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Regulators… Captured: AT&T Gets FCC to Omit Bad Internet Speed Scores It Doesn’t Like

AT&T was unhappy with the low internet speed score the FCC was about to give the telecom giant, so it made a few phone calls and got the government regulator to effectively rig the results in its favor.

“Regulatory capture” is a term becoming more common in administrations that enable regulators that favor friendly relations with large companies over consumer protection, and under the Trump Administration, a very business-friendly FCC has demonstrated it is prepared to go the distance for some of the country’s largest telecom companies.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported AT&T successfully got the FCC to omit DSL speed test results from the agency’s annual “Measuring Broadband America” report. Introduced during the Obama Administration, the internet speed analysis was designed to test whether cable and phone companies are being honest about delivering the broadband speed they advertise. Using a small army of test volunteers that host a free speed testing router in their home (full disclosure: Stop the Cap! is a volunteer host), automated testing of broadband performance is done silently by the equipment on an ongoing basis, with results sent to SamKnows, an independent company contracted to manage the data for the FCC’s project.

In 2011, the first full year of the program, results identified an early offender — Cablevision/Optimum, which advertised speed it couldn’t deliver to many of its customers because its network was oversold and congested. Within months, the company invested millions to dramatically expand internet capacity and speeds quickly rose, sometimes beyond the advertised level. In general, fiber and cable internet providers traditionally deliver the fastest and most reliable internet speed. Phone companies selling DSL service usually lag far behind in the results. One of those providers happened to be AT&T.

In the last year, the Journal reports AT&T successfully appealed to the FCC to keep its DSL service’s speed performance out of the report and withheld important information from the FCC required to validate some of the agency’s results.

The newspaper also found multiple potential conflicts of interest in both the program and SamKnows, its contracted partner:

  • Providers get the full names of customers using speed test equipment, and some (notably Cablevision/Optimum) regularly give speed test customers white glove treatment, including prioritized service, performance upgrades and extremely fast response times during outages that could affect the provider’s speed test score. Jack Burton, a former Cablevision engineer said “there was an effort to make sure known [users] had up-to-date equipment” like modems and routers. Cablevision also marked as “high priority” the neighborhoods that contained speed-testing users, ensuring that those neighborhoods got upgraded ahead of others, said other former Cablevision engineers close to the effort.
  • Providers can tinker with the raw data, including the right to exclude results from speed test volunteers subscribed to an “unpopular” speed tier (usually above 100 Mbps), those using outdated or troublesome equipment, or are signed up to an “obsolete” speed plan, like low-speed internet. Over 25% of speed test results (presumably unfavorable to the provider) were not included in the last annual report because cable and phone companies objected to their inclusion.
  • SamKnows sells providers immediate access to speed test data and the other data volunteers measure for a fee, ostensibly to allow providers to identify problems on their networks before they end up published in the FCC’s report. Critics claim this gives providers an incentive to give preferential treatment to customers with speed testing equipment.

Some have claimed internet companies have gained almost total leverage over the FCC speed testing project.

The Journal:

Internet experts and former FCC officials said the setup gives the internet companies enormous leverage. “How can you go to the party who controls the information and say, ‘please give me information that may implicate you?’ ” said Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman who stepped down in January 2017. Jim Warner, a retired network engineer who has helped advise the agency on the test for years, told the FCC in 2015 that the rules for providers were too lax. “It’s not much of a code of conduct,” Mr. Warner said.

An FCC spokesman told the Journal the program has a transparent process and that the agency will continue to enable it “to improve, evolve, and provide meaningful results as we move forward.”

The stakes of the FCC’s speed tests are enormous for providers, now more reliant than ever on the highly profitable broadband segment of their businesses. They also allow providers to weaponize  favorable performance results to fight off consumer protection efforts that attempt to hold providers accountable for selling internet speeds undelivered. In some high stakes court cases, the FCC’s speed test reports have been used to defend providers, such as the lawsuit filed by New York’s Attorney General against Charter Communications over the poor performance of Time Warner Cable. The parties eventually settled that case.

In 2018, the key takeaway from the report celebrated by providers in testimony, marketing, and lobbying, was that “for most of the major broadband providers that were tested, measured download speeds were 100% or better of advertised speeds during the peak hours.”

Comcast often refers to the FCC’s results in claims about XFINITY internet service: “Recent testing performed by the FCC confirms that Comcast’s broadband internet access service is one of the fastest, most reliable broadband services in the United States.” But in 2018, Comcast also successfully petitioned to FCC to exclude speed test results from 214 of its testing customers, the highest number surveyed among individual providers. In contrast, Charter got the FCC to ignore results from 148 of its customers, Mediacom asked the FCC to ignore results from 46 of its internet customers.

Among the most remarkable findings uncovered by the Journal was the revelation AT&T successfully got the FCC to exclude all of its DSL customers’ speed test results, claiming that it would not be proper to include data for a service no longer being marketed to customers. AT&T deems its DSL service “obsolete” and no longer worthy of being covered by the FCC. But the company still actively markets DSL to prospective customers. This year, AT&T also announced it was no longer cooperating with SamKnows and its speed test project, claiming AT&T has devised a far more accurate speed testing project itself that it intends to use to self-report customer speed testing data.

Cox also managed to find an innovative way out of its poor score for internet speed consistency, which the FCC initially rated a rock bottom 37% of what Cox advertises. Cox claimed its speed test results were faulty because SamKnows’ tests sent traffic through an overcongested internet link yet to be upgraded. That ‘unfairly lowered Cox’s ratings’ for many of its Arizona customers, the company successfully argued, and the FCC put Cox’s poor speed consistency rating in a fine print footnote, which included both the 37% rating and a predicted/estimated reliability rating of 85%, assuming Cox properly routed its internet traffic.

The FCC report also downplays or doesn’t include data about internet slowdowns on specific websites, like Netflix or YouTube. Complaints about buffering on both popular streaming sites have been regularly cited by angry customers, but the FCC’s annual report signals there is literally nothing wrong with most providers.

Providers still fear their own network slowdowns or problems during known testing periods. The Journal reports many have a solution for that problem as well — temporarily boosting speeds and targeting better performance of popular websites and services during testing periods and returning service to normal after tests are finished.

James Cannon, a longtime cable and telecom engineering executive who left Charter in February admitted that is standard practice at Spectrum.

“I know that goes on,” he told the Journal. “If they have a scheduled test with a government agency, they will be very careful about how that traffic is routed on the network.”

As a result, the FCC’s “independent” annual speed test report is now compromised by large telecom companies, admits Maurice Dean, a telecom and media consultant with 22 years’ experience working on streaming, cable and telecom projects.

“It is problematic,” Dean said. “This attempt to ‘enhance’ performance for these measurements is a well-known practice in the industry,’ and makes the FCC results “almost meaningless for describing actual user experience.”

Tim Wu, a longtime internet advocate, likened the speed test program as more theoretical than actual, suggesting it was like measuring the speed of a car after getting rid of traffic.

Charter Spectrum Shutting Down Home Security Service in February

Phillip Dampier December 12, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News 1 Comment

Charter Communications has notified customers of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks’ home security services that it intends to discontinue both services in February, leaving many customers with hundreds of dollars in equipment that will be rendered useless when the service closes down.

“At Spectrum, we continually evaluate our products to ensure we are bringing you superior, consistent and reliable service. We perform regular reviews of our services and as a result, effective February 5, 2020, we will no longer be providing or supporting Spectrum Home Security service.”

Formerly known as Time Warner Cable IntelligentHome and Bright House Networks’ Home Security & Control, the two home security services are legacies of the two former cable companies acquired by Charter Communications. Charter showed no interest in marketing the security services under the Spectrum brand, although the company agreed to continue supporting existing customers until now. Top executives were reportedly disinterested in the prospect of selling home security products and services.

The news has not been welcomed by customers, many who made substantial investments in optional alarm system add-ons that were purchased by customers. At least one spent over $1,200 bolstering the basic security system offered by the two cable companies with additional door contacts, motion detectors, smoke detectors, keypads, fobs, and other extra cost add-ons. That equipment, which normally supports the Zigbee standard, will be rendered inoperative in February because both companies locked the hardware to their specific cable systems, making it currently impossible to repurpose the equipment with another alarm system or service.

A DSL Reports reader is fuming:

All these devices are Zigbee based, made by a major player in the Zigbee devices game. Under normal circumstances, you would be able to take all your stuff and move it over to your own home automation solution (Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Hubitat to name a few). But nope, not Spectrum’s devices. Early on they were firmware coded to prevent them from being seen and usable within the normal universe of Zigbee devices. With a couple of exceptions Spectrum’s Zigbee devices will only see the Spectrum Zigbee universe. So essentially after Feb. 5, 2020 your house full of Zigbee devices will be useless.

The criminal part in this is that with literally a 10 minute fix and firmware to those devices BEFORE they shutter their service would open them to the universe of compatible Zigbee devices but you can take to the bank that Spectrum isn’t going to do it, otherwise they would have mentioned it with the announcement. All those hundreds of dollars (thousands in some cases) down the drain… how does that make you feel?

Those of you with Home Security should be demanding that Spectrum either buyback each and every device they will be orphaning OR they do the right thing and push a simple firmware update that allows the devices to play in the normal Zigbee universe of devices allowing you to make the decision as to which hub and ultimately service you subscribe to.

Spectrum instead has signed a deal with Abode, a competing provider, that is offering to rip existing Spectrum home security equipment out of subscriber homes and replace it with a new basic system starting at $179 a year. Add-ons will be offered at a 25% discount, but will still require customers to spend hundreds more to replace almost every alarm related sensor in their home. Would-be customers are also warned in the fine print free installation is only applicable for the basic Abode Alarm 8-piece alarm kit. Installation of additional devices or accessories will be at an additional cost, which is likely in the range of several hundred dollars for more elaborate systems.

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

Spectrum Preparing to Turn Cable Modems/Routers Into Public Wi-Fi Hotspots

Phillip Dampier November 26, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

Charter Spectrum is laying a foundation to convert company-supplied consumer/residential cable modems and routers into public Wi-Fi hotspots, helping the company offload Spectrum Mobile traffic from Verizon Wireless.

Speaking at FierceWireless’ Next Gen Wireless Networks Summit in Dallas this week, Craig Cowden — senior vice president of wireless technology at Charter Communications, said Spectrum is considering converting over 10 million deployed cable modems and routers into shared hotspots, following Comcast’s lead. This would allow Spectrum Mobile and home internet customers to automatically connect to millions of Spectrum’s Wi-Fi hotspots when outside of their own homes.

“We already offload significant traffic onto Wi-Fi,” said Cowden. “Comcast has 19 million hotspots that are called home-as-a-hotspot, using the existing router in the home. We see a benefit of doing that.”

The technology change would activate a company-supplied router’s second Wi-Fi channel, available inside customer homes and accessible to any Charter Spectrum customer. If Charter is planning to adopt the same technology Comcast uses today, customers would continue to have exclusive access to their existing 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi channels, and any usage on the second (public) Wi-Fi channel would not affect the customer’s own internet speed. Spectrum Mobile devices automatically connect to Spectrum’s Wi-Fi network when signals are strong enough.

Customers that use their own independently purchased cable modem and router equipment will not be affected. Comcast allows their customers to opt out if they object, and Charter may also offer a similar option for Spectrum customers using company-supplied equipment.

 

Spectrum Creates New $5 Sports Tier, Some Customers Losing Channels

Phillip Dampier November 20, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News 3 Comments

Charter Spectrum is launching a new extra-cost sports tier that will feature a dozen sports networks for $5 a month.

Spectrum TV Sports Pack has been soft launched in many markets and will include:

  • NFL Network
  • Golf Channel
  • Tennis Channel
  • ESPN Goal Line/Bases Loaded
  • ESPNews
  • ESPN College Extra
  • MAV TV
  • MLB Strike Zone
  • NFL RedZone
  • NHL Network
  • Olympic Channel
  • Outdoor Channel

The new sports tier means some Spectrum customers that pay extra for Spectrum’s Gold package will lose NFL RedZone, MLB Strike Zone and the Outdoor Channel late next month unless they also subscribe to the Sports Pack.

“Combining these sports networks into a single tier means more choice and flexibility for customers, especially sports fans,” Spectrum said in a statement.

Spectrum is dropping several other sports channels from its lineup altogether, including ESPN Classic. Other channels being dropped are certain regional sports networks, notably FCS.

Any Spectrum TV customer is eligible to subscribe to the sports channel package, which may allow some customers to downgrade from Spectrum’s costly Gold package if they subscribed primarily for sports networks.

NFL Network, Golf Channel, and the Tennis Channel will also remain as part of existing packages, so if you currently get these networks you will continue to receive them.

Customers can subscribe by contacting Spectrum online or by phone.

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