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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.

Shocking Revelation: Big Telecom Companies Treating You Like Trash Turns Out to Be a Mistake

Jeff Kagan is a name familiar to anyone that follows the cable industry. For over 30 years, Kagan has been tracking consumer perceptions about the telecom industry and offering insight into the challenges these and other businesses were likely to face in the future.More recently, Kagan has been fretting about the growing trend of retail businesses paying more attention to cultivating their relationships with Wall Street while targeting their customers for abuse.

“I have been noticing how in recent years, retail is becoming increasingly unfriendly to the customer. This is a mistake,” Kagan offers in a new opinion piece on Equities.com. “New technologies and new ideas may be good for the bottom line in the short-term. They may solve problems like shoplifting, and that may make investors happy today. However, in the long-term, these customer unfriendly trends will take their toll as customers will shop where they feel appreciated, respected and wanted. Customers shop at stores they love. Love is an emotion. So, we must think of winning the customer with emotion. This is difficult for most businesspeople to understand.”

‘My way or the highway’-type attitudes from retailers come from all sorts of businesses. Warehouse clubs make you pay for the honor of shopping there. Chains like Walmart are beefing up security teams and in some places now demand to see receipts from customers exiting the store. But nobody has abused customers better and longer than the telecom industry. Not even the cattle car-like airlines.

Kagan

After literally decades of almost bragging about their “don’t care” customer service while throwing attitude and intransigence at customers unhappy with service or pricing, the nation’s biggest cable and phone companies are now experiencing long-overdue customer revenge. Kagan notes that cord-cutting is not just about switching to a competitor for service. Many customers are literally thrilled to see the back end of their long hated provider.

Decades of monopoly service made abusing customers a risk-free and very profitable strategy for companies like Comcast, AT&T, Charter, Cox, Mediacom, and Verizon. In fact, someone turned the concept of the “cable guy” into a horror movie. Did you stay home from work to wait for a service call that never materialized? Tough luck. Don’t like yet another rate increase? Too bad.

“The reason they did this was, they had no competition in their market area. That meant the customer could not leave them,” Kagan noted.

After years of getting a bad reputation, only two things threatened to scare telecom companies straight — the fear of imminent regulation, such as what happened in 1992 when reregulation of cable companies turned out to be the only bill that year to be vetoed by President George H. W. Bush and overridden by the U.S. Senate to become law.

The other, much more scary fear is competition. In the mid-1990s, the nation’s biggest phone companies including what we now know as AT&T and Verizon were contemplating getting into the video business. This proved far more threatening than the much smaller home satellite dish business, which attracted around three million Americans at the time. The cable industry spent years taking shots at satellite competitors, including sticking dishowners with the cost of buying a $300 descrambler box up front, and charging as much (or even more) for programming than cable customers paid, despite the fact homeowners had to purchase and service their own dish, often 6-12 feet wide and not cheap to install.

The cable industry feared phone companies would charge ratepayers to subsidize their entry into the television business and sought protective legislation prohibiting the same cross-subsidization the cable industry would later rely on to introduce broadband and phone service.

More recently, after the country reached “peak cable” — the year the highest number of us subscribed to cable TV, the industry recognized it was likely all downhill from there. Comcast, in particular, specialized in empty lip service gestures to improve the customer service experience. For years, it promised to do better, only to do worse. The company even attempted to shed its bad reputation by changing the brand of its products from Comcast to “XFINITY.” Customers were not fooled, but that did not stop Charter from following Comcast’s lead, introducing the “Spectrum” brand to its products and almost burying its corporate name, which it barely references these days.

Kagan notes not following through on the customer service experience made cable companies ripe for stunning customer losses as new competitors for video service emerged. Comcast and Charter are among the biggest losers of cable TV customers, but their bad attitudes persist. Their latest ideas? Keep raising prices, rely on tricky Broadcast TV surcharges that are soaring in cost, end customer retention offers for dissatisfied video customers, and make up the difference in lost revenue by jacking up the price of broadband service, which is already nearly all-profit.

“The bottom line for any business is always focus on the customer. If they are happy, your business will remain strong and growing,” Kagan warned.

At some point, customers will get more choices for broadband service. Community owned broadband solutions have been very successful in communities that have experienced the worst abuse AT&T, Comcast, and Charter can deliver. In the future, fixed 5G wireless may provide perfectly respectable internet service if it is not data capped. Next generation satellite providers, interloping independent fiber to the home providers, and mesh wireless providers may offer consumers a number of options that can deliver suitable service and perhaps finally put cable and phone companies in their place.

Californians Complained More About Telecom Companies Than Wildfire Outages Caused by PG&E

More Californians are complaining to state officials about their cable television, internet, and phone service than the energy utilities implicated in causing deadly wildfires that left customers without power for days or weeks.

California’s Office of Senate Floor Analyses prepared a report for elected officials contemplating extending deregulation of the state’s top telecommunications companies. It found deregulation has not always benefited California consumers, noting that several companies have been fined for allowing traditional phone service to fall below required service quality standards. As service deteriorates, lawmakers have tied the hands of state officials trying to enforce what service standards still exist. The report found that the telecom industry has been especially good at covering itself through lobbying and litigation to isolate and disempower consumers seeking redress.

“Many companies, including telecommunications providers, include arbitration clauses in their contracts that limit a consumer’s ability to form a class with other consumers to seek remedies for unfair business practices related to contracts,” the report notes. “These clauses frequently limit consumers to a specified arbitration process that limits the types of remedies consumers can obtain for unfair business practices.”

Customers with unreliable phone service pursuing complaints on the federal level with the Federal Communications Commission have also been dealt a blow by the Trump Administration and its Republican majority control of the FCC.

“It is unclear what kind of remedies consumers can obtain since the FCC has adopted an order limiting its own ability to establish requirements for these services,” the report found.

Deregulation has not stopped Californians from trying to get help from the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), however. The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch recorded 1,087 complaints about the state’s phone and cable companies in January 2019, compared with 677 complaints against the state’s energy utilities and 53 lodged against water utilities.

The CPUC’s Customer Affairs Branch reported communications-related complaints were significantly higher than other utilities. (Image: California Office of Senate Floor Analyses)

“Despite the occurrence of wildfires in which utility infrastructure was implicated, complaints regarding energy utilities remained largely consistent between November 2018 and January 2019,” the report found. “The data indicates that the communications sector generates a greater number of complaints to the CPUC than other utility sectors on average, and a much greater percentage of those complaints are for customer issues over which the CPUC has no regulatory jurisdiction.”

Earlier this year, California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), filed for bankruptcy protection after estimating it was liable for more than $30 billion in damages from recent wildfires. An investigation found equipment owned by PG&E was responsible for starting the worst wildfire in California history. The November 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. Yet the Customer Affairs Branch received fewer complaints about PG&E than it received regarding AT&T, Charter Spectrum, Frontier, Cox, and Comcast XFINITY.

Unintended consequences of deregulation have also caused several high profile scandals among telecom companies in the state. Some of the worst offenses were committed by cable and phone companies that further traumatized victims of catastrophic wildfires. An effort to implement new consumer protections for fire victims forced to relocate met fierce resistance from cable and telephone industry lobbyists. Some of those same telecom companies continued to bill wildfire victims for months for service at addresses that no longer existed. AT&T even billed customers that died in the fires.

A recent San Francisco Superior Court decision (Gruber v. Yelp) also found another consequence of deregulation. A judge ruled The California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) does not apply to calls made or received on “digital” phone lines better known as Voice over IP (VoIP). The judge found that since the CPUC does not regulate VoIP calls, and such calls are not legally defined as a traditional phone call, CIPA cannot apply.

More than six months after devastating wildfires swept across the North Bay in 2017, AT&T was still billing customers that died in that fire. KGO-TV reports. (3:31)

After promising to never again erroneously bill wildfire victims, AT&T did it again to those traumatized by the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and wiped the town of Paradise off the map. KOVR in Sacramento reports on one family pleading with AT&T to stop billing them for landline service at an address that no longer exists. (2:15)

Cable Industry Has Low Latency Software Upgrade for DOCSIS 3.1; <1ms Possible

Phillip Dampier June 24, 2019 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Cox 1 Comment

CableLabs has published a new specification for the DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband platform that will support <1 ms latency, optimal for online gaming and virtual reality.

The new specification, dubbed low-latency DOCSIS (LLD), costs little to implement with a simple software upgrade, but some cable companies plan to charge customers nearly $15 a month more to enable the extra performance.

CableLabs Blog:

VR needs incredibly low latency between head movement and the delivery of new pixels to your eyes, or you start to feel nauseated. To move the PC out of the home, we need to make the communications over the cable network be a millisecond or less round trip. But our DOCSIS® technology at the time could not deliver that.

So, we pivoted again. Since 2016, CableLabs DOCSIS architects Greg White and Karthik Sundaresan have been focused on revolutionizing DOCSIS technology to support sub-1ms latency. Although VR is still struggling to gain widespread adoption, that low and reliable DOCSIS latency will be a boon to gamers in the short term and will enable split rendering of VR and augmented reality (AR) in the longer term. The specifications for Low Latency DOCSIS (as a software upgrade to existing DOCSIS 3.1 equipment) have been released, and we’re working with the equipment suppliers to get this out into the market and to realize the gains of a somewhat torturous innovation journey.

Your provider may already have LLD capability — the updates were pushed to cable operators in two stages, one in January and the most recent update in April. It will be up to each cable company to decide if and when to enable the feature. Additionally, low latency is only possible if the path between your provider and the gaming server has the capability of delivering it. Cable companies may need to invite some gaming platforms to place servers inside their networks to assure the best possible performance.

Cable operators are already conceptualizing LLD as a revenue booster. Cox Communications is already testing a low-latency gaming add-on with customers in Arizona, for which it charges an extra $14.99 a month. But reports from customers using it suggest it is not a true implementation of LLD. Instead, many users claim it is just an enhanced traffic routing scheme to reduce latency using already available technology.

A Cox representative stressed the service does not violate any net neutrality standards.

“This service does not increase the speed of any traffic, and it doesn’t prioritize gaming traffic ahead of other traffic on our network,” said CoxJimR on the DSL Reports Cox forum. “The focus is around improving gaming performance when it leaves our network and goes over the public internet, like a Gamer Private Network. No customer’s experience is degraded as a result of any customers purchasing Cox Elite Gamer service as an add-on to their internet service.”

CableLabs is treating LLD as a part of its “10G” initiative, expected to upgrade broadband speeds up to 10 Gbps. Among the next upgrades likely to be published is full duplex DOCSIS, which will allow cable operators to provide the same upload and download speeds.

The Downside to Modem Fees: Customers Hold On to Legacy Owned Modems Forever

Arris/Motorola’s SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem used to be considered “eXtreme,” but now most cable companies consider it obsolete.

The legacy of the hated modem rental fee is coming back to bite providers that charge $10 a month or more for a device that likely cost the company well under $100.

To opt out of the fee, a growing percentage of customers buy their own equipment, but now many of those modems are becoming functionally obsolete and customers are wary of efforts by providers to convince them to accept a newer, company-supplied modem.

With the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 and faster speeds, the problem is only getting worse for companies like Comcast, Charter Spectrum, and Cox. With an installed base of hundreds of thousands of obsolete modems, customers frequently can no longer get the internet speed they pay for, and the equipment’s limitations can cause congestion on cable broadband networks, because older modems cannot take advantage of the exponential increase in available “channels” that help share the load on the neighborhood network.

“Some customers have cable modems that are incompatible (such as DOCSIS 2.0 and DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems) with the current class of service or internet speed that they’re receiving. As a result, these customers may not be experiencing the full range of available bandwidth that they’re paying for,” Comcast informs their customers. “If a device is no longer supported by Comcast or has reached its end-of-life (EOL), this essentially means that we will no longer install the device, either as a new or replacement device. In addition, we will no longer recommend that customers purchase the device, whether new or used.”

But many Comcast customers do not realize their equipment is effectively obsolete until they visit mydeviceinfo.xfinity.com and sign in to their account or enter a device make and model in the search bar on the homepage or hear directly from the company. Comcast will send online alerts to customers verified to still be using outdated equipment and occasionally send notifications through the mail. Customers can order new equipment online or swap out old equipment in a cable store. Comcast prefers its customers rent its Xfinity xFi Wireless Gateway ($13/mo) or xFi Advanced Gateway ($15/mo). As an incentive, Comcast is testing offering free unlimited data in some central U.S. markets to those choosing its more costly Advanced Gateway.

Charter Spectrum sold its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks partly on its argument that modem fees would no longer be charged. Despite that, many former Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers still use their own modems, which has been a problem for a company that raised the standard internet speed available to residential customers from 15 Mbps to 100 Mbps (200 Mbps in some markets, mostly those also served by AT&T). Older modems often cannot achieve those speeds. Spectrum notifies affected customers in periodic campaigns, offering to replace their obsolete equipment, but many customers suspect hidden fees may be lurking in such offers and discard them.

“Some modems that were issued years ago have become outdated. If you have a modem that was issued by us and hasn’t been swapped in the last six years, it might need to be replaced,” Spectrum tells customers. “To get a replacement modem, contact us or visit a Spectrum store. Please recycle your old modem or bring it to a Spectrum store for proper disposal. If you do a modem swap with us, you’ll receive a mail return label in your package, which can be used to return your old modem.”

Cox is also in a similar predicament. It runs seasonal checks on its network to identify customers using older DOCSIS modems, often DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems, which can only support four download channels. When it finds customers eligible for an upgrade, it mails postcards offering a “free modem upgrade,” usually supplying a SB6183 or SB8200 modem that can arrive in 24-48 hours. But many Cox customers suspect trickery from Cox as well, or run into poorly trained customer service representatives that reject the postcards, claiming the customer is ineligible.

“DOCSIS 3.0 8×4 or higher (or a DOCSIS 3.1) devices are required for all new Cox High Speed Internet customers,” Cox tells their internet customers. “Current Cox customers should ensure they have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device in order to consistently receive optimal speeds. Additionally, Ultimate customers are required to have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device with a minimum of 16×4 or higher channel bonding to achieve package speeds.”

In fact, most modem upgrade offers from your provider are likely genuine, but customers need to pay attention to any fine print.

Customers can also purchase their own upgraded modem if they want to avoid Comcast’s Gateway fee. Cox does not charge customers for modems sent as part of a free upgrade offer, but watch for erroneous charges on your bill and report them at once if they do appear. Charter Spectrum has recently introduced a $9.99 modem activation fee, applicable to new customer-owned or company-supplied cable modems. We do not know if that fee would apply in cases of an obsolete modem upgrade. Be sure to ask, and if the answer is no, make a note of the representative’s name in case a dispute arises later on.

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