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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.

T-Mobile Fixed 4G Wireless Home Internet: $50/month With No Data Caps

T-Mobile is gradually expanding its new fixed wireless home broadband service, prioritizing rural areas next to major highways where the mobile provider has strong 4G LTE service.

T-Mobile Home Internet is initially being targeted to rural customers unlikely to have high speed internet access from a cable company or are stuck with low speed DSL from the phone company. It offers “unlimited service” with no data caps, but T-Mobile reserves the right to temporarily throttle speeds of users exceeding 50 GB of usage per month when their local cell tower is congested. Customers can check T-Mobile’s fixed wireless website to see if they qualify for service.

A Stop the Cap! reader in Indiana testing the service over the last month reports speeds averaging around 50/3 Mbps, with ping times often 30 ms or much more, which makes the service problematic for video games. But T-Mobile Home Internet works fine with streaming video services.

(Image: The Gadgeteer)

The service is currently available only in a few areas. T-Mobile is carefully managing the service by registering the customer’s wireless home internet equipment to a specific cell tower. Customers are not allowed to take the service on the road, such as on vacation. Since the service relies on T-Mobile’s existing 4G LTE cell tower network, it is essential to balance capacity between fixed wireless customers and T-Mobile’s existing mobile users. Pricing is comparable to Verizon’s 5G Home Internet and in most cases the price includes taxes and fees.

T-Mobile began marketing the service to its existing customers in qualified service areas over the summer. Among those enrolled, none have reported speed throttling, despite the fine print warning to heavy users.

“I consistently use over 250 GB a month and speeds have never been impacted,” our reader told us. “However, speeds can suffer around rush hour, when I suspect more people are using their cell phones. But they are still 25+ Mbps for downloads.”

Customers signing up for the service will receive:

  • a T-Mobile LTE Wi-Fi Gateway with a pre-installed T-Mobile SIM card;
  • A 5200mAh battery backup, also likely for future portability options;
  • AC Adapter;
  • Quick Setup Manual.

(Image: The Gadgeteer)

There is no charge for the equipment and start-up kit, but it remains the property of T-Mobile and needs to be returned if you cancel, otherwise T-Mobile will charge you $207.

Users plug in the equipment in an area of their home that gets the strongest T-Mobile reception. Once T-Mobile’s LTE network is detected, the service will register and activate service on the T-Mobile cell tower. Customers manage the rest of the service with a smartphone app, which configures Wi-Fi capable devices, sets streaming speeds, and allows customers to check usage. There are two LAN ports on the back of the device for Ethernet connections and a phone jack, presumably to support landline service sometime in the future. Most will be able to configure the service in less than 10 minutes.

Ironically, one service T-Mobile explicitly says won’t work with its fixed wireless offering is T-Mobile’s new TVision live TV service. But customers report no problems using AT&T TV Now and Hulu’s Live TV service.

The included backup battery provides long lasting power to stay connected during a power interruption.

Customers have reported favorable impressions of the service, assuming they have a solid signal from a nearby cell tower. T-Mobile is cautiously marketing the service only to customers where cell towers are not already congested, and only in areas relatively close to a nearby cell tower, to assure good reception. T-Mobile can also self-limit the number of fixed wireless customers signed up for each cell tower. That means most of its fixed wireless customers will be in semi-rural areas, often nearby a major road or highway where a T-Mobile tower provides service. It is not likely T-Mobile will initially market fixed wireless service in dense suburban or urban areas, because cell towers are much more likely to be congested. It also seems unlikely T-Mobile will sell the service in deeply rural areas where it lacks good cell coverage because T-Mobile is relying on its existing network of cell towers to support the fixed wireless service.

An excellent review of the service and its features has been written by The Gadgeteer.

T-Mobile explains how its fixed wireless home internet service works. (1:15)

Sen. Manchin Wants West Virginians to Call Out ISP Lies About Broadband Availability

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) wants every West Virginian to test their internet speed and send his office the results to ferret out deceptive service maps and uncover more information about the state’s ongoing broadband problems.

“We’re urging everyone to do these speed tests,” Manchin told residents in Lewis County last Sunday. “We need to know, and people need to be involved in West Virginia, if they ever want to have broadband, high-speed internet and cell service. This is what we’re fighting for.”

Manchin is on a mission to debunk FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s claims that rural broadband has grown under Pai’s leadership. Manchin believes the FCC’s broadband coverage maps are wildly inaccurate, advertised speeds are not met, and many rural residents in the state are left without internet access.

The senator intends to send the speed test results to Pai’s office, and he wants consumers to use the FCC’s own free speed test app (for Android and iOS) to “cover [Pai]” with piles of speed test results shining a light on the problem.

“There’s an FCC app that you can download on your phone,” Wes Kungel, legislative director for Manchin’s office told WVNews. “If you download that, you can hit a little button and it will tell you your speeds. If you email or mail that to our office, we will put it in a letter and send it personally to Chairmen Pai.”

Sen. Manchin

The ongoing problem with faulty broadband service maps have allowed a select group of telecom companies (many responsible for the data used by those maps) to receive federal funding to expand their own broadband businesses while preventing others from getting funding claiming the new providers would receive government funding to overlap their existing service areas.

“This is really where it all started,” he said. “[People] contacted us a few years back and basically they weren’t getting the coverage. They could not get coverage because [the FCC] said the maps showed that there was already coverage here. So we came out and did the speed tests.”

Manchin argues that West Virginia is among the most broadband-challenged states and inaccurate maps will result in the state not getting its fair share of the estimated $20 billion the FCC plans to distribute in rural America to improve broadband service.

“There’s no state that needs it more than rural West Virginia,” Manchin added. “A ‘urban’ community is 50,000 (people) or more. We don’t have one city in West Virginia with 50,000 so we have nothing to compare it to. We are all rural and we’re going to have to fight for every dollar that we can to get connected.”

West Virginians can submit their speed test results to Sen. Manchin’s office by following this link.

Nevada’s Attorney General Finds Frontier Internet Lacking, Wins Refunds and Upgrades

Frontier residential customers in Nevada could receive a refund and improved service after a court filing from the Nevada Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) found Frontier’s internet services lacking.

Since 2017, BCP has collected scores of complaints about Frontier’s internet service and its performance, mostly regarding slow service, frequent outages, and ongoing billing problems.

The BCP found Frontier liable under NRS Chapter 598 which forbids providers from misleading consumers about internet speed and service performance in marketing and advertising. An Assurance of Discontinuance filed with the court allowed Frontier to settle while avoiding admitting any wrongdoing and agreeing to correct service deficiencies.

The state found Frontier repeatedly did not disclose limitations of broadband service availability and knowingly marketed its DSL service at speeds the company could not provide customers.

According to the court document:

  • Frontier is required to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose in its print and broadcast advertising the actual internet speeds available to customers in terms of minimum and maximum speed.
  • Customers that sign up for a high-speed plan that Frontier cannot provide may switch to a lower speed plan or discontinue service incurring no penalties or early cancellation fees.
  • Existing customers that do not receive at least 90% of the highest speed their current plan advertises will receive a service credit of 50% of the internet charge for each month Frontier did not provide such speed. Credits will begin in 2020 and end three years after the date the court accepts the Assurance.
  • Frontier has also agreed to invest at least $1 million to improve internet service in Elko County.

Charter Spectrum Planning New Rural CBRS Wireless Trials in Upstate New York and Rural North Carolina

A CBRS antenna for fixed wireless broadband was installed on this North Carolina home by Charter Spectrum. (Image: Charter Communications)

Charter Communications is envisioning building out a rural fixed wireless network on the edges of its existing service areas in rural parts of New York and North Carolina to attract new customers without spending money on extending its hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) network to high-cost areas.

Charter has spent more than a year conducting mobility and fixed wireless tests using small cells in several cities across the country to determine if the technology is commercially viable. The company is focusing on two service scenarios: rural areas within a mile or two of its existing cable footprint and urban and suburban areas already served by Spectrum’s HFC network.

Charter’s rural initiative uses the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) band at 3.5 GHz to provide rural fixed wireless service to areas just out of reach of its cable network. Trials of fixed wireless service are already underway or will be soon in exurban and rural areas near Denver, Tampa, Bakesfield, Calif., Coldwater, Mich., and Lexington, Ky. These first trials were designed to prove the concept of delivering high-speed fixed wireless internet in different areas of the country. In 2020, additional trials are planned for rural parts of New York and North Carolina, with a tentative plan to launch service that same year.

“Results of these trials have been promising as we were seeing speeds that significantly exceed the FCC’s definition of high speed broadband in most circumstances which would allow for video streaming and the use of multiple apps simultaneously,” Charter wrote on its Policy Blog. “We believe fixed wireless access technologies using this mid-band spectrum could offer a cost-effective solution for providing broadband service to homes and businesses in harder to reach rural areas.”

The next step for Charter is a full service trial in rural counties in New York and North Carolina that would offer high-speed wireless broadband to residential customers. Charter began testing its fixed wireless service in Davidson County, N.C. roughly between the communities of Lexington and Salisbury. Each of Charter’s four temporary transmitting locations in Davidson County are licensed to serve a radius of up to 9.3 miles, but most customers are significantly closer to the transmitting sites. Participants get free service for the duration of the trial, a free outdoor antenna and a free combination receiver/router. All equipment remains the property of Charter and is to be returned at the end of the trial.

Charter told attendees at last week’s SCTE/ISBE Cable-Tec Expo in New Orleans that results exceeded performance expectations. Customers are getting in excess of 25/3 Mbps service, and there is enough bandwidth left over for Charter to consider offering a true wireless triple play package of video, internet, and home phone service.

Charter’s mobile vans can deploy a CBRS, C-Band, or millimeter wave signal. (Image: Charter Communications)

Craig Cowden, Charter’s senior vice president of wireless technology, told attendees Charter envisions CBRS wireless service to extend the Spectrum cable footprint into rural areas just outside of the cable company’s wired footprint, and a good economic case might be possible to offer service to residents that usually fail the company’s Return On Investment test that governs whether Charter will extend wired service into unserved neighborhoods within their franchise area.

But Cowden also sees Charter deploying CBRS in urban and suburban areas to handle wireless traffic for a growing number of its wireless customers. Spectrum Mobile relies on free Wi-Fi networks and an agreement with Verizon Wireless to provide 4G LTE connectivity for its customers. Charter can begin reducing costs by moving mobile traffic off of Verizon’s network and onto Charter’s own mobile network, likely operating on CBRS frequencies.

The CBRS band is suitable for outdoor traffic, but is likely not going to work well when customers go indoors. Charter plans to hand that traffic back to its extensive network of Wi-Fi hotspots, mostly located at businesses using Spectrum’s commercial service, and the customer’s own in-home Wi-Fi.

Charter has been testing its mobile CBRS service from test transmitters in Tampa and Charlotte, N.C., but plans a much more extensive test in New York and Los Angeles utilizing more than 250 cell sites.

In 2017 and 2018, Charter also filed requests for special temporary authority to test 5G service in the 28 GHz millimeter wave band, but those tests appear to be exploratory and there is no indication a commercial deployment effort is forthcoming soon.

Charter’s Experimental CBRS Projects (based on filings with the FCC for experimental and permanent licenses)

Lexington, Kentucky

WM9LXR was licensed on March 23, 2018 and a CBRS transmitter capable of reaching up to a radius of 9.3 miles was placed on top of the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Lexington North at 2100 Hackney Place in Lexington. The license expired Sept. 19, 2018. A new application to operate this transmitter was filed Nov. 16, 2018 expiring June 4, 2019.

Centennial, Colorado

WM9XTL was licensed on June 1, 2018 and a CBRS transmitter capable of reaching up to 15 miles away was erected just northeast of the Centennial Airport along E. Easter Avenue. This transmitter was designed to experiment with mobile CBRS services. The license expired Dec. 5, 2018.

Another experimental license to test CBRS service was sought Nov. 16, 2018 and expired June 4, 2019.

A license to operate WO9XOY was filed on May 10, 2019 to experiment with a private fixed wireless LTE network in the CBRS band for a corporate client from the same transmitter location as above. The license would expire Dec. 2, 2019.

Los Angeles

WM9XXU was licensed on June 22, 2018 to test CBRS mobile service from four transmitting sites around Baird Park, Van Nuys, Baldwin Hills, and West Anaheim Junction areas. The license expired Dec. 22, 2018.

An application to operate WN9XRT was filed with the FCC on Nov. 16, 2018. CBRS transmitters would operate from the same neighborhoods as above to conduct outdoor and indoor fixed wireless mobile testing within 8 miles of the four fixed locations until Dec. 22, 2018.

An application to run WO9XQW on an experimental basis was filed May 31, 2019 to expire Dec. 19, 2019. The license application described the CBRS test project:

Charter will deploy experimental fixed and mobile equipment in various configurations. Depending on the testing scenario, devices will be deployed on existing aerial cable strand, on existing buildings/poles or indoors.

Specifically, Charter will use the following deployment approaches:

  1. Strand mount deployment: 118ft. height.
  2. Building/pole mount deployment: up to 100ft. height.
  3. Indoors: up to 40ft. height (3rd floor indoor).

New York

WM9XXV was licensed on June 22, 2018 to test various CBRS applications from three transmitter sites:

125th Street & Rockaway Blvd. Jamaica
72nd Street Flushing
South Beach, Staten Island

The license expired Dec. 22, 2018.

An application for WN9XRS was filed with the FCC on Nov. 16, 2018 to expire Dec. 23, 2018 to test CBRS services from the three locations noted above. On May 31, 2019, another application was filed to continue testing until Dec. 19, 2019.

Charlotte, North Carolina

A pending application filed Aug. 28, 2019 for WN9XHY, a CBRS transmitter located on S. Caldwell Street next to Spectrum Center was filed on Aug. 28, 2018. Charter sought to cover a radius of just over 9 miles to test fixed and mobile applications with an expiration of March 16, 2019.

An application for WO9XCX was filed on March 15, 2019 set to expire Sept. 29, 2019. This is a CBRS experimental project to test indoor and outdoor fixed and mobile wireless reception from two fixed transmitter locations located at Spectrum Center and the Clanton Park/Roseland neighborhood. An application for an additional experimental license was filed March 15, 2019 with an operational end date of Sep. 28, 2019.

Tampa, Florida

An application for WN9XHZ, a CBRS transmitter covering up to 8 miles from Ybor Heights was sought on Aug. 28, 2018 to expire March 16, 2019. It was to test fixed and mobile CBRS applications.

Keystone, Iowa

A license to operate WN9XIX from a mobile transmitter van was filed Sept. 6, 2018 to expire March 30, 2019. An additional application to operate a similar CBRS test project was filed Sep. 17, 2019 and set to expire March 28, 2020. On Sep. 20, 2019 an application was filed to operate WP9XIC until March 29, 2020. This latter project is designed “to evaluate 5G frequencies and technologies for their use in point-to-multipoint access network capacity (e.g., rate versus range) and data throughput. The proposed operations will advance Charter’s understanding of technology and network potential using mid-band spectrum and will advance the potential deployment of fixed and mobile 5G services.”

Bowling Green (and Lake Wales), Florida

A license application filed Nov. 28, 2018 proposed to test wireless service in the so-called C-Band spectrum now used by satellites to check how well it performs with the potential of interference from licensed satellite TV services. Outdoor-only tests of wireless service within a two-mile radius of fixed transmitter locations in the vicinity of Bowling Green and Lake Wales were underway until the license for WN9XSQ expired June 10, 2019.

An additional license to further test potential C-Band spectrum for interference issues was sought to begin Dec. 12, 2018 and expiring June 10, 2019.

Davidson County, North Carolina

Charter applied for an ongoing license to operate WJ2XZT, a CBRS project consisting of four transmitters each serving a radius of approximately nine miles, to provide fixed wireless service to customers in this part of rural North Carolina. The transmitters are located at three locations:

153 Sigmon Road, Lexington
185 Chestnut Grove Church Road, Lexington
784 Mount Carmel Road, Lexington

Park City, Utah

On July 3, 2019 the company applied for WK2XIP, a new one-year experimental project:

“As part of its efforts to lead the industry in broadband innovation, Charter intends to conduct fixed wireless experiments in the 3550-3700 MHz band. The proposed operations will advance Charter’s understanding of 5G technology and network potential in mid-band spectrum and will advance the potential deployment of 5G fixed and mobile services.

“Charter will conduct the proposed test using antennas at a location in the Park City, Utah area. These experiments will evaluate the 3550-3700 MHz frequencies and 5G technologies for their use in real-time communications in a low-latency environment.

“The tests will utilize fixed transmitters with a 2km or smaller effective radius. The antennas will be mounted on a hydraulic mast attached to a mobile trailer, which will be located at the requested test location. The radios will be pointed towards the side of the mountain, the peak of which is higher than the peak height of the mast. The trailer mast can be raised to 10.4 meters.”

Colorado Springs, Colorado

An experimental license for WO9XXJ was filed July 18, 2019 to test a millimeter wave 5G network in the 37 GHz band. The license expires Jan. 28, 2020.

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