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DSL is Failing Rural America – Service Rarely Achieves FCC’s 25 Mbps Broadband Minimum

With the average speed of DSL service under 10 Mbps in rural counties across the United States, this legacy technology is disenfranchising a growing number of rural Americans and is largely responsible for dragging down overall U.S. internet speed scores. Only satellite internet offers overall lower speed and poor customer satisfaction, according to consumer surveys.

In some areas, customers cannot even get bad DSL service, despite the fact the Federal Communications Commission marks many of those addresses as well-served. According to a new report by the company Broadband Now, the FCC could be claiming at least 20 million Americans have access to robust internet service that, in fact, does not exist, especially in rural counties.

Citylab:

To get its estimate, the Broadband Now team manually ran 11,663 randomly selected addresses through the “check availability” tool of nine large internet service providers that claim to serve those areas. All in all, the team analyzed 20,000 provider-address combinations. A fifth of them indicated that no service was available, suggesting to the researchers that companies may be overstating their availability by 20%, said John Busby, the managing director of Broadband Now. The results also show that 13% of the addresses served by multiple providers didn’t actually have available service through any of them. They then applied these rates across the country to get their final estimate of 42 million people without broadband.

The disparity between their estimate and the FCC’s largely comes from the agency’s reliance on Form 477 reports, in which internet providers self-report the locations they serve. Providers can claim to serve the population of an entire census block if service is provided to just one household in that block. After the release of FCC’s May report, the agency’s Democratic commissioners dismissed the report, berating their colleagues for “blindly accepting incorrect data” and using the numbers to “clap its hands and pronounce our broadband job done.”

Across DSL-heavy rural Ohio, weary residents have nothing to clap about as they desperately look for something better than slow speed DSL from the local phone company.

“It’s a good day when Frontier DSL breaks 2 Mbps, although they advertise (and we pay for) 10 Mbps,” said Fred Phelps, a Frontier DSL customer for more than a decade. “In rural Ohio, it is take it or leave it internet access and we have no choice other than Frontier.”

Phelps has longed for Charter Spectrum to wire his area, next to a large farm operation, but the nearest Spectrum-connected home is a half-mile down the road. Phelps was lucky to get DSL at all. That aforementioned farm paid Frontier a handsome sum to extend its commercial DSL service to the farm’s office, putting Phelps in range for a residential DSL connection.

“It is always slow and frequently goes offline on rainy and snowy days because water is getting into the phone cable somewhere,” Phelps told Stop the Cap! “Service calls are a waste of time because the problem always disappears by the time the repair crew shows up.”

Cindy B (last name withheld at request) is in a similar situation in Ohio. She has a CenturyLink DSL line that averages 1 Mbps, although some of her relatives have managed to get almost 12 Mbps from CenturyLink closer to town.

Warren County, Ky.

“CenturyLink treats you like they are doing you a favor even offering DSL service in this part of Ohio. There is no cable TV service for at least 20 miles, so cable internet is out of the question,” Cindy tells us. “They have also made it crystal clear there are no plans to upgrade service in our area.”

She used to be a Viasat satellite internet customer but quickly canceled service.

“Satellite internet should be considered torture and banned as illegal,” Cindy said. “You can spend five minutes just trying to open an email, and the only time we could download a file was overnight, but even that failed all the time.”

Cindy and Fred are collateral damage of the country’s broadband dilemma. They are stuck with DSL, a service that often wildly over-claims advertised speed that it actually cannot deliver in rural areas. In much of rural Ohio, DSL speeds are usually under 6 Mbps, although companies often claim much faster speed on reports sent to the FCC.

“According to the FCC website, we should be getting 24 Mbps internet from Frontier and two other companies, but that simply does not exist,” said Phelps. “I really don’t understand how the FCC can rely on its own database for broadband speed that is not available and never has been.”

Cindy said her children cannot depend on their DSL line and have to do their homework at school or in the library, where a more dependable Wi-Fi connection exists.

“The problem is getting worse because websites are becoming more elaborate and are designed for people who have real internet connections, so often they won’t even load for us,” she said.

Warren Rural Electric Co-Op’s service area.

But according to the FCC, neither Cindy nor Fred live in a broadband-deprived area. For this reason, public funding to improve internet access is hard to come by because the FCC deems both areas well-served.

South of Ohio, in Warren County, Ky., a local rural electric co-op is not waiting for the State of Kentucky or the federal government to fix inaccurate data about broadband service in the rural exurbs around Bowling Green, usually stuck with slow DSL or no internet access at all. Warren Rural Electric Cooperative and Lafayette, Tenn.-based North Central Telephone Co-Op are working together to lay fiber optic cables to bring fiber to the home internet service to some broadband-deprived communities in the county. Warren RECC serves eight counties in south central Kentucky with over 5,700 miles of electric transmission and distribution lines, mostly in rural parts of the state. Two communities chosen for service as part of a pilot project — Boyce and September Lakes, are more than a little excited to get connected.

The Bowling Green Daily News reports that an informational meeting held in early February drew 300 residents (out of nearly 800) ready to hear more information about the project. Almost 150 signed up for future fiber service on the spot. Many more have subsequently signed up online. The new service will charge $64.95/mo for 100 Mbps service or $94.95 for 1,000 Mbps service. That is about $5 less than what Charter Spectrum charges city folks and is many times faster than what most phone companies are offering in rural Kentucky.

Special Report: Multiple States Dealing With Dangerous Outages at Frontier Communications

Frontier’s office in Charleston, W.V.

Conditions within many Frontier Communications service areas are in a state of dangerous disrepair, with a growing number of disruptions to 911 services and a long wait for urgent repairs of Frontier’s deteriorating landline network that can now take over a month.

A growing number of states are documenting unprecedented service problems at Frontier Communications, the independent phone company providing phone and internet services to homes and businesses in 29 states. News reports predict that the company will be in bankruptcy court as early as March, hoping to discharge or refinance its staggering debts. But until then, some Frontier customers have been unable to reach 911 or rely on their rural landline service for remote medical monitoring, potentially putting their lives at risk.

One of the latest states to report serious deficiencies with Frontier’s service is Wisconsin. At a Dec. 20 public meeting in Mondovi to discuss the quality of service at Frontier, the city administrator heard harrowing tales of rural Wisconsin residents who frantically tried to call 911 and got nothing but a strange busy signal.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported that after Mike Wright’s shed collapsed on him under the weight of multiple feet of snow, his wife’s attempts to reach 911 from their Mondovi home failed again and again. A Frontier technician later admitted 911 was out of service for about eight hours that day. Frontier apparently did not notify customers or the media about the outage.

James Rud, a volunteer firefighter and the town’s street superintendent, told the meeting that was not an unusual situation. A few years earlier, a local dentist’s office repeatedly tried to reach 911 after a disabled girl choked on a piece of dental equipment. There was no answer.

“Everybody’s frantic because they’ve called five times and got a busy signal on 911,” Rud told the meeting, noting that when people call 911 and “nobody picks up, your anxiety level goes from a bad situation to a (really) bad situation.”

That day, 911 operators were waiting to take emergency calls. The calls failed to connect because of network problems at Frontier. Based on a review of state regulator complaints, the problems are growing in size and scope across multiple states served by Frontier. In Wisconsin alone, at least 93 serious complaints were filed with the state’s telecom regulator. The Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection received 405 pages of complaints between January 2019 through January 2020, mostly about poor quality phone and internet service in rural Wisconsin and very long wait times for often ineffective repairs. One complaint from Barneveld even included a physician’s letter emphasizing the urgent need for reliable landline service for a patient in poor medical condition.

There are indications Frontier satisfactorily handled some complaints… eventually, but many customers had to take extraordinary action to get the phone company’s attention about problems the company allegedly ignored for months.

One complainant turned out to be Marathon County IT director Gerald Klein, responsible for maintaining the county’s 911 system. He couldn’t get Frontier to respond to him either, eventually reaching out to Wisconsin state officials as a last resort. Klein complained Frontier was unresponsive “for months” to his county’s request to upgrade a crucial trunk line necessary to activate a new and improved 911 system. He had no idea who to appeal to next.

“Our 911 system is maintained by Frontier but the equipment is long since past end‐of‐life,” Klein wrote in a letter to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission on Dec. 27. “Can I file a complaint with the Wisconsin PSC or can you give me other advice on how to get Frontier’s attention? Is this something that should be given to the FCC?”

Lane

In West Virginia, perhaps the epicenter of Frontier’s epic problems, Public Service Commission chairperson Charlotte Lane, a former Kanawha County delegate, considers Frontier’s performance in her state to be unacceptable.

“Frontier has over 300,000 customers in our state,” Lane said, noting that for many West Virginians Frontier is their sole provider. “In 2019, we received nearly 2,000 complaints from Frontier customers about the company’s phone and internet service. We spend a lot of time responding to these complaints.”

Other media reports count the number of complaints regarding Frontier exceeding 4,000 “over the last couple of years.”

Lane is especially worried about the growing number of 911 outage incidents reported across West Virginia. There were at least a half-dozen high profile outages in 2019 that attracted media attention and scrutiny from local, county, and state legislators.

In July 2019, the PSC commissioned Schumaker and Company to perform an extensive management audit of Frontier Communications. Lane said the audit was critical because Frontier’s performance has been questionable since the company acquired Verizon Communications-owned landlines in the state back in 2010. Lane said Frontier has been cutting staff and maintenance workers in the state, but wanted a definitive report on the company so the PSC can intelligently oversee Frontier’s performance. That report is due to be released on March 19.

West Virginia “has a lot of power and we will exercise it,” Lane said.

The same may not be true in Wisconsin, where a well-funded deregulation campaign by AT&T and other phone companies in Wisconsin won bipartisan favor in 2011, with the full endorsement of then Gov. Scott Walker. One Republican state senator even promised that the new law would result in more than 50,000 new jobs and inspire telecom companies to invest in the state. In fact, AT&T, Frontier, and other phone companies have cut jobs over the last nine years and Frontier has invested little in upgrading its Wisconsin network to more reliable fiber optic technology. Telecom companies also claim deregulation frees them from having to deliver traditional copper-based landline service where most people are now using cell phones, and consumers can always exercise their choice by switching from a disappointing phone company to the local cable operator.

But rural residents in Wisconsin complain they often do not have the option of switching to cell phone or cable service, because there is no reliable cell coverage or local cable operator in many of the areas Frontier services. That has left them vulnerable to the consequences of ending universal landline service and a telecom industry that is investing in upgrades almost exclusively in urban areas.

Even Frontier officials now admit serving rural areas is becoming an unsustainable proposition for the phone company.

A statement from Frontier’s Javier Mendoza.

“Frontier serves only about ten percent of the state voice lines in its service area—and falling—but has 100 percent of the universal service obligation to serve the most rural and high-cost areas,” Frontier spokesperson Javier Mendoza said in a statement about its business in West Virginia in July 2019. “Our customer base continues to decline, while the cost of service per line has increased dramatically. This has resulted in an unsustainable model for providing service in rural and high-cost areas, manifesting in increased numbers of service complaints. We plan to reach out to the state’s leaders to collaboratively find solutions to this difficult challenge.”

West Virginia’s Public Service Commission is undertaking a comprehensive audit of Frontier Communications.

Deregulation in states like Wisconsin has allowed Frontier to escape some of the harsher consequences from regulators held responsible for ensuring customers have reliable access to basic phone service. That leaves many rural customers vulnerable to whatever goodwill exists at private telecommunications companies to continue offering service.

Observers suggest Chapter 11 bankruptcy will allow Frontier to shed its punishing level of debt many believe is responsible for Frontier’s ongoing lack of investment in network upgrades. But others believe Frontier is more likely to seek a sale of its rural service areas to focus on its more profitable urban service areas, especially in California, Texas, and Florida. Frontier has already announced a sale of its landline network in the Pacific Northwest to a regional telecommunications company promising to scrap much of Frontier’s copper wire infrastructure in favor of fiber optics.

In the meantime, problems at Frontier’s operations are ongoing. Last week, a “massive phone outage” in Cabell County, W.V. took down phone service across large parts of the county.

Earlier this month, Frontier officials were called to a meeting to address complaints about poor service in Tennessee. In attendance were Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster, Crossville City Mayor James Mayberry, Senator Paul Bailey and U.S. Representative John Rose. The complaints were called “severe” by the public officials and dangerous to public safety.

“Frontier officials appeared to have no definitive answer to the complaints,” reported 3B Media.

Plumas County, Calif. officials are alarmed about reports of Frontier’s possible bankruptcy. District 2 Supervisor Kevin Goss said he is a Frontier customer that has experienced firsthand the issues he says all Indian Valley residents experience: paying for high speeds and experiencing low speeds in return. Goss said Frontier’s broadband service often works only intermittently for a few hours at a time. Incoming residents often cannot subscribe to broadband service at all, after Frontier allegedly placed a moratorium on adding new DSL customers in the area in 2018. Koss claims he has seen no evidence Frontier plans to invest in service expansion and the DSL moratorium remains in place two years later.

In Minnesota, the state’s Public Utility Commission recently reached a settlement with Frontier over its poor quality landline and broadband service, particularly in rural areas. But now the Minnesota Department of Commerce is launching a new investigation focusing on Frontier’s billing and customer service practices.

“We are concerned about Frontier’s practices when customers are signing up for service and the prospect that Minnesotans are being overcharged for their phone service,” said Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley.

A broken Frontier telephone pole. (Left) Frontier phone cables left stretched against a tree (Right) Images: PUCO

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has just launched another investigation into Frontier Communications, focusing on the company’s billing and customer service practices. The primary issues under investigation include whether Frontier failed to inform customers of their service options and whether Frontier enrolled customers in long distance service plans that customers did not want or use.

“We are concerned about Frontier’s practices when customers are signing up for service and the prospect that Minnesotans are being overcharged for their phone service,” said Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley.

In Ohio, state regulators are tangling with Frontier over network and infrastructure upkeep practices. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is taking issue with Frontier’s attempts to ‘pass the buck’ on pole and infrastructure maintenance. Patricia Binkiewicz says her family is collateral damage in that battle, after her husband’s car was struck by a falling branch hanging over Route 43 in Carroll County — a branch Frontier should have dealt with over a year ago.

“If you drive, especially around here, you’re going to see these trees hanging over lines and they don’t realize no one is claiming responsibility, accountability, any liability or damages if a tree should fall down,” Binkiewicz said. Attempts to have Frontier Communications deal with overgrown trees and brush fell on deaf ears. The company claimed that was the responsibility of ODOT. No so fast, ODOT responds.

A Frontier installer draped a new line across this customer’s residential propane tank, and then left. (Image courtesy: Mark Steil, MPR News)

“Utilities that run in the state’s right of way are to be maintained by the utility company,” ODOT spokesperson Lauren Borell said. “So, what that means is if there’re trees there, the utility company is responsible for those trees.”

When the story made the local news, ODOT removed the offending tree, but there is no word how many other trees represent accidents waiting to happen. Local officials claim Frontier has shown a lack of interest in investment.

That lack of investment is also apparent in the state of Utah, where the Utah Public Service Commission is continuing its investigation into Frontier Communications as a result of complaints from Castle Valley and the nearby area that the company failed to provide reliable service to customers. Julie Price, a spokesperson for Utah’s Division of Public Utilities, said her agency is concerned about the “company’s level of investment in Utah.”

The consequences of deregulation of phone service in rural areas dependent on landlines may eventually include unnecessary deaths from an inability to reach emergency services due to a service outage or network problem. Observers note that cell phone service remains spotty, especially indoors, in large sections of rural America. Some wireless carriers like T-Mobile and Sprint barely provide any direct coverage in states like West Virginia, and AT&T and Verizon offer solid service primarily in larger cities.

It remains unlikely rural cell service will ever be ubiquitous in many rural areas, because there will not be enough customers to make such investments profitable. Instead, for over a century consumers have traditionally relied on universally available landline telephone service. But as deregulation efforts weaken or eliminate universal service requirements, local phone companies may eventually cease offering landline service. AT&T is already experimenting with eliminating legacy phone lines in favor of wireless service, with mixed results. An effort by Verizon to replace deteriorating rural landlines with a wireless landline replacement proved unpopular and unreliable.

What compelled local phone companies to provide universal, high quality landline service for decades was strong regulatory enforcement with stiff fines for non-compliance. Repairs were expected to be made in most cases within a day or two, not four to nine weeks. Public safety from overgrown trees and brush near telephone company-owned utility poles is also a growing and relatively recent problem. In some cases, deregulation has left regulators unable to police the condition of utility poles that present a safety risk, and that task has now fallen on local media that can embarrass a company into fixing problems.

Public policy advocates recommend Frontier be held accountable for the quality of their service and states should strongly consider rolling back deregulation, especially in rural areas.

Cable Companies See Big Growth in Broadband and Wireless, Big Losses in TV

Most analysts are predicting this past year will be the worst yet for video customer losses, with nearly two million cable TV customers cutting the cord in 2019, up from 1.26 million in 2018. Business is even worse for satellite TV operators, which lost 1.2 million customers in 2018 and are expected to have shed another 3.25 million customers in 2019 — mostly because of mass customer defections at AT&T’s DirecTV. Altogether, over five million Americans are estimated to have cut the cord over the past year.

Investors have largely stopped worrying about video subscriber losses, and cable operators have boldly told Wall Street they have stopped chasing video customers threatening to cancel service, claiming many are no longer profitable enough to keep. Their key competitors, online streaming video services like Sling TV, AT&T TV Now, and Hulu with Live TV are also seeing subscriber gains slowing, most likely because of price increases. One analyst predicted these online cable TV replacements would add a combined 804,000 customers in 2019, less than half of the 2.3 million they added in 2018.

Cable companies seem unfazed, in part because of record-breaking gains they are expected to have made in internet and wireless customers in the last year. One analyst suggests that most of those gains are coming directly at the expense of phone companies.

Comcast and Charter are the two largest cable companies in the United States.

“Cable’s clear speed advantage in roughly half the U.S. is driving continued strong share performance,” Jayant told clients in a research note. Jayant expects some of the biggest gains will come from ex-DSL customers in Comcast and Charter Spectrum’s service areas.

Nationwide, cable operators likely added 3.1 million new broadband customers in 2019, up 15% over last year. Phone companies are predicted to have lost at least 402,000 internet customers, up from 342,000 in 2018. Most of those departing customers are not served by fiber broadband.

Both Comcast and Charter Spectrum are also successfully attracting a growing number of mobile customers, as is Altice USA. Charter and Comcast offer their broadband customers the option of signing up for wireless mobile service, powered by Verizon Wireless. Altice USA resells Sprint service at cut-rate prices.

Comcast is estimated to have added 778,000 wireless customers in 2019 and analysts predict that the company will add another 909,000 in 2020. Charter Spectrum is expected to have gained 923,000 wireless customers in 2019, with another 1.04 million likely to sign up in 2020. Altice USA’s deal with Sprint in its Cablevision/Optimum service area has already attracted about 80,000 customers, with 550,000 more likely to follow in 2020.

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Vetoes Public Rural Broadband Feasibility Study as the Unserved Struggle On

No service.

Despite New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $500 million, 2015 Broadband for All initiative which guaranteed broadband service for anyone  that wanted home internet access, five years later rural broadband gaps continue to plague the state.

A bill that would set aside funds to complete a feasibility study to launch a state owned broadband provider of last resort was quietly vetoed by Cuomo at the end of 2019. Assembly member Aileen Gunther (D-Monticello) sponsored the bill after hearing scores of complaints about terrible or non-existent internet access from constituents in her district, which covers the parts of the rural Catskills region north of the Pennsylvania border.

Gunther complained that despite the governor’s broadband initiative, private phone and cable companies were still ignoring rural customers, leaving them with slow DSL service or no internet access at all. Gunther’s bill was a first step in potentially allowing the state to step in and provide service to New Yorkers unable to get broadband from any private provider.

New York has spent over $500 million on its Broadband for All program and made Charter Spectrum an integral part of its broadband expansion plans in return for approval of its 2016 acquisition of Time Warner Cable. But a growing number of the governor’s critics claim the program has failed to deliver on its mandate, stranding thousands of New Yorkers without internet service and tens of thousands more with just one option — unpopular satellite internet access.

Gunther

Gunther was upset to learn that New York was prepared to hand over more than a half billion dollars to large private telecom companies including Frontier Communications and Verizon while not being willing to spend a penny to fund projects to reach New Yorkers for-profit companies could not be dragged kicking and screaming to service.

“We’re all spending millions and millions of dollars on privately owned internet service providers,” said Gunther. “In return for promises, a lot of our communities do not have access to the internet, or if they do have access to the internet, it’s slow and these companies are not, I think, fulfilling the promises made.”

The rural broadband problem is not resolved in the Finger Lakes or Southern Tier regions of New York either. This week, Yates County announced it was joining an effort by Schuyler, Steuben, and Tioga counties, and the Southern Tier Network, to complete a broadband feasibility study to improve internet access in the four counties. Fujitsu Broadband will manage the study and hopes to have results by June. The study will target the pervasive problem of inadequate broadband service in the region, which includes crucial tourist, winery, and agricultural businesses vital to New York’s rural economy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York in 2015.

Gov. Cuomo has called such initiatives “well-intentioned” but was non committal about contributing more state funds to construct new networks or underwrite further expansion of existing ones. New York is about to begin its annual hard-fought budget negotiations in hopes of completing the state budget by April. Finding funding for such projects will probably require a powerful political advocate able to wrestle funding for further broadband improvements.

Even after spending $500 million, New York’s rural broadband problem has not been resolved. That offers insight into the merits of other state broadband programs, which often limit annual broadband expansion funding to under $30 million annually.

Those still without service are likely in high-cost service areas, where each customer could cost over $20,000 to reach. New York’s Broadband for All program relied on a reverse auction that required private companies to bid to service each unserved address. No wireline provider bid on any high-cost service areas, leaving Hughes Satellite as a subsidized satellite provider of last resort. But inadequate broadband mapping left scores of rural New Yorkers behind without even the option of subsidized satellite internet access.

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.

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