Comcast, Charter dominate US; telcos “abandoned rural America,” report says

Comcast, Charter dominate US; telcos “abandoned rural America,” report says
AT&T and Verizon have generally built fiber only where they face competition.
Jul 31 2018

You already knew that home broadband competition is sorely lacking through much of the US, but a new report released today helps shed more light on Americans who have just one choice for high-speed Internet.

Comcast is the only choice for 30 million Americans when it comes to broadband speeds of at least 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream, the report says. Charter Communications is the only choice for 38 million Americans. Combined, Comcast and Charter offer service in the majority of the US, with almost no overlap. 

Yet many Americans are even worse off, living in areas where DSL is the best option. AT&T, Verizon, and other telcos still provide only sub-broadband speeds over copper wires throughout huge parts of their territories. The telcos have mostly avoided upgrading their copper networks to fiber—except in areas where they face competition from cable companies.

These details are in “Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom,” a report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). The full report should be available at this link today.

“Market is broken”

“The broadband market is broken,” the report’s conclusion states. “Comcast and Charter maintain a monopoly over 68 million people. Some 48 million households (about 122 million people) subscribe to these cable companies, whereas the four largest telecom companies combined have far fewer subscribers—only 31.6 million households (about 80.3 million people). The large telecom companies have largely abandoned rural America—their DSL networks overwhelmingly do not support broadband speeds—despite years of federal subsidies and many state grant programs.”

The ILSR report is based on the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data; ISPs are required to identify the census blocks in which they provide residential or business Internet service and the maximum speeds offered in each block.

The Form 477 data “overestimates actual broadband availability and ISPs’ service areas,” because it counts an entire census block as served even if an ISP offers service to just one resident in the block, the report notes. But the ILSR said it found no better alternative, and ISPs have resisted efforts to make the data more accurate.

The report includes deployment data for cable, fiber, DSL, and fixed wireless broadband. The report excludes satellite Internet “because the technology is highly dependent on terrain and weather, has very poor latency, and is often more expensive than terrestrial ISPs.” Mobile broadband also is not included because the report focuses on home (or “fixed”) Internet service, rather than smartphone coverage.

The most recent Form 477 data is from December 2016, so the numbers in this article aren’t fully up to date. As we’ve reported, the data showed that 30 percent of developed census blocks have just one ISP offering speeds at least as fast as the FCC’s broadband standard of 25Mbps downloads and 3Mbps uploads. In 13 percent of developed census blocks, there were zero providers offering speeds that fast.

Comcast and Charter

Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable company and broadband provider, offers service to about 110 million people in 39 states and Washington, DC.

“All of these people have access to broadband-level service through Comcast Xfinity, but about 30 million of these people have no other option for broadband service,” the ILSR wrote.

Comcast’s broadband subscribers included 25.5 million households, or about 64.8 million people, based on the average US household size of 2.54 people.

Charter, the second biggest cable company after Comcast, offers service to 101 million people in 45 states. 22.5 million households covering about 57.2 million people were subscribing to Charter Internet, according to the numbers cited by the ILSR.

Like Comcast, Charter offers broadband-level speeds throughout its territory. “About 38 million [people in Charter territory] have no other option for broadband service,” the report said.

Comcast and Charter generally don’t compete against each other. They have a combined territory covering about 210 million people, yet the companies’ overlapping service territory covers only about 1.5 million people, according to the Form 477 data cited by the ILSR. The overlap is mostly in Florida, where Charter purchased Bright House Networks, and may be overstated because an entire census block is counted as served even if an ISP offers service to just one resident in the block.


Facebook says it has uncovered a coordinated disinformation operation ahead of the 2018 midterm elections

Facebook says it has uncovered a coordinated disinformation operation ahead of the 2018 midterm elections
By Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm
Jul 31 2018

Facebook said Tuesday that it had discovered a sophisticated coordinated disinformation operation on its platform involving 32 false pages and profiles engaging in divisive messaging ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.

The social media company that it couldn’t tie the activity to Russia, which interfered on its platform around the 2016 presidential election. But Facebook said the profiles shared a pattern of behavior with the previous Russian disinformation campaign, which was led by a group with Kremlin ties called the Internet Research Agency.

Facebook briefed congressional aides this week. A congressional aide said that there’s no evidence that political candidates were targeted in the new disinformation effort but that pages and accounts sought to spread politically divisive content around social issues.

“It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past,” Facebook said in a post. “We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder. But security is not something that’s ever done. We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too.”

[‘Too easy to manipulate’: Russian disinformation finally costs Facebook and Twitter]

In recent weeks, leaders in the administration, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, have said that active campaigns were taking place on social media. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The pages Facebook disclosed Tuesday promoted an event pegged as a counter-rally to a far-right march scheduled for next weekend in Washington. Facebook said that the urgency of the upcoming rally prompted them to publicize the information, even though it is in the early stages of an investigation.

The company, which identified the pages two weeks ago and has since removed them, said in June that it had found no such activity.

The 32 pages found had from 16,000 to 18,000 followers. There was no specific evidence that political candidates were targeted, but one account followed an IRA-associated account for a brief period.

“Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “I also expect Facebook, along with other platform companies, will continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy in the future.”

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Russian operatives used hundreds of accounts to spread false and divisive messages on issues including gun control and immigration. These messages went viral, reaching more than 100 million Americans.

The revelations, which spilled out last fall, led to congressional hearings and growing calls in Washington to regulate technology giants. A pending bill proposed by Warner, called the Honest Ads Act, would hold technology companies that publish political ads to the same disclosure responsibilities as broadcasters.

“The attribution is going to get increasingly complex, as adversaries are not going to make sloppy mistakes paying for ads in rubles in this next go-round. Also, the playbook is established, so we are seeing domestic ideologues, economically motivated actors and others come in the replicate it,” said Renée DiResta, an expert on disinformation and research director at New Knowledge, a nonprofit advocacy group of technologists that focus on disinformation.

The company has hired thousands of new security staff, partnered with research organizations, and improved its artificial intelligence tools for detecting disinformation.


Unsurvivable heatwaves could strike heart of China by end of century

Unsurvivable heatwaves could strike heart of China by end of century
The most populous region of the biggest polluter on Earth – China’s northern plain – will become uninhabitable in places if climate change is not curbed
By Damian Carrington
Jul 31 2018

The deadliest place on the planet for extreme future heatwaves will be the north China plain, one of the most densely populated regions in the world and the most important food-producing area in the huge nation.

New scientific research shows that humid heatwaves that kill even healthy people within hours will strike the area repeatedly towards the end of the century thanks to climate change, unless there are heavy cuts in carbon emissions. 

“This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heatwaves in the future,” said Prof Elfatih Eltahir, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, who led the new study. The projections for China’s northern plain are particularly worrying because many of the region’s 400 million people are farmers and have little alternative to working outside.

“China is currently the largest contributor to the emissions of greenhouse gases, with potentially serious implications to its own population,” he said. “Continuation of current global emissions may limit the habitability of the most populous region of the most populous country on Earth.”

The new analysis assesses the impact of climate change on the deadly combination of heat and humidity, which is measured as the “wet bulb” temperature (WBT). Once the WBT reaches 35C, the air is so hot and humid that the human body cannot cool itself by sweating and even fit people sitting in the shade die within six hours. 

A WBT above 31C is classed by the US National Weather Service as “extreme danger”, with its warning stating: “If you don’t take precautions immediately, you may become seriously ill or even die.”

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, found fatal WBTs of 35C would strike the north China plain repeatedly between 2070 and 2100, unless carbon emissions are cut. Shanghai, for example, would exceed the fatal threshold about five times and the “extreme danger” WBTs would occur hundreds of times. Even if significant carbon cuts are made, the “extreme danger” WBT would be exceeded many times.

Previous research by Eltahir and colleagues showed that the Persian Gulf in the Middle East, the heartland of the global oil industry, will also suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival if climate change is unchecked, particularly Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and coastal cities in Iran. The fatal 35C WBT was almost reached in Bandar Mahshahr in Iran in July 2015, where 46C heat combined with 50% humidity.

The scientists also analysed south Asia in 2017 and found it too is at risk of killer 35C WBT heatwaves in places. Even outside the extreme hotspots, three-quarters of the 1.7bn population – particularly those farming in the Ganges and Indus valleys – would be exposed to “extreme danger” levels of humid heat towards the end of the century.

But China’s northern plain is set to be the worst place, said Eltahir: “The response [to climate change] is significantly larger than in the other two regions.” Signs of that future have already begun, with the study finding a substantial increase in extreme heatwaves on the plain in the past 50 years. In 2013, a severe heatwave in the region persisted for 50 days during which Shanghai broke a 141-year temperature record.

Prof Chris Huntingford, at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and not involved in the study, said: “The research finds that if greenhouse emissions continue at current levels, there will be many more days when unsafe thresholds are crossed. This will make work outdoors almost impossible across much of the agricultural regions of China.”

“Work like this is especially useful, as it allows governments to plan better future agricultural practices, including what is needed to support farmers to operate safely and thus ensure food security,” he said.

The most extreme temperatures in all the analyses were found in the Persian Gulf, but those occurred over the sea. In the case of the north China plain, Eltahir said: “This is where people live.”


Hollywood has made ‘no progress’ in on-screen diversity, report says

Hollywood has made ‘no progress’ in on-screen diversity, report says
New report from USC found just 31.8% of characters with dialogue were women in 2017, roughly the same ratio as the last 11 years
By Sam Levin
Jul 31 2018

Hollywood has made “no progress” in on-screen representation over the last decade, with women of color largely excluded from leading roles and men occupying more than twice as many roles as women in 2017 films, according to new research.

The report from the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which analyzed the top 100 films each year since 2007, found that only 31.8% of characters with dialogue were women last year, roughly the same ratio that has persisted for the last 11 years. Only four women of color were leads in 2017, and white actors were cast in 70.7% of all speaking roles. 

“There is a cacophony of voices crying out for change, but Hollywood hasn’t changed its hiring practices,” Stacy L Smith, author of the report, said in an interview. “We’re seeing very stable trends and very little movement in storytelling.” 

The report released Tuesday comes after a year of significant upheaval in the industry, with the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements shedding light on the widespread mistreatment of women in Hollywood and the continued dominance of straight white men on screen and behind the camera. Although the #OscarsSoWhitecampaign has sparked mainstream debate for several years, the new USC report suggested that Hollywood producers have not shifted in response. 

Smith’s report called for widespread adoption of the so-called inclusion rider concept she invented, which was made famous by actor Frances McDormand’s Oscar speech earlier this year. The idea is that actors add clauses to their contractsrequiring cast and crew on their films meet a certain level of diversity.

The report also suggested that states with tax incentive programs for filming could consider tying funding to employing diverse casts and crew members.

The study, which examined 48,757 characters in 1,100 films, shed light on the ongoing exclusion of women, people of color, LGBT actors and people with disabilities. 

Since 2007, women have occupied only 30.6% of all speaking roles, and only 13% of the top films in that period have had gender-balanced casts (45% to 55% of characters were female). 

The outlook last year was grim for women of color. Of the top 100 films, 43 had no black female characters, 65 had no Asian or Asian American women and 64 had no Latina roles. Of the women in leading roles, only five were age 45 or older. 

The percentage of white characters in top films has decreased slightly since 2007, but people of color were still underrepresented in last year’s movies, with only 4.8% Asian characters, 6.2% Hispanic and 12.1% black. 

The researchers further analyzed the sexuality of more than 4,400 characters last year and found that only 31 (0.7%) were lesbian, gay or bisexual. Those roles were predominantly white and male. 

Out of 400 popular films from 2014 to 2017, there has only been one transgender character. Reese Witherspoon’s 2015 comedy Hot Pursuit featured a small role of a trans prostitute that was criticized as an offensive stereotype. There were no trans characters last year, despite growing visibility and recognition of the importance of hiring trans actors. 

The report also found that only 2.5% of all characters last year in the 100 top-grossing films had a disability. 

Girls and women were also more than twice as likely as male characters to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially naked or referenced as attractive, which is consistent with previous years, the report found. Teenage characters (ages 13 to 20) were just as likely to be sexualized as adult women last year, according to the analysis.


How Did the End of the World Become Old News?

How Did the End of the World Become Old News?
This month, the world saw an unprecedented global heat wave, wildfires in the Arctic Circle — and virtually no headlines about climate change
By David Wallace-Wells
Jul 30 2018

There has been a lot of burning lately. Last week, wildfires broke out in the Arctic Circle, where temperatures reached almost 90 degrees; they are still roiling northern Sweden, 21 of them. And this week, wildfires swept through the Greek seaside, outside Athens, killing at least 80 and hospitalizing almost 200. At one resort, dozens of guests tried to escape the flames by descending a narrow stone staircase into the Aegean, only to be engulfed along the way, dying literally in each other’s arms.

Last July, I wrote a much-talked-over magazine cover story considering the worst-case scenarios for climate change — much talked over, in part, because it was so terrifying, which made some of the scenarios a bit hard to believe. Those worst-case scenarios are still quite unlikely, since they require both that we do nothing to alter our emissions path, which is still arcing upward, and that those unabated emissions bring us to climate outcomes on the far end of what’s possible by 2100.

But, this July, we already seem much farther along on those paths than even the most alarmist climate observers — e.g., me — would have predicted a year ago. In a single week earlier this month, dozens of places around the world were hit with record temperatures in what was, effectively, an unprecedented, planet-encompassing heat wave: from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swaths of southern Russia. The temperature of one city in Oman, where the daytime highs had reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit, did not drop below 108 all night; in Montreal, Canada, 50 died from the heat. That same week, 30 major wildfires burned in the American West, including one, in California, that grew at the rate of 10,000 football fields each hour, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term — “fire tsunami” — along the way. On the other side of the planet, biblical rains flooded Japan, where 1.2 million were evacuated from their homes. The following week, the heat struck there, killing dozens. The following week.

In other words, it has been a month of historic, even unprecedented, climate horrors. But you may not have noticed, if you are anything but the most discriminating consumer of news. The major networks aired 127 segments on the unprecedented July heat wave, Media Matters usefully tabulated, and only one so much as mentioned climate change. The New York Times has done admirable work on global warming over the last year, launching a new climate desk and devoting tremendous resources to high-production-value special climate “features.” But even their original story on the wildfires in Greece made no mention of climate change — after some criticism on Twitter, they added a reference.

Over the last few days, there has been a flurry of chatter among climate writers and climate scientists, and the climate-curious who follow them, about this failure. In perhaps the most widely parsed and debated Twitter exchange, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes — whose show, All In, has distinguished itself with the seriousness of its climate coverage — described the dilemma facing every well-intentioned person in his spot: the transformation of the planet and the degradation may be the biggest and most important story of our time, indeed of all time, but on television, at least, it has nevertheless proven, so far, a “palpable ratings killer.” All of which raises a very dispiriting possibility, considering the scale of the climate crisis: Has the end of the world as we know it become, already, old news?

If so, that would be really, really bad. As I’ve written before, and as Wen Stephenson echoed more recently in The Baffler, climate change is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a binary process where we end up either “fucked” or “not fucked.” It is a system that gets worse over time as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases. We are just beginning to see the horrors that climate change has in store for us — but that does not mean that the story is settled. Things will get worse, almost certainly much, much worse. Indeed, the news about what more to expect, coming out of new research, only darkens our picture of what to expect: Just over the past few weeks, new studies have suggested heat in many major Indian cities would be literally lethalby century’s end, if current warming trends continue, and that, by that time, global economic output could fall, thanks to climate effects, by 30 percent or more. That is an impact twice as deep as the global Great Depression, and it would not be temporary.

These are not the kinds of findings it is easy to ignore, or dismiss, or compartmentalize, even though we have all become exquisitely skilled lately in compartmentalizing the threat. Neither is it easy to forget the stories of the Greek wildfires, or the Japanese heat wave. Which is why it is perhaps important to remember that the media did not ignore these stories, or the month of global climate horrors that gave rise to them. Television networks covered those heat waves 127 times. That is, actually, a very lot! They just utterly failed to “connect the dots,” as Emily Atkin put it incisively at The New Republic — broadcasters told the story of the historic temperatures, but chose not to touch the question of why we were seeing so many of them, all at once, with the atmosphere more full of carbon, and the planet hotter, than it has ever been at any point in human history.


TSA Darkens the Skies With Secret Surveillance of Americans

TSA Darkens the Skies With Secret Surveillance of Americans
The wasteful program raises a number of red flags.
By Hugh Handeyside, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project
Jul 30 2018

The Transportation Security Administration is engaging in covert surveillance of innocent fliers — and raising a host of disturbing questions in the process.

Internal TSA documents uncovered by The Boston Globe reveal that under a program called “Quiet Skies,” every day federal air marshals are tracking and shadowing dozens of U.S. citizens who are not under investigation or suspected of any actual wrongdoing. We aim to find out more by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Trump administration.

The documents show that the TSA is using secret criteria that include travel patterns and specific behaviors to determine which travelers to target. The marshals then secretly follow the passengers and document their conduct in granular detail, going so far as to fly with them on subsequent flights. The agency retains the marshals’ observations and reports in its internal files.

The red flags here are plentiful. First, federal law enforcement shouldn’t be tracking and monitoring travelers and then logging detailed information about them without any basis to believe that they’ve done anything wrong. That the TSA appears to be doing exactly that through the Quiet Skies program is at once troubling and illogical — it needlessly invades the privacy of thousands of Americans while flooding the agency’s databases with useless information on innocent activity.

This program also raises serious constitutional concerns. If the TSA’s secret targeting criteria rely on race or religion, it could amount to unconstitutional profiling.

The TSA appears to be using algorithms to decide who to target, which only aggravates these concerns. This is a problem because such artificial intelligence incorporates human biases and often operates without adequate oversight and accountability. We’ve called out the agency in the past for using a targeting algorithmto sort passengers according to the purported risk they pose because it’s at odds with fairness and due process.

Finally, the TSA refuses to learn its lesson on roundly discredited “behavior detection” techniques, which Quiet Skies also uses. While spying on passengers, air marshals note whether they exhibit any of a series of behaviors — “excessive fidgeting,” “exaggerated emotions,” or a “cold penetrating stare,” to name a few — that the TSA insists on viewing as suspicious. In reality, they are subjective, often commonplace, and can easily be skewed by marshals’ biases.

Experts, legislators, and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector generalhave sharply criticized these methods. TSA documents that the ACLU obtained through a lawsuit revealed that the “behavior detection” techniques were unscientific and unreliable. Their use in Quiet Skies or any other TSA program is unacceptable.

Like the old, debunked “behavior detection” program, Quiet Skies looks like the worst kind of waste. It expends the time and focus of federal officers while at the same time threatening our civil liberties. The Globe reports that numerous federal air marshals have complained about the program, with one calling it “nonsense,” and in a very unusual move, the Air Marshal Association criticized it publicly.


What’s Philly’s DA Got to Do With Me?

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

What’s Philly’s DA Got to Do With Me?
If every city had a Larry Krasner, there might be fewer people in jail who didn’t belong there.
Jul 30 2018

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform.

Since taking office he’s stopped prosecuting simple possession of marijuana. He’s limited civil asset forfeitures only to cases in which there’s a conviction. He’s directed his assistant district attorneys to include the cost of a prison term in making sentencing recommendations. Oh, and he’s published a list of 29 local police officers that he views as unreliable witnesses due to their abuse of their powers and other corruption. 

For traditional law-and-order types, Philadelphia’s new district attorney, Larry Krasner, might be something of a nightmare. But for civil libertarians and jail reformers across the political spectrum, he’s putting into practice policies that they’ve been pushing for a long time.  

Krasner, who took office in January, styles himself a progressive, but his objectives dovetail closely with those of conservative and libertarian justice reformers. All share a broader vision of radically reshaping a criminal justice system that is deeply unjust and out of line with American constitutional and moral values.

“I personally think our criminal justice system is thoroughly rotten and it has a number of features that, in my judgment, have so undermined the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and so sharply tilted the playing field in favor of prosecutors and against defendants that is has deprived our criminal justice system of its integrity and its legitimacy,” Clark Neily, the vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute, tells The American Conservative.

Krasner’s reforms, Neily said, must be understood in the context of these broader issues. In particular, he identifies three fundamentally unjust components of the U.S. justice system. First, there is “over-criminalization”—most notably of marijuana. And while public opinion is shifting in favor of pot legalization, law enforcement isn’t budging: in 2016, there were more arrests for marijuana on minor possession charges than all violent crimes across the country: 574,641 to 505,681, according to The New York Times. The same holds true for 2015, according to Neily.  

Criminalizing drug abuse has impacted our prison populations. A Department of Justice survey found that 15.2 percent of those in state prisons—or 197,200 people—at the end of 2015 were there on drug charges. That includes manufacturing and selling drugs. Those in prison for possession alone amounted to 44,700—or 3.4 percent of the state prison population. 

The issue is one of both justice and financial prudence. Each of those prisoners incurs a hefty cost for the taxpayers. In Pennsylvania, the bill is officially $42,727 a year per prisoner. But Krasner’s office says that when pension, health, and other benefits are included, it’s closer to $60,000 in Philadelphia County, well above the median income in the area, which is $39,770. That adds up fast: according to the DA, the county incarcerated 8,000 people annually as of March, costing $360 million a year. 

On February 15, Krasner issued a memo outlining many of his new policies, including the requirement that the “financial cost to the taxpayer” should be weighed against the possible benefit of a prison term when making sentencing recommendations. 

“It’s such an obviously sensible thing to do, but it’s virtually unheard of, which is why people keep calling what Krasner is doing a ‘revolution,’” Sara Mullen, associate director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in an interview with TAC. “To my knowledge, he’s the first one to do that.”

For Krasner, it’s not only a matter of finances and fairness, but also public safety. 

In his February 15 memo, he notes that the rate of incarceration has increased by 700 percent over a decade. “Yet Pennsylvania and Philadelphia are not safer as a result, due to wasting resources in corrections rather than investing in other measures that reduce crime,” Krasner writes. “Pennsylvania’s and Philadelphia’s over-incarceration have bankrupted investment in policing, public education, medical treatment of addiction, job training and economic development—which prevent crime more effectively than money invested in corrections.” 

Of course, it’s not just prisons, but also local jails that have been flooded with more inmates than they can handle. In 2015, Philadelphia County had 8,082 people behind bars. Due to a series of reforms started in 2016—funded in part by a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant—that population is already in decline, dropping to 5,394 earlier this year. 

One driving force behind the bloated local jail population is the controversial cash bail requirement. Many of those arrested end up awaiting trial in jail because their families cannot come up with the $500 or even $100 they need to make bail, according to J. Jondhi Harrell, the executive director of The Center for Returning Citizens (known as TCRC) in Philadelphia. (TCRC was part of the Coalition for a Just DA, which helped elect Krasner.)