Weekly output: ISP guidance, Florida social-media law meets court setback, digital-platform antitrust bill updated, WiFi hotspots guide, Mark Vena podcast

I returned Monday from one work trip and have (ulp) four more coming up before the end of June. But at least they’re all separated by at least two days!

5/23/2022: Internet Service Providers, U.S. News & World Report

My contribution to this update of U.S. News’ guide consisted of three comparisons (Fios vs. XfinitySpectrum vs. AT&T, Xfinity vs. AT&T), advice about cheaper ISPs, and a DSL explainer that I hope you don’t need.

Screenshot of PCMag story, illustrated with a photo of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking in front of an "Awake Not Woke" banner5/24/2022: US Appeals Court Tosses Most Provisions of Florida Social-Media Law, PCMag

The ruling from a three-judge panel at the 11th Circuit overturning a Florida law essentially banning content moderation of posts from or about officially-filed political candidates is uncommonly clear in explaining why those judges found this statute to be unconstitutional garbage.

5/26/2022: Senators Update Antitrust Bill to Focus More Narrowly on Big Tech Firms, PCMag

PCMag had somehow not previously covered this bill from Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), so I used an incremental update to the bill’s text to get readers up to speed.

5/26/2022: The Best Wi-Fi Hotspot, Wirecutter

This is an incremental update to the hotspot guide I’ve been maintaining since early 2015–because while speeds and rates have changed, I haven’t yet had a chance to try a new set of 5G hotspots now available from AT&T and Verizon.

5/27/2022: S02 E22 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined the usual podcast crew to talk about electric cars, the dumb Texas social-media law that somehow survived a different federal circuit court’s scrutiny, and a few other topics; as usual, the podcast is also available on YouTube.

Weekly output: Spotify privacy, Halo’s 5G-powered car service, Internet providers

Our kid was out this week at camp, but in a few days it will be my turn to be out of the house: I’m doing some of the drive testing for this year’s edition of PCMag.com’s Fastest Mobile Networks guide. Yes, on the road for actual business travel.

7/7/2021: At Spotify, private listening is not a simple proposition, USA Today

I’ve had the idea for a while of a column unpacking the inconsistent and often unhelpful privacy settings in Spotify, but the chance to interview a Spotify executive for the virtual edition of Dublin Tech Summit last month gave me quotes to anchor the piece.

Screenshot of the Fast Company story on Halo as seen on an iPad mini.7/8/2021: This driverless car-sharing service uses remote human ‘pilots,’ not AI, Fast Company

I was supposed to write this story last month about the Halo car service and its use of T-Mobile 5G to have remotely-driven vehicles show up before car-share customers. But then T-Mobile said they wanted to push the embargo back; that gave me time to get an industry analyst’s perspective and write an explainer for Patreon supporters about PR embargoes.

7/8/2021: Internet Providers, U.S. News & World Report

My latest round of work at U.S. News–consisting of profiles of AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, and Verizon; comparisons of Spectrum and AT&TComcast and AT&T, and Verizon and Spectrum; and guides to fiber broadband, cheaper Internet access, and ways to speed up your connection–was much more work than my previous efforts. That is mostly the fault of the many large Internet providers that show no interest in clearly displaying their prices, speeds and terms of service. Las Vegas hotels and their resort fees are models of transparency compared to this lot–although maybe I can’t be too cranky about their willful opacity, since it gave me the material for a USA Today column.

We finally got an Amazon Echo

More than four years after I first tried out an Amazon Echo, there’s now one in our house. Even by my late-adopter habits, that’s an exceptionally long time for us to pick up on a tech trend.

But waiting so many years did allow us to get an Echo at a good price: $0.00. Late last year, Verizon added a free Echo to its menu of promotions to new and renewing Fios subscribers, and the company (also the parent firm of my client Yahoo Finance) included us in this offer even though we only pay it for Internet access.

(Even weirder, this free Echo came on top of being offered a lower rate for a faster connection. I guess I should see that as belated compensation for us missing out on other new-customer incentives Verizon’s offered since our fiber-optic connection went live nine years ago today.)

We got the code to redeem for a free second-generation Echo a couple of weeks after our speed upgrade went through, I waited a week to cash it in, and our new voice-controlled gadget arrived Friday. I promptly found a spot for this cybernetic cylinder in our kitchen.

So far, I’ve set up our Echo with only a few skills: it can play Pandora Internet radio, read the news from WAMU and can control our Philips Hue lightbulbs. (The Echo’s role as a smart-home hub is the use case that I utterly ignored in the first-look post I wrote for Yahoo Tech.) I’ve already determined that the Alexa app does not make for a great grocery-list manager, so I’m now going to see if Todoist can better handle that role. And I’ve changed one setting from the default: Because we have an eight-year-old at home, purchasing by voice is off.

There’s a lot to learn, but at least I’m no longer quite so illiterate at such a major tech platform. I just hope I can keep up with our kid, who already talks to Alexa far more than my wife and I combined.

Weekly output: Verizon WiFi testing, cord cutting, Sprint + T-Mobile, Sprint unlimited plans

Not that the weather around here ever takes me up on any suggestions, but it sure would be nice to have a little rain every other day instead of having a few weeks of drought followed by a week of almost nonstop downpours.

7/17/2018: Inside Verizon’s unique approach to Wi-Fi testing, FierceWireless

I had a field trip two weeks ago to Ashburn to check out some of the testing facilities Verizon has set up there. Verizon PR offered to have an Uber fetch me from home, but instead of subjecting a driver and myself to morning I-66 traffic, I asked if they could move that pickup to the current end of the Silver Line–which let me get some work done on the train and then gawk at Silver Line Phase II construction on my way to Loudoun County.

7/18/2018: Cord-cutting will cost cable companies $5.5B this year: Survey, Yahoo Finance

I wrote up a new survey of cord cutting from the NYC-based management consultancy cg42. Some of the numbers in this survey looked a little out there, and quizzing cg42’s managing partner Stephen Beck revealed some reasons why.

7/19/2018: Why the Sprint and T-Mobile merger could be good for you, Yahoo Finance

My default attitude towards giant telecom mergers remains skepticism. But when two different studies of wireless network performance suggested that a combination of Sprint and T-Mobile would yield significantly better results than a simple addition of their coverage maps would suggest, I had to put that in the story–while noting that the effects of such a combination on pricing are another issue.

7/22/2018: How to tell if Sprint’s new unlimited data plans are worth the upgrade, USA Today

Speaking of wireless, yet another reshuffling of plans at Sprint led to this piece advising readers how to compare that carrier’s two new unlimited-data (read: unlimited on-phone data) plans. The column also takes yet another whack at Apple for shipping a data-usage meter in iOS that doesn’t break down bandwidth consumption by month.

Weekly output: net neutrality (x2), 2018 security risks, bargaining for a better TV or Internet bill

One of the ways that self-employment has taught me to see the calendar differently: Once you put November in the books, you’ve pretty much put your yearly income in the books too unless you can sell something early in December to a client that pays unusually fast. (See also, a client worth keeping around.)

USAT net-neutrality transparency post11/28/2017: After net neutrality: Up to you to police the ISPs, USA Today

My contribution to USAT’s coverage of Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai’s move to repeal all of 2015’s net-neutrality rules was to unpack the disclosure requirements he would impose on Internet providers. One big catch: An ISP wouldn’t have to post on its own site that it blocks or slows certain sites or charges others for priority delivery of their bits.

11/28/2017: Why the FCC chair says social networks are the real threat to the free internet, Yahoo Finance

Pai gave a speech Tuesday that included some reasonable arguments against the current, proscriptive net-neutrality rules–and then pivoted to the deeply dubious contention that we should really worry about Twitter and other social networks being mean to conservatives.

11/29/2017: How hackers might target you in 2018, Yahoo Finance

I wrote up McAfee Labs’ cybersecurity forecast for next year–which identified the companies selling connected gadgets for your home as a major part of your privacy and security risks.

12/3/2017: Check your cable or Internet bill: After the first year discounts, it’s time to bargain, USA Today

Three weeks ago in San Francisco, I sat down with my USAT editor for the first time after two-plus years of her handling my column to brainstorm tech-support columns that might resonate over the holidays, and this was among them. Conveniently enough, my Thanksgiving tech support a week ago allowed me to inspect my mom’s Fios bill to see how Verizon breaks down its promotional discounts and what you’ll owe after their expiration.

 

Porting out a Verizon landline number, part 2: my Fios account survives, my Vz mail moves

When I last wrote about my experience porting out a land-line phone number to Ooma’s Internet-calling service, I was still a little antsy that Verizon would cancel our Fios Internet service.

I need not have. A few weeks later–without any further action on my part–Verizon’s online account page no longer listed ours as being disconnected, my next automatic payment had gone through as usual, and I could cash in some accumulated My Rewards+ points for a $10 Amazon gift card. And then I finally got my invitation to migrate my Verizon e-mail to AOL–almost two months after I’d written about that change for USA Today.

I opted to keep my verizon.net account, less because I plan to use it anytime soon and more because I had to experience this switchover firsthand after getting so many reader questions about it.

Verdict: fine. AOL’s site asked me to create a new password, choose from one of four preset (and not all that secure) security questions, and add a mobile number, presumably to confirm any strange logins in the future. AOL suggested I might have to wait a few hours for the messages to appear in my new inbox, but all 7,000-plus spam messages and the 50 or so legitimate e-mails accompanying them were waiting for me moments later.

Two weeks later, the single best part of having AOL manage my mail is having a spam filter that works. When I logged in today, I only had four messages waiting in my inbox, all legit, with 33 junk messages tucked away in the spam folder instead of littering my inbox the way they did on Verizon’s mail system.

The downside is a much tackier login experience, since AOL defaults to showing you its clickbait-stuffed “Today on AOL” page. To fix that and go directly to your inbox, click the Options menu at the top right corner of the page below your e-mail address, choose “Mail Settings,” and uncheck “Show me Today on AOL when signing in.” And for a recurring dose of 1990s nostalgia, check “Play ‘You’ve Got Mail’ alert at login if there are new messages.”

I still need to figure out why Verizon’s site thinks I should pay $127.99 for gigabit Fios, well above its advertised new-customer rates. But solving that (and finding a use case for that  much speed, versus a measly 50 or 100 Mbps) will have to wait for yet another post.

Keeping Fios while porting out a landline phone number can be tricky

For years, my secret shame has been that we still have a landline phone at home. Why? The number dates to 1997, so all my relatives know it and some of them still call it. Besides, I find the robocalls it attracts in campaign seasons weirdly fascinating.

Those things, however, weren’t worth the $15 Verizon charged us for the most minimal level of phone service. The obvious fix, one I endorsed in a 2015 USA Today column, was to port our number to an Internet-calling service. But months after third-party reviews and some testing of my own led me to pick Ooma‘s free service as that VoIP alternative, we were still wasting $15 a month–because I am sometimes slow and always easily distracted.

Finally, a Costco sale on a bundle of Ooma’s Telo VoIP adapter, a WiFi/Bluetooth module for it, and Ooma’s cordless handset got me to get moving on this transition.

After I put in the order on March 18 to port out our number (for which Ooma charges $40), it was active in Ooma’s system on the 22nd, allowing us to place and receive calls through the Telo. The next day I logged into our Verizon account to confirm the transfer.

That’s where things got interesting, as that site said our account had been disconnected.

Prior reports from Ooma users in various forums as well as Verizon PR’s own statements had led me to expect an industry-standard porting experience: You start the port with the new service, and there’s no need to talk to the old one until your number’s out of their grasp.

Perhaps I was wrong? I called Verizon to find out. That March 23 call was a model of how phone customer-support should work–I only had to provide my account number once, I wasn’t left on hold, and the rep said my Internet service should be fine.

Alas, other parts of Verizon had other ideas. A day later, a recorded message advised us to contact Verizon by April 14 to discuss new service options or risk disconnection a second robocall a week later cited the same April 14 deadline.

On April 4, our Internet went out.

The error page that interrupted my Web browsing told me to set up automatic payments to reactivate my service, but each attempt (using the same credit card as before) yielded a generic error message. It was time to call Verizon again.

Thirty-one minutes later, another pleasant rep was as confused as me, saying she couldn’t get the auto-pay setup to go through either. She said she’d get a specialist to work on my case and would call back with an update.

In the meantime, I enjoyed the unfair advantage of having two LTE hotspots in the house–required research to update a Wirecutter guide–that I could lean on for free in place of our inert Internet connection.

By the next evening, our Fios connection was back online, in keeping with the second rep’s “you should be all set” voicemail that afternoon. But Verizon’s site still listed our account as disconnected.

A third call Friday deepened the mystery. This rep said she saw two account numbers–and the one she could access listed our service as pending disconnection. Then I took another look at the e-mail Verizon sent after the second phone rep had pushed through my auto-pay enrollment: It cited an account number ending with seven digits that did not match my old one.

My best guess here, based only on my dealing with Verizon since it was Bell Atlantic, is that Verizon’s system has created a new account for me because the old one was somehow too intertwined with the phone number to keep around.

If so, I should be getting a letter with the new account number in the next day or so, after which I may or may not need to set up a new account online. Sound right? Or am I in for another long phone call?

Either way, I suspect I have not written my last post here on this subject.

Verizon’s online tech support needs some serious work

Yesterday I logged into my Verizon account for the first time in months and got an unpleasant and embarrassing surprise: a $2.80 “router maintenance” fee for having an old router. It was unpleasant as all junk fees are, embarrassing because I’d covered this exact problem in my USA Today column.

And Verizon had even warned me about the charge. Once. A July 19 e-mail advised me to upgrade my router to avoid the fee but offered no instructions on returning the router I hadn’t used since 2012–since we don’t get Fios TV, I’ve always been able to plug in the router of my choice.

verizon-chat-safari-incompatibilityI saw on Verizon’s support site that I could have them call me back, so I plugged in my number. After a day of nobody calling, I tweeted to the @VerizonSupport account that this support option wasn’t too supportive. In a direct-message reply, a rep told me to try Verizon’s chat instead.

I hadn’t seen that as a choice on the support site earlier, and clicking that link yielded a 1990s-esque error page with the useless message “We are sorry, but a problem with your request has occurred.” Somehow, this chat doesn’t work in Safari. Memo to Verizon: Running the default Mac browser is not an edge case.

I asked why we couldn’t deal with my problem in our direct-message chat. My interlocutor’s reply: “We have to secure your account and the chat is the secure location for that.”

verizon-tech-support-chatFine. The chat link did work in Chrome, and then I was treated to thanks-for-your-patience automated messages every 30 seconds, each heralded by an annoying chime. The chimes stopped at some point, but a rep never showed up until I closed the chat window by mistake.

I tried again, and a human entered the chat right away. The rep asked for my name, phone number, address and account number–an understandable request, since I wasn’t logged into my Verizon account in Chrome, but also information that I could have given just as easily in a Twitter DM chat.

Which would have been more secure too: Chrome reports that Verizon’s chat site employs the obsolete and insecure SHA-1 algorithm.

After some back and forth to establish that I haven’t powered on this old, Verizon-issued router in years, the rep said Verizon would send a return mailer kit for the thing and, after I asked a second time, said they would also refund the two months of router-maintenance charges.

Total time to get $5.60 returned to me: about two hours. I need to rethink this particular business model.

 

Weekly output: WikiLeaks, standard-definition pay-TV channels

This past week was supposed to be downtime visiting family in Boston, but when we booked this I didn’t think to see if it would overlap any major-party conventions. I also didn’t wrap up a longer, not-yet-published feature beforehand as I should–and then people had to go and make news outside the Democratic convention anyway. It was a minor miracle that I only lost two full days to my laptop. And yes, you have read this kind of story before here.

Yahoo Finance WikiLeaks post7/27/2016: If you value privacy, WikiLeaks stopped being your friend years ago, Yahoo Finance

I wrote about WikiLeaks in depth for the first time since maybe late 2010, and even back then I was growing doubtful of that site’s preening self-righteousness. My reward was seeing my Twitter notifications become even more of a nexus of derp than usual, but I did appreciate seeing the kind of company I had in my skeptical assessment of WikiLeaks.

7/31/2016: How to watch TV channels in high definition, USA Today

Once again, a family member’s tech troubles–Fios boxes showing the standard-definition versions of major networks when HD feeds of them were available–turned into column materials. Fortunately, this time around I was able to find a solution for the issue, research how other TV providers handle this, and get the column written and filed considerably earlier than usual.

Weekly output: Android backups, iOS app subscriptions, WWDC, net neutrality, Comcast vs. Verizon

For weeks now, I’ve been besieged with PR pitches about the right Father’s Day tech gift to get. You know what makes a great Father’s Day present? Letting Dad sleep in and/or get a nap. (That’s also a good Mother’s Day gift; I was glad to do my part to make it happen for my wife.)

USAT Android-backup post6/13/2016: Get back your data after resetting an Android phone, USA Today

I had to try to get a column out of my in-retrospect hilariously-stupid accidental resetting of my own phone at the end of a long notetaking session on the differences between Android’s standard interface and the one Samsung puts on its phones. You may have read it under a different headline; USAT reposted the piece under a new one a day or so after its debut in the midst of news from Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference.

6/13/2016: Apple is doing something generous for app developers — but it may cost you, Yahoo Finance

Apple announced some important changes to subscription-based apps in advance of WWDC. They seem good on the surface, but some details remained unclear when I wrote this–and there’s a history of Apple exercising its App Store oversight in developer-hostile ways that it didn’t think to document upfront.

6/13/2016: 5 previous WWDC debuts Apple might want to forget, Yahoo Finance

Apple is just like Google in one way: Its attempts to tell the technological future don’t always make reality bend in response.

6/14/2016: Big Telecom lost in court, but an open internet won. So did you., Yahoo Finance

I should have had this story written in advance, but I guess I couldn’t convince myself that the D.C. Circuit would ever hand down a net-neutrality ruling. Reader comments appear to be polarized between people who despise Comcast/Verizon/AT&T/Time Warner Cable and those equally upset over the Obama administration.

6/19/2016: How to choose between Comcast and Verizon for Internet service, USA Today

I’m not totally happy with how this came out: As one reader called out in the comments, I didn’t get into upload speeds. Given Comcast’s habit of staying mysterious about them–and the odds of other Internet providers being as cagey–I may need to devote a separate column to that angle. Should I?