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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.

Cable One’s Costly Internet Service Helps Cable Company Achieve Record Profits

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2019 Cable One, Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps 1 Comment

Using a combination of lack of competition, high-priced service plans, and data caps, Cable One is once again the nation’s most profitable cable broadband provider, charging residential customers a record-breaking average of $72.09 a month.

Late last week, the country’s fifth largest cable company reported excellent results to its shareholders, as the company collected the proceeds from increasing rates on broadband service while shedding unprofitable cable television customers.

Cable One serves small and mid-sized cities, mostly in the mid-south, Rockies, New Mexico and Arizona. It has grown larger with the acquisition of NewWave and Fidelity Communications, and told investors on a quarterly results conference call the company would take some of its recent gains and move towards further acquisitions in the near future. NewWave customers will now face Cable One’s stiff data caps, rolling out across legacy NewWave service areas in November and December. NewWave customers have already found their cable television package pruned back to match the current Cable One package, which omits Viacom-owned networks. The same will hold true for Fidelity’s customers once the two companies merge systems.

 

Laulis

Revenues for the third quarter were $285 million compared to $268.3 million at the same time last year, representing a 6.2% increase. Even with the high cost of service, the number of Cable One internet customers is increasing, primarily because competing phone companies typically offer little beyond DSL. In the last quarter, Cable One added 7,400 new internet customers and boosted broadband revenue by 8.2%.

“Cable One still has one of the industry’s lowest broadband penetration of homes passed at just 32.2% and, with limited fiber-based competition, their ceiling is arguably one of the highest in the industry,” Moffett Nathanson analyst Craig Moffett told investors. “They are at last growing the broadband business at a rate fast enough to drive meaningfully higher penetration.”

Cable One makes no secret it now calls itself a broadband company and has been de-emphasizing cable television service over the last few years. In fact, customers who cut the cord are doing Cable One a favor because broadband-only customers boost their overall profit margins. Unlike cable television, where licensing expenses are growing, the cost to provide and support broadband service is dropping — even as Cable One raises internet pricing and constrains customer usage with industry-low data caps. That forces customers to upgrade to more costly, higher speed service plans to get a larger data allowance. Cable One also offers a $40/mo add-on that restores unlimited service, which is popular with their premium customers. Once a customer uses more than 5 TB, their speed is throttled.

“I think the interesting thing that I took note of is that the higher [the] speed that our consumer takes the higher the percentage of unlimited [plan] selling. So that is to say if you take our gig service the percentage of customers that take unlimited there is the highest of any consumer group,” noted Cable One CEO Julia M. Laulis.

Pricing is expected to rise further unless phone companies compete with fiber broadband, an unlikely scenario in the rural and exurban areas Cable One serves.

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.

Comcast Completes Speed Upgrade in Northeast, But Data Cap For Many Stubbornly Remains

Despite a recognition that customers are using more data than ever as they cut traditional cable television in favor of streaming, Comcast’s data cap remains stubbornly fixed at 1 TB a month.

The nation’s largest cable operator last week completed a significant speed upgrade in 14 states in its Northeast and Mid-Atlantic service areas from Maine to Virginia. Some plans are getting as much as a 60% speed boost, but Comcast is not budging a megabyte on its fixed data cap that amounts to 1,000 GB of usage per month.

Comcast acknowledges the speed upgrades are designed to meet the exponential increase in demand for high-bandwidth video streaming in households that now average at least ten devices connected to the internet. Many of those devices are now streaming 4K video, which takes double the bandwidth of traditional HD video.

The speed upgrades:

  • Performance Starter: was 15 Mbps, now 25 Mbps
  • Performance: upgrades from 60 Mbps to 100 Mbps
  • Performance Pro: up from 150 Mbps to 200 Mbps
  • Blast: A slight upgrade from 250 Mbps to 300 Mbps
  • Extreme: This premium plan used to provide 400 Mbps, but it is now 600 Mbps.

Comcast faces significant competition in this part of the country from Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home network. That may explain why it is also the only significant part of Comcast’s service area that remains exempted from the cable company’s data caps. Verizon has no data cap of consequence, although the company has shut down some customers that were likely using their residential internet connection as a server, running up many terabytes of usage a month.

For now, Comcast’s speed upgrades come with no price hike.

The speed increases are likely to be welcomed by most customers, but Comcast’s pervasive data cap for most of its nationwide footprint is not. In November, that data cap will be tested like never before as Google launches its Stadia cloud-based video game service. Up to six million broadband customers are expected to blow through their provider’s monthly data cap while using the service, which replaces traditional home game consoles. That is because Stadia will consume an enormous amount of bandwidth — as much as 15.75 GB an hour at 4K resolution.

An article published by Vice Media warned video game enthusiasts they could easily face steep overlimit usage penalties on a future bill:

According to data from The NPD Group, America’s estimated 34 million gamers play 22 hours per week on average. Were those gamers to all shift to Stadia as their primary game platform at 4K, they’d burn through 1,386 GB of data monthly. And that’s just the bandwidth consumed by gaming; it doesn’t include music and video streaming or other activities.

The result will be an even higher broadband bill for US consumers who already pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for bandwidth. For many this will be a surprise. Of the 943 gamers surveyed by the company, only 17 percent were certain they had a broadband cap. 21 percent say they weren’t sure one way or the other whether their broadband was metered.

Most providers set their overlimit penalty at $10 per 50 GB of excess usage. Some offer to waive data caps for a monthly additional charge of $50. That makes Google’s $10 video game service much less of a bargain than many initially thought.

When questioned about the impact data caps could have on Stadia, Google vice president Phil Harrison hoped the nation’s ISPs would do the right thing by their customers.

“ISPs have a strong history of staying ahead of consumer trends and if you look at the history of data caps in those small number of markets…the trend over time, when music streaming and download became popular, especially in the early days when it was not necessarily legitimate, data caps moved up,” he said. “Then with the evolution of TV and film streaming, data caps moved up, and we expect that will continue to be the case.”

Except Harrison’s utopian world view is not accurate. In fact, most broadband providers have set data caps and left them unchanged for years, even as those same companies promote frequent speed upgrades. In effect, more and more customers are running over their usage allowances and either paying steep penalties, reducing usage, or agreeing to pay another $50 a month to dispense with the cap altogether.

Vice author Karl Bode reminds readers “broadband caps are complete nonsense.”

“Experts say the real purpose of such limits is to covertly jack up your already expensive broadband bill—and punish customers looking to cut the cord on traditional cable TV services,” Bode added.

Correction: Data cap expressed at 1,000 MB changed to 1,000 GB to reflect the correct allowance.

California Governor Vetoes Rural Broadband Development Bills; AT&T and Frontier Benefit the Most

Gov. Newsom

California’s efforts to address the state’s ongoing rural broadband problems made little headway in 2019, as Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the past week vetoed (or allowed to expire) the only two broadband measures surviving the treacherous journey through the California legislature.

Assembly Bill 1212 would have made rural broadband a priority for Caltrans — California’s Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Resources, including broadband on recommended lists of projects for funding consideration by two of the state’s largest pension investment funds: the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System. Current state law only allows pension boards to invest in in-state infrastructure projects that meet certain fiduciary responsibilities. By expanding investment projects to include telecommunications, funding from two major pension funds might have been unlocked and made available to future rural internet projects.

Assembly Bill 417, also known as the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Act, included several measures targeting rural farming. Two passages in the bill would have included broadband expansion as a new priority for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (DFA):

Due to the central role of agriculture in rural California, it is necessary to achieve a detailed understanding of the economic value that agriculture brings to rural communities and to identify opportunities to improve agricultural productivity, including by increasing broadband access, advancing agricultural innovation, technology, and education, and supporting a well-trained, productive rural workforce, to benefit rural communities.

[…] Making recommendations to the secretary on actions to further the development of rural agricultural economies, including, but not limited to, increasing broadband access, providing technical, resource, and regulatory compliance assistance, advancing agricultural innovation and technology, establishing programs for education and workforce development, and evaluating recreation and tourism opportunities.

Several other proposed measures, including AB 1409 which would have created a fund for providing wireless hotspots for students and Wi-Fi service on school buses was killed last spring behind closed doors in the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. The annual attempt by AT&T and other telecom companies to write their own laws to deregulate themselves (this time AB 1366), was suddenly pulled from committee consideration by its author back in September.

That the two mild measures made it through the legislature to the governor’s desk was not surprising considering the sheer number of minor bills that pile up on Newsom’s desk. But for both to suffer quiet deaths through veto or expiration despite almost no public opposition speaks to the power of Sacramento insider politics.

Newsom’s explanation for killing AB 1212 was hardly compelling, as he explained he felt the measure was “unnecessary” because “existing law already encourages public retirement systems to invest in state infrastructure.” But that explanation ignores decades of state government bureaucracy, where agencies zealously guard their funding and protect their own existing project priorities to the hilt. AB 417 would have expanded the mission of the DFA, something the governor argued should only be done in the state budget and only within the specific context of the broader mission of the department, whatever that means. The head of the DFA was likely thrilled anyway.

Telecom consultant Steve Blum notes Caltrans and other state agencies were unlikely to ever consider rural broadband a funding priority, unless it was intended for their own use. Blum also believes the most likely suspects responsible for convincing the governor to kill both bills were the heads of the departments themselves.

“The simplest explanation for Newsom’s vetoes is that Caltrans, DWR and/or DFA staff asked him to do it, because those are jobs they don’t want to do,” Blum wrote on his blog. “That sort of opposition was why a Caltrans dig once policy bill was watered down in 2016.”

Blum believes the state’s largest phone companies will benefit the most from the outcome of the 2019 legislative session.

“Newsom’s vetoes bolster AT&T’s and Frontier’s rural monopoly business model, which redlines poorer and less densely populated communities and leaves them with low speed DSL service, if they’re lucky enough to get anything at all,” he wrote.

The loss of AB 1212 and 417 won’t change much for Californians waiting for rural broadband. Neither measure would have led to any immediate improvement in internet access in the less populated areas of the state. But the measures would have set a foundation to bring two more state agencies into the fight to tackle rural broadband issues.

Ultimately, just as in other states, a large amount of money will have to be found to wire those still without internet access. Governments and regulators can either make rural internet expansion a contingency of future merger deals or other business-government transactions or find suitable funding to subsidize the cost of internet expansion by for-profit companies, rural co-ops, or local governments willing to tackle the problem on the local level.

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