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FTC Launches Investigation of ISP Privacy Policies

Phillip Dampier March 27, 2019 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

(Image by Brad Jonas originally for Pando.com)

The Federal Trade Commission has sent compulsory questionnaires to seven of the nation’s largest cable, phone, and wireless companies as it opens an examination of internet service provider privacy practices.

The orders were sent to: AT&T, AT&T Mobility, Comcast/Xfinity, Google Fiber, T-Mobile US, Verizon, and Verizon Wireless.

“The FTC is initiating this study to better understand internet service providers’ privacy practices in light of the evolution of telecommunications companies into vertically integrated platforms that also provide advertising-supported content,” the FTC wrote in a press release. “Under current law, the FTC has the ability to enforce against unfair and deceptive practices involving internet service providers.”

The FTC wants details about:

  • The categories of personal information collected about consumers or their devices, including the purpose for which the information is collected or used; the techniques for collecting such information; whether the information collected is shared with third parties; internal policies for access to such data; and how long the information is retained;
  • Whether the information is aggregated, anonymized or deidentified;
  • Copies of the companies’ notices and disclosures to consumers about their data collection practices;
  • Whether the companies offer consumers choices about the collection, retention, use and disclosure of personal information, and whether the companies have denied or degraded service to consumers who decline to opt-in to data collection; and
  • Procedures and processes for allowing consumers to access, correct, or delete their personal information.

While Congress has been focused on privacy issues affecting social media, the FTC is concerned that telecommunications companies may be collecting vast amounts of information from customers that could be sold or shared with partner companies. The agency wants to get a better understanding of exactly what kinds of information is being collected and how it is being used, especially as telecom companies acquire content companies which could use that information to display targeted online advertising.

Verizon On Track to Mothball CDMA/3G Network; Older Devices Will Cease Working End of 2019

Times up. Legacy devices like the GizmoPal watch will stop connecting to Verizon after the company shuts down its CDMA/3G network at the end of the year.

Customers with older phones and devices that are dependent on Verizon Wireless, take note: those devices may stop working at the end of this year as Verizon Wireless mothballs its legacy CDMA network and 3G mobile data. Verizon originally announced it was planning to shut down CDMA and 3G service last summer, and stopped activating new devices that did not support the current 4G LTE standard. Since that time, the company has been gradually replacing CDMA and 3G-dedicated frequencies to 4G LTE to relieve congestion.

As this transition continues, some customers with older basic phone are noticing call issues and a lack of adequate mobile data service. That happens when a tower has re-dedicated almost all of its available spectrum to 4G LTE service, and those using older devices share a quickly declining number of frequencies. Some smartphone owners are also affected, even if their device supports 4G LTE data, because it may still rely on Verizon’s CDMA network to make and receive phone calls.

One of the biggest impacts of the shutdown will be felt by General Motors’ OnStar customers driving vehicles made before 2015, which rely on Verizon CDMA and 3G technology to support GPS, crash detection, diagnostics, and voice calling. Starting with 2015 models, GM moved its OnStar platform in new vehicles to AT&T’s 4G LTE network. Some GM vehicle owners, but not all, have the option of upgrading to OnStar over AT&T’s 4G LTE network with a retrofit kit, which also supports an in-vehicle hotspot. If this option is not available, service is expected to sunset for older vehicles on Dec. 31, 2019.

Some medical monitoring devices that rely on Verizon’s legacy CDMA network will also cease working unless a retrofit or upgrade is made available by the manufacturer.

Affected devices include:

  • CDMA (3G)-only devices, including 3G basic phones and 3G smartphones
  • 4G LTE smartphones that do not support HD Voice
  • Apple iPhone 5s or prior including the Apple iPhone 5c
  • Connected devices with CDMA (e.g,, GizmoPal, GizmoPal2, GizmoGadget and some Hum + models).
  • In-car telematics devices like GM’s OnStar on pre-2015 model year vehicles
  • Certain medical monitoring devices

Verizon had originally planned to mothball its CDMA network in late 2021, but the carrier needed to repurpose existing spectrum to meet growing data demands on its network, so it moved the drop dead date forward to Dec. 31, 2019.

Verizon Says Its 5G Home Broadband Will Only Be for Urban Areas

Verizon, the country’s leading provider of millimeter wave 5G wireless broadband, is promising to expand service nationwide, but admits it will only service urban areas where the economics of small cell/fiber network infrastructure makes economic sense.

At the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, Spain, Verizon’s vice president of technology planning told PC that when it launches its mobile 5G network later this spring, home wireless internet service will come along for the ride.

“It is one network, based on 5G, supporting multiple use cases,” Verizon’s Adam Koeppe said. “Enterprise, small/medium business, consumer, mobility, fixed. When the 5G network is built, you have a fixed and mobile play that’s basically native to the deployment you’re doing.”

That means Verizon’s millimeter wave 5G network is designed to be shared by everyone and everything, including businesses, residential customers, cell phone users on the go, Internet of Things applications like smart meters and intelligent traffic systems, and more. But that network will not be everywhere Verizon or Verizon Wireless currently provides service.

“Our deployments of millimeter wave are focused on urban centers. It’s where the people are, where the consumption is,” Koeppe said.

Verizon faces significant costs building out its 5G wireless network in areas where it does not already offer FiOS fiber to the home service. Verizon’s 5G network is dependent on a fiber optic-fed network of small cells placed on top of utility and light poles at least every few city blocks. That means Verizon is most likely to get a reasonable return on its investment placing its 5G network in urban downtown areas and high wireless traffic suburban zones, such as around event venues, large shopping centers and entertainment districts. The company has chosen to deploy 5G in some residential areas, but only within large city limits. So far, it has generally steered clear of residential suburbs in favor of older gentrified city neighborhoods with plenty of closely-spaced multi-dwelling apartments, condos, and homes, as well as in urban centers with converted lofts or apartments.

Koeppe

Rural areas are definitely off Verizon’s list because the millimeter waves Verizon prefers to use do not travel very far, making it very expensive to deploy the technology to serve a relatively small number of customers.

Other carriers are not committing to large scale 5G deployments either.

At a debate held earlier today at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law & Policy, former FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, now a paid lobbyist for T-Mobile, warned that unless T-Mobile was allowed to merge with Sprint, its deployment of 5G will only happen in “very limited areas.”

Sprint has plans to introduce its own flavor of 5G, which won’t use millimeter wave frequencies, by June in nine U.S. cities. T-Mobile has talked about deploying 5G on existing large cell towers, which means one tower will serve many more customers than Verizon’s small cells. But with more customers sharing that bandwidth, the effective speed customers will see is likely to be only incrementally better than T-Mobile’s existing 4G LTE network. AT&T is initially moving in the same direction as T-Mobile, meaning many customers will be sharing the same bandwidth. That may explain why AT&T’s current 5G hotspot service plan also comes with a 15 GB data cap.

Verizon says its millimeter wave network will, by geography and design, limit the number of people sharing each small cell, making data caps unnecessary for its 5G fixed wireless home broadband replacement, which delivers download speeds of around 300 Mbps on average.

“We engineer the network to give the customer what they need when they need it, and the results speak for themselves,” Koeppe said.

Verizon is already selling its 5G service in limited areas for $50 a month to Verizon Wireless customers, $70 a month for non-customers. There are no data caps or speed throttles.

Based on the plans of all four major U.S. carriers, consumers should only expect scattered rollouts of 5G this year, and only in certain neighborhoods at first. It will take several years to build out the different iterations of 5G technology, with millimeter wave taking the longest to expand because of infrastructure and potential permitting issues.

Kagan: Cable Company Wireless Is Designed to Trap You in a Bundle, Not Compete in Wireless Business

Comcast and Charter Communications have no real interest in competing head-to-head in wireless with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint. Instead, the two cable companies hope to trap you in a bundled package of services too inconvenient to cancel.

Jeff Kagan, a longstanding telecommunications analyst specializing in the cable industry, believes Comcast, Charter, and other cable operators entering the wireless business have no intention of being a serious competitor to the country’s four largest mobile companies.

“The goal of XFINITY Mobile [from Comcast] is to offer their customers another service and to create a sticky bundle,” Kagan said. “It’s not to lead the wireless wars. It’s not to increase their market share for traditional reasons. It is simply to create a sticky bundle to stabilize and grow their customer base.”

Kagan

XFINITY Mobile and Spectrum Mobile (from Charter), both require customers to be signed up for their respective internet services. If a customer cancels internet service, they will lose their mobile service. That could prove to be a major hassle for wireless customers, because they will have to properly port out their existing phone number(s) to another provider before dropping broadband.

Kagan believes cable operators will use mobile service to further strengthen their bundle by tying discounts to the number of services each customer takes through the cable company.

“Customers who use one service find it easy to switch away to a competitor,” Kagan said. “However, when they use multiple services and get a discount for the bundle, they become sticky and generally stay put. And the more services a customer uses, the larger the discount, the stickier they get and the less likely they are to wander.”

That is also likely to be true with Altice, which operates Optimum (Cablevision) and SuddenLink and has partnered with Sprint to offer cell service.

Sprint and T-Mobile, which are planning to merge, have repeatedly argued cable operators will be aggressive new players in the mobile business, giving the potentially combined carrier fierce new competitors. But Kagan doubts that will prove true.

“The problem is, the sticky bundle is not a low-cost solution,” Kagan offered. “With that said, the higher cost to the cable television companies is less than that of losing their customer base. So, the cost makes sense as simply a cost of doing business.”

The challenge cable operators face is that none plan to own and operate their own traditional cellular network. Comcast and Charter have partnered with Verizon Wireless to resell access to its 4G LTE network and Altice will rely on Sprint. Leasing access on an ongoing basis is likely to be more expensive that relying on your own network, but beyond offering Wi-Fi calling and experimental access to future 5G-type services in the emerging CBRS band, cable operators will remain almost completely dependent on their wireless provider partners, limiting their effective ability to compete.

Kagan believes the goals of the two industries are different. Wireless operators are trying to monetize their networks through usage, while cable operators are trying to find new services that will keep customers loyal and are willing to ignore monetizing their wireless side businesses to achieve that goal.

AT&T Introduces Phony 5GE to Highlight Newly Lit Spectrum (It’s Really Still 4G LTE)

AT&T customers with Samsung Galaxy 8 Active or LG’s V30 or V40 smartphones began noticing a new icon on their phones starting last weekend: an italicized 5GE, leading some to believe 5G wireless service has now reached AT&T’s network.

Not so fast, AT&T.

AT&T’s use of 5GE, which stands for “5G Evolution” in AT&T’s techie parlance, is another example of how wireless carriers exploit up and coming technology upgrades that are unprotected from overzealous marketing misuse. The actual 5G standard is different from 5GE, and customers using 5G on millimeter wave frequencies can expect very different performance in comparison to today’s 4G LTE experience. But with 5G being hyped in the media, AT&T is attempting to capture some of that excitement for itself.

The company’s marketing division managed to accomplish a speed and technology upgrade without spending millions of dollars on actual 5G network upgrades — just by changing an icon on customers’ phones and making them believe they are getting a 5G experience. In fact, 5GE is actually just the latest evolution of 4G LTE already known to Verizon customers as LTE-Advanced or LTE Plus on Sprint’s network — technology including carrier aggregation, 256 QAM, and 4×4 MIMO that has been in use on competing cellular networks in the U.S. since at least 2016. But just as Verizon customers saw significant speed improvements from Verizon’s updates to the 4G LTE standard, as AT&T deploys similar upgrades in each of its markets, customers should notice similar performance improvements.

AT&T claims 5GE is already live in 400+ markets with more to come. In the short term, the “upgrade” that was pushed to AT&T network devices last weekend only switched on the 5Gicon, which will mean little to AT&T customers already reached by 5Gand never knew it until this past weekend, and nothing to those still waiting for the upgrade to arrive.

Walter Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG Research, says AT&T’s latest spectrum deployments will matter more than whatever the company brands its latest upgrade, and could eventually allow AT&T to surpass Verizon Wireless in network performance.

AT&T’s recent effort to improve its network by deploying more wireless spectrum — up to 60 MHz in many areas, is not the 5G upgrade customers might expect, but it will deliver faster speeds and more performance on today’s smartphones.

AT&T calls its forthcoming actual 5G network 5G+, and the company is launching a modest but authentic 5G experience in limited “innovation zones” in Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta, Ga., Indianapolis, Ind., Louisville, Ky., New Orleans, La., Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., Oklahoma City, Okla., as well as Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Waco, Tex.

In a money-saving maneuver, AT&T’s combined spectrum upgrades include 20 MHz of FirstNet first responder spectrum (prime 700 MHz spectrum shared with AT&T customers except during emergencies) it received in 2017, 20 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum (1755-1780 MHz for uplink operations and 2155-2180 MHz for downlink) it acquired for $18 billion in 2015, and 20 MHz of WCS spectrum (2300 MHz) it acquired from NextWave for $650 million back in 2012. All of this spectrum is expected to be activated at the same time as technicians work to upgrade each AT&T cell tower. This dramatically cuts AT&T’s costs and truck rolls for incremental upgrades.

AT&T calls its improved 4G LTE network “5G Evolution”

“We’re turning up not only the FirstNet spectrum that we got, but all of this other spectrum that we’ve acquired over the last few years,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told investors at a December conference. “So as we climb these cell towers, we turn up the spectrum. By the time we get to end of 2019, we will have increased the capacity on AT&T’s network by 50%. I mean, you just have to pause and think about this. The entire AT&T wireless network capacity is going to increase over the next 14 months by 50%. I mean, that’s huge.”

Some areas have already received partial upgrades, others may find newly improved rural coverage as AT&T meets its commitments to the government’s FirstNet platform, which calls for more robust rural coverage. Some areas that never had AT&T coverage before may get it for the first time.

AT&T’s biggest competitor, Verizon, has commanded a lead in 4G LTE coverage from 2010 forward after utilizing a considerable amount of its available spectrum for the faster standard. But Verizon has not been a robust bidder for new spectrum recently, except for the millimeter wave frequencies it bought for its emerging 5G network. It has some additional unused AWS-3 spectrum it can use for expansion, but Piecyk believes Verizon may already be using those frequencies in many markets where it is likely facing a spectrum crunch.

While AT&T lights up 60 MHz of additional spectrum, Verizon is primarily depending on the ongoing conversion of 10-15 MHz of existing spectrum it now uses for 3G service to LTE each year. But the company is reportedly running out of frequencies in areas where data demand requires that extra spectrum the most.

The only short term solution for Verizon, which is not participating in marketing hoopla like 5GE, is to make its current spectrum more efficient. That means more cell towers sharing the same frequencies to reduce the load on each tower, improved antenna technology, and using newly available spectrum in the CBRS and millimeter wave bands to manage network traffic. Verizon may even use unlicensed shared spectrum to handle some of the load. Unfortunately, smartphones equipped to take advantage of these new bands are not yet available and may not be until 2020.

For AT&T, improved network performance is seen as a key to resume robust growth in new subscribers.  After Verizon dramatically improved its LTE network in 2014, AT&T stopped growing its lucrative post-paid phone subscriber base, according to Piecyk. Now it may be AT&T’s chance to turn the tables on Verizon.

This AT&T produced video helps consumers understand what 5G, beam forming, small cells, and coverage differences between 4G and 5G are all about. Notice the 5G trial speed test showed download speeds topping out at around 137 Mbps. (4:26)

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