FCC Slowly Realizing Science And Data Are Kind Of Important

from the maybe-regulators-should-study-what-they're-regulating dept

Once upon a time, FCC Commissioners were engineers, thinkers and experts across a variety of fields. These days the well-lobbied agency's stable of Commissioners is populated exclusively with lawyers, politicians and revolving-door lobbyists, and as you might expect -- its primary product (no matter which party is in control) is quite often partisan bickering and broken policy. The nation's recently unveiled first-ever national broadband plan is only the latest example of the kind of product the agency now creates, paying lip service to a myriad of industry problems but doing very little about the state of competition in the sector. Granted, to some, the plan looks good -- focusing on feel-good efforts like "digital eduction" -- but there's very little in the plan that really challenges the status quo.

The majority of bad FCC policies are unsurprisingly driven by bad data. The agency has made huge broadband industry policy decisions over the last decade using completely useless data that overestimated the volume of competition in the market. The rosy picture painted by the FCC was in part thanks to the confidential, unverifiable data provided by carriers, who have a vested interest in data that doesn't try very hard to highlight limited coverage, slow speeds, or high prices. The FCC is only just now getting around to actually collecting comprehensive broadband price data or mapping broadband availability, though in many states this latter job was simply doled out to friends of the phone companies.

While the FCC is still pushing into territory that may be better suited to the FTC, there's at least a few signs the FCC is trying to fulfill their recent promises that they'll be a more data-driven agency. In a post over at the FCC blog, the FCC's Dave Vorhaus notes that the agency has picked UK speedtest firm SamKnows to help them test the real-world speeds obtained by home users. SamKnows does similar testing for British regulator Ofcom, and it helps the regulator determine if a consumer is getting what they pay for. While normal speedtests will illustrate whether a user is getting full speed, SamKnows uses in-home residential routers with modified firmware to specifically determine why. According to Vorhaus, the FCC is looking for volunteers to help them collect data:

In a couple of weeks, we will be asking for consumers from across the country to voluntarily install hardware in their homes (on an opt-in basis) that is capable of measuring broadband performance. The measurements will give us results across a broad swath of providers, service tiers and geographic areas. More details on how to volunteer will follow in the coming weeks. We are tremendously excited about this announcement, the next step in the process of increasing transparency and competition in the broadband market and better informing consumers about their broadband service.
While the selection of a UK firm might raise the hackles of those who think that job should have been given to a U.S. company (a Wall Street Journal blog headline makes a jab about stimulating the British economy), SamKnows is among the best in the telecom sector at this particular job, and is also used by UK ISPs to assess their own network performance. Of course quality data won't mean anything if the FCC doesn't use it to make smart policy choices (like realizing that fixing competition helps fix things like network neutrality without additional regulation). You also have to wonder if the FCC's going to have a lot of free time, given the recent Comcast ruling all but ensures the agency is going to spend the next two years bogged down in a bare-knuckled fight with carrier lobbyists.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 5:59am

    typical government plan that will measure information and take a couple of years to gather by which time it will already be out of date. think about your connection speed 2 or 3 years ago, and think of a broadband plan made today and implemented 2 years from now based on it. by the time they use it they are 5 years out of date. fcc proves once again it isnt the agency for the job.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    icon
    Karl Bode (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:07am

    Re:

    typical government plan that will measure information and take a couple of years to gather by which time it will already be out of date. think about your connection speed 2 or 3 years ago, and think of a broadband plan made today and implemented 2 years from now based on it. by the time they use it they are 5 years out of date. fcc proves once again it isnt the agency for the job.
    Perhaps in some markets, though it's not like some of these rural telcos are breaking land speed records in getting their networks upgraded. Many of them see no competition, so they can get away with nursing last-generation DSL for the next ten years.

    Cable might be a different story -- given DOCSIS 3.0 upgrades are relatively easy an inexpensive to deploy -- and offer some fairly big bumps (like up to 50-100 Mbps downstream).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Fred, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:08am

    Well, ah, no

    There is lots wrong with your post.

    First, it is simply not true that the "agency is populated exclusively with lawyers, politicians and revolving-door lobbyists."
    * Please see the Office of Engineering and Technology http://www.fcc.gov/oet/
    * Please see the Chief Technologist Jon Peha
    * Please see the Chief Economist Jon Baker
    * Please See the Public Safety Bureau which is filled with engineers (when public safety was formed, a branch of the Office of Engineering and Technology went over to the public safety Bureau)
    * Each Bureau Office has a chief economist. Each bureau offices has its own engineering / technologist staff.

    The agency is a mixture of attorneys, economists, engineers / technologists - and support staff.


    Finally, at a time when the FCC probably had the highest number of engineers by proportion - in the 1940s - the FCC pretty much caved to whatever the monopolist AT&T wanted. See Hush a Phone.



    Okay, next "The majority of bad FCC policies are unsurprisingly driven by bad data" Well no. I mean not really, no.

    Agency policy is driven by outcome driven politicos. The politicos come into the agency - as Martin did - with outcomes predetermined by who supported them during the election. Martin favored his patron saint - AT&T - and waged war against the cablecos. And as can be seen in the recent Comcast v FCC decision, it did not matter to Martin what the law was - it only mattered what his political agenda was. The fact that there was bad data was irrelevant because data was irrelevant. The only thing that was relevant was the political agenda of the politicos. So it wasnt that the policy was driven by bad data - it was driven by political agenda.


    As for recent hope that the FCC will be more data oriented - that doesnt come from the engineers, technologies, economists, or attorneys. That comes from the new administration and from all the consultants hired from McKinsey.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:09am

    Re: Well, ah, no

    its what happens when mike suddenly decides to let all the third strings post. school must be out or something.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    icon
    Steve R. (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:18am

    Spectrum Wars

    One of my major concerns with the lack of competent engineering/scientific/technical expertise concerns the attempts to privatize the spectrum. In short, they are clueless. The RF spectrum, in short, is NOT constrained by "property boundaries". However, the politicians, lawyers, and consultants, out of thin air (pun??), seem to believe they can define "property boundaries".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:33am

    Re: Spectrum Wars

    in short, we have no idea what you mean, in short.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:53am

    "given the recent Comcast ruling"

    Our court system is a fraud. I want elected judges who have to run for re - election every four years. In the case of the supreme court, each justice should have to run for re - election every four years, half the justices should be re - elected every two years. This nonsense where judges/justices get to keep their position for a very long time no matter how poor their decisions are is absolute nonsense. It makes our legal system artificially slow to adapt to changes in the marketplace and to the will of the consumer. By the time a judge does get appointed that will vote in favor of the consumer on issue X that issue is irrelevant. I want a system that has a faster response time to delivering what consumers what and to adapting to market changes and judges/justices that get a lifetime position is too slow, especially in this digital age where things change so fast and information flows very quickly.

    The FCC et al are also other unelected scam artists.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    icon
    Karl Bode (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:53am

    Re: Well, ah, no

    First, it is simply not true that the "agency is populated exclusively with lawyers, politicians and revolving-door lobbyists."
    Of course the agency employs engineers -- and many of them have consistently complained that politics -- not science -- dictate agency direction. I was referring to Commissioners, and should have been more clear.
    Agency policy is driven by outcome driven politicos. The politicos come into the agency - as Martin did - with outcomes predetermined by who supported them during the election. Martin favored his patron saint - AT&T - and waged war against the cablecos. And as can be seen in the recent Comcast v FCC decision, it did not matter to Martin what the law was - it only mattered what his political agenda was. The fact that there was bad data was irrelevant because data was irrelevant.
    Semantics I think, but sure. Politics drives bad policy, obviously. But there are countless instances of farmed think tank science being used to prop up a generation of telco deregulation efforts.
    The only thing that was relevant was the political agenda of the politicos. So it wasnt that the policy was driven by bad data - it was driven by political agenda.
    Technically it was all driven by AT&T lobbyists -- which extends above and beyond politics, regardless of party. I think we agree more than disagree.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    icon
    Karl Bode (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:54am

    Re: Re: Well, ah, no

    its what happens when mike suddenly decides to let all the third strings post. school must be out or something.
    You have a specific part of the post you'd like to discuss?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 6:56am

    Re: Re: Spectrum Wars

    That's only because you have a reading comprehension problem.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 7:06am

    Re:

    ... delivering what consumers want * ...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    icon
    Dark Helmet (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 7:19am

    Re: Re: Re: Well, ah, no

    Why in the world would you ask such a silly question?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    icon
    Karl Bode (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 7:20am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Well, ah, no

    Yeah, I guess that was silly of me. :)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Urza9814, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 7:45am

    Re:

    "typical government plan that will measure information and take a couple of years to gather by which time it will already be out of date. think about your connection speed 2 or 3 years ago, and think of a broadband plan made today and implemented 2 years from now based on it. by the time they use it they are 5 years out of date. fcc proves once again it isnt the agency for the job."

    Where are you so lucky to be living? My cable internet speed hasn't really changed at all in a decade. Fuckin' Comcast....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Urza9814, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 7:51am

    Re:

    Judges aren't supposed to vote in favor of the consumer. Judges are supposed to vote in favor of the law. That's why they aren't ever up for re-election. If you don't like their decision, get a new law passed to fix it. That's why congress is elected.

    I'd say the _last_ thing we want is judges who are up for election every four years. Seriously, do you want court cases being decided by the guy who had his entire campaign financed by AT&T?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    Hephaestus (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 8:06am

    Going back to a previous comment ...

    "The FCC is only just now getting around to actually collecting comprehensive broadband price data or mapping broadband availability, though in many states this latter job was simply doled out to friends of the phone companies."

    Actually we could get all the information required to plan for the Broadband Plan in a couple weeks by doing a very simple thing. Contact Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft ask them to ask their customers a couple questions...

    Address
    Service Provider
    Type of Internet service (Dial up, DSL, Cable, Fiber)
    Cost per month.

    On clicking submit the javascript app runs and checks your bandwidth.

    Done.

    Of course this wont get every connection in the united states but it will show, the monopoly of ISPs in NYC building by building, the horrible speeds you get in the boonies, a map of what service providers are in what areas and how they overlap.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 8:15am

    Re: Re:

    "Judges aren't supposed to vote in favor of the consumer. Judges are supposed to vote in favor of the law. That's why they aren't ever up for re-election. If you don't like their decision, get a new law passed to fix it. That's why congress is elected."

    But judges determine how to Interpret the law and judges/justices have made their own laws that aren't even in the laws, like executive privilege. If a judge wanted to interpret a law completely incorrectly to make it say something it completely does not then what's to stop him/her if they have no accountability whatsoever? They need some sort of accountability.

    "I'd say the _last_ thing we want is judges who are up for election every four years. Seriously, do you want court cases being decided by the guy who had his entire campaign financed by AT&T?"

    So we should all just pretend that the current judges are somehow less politically influenced. Please, I don't buy that. Not only are the current judges politically influenced but they have no accountability. To the extent that a judge would get elected because AT&T funded his campaign, the current system will make them get appointed by someone who got their entire campaign funded by AT&T. However, this is worse, because at least when the public realizes that this elected official is implementing bad policy we can vote him/her out. The judge/justice, on the other hand, is free to completely misinterpret the law to his/her own agenda and get away with it with no accountability whatsoever. That's wrong.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 8:33am

    Re: Re:

    "Judges aren't supposed to vote in favor of the consumer. Judges are supposed to vote in favor of the law."

    The assumption here is that different judges will interpret the same laws the same. This, of course, is incorrect. Heck, Congress often intentionally makes certain aspects of the law general (ie: no reckless driving, of course I'm exaggerating on that one) so as to allow a judge to interpret what that means in various specific situations given the context (ie: no talking on your cell phone. Or "To promote the progress" which a judge may interpret as meaning "no software patents" perhaps). This is sometimes done intentionally because things change and some laws try to be general enough to allow judges to adapt their specific implementations to the changing environment (ie: "To promote the progress") while being specific enough to be useful. In such situations I want a system that adapts to the changing market and environment more quickly and one where a judge gets to keep their job for their entire life allows them to get away with putting less effort into adapting their decisions to a rapidly changing environment.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    icon
    kirillian (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 8:34am

    Re:

    Ya...sadly though, then our judges will be just as incompetent, bought, and flaky as our congress-sheeple...at least our judges are only bought...they don't have to run for re-election nearly as much or in as many cases as our congressmen, so we always know they'll support the same corporation time and again...and most of them have at least some understanding that getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar is a BAD thing...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 9:20am

    Re:

    "think about your connection speed 2 or 3 years ago, and think of a broadband plan made today"

    Odd, my connection speed today is exactly the same as 2 or 3 years ago...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    icon
    Hephaestus (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 9:21am

    Re: Going back to a previous comment ...

    posted this on the broadband.gov site

    The USs ISPs have choosen not to provide customer information to the US government to create a broadband map by address, company, and connection speed. This has cost the US tax payers $350 million dollars and been farmed out to the telcom industry and friends. The resulting data will be biased and show what the telcoms want it to show. This is to maintain their local monopolies. The data will also be years out of date when it is compiled.

    Since most internet users use search on a daily basis. The simple low cost solution to both the broadband mapping and speed mapping is to contact google, yahoo, microsoft, and all other search companies used in the USA.

    For the broadband mapping project the questions to be asked are.
    1) What is your Address including apartment number?
    2) Who is your service provider?
    3) What is your connection speed?
    4) What is your current monthly cost for internet access?
    5) Do you have any other options of internet access?
    6) If yes to the above question, what are the other options for internet access?

    Record the persons IP address and do a trace route back to it.
    Leave a Cookie for the browser
    Pull the modem-router info if possible

    For the speed mapping part of the National Broadband Plan. At the end of the questionare do a speed test on the internet connection. Randomly do a speed test based on the cookie making sure the trace route goes back to the same modem-router and-or area of the ISPs network. Next plot it on google maps for all to see.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 9:24am

    Re: Re:

    But I think we do need some kinda process to somehow hold them accountable for really bad decisions.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    icon
    Hephaestus (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 9:44am

    Re: Re: Going back to a previous comment ...

    Question does ARP work over the internet to get a modems-routers MAC address?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 10:51am

    Re: Re:

    odd my connection speed in 3 years has gone from 3mbps to 25mbps. you guys live in the stone age.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 11:56am

    Re: Re: Re: Spectrum Wars

    I believe it's even worse than that; they have a comprehension problem.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2010 @ 1:08pm

    Re: Re:

    "at least our judges are only bought"

    I think part of the point I'm trying to make is that now the corporations have to buy fewer people to game the system, they only have to buy members of congers and they can game all the federal agencies (ie: FCC, FDA, FTC, EPA, etc...) and the court system. With my proposal they would have to buy more people which will cost them more which will substantially diminish their ability to control everything. After all, they can't buy everyone.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    icon
    tracker1 (profile), Apr 15th, 2010 @ 2:46pm

    Re: Re:

    Tell that to my cable co in northern AZ, the DSL offered isn't near top-tier, but still outpaces the actual implementation of the cable companies theoretically higher (until you watch Hulu/Netflix movie and get throttled halfway in, and for the reset of the day) speeds.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Apr 16th, 2010 @ 10:05am

    Re:

    One of the things about the Net is that it's real good at doing things in real time.

    So, while it may take a couple of years to get a critical mass of these metering routers deployed, what makes you say the data will be two years old? Are you suggesting these things will do their job, and then just shut off?

    Au contraire, I think these things, over time, will show not just valuable "snapshot" data, but will be able to show trends over time.

    The policy action may lag, but the data will be much improved. Why complain about ideas that offer big improvements?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Apr 16th, 2010 @ 10:19am

    Re: Spectrum Wars

    So what you're saying is you are not in favor of exclusive spectrum leasing rights.

    So you would need to make an argument for how that would work. You know the tragedy of the commons argument, so here it is. One person using spectrum in a free-for-all manner tends to interfere with another. Each will raise their power output to make their S/N ratio usable, drowning out each other, and anyone else. They will use multiple frequencies looking for an open one. The result is almost totally unusable spectrum.

    So tell us again how regulating that chaos into something usable is "clueless".

    And by the way, don't take the convenient path of starting from T=2010. I know that today's science is capable of delivering Software Defined Radios, Frequency Hopping, and other contention-solving technologies. Nope. You have to start from around 1900, just like the real world regulators do. You need a plan that includes and respects the legacy science, users, and investments.

    Analogy: You can't successfully propose a new kind of car that is far more fuel efficient, but puts 1ft deep potholes in the road every 10ft. Such a car would make it increasingly difficult for existing cars and trucks to use the road, and people would not be willing to sacrifice their existing way of life and investment.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Apr 16th, 2010 @ 10:23am

    Question: Where are the people that usually pop up on this sort of topic to say, "Hell no, this is just another trick of the government to spy on you."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Apr 16th, 2010 @ 4:50pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Maybe so, but the only way to fix it is to move. I can get a single cable modem provider (which is what I have), or any of a handful of DSL providers, all equally slow. I could get a faster cable service, but it rapidly becomes outrageously expensive, rather than just the very expensive it is now.

    I don't live in the big city, but I don't live in the boonies, either.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This