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Cheap $39 Smartphone Sold By a U.S. Subsidized Lifeline Provider is a Malware Nightmare

The Unimax U683CL

An inexpensive $39 Chinese-made smartphone offered by a U.S. government-subsidized Lifeline mobile phone service provider is wide open to malware and trojan horse apps, leaving users exposed to privacy violations, adware, and auto-installed backdoor apps that might expose some to fraud.

Malwarebytes Labs, an online security company, issued a serious warning to the public about the Unimax U683CL smartphone’s compromised-from-the-box status, and criticized provider Assurance Wireless for selling the phone and ignoring repeated warnings sent to the company about the phone.

“Assurance Wireless by Virgin Mobile offers the UMX U683CL phone as their most budget conscious option. At only $35 [$39 as of Jan. 13, 2020] under the government-funded program, it’s an attractive offering,” Nathan Collier, a senior malware intelligence analyst at Malwarebytes Labs writes in a company blog. “However, what it comes installed with is appalling.”

Malwarebytes began getting complaints about the phone last fall, and secured one to investigate further. It quickly emerged the phone arrived with questionable software pre-installed:

The first questionable app found on the UMX U683CL poses as an updater named Wireless Update. Yes, it is capable of updating the mobile device. In fact, it’s the only way to update the mobile device’s operating system (OS). Conversely, it is also capable of auto-installing apps without user consent.

Thus, we detect this app as Android/PUP.Riskware.Autoins.Fota.fbcvd, a detection name that should sound familiar to Malwarebytes for Android customers. That’s because the app is actually a variant of Adups, a China-based company caught collecting user data, creating backdoors for mobile devices and, yes, developing auto-installers.

From the moment you log into the mobile device, Wireless Update starts auto-installing apps. To repeat: There is no user consent collected to do so, no buttons to click to accept the installs, it just installs apps on its own. While the apps it installs are initially clean and free of malware, it’s important to note that these apps are added to the device with zero notification or permission required from the user. This opens the potential for malware to unknowingly be installed in a future update to any of the apps added by Wireless Update at any time.

The second piece of unremovable malware is the UMX’s own “Settings” app, crucial to operating the phone. Researchers called this “heavily-obfuscated malware” that is detected as Android/Trojan.Dropper.Agent.UMX. This app quietly downloads and installs apps without the user’s permission, most recently including a variant of HiddenAds, which forces users to endure frequent advertising screens on their phone, even when not web browsing.

The malware activates the moment a user powers on their phone for the first time. Most customers will simply be annoyed if ad-related apps automatically install, but with a security-compromised phone opening the door to more malware in the future, this “lowers the bar on bad behavior by app development companies,” according to Collier.

“Budget should not dictate whether a user can remain safe on his or her mobile device. Shell out thousands for an iPhone, and escape pre-installed maliciousness. But use government-assisted funding to purchase a device and pay the price in malware? That’s not the type of malware-free existence we envision at Malwarebytes,” Collier said.

“We informed Assurance Wireless of our findings and asked them point blank why a U.S.-funded mobile carrier is selling a mobile device infected with pre-installed malware? After giving them adequate time to respond, we unfortunately never heard back,” Collier added.

Verizon Puts 5G Wireless Home Broadband Expansion on Hold Until Late 2020

Dunne

Verizon will hold off on expanding its millimeter wave 5G wireless home broadband service until at least the second half of 2020, citing equipment availability issues.

Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and group CEO of Verizon’s Consumer Division, told attendees at a Citi investor’s conference that Verizon’s initial introduction of Home 5G was just a market test, and until newer high-powered wireless routers arrive that will be capable of more robust reception of the very high frequencies the service works on, Verizon will not expand the service further.

Dunne called the next generation of 5G home receivers “key” to Verizon’s wireless home broadband strategy. Dunne said the new equipment will let consumers receive more distant and weaker 5G wireless signals, allowing Verizon to expand coverage of the service to more households. The current generation of 5G receivers were designed for use in smartphones, which hampers in-home reception quality.

Verizon initially promised to serve about one-quarter of the United States with its wireless home broadband service, eventually capable of supplying 500/200 Mbps and more to subscribers. But Verizon’s goal to reach over 30 million households will take the company as long as seven years to reach.

Dunne also warned Verizon is prioritizing 5G coverage in urban commercial areas instead of suburban, rural, and residential neighborhoods. Verizon’s core 5G network will target dense urban areas, including commercial shopping, business, and entertainment venues like concert halls and sports stadiums where the company measures the highest traffic demand it hopes to satisfy with 5G. Verizon’s home 5G broadband service piggybacks on Verizon’s 5G mobile network, which means it will only be available in neighborhoods where Verizon has deployed its network of small cells.

“It’s very much a mobility strategy, with a secondary product of Home [5G], rather than us changing our overarching mobility deployment to try to accelerate Home at the expense of the overall 130 million customer base,” Dunne explained.

Verizon hopes to offer customers 5G-capable mobile phones for as little as $600 in the coming year and getting widespread adoption of 5G by Verizon customers is a long-term goal for Dunne. He added that once 5G becomes more widely available, Verizon and other wireless companies will consider shutting down Wi-Fi hotspots in favor of 5G.

“In a world of 5G millimeter wave deployments, we don’t see the need for Wi-Fi in the future, because we have a more secure network environment,” Dunne said. “Our view is that when fully deployed there are substantial environments where public Wi-Fi will be eliminated in favor of millimeter wave.”

FCC Awards Viasat $87.1 Million to Connect 121,700 Rural Homes to Satellite Internet

More than 121,000 homes and businesses in 17 states will receive subsidized satellite internet service from Viasat, after the Federal Communications Commission awarded $87.1 million to connect customers at those locations at a cost of just over $715 per customer.

The money is part of the ongoing Connect America Fund (CAF) program, designed to subsidize the costs of delivering internet access in high-cost, typically rural areas. The current iteration of the program is dispensing funding over 10 years to 45 states. Viasat won the funding through an auction procedure that makes it easy for satellite providers to win funding because of low infrastructure costs to service rural areas that lack a wired internet service provider.

An additional $2.1 million was awarded to some other providers:

  • Fixed wireless provider LTD Broadband, which relies on 1,500 wireless internet tower sites covering over 40,000 square miles of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota.
  • Horry Telephone Cooperative, which serves rural customers in Horry County, S.C.
  • Bruce Telephone Company, which won funding for parts of Wisconsin to deliver gigabit internet service.
  • JCWIFI, which provides fixed wireless internet within a 3,000 square mile service area covering parts of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.

In addition to the upper Midwest and South Carolina, the biggest states expected to benefit from the latest awards are (northern) California and Wyoming.

At least $2 billion in subsidy funds became available after larger providers — AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon turned down funding because the companies had no interest in building out their networks in rural service areas.

Sprint Admits Its Network Not Fit for Purpose, Struggles to Keep Up With Competitors

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Executives from Sprint Corp testified on Monday that the U.S. wireless carrier has struggled to improve its network, hindering its growth and underscoring the need to merge with larger rival T-Mobile US Inc.

U.S. state attorneys general, led by New York and California, are suing to stop the merger.

The states seek to prove in Manhattan federal court that the deal between the No. 3 and No. 4 wireless carriers would raise prices, particularly for users on prepaid plans. The state attorneys general, all Democrats, asked Judge Victor Marrero to order the companies to abandon the deal.

Sprint Chief Marketing Officer Roger Solé testified that the company’s strategy for enticing customers from competitors included slashing prices.

But he said the promotion’s “early success faded away pretty soon” due to customers having a negative experience with Sprint’s network quality.

In an effort to show how competition lowered prices, the states presented evidence that when Sprint introduced an aggressive promotion in 2016 to offer phone plans comparable to those of Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, T-Mobile’s MetroPCS prepaid brand immediately lowered prices on its plans.

The evidence is central to the states’ argument that Sprint and T-Mobile as standalone companies force competition between carriers, providing the best deal for consumers.

Solé

Solé

Lawyers for the states also presented evidence suggesting Sprint wanted a deal so more money could be earned from each customer.

In WhatsApp messages from 2017 between Solé and Marcelo Claure, who was then CEO of Sprint, Solé suggested a merger with T-Mobile could raise Sprint’s average revenue per user by $5.

In his deposition before the trial, Solé said he was simply offering a thought that price increases could happen “very far down the road.”

The companies argue that the stronger T-Mobile that would result from the proposed $26.5 billion takeover would be better able to innovate and compete to reduce wireless prices. The case represents a break with the usual process of states coordinating with the federal government in reviewing mergers and generally coming to a joint conclusion.

The deal had been contemplated in 2014 during the Obama administration, but the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission urged the companies to drop it, which they did.

The Trump administration signed off on it after the companies agreed to sell Sprint’s prepaid businesses, popular with people with poor credit, to satellite television company Dish Network Corp.

But setting up DISH as a wireless carrier is “patently insufficient to mitigate the merger’s competitive harm,” the states argued in a court filing.

Deutsche Telekom CEO Timotheus Höttges, whose company is the largest shareholder of T-Mobile, will testify on Tuesday.

Reporting by Diane Bartz and Sheila Dang; Additional reporting by Brendan Pierson; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Nick Zieminski and Dan Grebler

China Well Ahead of U.S. in Fiber Deployment; Lack of U.S. Competition Responsible for Lag

China is outpacing the U.S. in fiber broadband expansion. (Image: Broadband Now)

At least 86% of China now has access to fiber broadband connectivity after six years of aggressive fiber optic network expansion, putting the United States at a significant disadvantage.

Only 25% of the United States is served by fiber service, creating a giant digital divide that leaves most Americans without fiber high speed broadband. That is the finding of Broadband Now, which summarized the results of its investigation in an article published this week, blaming the country’s reliance on deregulated monopoly/duopoly telecom companies for much of the problem.

“While America continues to suffer from an immense digital divide, China’s government has made incredible progress building out a state-sponsored super network of fiber optic connections. This infrastructure will allow the country to take early advantage of some of the most impactful applications resulting from the fourth industrial revolution,” Broadband Now reports.

Chinese state policy has emphasized the importance of deploying modern telecommunications networks, including fiber-to-the-home and 5G wireless service. The Chinese central government is spending billions to build a core public broadband network, which providers can lease to offer service to their customers. U.S. providers rely on private investment that depends on a financial formula to determine if fiber upgrades will deliver a competitive advantage or a potential for robust profits.

Broadband Now notes that most U.S. providers face little significant competition — “a difficult proposition to justify installing robust fiber networks, especially in less populous areas of the U.S.”

The “return on investment” formula is also responsible for the lack of rural broadband access, a problem the Chinese government solved by directly subsidizing the construction of fiber networks across the country, deeming high speed connectivity a national priority. As a result, 96% of rural Chinese villages now have access to fast internet service.

Broadband Now advocates for more aggressive fiber broadband deployment in the United States, including policies that promote fiber expansion and reduce deployment costs. For example, Broadband Now believes that a national “dig once” policy that would require fiber optic conduit to be installed wherever roadway projects are undertaken could allow providers quick and inexpensive access to deploy fiber technology. The group estimates that nationwide fiber expansion costs could be reduced from $140 billion to $14 billion if dig once policies were the national standard.

Chinese fiber deployment has already laid a foundation for China to outpace the United States in the race to deploy 5G wireless networks. Fiber connections are required to power gigabit speed small cells integral to millimeter wave 5G services. With China well ahead of the U.S. in fiber deployment, the country is poised to rapidly expand 5G wireless service.

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