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If This Had Been An Actual Emergency… National Emergency Alert Test Wednesday

Phillip Dampier October 2, 2018 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

FEMA, in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission, will conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) on Wednesday, Oct. 3, creating a cacophony of alarms and warning tones on cell phones, radios, and televisions from coast to coast.

The WEA test is most likely to be heard… in every school, office, and store as nearly all wireless phones sound off starting at 2:18pm EDT. Two minutes later, radio and television stations, NOAA weather radios, and cable, satellite, and telco TV systems, will deliver EAS alerts to their respective audiences.

This will be the first time FEMA and the FCC will deliver a nationwide WEA test, which will measure the effectiveness of using cell phones to mass deliver emergency alerts and action messages on a nationwide scale. Previous uses included urgent Amber Alerts and weather-related messages, but only to specific localities or regions. The government agencies want to know if America’s cell phone carriers can deliver messages to all of their customers accurately and on a timely basis.

The emergency alert messages have no political connection to the Trump Administration or the White House, and were first envisioned during the Bush Administration. Despite that, some planned to mute their phones or switch them off as a protest against the president, falsely fearing he might use the system to deliver political messages.

Tomorrow’s alerts will consist of the following messages, sent using a unique tone and vibration that is not designed to be muted or silenced:

  • WEA: Presidential Alert: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”
  • EAS: (in English and/or Spanish) “THIS IS A TEST of the National Emergency Alert System. This system was developed by broadcast and cable operators in voluntary cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and local authorities to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency an official message would have followed the tone alert you heard at the start of this message. A similar wireless emergency alert test message has been sent to all cell phones nationwide. Some cell phones will receive the message; others will not. No action is required.”

FEMA’s public service announcement about Wednesday’s test. (0:48)

FCC Seeks to Strip Broadband Oversight, Net Neutrality Authority from Local Governments

Phillip Dampier September 25, 2018 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 3 Comments

The Federal Communications Commission moved Tuesday to formally strip local franchise authorities from regulating cable companies’ non-video services, prevent town and city governments from enforcing their own net neutrality policies, and limit the amount of obligations cable companies owe communities in return for winning and keeping a cable television franchise agreement.

The Commission announced a notice of proposed rulemaking that most observers claim is a mere formality before the Republican majority formally adopts the proposal in what is being seen as a clear and sweeping victory for the cable television industry.

Under the FCC proposal, local franchising authorities that issue franchise agreements allowing cable television companies to provide service in a community will see their powers of oversight and regulation significantly cut, threatening existing agreements that require cable operators to wire public schools, libraries, and local government offices and offer certain other services, excluding Public, Educational, and Government access channels.

Some franchise agreements require cable operators to maintain a certain number of local cable customer service offices, support local infrastructure projects by placing fiber or service cables in shared conduits, offer services or scholarships to communities in need, and provide near-universal service availability in neighborhoods without regard to income. While communities would be allowed to continue requiring these extra benefits, the cost could be deducted from franchise fee payments made by cable operators to local governments. Currently, franchise fees are capped at a maximum of 5% of gross revenue, although cable companies and corporate-funded interest groups like FreedomWorks and Free State Foundation argue “in kind” required contributions found in some franchise agreements allow cities and towns to exceed that amount.

Cooper

The FCC also reiterated its intention to limit local franchising authorities to only regulating cable television services, disallowing them from writing rules, regulations, or requirements that govern a cable system’s non-television services, most notably telephone and broadband service. While some at the FCC suggest this ruling allows broadband and voice services to remain unregulated as intended, analysts suggest the real impact of this declaration is to lay a legal foundation to prohibit communities from imposing local net neutrality requirements on cable broadband services designed to replace the federal net neutrality rules that were vacated by the Republican majority on the Commission earlier this year.

“Congress has designated information services such as broadband for non-regulated or light-touch treatment,” said Seth Cooper, senior fellow from the conservative group Free State Foundation. “The Commission’s proposed rulemaking clarifies that local governments cannot leverage their cable franchising authority to regulate broadband services. This will help shore up important limits on local government regulation set out in the Communications Act.”

After passage, cable operators could complain to the FCC about requirements imposed by local governments or regulatory bodies requiring them to honor basic net neutrality principles. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has repeatedly voiced his view that only the federal government should be allowed to regulate the internet, and he is prepared to challenge state and local laws that attempt to create an end run around the decision to eliminate federal net neutrality protections.

“What we’re going to do is take a look on a case-by-case basis at each state law and determine the right course, but at a broad level, the internet is inherently an interstate service,” Pai told CNBC in June. “We don’t [want] every one of the 50 states and however many local jurisdictions to have a bite of the regulatory apple.”

The FCC has also asked for input on extending its authority to overrule similar franchising requirements on the state level as well, a significant expansion of the FCC’s authority that Mr. Pai himself has questioned when his predecessor, Chairman Thomas Wheeler, attempted to override state laws deterring or forbidding public/municipal broadband networks.

“In taking this step, the FCC usurps fundamental aspects of state sovereignty. And it disrupts the balance of power between the federal government and state governments that lies at the core of our constitutional system of government,” Pai complained in 2015. “What is clear, however, is that the FCC does not have the legal authority to override the decisions made by Tennessee and North Carolina. Under the law, it is up to the people of those two states and their elected representatives—not the Commission—to decide whether and to what extent to allow municipalities to operate broadband projects.”

But in Pai’s view, it is not up to those and other states to decide for themselves what type of level playing field will be provided to internet users if a sovereign state wishes to define those terms in the public interest.

FCC’s Ajit Pai talks net neutrality on CNBC in June 2018 and is skeptical of state efforts to preserve net neutrality rules, saying the internet “has to be regulated by the federal government.” (10:48)

Amazon Introduces a “Cord-Cutters” DVR to Record Over-the-Air Channels

Phillip Dampier September 24, 2018 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Video 3 Comments

The Fire TV Recast DVR is among several new products Amazon is preparing to release for this year’s holiday shopping season, and it was a runaway favorite for Amazon-watchers given a preview of Amazon’s newest products last week.

The Recast is designed to appeal to cord-cutters who miss their cable-TV DVR box. Amazon’s TV recording solution is strictly designed to record over-the-air/free TV broadcasts, and won’t work with satellite, telco, or cable television. Oddly, it does work with one streaming cable-TV alternative: PlayStation Vue, but for the most part, Recast will make sense if you spend a lot of time watching and recording local TV stations. In larger cities, this means the ability to record 35-50 different stations and their digital subchannels. In smaller markets, a dozen or so stations ‘worth recording’ is more likely.

During brief demonstrations given to reporters, it quickly became clear Amazon designed Recast to work best within Amazon’s own product ecosystem, which means it requires at least an Amazon’s Fire TV stick ($29.99 each, when bought bundled with Recast) for each television. The Fire TV home screen adds a “DVR” menu automatically to the list of user options when it senses the presence of a Recast device. Amazon promises Recast playback will also work on tablets and phones, but not web browsers.

Recast is a larger-than-expected device, about the size of a shoebox, and contains TV tuners and a 500 GB hard drive. Customers will also need to supply an antenna (or buy the $24.99 ’50 mile’ window antenna offered by Amazon as an accessory). The box is designed to be placed anywhere out of sight, and has just three ports — one for power, another for USB to power the antenna, and an Ethernet connection. Amazon says Recast will work best placed where television reception is the strongest. Received signals are sent via Wi-Fi to Fire TV, PlayStation Vue, and the appropriate Amazon Fire apps for iOS and Android. Recast also offers built-in Wi-Fi Direct, which works with Fire TV and Amazon’s Echo Show, but Recast also supports traditional Wi-Fi. Amazon claims videos stream up to 1,440 x 720 at 60 frames per second.

Amazon Fire TV Recast

Recast’s standard configuration ($229) has two tuners and a 500GB hard drive, supporting two concurrent recordings and up to 75 hours of stored HD content. A deluxe version containing four tuners capable of recording four different shows/channels at the same time and a 1 TB drive doubles storage capacity for just $50 more, and will go on sale Nov. 14 for $279.99. Amazon is accepting pre-orders for both now.

PROS:

  • Finally a mainstream DVR that works for over-the-air recordings without expensive monthly service fees.
  • Amazon has kept the box simple, and has a tutorial/setup procedure to help you find the best place to locate the DVR to receive as many channels as possible.
  • Reviews indicate recordings were of good quality, assuming one gets reasonably good TV reception.
  • Integrates well with PlayStation Vue and Amazon’s Fire TV.
  • Box can be placed anywhere, out of sight, because it connects with your other devices wirelessly.
  • Deluxe box offers four tuners and lots of recording space for just $50 more than the base unit.

CONS:

  • Amazon should have just bundled an antenna in the box because it is required to assure good reception.
  • Recast is clearly designed for use with Fire TV, which means it is not a great option for other box owners.
  • Recast limits playback to its own apps and Fire TV. No browser support.
  • It only works with one streaming service (PlayStation Vue) and over the air stations. No support for cable, satellite, or telco TV.
  • It’s big and bulky.
  • Asking $229 for a box that only records over the air stations may be a high hurdle for some.
Size 7.1” x 7.1” x 2.9” (180 mm x 180 mm x 73 mm)
Weight 2.4 lbs (1066 g)
Processor Dual Core
ATSC Tuners 2 Tuners
Transcoders (for playback) 2
Storage 500 GB up to 75 hours of HDTV
Memory 2 GB
Wi-Fi Connectivity 2.4 G Wi-Fi 2×2 Wi-Fi b/g/n and 5 G Wi-Fi 2×2 Wi-Fi a/n/ac
Voice support Fire TV Recast can be controlled using voice through supported Alexa endpoints like Echo Show, and the Alexa Voice Remote on Fire TV devices and Fire TV Edition televisions.
Ports 1 x Type A USB 3.0 (does not support storage), TV Antenna Input, Gigabit Ethernet, Power
System requirements Fire TV streaming media player, Fire TV Edition television, or Echo Show, and compatible mobile device.
Setup requirements Fire TV mobile app (available on Amazon Appstore, Google Play Store, or iOS Appstore) on a Fire tablet (5th Gen or newer), an iOS device running iOS10 or higher, or an Android device running Android 4.4 or higher
Required for playback Any one of the following: Fire TV streaming media player, Fire TV Edition television, Echo Show, Fire tablet (5th Gen or newer), an iOS device running iOS10 or higher, an Android device running Android 4.4 or higher
Warranty and service 1-Year Limited Warranty and service included. Optional 2-Year and 3-Year Extended Warranty available for U.S. customers sold separately. Use of Fire TV is subject to the terms found here.
Regional support U.S. only
Accessibility features VoiceView screen reader enables access to the vast majority of Fire TV Recast features for users who are blind or visually impaired. Watch videos and TV shows with closed captioning displayed. Captions are not available for all content.
Included in the box Fire TV Recast, 50W Power Supply, Quick Start Guide

Amazon introduces Amazon Fire TV Recast, a home DVR for over the air television stations that works best with Amazon’s own Fire TV. (1:14)

T-Mobile Rebrands MetroPCS “Metro by T-Mobile;” Introduces New Plans

MetroPCS is getting a new name and new unlimited plans as its owner T-Mobile rebrands the provider “Metro by T-Mobile” starting today.

Current MetroPCS customers are largely attracted to the carrier for its simple, budget-priced mobile plans that offer 2-10 GB of data for $30-40 a month. In an effort to boost average revenue per customer, Metro will introduce two new plans that offer “unlimited” LTE data, mobile hotspot usage with data allowances from 5-15 GB, Google One cloud storage and mobile backup, and for its $60 plan, Amazon Prime membership:

T-Mobile USA John Legere argues that Metro’s new plans will change the perception that prepaid wireless plans are lacking.

“In the past, being a prepaid customer meant subpar devices, service and coverage. No more,” a press release from T-Mobile says. “Metro has been quietly changing the prepaid landscape for years, and wireless users have noticed. In the past five years, the number of people choosing Metro has doubled. Metro by T-Mobile offers a wide variety of both Android and iOS smartphones for every price point, including the absolute latest releases.”

The carrier, formerly an independent provider with its own cellular network serving 15 cities, was acquired by T-Mobile five years ago and today is run like a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) on T-Mobile’s nationwide network. The company takes care to protect its lucrative base of T-Mobile postpaid customers by giving them absolute priority on T-Mobile’s network. If a cell tower becomes congested, Metro customers will be the first ones to feel the impact.

“When the network gets busy in a particular place, Metro by T-Mobile customers may notice a difference in speed compared to T-Mobile customers, but otherwise, they get the same T-Mobile network,” T-Mobile warns in its press release. In the fine print, T-Mobile also discloses it throttles speeds for unlimited customers using more than 35 GB of data per month until the next billing cycle begins. It also limits video streaming to 480p resolution all the time.

In an effort to differentiate itself from similar prepaid offers, Metro has teamed up with Amazon to give its premium plan customers a free month-to-month membership in Amazon Prime, which in addition to free two-day shipping, also bundles Amazon Prime Video, Music, and Photos.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere introduces a makeover of MetroPCS, now called Metro by T-Mobile. (3:03)

Verizon Quits ALEC After Group Hands Microphone to Right-Wing Provocateur David Horowitz

Down one big member — Verizon

Verizon has quit the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate funded alliance between big business and Republican state lawmakers, after right-wing activist David Horowitz used a guest appearance at the 45th ALEC Annual Meeting in New Orleans to launch into a tirade against opponents of President Donald Trump, claiming Democrats are socialists bent on attacking traditional American values.

To rousing applause from many of the 1,500 legislators and lobbyists in attendance, Horowitz used two speeches to attack the LGBTQ community, people of color, public education, feminism, gender equality, and the rights of women to seek independent access to reproductive healthcare.

Specifically, Horowitz claimed public schools are “indoctrination and recruitment centers for the Democratic party and its socialist left” and that “school curricula had been turned over to racist organizations like Black Lives Matter and terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.” On a later panel, Horowitz told the audience Trump had not gone far enough attacking his enemies, and defended the president’s remarks calling a woman “a pig.” Those who disagreed were called “communists” by Horowitz.  He also argued the United States could only have been founded by Protestant Christians.

Horowitz speaks at ALEC conference in August 2018.

The incendiary remarks are nothing new for Horowitz, who repeatedly called President Barack Obama “a secret Muslim” and sponsors a website that claims Muslim migrants are carriers of infectious disease and predators with a “violent lust for ‘white’ women.”

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Wisc.) attends ALEC events often to learn more about what the opposition is doing. Her observations from this year’s conference reflect ALEC in disarray, as the formerly unified, corporate-focused group is becoming more fragmented as emboldened right-wing activists demand a voice at the table.

They want state’s rights, except when they don’t. The same contradiction is evident with their struggle with local control–sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. The defining factor is whether these levels of government promote the far-right ALEC agenda. It is getting harder and harder for ALEC to ignore these internal contradictions.

And there are visible cracks in ALEC world. Collectively, this was the messiest and least disciplined ALEC conference I have attended since 2013. In the energy task force, presentations were all over the place. A natural gas and electricity supplier went off script by openly discussing the billions in subsidies the oil and gas industry receives. There was silence in the crowded task force room, filled with fossil fuel producers and lobbyists.

[…] In the Health and Human Services task force, the Goldwater Institute and Buckeye Foundation were in a tizzy because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was still in existence and the left seemed to win that war, at least for now. How could it be, they moaned, when Republicans are in charge of EVERYTHING? They whined that the “debacle of last year was horrible” and that Congress wouldn’t touch another repeal with a 10-foot poll. So, 100 conservative groups came together to propose an alternative plan that guts the ACA, again. But the list was messy and confusing, and even the presenters seemed doubtful their plan would ever succeed.

But the biggest disaster I have ever seen at an ALEC conference was on a panel about the Convention of States (COS) project. COS is mobilizing in states to call an Article V Constitutional Convention for the purposes of amending the federal constitution by passing a balanced budget amendment, term-limits for federal judges, and who knows what else. One of the key speakers was right-wing provocateur David Horowitz. Horowitz is listed in a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report published by Alternet with the title “10 of America’s Most Dangerous Hatemongers”.

After converting from being a Marxist decades ago, Horowitz now runs his own right-wing think tank, bankrolled to the tune of $3.4 million by the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Horowitz gained recent fame as a key mentor of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, the man behind Trump’s family separation policy according to the Atlantic.

[…] ALEC is moving into dangerous territory. Despite the formidable infrastructure they have built over 45 years, their control of 33 state legislatures and their hordes of corporate cash that perpetually grease their wheels, the organization seems to be increasingly in disarray and in an identity crisis. While simultaneously distancing themselves from the chaos and corruption of President Trump, the reality is that they need him, and his hate-mongering, to further the foundation of their right-wing agenda–gutting the ACA and federal conservation standards, repealing workers’ rights, pushing down wages and privatizing public education.

And so the Horowitz’s of the world, who ALEC at least publicly has kept at a distance during my tenure, are now becoming part of the ALEC universe. Are ALEC supporters, including their corporate funders, willing to embrace this hate-mongering to continue to advance their corporate agenda?

Horowitz’s brand of politics may be popular with party activists, but corporate ALEC members are more concerned about their public image.

After Horowitz’s appearance, Verizon notified ALEC it was resigning from the group.

“Our company has no tolerance for racist, white supremacist or sexist comment or ideals,” a Verizon spokesperson said in a statement.

It is a severe blow to ALEC, which welcomed Verizon as a dues paying member in 1988, when Verizon lobbyist Ron Scheberle served as chairman of ALEC’s board.

ALEC’s damage control effort came in a statement to the press:

ALEC takes speaker vetting seriously and—in partnership with meeting sponsors—applies a rigorous process to identify speakers on important matters of public policy. Each speaker is apprised of the ALEC policy focus, how to address the audience and what issues not to discuss. ALEC does not work on social issues. Rather it focuses on limited government, free markets and federalism at the intersection of the economy and public policy.

In this case, the speaker was advised of the program parameters and did not abide the process.

Upon learning of concern following the conclusion of remarks, ALEC staff removed the video archive of the livestream and ceased promotion of the speech as the comments were inconsistent with the manner in which speeches are offered at ALEC.

ALEC was launched to give its corporate members and lobbyists direct access to state legislators to shepherd corporate ghost-written bills into state laws or at least heavily influence members’ bills to make them corporate-friendly. In some cases, corporate-written “model bills” were adopted word-for-word by some state legislatures and became law, with the help of Republican support and co-sponsors.

Rep. Taylor

Verizon and other telecom company members like Comcast and AT&T have benefited handsomely from membership in ALEC, successfully pushing through state laws for statewide video franchising, eliminating local control over cable television providers, pole attachment and zoning reform for wireless companies, working to eliminate universal service obligations and regulatory oversight for landline service, state bans on municipal broadband competition, and most recently working to stop states from writing their own net neutrality provisions to replace those lost on the federal level.

ALEC has always maintained close ties to Republicans and its deep pocketed corporate members. But until recently, it has usually shied away from headlining lightning rod social issues out of deference to its controversy-shy corporate members.

Horowitz’s remarks, live-streamed across the internet by ALEC, may have been the final straw for Verizon. In late August, 79 public interest and environmental groups co-signed a letter to ALEC members drawing attention to Horowitz’s remarks and asking companies to leave the group for good.

“Make no mistake, your continued financial support of ALEC is an endorsement of this dangerous vision for our country,” the letter said.

It’s also apparently bad for business.

David Horowitz speaking at 2018 ALEC Conference in New Orleans, La. on Aug. 10, 2018. (17:51)

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