the time.

The new name was Verizon, a clever case of lexical blending between “veritas” and “horizon” that was to find its way in only a few short years onto millions of cell phones, the logo attached to the apices of many skyscrapers.

Bell Atlantic had been perfecting an ambitious advertising campaign over several months that hoped to convert both Bell Atlantic wireless customers and Vodafone customers over to the new Verizon brand. Bell had employed the services of the Bozell Group, part of True North Communications. Bozell was best known at the time for its milk moustache campaign, which had featured pop culture figures such as Austin Powers and Lisa Simpson smiling with a thin strip of milk just above their upper lip. (When True North purchased Bozell in 1997, the deal made True North the sixth largest advertising company in the world. Bozell had rejected an offer from Omnicom, but True North had pledged to respect Bozell’s autonomy. This purported autonomy, however, proved incompatible with economic realities. In 2001, Bozell laid off 6% of its staff and “restructured” the creative department.)

The early Verizon logo featured the “V” sign in red, an attempt to mimic the Nike swoosh symbol. Was it an accident that both Vodafone and Verizon began with a V? According to New York Times reporters Stuart Elliott and Seth Schiesel, one person close to the campaign revealed that it was not.

By June, Lucent Technologies was named the primary equipment supplier to Verizon Wireless. Its stock jumped up from 3 1/4 to 59 7/8 a share on June 15, 2000. According to a letter of intent issued by Lucent, Lucent would provide network equipment to Verizon. And this relationship would then help Verizon to expand from the wireless business to high-speed Internet services, among other telecommunications possibilities. Verizon hoped that the Internet access might be one way to encourage customers to use their phones more frequently.

Two days later, on June 17, 2000, the FCC approved the Bell Atlantic-GTE merger, with the proviso that GTE would agree to spin off its Internet backbone operations. Verizon became the nation’s largest local telephony company.

Numerous documents about the merger, including the FCC’s specified conditions, can be located here. In his statement issued after FCC approval, FCC Chairman William E. Kennard noted, “By requiring that the Internet backbone asset be spun-off and through the other merger conditions, we have preserved the fundamental incentive structure of the Act, sought to stimulate competition, and to promote more and better service offerings for consumers. For these reasons, I support this merger.” In light of recent Verizon developments that have called these “more and better service offerings” into question and Verizon’s current presence on the Internet (to say nothing about the way in which Verizon skirted around the GTE condition, described below), and notwithstanding Kennard’s competitive position as a member of the Board of Directors at Sprint Nextel, one wonders whether Kennard would still support this merger. I hope to contact Kennard and see if he might offer an answer.

However, it’s worth observing that Kennard joined the Carlyle Group as a managing director shortly after resigning from the FCC in February 2001. Carlyle purchased Verizon Hawaii for $1.65 billion. On May 22, 2004, Kennard was quoted by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin about this deal: “A big part of our plan is to return Verizon Hawaii to its roots as a local phone company, empowering local management. It’s sort of a version of ‘Back to the Future,’ if you will.” Whether this flippant comparison to a Hollywood blockbuster movie was intended to insult the journalist who posed the question is unknown. But the purchase did earn the endorsement of Verizon’s union, even if competitors and Hawaiian locals expressed dismay with the Carlyle Group’s inexperience and connections with high-level political contacts. By 2007, however, Hawaiian Telecom (the new name of the company) had experienced serious problems when BearingPoint, Inc. — the consulting firm hoping to overhaul Verizon’s systems — couldn’t make it work and was ousted in favor of Accenture, Ltd. — best known for its role in Enron. If this was a case of Back to the Future, perhaps Kennard was more accurate than he realized. Relying on outside consulting firms seemed decidedly against Kennard’s promise to “empower local management.” And indeed, earlier this year, Hawaiian Telecom’s CEO was ousted in favor of interim CEO Stephen Cooper (Kenneth Lay’s replacement), more than 100 positions were axed, and Hawaiian Telecom was still pursuing a decidedly nonlocal restructuring plan to recover from its problems.

Whatever Kennard’s current feelings are for Verizon, one thing is beyond dispute. The FCC’s approval of the Bell Atlantic-GTE merger made Verizon the 2nd largest telecom company (after AT&T), permitted it to become the nation’s largest wireless operation, and made it a local telephone juggernaut. Verizon now had 63 million landlines across the country. In its first day of trading, Verizon’s stock rose $4.625 to $55 a share.

On July 4, 2000, the New York Times reported that Verizon was trying to sell off its GTE cable systems in Florida, California, and Hawaii. And to get new customers hooked, Verizon cut the prices of DSL by 20% in some parts of the United States. So while the GTE cable backbone was, per the FCC condition, technically being cut off, Verizon managed to augment its Internet services through the phone lines. Verizon, in other words, was merely swapping one type of broadband services for another. (And, indeed, that same month, the New York Times‘s Seth Schiesel would report that Verizon hoped retake ownership of Genuity, the cable network in question, in a few years.)

But it wasn’t enough for Verizon to use its legerdemain to flaunt the deal of the Bell Atlantic-GTE deal. Verizon’s legal team also felt compelled to rail against the FCC. On August 21, 2000, William Barr, the top attorney for Verizon and a man who had served as the 77th Attorney General under President George H.W. Bush, fulminated against the FCC at the Progress & Freedom Foundation’s Aspen Summit 2000 conference. In a panel titled “Perspectives on the Future of Telecom Regulation,” Barr took issue with the language of the 1996 Telecommunications Act: specifically, the manner in which the Bells were instructed to charge competitors at affordable prices in order to use their networks and discourage monopolization.

“Rather than letting the market drive competition,” said Barr, “[the] FCC has issued a host of rules to try to manage that competition and, in doing so, they have preserved a siloed approach.” This “siloed approach” also extended to the FCC’s organization itself, which was divided into separate divisions devoted to wirelsss, broadband, and telecommunications. “This comes at direct expense of intermodal communications, and it is disfiguring the telecom landscape as it evolves into the Internet landscape.”

(Eighteen months later, Barr would get his wish. At the beginning of 2002, the FCC began a campaign to reorganize its bureau. A Wireline Competition Bureau was established, containing the vestiges of the Common Carrier Bureau. In March, additional structural changes were made. The impact of these internal structural changes at the FCC, as they pertain to Verizon and the telecommunications industry, will be revisited in a future installment.)

Meanwhile, with AT&T facing both the burgeoning success of Verizon, as well as SBC Communications’s entry into the long-distance business in Texas, AT&T chairman C. Michael Armstrong was starting to get nervous. The man who had made IBM shine was now fighting for his life, working 18 hours a day, trying to figure out a way to combat flagging revenue. But what Armstrong didn’t know was that long distance plans were about to change in a very big way.

But Armstrong wasn’t going down without a fight. In July 2000, AT&T filed a federal complaint charging that Verizon was steering its customers illegally to its own long-distance service. AT&T charged that Verizon had failed to offer new phone customers a listing of long distance providers, as required by law.

Adding insult to injury on the long distance front, on July 18, 2000, a Federal appeals court ruled in a case that has serious consequences for AT&T and granted Bell Atlantic a great victory. The court, overturning rules established by the FCC, ruled that outside long distance companies (such as AT&T) using copper lines owned by a local telephone company (such as Bell Atlantic) would have to pay an increased fee to the local telephone companies. Thus, with Verizon offering long distance service through its “local” landlines, it could evade the fees. But AT&T customers would have to pay.

Verizon was also looking to wireless data as a source of revenue. The company had observed the success of Sprint PCS’s Wireless Web, which had been in place since November 1999. (And while Sprint was then the wireless web leader, its wireless network ranked fourth behind Verizon, SBC, and AT&T Wireless. It did not help Sprint any when it was forced the next month to abandon its attempted $115 billion merger with WorldCom.) But how could Verizon get customers to pay a monthly fee of $7 to $10, along with a per-minute fee through wireless data? Web access? With the telecoms engaged in aggressive price wars, they were looking to any possible form of additional income to obtain some leverage. And the then snail-paced wireless web access was having difficulties catching on with consumers. The wireless data revenue would come later through an unexpected source that nobody had anticipated: text messaging. But this was still sometime away.

There was some concern over the relationship between third-party vendors offering products to Verizon and Verizon’s dominance in the telecom industry. In July 2000, the New York Times reported that Audiovox, a mobile handset provider, was selling 80% of its handsets to Verizon. “When you have one customer that controls 80 percent of your revenue, they’re basically telling you what to price it at,” said a portfolio manager who had sold 50,000 of her 300,000 Audiovox shares. Sure enough, this portfolio manager’s predictions proved true. In February 2004, Audiovox sold off its cell phone division to Curitel, a Korean manufacturer. Was Verizon’s advantage here one of the motivating factors that caused Audiovox to sell? It’s worth noting that Toshiba had a 25% ownership of Toshiba. One clue into the internecine struggle might be divined by this press release. David Kerr, Vice President of the Strategy Analytics Global Wireless practice, was quoted as follows:

Toshiba wished to be free to exploit its own strong brand with flow-through impacts from its high performance notebooks and other electronics product portfolio. Now, Toshiba is faced with bowing to the wishes of a threatening competitor targeting the same segment Toshiba has traditionally targeted. Toshiba, a minority interest holder at Audiovox, is likely to lose its opportunity for garnering a meaningful share of the 19 million units flowing through to end users at Verizon Wireless.

While Verizon expanded and earned more profits, its workforce was becoming increasingly unhappy. On July 28, 2000, the Communications Workers of America authorized its leaders to call a strike at 12:01 AM on August 6, if Verizon would not meet its demands.

With both Verizon and the unions unable to settle upon a new contract, telephone operators and line technicians walked off the job. Two unions — the CWA and the International Brotherhood of America — represented 33% of Verizon’s workforce. (The CWA represented 72,500 Verizon workers.) One of the major stumbling blocks for this strike involved the employees at Verizon Wireless, the majority of whom did not have union representation. The CWA’s Jeff Miller pointed out at the time that there was a staggering pay difference between a union-covered customer service representative (topping out at a $44,000 annual salary) and a non-union CSR ($33,000). There were also concerns by the unions about undue stress placed upon CSRs. The workers weren’t getting adequate breaks and were often working forced overtime. And the nonunion workers were paying out of pocket for their health plans. In the days before the strike, Verizon took steps to prevent pro-union literature from being distributed at call centers and further asked which of its workers supported the unions. Like the treatment that Verizon would extend to its customers, Verizon was insisting on a five-year contract instead of a short-term contract accounting for the rapid changes in the telecom industry.

Of course, just as it had eluded the FCC, Verizon also had a plan in place to deal with its workers that would eventually involve outsourcing its labor to India. And the exact way in which Verizon overhauled its workforce will be taken up in future installments of this series.