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Charter Spectrum CEO Says Company Using Tax Breaks to Buy Back Its Own Stock

Rutledge

Charter Communications is using the benefits of the Republican-promoted tax cut to buy back its own stock, because the only other option under consideration was using the money to buy up other cable operators.

“From a [mergers and acquisitions] perspective, I think cable is a great business. If there were assets for sale that we could do more of, we would do that,” said Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge at this week’s UBS Global Media & Communications Conference. “We’ve been buying a lot of our own stock back. Why? Because we think the cable business is a great business and we haven’t been able to buy other cable assets.”

Charter is not using the company’s lower tax rate to benefit Spectrum customers with lower bills or more extravagant upgrades. Instead, it is accelerating efforts to please shareholders and executives with efforts to boost its share price — something key to top executives’ performance bonuses.

With digital and broadband upgrades nearly complete in areas formerly served by Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks — the cable companies Charter acquired in 2016 — Rutledge told investors he can initiate additional upgrades without spending huge sums on infrastructure buildouts.

Gigabit speed is now available in most markets, and the company has doubled its lowest internet download speeds in areas where it faces significant competition from AT&T from 100 to 200 Mbps, boosting sales of Spectrum broadband service, according to Rutledge.

Today, about 60% of Spectrum customers are offered 100 Mbps, while the other 40% — mostly in AT&T service areas — are getting 200 Mbps.

Rutledge told investors he does not see much threat from Verizon FiOS or its newly launched 5G offerings, and has no immediate plans to upgrade service in Verizon service areas because neither offering seems that compelling.

“I saw that Verizon had some passings that they could do 800 Mbps in,” Rutledge said. “We have 51 million passings that we can do 1 gigabit in and we can go to 10 gigabits relatively inexpensively and I think we will because I think the world will go to 10 gigabits.”

Analysts are uncertain whether Rutledge’s comments are naïve or brave.

“We see 5G fixed wireless broadband [like that offered by Verizon] as the largest existential threat to broadband providers, by far,” wrote analysts at Cowen. Until now, most broadband competition for cable operators came from phone companies pitching DSL. Verizon retrenched on its FiOS offering several years ago. But AT&T has been more aggressive upgrading urban areas to fiber service, which has forced Charter to respond with higher speeds and better promotions.

Rutledge does not see Verizon’s 5G being a significant competitive threat for several years, and suspects Wall Street may once again punish Verizon for spending money on a wireless network less capable than what the cable industry offers today. Shareholders may also dislike watching Verizon distracted by the home broadband market when portable wireless revenues are much more important to the company.

Verizon officials claim about half of those signing up for its 5G service plan were not current Verizon customers. But the company would not say whether their new fixed wireless customers were coming largely from cable or DSL disconnects, which would prove marketplace disruption.

Frontier Left Residents in N.Y.’s North Country Out of Service for 10 Days

A snowstorm, in winter, in Upstate New York, was the excuse Frontier Communications gave for leaving scores of residents in the Minerva-Johnsburg area without phone or internet service for as long as 10 days this month.

“We are aware of a service interruption in Minerva and have been delayed by a snowstorm that impeded access and diverted resources starting Friday,” Javier Mendoza, vice president of corporate communications and external affairs at Frontier, told The Sun.

The company routinely blames external factors for wide scale service interruptions, which often impact Frontier’s rural customers, totally reliant on aging copper wire infrastructure the company has refused to replace.

“Often [service outages] are due to uncontrollable circumstances like commercial power outages, severe weather, construction crews damaging telecom cables, cars hitting telephone poles or telecom equipment cabinets,” Mendoza said. “These causes can also delay response and restoral efforts beyond Frontier’s control.”

But customers in several states where Frontier provides the only internet access around are just as concerned by poor service that is within Frontier’s control.

Johnsburg’s town supervisor is one of them, complaining regularly about the poor quality of Frontier’s internet service, powered by DSL. It suffers frequent service outages.

Minerva-Johnsburg, N.Y.

“It’s been widespread throughout the town,” Supervisor Andrea Hogan told the newspaper. “People can’t run businesses with that.”

Those who rely on the internet to work from home are challenged by Frontier’s DSL service and frequent service problems.

Greg and Ellen Schaefer retired to the community of North River and planned to do part-time work remotely over the internet. They pay Frontier $228 a month for a package of satellite TV, landline, and internet service. On a good day, they achieve a maximum of 3 Mbps for downloads and 0.5 Mbps for uploads. But in Frontier country, where good days can be outnumbered by bad ones, the couple has often been forced into their car in search of good Wi-Fi. Some days they work from the local library, others they park by an AT&T cell tower near the base of Gore Mountain to use their car’s built-in AT&T hotspot.

Predictably, the Schaefers question the value for money they receive from Frontier Communications.

Frontier’s name conjures up the notion of a phone company providing service in the rough and rugged Old West, but Glenn Pearsall told The Sun he prefers to think of Frontier as an antique three-speed car, offering customers the choice of “dim, flickering,” or “off.”

Pearsall pays Frontier for internet speeds advertised at 6-10+ Mbps, but receives 0.69 Mbps for downloads and 0.08 Mbps for uploads at his home in Garnet Lake. A typical Microsoft Office software update takes approximately 48 hours to arrive, assuming one of many frequent service outages does not force the upgrade to start anew.

The problem for most Frontier DSL customers, especially in rural areas, is the distance between the company’s local exchange office and customers. The further away one lives, the slower the speed.

Many rural telephone exchanges have tens of thousands of feet in copper wire between the central office and an outlying customer. As a result, in the most rural areas, no internet service is available at all.

Frontier is accepting millions in Connect America Funds (CAF) — paid for by ordinary customers on their phone bill, to expand internet access into unserved areas. Frontier has to replace at least some of its copper wiring with fiber optics, which does not degrade significantly with distance. It can then reach customers part of the way over its existing copper facilities, which saves the company millions in replacement costs.

Demand for internet service and constantly rising traffic volumes suggests Frontier must regularly upgrade its equipment and backhaul connectivity. But in some areas, the company has failed to keep up with demand, resulting in online overcrowding. Customers that access the internet during peak usage times in the evenings report dramatic slowdowns and web pages that refuse to load — both symptoms of oversold network capacity.

Frontier is an integral part of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rural broadband initiative, which promises 99.9% of New Yorkers will have access to high-speed internet. The company collected $9.7 million in January 2018 to expand service to another 2,735 customers in the North Country, Southern Tier, and Finger Lakes region. The company claims it will deliver 100 Mbps internet speed to those customers in its news releases, but also warns what the company claims is never guaranteed.

“Our products state in our literature what you ‘may’ get. So it’s speeds ‘as fast as.’ You may not get 6 Mbps every moment of the day,” admitted Jan van de Carr, manager for community relations and government affairs.

It is that kind of mentality that has Pearsall keeping a bottle of champagne at the ready on the day he can disconnect Frontier service for good. But considering the alternative is likely to be satellite internet offered by Hughes, that bottle is likely to remain corked for a long time into the future.

Windstream’s “Aspirational” Broadband: DSL Customers Not Getting Advertised Speed

An unhappy customer in Georgia.

Victor Brown, like many residential customers in rural northeastern Ohio, has one option for internet access — Windstream, an independent phone company that typically serves areas larger companies like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink forgot. For 17 years, his internet speed has been absolutely consistent, and slow.

“It’s 1.2 Mbps day or night, no more and no less, and for that they are charging me $58 a month,” Brown told Stop the Cap! “In that time, there has never been an upgrade, a real commitment to improve service, or anything except repetitive sales calls and mailers offering to upgrade me to a faster speed level Windstream cannot actually deliver.”

Windsteam has told its investors that it expects to offer 60% of its customers at least 25 Mbps service by the end of 2018. In fact, Brown has already been offered that for nearly a year, but the service is not actually available.

“They will switch you to 25 Mbps today, with the higher bill to boot, but you won’t actually get any better speed than you have right now,” Brown said. “I know because we tried.”

Brown and several of his neighbors all attempted to upgrade to the higher-speed service advertised. Windstream accepted their orders, charged them more, and delivered exactly the same 1.2 Mbps service they have always had.

“It took a service technician coming out to make it clear to us there was no way we would ever get faster speed because there was too much copper wiring between their office and our homes,” Brown said. “The technician felt for us, and about half of his service calls were disappointing customers like us.”

Brown explained the Windstream technician candidly told him that the company’s head office is behind the speed upgrades, but does not actually have a clear understanding of the state of the local network. Marketing then sells customers on better service Windstream’s network is not capable of providing.

“They need to spend money to replace some copper with fiber but there is no money for that,” Brown said. “The most the technician could suggest was installing a bonded DSL connection that would use two different phone lines and deliver 2.4 Mbps. That would come at a price, however.”

Ruth in Cochranton, Penn., is in exactly the same position.

“We are paying for internet speed that we aren’t receiving,” Ruth complained. “It is so slow that we have a hard time getting a short 50 second video to load. Forget watching a YouTube video, it’s not going to happen.”

Over in Lilitz, Penn., Eileen and her neighbors were also dealing with temporary phone lines Windstream installed by dropping both on their lawns and then leaving them unburied for nine months. She cannot get anyone from the company to bury the lines despite seven separate phone calls. Down the street, internet and phone outages can last a week after a strong rainstorm hits the area, and since the weather has turned much colder, hum and crackle on the neighborhood’s phone lines have disrupted phone calls and DSL service. Nobody from Windstream has come to fix the problem.

Windstream tells a very different story to its investors in the form of ‘upgrades by press release’ and cheerful investor conference calls that claim dramatic improvements in service and growth. While cable operators are touting increasing availability of gigabit service, phone companies like Windstream are promising to give a little more than half their customers the minimum definition of broadband service — 25/3 Mbps, by the end of this year. Many of Windstream’s other half get nothing close to those speeds, with 1-3 Mbps common in rural areas.

Wall Street balks at the dollar amounts it would take for Windstream to fully update its network to offer broadband speeds that were common for cable subscribers a decade ago. That kind of network investment would likely drive down the share price, impact shareholder dividends or stock buyback plans, and increase debt. Instead, many phone companies are hoping the federal government will come to the rescue and subsidize rural network improvements through the FCC’s Connect America Fund or government grants. But many of those grants won’t deliver service improvements to existing customers. Instead it will allow rural phone companies to bring broadband to customers who never had it before.

Even the threat of new competition has not inspired many investor-owned phone companies to embark on a spending spree. That competition may eventually come from new wireless broadband services like 5G, but most observers predict that will be years away in the rural communities Windstream traditionally serves. Where Windstream does face competition, it often still loses market share, usually to the local cable company.

“My sister has Comcast and although they are evil as can be, at least their internet speed matches what they sell, and it is shockingly fast in comparison to what DSL has given me for nearly 20 years,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, no cable company is going to wire us up. There are only a few houses on my street.”

Brown believes it is time for the federal government to start insisting that investor-owned phone companies do better.

“We have universal service laws for landlines but not for internet? That does not make sense to me,” Brown tells us. “Isn’t it time for the government to insist that all providers deliver at least 25 Mbps service to their customers? They are not going to do it without someone ordering them to.”

VIDEO: How Big Telecom Isolates Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

Across the country, state legislatures have created barriers to community involvement in expanding internet access.

In Tennessee, lobbyists from AT&T, Charter, and Comcast spread huge campaign contributions around the state legislature. AT&T’s influence is felt in the governor’s own broadband expansion legislation, which was tailor-written to allow the phone company to collect huge taxpayer subsidies to expand inferior DSL into rural parts of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, some local communities seeking to build state-of-the-art fiber to the home networks capable of delivering 10 gigabit service found that doing so would be illegal under state law.

Think about that for a moment.

A multi-billion dollar telecom company is allowed to expand its slow speed DSL network with taxpayer-funded grants while your local community is forbidden to bring fiber optic service to your home even if your community votes to support such a project. Exactly who is the governor and state legislature working for when it comes to resolving Tennessee’s rural broadband nightmare?

In part two of this series, watch State Senator Janice Bowling describe how much influence AT&T has over the Tennessee state legislature. (5:31)

Net Neutrality… Violated: Nearly Every U.S. Wireless Operator is Throttling You

Phillip Dampier November 8, 2018 Issues 3 Comments

Nearly every wireless provider in the United States is intentionally slowing down your data service, detrimentally affecting smartphone apps and video streaming.

That is the conclusion of researchers at Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts — Amherst and Stony Brook University, studying the results of more than 100,000 Wehe app users that have run 719,417 tests in 135 countries verifying net neutrality compliance, before and after the open internet rules were repealed in the U.S. earlier this year.

The raw data collected from the app is used as part of a validated, peer-reviewed method of determining which ISPs are throttling their customers’ connections and what services are being targeted.

Nearly Every Mobile Provider Is Throttling Your Speed, Even on “Unlimited” Plans

The researchers concluded that nearly every wireless provider is throttling at least one streaming video service, some reducing speeds the most for customers on budget priced plans while higher value customers are throttled less. No ISP consistently throttled all online video, setting up an unfair playing field for companies that benefit from not being throttled against those that are. Few customers noticed much difference in the performance of streaming video  after the repeal of net neutrality in the U.S., largely because the wireless companies involved — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and others — were already quietly throttling video.

“Our data shows that all of the U.S. Cellular ISPs that throttled after June 11th were already throttling prior to this date,” the researchers wrote. “In short, it appears that U.S. Cellular ISPs were ignoring the [former FCC Chairman Thomas] Wheeler FCC rules pertaining to ‘no throttling’ while those rules were still in effect.”

Summary of Detected Throttling

For each ISP, the researchers included tests only where a user’s set of tests indicated differentiation (speed throttling of specific apps or services) for at least one app and did not detect differentiation for at least one other app. This helps to filter out many false positives. As a result, the number of tests in this table is substantially lower than the total number of tests Wehe users ran. The researchers sorted the Cellular ISPs based on the number of tests from users of each ISP. If they did not detect differentiation, researchers used the entry “Not detected.” The researchers claim that offers enough evidence that throttling is not happening. In some cases researchers do not have enough tests to confirm whether there is throttling, indicated by “No data.” 

The table has two column groups for the results: before the new FCC rules took effect on June 11th, and after. If behavior changed from after June 11th, it is highlighted in bold

SP App Before Jun 11th After Jun 11th
Throttling rate (s) # tests # users* Throttling rate # tests # users*
Verizon (cellular) Youtube 1.9 Mbps
4.0 Mbps
10630 2859 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
2441 702
Netflix 1.9 Mbps
3.8 Mbps
8540 2609 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
2395 754
Amazon 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
5819 1949 1.9 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
1267 440
ATT (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 9142 2466 1.4 Mbps 1708 571
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 4538 1540 1.5 Mbps 1316 498
NBCSports 1.5 Mbps 3368 1326 1.5 Mbps 589 238
TMobile (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 3562 962 1.4 Mbps 1185 373
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 1813 637 1.4 Mbps 1074 387
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 1422 477 1.4 Mbps 1422 318
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 1588 626 1.4 Mbps 579 231
Sprint (cellular) Skype 0.5 Mbps
1.4 Mbps
533 210 1.4 Mbps 132 46
Youtube 2.1 Mbps 224 56 2.0 Mbps 39 12
Netflix 1.9 Mbps
8.8 Mbps
277 100 2.0 Mbps
8.9 Mbps
40 15
Amazon 2.1 Mbps 116 45 2.1 Mbps 24 8
cricket (cellular) Youtube 1.2 Mbps 296 59 1.3 Mbps 58 14
Amazon 1.2 Mbps 79 22 1.2 Mbps 16 4
MetroPCS (cellular) Youtube 1.5 Mbps 302 85 1.5 Mbps 72 20
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 211 74 1.4 Mbps 45 16
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 190 71 1.3 Mbps 60 20
NBCSports 1.5 Mbps 152 67 1.5 Mbps 39 16
BoostMobile (cellular) Youtube 2.0 Mbps 80 12 2.1 Mbps 10 1
Netflix 1.9 Mbps 52 8 2.0 Mbps 14 4
Amazon 2.1 Mbps 55 8 2.1 Mbps 6 1
Skype 0.5 Mbps 32 10 0.5 Mbps 9 4
TFW (cellular) Youtube 1.2 Mbps
3.9 Mbps
39 4 1.3 Mbps 10 2
Amazon 1.3 Mbps 19 2 1.2 Mbps 3 1
Netflix 3.9 Mbps 8 3 Not detected 5 2
ViaSatInc (WiFi) Youtube 0.8 Mbps 35 7 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.0 Mbps 19 5 No data No data No data
Amazon 0.9 Mbps 15 5 No data No data No data
Spotify 1.1 Mbps 16 5 No data No data No data
Vimeo 1.2 Mbps 8 4 No data No data No data
NBCSports 1.2 Mbps 7 3 No data No data No data
HughesNetworkSystems (WiFi) Youtube 0.4 Mbps 24 2 No data No data No data
Netflix 0.7 Mbps 16 2 No data No data No data
CSpire (cellular) Youtube 0.9 Mbps 19 2 No data No data No data
GCI (cellular) Youtube 0.9 Mbps
2.2 Mbps
18 4 2.0 Mbps 4 1
Netflix 2.0 Mbps 13 4 2.1 Mbps 4 1
NBCSports 2.2 Mbps 7 3 1.2 Mbps 5 1
Amazon 2.2 Mbps 4 2 2.0 Mbps 4 1
Vimeo 0.9 Mbps 3 0 2.2 Mbps 4 1
SIMPLEMOBILE (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 14 5 No data No data No data
Amazon 1.5 Mbps 9 3 No data No data No data
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 9 3 No data No data No data
XfinityMobile (cellular) Youtube 3.9 Mbps 8 3 1.9 Mbps 34 7
Netflix 3.9 Mbps 12 4 2.0 Mbps 28 7
Amazon Not detected 61 3 1.9 Mbps 15 7
NextlinkBroadband (WiFi) Youtube 4.5 Mbps 10 3 3.2 Mbps 3 1
Vimeo 5.1 Mbps 6 1 No data No data No data
Amazon 1.2 Mbps
4.1 Mbps
5 1 No data No data No data
Netflix 4.1 Mbps 4 1 Not detected 1 1
FamilyMobile (cellular) Youtube 1.4 Mbps 13 5 Not detected 9 1
Amazon 1.4 Mbps 9 4 No data No data No data
Netflix 1.4 Mbps 8 4 1.3 Mbps 4 2
NBCSports 1.4 Mbps 6 3 No data No data No data
Cellcom (cellular) Youtube 3.9 Mbps 9 4 No data No data No data
Netflix 3.2 Mbps 5 2 No data No data No data
Amazon 3.9 Mbps 7 3 No data No data No data
iWireless (cellular) NBCSports 2.8 Mbps 8 2 No data No data No data
Youtube 2.9 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data
Amazon 2.8 Mbps 7 2 No data No data No data
Spotify 2.9 Mbps 8 3 No data No data No data
Netflix 2.8 Mbps 6 2 No data No data No data

Sprint’s Skype Throttle

The researchers found that video was not the only service impacted by speed throttles. Sprint (and its subsidiary, prepaid provider Boost), for example, is actively throttling Skype.

“This is interesting because Skype’s telephony service directly competes with the telephony service provided by Sprint,” the researchers wrote. But curiously, the throttle almost entirely impacts Android phone users, while iOS devices have less than a 4% chance of being speed throttled. But isolating the exact trigger for throttling remains elusive, the researchers claim.

“While we have strong evidence of Skype throttling from our users’ tests, we could not reproduce this throttling with a data plan that we purchased from Sprint earlier this year,” the researchers admit. “This is likely because it affects only certain subscription plans, but not the one that we purchased.”

When asked to comment, Sprint said: “Sprint does not single out Skype or any individual content provider in this way.” The test results indicate otherwise, suggest the researchers.

T-Mobile’s “Boosting” Throttle Can Mess Up Streaming Video

Some providers, like T-Mobile, attempt to sell their throttled speeds as pro-consumer. In return for reduced definition video, customers are free to watch more online content over their portable devices without it counting against a data cap. But T-Mobile’s video throttle is unique among providers as it initially allows a short burst of regular speed to buffer the first few seconds of a streamed video before quickly throttling video playback speed. Many video players do not expect to see initial robust speeds quickly and severely throttled. Consumers report video playback is often interrupted, sometimes several times, as the player gradually adapts to the low-speed, throttled connection. Consumers receive lower quality video as a consequence.

T-Mobile Plays Favorites

Through extensive testing, research found throttling begins after a certain number of bytes have been transferred, and it is not based strictly on time; below is a list of the detected byte limits for the “boosted” (i.e., unthrottled video streaming) period.

The impact of T-Mobile’s “boosting” speed throttle. Initial speeds of streaming video reach 25 Mbps before being throttled to a consistent 1.5 Mbps.

App Boosting bytes
Netflix 7 MB
NBCSports 7 MB
Amazon Prime Video 6 MB
YouTube Throttling, but no boosting
Vimeo No throttling or boosting

More concerning to the researchers is their finding that video apps are treated differently by T-Mobile.

“T-Mobile throttles YouTube without giving it a boosting period, while T-Mobile does not throttle Vimeo at all,” the researchers report. “Such behavior highlights the risks of content-based filtering: there is fundamentally no way to treat all video services the same (because not all video services can be identified), and any additional content-specific policies — such as boosting — can lead to unfair advantages for some providers, and poor network performance for others.”

The team of researchers had just one conclusion after reviewing the available data.

“Net neutrality violations are rampant, and have been since we launched Wehe,” the researchers report. “Further, the implementation of such throttling practices creates an unlevel playing field for video streaming providers while also imposing engineering challenges related to efficiently handling a variety of throttling rates and other behavior like boosting. Last, we find that video streaming is not the only type of application affected, as there is evidence of Skype throttling in our data. Taken together, our findings indicate that the openness and fairness properties that led to the Internet’s success are at risk in the U.S.”

The team “strongly encourages” policymakers to rely on fact-based data to make informed decisions about internet regulations, implying that provider-supplied data about net neutrality policies may not reveal the full impact of speed throttles and other traffic favoritism that is common where net neutrality protections do not exist.

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Recent Comments:

  • Dylan: Look at their prices. Absolutely ludicrous compared to many companies, especially Charter Spectrum. I pay $60 a month for 100/10 with unlimited data. ...
  • Paul Houle: For a long time communities have been frustrated in that they don't have any power to negotiate with cable companies. This town refused to enter into...
  • Ian S Littman: To be fair, you aren't wrong. Spectrum likely knows it won't have any competition for years in Lamar, so they'll quickly get take rates of >70% (re...
  • Ian S Littman: Are you in an area that can even get Spectrum service? Because in areas where they actually have to compete, they're actually pretty decent now. Yes,...
  • Ian S Littman: A more odd entry in that list is Chattanooga. The entire area has FTTH via EPB. Yet apparently folks can't swing the $57/mo starting price for 100 Mbp...
  • Ian S Littman: The issue here is that the NY PSC's threats have no teeth because, well, who will take over the cable systems if Spectrum is forced to sell? Either Al...
  • Bill Callahan: Phil, National Digital Inclusion Alliance just published interactive Census tract maps for the entire US based on the same ACS data. Two datapoints a...
  • Carl Moore: The idiots that run the cable companies must be also using drugs...a lot of people are cutting their cable services because of the higher rate and inc...
  • EJ: This will require a New Deal approach. Municipals need the ability to either be granted money or loaned money for broadband expansion. Until this is d...
  • Bob: I also got $1 increase for my 100/10 internet from Spectrum. A rep said it's for the speed increase that's coming in 2019. I complained that I was pro...
  • EJ: It makes sense to focus on wireless considering the government contract they have. The strange thing is they referenced fixed wireless in this article...
  • nick: Interesting how they conveniently leave out (Spectrum TV Choice) streaming service which is also $30/mo ($25/mo for the first 2 years)....

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