The FCC's long history of ignoring the broadband duopoly's stranglehold over telecom markets has at times bordered on the comedic. This is, after all, the agency that required 36 public workshops, 9 field hearings, 31 public notices and 376 pages to craft a "National Broadband Plan" that went well out of its way to avoid doing anything substantive about the lack of broadband competition. And only the FCC could spend $300 million on a broadband mapping website that completely omits price, while routinely hallucinating both competitors and available speeds.
If the FCC has an area of expertise, it has historically been empty broadband lip service and elaborate, theatrical dance routines designed to protect the status quo.
But under Tom Wheeler, we're actually starting to see this change a little bit. For example, Wheeler recently pushed the agency to bump the definition of broadband to 25 Mbps, to highlight how three-quarters of American homes lack more than one option for real broadband service. Under Wheeler, for the first time in fifteen years, the FCC is no longer pretending that U.S. broadband is robustly competitive. He's still been reticent to acknowledge high prices or the fact that broadband users are consistently gouged with misleading, below the line fees, but baby steps, right?
Now the agency has announced it is fielding inquiries on whether or not it should include usage caps, overage fees, pricing and latency when crafting its annual Broadband Progress Report on the state of broadband competition:
"Today’s Notice of Inquiry further seeks comment on whether to consider standards beyond speed when assessing broadband deployment, including latency and consistency of service. And it asks whether to consider factors beyond physical deployment, including pricing and data allowances, privacy, and broadband adoption."
That's not great news for lagging broadband ISPs, given that the FCC's most recent Broadband Deployment Report already found that 55 million Americans -- 17 percent of the population -- lack access to advanced broadband, and over half of all Americans lack access to broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up. Factor in price, actual line performance, and whether a connection is hampered with bandwidth caps and overages, and those statistics could very quickly get much, much uglier. The FCC has also told the GAO that it may start factoring in streaming video performance when reporting on whether competitive broadband is being successfully deployed.
All told, the FCC's proposed changes will make it harder than ever for incumbent broadband ISPs to pretend that nothing's wrong with the U.S. broadband market. Not that they won't keep trying, since at this point pretending U.S. broadband is infallible is sort of a national pastime and full-time job for incumbent ISPs and their armies of paid telecom policy wonks.
FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly will never be confused with a consumer advocate or champion of the people. He's voted down nearly every consumer-friendly FCC initiative that has come down the pike, whether that's net neutrality, raising the base definition of broadband to 25 Mbps, or fighting back against state protectionist broadband laws written by ISPs to protect their uncompetitive geographic fiefdoms. O'Rielly most recently made waves by proudly declaring, as an employee of an agency tasked with ensuring timely deployment of broadband to all Americans, that he really didn't think broadband was all that necessary.
Hand in hand with anti-net-neutrality Commissioner Ajit Pai, a former Verizon regulatory lawyer, the two form sort of a knee-jerk, objectionist Commission superhero that opposes everything in its path under the pretense of a deeper, mysteriously undefinable ethos. The dynamic duo have even objected to holding AT&T accountable for ripping off taxpayer money earmarked for the poor.
With that as a backdrop, it was entertaining to see CNET push forth a bit of a puff piece helping O'Rielly portray himself as some sort of unfairly ostracized hero of the Commission, whose insights aren't being taken seriously:
"It takes time and effort to soldier on and make your arguments," he said..."I do the work you'd expect me to do. I read every item. I do my homework. And I make substantive suggestions. But I'm often shot down."
Of course it's actually O'Rielly that's doing the shooting, bravely voting no on nearly every single issue of the day. When AT&T was fined for throttling "unlimited" connections and lying about it, O'Rielly stood up for the little guy, bravely calling the FCC's behavior "Draconian" (Pai, in contrast, compared the FCC's behavior to Kafka). Still, O'Rielly lays the blame at the feet of Wheeler and company:
"O'Rielly and his Republican colleague, Ajit Pai, have opposed all the major Democrat-supported issues that have passed, in large part due to philosophical differences they have with their colleagues across the political aisles on these issues. But O'Rielly said what has truly frustrated him is what he sees as an unwillingness by the FCC leadership to find consensus on any issue.
Partisan patty cake at the Commission is certainly nothing new. Except as we've noted, most people on both sides of the aisle think Wheeler is actually doing a shockingly good job for a former industry lobbyist many expected little from. He's shaken off fifteen years of the status quo, and is actually doing something about the woeful state of broadband competition instead of paying politically-safe lip service to the idea. He also managed to implement real net neutrality protections, an idea that's supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.
It's repeatedly unclear to me how you can be a career obstructionist, then cry when policy and conversation moves on without you. Indeed, O'Rielly tells CNET he's just a hard working fellow who desperately wishes the there was "more receptivity to finding common ground." CNET responds by failing to ask O'Rielly a single difficult question regarding how he aligns this hallucinated persona with his actual anti-consumer and anti-Internet voting record.
Before the FCC's new net neutrality rules went into effect, Sprint surprised a few people by coming out in favor of Title II based net neutrality rules, making them the only one of the big four carriers to clearly and publicly support the shift. Now news reports also suggest that while T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon continue to throttle customers (unlimited or otherwise), Sprint has announced that just before the rules took effect the company decided to stop throttling its customers entirely, just to be on the safe side:
"Sprint, the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier, had been intermittently choking off data speeds for its heaviest wireless Internet users when its network was clogged. But it stopped on Friday, when the government's new net-neutrality rules went into effect....Sprint said it believes its policy would have been allowed under the rules, but dropped it just in case. "Sprint doesn't expect users to notice any significant difference in their services now that we no longer engage in the process," a Sprint spokesman said.
Specifics are skimpy as to precisely what Sprint was doing, but it seems likely that the company wasn't entirely sure that it could prove the throttling was necessary due to network congestion. Meanwhile, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile continue to use throttling as a network management practice, but they apparently hope to use semantics to play patty cake with FCC lawyers should the commission have any problems with what they're up to:
"T-Mobile spokespeople have been trying to convince Ars that "de-prioritization" isn't actually "throttling." Verizon has also claimed that its own "network optimization" isn't throttling. The tactic is reminiscent of Comcast's claim that its data caps aren't actually "data caps." Regardless of what semantics the carriers use, they are slowing down their customers.
T-Mobile's policy is fairly generous, though. As of now, it applies only to unlimited customers who use more than 21GB of data in a month. Those customers are "de-prioritized for the remainder of the billing cycle in times and at locations where there are competing customer demands for network resources."
The semantics of the word "throttling" aside, the FCC has made it pretty clear the rules allow ISPs to use throttling as a network management tool to deal with congested networks, carriers just can't use throttling and network management as a pretense to make an extra buck. And as we've seen with AT&T being sued by the FTC and fined by the FCC, regulators are making it pretty clear they won't tolerate carriers that offer an "unlimited" service, then throttle it without making that clear to the end user. Watching the hammer come down on AT&T's throttling of unlimited data plans specifically is likely what prompted Sprint to back off its own throttling practices.
Granted, Sprint has bigger problems than the FCC's neutrality rules at the moment. The company continues to lag in last place in most network performance and customer satisfaction surveys, and has struggled to retain customers in the face of AT&T and Verizon's superior networks, and T-Mobile's consumer-friendly theatrics. Sprint currently has to figure out how to repair and substantially expand a last-place network while managing to nab market share from the other three carriers. So far, there's every indication that the company isn't going to be able to do that and compete on price at the same time. New company CEO Marcelo Claure has now suggested several times the company is going to kill one of the few things customers like about Sprint: unlimited data.
So while it's great that Sprint's so enthusiastic about complying with the FCC's new net neutrality rules, that won't mean much to consumers if Sprint implodes, or decides to weaken the competitive field by pricing services just like AT&T and Verizon.
from the who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-my-regular-at&t? dept
This new FCC is really quite interesting. After years and years of never actually doing anything to push back against anti-consumer policies by the big telcos, in the last few months it seems like that's all the FCC does. Today's move? Proposing a $100 million fine against AT&T for its bogus practice of throttling "unlimited" customers. As you may recall, AT&T offered "unlimited" mobile data connections, but eventually killed off that offering. To avoid getting in trouble for bait and switch, AT&T grandfathered in those who previously had the unlimited plan... but then started throttling those accounts to try to pressure people into moving to a different plan. The FTC is already suing AT&T over this, and just last month we noted that AT&T had made some changes in response to FCC pressure.
However, this new move by the FCC is a big one -- saying that it thinks the company's throttling practice flat out broke the old open internet rules (the transparency part of the rules -- which the court did not throw out). AT&T, as it's doing with the FTC case, has already indicated that it's going to fight this fine, so expect years to go by before any fine is actually paid. The full FCC notice is worth a read. The key point is pretty basic: don't call it unlimited when it's very, very limited:
The imposition of set data thresholds and speed reductions is antithetical to the term
“unlimited.” AT&T was aware that its continued use of the word unlimited to describe its data plans
was likely to mislead consumers, as evidenced by the focus group studies conducted by AT&T around the
time the Company implemented its MBR [maximum bit rate] policy. Further, since its MBR policy was implemented, the
Commission and the Company itself received many complaints from AT&T unlimited data plan
customers who felt misled about the services they expected to receive when they purchased unlimited
We find that AT&T’s use of the term “unlimited” to label plans that were, in fact, subject
to significant speed restrictions after subscribers used a specific amount of data is apparently inaccurate
and misleading to consumers. As evidenced by the many complaints we have received about the MBR
policy, consumers entered into contracts for these “unlimited” plans with the mistaken belief that they had
unlimited amounts of high speed data sufficient to use any website or application, regardless of how much
data they used in a month. We thus conclude that every time AT&T described such a plan to a customer
as “unlimited,” it misrepresented the nature of its service. It did so in every monthly billing statement for
an unlimited plan and every time a term contract for an unlimited plan was renewed. The Transparency
Rule requires accuracy in all statements regarding broadband provider’s network management practices,
performance, and commercial terms, and providers are prohibited from “making assertions about their
service that contain errors, are inconsistent with the provider’s disclosure statement, or are misleading or
We further find that AT&T’s apparently misleading use of the term “unlimited” to label
its plan impeded competition because it prevented consumers from fully comparing AT&T’s plan to other
similar plans. This inured to AT&T’s benefit and to the disadvantage of its competitors. While AT&T
describes its plan as “unlimited,” its competitors describe almost identical plans as offering “unlimited
talk and text” with a set amount of LTE data. Without adequate disclosures, the average consumer
would consider these plans to be significantly different, when in fact they are not. A consumer was likely
to mistakenly assume that the AT&T “unlimited” plan offers more high-speed data than the competing
plan, thus hindering fair competition between AT&T and its competitors. Continuing to offer the plan to
renewing customers under the original “unlimited” label falsely advertised that the data plan was the same
plan customers originally bought before the MBR policy was implemented.
You can also read FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai's dissent in which he (really) quotes Kafka's The Trial and claims that the FCC is changing the rules as it goes.
A government "rule" suddenly revised, yet retroactive. Inconvenient facts ignored. A business
practice sanctioned after years of implied approval. A penalty conjured from the executioner’s
imagination. These and more Kafkaesque badges adorn this Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL), in which
the Federal Communications Commission seeks to impose a $100 million fine against AT&T for failing
to comply with the apparently opaque “transparency” rule the FCC adopted in its 2010 Net Neutrality
Order. In particular, the NAL alleges that AT&T failed to disclose that unlimited-data-plan customers
could have their data speeds reduced temporarily as part of the company’s approach to managing network
Because the Commission simply ignores many of the disclosures AT&T made; because it refuses
to grapple with the few disclosures it does acknowledge; because it essentially rewrites the transparency
rule ex post by imposing specific requirements found nowhere in the 2010 Net Neutrality Order; because
it disregards specific language in that order and related precedents that condone AT&T’s conduct;
because the penalty assessed is drawn out of thin air; in short, because the justice dispensed here
condemns a private actor not only in innocence but also in ignorance, I dissent.
Pai points out that AT&T did put out a number of warnings that its plan might include reduced speeds... but it still called the plans unlimited.
Either way, this should keep plenty of telco lawyers employed for many years...
Back when AT&T stopped offering unlimited wireless data, it grandfathered many of the unlimited users it had at the time. Unfortunately for those users, AT&T immediately started waging a quiet war on these customers as part of a concerted effort to drive them like cattle to more expensive plans. That included at one point blocking Facetime from working at all unless users switched to metered plans (but net neutrality is a "solution in search of a problem," am I right?) and throttling these "unlimited" LTE users after they'd consumed as little as three gigabytes of data.
Then, just about a year ago, the FCC (like it has on a number of consumer telecom issues like telco accounting fraud or municipal broadband) miraculously awoke from a deep, fifteen-year slumber and decided to do something about this kind of behavior. FCC boss Tom Wheeler started warning telcos that they can't use congestion as a bogeyman to justify cash grabs, and that network management should be used to actually manage network congestion -- not as a weapon to herd users to more expensive options. The FTC also filed suit against AT&T for false advertising over its "unlimited" claims.
"As a result of the AT&T network management process, customers on a 3G or 4G smartphone with an unlimited data plan who have exceeded 3 gigabytes of data in a billing period may experience reduced speeds when using data services at times and in areas that are experiencing network congestion. Customers on a 4G LTE smartphone will experience reduced speeds once their usage in a billing cycle exceeds 5 gigabytes of data. All such customers can still use unlimited data without incurring overage charges, and their speeds will be restored with the start of the next billing cycle."
As of this week, the policy now looks like this:
"As a result of AT&T’s network management process, customers on a 3G or 4G smartphone or on a 4G LTE smartphone with an unlimited data plan who have exceeded 3 gigabytes (3G/4G) or 5 gigabytes (4G LTE) of data in a billing period may experience reduced speeds when using data services at times and in areas that are experiencing network congestion. All such customers can still use unlimited data without incurring overage charges, and their speeds will be restored with the start of the next billing cycle."
In other words, gone are the references to throttling unlimited LTE users just because they hit a totally arbitrary threshold, and the company is now using network management to manage the damn network, not to make an extra buck. AT&T will of course find other, clever ways to annoy these users until they switch to more expensive plans, but it's at least good to see that the network congestion bogeyman (fear the exaflood!) isn't quite as effective as it used to be when it comes to justifying high rates, misleading consumers or conning regulators.
Having written about the FCC for most of my adult life, I've grown cynically accustomed to an agency that pays empty lip service to things like consumer welfare and the painful lack of broadband competition. It doesn't matter which party is in power; the FCC has, by and large, spent the lion's share of an entire generation ignoring last mile competitive problems and the resulting symptoms of that greater disease. When the agency could be bothered to actually address these issues, the policies were so tainted by the fear of upsetting campaign contributors (read: regulatory capture) they were often worse than doing nothing at all (see our $300 million broadband map that hallucinates speeds and ignores prices or 2010's loophole-filled net neutrality rules co-crafted by Verizon and Google).
Whether it was former FCC boss turned cable lobbyist Michael Powell's claims that massively deregulating the sector would magically result in telecom Utopia (tip: that didn't happen) or Julius Genachowski being utterly terrified of taking any meaningful stand whatsoever, the broadband industry has spent decades governed by an agency that, at its best, is too timid to do its job, and, at its worst, is an obvious revolving-door lap dog to an industry it's supposed to regulate.
So in 2013 when it was announced that a former lobbyist for both the wireless and cable industries would be the next FCC boss, the collective, audible sighs of disgust unsurprisingly rattled the Internet. I, like many others, believed we were bearing witness to a twisted culmination of decades of regulatory capture, a giant, living, breathing middle finger to a public hungry for a more consumer and innovator-friendly FCC. John Oliver even put Wheeler's name in lights when he infamously compared hiring the former cable lobbyist to employing a dingo as a babysitter:
Most people (with a few notable industry exceptions) believed Wheeler was the final nail in a grotesque, campaign-cash stuffed telecom coffin long under construction. We were painfully, ridiculously wrong.
In fact, if you read profiles on Wheeler, he's turned out to be a complete 180 from the thinking of a traditional revolving-door regulator, basing his decisions on all available information -- even if that data conflicts with previously-held beliefs (a unique alien indeed in 2015). And while it's true that massive grass roots advocacy helped shift Wheeler's thinking on issues like Title II, his embrace of issues like municipal broadband required little to no shoving, since the lion's share of the public had no idea the issue existed. One of the biggest reasons Wheeler's willing to stand up to the broadband industry? He's 69, and no longer biting his tongue and biding his time for the next cushy lobbyist or think tank gig. Perhaps we should make a rule that all future FCC bosses must be on the brink of retirement to avoid what we'll henceforth call Michael Powell syndrome.
Still, watching Wheeler fills me with cognitive dissonance, as if my frequently-disappointed brain isn't quite sure what to do with an FCC Commissioner capable of objective thought free of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon lobbyist detritus. As a sure sign of the looming apocalypse, last week I watched an FCC Commissioner issue a statement about protecting competition -- and actually mean it:
"Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s decision to end Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable is in the best interests of consumers. The proposed transaction would have created a company with the most broadband and video subscribers in the nation alongside the ownership of significant programming interests. Today, an online video market is emerging that offers new business models and greater consumer choice. The proposed merger would have posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation especially given the growing importance of high-speed broadband to online video and innovative new services."
Though his tenure's unfinished, it may not be a stretch to say that a man most of us believed would be the epitome of revolving door dysfunction has proven to be one of the most consumer- and startup-friendly FCC Commissioners in the agency's history. Granted that may not be saying much; caring more about consumers than Martin, Powell and Genachowski is like getting an award for beating a handful of lobotomized ducklings at a hundred yard dash. And none of this is to classify Wheeler as a saint -- the agency's net neutrality rules have some very concerning loopholes and the FCC still refuses to talk much about pricing, whether that's the problems inherent in usage caps, unreliable meters, or sneaky below the line fees.
Still, it's a lesson learned in letting your mind run on cynicism autopilot, and it's a reminder that even our very broken, campaign-cashed soaked government can still occasionally manage to give birth to consumer-friendly policies. So in short, the tl;dr version is this: I apologize to you, Tom Wheeler, for believing you were a mindless cable shill. I was wrong.
Back in 2010, AT&T eliminated the company's unlimited data plans and began offering users only plans with usage caps and overage fees. While AT&T did "grandfather" existing unlimited wireless users at the time, it has been waging a not-so-subtle war on those users ever since in the attempt to get them to switch to more expensive plans. That has included at one point blocking video services from working unless users switched to metered plans (one of several examples worth remembering the next time someone tells you net neutrality is a "solution in search of a problem").
AT&T also switched some unlimited users to its metered plans without user consent, something the carrier received a whopping $700,000 FCC fine for in 2012. But the telco's primary weapon against these users has been to throttle these users to speeds of 128 to 528 kilobits per second should they use more than a few gigabytes of data in the hopes they'd switch to metered but unthrottled plans. AT&T was sued for the practice by the FTC in October of last year, the agency claiming AT&T violated the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers’ unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by "failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans."
As we noted previously, AT&T tried a rather amusing defense to try and tap dance away from the lawsuit. It claimed that because the FCC was now classifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II, the FTC no longer had the authority to police AT&T actions under the FTC Act. In other words, AT&T hates Title II -- except when it allows them to skirt lawsuits for bad behavior. In a twenty-three page ruling (pdf), Judge Edward Chen says the law is "unambiguously clear" that only AT&T wireless voice, not wireless data, was classified as common carrier when the lawsuit was filed last fall:
"Contrary to what AT&T argues, the common carrier exception applies only where the entity has the status of common carrier and is actually engaging in common carrier activity."
In other words, no, AT&T can't have its cake (claim to loathe Title II with every shred of its being) and eat it too (run to Title II and common carrier protections when it suits it).
Last month, BlackBerry CEO John Chen tried to kiss up to major wireless carriers on the issue of net neutrality with a truly bizarre missive that received ample mockery in the technology press. Basically, Chen tried to argue that we don't need tough neutrality rules -- but we really should consider rules that force app developers to make content for unpopular mobile platforms. Like oh, BlackBerry, which after endless missteps now controls just 2% of the smartphone market. This was, to hear Chen tell it, because when companies refuse to make apps for unpopular platforms they're violating something Chen called "app neutrality":
"Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users. This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level."
Of course, as we pointed out at the time, Netflix isn't discriminating against anybody. If BlackBerry wasn't currently a train wreck and had a big enough market share to justify their time, Netflix would surely develop an app for BlackBerry users as well. As most of you know, net neutrality is about protecting the Internet from the bad behavior of companies that have built massive last-mile broadband monopolies courtesy of regulatory capture. In contrast, developers aren't making apps for BlackBerry simply because people aren't using BlackBerry's products. And while Google and Apple do dominate the smartphone market, the primary reason is because they offer a good product. That's in contrast to say, AT&T or Comcast, which offer a crap product because they have a government-protected monopoly over the last mile and have no incentive to improve.
I have no idea from the bowels of which ISP think tank or telco meeting room this "app neutrality" talking point originated; Chen and BlackBerry's incoherent tirade dominates the search results for the term. But it's worth noting that Mark Cuban actually argued a very similar point two days earlier, but, fortunately for Cuban, the media was too busy mocking BlackBerry to notice. Here's a snippet of Cuban's insight on the issue of app neutrality:
"There are basically 2 doors that control the availability of apps to the vast majority of smart phones in this country. They are owned and controlled by 2 of the largest tech companies in the world, Apple and Google. If you want your app to reach any type of audience (yes there are other app platforms supporting phones on the margin, but they are tiny by comparison), you have to make Google and Apple happy."
Again, this ignores that Apple and Google have come to dominate the smartphone market because they make a kickass product. Not to say either of those companies doesn't engage in anti-competitive behavior, and I don't think anybody would argue Apple's app approval process isn't bizarre. But that has nothing to do with net neutrality, and Apple and Google are a far, far cry from government-pampered duopolists like AT&T and Comcast. Still, Cuban proceeds to insist that net neutrality rules need to ensure Apple and Google play nice too:
"The mobile app economy is far from open. It’s dominated by two companies. It is in the best interest of the entire mobile eco-system to address this duopoly while we are re-examining net neutrality. We should seriously consider requiring Apple to to allow and support 3rd party app stores and to require that Google continues to support and enable 3rd party stores and more importantly to integrate them into the Play Store, much as Amazon does with Marketplace integration."
Cuban is again showing he doesn't quite understand how the broadband industry works or what net neutrality actually is. Consumers actually do have a choice of what kind of smartphone to buy or what apps to install. While there are some smartphone freedom constraints (usually imposed by the aforementioned carriers, mind you), users still can buy a Windows phone, or a BlackBerry phone, or some offshoot hackable Android ROM that provides greater application freedom and allows them to install whatever unsigned applications they'd like. They can also access something called the Internet for even greater freedom. That's in contrast to a Comcast customer who, if they want decent broadband, usually doesn't have any other choice. The two discussions are nothing alike, and I don't think that's a particularly complicated point to understand.
Still, like "search neutrality" before it, somebody somewhere pretty clearly hopes that the idea of "app neutrality" will shift people's attention away from what the net neutrality conversation is actually about: highly-tactical telecom carrier abuse of an uncompetitive broadband market. Fred Campbell of the Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology (a policy group dedicated to "liberate the ingenuity and creative spirit of America’s high-tech entrepreneurs and enterprises through market-oriented government policies") also rushed to the "app neutrality" argument when the group recently suffered a small stroke over the FCC's Title II plans:
"Chairman Wheeler’s description of his plan in Wired is disingenuous. His proposal will not ‘ensure the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.’ Some of the biggest gatekeepers on the mobile Internet today are using their power over mobile operating systems to deny access to application developers, yet these behemoths are exempted from the FCC proposal. The fact is, application developers will still have to ask someone for permission before they can access the mobile Internet.
The Chairman’s plan is also discriminatory. He is proposing to apply privacy limitations on Internet service providers through ‘Section 222′ while exempting Internet ‘edge’ companies whose fundamental business model is to profit from collecting and selling personal information about consumers. The Chairman’s discriminatory decision to exempt the Internet’s biggest data collectors from this privacy provision appears designed to protect the Administration’s political allies in Silicon Valley, not consumer privacy."
You see, Google, Apple and Netflix's domination of the smartphone and streaming video market is bad, even though consumers still actually have an organic market choice when it comes to those services. AT&T, Comcast and Verizon's stranglehold on the broadband market is to be ignored -- even praised -- because, uh, well, I'm not sure. You'd think those endlessly espousing the value of "free markets" would find the latter situation equally untenable, since it often involves companies literally writing state telecom law to further insulate government-protected duopolies from said market freedom. Unless of course it's not really about loving free markets or meaningful personal values at all, and it's really just about offering any old flimsy, inconsistent argument to help carriers protect the revenues received from uncompetitive (and certainly not free) markets?
One of the very first things new FCC boss Tom Wheeler did when he entered office was to get wireless carriers to agree to a list of voluntary cell phone unlocking guidelines. The six "demands" are largely common sense and uncontroversial, and include requiring that carriers offer unlocked devices to active overseas service members, make their postpaid and prepaid unlocking policies as clear as possible, respond to unlocking requests within two business days, and automatically notify customers when their contract period ends and their phone can be unlocked.
I'd heard that carrier lobbyists balked at this last request fearing it would "advertise" unlocking, but ultimately acquiesced out of fear of tougher, non-voluntary rules coming down the pike. Note this is entirely separate from the fight over keeping cell phone unlocking legal and the need for DMCA exemption process reform. The rules also don't require that carriers simply sell unlocked phones outright, since that would probably make a little too much sense. After agreeing to the rules, carriers had more than a year to adhere to all six requirements, and the final deadline arrived last Wednesday.
Interestingly it's Verizon and AT&T, arguably the worst of the major carriers when it comes to attempts to stifle openness over the years, that come out ahead in adhering to all six guidelines (though your mileage may vary, and since the rules don't require much, this may not mean much). For Verizon, that's in part thanks to the Carterfone conditions placed on its 700 MHz spectrum, though that hasn't stopped the company from fighting openness in general tooth and nail in other ways. As I've noted previously the conditions have plenty of loopholes -- and anti-competitive behavior is allowed just as long as companies ambiguously insist that what they're doing (like blocking Google Wallet, or locking bootloaders) is for the "safety and security of the network."
Similarly interesting is the fact that T-Mobile, despite a recent reputation for being a fierce consumer advocate, sits right alongside Sprint when it comes to failing to adhere to the fairly simple requirements after a year's head start. Khanifar notes T-Mobile saddles prepaid and postpaid users with a number of strange restrictions, including the fact that users can't unlock more than 2 devices per line of service in a 12 month period. Between this, the company's opposition to Title II and its failure to understand the problems with zero rated apps, T-Mobile's showing it still needs to actually earn that ultra-consumer-friendly reputation.
Khanifar proceeds to note that despite carrier struggles this is at least a step in the right direction, even if we still need DCMA reform to ensure unlocking remains perfectly legal. That said, he quite justly highlights how cell locking no longer makes any coherent sense, for anybody:
"It's worth taking a step back and examining the absurdity of these locks. If you've paid for your AT&T phone, committed to a 2-year contract, and agreed to an "early termination fee," what purpose does a lock really serve? If you've paid cash to purchase a prepaid device, why should it come locked to just one carrier? There's plenty of evidence that locks serve little real commercial purpose. Verizon's business hasn't suffered since they stopped locking their phones. Countries like China and Israel have made locking devices outright illegal with no harm to their wireless industries and plenty of gain for consumers. But unfortunately it's unlikely that Congress or the FCC will take action to implement a similar policy here in the US."
Of course unlocked, open devices widens the competitive door, and with the kind of lobbying power AT&T, Verizon and the entertainment industry wield over Congress, getting real DMCA reform or mandated unlock-at-sale rules in play will likely be nothing short of a miracle.
Back in October we noted how the FCC had fined Marriott $600,000 for using deauth man in the middle attacks to prevent customers from using tethered modems or mobile hotspots at the company's Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville. Marriott's ingenious plan involved blocking visitors and convention attendees from using their own cellular connections so they'd be forced to use Marriott's historically abysmal and incredibly expensive wireless services (in some cases running up to $1,000 per device).
When pressed by the FCC, Marriott pretended this was all to protect the safety and security of their customers. The company also tried to claim that what it was doing was technically legal under the anti-jamming provisions of section 333 of the Communications Act, since the deauth attacks being used (which confuse devices into thinking they're connecting to bogus, friendly routers) weren't technically jamming cellular signals. The FCC didn't agree, and neither did industry giants like Microsoft, Google, AT&T and Verizon, who collectively filed opposition documents with the FCC arguing that Marriott was clearly violating the law.
After carefully surveying a battlefield scattered with millions of pissed off consumers, annoyed regulators, and angry, bottomless-pocketed technology giants, Marriott has apparently concluded that maybe its shallow ploy to make an extra buck isn't worth fighting over. In a statement posted to the company's website, Marriott states it's going to stop acting like a nitwit, maybe:
"Marriott International listens to its customers, and we will not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices at any of our managed hotels. Marriott remains committed to protecting the security of Wi-Fi access in meeting and conference areas at our hotels. We will continue to look to the FCC to clarify appropriate security measures network operators can take to protect customer data, and will continue to work with the industry and others to find appropriate market solutions that do not involve the blocking of Wi-Fi devices."
You'll notice the selectively-worded statement doesn't completely put the issue to rest, and clings fast to the argument that Marriott is just really concerned about visitor security, suggesting this may not be the last we hear of this.