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AT&T’s current 5G is slower than 4G in nearly every city tested by PCMag

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Enlarge / An AT&T sign and logo on Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2020 in Park City, Utah.

Getty Images | Mat Hayward

AT&T smartphone users who see their network indicators switch from “4G” to “5G” shouldn’t necessarily expect that they’re about to get faster speeds. In PCMag’s annual mobile-network testing, released today, 5G phones connected to AT&T got slower speeds than 4G phones in 21 out of 22 cities.

PCMag concluded that “AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless,” though AT&T’s average download speed of 103.1Mbps was nearly as good as Verizon’s thanks to a strong 4G performance. Of course, AT&T 5G should be faster than 4G in the long run—this isn’t another case of AT&T misleadingly labeling its 4G network as a type of 5G. Instead, the disappointing result on PCMag’s test has to do with how today’s 5G phones work and with how AT&T allocates spectrum.

The counterintuitive result doesn’t reveal much about the actual differences between 4G and 5G technology. Instead, it’s reflective of how AT&T has used its spectrum to deploy 5G so far. As PCMag explained, “AT&T’s 5G slices off a narrow bit of the old 850MHz cellular band and assigns it to 5G, to give phones a valid 5G icon without increasing performance. And because of the way current 5G phones work, it often reduces performance.”

AT&T’s 4G network benefits from the aggregation of channels from different frequencies. “The most recent phones are able to assemble up to seven of them—that’s called seven-carrier aggregation, and it’s why AT&T won [the PCMag tests] last year,” the article said.

5G phones can’t handle that yet, PCMag analyst Sascha Segan wrote:

But 5G phones can’t add as many 4G channels to a 5G channel. So if they’re in 5G mode, they’re giving up 4G channels so they can use that extremely narrow, often 5MHz 5G channel, and the result is slower performance: faux G. For AT&T, using a 5G phone in testing was often a step backward from our 4G-only phone.

More specifically, “at locations with both 4G and 5G, our 5G phone was slower than our 4G phone in 21 out of 22 cities,” the article said. While AT&T 5G phones often accessed just 5MHz of spectrum, Segan wrote that his analysis shows it “takes at least 50MHz of dedicated 5G spectrum to make a real difference.”

The difference was stark in some cities. In Baltimore, where AT&T provided average speeds of 117.1Mbps, “kicking into 5G mode… reduc[ed AT&T’s] average download speeds by a shocking 61 percent across the city,” PCMag wrote.

T-Mobile 5G wasn’t always faster than 4G. In Austin, T-Mobile had the most 5G availability of any carrier, but “its 5G results were 17 percent slower than its 4G results at locations where both networks were available.”

PCMag has been testing mobile networks for 11 years and had to adjust how it reported results this year because of the curious 5G results, Segan noted on Twitter:

PCMag said it conducted tests with Samsung Galaxy S10 and S20 phones, chosen “because they offer the best 4G and 5G performance available, with the S20 supporting all the different types of 5G US carriers have to offer.”

AT&T said early 5G would be similar to 4G

We asked AT&T if it plans any changes, such as assigning more than 5MHz to the 5G channel or switching phones back to 4G when it’s the fastest option, and will update this article if we get a response.

In November 2019, AT&T said its early 5G deployments on the 850MHz band would only offer speeds that are similar to LTE-Advanced, a form of 4G that AT&T has misleadingly called “5GE” or “5G Evolution.”

Despite the 5G slowdown in PCMag tests, AT&T’s strong 4G performance helped it achieve an average download speed of 103.1Mbps, ahead of T-Mobile’s 74Mbps and behind Verizon’s 105.1Mbps. AT&T also provided speeds above 10Mbps in 95 percent of tests, the highest of the three carriers. PCMag testers were able to get an AT&T 5G signal 38 percent of the time, compared to T-Mobile’s 54 percent and Verizon’s 4 percent. (Verizon 5G uses only millimeter-wave spectrum that has a much smaller reach than low- and mid-band spectrum.)

AT&T won the overall speed title in 12 out of 26 cities, compared to 13 for Verizon and one for T-Mobile. AT&T offers 5G in 22 of the 26 cities tested.

PCMag didn’t test rural areas this year because it had to adjust procedures for the pandemic. Instead of a travel schedule involving flights, rental cars, and hotels, PCMag said it hired “two dozen drivers to each test their own cities.”

Verizon 5G network “mind-blowing” but tiny

The lack of rural tests means the averages found by PCMag are likely higher than the nationwide reality. OpenSignal, which relies on user-initiated speed tests, recently found average download speeds of 32.6Mbps for AT&T, 28.2Mbps for T-Mobile, 27.4Mbps for Verizon, and 25.4Mbps for T-Mobile subsidiary Sprint. Those speeds include all networks, not just 5G.

OpenSignal found average 5G speeds of 494.7Mbps for Verizon, 60.8Mbps for AT&T, and about 49Mbps for both T-Mobile and Sprint.

PCMag and OpenSignal tests agree that Verizon’s 5G network is the hardest one to find. Users of OpenSignal’s speed-test app were able to get a Verizon 5G signal just 0.4 percent of the time, compared to 22.5 percent for T-Mobile, 14.1 percent for Sprint, and 10.3 percent for AT&T.

“Verizon’s 5G is often mind-blowing, but very difficult to find,” PCMag wrote. Though it can offer “speeds up to 2Gbps and latencies well under 10ms,” Verizon 5G was often available in only two or three percent of locations in individual cities.

Verizon 5G’s ultra-high speed and sparse availability are not surprising because it uses the 28GHz spectrum band, which offers plenty of capacity but without the ability to cover long distances or penetrate walls and other obstacles. AT&T and T-Mobile 5G use the same low-band spectrum bands they use for 4G, ensuring wider coverage but without huge speed boosts.

Check out Ars’ Jim Salter’s recent features for more technical details on how 5G works today and how it will evolve.

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Twitter deal leaves Elon Musk with no easy way out

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Enlarge / This illustration photo taken May 13, 2022, displays Elon Musks Twitter account with a Twitter logo in the background in Los Angeles. – Elon Musk sent mixed messages Friday about his proposed Twitter acquisition, pressuring shares of the microblogging platform amid skepticism on whether the deal will close.
In an early morning tweet, Musk said the $44 billion takeover was “temporarily on hold,” pending questions over the social media company’s estimates of the number of fake accounts or “bots.”
That sent Twitter’s stock plunging 25 percent. (Photo by Chris DELMAS / AFP) (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the financial crisis, corporate lawyers have aspired to build the ultimate ironclad merger contract that keeps buyers with cold feet from backing out.

The “bulletproof” modern deal agreement now faces one of its biggest tests, as Elon Musk, the Tesla boss and richest person in the world, openly entertains the possibility of ditching his $44 billion deal for Twitter.

Musk said in a tweet this week that the “deal cannot move forward” until the social media platform provides detailed data about fake accounts, a request that Twitter seems unlikely to meet. Twitter’s board, meanwhile, has stated its commitment “to completing the transaction on the agreed price and terms as promptly as practicable.”

Simply abandoning the deal is not an option. Musk and Twitter have both signed the merger agreement, which states that “the parties… will use their respective reasonable best efforts to consummate and make effective the transactions contemplated by this agreement.”

With tech stocks falling—dragging down the price of the Tesla shares that form the basis of Musk’s fortune and collateral for a margin loan to buy Twitter—all eyes are on the mercurial billionaire’s next move.

Could Musk walk away for $1 billion?

The agreement includes a $1 billion “reverse termination fee” that Musk would owe if he withdrew from the merger agreement. However, if all other closing conditions are met and the only thing left is for Musk to show up at the closing with his $27.25 billion in equity, Twitter can seek to make Musk close the deal. This legal concept, known as “specific performance,” has become a common feature in leveraged buyouts since the financial crisis.

In 2007 and 2008, leveraged buyouts typically included a reverse termination fee that often allowed a company backing the acquisition to pay a modest 2 to 3 percent of a deal’s value to get out. Sellers believed at the time that private equity groups would follow through and close their transactions in order to maintain their reputations. But some did pull the plug on those agreements, leading to several court fights involving prominent companies such as Cerberus, Blackstone, and Apollo.

Since that era, sellers have implemented much higher termination fees as well as specific performance clauses that effectively require buyers to close. Most recently, a Delaware court in 2021 ordered private equity group Kohlberg & Co to close the buyout of a cake decorations business called DecoPac.

Kohlberg had argued it was allowed out of the deal because the DecoPac business had suffered a “material adverse effect” when the pandemic struck between signing and closing. The court rejected that argument and ruled that DecoPac could force Kohlberg to close—which it did.

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How we learned to break down barriers to machine learning

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Dr. Sephus discusses breaking down barriers to machine learning at Ars Frontiers 2022. Click here for transcript.

Welcome to the week after Ars Frontiers! This article is the first in a short series of pieces that will recap each of the day’s talks for the benefit of those who weren’t able to travel to DC for our first conference. We’ll be running one of these every few days for the next couple of weeks, and each one will include an embedded video of the talk (along with a transcript).

For today’s recap, we’re going over our talk with Amazon Web Services tech evangelist Dr. Nashlie Sephus. Our discussion was titled “Breaking Barriers to Machine Learning.”

What barriers?

Dr. Sephus came to AWS via a roundabout path, growing up in Mississippi before eventually joining a tech startup called Partpic. Partpic was an artificial intelligence and machine-learning (AI/ML) company with a neat premise: Users could take photographs of tooling and parts, and the Partpic app would algorithmically analyze the pictures, identify the part, and provide information on what the part was and where to buy more of it. Partpic was acquired by Amazon in 2016, and Dr. Sephus took her machine-learning skills to AWS.

When asked, she identified access as the biggest barrier to the greater use of AI/ML—in a lot of ways, it’s another wrinkle in the old problem of the digital divide. A core component of being able to utilize most common AI/ML tools is having reliable and fast Internet access, and drawing on experience from her background, Dr. Sephus pointed out that a lack of access to technology in primary schools in poorer areas of the country sets kids on a path away from being able to use the kinds of tools we’re talking about.

Furthermore, lack of early access leads to resistance to technology later in life. “You’re talking about a concept that a lot of people think is pretty intimidating,” she explained. “A lot of people are scared. They feel threatened by the technology.”

Un-dividing things

One way of tackling the divide here, in addition to simply increasing access, is changing the way that technologists communicate about complex topics like AI/ML to regular folks. “I understand that, as technologists, a lot of times we just like to build cool stuff, right?” Dr. Sephus said. “We’re not thinking about the longer-term impact, but that’s why it’s so important to have that diversity of thought at the table and those different perspectives.”

Dr. Sephus said that AWS has been hiring sociologists and psychologists to join its tech teams to figure out ways to tackle the digital divide by meeting people where they are rather than forcing them to come to the technology.

Simply reframing complex AI/ML topics in terms of everyday actions can remove barriers. Dr. Sephus explained that one way of doing this is to point out that almost everyone has a cell phone, and when you’re talking to your phone or using facial recognition to unlock it, or when you’re getting recommendations for a movie or for the next song to listen to—these things are all examples of interacting with machine learning. Not everyone groks that, especially technological laypersons, and showing people that these things are driven by AI/ML can be revelatory.

“Meeting them where they are, showing them how these technologies affect them in their everyday lives, and having programming out there in a way that’s very approachable—I think that’s something we should focus on,” she said.

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2 vulnerabilities with 9.8 severity ratings are under exploit. A 3rd looms

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Malicious hackers, some believed to be state-backed, are actively exploiting two unrelated vulnerabilities—both with severity ratings of 9.8 out of a possible 10—in hopes of infecting sensitive enterprise networks with backdoors, botnet software, and other forms of malware.

The ongoing attacks target unpatched versions of multiple product lines from VMware and of BIG-IP software from F5, security researchers said. Both vulnerabilities give attackers the ability to remotely execute malicious code or commands that run with unfettered root system privileges. The largely uncoordinated exploits appear to be malicious, as opposed to benign scans that attempt to identify vulnerable servers and quantify their number.

First up: VMware

On April 6, VMware disclosed and patched a remote code execution vulnerability tracked as CVE-2022-22954 and a privilege escalation flaw tracked as CVE-2022-22960. According to an advisory published on Wednesday by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, “malicious cyber actors were able to reverse engineer the updates to develop an exploit within 48 hours and quickly began exploiting the disclosed vulnerabilities in unpatched devices.”

CISA said the actors were likely part of an advanced persistent threat, a term for sophisticated and well-financed hacker groups typically backed by a nation-state. Once the hackers have compromised a device, they use their root access to install a webshell known as Dingo J-spy on the networks of at least three organizations.

“According to trusted third-party reporting, threat actors may chain these vulnerabilities. At one compromised organization, on or around April 12, 2022, an unauthenticated actor with network access to the web interface leveraged CVE-2022-22954 to execute an arbitrary shell command as a VMware user,” Wednesday’s advisory stated. “The actor then exploited CVE-2022-22960 to escalate the user’s privileges to root. With root access, the actor could wipe logs, escalate permissions, and move laterally to other systems.”

Independent security researcher Troy Mursch said in a direct message that exploits he’s captured in a honeypot have included payloads for botnet software, webshells, and cryptominers. CISA’s advisory came the same day VMware disclosed and patched two new vulnerabilities. One of the vulnerabilities, CVE-2022-22972, also carries a severity rating of—you guessed it—9.8. The other one, CVE-2022-22973, is rated 7.8.

Given the exploits already underway for the VMware vulnerabilities fixed last month, CISA said it “expects malicious cyber actors to quickly develop a capability to exploit newly released vulnerabilities CVE-2022-22972 and CVE-2022-22973 in the same impacted VMware products.

BIG-IP also under fire

Meanwhile, enterprise networks are also under attack from hackers exploiting CVE-2022-1388, an unrelated vulnerability with a 9.8 severity rating found in BIG-IP, a software package from F5. Nine days ago, the company disclosed and patched the vulnerability, which hackers can exploit to execute commands that run with root system privileges. The scope and magnitude of the vulnerability prompted marvel and shock in some security circles and earned it a high severity rating.

Within a few days, exploit code became publicly available and almost immediately after that, researchers reported ​​exploit attempts. It wasn’t clear then if blackhats or whitehats carried out the activity.

In more recent days, however, researchers captured thousands of malicious requests that demonstrate a significant portion of the exploits are used for nefarious purposes. In an email, researchers from security firm Greynoise wrote:

Given that the requests involving this exploit require a POST request and result in an unauthenticated command shell on the F5 Big-IP device, we have classified actors using this exploit as malicious. We have observed actors using this exploit through anonymity services such as VPNs or TOR exit nodes in addition to known internet VPS providers.

We expect actors attempting to find vulnerable devices to utilize non-invasive techniques that do not involve a POST request or result in a command shell, which are catalogued in our tag for F5 Big-IP crawlers: https://viz.greynoise.io/tag/f5-big-ip-crawler. This crawler tag did experience a rise in traffic correlated with the release of CVE-2022-1388.

Mursch said that the BIG-IP exploits attempt to install the same trio of webshells, malware for performing distributed denial-of-service attacks, and cryptominers seen in the attacks on unpatched VMware machines. The image below, for instance, shows an attack that attempts to install widely recognized DDoS malware.

Troy Mursch

The following three images show hackers exploiting the vulnerability to execute commands that fish for encryption keys and other types of sensitive data stored on a compromised server.

Troy Mursch

Troy Mursch

Troy Mursch

Given the threat posed by ransomware and nation-state hacking campaigns like the ones used against customers of SolarWinds and Microsoft, the potential damage from these vulnerabilities is substantial. Administrators should prioritize investigating these vulnerabilities on their networks and act accordingly. Advice and guidance from CISA, VMware, and F5 are here,
here, here, and here.

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