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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.

Huge Optimum Outage, No Refunds, and Callers Learn Customer Service is “Disconnected”

Phillip Dampier September 10, 2019 Altice USA, Consumer News No Comments

No customer service for you.

“The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again.”

When Altice USA/Optimum customers discovered their TV and internet service stopped working Friday night in parts of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, many called the customer service number printed on their monthly bill and discovered it was “disconnected or no longer in service.”

Outraged customers took to Twitter to express their displeasure.

“Since you shut off your Customer Service line, we all deserve a hefty credit to our accounts. ‘We’re always here to answer your questions.’ NO clearly you’re not, otherwise we’d be able to call you when there’s a sudden outage across multiple cities & no one knows why,” Nathalie Levey tweeted in frustration.

With the widespread outage affecting at least tens of thousands of customers across three states, some found other phone numbers to reach out to Optimum, but those lucky enough to get through were left languishing on hold “for hours,” according to the Connecticut Post. More than a few decided calling 911 was a better idea, much to the consternation of local police departments across the northeast that asked them to stop.

For some reason, Optimum phone service still worked for some, but not others. But it proved useless for reaching the cable company, with a recorded message asking callers to try again later. But calls placed from mobile phones or landlines still managed to get through, sometimes.

…when it works

It was an outage made to frustrate, in part because shortly after Altice acquired Optimum from Cablevision in 2016 as part of a $17.7 billion dollar acquisition, Altice promptly closed down Optimum’s call centers in Shelton and Stratford, Conn., employing nearly 600 workers.

An Altice spokesperson curtly described the outage as “power related” and left it at that, refusing to indicate if customers would be given a bill credit for the outage.

“We still don’t know, because you can’t reach these people on the phone at all and the people at the local cable store tell you that you have to call in, so they are also useless,” complained Sally Davis, an Optimum customer near Litchfield.

There may be another way to ask for a refund, but there is no proof it will actually result in a future bill credit:

The company maintains a general website where customers can request bill credits as noted by Hal Levy, chairman of a regional cable TV advisory council that keeps tabs on carriers and the quality of services they provide. The website on Monday directed customers to telephone, online chat and Twitter for follow-up on requests for bill credits.

“In past instances of widespread outages when the company was owned by Cablevison, automatic bill credits were issued to subscribers,” Levy wrote in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media.

The newspaper notes the outage hit just two weeks after Altice USA tacked $5 onto the rate for Connecticut customers who subscribe to its “Premier” TV package, raising the monthly charge to $110 on par with the rate for a “Gold” plan the company discontinued, while transitioning those subscribers to “Premier” status.

“Who are they kidding?,” Davis told Stop the Cap! “Optimum treats its customers to ‘PoS status.’ I wish we had FiOS.”

Altice Launches Altice Mobile: $20 Unlimited Plan for Optimum/Suddenlink Customers, $30 All Others

Phillip Dampier September 5, 2019 Altice USA, Competition, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband 11 Comments

Altice USA today launched its nationwide mobile phone service, offering “lifetime unlimited talk, text, and data” for $20 a month for existing Optimum and Suddenlink customers, $30 a month for non-customers.

Altice has agreements with Sprint and AT&T to host its wireless service on both provider’s 4G LTE networks when customers are outside the range of a suitable Wi-Fi network. Altice’s plan is designed with pricing simplicity — $20 per line, up to five lines per account. A $10 activation fee may apply and prices do not include taxes, fees, and surcharges. The plan provides:

  • unlimited data, text, and talk nationwide (up to 50 GB data usage per month, after which speed is subject to throttling to 128 kbps for the rest of the billing cycle),
  • unlimited mobile hotspot (speed limited to 600 kbps),
  • unlimited video streaming (streaming video will play “at DVD 480p quality”),
  • unlimited international text and talk from the U.S. to more than 35 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Israel, most of Europe, and more, and,
  • unlimited data, text and talk while traveling abroad in those same countries.

Altice discloses customers connected to 4G LTE service should expect download speeds of 6-8 Mbps and upload speeds of 2-3 Mbps with “round-trip latency of less than 100 ms.” If you connect to a 4G LTE Advanced cell tower, customers can expect faster download speed of 12-30 Mbps. Altice does not allow customers to connect to 3G service and does not support 5G service at this time.

Altice claims its mobile plan can save customers up to $600 per year for one line, and up to $1,100 per year for households and families with five lines. It is also the first cable mobile plan that will accept non-customers, at a higher price. Non-Optimum or Suddenlink customers (or current customers who discontinue cable service or who fall seriously past due on their accounts) will pay $30 a line, a $10 premium.

Altice claims its mobile network welcomes customers bringing their own devices, and offers an online compatibility checker. But an FAQ claims Altice Mobile is currently only able to support iPhone for Bring Your Own Phone service. It must be iPhone SE, 6 or newer, and operate iOS 12.2 or above.

In contrast, Comcast and Charter both accept a wider range of devices and rely on Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network, but at a price of $12-14/GB or $45/month for unlimited talk, text, and data. Those two cable companies only sell mobile service to customers subscribed to their home broadband services.

T-Mobile Prepares for Boost Auction if Dish Network Talks Stall

(Reuters) – T-Mobile US Inc is preparing an alternative plan if a deal to sell wireless assets to Dish Network Corp falls through, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which is advising T-Mobile, the third largest U.S. wireless carrier, on selling prepaid brand Boost Mobile as part of the company’s concession to gain regulatory approval to buy Sprint Corp, is expected to send out books to prospective buyers in two weeks, one source familiar with the matter said.

While satellite television provider Dish Network remains the front-runner to acquire the Boost assets, Goldman has told prospective buyers as late as Tuesday that it is preparing for an upcoming auction of Boost.

Another source characterized the process being run by Goldman as moving slowly. Among the details holding up an auction is that Goldman is not yet clear what exactly is up for sale from the merger, one source said.

T-Mobile and Sprint did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Goldman Sachs declined to comment.

T-Mobile and Sprint have agreed to a series of deal concessions, including to sell Boost, to gain regulatory approval for the $26.5 billion merger with Sprint, but still needs the green light from the U.S. Department of Justice antitrust chief, though his staff have recommended the agency block the deal.

A source close to the discussions said T-Mobile was hopeful it would reach an agreement with the Justice Department by early next week.

The Boost assets have stirred up interest from a variety of parties, including Amazon.com and cable companies Comcast, Charter Communications, and Altice USA, according to sources.

T-Mobile and Sprint are still negotiating possible additional concessions with the Department of Justice, and Goldman Sachs is waiting for the details of the agreement before working on the terms that will be sent out to bidders, one source said.

Two potential bidders told Reuters on the condition of anonymity that they are still in the dark about critical information related to the Boost sale, such as how the Boost wireless deal with T-Mobile will be structured, or financial details about the Boost customers, which the bidders will use to determine the prepaid brand’s valuation.

Dish is also speaking with other parties on potential partnerships with Boost, sources said.

T-Mobile has agreed to negotiate a contract with Boost’s buyer that will allow the spun-off company to run on the combined T-Mobile and Sprint network, according to a regulatory filing that outlined the merger concessions. But the carriers are currently debating whether to provide the buyer an infrastructure-based mobile virtual network operator deal, which would allow the buyer more control over the wireless plans, including control of the user’s SIM card, one source said.

That could help convince the Department of Justice to approve the merger, which has held discussions on how to preserve competition in the wireless industry.

Cable provider Altice is one of the few so-called MVNO partners to have this type of wireless agreement, which it currently has with Sprint. An infrastructure-based MVNO is generally seen as more favorable than a standard deal that allows wireless providers that do not own and operate their own network to piggyback off of one of the four major wireless carriers for wholesale prices.

Other concessions being discussed include whether T-Mobile and Sprint will divest wireless spectrum, or the airwaves that carry data, and the possibility of giving up more retail customers or retail shops from either T-Mobile or Sprint’s prepaid brands, according to one source familiar with the matter.

Reporting by Sheila Dang and Angela Moon in New York and Diane Bartz in Washington; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker

Altice Struggles With Video Programming Costs That Eat 67% of Video Revenue

The reason why many cable companies are no longer willing to cut deals on cable television with customers looking for a better one is that the profit margin enjoyed by cable operators on television service is shrinking fast.

Researcher Cowen found that smaller cable operators are particularly vulnerable to the high costs of cable programming because they do not get the volume discounts larger operators like Comcast, Charter, DirecTV, and Dish are getting.

Researcher Cowen found that programming costs are increasing fast at smaller cable companies. (Image: Cowen/Multichannel News)

Altice USA, which divides about 3.3 million cable TV subscribers between Optimum/Cablevision and Suddenlink, says it paid $682.4 million for cable TV programming during the first quarter of 2019. That amounts to 67% of the company’s total video revenue. If Altice offered complaining customers a 40-50% break on cable television, it would lose money. Cable operators already temporarily give up a significant chunk of video revenue from new customer promotions, which discount offerings for the first year or two of service. Many operators consider any video promotion to be a loss leader these days, because programming costs are exploding, particularly for some local, over-the-air network affiliated stations that are now commanding as much as $3-5 a month per subscriber for each station.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, unsurprisingly also gets the best programming prices. With volume discounts, Comcast reports its programming costs consume about 60% of revenue. Charter Spectrum and Dish report about 65% of their video revenue is eaten by programming costs. Both are seeing dramatic declines in video subscribers as cord-cutting continues. The more customers a company loses, the less of a discount they will command going forward.

According to Cowen, just three years ago Comcast gave up 53% of video revenue to cover programming costs. With programming rate inflation increasing, many smaller cable companies are considering exiting the cable TV business altogether to focus on more profitable broadband service instead.

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