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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charter Spectrum Shutting Down Home Security Service in February

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

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

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

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

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

A DSL Reports reader is fuming:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customers can subscribe by contacting Spectrum online or by phone.

Analyst Predicts More Streaming TV Providers Will Close as Programming Prices Soar

The era of fierce competition among live streamed video providers that has fueled cord-cutting will face new challenges as providers cope with rising programming costs and some may exit the business.

Last week, Sony’s PlayStation Vue announced it was planning to cease service in early 2020 because it was not profitable for the game console manufacturer. But Cowen analyst Gregory Williams believes it won’t be the last to close its doors.

Williams told Multichannel News that despite the growing phenomenon of cord-cutting, new streaming subscriptions are slowing down as subscribers choose between a half-dozen major services that are all raising prices, including AT&T TV Now, fuboTV, Hulu Live TV, Philo, Sling TV, and YouTube TV. Williams called the current marketplace for streaming services irrational in the business sense, because providers are at the mercy of programmers that are continuing to raise wholesale prices.

Another serious problem is price disparity. Programmers offer huge volume discounts to large cable, satellite, and telco TV providers, charging smaller streaming services considerably more. That could eventually bring streaming subscription prices to parity with the same traditional cable and satellite providers many consumers left looking for a better deal.

Most streaming TV providers have built business models on slimmed-down packages of channels, rejecting the difficult-to-negotiate a-la-carte “choose your own channels” model many customers have been asking for since the days of 100 channel cable TV lineups. As a result, consumers are still paying for lots of channels they do not watch or want, and as subscription costs advance beyond the $50 a month many services are now charging for a healthy package of most popular cable and broadcast networks, some subscribers may end up going back to their old providers.

Ironically, one of the few a-la-carte providers available is a very large cable company you may already know. Charter’s Spectrum has been quietly selling TV Choice, a package of 10 ‘you-pick’ networks (mostly a part of Spectrum’s Standard TV package) combined with C-SPAN, public, educational, and government access channels, home shopping, and local over-the-air stations, to its internet-only customers for $24.95 a month (not including a $6/mo Broadcast TV Fee and an extra $4.95 a month for a cloud-based DVR service). The resulting bill of around $35-40 a month is at least $10 less than many streaming service providers that may not offer the exact channel lineup you are looking for.

The closest alternative is Sling TV, which has very slim packages of networks in three different configurations, ranging from $15-25 a month. But chances are, some channels you watch won’t be included.

Williams predicts that just three to five services will survive the consolidation wave or exit that is expected to be triggered by Sony’s decision to leave the marketplace. The services most vulnerable are likely those lacking a deep-pocketed, healthy corporate backer or those with the least market share.

An executive for one of PlayStation Vue’s rivals told Multichannel News Sony faced platform costs that “were simply too high.” Sony paid broadcast retransmission consent fees to local stations in every market the service was offered and also licensed popular, but very expensive regional sports channels. Sony also outsourced its streaming technology to Disney-owned BAMTech, among the more expensive platform providers.

Telecom Industry Slashes Investments for 2020-2021; Focus on Profit Margins New Priority

Telecom companies are cutting investment in their networks despite promises by Republican members of the FCC that repeal of net neutrality would inspire increased investment.

Charter, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have surprised Wall Street with dramatic cutbacks in spending and investment in their networks, with one provider admitting improving profit margins are now a bigger priority.

As a result, Wall Street analysts are revising down capital expenditure (Capex) estimates in reports to their investor clients.

“Comcast and Charter missed [third quarter] expectations for Capex and guided 2019 lower than previously planned,” reported Nomura in a note to investors. “We have lowered our combined 2019 Capex forecast for Comcast and Charter from $14.6 billion to $14.2 billion.”

AT&T’s drop in network spending was the most dramatic among the country’s top telecom companies. AT&T has declared an end to fiber broadband expansion and slashed spending forecasts from the $23 billion the company spent this year to as little as $20 billion next year, despite claiming it would dramatically expand its 5G service to over two dozen cities over the next 12 months.

In a recent conference call with investors, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said “now it’s time to reap the rewards of what we’ve been doing [and] begin to reward to shareholders these investments that we’ve been making over the last few years.”

Over the next three years, AT&T will pay shareholders $45 billion in dividends and spend $30 billion on buying back shares of AT&T stock to retire debt racked up buying Time Warner (Entertainment). In fact, AT&T will devote 50-75% of its free cash flow exclusively on retiring shares of AT&T stock, which is expected to benefit shareholders.

Verizon reported spending $4.4 billion in the third quarter on network upgrades, approximately $100 million less than expected. That is a concern because Verizon is trying to expand its costly 5G network, but is not devoting the investment dollars required to make such an upgrade happen without cutting investments elsewhere in the company. Verizon has told Wall Street analysts to expect stable Capex spending of $17-18 billion annually for 2019-2021. That will either mean Verizon’s 5G expansion will be modest or the phone company will have to slash investments in other areas, such as wireline, fiber to the home, or business services.

Many analysts expect 5G will be a top spending priority for AT&T and Verizon over the next several years, leaving little room in budgets for upkeep of the company’s legacy landline networks or its other products. Charter and Comcast have effectively stopped spending on large upgrade projects, also as part of improved profit-taking.

The spending realities are in direct conflict with the promises made by Republican members of the FCC. Trump-picked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai repeatedly claimed that banishing net neutrality would lead to significant increases in investment by the nation’s top telecom companies. In fact, the opposite has happened.

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  • Colin: What a terrible waste. I despise Spectrum for pulling this crap. They really suck. No way will I keep any other subscriptions with them after this!...
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