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Posted on Techdirt - 25 March 2021 @ 6:27am

Utah Governor Signs New Porn Filter Law That's Just Pointless, Performative Nonsense

from the round-and-round-you-go dept

For decades now Utah legislators have repeatedly engaged in theater in their doomed bid to filter pornography from the internet. And repeatedly those lawmakers run face first into the technical impossibility of such a feat (it's trivial for anybody who wants porn to bypass filters), the problematic collateral damage that inevitably occurs when you try to censor such content (filters almost always wind up with legit content being banned), and a pesky little thing known as the First Amendment. But annoying things like technical specifics or the Constitution aren't going to thwart people who just know better.

For months now Utah has been contemplating yet another porn filtering law, this time HB 72. HB 72 pretends that it's going to purge the internet of its naughty bits by mandating active adult content filters on all smartphones and tablets sold in Utah. Phone makers would enable filters by default (purportedly because enabling such restrictions by choice is just to darn difficult), and require that mobile consumers in Utah enter a pass code before disabling the filters. If these filters aren't enabled by default, the bill would hold device manufacturers liable, up to $10 per individual violation.

On Tuesday, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed the bill into law, claiming its passage would send an “important message” about preventing children from accessing explicit online content:

"Rep. Susan Pulsipher, the bill’s sponsor, said she was “grateful” the governor signed the legislation, which she hopes will help parents keep their children from unintended exposure to pornography. She asserts that the measure passes constitutional muster because adults can deactivate the filters, but experts said it still raises several legal concerns."

The AP story takes the "view from nowhere" or "both sides" US journalism approach to the story, failing to note that it's effectively impossible to actually filter porn from the internet. Usually because the filters (be they adult controls on a device or DNS blocklists) can usually be disabled by a toddler with a modicum of technical aptitude. Or that filters almost always cause unintended collateral damage to legitimate websites.

The AP also kind of buries the fact that the bill is more about performative posturing than productive solutions. The law literally won't take effect unless five other states pass equal laws, something that's not going to happen in part because most states realize what a pointless, Sisyphean effort this is:

"Moreover, the rule includes a huge loophole: it doesn’t take effect until five other states pass equivalent laws. If none pass before 2031, the law will automatically sunset. And so far, Utah is the only place that’s even got one on the table. “We don’t know of any other states who are working on any plans right now,” says Electronic Frontier Foundation media relations director Rebecca Jeschke."

There's also, again, that whole First Amendment thing. There is apparently something in the water at the Utah legislature that makes state leaders incapable of learning from experience when it comes to technical specifics or protected speech:

Obviously, this will go about as well as all the previous efforts of this type, including the multi-state effort by the guy who tried to marry his computer to mandate porn filters in numerous states under the false guise of combatting "human trafficking." And it will fail because these are not serious people or serious bills; they're just folks engaged in performative nonsense for a select audience of the perpetually aggrieved. Folks who simply refuse to realize that the solution to this problem is better parenting and personal responsibility, not shitty, unworkable bills or, in this case, legislation that does nothing at all.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 March 2021 @ 10:51am

Verizon Again Doubles Down On Yahoo After 6 Years Of Failure

from the telecoms-can't-innovate dept

You might recall that Verizon's attempt to pivot from grumpy old telco to sexy new Millennial ad brand hasn't been going so well. Oddly, mashing together two failing 90s brands in AOL and Yahoo, and renaming the coagulated entity "Oath," didn't really impress many people. The massive Yahoo hack, a controversy surrounding Verizon snoopvertising, and the face plant by the company's aggressively hyped Go90 streaming service (Verizon's attempts to make video inroads with Millennials) didn't really help.

By late 2018 Verizon was forced to acknowledge that its Oath entity was effectively worthless. By 2019, Verizon wound up selling Tumblr to WordPress owner Automattic at a massive loss after a rocky ownership stretch. Throughout all of this, Verizon has consistently pretended that this was all part of some amazing, master plan.

Those claims surfaced again this week with Verizon announcing that the company would be doubling and tripling down on the Yahoo experiment. For one, the company is launching Yahoo Shops, "a new marketplace destination featuring a curated, native shopping experience tailored to the user including innovative tech, from shoppable video to 3D try-ons, and more." It's also shifting its business model to focus more on subscriptions through Yahoo Plus, hoping to add on to the 3 million people that, for some reason, subscribe to products like Yahoo Fantasy and Yahoo Finance.

Again though, all of this sounds very much like unsurprising and belated efforts to mimic products and services that already exist. While surely somebody somewhere finds these efforts enticing, that this is the end result of its $4.48 billion Yahoo acquisition in 2017, and its 2015 $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL is just kind of...meh. It's in no way clear how Verizon intends to differentiate itself in the market, and people who cover telecom and media for a living continue to find Verizon's persistence both adorable and amusing:

Again, as companies that have spent the better part of a generation as government-pampered, natural monopolies, creativity, competition, innovation, and adaptation are alien constructs. Both AT&T and Verizon have thrown around countless billions at trying to become disruptive players in new media and advertising, and the end result has been nothing but a parade of stumbles. In fact AT&T's probably been a better poster child for this than even Verizon, given it spent $200 billion on megamergers only to lose around 8 million TV subscribers in just a few years. Growth for growth's sake isn't a real strategy.

The ultimate irony is that both companies even managed to successfully convince regulators at the FCC to effectively self-immolate, and even that couldn't buy either company the success they crave believe they're owed. Neither did the billions in money gleaned from the Trump tax cuts, which resulted in more layoffs than innovation. There are oodles of lessons here for those looking to learn from them, but absolutely no indication that's actually going to ever happen.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 24 March 2021 @ 6:39am

Despite A Decade Of Complaints, US Wireless Carriers Continue To Abuse The Word 'Unlimited'

from the that-word,-it-does-not-mean-what-you-think-it-means dept

Way back in 2007, Verizon was forced to strike an agreement with the New York State Attorney General for falsely marketing data plans with very obvious limits as "unlimited." For much of the last fifteen years numerous other wireless carriers, like AT&T, have also had their wrists gently slapped for selling "unlimited" wireless service that was anything but. Despite this, there remains no clear indication that the industry has learned much of anything from the punishment and experience. Most of the companies whose wrists were slapped have, unsurprisingly, simply continued on with the behavior.

The latest case in point is Boost Mobile, a prepaid wireless provider that was shoveled over to Dish Network as part of the controversial T-Mobile Sprint merger. For years the company has been selling prepaid "unlimited" data plans that aren't, by any definition of the word, unlimited. In part because once users hit a bandwidth consumption threshold (aka a "limit"), users find their lines slowed to around 2G speeds (somewhere around 128 kbps) for the remainder of the billing period.

No regulators could be bothered to thwart this behavior, so it fell to the wireless industry's self-regulatory organization, The National Advertising Division (NAD), to dole out the wrist slaps this time. The organization last week told Boost that it should stop advertising its data plans as unlimited, after getting complaints from AT&T -- a company that spent a decade falsely advertising its plans as unlimited:

"AT&T had challenged Boost for its “Unlimited Data, Talk & Text” claims, asserting that the prepaid brand’s 4G LTE data plans are throttled to 2G speeds once a monthly data cap is hit. For the “Talk & Text” portion, NAD sided with Boost, saying the company was able to support its message."

Carriers (including AT&T) have historically tried to claim that a connection is still technically "unlimited" if you slow it to substandard speeds, something regulators and the courts haven't agreed with. NAD didn't much like this explanation either, noting that trying to use modern services on the equivalent of a 1998 IDSN line amounts to the same outcome:

"At 2G speeds, many of today's most commonly used applications such as social-media, e-mail with attachments, web browsing on pages with embedded pictures, videos and ads and music may not work at all or will have such significant delays as to be functionally unavailable because the delays will likely cause the applications to time out,” NAD stated in its decision."

Granted NAD's punishments never really carry much weight. As a self-regulatory organization NAD's function is basically to pre-empt tougher, more comprehensive regulatory action on things like false advertising (which are already pretty rare in telecom). So usually what happens is the organization steps in, doles out a few wrist slaps for ads that have already been running for a year or two, leaving little incentive for real reform in an industry long known for its falsehoods. Which is precisely why we keep reading this same story in the press with little substantive change.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 23 March 2021 @ 6:30am

Yet More Studies Show That 5G Isn't Hurting You

from the stop-getting-your-news-from-YouTube dept

On the one hand, you have a wireless industry falsely claiming that 5G is a near mystical revolution in communications, something that's never been true (especially in the US). Then on the other hand you have oodles of internet crackpots who think 5G is causing COVID or killing people on the daily, something that has also never been true. In reality, most claims of 5G health harms are based on a false 20 year old graph, and an overwhelming majority of scientists have made it clear that 5G is not killing you (in fact several incarnations are less powerful than 4G).

Last week, more evidence emerged that indicates that no, 5G isn't killing you. Researchers from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) and the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia both released studies last week in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. Both studies are among the first to look exclusively at 5G, and the only people who'll be surprised by their findings get all of their news from email forwards and YouTube. From an ARPANSA press statement on its first study's findings:

"‘In conclusion, a review of all the studies provided no substantiated evidence that low-level radio waves, like those used by the 5G network, are hazardous to human health,’ said Dr Karipidis, Assistant Director, Assessment and Advice at ARPANSA."

The second study, which focused on RF energy specifically in the millimeter wave band (the ultra-fast but limited range variant of 5G) also found no health impact that could be replicated by other studies:

"‘This meta-analysis of the experimental studies also presented little evidence of an association between millimetre waves and adverse health effects,’ said Dr Karipidis. "Studies that did report biological effects were generally not independently replicated and most of the studies reviewed employed low-quality methods of exposure assessment and control."

Now that doesn't mean these studies are the definitive answer to questions surrounding 5G's impact on human health, but the evidence we do have continues to indicate that the technology isn't killing you. Granted the actual underlying scientific evidence is headed in the complete, opposite direction of the conspiracy theorists and assorted dipshits who've been attacking telecom infrastructure (or employees) because some supplement-grifting nitwit said so on YouTube.

The reality is, and continues to be, that 5G isn't interesting enough to warrant hyperventilation over its supposed revolutionary impact on communications, or its supposed diabolical impact on human health. But since neither opinion is a real money maker, the truth continues to play second fiddle to bullshit, whether it's coming from the mouths of wireless carriers or complete crackpots.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 March 2021 @ 5:27am

Whistleblower Says AT&T Has Been Ripping Off US Schools For A Decade

from the a-pattern-develops dept

In just the last five years or so AT&T has been: fined $18.6 million for helping rip off programs for the hearing impaired; fined $10.4 million for ripping off a program for low-income families; fined $105 million for helping "crammers" by intentionally making such bogus charges more difficult to see on customer bills; and fined $60 million for lying to customers about the definition of "unlimited" data. This is just a few of AT&T's adventures in regulatory oversight, and in most instances AT&T lawyers are usually able to lower the fines, or eliminate them entirely, after years of litigation.

AT&T's latest scandal, like the rest of them, won't make many sexy headlines, but it's every bit as bad. Theodore Marcus, a lawyer at AT&T, emerged this week to accuse the telecom giant of systemically ripping off US schools via the FCC's E-Rate program. According to Marcus, this occurred for years, and tended to harm schools in the nation's most marginalized communities. And when he informed AT&T executives of this they... did nothing:

"There’s been no consequences for a bunch of folks … who failed to do what they were supposed to do for a program that’s supposed to take care of poor children,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s what’s driving me. These are poor Black and Brown kids and they cannot fend for themselves and you have to do what’s right. There has to be an accounting."

The FCC's E-Rate program does a lot of good work by helping shore up communications and broadband access to the nation's school systems. Started in 1996, the program is paid for by a small surcharge on phone bills. Under the program, telecom providers charge what the Telecom Act deems to be the "lowest corresponding price," or LCP, defined as the average rate that similar customers might pay for broadband access. But the FCC has often done a somewhat flimsy job on policing carriers, who are in charge of whether or not they're in compliance with the requirement.

Marcus says that AT&T for years didn't do this and intentionally overcharged school districts for service (this is, it should be made clear, is a very obvious pattern that pops up consistently). That, in turn, restricted the total number of schools that could have received service, culminating in America being ill-prepared for the COVID crisis:

"If the pattern of overcharging that Marcus and others have alleged is true, the telecom giant deprived hundreds of school districts nationwide of millions of dollars they could have used for education expenses. Limited money in the E-Rate fund at that time could have funded service to more communities."

AT&T, as is its tendency, has responded by basically calling its own former lawyer a disgruntled liar:

"In a statement, Fletcher Cook, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company has always complied with the lowest-corresponding-price rule. He accused Marcus of raising concerns after a poor performance review and not receiving a position he sought. AT&T also noted that the U.S. government declined to intervene in the lawsuits alleging overcharging, and said internal reviews found that the company did nothing wrong."

Of course for a company like AT&T, that thought helping scammers rip off its own customers for years was ok, an "internal review" means nothing. Neither does the fact that the US government, largely in the back pocket of AT&T lobbyists for the better part of a generation, didn't bother to pursue AT&T for effectively defrauding the program. The Post even managed to get former FCC boss Tom Wheeler on record to admit the agency knew AT&T was doing this stuff for a decade, but couldn't be bothered (under either party) to enforce the agency's own rules:

"Marcus’s claims also raise questions about the government’s role and response, since it knew about these allegations for more than a decade. For years, federal regulators were reluctant to address possible abuses by telecom companies, even as they investigated schools for possible fraud in the program, said Tom Wheeler, who served as FCC chairman from 2013 to 2017.

“In order to incentivize the phone companies to hook up, everybody conveniently ignored the lowest-price rule,” Wheeler said. The government, he added, “never enforced it, because that was considered to be discouraging the companies."

Again this isn't some one off; both AT&T and Verizon were recently fined $116 million for overcharging government agencies in California for decades. AT&T was also just sued by DC for the same thing. Then there's this scandal in Mississippi, where AT&T is being accused of taking taxpayer money for networks it never deployed. And this is on top of AT&T's pretty consistent pattern of ripping off its own customers as well. So yeah, it's kind of hard to give AT&T the benefit of the doubt (though its various policy folks will certainly try).

Granted because AT&T is effectively bone grafted to our intelligence (and now law enforcement systems via FirstNet), it never sees much in the way of genuine accountability for anything. At the same time, AT&T has effectively waged a hugely successful and not so subtle war on government oversight, resulting in federal and state regulators that are underfunded, underpowered, and incapable of really doing battle with the giant. The narrative is then built that the problem is always government, and not that we've let unaccountable telecom monopolies run amok for the better part of a generation, resulting in entirely predictable and avoidable outcomes you wouldn't see in a market with healthy competition and competent, uncorrupted oversight.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 March 2021 @ 1:35pm

Conspiratorial Attacks On Telecom Infrastructure Keep Getting Dumber And More Dangerous

from the head-full-of-pudding dept

On one side, you've got wireless carriers implying that 5G is some type of cancer curing miracle (it's not). On the other hand, we have oodles of conspiracy theorists, celebrities, malicious governments, and various grifters trying to claim 5G is some kind of rampant health menace (it's not). In reality, 5G's not actually interesting enough to warrant either position, but that's clearly not stopping anybody in the post-truth era.

But it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

Over the last year or two, conspiracy theory-driven attacks in both the UK and US have ramped up not just on telecom infrastructure, but on telecom workers themselves. From burning down cellular towers to putting razor blades and needles under utility pole posters to injure workers, it's getting exceptionally dumb and dangerous. To the point where gangs of people have threatened telecom workers who don't even work in wireless.

As the Intercept notes, the rise in attacks has finally gotten the attention of law enforcement. In New York, law enforcement has finally keyed into the fact that the conspiracy theories have fused white supremacists and Q Anon dipshittery into one problematic mess that's resulting in concrete harm. White supremacists (here and abroad) have apparently figured out they can amplify and contribute to the conspiracy theories to generate more chaos for the American institutions they're eager to demolish. All stuff that's being amplified in turn by governments like Iran and Russia eager for the same outcome.

While superficially a lot of these folks have the coherence of mud, in many cases the attacks are very elaborate, and specifically targeted:

"In one case, it says, on December 14, 2020, an individual or individuals broke into a cellphone tower ground station in Fairview, West Virginia, severing the tower’s main power cable and removing the primary and back-up generator batteries. The tower had provided wireless coverage throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and the damages totaled over $28,000.

In another instance, an unknown individual is said to have sneaked into a cell tower site in Tennessee on December 19, 2020, by cutting open its perimeter fence. The individual then severed the site’s fiber-optic cables and damaged several other telecommunications components, resulting in a “significant disruption of service for approximately 12 hours."

Many of these attacks are orchestrated by folks who know exactly what they're targeting. Often it's the loopy pudding-brained aspect of these stories that gets the most attention. Less talked about historically is how this bullshit enables white supremacist accelerationist fantasies, something law enforcement chatter is starting to more accurately discuss after decades (centuries?) of apathy:

"In recent months, white supremacist extremists, neo-Nazis, far-right Telegram groups, and online conspiracy theorists have all emphasized attacking valuable critical infrastructure targets.” Many far-right groups adhere to the “accelerationist” principle, which maintains that hastening the collapse of society will bring about political change. Targeting critical infrastructure, which impedes the state’s ability to function, is a common insurgency tactic used by militant groups worldwide."

Conspiracy theories work so well in America thanks to decades of greed slowly nibbling away at cornerstones of a functioning democracy, whether that's a lack of cohesive, affordable mental health care, a government gridlocked by corruption, or a press that still can't pay journalists a living wage while Instagram influencers nab million dollar contracts. Less informed, intentionally agitated, and increasingly faithless in the ability of institutions to protect them, the public clings to anything they can to feel in control, and that increasingly winds up being... complete and total bullshit. A systemic failure that's then exploited and amplified by no limit of bad actors, both foreign and domestic.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 19 March 2021 @ 9:32am

AT&T Whines That California Net Neutrality Rules Are Forcing It To Behave

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

Giant US ISPs have long (ab)used the lack of competition in the broadband market by imposing completely arbitrary and unnecessary monthly usage caps and overage fees. They've also taken to exempting their own content from these arbitrary limits while still penalizing competitors -- allowing them to tilt the playing field in their favor (or the favor of other deep pocketed giants). For example, an AT&T broadband customer who uses AT&T's own streaming services (like HBO Max) faces no bandwidth penalties or fees. If that same customer uses Netflix or a competitor they're socked with surcharges.

When the FCC passed net neutrality rules in 2015, it failed to recognize how this "zero rating" could be abused anticompetitively. They were just starting to figure this out and shift policy positions when Donald Trump was elected and net neutrality rules were killed. However, in the wake of net neutrality's federal repeal, states like California (much like the EU) passed their own net neutrality rules that genuinely prohibit zero rating.

More specifically, California's rules prohibited a company like AT&T from taking money from, say, ESPN, to exempt just ESPN content from caps. Why? One, again, caps are bogus artificial constructs that serve no technical function. And two, if a deep-pocketed giant like ESPN can afford to bypass your pointless cellular restrictions, and smaller online sports website can't, ESPN just gained an unfair competitive advantage (once AT&T gets its slice of the pie, of course).

AT&T, as you might expect, doesn't like this loss of revenue and power (the only two things this has ever been about for them). As such, the company took to their policy blog this week to whine incessantly about how unfair this all is. The company says that as a result of the rules it's backing off its "sponsored data" zero rating plan not just in California, but in other states. It will also no longer let companies buy cap-exempt, "zero rated" status. That's a good thing for internet competition, startups, innovation, and consumers. But this being AT&T, of course the company claims the exact opposite:

"Since it began, our sponsored data service, and competing offers from other wireless providers, have delivered significant benefits and saved consumers money. Consumers also have enjoyed an explosion of video streaming services."

Again though, you're not providing "significant benefits" by creating entirely arbitrary restrictions then letting the wealthiest companies pay you more to bypass them. You're creating a new business paradigm where you inject telecom giants into the mix to determine who can or can't be the most successful. Caps aren't based on any technical necessity, and they don't really help manage network congestion.

Here in the States, large ISPs have done a great job confusing the press and public by claiming that zero rating is the bits and bytes equivalent of a 1-800 number for data or free shipping. Customers who don't understand that usage caps are arbitrary nonsense from the get go often buy into this idea that they're getting something for free. Industry loyal regulators like Ajit Pai intentionally compound this confusion by claiming that this model is somehow of immense benefit to low income communities.

Except that's not true. In fact data has shown zero rating drives up consumer costs where it's heavily adopted:

"AT&T and industry-friendly regulators like Ajit Pai have also tried to claim that “zero rating” helps make broadband more affordable. But van Schewick said data has clearly shown that consumers pay notably more for broadband access in countries that embrace the practice.

“For example, in the European Union, ISPs that don’t zero-rate video give subscribers 8 times more data for the same price than ISPs that zero-rate video,” van Schewick said. “In announcing this shutdown, AT&T is trying to score political points against state net neutrality protections by lying to the public about the law and its effects."

Meanwhile, AT&T also continues to complain about how a "patchwork" of net neutrality rules is "totally unworkable," despite the fact this is the direct result of their successful fifteen year lobbying quest to not only kill net neutrality, but lobotomize the FCC:

"A state-by-state approach to “net neutrality” is unworkable. A patchwork of state regulations, many of them overly restrictive, creates roadblocks to creative and pro-consumer solutions. We have long been committed to the principles of an open Internet."

It takes a fair amount of hubris to repeatedly whine about a problem your lobbyists created. AT&T also continues to proclaim that this is an issue that should be settled by Congress passing a net neutrality law, hoping you'll ignore that it pays US lawmakers oodles of money to not do this. Yeah, AT&T wants a federal net neutrality law, but it wants one its lawyers write. One that's filled with loopholes and, most importantly, pre-empts tougher, better state or federal consensus driven solutions that might actually have some teeth.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 March 2021 @ 6:18am

Canadian Telecom Embraces Mindless Consolidation With Yet Another Major Megamerger

from the growth-for-growth's-sake dept

We've noted repeatedly how the United States has an unhealthy fascination with the growth for growth's sake mindset. That's best exemplified by our near-endless adoration of megamergers in sectors like telecom, which result in extremely harmful monopolization and consolidation problems that are extremely obvious, but we choose to ignore anyway. Time after time after time in telecom (and banking, and airlines, and...), companies promise a universe of investment, job creation, innovation, and synergies in exchange for merger regulatory approval. And time after time after time, reality shows that these pre-merger promises are meaningless and harmful... unless you're one of the few investors or executives who benefit.

Despite the steady drumbeat of market, employment, and consumer harms from such mergers, we insist on learning nothing from the experience here in the States; the job and competition killing Sprint T-Mobile deal being just the latest in a long line of examples of companies promising all manner of job growth, competition, and innovation, right before the exact opposite happens. With no meaningful penalty whatsoever, unless you're a consumer or employee.

While you might think things are different up in Canada, often they're even worse. This week, two of the nation's biggest telecom giants, Shaw and Rogers, announced they'd struck a new $26 billion deal that would dramatically reduce overall competition in the already not-particularly-competitive Canadian telecom market. The announcement is rife will all manner of dodgy claims of amazing "synergies" and job creation:

"Rogers to maintain and grow local Shaw jobs so that teams across Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan will continue to serve customers and support local communities."

And:

"New technology and network investments will create up to 3,000 net new jobs across Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan."

Of course this sort of job creation and retention never actually happens. What almost always does happen is the merging companies put on a good show for about a year to pretend nothing is really going to change. Then, once the press and policymakers stop paying attention, a massive stream of pink slips arrive as redundant positions and headquarters are inevitably eliminated.

It's not really something that's debatable; it's more akin to physics. The deals create massive new debt pressure that's only relieved by trimming rosters, and usually, trimming investment. The end result: Americans and Canadians alike pay some of the highest prices for fixed and wireless broadband in the developed world. So while Rogers and Shaw are promising that the deal will create jobs and is necessary to help fund 5G deployments, the reality is the deal will inevitably result in stunted deployment and fewer new jobs. How do we know? Because this has happened after every major telecom merger for going on forty years now.

One of the reasons we keep making the same mistakes is thanks to regulatory capture and blatant corruption. But another major culprit is the press, which routinely stenographs these announcements without including any historical context. Case in point: dig through these news reports on the Rogers Shaw deal, and try to find any that clearly spell out the historical human costs of monopolization and consolidation in any specific way. They literally don't exist. This Deadline's report on the deal can't even be bothered to mention the word "competition." Just mindless repetition of baseless claims of "synergies":

"Both companies are family founded and publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange but have significant U.S. shareholders. Shares are both jumped Monday on the deal news. The scale created by the combination will allow for infrastructure expansion critical to drive growth and technology adoption and attract new consumer and business customers, the companies said. It will remain one of the biggest employers in Western Canada."

Most press reports on these US and Canadian mergers are pure stenography. And few if any of the outlets that hype pre-merger promises can be bothered to circle back around to report on the very real human impact of these deals. There's just no money in it. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Over and over and over again.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 March 2021 @ 9:46am

Massive SMS Flaw Gives An Attacker Full Access To Your Accounts For $16

from the whoops-a-daisy dept

So last year, when everybody was freaking out over TikTok, we noted that TikTok was likely the least of the internet's security and privacy issues. In part because TikTok wasn't doing anything that wasn't being done by thousands of other companies in a country that can't be bothered to pass even a basic privacy law for the internet. Also, any real security and privacy solutions need to take a much broader view.

For example, while countless people freaked out about TikTok, none of those same folks seem bothered by the parade of nasty vulnerabilities in the nation's telecom networks, whether we're talking about the SS7 flaw that lets governments and bad actors spy on wireless users around the planet or the constant drumbeat of location data scandals that keep revealing how your granular location data is being sold to any nitwit with a nickel. Or the largely nonexistent privacy and security standards in the internet of broken things. Or the dodgy security in our satellite communications networks.

Point being, hysteria over the potential threat of a Chinese app packed with dancing tweens trumped any real concerns about widespread, long-standing security vulnerabilities and privacy issues, particularly in telecom. This week this apathy was once again on display after reporters found that a gaping flaw in the SMS standard lets hackers take over phone numbers in minutes by simply paying a company to reroute text messages. All for around $16:

"I didn't expect it to be that quick. While I was on a Google Hangouts call with a colleague, the hacker sent me screenshots of my Bumble and Postmates accounts, which he had broken into. Then he showed he had received texts that were meant for me that he had intercepted. Later he took over my WhatsApp account, too, and texted a friend pretending to be me.

Looking down at my phone, there was no sign it had been hacked. I still had reception; the phone said I was still connected to the T-Mobile network. Nothing was unusual there. But the hacker had swiftly, stealthily, and largely effortlessly redirected my text messages to themselves. And all for just $16."

Carriers told the reporter they couldn't replicate the problem and that they'd done their best to lock it down (not that there's any level of transparency or regulatory accountability that would let somebody verify that claim). The hackers involved disagree. This wasn't a SIM hijack, another problem we really haven't done enough about. In this case, the hacker used a service from a company dubbed Sakari, which sells SMS marketing and mass messaging services, to reroute the reporter's messages to them. With little in the way of serious screening of more nefarious users, apparently.

That in turn opens the door to having all your online accounts compromised, all without the target being any the wiser. It's a relatively trivial attack to accomplish, and exposes a general lack of any meaningful authentication process to ensure it isn't exploited by bad actors. As an aside, there's a tool you can now use to confirm whether your text messages have been compromised. Meanwhile, security researchers warn that there are so many SMS vulnerabilities now, it's time to stop using SMS for sensitive security purposes.

Meanwhile, the failure by regulators and industry to police and prevent the flaw also (once again) showcases how Ajit Pai's decision to turn the FCC into a mindless rubber stamp for industry had a much broader impact than just killing net neutrality, says Senator Ron Wyden:

"It’s not hard to see the enormous threat to safety and security this kind of attack poses. The FCC must use its authority to force phone companies to secure their networks from hackers. Former Chairman Pai’s approach of industry self-regulation clearly failed," Senator Ron Wyden said in a statement after Motherboard explained the contours of the attack."

While everybody professes to be concerned about internet security and privacy, we're routinely only paying lip service to the concept. The internet of things is seen more as something funny than a massive security and privacy headache. The Trump TikTok hysteria saw more press and national attention than any of a laundry list of more problematic telecom flaws. Having a basic privacy law for an era in which there are a dozen major hacks, breaches, or data leaks every week is treated as something that's optional. As is functional, basic regulatory oversight at agencies like the FCC.

Most modern security and privacy problems require holistic, collaborative efforts between government, the media, industry, and activists. Instead, more often than not, knee jerk clickbait hysteria has us routinely distracted from much broader problems we seem intent on doing little too little to address.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 March 2021 @ 12:13pm

Netflix Starts Cracking Down On The Diabolical Menace Of Password Sharing

from the priorities-priorities dept

Back when Netflix was a pesky upstart trying to claw subscribers away from entrenched cable providers, the company had a pretty lax approach to users that shared streaming passwords. At one point CEO Reed Hastings went so far as to say he "loved" password sharing, seeing it as akin to free advertising. The idea was that as kids or friends got on more stable footing (left home to job hunt, whatever), they'd inevitably get hooked on the service and purchase their own subscription. Execs at HBO (at least before the AT&T acquisition) have stated it doesn't really hurt these companies' bottom lines in part because, much like with traditional piracy, there's no guarantee these users would actually subscribe if they lost access.

In the last year or two, as Netflix's dominance grew, the company's position on the subject unsurprisingly started to toughen. And last week, the company began testing a system that would nudge password sharing subscribers to get their own account:

"...some viewers attempting to use somebody else's account are now being stopped by a screen that says, "If you don't live with the owner of this account, you need your own account to keep watching."

Netflix confirmed the new feature, which is getting a limited rollout at this time. "This test is designed to help ensure that people using Netflix accounts are authorized to do so," a Netflix spokesperson said. In order to continue watching, the viewer is given the option of either verifying their identity (with a texted or emailed code to the account's owner), or opting to "verify later," which gives the viewer an unspecified additional amount of time to continue watching and later confirm they are a valid account user.

Granted there's a little tone deafness here, given the fact we're in the middle of an historic health and economic crisis. But the shift was likely inevitable. A lot of Netflix's initial, more consumer-friendly attitudes (like oh, the company's support for net neutrality) have mysteriously disappeared as Netflix has shifted from pesky upstart to dominant player (Netflix had 203.67 million subscribers as of the end of 2020).

That said there is one plus side to the shift. As these users are shoved toward creating their own accounts, those users are being nudged to sign up for entirely new accounts with two-factor authentication:

"There seems to be a misunderstanding that sharing passwords with known individuals is not dangerous,” says Jake Moore, a cybersecurity specialist at security firm ESET. “The truth is that we shouldn’t be sharing passwords, and adding multi-factor authentication will help this process remain better protected.”

Some of Netflix's positional shift is courtesy of the traditional cable sector. Cable companies like Charter Spectrum (and its CEO Tom Rutledge) have spent years lamenting password sharing as the worst sort of villainy and a form of piracy (it's very much not). Rutledge and his fellow band of password sharing pearl-clutchers have been cooking up an organization whose entire function is to apply pressure on streaming providers who've been lax on password sharing, since that is, as everybody knows, one of the very top issues facing America today.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 March 2021 @ 1:42pm

Comcast Lost $914 Million On Its New Streaming Service Last Year

from the new-to-this-whole-competition-thing dept

Despite bottomless pockets and all but owning state and federal regulators for the last four years, telecom continues to stumble with adaptation in the streaming video era. Verizon's attempt to pivot from curmudgeonly old phone company to sexy new media brand fell flat on its face. AT&T's plan to spend $200 billion on the Time Warner and DirecTV mergers to dominate the television space has resulted in them losing 8 million pay TV subscribers in just the last four years. In short, pampered telecom monopolies aren't finding that getting ahead in more competitive markets to be particularly easy.

Comcast too isn't having a great time of it, despite dumping the company's resources into its new Peacock streaming platform. A new filing this week indicates that Comcast lost $914 million on the venture just last year alone. Some of these losses were expected as Comcast shuffles resources around NBC Universal, pours money into new projects, and streamlines the company's overall structure, but it's worth noting that Comcast remains somewhat cagey about how many paying customers are actually signed up:

"Comcast said Peacock had 33 million signups in the U.S. at year-end but hasn’t provided metrics on how many of those are paying subscribers. The service, available in free and premium subscription tiers, launched for Comcast cable subscribers last April and went nationwide in July 2020."

Comcast, like other giants, had hoped to elbow in on streaming and advertising by locking its NBC properties (like "Friends") behind its gatekeeper paywall. Comcast also enjoys the fact that it effectively lobbied to lobotomize the FCC, leaving it free to do things like use unnecessary broadband caps as a competitive bludgeon against other streaming providers. But even that wasn't enough to seriously threaten giants like Disney, which (thanks in large part to its Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel catalog) just crossed the 100 million paying subscriber mark.

While Comcast expects that Peacock might break even by 2025 or so, the relentless drumbeat of deep-pocketed competitors jumping into the space means that's certainly no guarantee.

Don't be too sad for Comcast, however. As always, the company's steadily growing broadband monopoly means that as it loses TV revenue (from folks cutting the cord on expensive, traditional television), it can simply jack up prices on broadband to recoup the losses. Right now, that's coming in the form of unnecessary, bullshit broadband usage caps, but when your subscribers literally can't flee because there are no other real options to flee to, the sky's the limit.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 March 2021 @ 5:30am

The House Has Proposed An Excellent Broadband Bill. Telecom Lobbyists Will Make Sure It Never Passes.

from the round-and-round-we-go dept

Last week the House unveiled (a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the bill had been passed) the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. The bill, which died last year after Mitch McConnell's Senate refused to hold a vote on it, includes a lot of great things, including spending $94 billion on expanding broadband into underserved areas. There's a ton of other helpful things in the proposal, like boosting the definition of broadband to 100 Mbps down (and upstream), requiring "dig once" policies that deploy fiber conduit alongside any new highway bills, and even a provision requiring the FCC to create rules forcing ISPs be transparent about how much they actually charge for monthly service.

A summary (pdf) of the bill offers some additional detail, such as the fact the bill includes a mandate that the government (specifically the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the NTIA) more fully study the impact of affordability on broadband access. In the wake of allegations that the FCC's subsidy auction process is a corrupted and exploited mess, the law also lays down a lot of groundwork to make the subsidization of broadband access more transparent, equitable, and accountable to genuine oversight with an eye on affordability (instead of exclusively focusing on access, which is the DC norm):

"The section also establishes certain requirements for projects funded under the program, including offering broadband service that provides at least 100/100Mbps with sufficiently low latency, offering broadband service at prices that are comparable to, or lower than, the prices charged for comparable service, and offering an affordable service plan. All bidders must meet objective, transparent criteria upfront that demonstrates technical and operational capacity to implement winning projects."

There's several other common sense proposals in the bill, like giving schools and libraries more leeway to use E-Rate funding to help shore up broadband access during the pandemic. I remain nervous about throwing billions in additional subsidies at the industry when the government still can't accurately map where broadband is or isn't available. Many of the same folks who view subsidization as a silver bullet (Democrat and Republican alike) still can't even acknowledge that the two major contributors to US broadband sucking is monopolization, and state and federal corruption. Problems we seem intent on barely acknowledging, much less addressing.

Still, this is a genuinely good bill that includes a lot of common sense solutions for a problem that has taken on greater urgency during a public health crisis. Much like the last time the bill is likely to pass the House, then get blocked in the Senate. It seems unlikely this would win a straight 60 vote majority without demolishing the filibuster or burying it in some broader, much larger infrastructure bill, which seems increasingly possible.

For one thing, broadband monopolies will fight tooth and nail against any effort to increase the standard definition of broadband, just like the last few times the FCC has considered it. Sharing more data on pricing, and boosting the definition of broadband to symmetrical 100 Mbps will only highlight how feckless regulators and monopolization have muted competition, resulting in spotty coverage, high prices, and slow speeds. Make that data far more transparent and accessible, and somebody might just get the kooky idea to genuinely do something about it, and we can't have that.

There's several other things included in the bill that the telecom lobby will simply never allow, like a more competitive and transparent grant and subsidy process, which might (gasp) result in more federal funding going to smaller competitors. There's also some language that requires paying a competitive rate and not scuttling unionization efforts the industry (and its congressional BFFs) will never tolerate. I guess the Democrats assume that because Covid is adding historic pressure on lawmakers to do more about broadband, they can somehow get the GOP (and centrist Democrat) votes needed to push this across the finish line.

But that seems to ignore forty years of history showing that the GOP --and more than a few Democrats-- are opposed to absolutely anything that genuinely holds trusted intelligence partners like AT&T accountable, anything that brings transparency to advertising or pricing, anything that genuinely protects consumers from monopoly harms (be it privacy violations or net neutrality), or anything that even remotely risks hurting incumbent revenues and regional dominance by driving more competition to market. I don't see that suddenly changing here, though I'd love to be surprised.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 March 2021 @ 10:49am

$3.2 Billion FCC Program Helps The Poor Afford Broadband, But...

from the unfinished-business dept

Last week the FCC took the wraps off a new $3.2 billion program designed to help struggling Americans afford broadband during the pandemic. The program was required by Congress as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and will, once fully operational, dole out $50 a month for broadband service to lower-income American families that qualify. That number jumps to $75 on Tribal lands (a stark reversal from the Trump/Pai era, where the FCC was interested in pulling back on tribal broadband subsidies). The program also doles out up to $100 for a tablet or computer.

With COVID-19 showcasing broadband's essential nature in more ways than one, it's a welcome program that should deliver some immediate relief to the estimated 42 million Americans with no broadband whatsoever, and the estimated 18.5 million households that lack broadband access specifically due to the high cost of service. There's no reason children in the wealthiest country in the history of the planet should have to huddle in the dirt outside of Taco Bell, something interim FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel was quick to highlight:

"This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection,” Acting FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel said of the new program. “It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work. It will help those lingering outside the library with a laptop just to get a wireless signal for remote learning. It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries."

That said, there could still be a few issues here if the FCC doesn't do a good job monitoring the program. Under the new broadband benefit system, the money first goes to the ISPs, who'll then be tasked with making sure the money goes to the appropriate individuals. That hasn't always worked out that well with the FCC's existing Lifeline program, which doles out a measly $9.25 monthly benefit that low-income homes have to use on phone, broadband, or wireless service. Companies from AT&T to Sprint have been repeatedly dinged for taking money for people that, well, didn't actually exist.

The other problem is that this is a temporary fix for a permanent, and much larger issue. An issue that the United States repeatedly doesn't even acknowledge, much less do anything about. It's the primary reason why US broadband is so pricey and mediocre on nearly every metric that matters: corruption and monopolization. 83 million Americans have the choice of just one ISP (aka a monopoly). Tens of millions more only have the choice between a fairly apathetic cable giant (usually Comcast), and an even more apathetic telco that (usually) refuses to meaningfully upgrade or repair its aging DSL lines.

Republican administrations are literally incapable of acknowledging this is even a problem. Democratic administrations are more likely to acknowledge this problem, but not often, and usually not clearly. It's much more politically advantageous to discuss the problem in generalities with terms like the "digital divide," as not to offend companies like AT&T that are not only holding the purse strings, but are literally tethered to our law enforcement and intelligence gathering systems and therefore largely immune from any serious culpability for 100 years of monopolistic behavior.

Again it's great that the FCC is doing something to tackle the immediate needs of desperate Americans. And the agency in many ways is prevented from doing much more due to the fact the Biden administration still hasn't appointed a new FCC boss (breaking the current 2-2 Commissioner deadlock). But even when at full power, keep an eye on those willing to acknowledge why US broadband is so expensive and aggressively mediocre, and those (including many in the press and Congress) who enjoy pretending that this problem exists in a miraculous vacuum free of any direct causation.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 March 2021 @ 5:22am

Inventor Of The Cell Phone Marvels At Entirely Avoidable US Broadband Gaps

from the it-doesn't-have-to-be-this-way dept

One the one hand, you have wireless carriers telling anybody who'll listen that 5G will soon create the incredible, smart cities of tomorrow and no limit of incredible innovation. On the other hand, you have 42 million Americans without access to broadband during a plague, and tens of millions more stuck paying high prices for slow services thanks to monopolization and a lack of competition. It's a discordant reality gap that isn't lost on Martin Cooper, who invented the first cell phone (the Motorola Dynatac 8000x) in 1973. In an interview at CNET, Cooper pointed out how despite a history of innovation, the United States still somehow can't make broadband both universal and affordable, which is why 40% of US students struggle to get online:

"Just imagine what that means over the long term," he said. "That's unacceptable." Cooper said the technology exists to deliver wireless broadband to students for as little as $5 to $10 a month, and that the government needs to be more proactive in convincing carriers to offer such services.

"It's as essential as water and food," he said. "We need to have 100% accessibility to broadband services not just for students, but everyone."

Of course that's largely because we've historically viewed broadband as a luxury good that should be exploited and barely regulated, not an essential utility, overseen by the dual guiding hands of both competent regulators (what's that?) and functional competition (huh?). That's proven to be notably problematic during a pandemic, given broadband is essential not just to online learning, employment, health care, and connection, but also to even sign up to get vaccinated. As such, he's damn right we need more "innovation" in universal and affordable broadband access policy, and less hype surrounding emerging technologies like 5G.

Cooper also shared some thoughts on the fact that the nation's largest companies tend to dominate spectrum auctions, resulting in valuable spectrum being hoarded by a select number of companies that aren't always interested in equitable use of that spectrum (especially by competitors):

"There's plentiful spectrum," he said, noting that his unofficial "Cooper's Law" states that spectrum capacity doubles every two and a half years. Cooper railed against Federal Communications Commission's spectrum auctions like the one that wrapped up in late February. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile spent $81 billion on radio airwaves for 5G services.

"Someone that has paid billions of dollars for radio airwaves would not appreciate the idea of plentiful spectrum," he said, adding that spectrum should be only allocated to companies that can deliver services that take care of human needs..."We haven't finished the internet of people yet, and the industry is already emphasizing the internet of things."

COVID-19 is placing a lot of pressure on lawmakers to finally do something about America's spotty, expensive, and sluggish broadband. But it remains a concern that all the focus will be on innovative ways to throw more subsidies at industry, and less innovation when it comes to finding ways to drive more competition to market and dismantle massive US telecom monopolies (the cause of the problem in the first place). Especially at a time when "big telecom" gets a free pass, and "big tech" is busy sucking all the policy discourse oxygen out of the room.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 March 2021 @ 5:38am

T-Mobile The Latest Snooping Company To Pretend 'Anonymized' Data Means Anything

from the not-so-'uncarrier' dept

As companies like Google shift away from individual behavior tracking in their ad efforts, telecoms like T-Mobile are headed in the opposite direction. The wireless giant this week announced it would be automatically enrolling all of its customers (including recently acquired Sprint customers) in a new behavioral tracking and ad system the company is launching on April 26. Whereas Google is shifting to its FLOC system that tends to clump consumers into groups of like minded consumers (an approach that still comes with its own issues), T-Mobile is doubling down on individualized targeting, and will start sharing its customers’ web and mobile-app data with advertisers.

While this sort of tracking is nothing new for AT&T and Verizon, it's a shift away from T-Mobile's more consumer friendly branding, and will be something new for recently acquired Sprint customers. Fortunately users can opt out of the tech, though that may not always mean what you think it does. AT&T, for example, has historically viewed "opting out" as meaning "we will no longer hit you with targeted ads based on your online data," not that they won't gather data whatsoever. Other times in telecom, opting out can easily be reverted to opting in without the consumer really knowing.

T-Mobile, like so many companies before it, tries a bit too hard to hide behind the claim that "anonymization" of individual user data makes collecting it ok, something that's been disproven by a repeated barrage of different studies. It only takes a small number of additional data points to quickly make users not so anonymous.

One investigation of "anonymized" user credit card data by MIT found that users could be correctly "de-anonymized" 90 percent of the time using just four relatively vague points of information. Another study looking at vehicle data found that 15 minutes’ worth of data from just brake pedal use could lead them to choose the right driver, out of 15 options, 90% of the time.

Despite this, companies continue to toss around the word "anonymization" as some kind of get out of jail free card, as if the terminology means anything. Case in point: T-Mobile's comments to the Wall Street Journal, which were thankfully quickly corrected by the EFF's Aaron Mackey:

"T-Mobile said it masks users’ identities to prevent advertisers and other companies from knowing what websites they visit or apps they have installed. The company tags the data with an encoded user or device ID to protect the customers’ anonymity.

But privacy groups say those IDs can be linked back to people by comparing different data sets.

“It’s hard to say with a straight face, ‘We’re not going to share your name with it,’ ” said Aaron Mackey, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer-privacy advocate. “This type of data is very personal and revealing, and it’s trivial to link that deidentified info back to you."

T-Mobile's move comes in stark, opposite contrast to the shifting winds across the rest of the tech sector as America belatedly considers having a privacy law for the internet era. It also comes fresh off the telecom industry successfully convincing at least half of DC that "big tech" is the only sector worth thinking and worrying about, and "big telecom" is comprised of nothing less than a group of utterly innocent sweethearts.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 March 2021 @ 6:31am

SEC Sues AT&T For Leaking Info To Analysts To Cover Up Drooping Smartphone Sales

from the free-ride-appears-to-be-over dept

AT&T had a damn good ride during the Trump administration. Not only did it convince Trump regulators to effectively lobotomize the nation's top telecom regulator (right before a pandemic, no less), the company got billions in tax breaks for doing effectively nothing. And while the government did sue AT&T over the Time Warner merger, that had more to do with making Rupert Murdoch happy than making life hard on AT&T (AT&T won the lawsuit anyway). All told, AT&T nabbed billions upon billions in regulatory favors, merger approvals, and tax breaks. In exchange the US public saw...58,000 layoffs.

As another indication that AT&T's good times may be slowing down, the SEC filed suit against AT&T this week, accusing the telecom giant of leaking cell phone sales information to analysts and reporters to change their revenue forecasts for the company. This, in turn, let AT&T "beat" analysts' revenue forecasts in the first quarter of 2016, according to the SEC complaint (pdf). Technically, the SEC says AT&T violated the Securities Exchange Act and the SEC's Regulation "fair disclosure" rules, which "prohibit selective disclosures by issuers of material nonpublic information to securities analysts."

Granted, this will now see a year+ of litigation ending it a tiny, pathetic fine (that could then be negotiated away to nothing), but it's still interesting to see regulators trying. From the SEC announcement:

"The SEC remains committed to assuring an even playing field by taking appropriate action, including litigation when necessary, against public companies and their executives who selectively disclose material nonpublic information," added Melissa R. Hodgman, Acting Director of the Division of Enforcement."

Note that this four year investigation saw no charges during the Trump administration. Something AT&T tries to claim suggests that the company is innocent in a press release:

"AT&T claimed in a response Friday that "there was no disclosure of material nonpublic information and no violation" and said it will fight the lawsuit. AT&T also said that the SEC "spen[t] four years investigating this matter," but no charges were brought during the Trump administration. The lawsuit was filed about six weeks after President Biden appointed Democrat Allison Lee as acting chair for the SEC; although the SEC is an independent agency, its commissioners and chair are appointed by the president."

Granted I've spent several decades watching AT&T get "creative" in terms of earnings reports, particularly when it came to trying to hide the company's traditional broadband subscriber losses due to a lack of upgrades. This is also the same company that professed its innocence when it was sued by the US government for ripping off the hearing impaired, making bills more complicated so it would be easier for "crammers" to rip off its customers, turning a blind eye as drug dealers ran scams on its directory assistance customers, and for ripping off a program for low income Americans, so context matters.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 March 2021 @ 1:33pm

Dish, Space X Battle At The Broadband Subsidy Trough

from the good-arguments,-dodgy-motivation dept

To be clear: Space X's Starlink low-orbit satellite broadband service won't revolutionize the broadband industry. The service lacks the capacity to service dense urban or suburban areas, meaning it won't pose much of a threat to traditional cable and fiber providers. With a $100 monthly price tag and $500 hardware fee, it's not exactly a miracle cure for the millions of low-income Americans struggling to afford a broadband connection, either.

That said: if you're currently one of the 42 million Americans who lacks access to any broadband at all, the service, capping out at 100 Mbps, is going to be damn-near miraculous (if you can afford it). It's also going to be a major competitive challenge to the companies that not only compete for rural broadband attention (like WISPs, cellular providers, and last-gen satellite providers), but are busy elbowing out one another at the trough to grab a slice of taxpayer subsidies. Understandably, many of these companies are trying to slow Starlink by any means necessary.

Last month, ViaSat urged the FCC to investigate Space X's very real impact on scientific research via light pollution (a genuine problem regulators have done bupkis about so far). Since the 80s, satellite systems have had a baked in exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), excluding their businesses from environmental review. As Amazon and Space X fling tens of thousands of low orbit satellites into space, ViaSat is suggesting that exemption be reversed. ViaSat's motivations here are entirely selfish. But at the same time this is a real problem they're not wrong about.

Dish Network is also trying to slow down Starlink a bit more creatively by telling the FCC the company's broadband plans could cause interference in the 12.2-12.7 GHz band:

"Dish told the FCC that SpaceX's plan "would adversely affect reception at DBS consumer dishes and that the system as modified would exceed the applicable power limits under International Telecommunication Union and Commission rules. In other words, SpaceX would not be able [to] use the 12 GHz band to meet its RDOF obligations if such service interferes with DBS operations."

Earlier this year we noted how Space X was awarded $885.51 million over 10 years from the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. The problem: like many companies, critics say Space X gamed the system by being misleading about where the company plans to offer service. As such, it's not really clear that we need to be throwing nearly a billion dollars at one of the planet's richest human beings to deploy service to an extra 642,925 locations they probably would have serviced anyway without taxpayer/ratepayer aid.

As the FCC begins digging more deeply into who actually deserves subsidization under its heavily criticized RDOF auction, Dish is trying to have Starlink's designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) under the Communications Act pulled, threatening its subsidies. Starlink's response to Dish's claims is to correctly note that Dish is largely motivated by its own best interests:

"Clearly, this challenge is part of DISH’s larger campaign to cash in on its spectrum speculation in the 12 GHz band by antagonizing non-geostationary orbit satellite operators already licensed to operate in that spectrum. The Commission should decisively reject across all of those proceedings these blatant efforts to misuse Commission resources."

You might recall that Dish is supposed to be building a new 5G network as part of a dodgy plan by the Trump administration affixed to the Sprint T-Mobile merger. The plan: to build a new network over 7 years to help counter the lost competition from losing Sprint. The reality: many still tend to think Dish will spend several years stringing regulators along, only to then cash out of their massive spectrum holdings sometime down the road, with no real network to show for it. So far, the latter path seems like the most likely outcome, in part because T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon really don't want the added competition.

So on one hand, you have a company in Starlink offering a promising technology, but gaming the broken FCC subsidy system to obtain ratepayer money they don't really deserve. On the other, you have a company in Dish that may or may not ever develop a major working commercial wireless network, eager to derail Starlink just in case it someday has to compete with it. Layer on top the fact that countless billions in subsidies never seem to fix US broadband woes because we generally do a terrible job mapping broadband coverage or tracking how those subsidies are spent, and you can start to see why US broadband (and policy) is a bit of a dysfunctional mess.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 March 2021 @ 6:46am

Senators Push FCC To Finally Update Our Pathetic Definition Of Broadband

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

To be clear, the US has always had a fairly pathetic definition of "broadband." Originally defined as anything over 200 kbps in either direction, the definition was updated in 2010 to a pathetic 4 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up. It was updated again in 2015 by the Wheeler FCC to a better, but still arguably pathetic 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream. As we noted then, the broadband industry whined incessantly about having any higher standards, as it would only further highlight the vast impact of monopolization.

Unfortunately for them, last week, a bipartisan coalition of Senators wrote the Biden administration, urging it to adopt a more aggressive broadband definition. How aggressive? 100 Mbps in both directions:

"For years, we have seen billions in taxpayer dollars subsidize network deployments that are outdated as soon as they are complete, lacking in capacity and failing to replace inadequate broadband infrastructure. We need a new approach. "

Granted if the telecom industry hated 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up, they'll positively despise a new symmetrical 100 Mbps benchmark. In large part because if we implemented it, FCC data suggests that only around 43 percent of Americans have access to at least one provider (aka a monopoly) capable of doling out those speeds. In rural markets that number falls to around 23 percent. The Senators were quick to note that these tallies are probably notably worse given the FCC's historically dodgy broadband mapping data:

"Unfortunately, the FCC data continually overestimates broadband connectivity due to outdated mapping and poor data collection methods. We now have multiple definitions across federal agencies for what constitutes an area as served with broadband, resulting in a patchwork without one consistent standard for broadband."

While the FCC defines broadband at 25/3, the USDA, which helps dole out rural broadband subsidies, defines it a 10 Mbps downstream, 1 Mbps up. As a result, we've thrown billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies at companies that do the bare minimum. Or, upgrades they would have deployed anyway. So yes, it makes perfect sense to set the bar a little higher than at ankle height. Especially given that the US continues to rank somewhere around "mediocre" in every major broadband metric that matters (including price).

The problem for the broadband industry is that were America to adopt 100/100 as a standard, 187 million Americans wouldn't technically have access to broadband. That would only pour fuel on the conversation asking why not. That's the very last thing a heavily monopolized industry wants. US phone providers have spent years refusing to upgrade or repair aging DSL lines, something this new standard would shine a bright spotlight on. Even the US cable industry, which tends to offer faster downstream speeds, is so embarrassed by its upstream offerings it tries to hide them in company advertising.

I tend to think folks are asking for a symmetrical 100 Mbps hoping to settle on symmetrical 50 Mbps, or 50/25 Mbps, as a compromise. Either way, you can probably expect a tough fight by industry. Wimpy definitions, hand in hand with the FCC's crappy broadband availability and pricing data, helps obscure the impact of monopolization and limited competition. And changing it would threaten the subsidy gravy train. So expect ample consternation and hand wringing by major ISPs and their allies about how actually having tough standards (for once) is diabolical extremism of the very worst sort.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 March 2021 @ 5:26am

Crappy US Broadband Is Also Hampering Equitable Vaccine Deployment

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

As our recent Greenhouse policy forum on broadband made abundantly clear, COVID is shining a very bright light on US broadband dysfunction. The high cost of service, spotty coverage, slow speeds, and high prices are all being felt acutely in an era where having a decent broadband connection is the pathway to education, employment, healthcare, and opportunity. And after 25 years of US apathy to its telecom monopoly problem, COVID-19 is applying pressure on lawmakers and regulators in an entirely new way to do something about the 42 million without broadband, the 83 million under a monopoly, and the tens of millions who simply can't afford service due to limited competition.

But it's not just high prices and spotty coverage that have proven to be an issue in the COVID era. In Kentucky, one of countless US states where local monopolies AT&T and Time Warner Cable (now Charter Spectrum) literally dictated state telecom policy for 25 years (with obvious results), a lack of broadband access is hampering the public's access to vaccines. Louisville, Kentucky high schoolers recently set up VaXConnect Kentucky to help seniors get access to their first and second shots. And they're finding themselves "surprised" to learn just how many people don't have access to a reliable, affordable connection:

"People are calling us and they only have landlines, and they don't have internet or a computer or an email," Beck says. "That's more common than I realized."

Granted part of the problem is monopolization and limited competition impacting broadband availability and price. But the other problem, long discussed here at Techdirt, is the fact that state and federal regulators have done a piss poor job accurately measuring broadband availability. In large part because giant incumbents like AT&T have fought tooth and nail against improving broadband mapping for the better part of thirty years. Mostly because once lawmakers and regulators get a better sense of monopolization's real impact, they might just get the crazy idea to do something about it.

In this case, our failures to seriously tackle monopolization and regulatory capture are having a very real human cost. And usually, it's the most vulnerable among us who are the first in line to feel the pain, something experts also discussed at length during our recent Greenhouse panel:

"About 27% of American adults over the age of 65 don't use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew also reported that a third of Black adults in the US lack home broadband. ABC News reported that the situation is even worse for seniors of color. Meanwhile the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people 65 and older, as well as members of racial and ethnic minority groups, are dying at disproportionate rates from COVID-19."

Having co-built DSLReports, I spent every day for fifteen years watching first hand how the broadband industry (and its various policy tendrils at think tanks, consultants, and lobbying shops) spent millions of dollars and countless man hours trying to convince the press, public, and regulators that the US broadband market was perfectly healthy and competitive, and in absolutely no need for reform or meaningful oversight. COVID has, in a very short amount of time, punched that self-serving, bad faith argument squarely in the jaw. Hopefully we learn something from the experience.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 March 2021 @ 6:39am

T-Mobile Promised Major Job Growth Post Sprint Merger. SEC Filings Show The Exact Opposite Happened

from the Charlie-Brown-and-Lucy-Football dept

When T-Mobile was selling its $26 billion Sprint merger to regulators, it told anybody who'd listen that the deal would create a parade of new jobs. In a 2019 blog post that still hasn't been deleted (amateur move, guys), ex-T-Mobile CEO John Legere didn't mince words in his predictions:

"So, let me be really clear on this increasingly important topic. This merger is all about creating new, high-quality, high-paying jobs, and the New T-Mobile will be jobs-positive from Day One and every day thereafter. That’s not just a promise. That’s not just a commitment. It’s a fact."

"...These combined efforts will create nearly 5,600 new American customer care jobs by 2021."

2021 is here, and a recent SEC filing shows that the company has actually lost about 5,000 jobs in a little under a year and a half. That number could potentially be even higher. As noted last April, T-Mobile quickly set about immediately shuttering its Metro prepaid division (a decision that had nothing to do with COVID), resulting in an estimated 6,000 layoffs (something T-Mobile said wouldn't happen). Last June, the company fired hundreds of additional Sprint employees during a conference call that lasted all of six minutes.

There's likely more where that came from, as the company is still operating dual headquarters in both the Pacific Northwest and Overland Park, Kansas. In most mergers like this, the acquiring company tries to keep things the same for about a year to keep folks calm before the hatchets are unveiled.

Of course, this is all something that consumer groups, antitrust experts, unions, and even Wall Street stock jocks predicted. Most of those folks predicted that, even though it would take time, the deal would eliminate anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 jobs. That's in addition to their complaints that the deal effectively reduced US wireless competition by 25% via 4-3 carrier consolidation, something that historically always, sooner or later, results in higher prices for consumers (see: Canada, Ireland, Germany).

Granted in his original blog post, Legere made fun of those critics and insisted they were simply making shit up:

"I guess if the real numbers don’t tell the story you want, you can just make up new ones? It’s actually offensive."

Yes, accurate predictions are so offensive. Granted John Legere, who successfully built T-Mobile from an also-ran into a major competitor (thanks in part to regulators blocking AT&T's 2011 merger with T-Mobile), was quick to leave the company shortly after the deal, offloading his Central Park West Penthouse to Giorgio Armani for $17.5 million (how many employee jobs is that?). And as Light Reading notes, T-Mobile's revenues continue to soar as it continues job cuts it promised wouldn't happen:

"In 2015, T-Mobile was making about $650,000 per employee. Last year, it generated almost $912,000. For workers at the company, that is not a source of comfort."

Granted this happens absolutely every time there's a major telecom merger. Companies throw out bullshit job growth claims, knowing full well such consolidation inevitably will result in massive job cuts a year or two later as redundant positions are eliminated. The press hypes the false merger "synergy" claims, then (usually) can't be bothered to follow up with reports highlighting how the promises were empty. It's a massive ouroboros of dysfunction, and no matter how many times we live through the exact same experience (AT&T's countless mergers, Verizon's countless mergers, Comcast's repeated mergers), America has a severe allergy to learning absolutely anything from experience.

Mindless consolidation and "growth for growth's sake" hurts employees, markets, and consumers. Full stop. Regulators could have forced Sprint to find another suitor, preferably one that didn't result in a loss of overall competitors (Dish, Comcast, Charter, Google, Amazon). Instead we signed off on another massive deal, based on a parade of false promises. Then, in two or three years when US wireless prices (already some of the highest in the developed world) are even higher, everybody will stand around with a dumb look on their faces wondering how exactly we got this point. Wash, rinse, repeat.

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