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SpaceX seeks FCC broadband funds, must prove it can deliver sub-100ms latency

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Enlarge / A SpaceX Starlink user terminal/satellite dish.

SpaceX, Charter, Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier, Cox, and about 500 other companies are seeking government funding to provide broadband in rural areas. The Federal Communications Commission yesterday released a list of applicants for the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which is set to pay up to $16 billion to Internet service providers over 10 years.

SpaceX would be the first low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite provider to get FCC rural-broadband funding. The RDOF and predecessor programs generally fund expansion of wired or terrestrial wireless services by paying ISPs to expand their networks into rural areas where they would not otherwise have built.

As a satellite provider, SpaceX won’t need to install wires or wireless towers in any particular area. But traditional satellite providers have obtained FCC funding before despite already offering service throughout the United States. For example, the FCC’s Connect America Fund last year awarded $87.1 million to satellite operator Viasat on condition that it provide service in specific parts of 17 states at lower prices and with higher data caps “than it typically provides in areas where it is not receiving Connect America Fund support.”

SpaceX could follow a similar model, seeking FCC funding to offer lower-priced broadband in census blocks that lack service, meeting the FCC’s speed standard of 25Mbps downloads and 3Mbps uploads. We asked SpaceX about its plans for the FCC funding today and will update this article if we get a response. SpaceX Starlink prices have not been revealed yet, so we don’t know what Starlink will cost either at full price or if subsidized by FCC funding.

Ookla speed tests of SpaceX’s Starlink service during the current beta trials recently found download speeds of 11Mbps to 60Mbps and upload speeds of 5Mbps to 18Mbps. Another set of speed tests at TestMy.net found SpaceX averages of 39.6Mbps downstream and 10.7Mbps upstream.

SpaceX must prove latency claims

The FCC released lists of 121 complete applications and 384 incomplete applications. SpaceX is on the incomplete list, which includes ISPs that did not “provide the certifications and basic information required by the Commission’s competitive bidding rules for participation in the auction” and ISPs that have “not been determined to be financially and/or operationally qualified to bid in all the states or for all the performance tier and latency combinations it selected,” the FCC said.

SpaceX may go through a more extensive vetting process than wireline providers because of the FCC’s skepticism that LEO satellite networks can meet the low-latency standard of 100ms and below. No traditional satellite provider using geostationary orbits (like Viasat and Hughes) could meet that standard, but SpaceX says it will easily beat it, and early speed tests support SpaceX’s case.

SpaceX and other ISPs have a better chance of getting funded if they are allowed to bid in the low-latency tier. The FCC said in June that LEO satellite operators “will face a substantial challenge demonstrating to Commission staff that their networks can deliver real-world performance to consumers below the Commission’s 100ms low-latency threshold.”

FCC plans several speed tiers, up to a gigabit

The list of incomplete applications also includes Altice USA, CenturyLink, Charter (which filed under the name “CCO Holdings”), Cincinnati Bell, Cox, Frontier, Hughes, US Cellular, Verizon, Viasat, Windstream, and many smaller companies. Each company on the list of incomplete applicants will receive a notice detailing its application’s shortcomings and have until September 23 to resubmit. In addition to the big ISPs, there are many local companies that would likely bid for funding in small geographic areas. OneWeb and Amazon, which also plan LEO satellite constellations but aren’t as far along as SpaceX, did not appear on either list of applicants.

ISPs can bid to provide service in several speed categories ranging from 25/3Mbps to 1Gbps/500Mbps. Funded ISPs will be allowed to impose data caps of 250GB per month on the 25/3Mbps and 50/5Mbps speed tiers, but they must offer at least 2TB a month on the 100/20Mbps and 1Gbps/500Mbps tiers. Satellite providers are not allowed to bid in the gigabit tier.

Verizon could bid for funding using either its wired broadband services or the fixed wireless service that connects to its cellular network. Cable companies like Altice and Charter would presumably use funding to expand their cable networks, traditional phone companies could expand either fiber or DSL networks, and traditional satellite providers like Hughes and Viasat could provide discounts or other incentives for new customers. There are also many fixed wireless companies that could expand into additional rural areas that don’t have fast wired service.

The FCC plans to begin the reverse auction on October 22 and award funding for up to 6 million homes and businesses in census blocks that completely lack 25/3Mbps service. With the $16 billion being spread out over 10 years, winning bidders will get a total of $1.6 billion a year and face a series of deadlines requiring deployment to specified numbers of homes and businesses. There will eventually be a second, smaller auction to pay for broadband in additional areas, after the FCC collects more accurate data on which parts of the country lack broadband service.

Like other Universal Service programs run by the FCC, the RDOF is paid for by Americans through fees imposed on phone bills.

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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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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