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Protocol | Policy

Does your internet suck? Consumer Reports wants to help.

More than 40 groups led by Consumer Reports are trying to build the case for government to do more on broadband competition.

Woman reads bill and pays via tablet

Broadband Together hopes to review at least 30,000 bills to learn how much users are paying for internet.

Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

What's in your broadband bill? Consumer Reports wants to know — and hopefully, to make it cheaper.

More than 40 consumer, privacy and digital rights groups, led by Consumer Reports, launched a drive today asking people to send in their internet bills as part of a campaign to push down prices for, and boost the quality of, internet service through increased competition.

The group effort, known as Broadband Together, hopes to review at least 30,000 bills to learn how much users are paying and figure out where competition is scarce for internet service.

Broadband Together's launch comes as the Biden administration has thrown support behind increasing broadband access as part of an infrastructure bill and taken steps to try to increase competition, including in a sweeping order last week.

"To create a better marketplace, we need to know the truth about our internet prices and fees," Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports, said in a release. "Shockingly, some bills don't even list the price consumers are paying for internet service."

To participate, consumers will upload PDF copies of their bills to a website that extracts the pricing and service information, Schwantes told Protocol in an interview. The ZIP code is the only personally-identifiable information the website extracts, although the accompanying survey asks optional demographic questions, and the bills are only shared with Consumer Reports.

Consumers then take an online speed test to figure out their upload and download speeds. Not all entries will be useful, the organization admits. In particular, service bundles, in which companies provide some combination of internet, TV and phone services together, may not clearly break out the cost of each service, and Consumer Reports isn't taking paper bills for the time being. But Schwantes is optimistic that the coalition will receive enough bills that he and others can get good data on local price, service, speed and more.

"Once we do that, we can tell you what the ISPs are charging, and then really with enough data, [we can] start figuring out, why is that same plan cheaper in that ZIP code versus that ZIP code?" Schwantes said.

He said he fully expects the answer to come down to competition: Where it's robust, plans will likely be cheaper and offer better speeds. Where it's not, consumers will be paying more for less. If the results do support that conclusion, the group then plans to promote a series of potential reforms. Many focus on government support of internet service, particularly in areas where it might be too expensive for new commercial networks to launch as rivals offering lower prices than incumbent providers.

"Where there's not competition and consumers are stuck, the only person who can help them out is the government," Schwantes said. "You should have some version of a low-cost plan."

Of course, the shape and effectiveness of such low-cost plans is an open question. The $3.2 billion in federal funding for internet access that came out of the pandemic has faced a glitchy rollout, including difficulty reaching the tens of millions of people it aims to help and also issues such as Spectrum's effort to funnel users into full-price service down the road.

State-level action also faces an uphill battle. The telecom industry in June succeeded in its lawsuit to block a first-in-the-nation discount program in New York state. Nearly two dozen states also have outright bans or other significant roadblocks in place to networks that state and local governments might build or run.

The telecom industry, which says that broadband competition is robust and prices are decreasing broadly, has cast municipal broadband efforts as unnecessary expenses on the taxpayer for poor networks. Instead, industry groups push for public-private partnerships like the network that Consolidated Communications is building out for 500 customers in Eastbrook, Maine.

Still, the time might be opportune for Broadband Together's push — particularly if legislators are still debating an infrastructure package in the fall, when Schwantes said he expects results.

Biden's Friday executive order on competition likewise contains provisions addressing residential broadband. One request asks Federal Communications Commission to require reports from broadband providers about prices for internet services and to generate standard consumer labels about broadband services, based on ubiquitous nutritional information labels.

Schwantes said that while the broadband labels, which the FCC had proposed in the Obama administration before abandoning them under the Trump administration, might be a "cuter" solution than massive government support for internet service, it's also a "no-brainer."

"Just looking at all of these bills can make the case for that as well," he said.

Because the FCC is an independent agency, the administration's requests are non-binding. The commission is also evenly split between Republican and Democratic members until Biden nominates a fifth commissioner.

Still, Broadband Together may have history on its side. The inspiration for the project came in part from similar work Consumer Reports did on hidden fees in cable TV bills. Consumers on the group's list delivered more than 5,000 bills in two weeks, which is part of why Schwantes is optimistic about meeting or exceeding his goal with a long list of partners. The resulting 2019 report helped the group succeed in its push for a law bringing more transparency to fees.

The coalition's steering committee also includes Public Knowledge, Access Now, the American Library Association, Color of Change, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and more. Many of the groups are veteran Washington policy organizations, with several focusing on Black, Hispanic and rural communities where access or affordability issues may be particularly acute.

Protocol | Workplace

The Activision Blizzard lawsuit has opened the floodgates

An employee walkout, a tumbling stock price and damning new reports of misconduct.

Activision Blizzard is being sued for widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Activision Blizzard is in crisis mode. The World of Warcraft publisher was the subject of a shocking lawsuit filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing last week over claims of widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination against female employees. The resulting fallout has only intensified by the day, culminating in a 500-person walkout at the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine on Wednesday.

The company's stock price has tumbled nearly 10% this week, and CEO Bobby Kotick acknowledged in a message to employees Tuesday that Activision Blizzard's initial response was "tone deaf." Meanwhile, there has been a continuous stream of new reports unearthing horrendous misconduct as more and more former and current employees speak out about the working conditions and alleged rampant misogyny at one of the video game industry's largest and most powerful employers.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

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Protocol | Workplace

Founder sues the company that acquired her startup

Knoq founder Kendall Hope Tucker is suing the company that acquired her startup for discrimination, retaliation and fraud.

Kendall Hope Tucker, founder of Knoq, is suing Ad Practitioners, which acquired her company last year.

Photo: Kendall Hope Tucker

Kendall Hope Tucker felt excited when she sold her startup last December. Tucker, the founder of Knoq, was sad to "give up control of a company [she] had poured five years of [her] heart, soul and energy into building," she told Protocol, but ultimately felt hopeful that selling it to digital media company Ad Practitioners was the best financial outcome for her, her team and her investors. Now, seven months later, Tucker is suing Ad Practitioners alleging discrimination, retaliation and fraud.

Knoq found success selling its door-to-door sales and analytics services to companies such as Google Fiber, Inspire Energy, Fluent Home and others. Knoq representatives would walk around neighborhoods, knocking on doors to market its customers' products and services. The pandemic, however, threw a wrench in its business. Prior to the acquisition, Knoq says it raised $6.5 million from Initialized Capital, Haystack.vc, Techstars and others.

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Megan Rose Dickey
Megan Rose Dickey is a senior reporter at Protocol covering labor and diversity in tech. Prior to joining Protocol, she was a senior reporter at TechCrunch and a reporter at Business Insider.
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Protocol | Workplace

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Cisco's EVP and chief people, policy & purpose officer shares how the company is creating a more conscious and hybrid work culture.

Like many large organizations, the leaders at Cisco spent much of the past year working to ensure their employees had an inclusive and flexible workplace while everyone worked from home during the pandemic. In doing so, they brought a new role into the mix. In March 2021 Francine Katsoudas transitioned from EVP and chief people officer to chief people, policy & purpose Officer.

For many, the role of a purpose officer is new. Purpose officers hold their companies accountable to their mission and the people who work for them. In a conversation with Protocol, Katsoudas shared how she is thinking about the expanded role and the future of hybrid work at Cisco.

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Amber Burton

Amber Burton (@amberbburton) is a reporter at Protocol. Previously, she covered personal finance and diversity in business at The Wall Street Journal. She earned an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University and B.A. in English and Journalism from Wake Forest University. She lives in North Carolina.

Protocol | Fintech

The digital dollar is coming. The payments industry is worried.

Jodie Kelley heads the Electronic Transactions Association. The trade group's members, who process $7 trillion a year in payments, want a say in the digital currency.

Jodie Kelley is CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association.

Photo: Electronic Transactions Association

The Electronic Transactions Association launched in 1990 just as new technologies, led by the World Wide Web, began upending the world of commerce and finance.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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