Karl Bode’s Techdirt Profile


About Karl Bode

Karl Bode is a freelance writer living in New York that has been babbling, jabbering and prattling about technology, politics and culture professionally for more than fifteen years. Follow me on Twitter @KarlBode


Posted on Techdirt - 13 October 2015 @ 8:27am

Add Pittsburgh To The List Of Cities That Say Verizon Ripped Them Off

from the maybe-you-should-read-your-contracts dept

You can add Pittsburgh to the growing list of towns, cities and states that claim Verizon is ripping them off. Verizon, of course, froze its FiOS fiber expansion years ago, instead focusing its attention on more profitable (read: capped) wireless service. The company did continue to expand FiOS in a number of east coast cities (Washington, Philadelphia, New York), agreeing to full city fiber expansion in exchange for sweetheart franchise deals, tax cuts, and/or subsidies. But as cities like New York have found out, Verizon's definition of full city fiber upgrades probably doesn't match yours.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has started noticing that huge swaths of Pittsburgh haven't been upgraded, despite the city signing a franchise agreement with Verizon that called for uniform FiOS coverage. Peduto was one of fourteen mayors who recently wrote Verizon's CEO in a futile attempt to get the telco to give a damn about its rotting, taxpayer-subsidized DSL networks. Peduto's now considering legal action after Verizon failed to meet its obligations:

"We have an agreement with Verizon that, over the course of several years, the entire city would be provided with FiOS, and it was the agreement that allowed them to start putting their lines in the public right of way. They have now broken that agreement," Peduto said. "They do not have the city finished, so now we need to seek the damages that were agreed to through the contract. At this point, I'd have to talk with our law department."
As with New York's belated realization that they'd been swindled, the problem is that these cities signed these deals without reading them. Most of these contracts include oodles of fine print that let Verizon claim that homes "passed" with fiber (several blocks away) are the same as being "served" by fiber, or let Verizon pay a modest fine for missing deployment goals. As such, Verizon was quick to highlight that it met the terms of the deal, because technically -- it probably had:
"Verizon sent a letter to the City confirming it is in compliance with the terms of the franchise agreement and that with certain exceptions allowed under the franchise, there are no residential areas of the city where Verizon does not offer cable service. In addition, Verizon is scheduling a meeting with the City in the near future to explain its accomplishments."
While hindsight certainly helps, cities that don't want to be ripped off should either learn to read their contracts, or avoid doing business with companies with a generation of documented, sleazy behavior. Pittsburgh leaders in particular should have paid close attention to Verizon's multi-billion dollar swindle of Pennsylvania years earlier, in which Verizon promised ultra-fast fiber broadband in exchange for billions in subsidies, then just threw money at the state legislature and regulators to convince them to forget the obligation ever existed (Verizon did the same thing in New Jersey).

Of course that's just it; most politicians are so cash compromised they saw the warning signs but just didn't care, leaving the mess for somebody else to clean up (or ignore). And in Verizon's case, billions in undeserved subsidies across thousands of miles have left a fairly massive mess.

21 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 8 October 2015 @ 8:47am

NBC's Ingenious Solution To Ad Skipping And Low Ratings: More Embarrassingly Unfunny Product Placement

from the dead-cash-cows dept

We've already talked a lot about how the cable and broadcast industry's response to a changing TV landscape (ad skipping, dropping ratings, Internet video competition) is the ingenious one-two punch of mindlessly raising rates and making the viewing experience more annoying than ever. They've accomplished the latter in several ways, ranging from simply pushing more ads than ever before, or by even speeding up or editing popular programming to ensure more ads will fit in each viewing hour.

With ad skipping on the rise, ratings in free fall and lawsuits to stop ad skipping going nowhere fast, the broadcast industry's latest ingenious solution is to also start including more in-show product placement:

"Moments before climbing into bed with supermodel Christie Brinkley, Donny Deutsch turns to the camera and tells viewers that a certain brand of vodka is perfect for the occasion. The scene is from Deutsch’s new comedy series “Donny!” debuting next month on NBCUniversal’s USA Network. It’s the latest example of how TV shows, which have long avoided acknowledging product placement to their viewers, are becoming increasingly upfront about it, even turning it into a joke.
That sounds incredibly stupid to me, but maybe you had to be there. Now that consumers have more choices and improved ad skipping technology, they're making their preferences clear, whether that's Netflix or Dish's Hopper ad-skipping DVR. Adapting to competition is still a foreign concept to the cable and broadcast industry, which is why NBCUniversal execs apparently believe that including stupid references to products that erode the quality of your series is the height of "creativity," helping them better connect with Millennials:
"We see that happening at our company more and more often," (NBC U ad exec Linda) Yaccarino said during an Advertising Week panel in New York. "You have to acknowledge the challenges with ad-skipping and lapses in measurement and break out in a more creative way."..."Today's young people are hip to what we do for a living," (Donny) Deutsch said on stage during Advertising Week, which ended Oct. 1. "You've got to let them in on the joke."
Yeah, but hawking vodka just isn't funny. The real joke is that your valued young target audience is increasingly no longer watching your show on traditional TV to begin with, and you believe having stars peddle more hummus is the answer. Shoving more ads down the throats of your viewers isn't creative, it's desperate. And while advertisers may be willing to pay an estimated $300,000 per each placement, it's a band aid on a major gash in the hull of the industry's legacy cash cow. It's also telling that the broadcast industry's version of "creativity" and customer adaptation is bringing television advertising back full circle to the 1950s:

Of course, the solution for traditional cable and broadcasting isn't to find a way to shovel more ads into less space, it's to develop a better product and offer it in more convenient packages at a better price. Whether that's a fair position to be in is irrelevant. The cable and broadcast industry's traditional cash cow is dead. There's no turning back the dial. The answer now is in developing new models going forward that finally, after a generation, give consumers what they want. Sadly, that's going to mean having to (gasp) compete on price and probably make less money for a little while. But the alternative is letting companies like Netflix run away with the holy cash cow, leaving legacy cable a relic of a bygone era that could have adapted, but instead chose to stupidly keep making the same mistakes.

53 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 7 October 2015 @ 9:34am

FCC Quickly Shoots Down The First (Incredibly Stupid) Net Neutrality Complaint

from the chicken-little-was-wrong dept

Back in June we noted how the very first net neutrality complaint had been filed and that it was notably stupid, but important. Basically, a small San Diego company by the name of Commercial Network Services (CNS) tried to complain that Time Warner Cable was abusing its monopoly power by refusing to give the company free peering. CNS operates a series of webcams in the San Diego area which, when visited, inform users that the reason they can't access the "ultra-HD" version of the cameras is because their ISP isn't a peering partner with CNS:

CNS claim
In its informal FCC complaint, CNS tried to claim that Time Warner Cable's refusal to offer free peering violates the "no paid prioritization" and "no throttling" sections of the new net neutrality rules. Basically, CNS has been trying to claim that net neutrality somehow means it deserves free peering from bigger ISPs, even though that's never been how things work for smaller companies, and the new net neutrality rules don't change that. So it was the first net neutrality complaint, but it was also the first example of a company trying to use the rules to weasel out a business advantage, something mega-ISPs tried to claim would be a huge, unmanageable problem.

But the FCC has apparently seen this complaint for what it is and acted accordingly, basically informing the company politely in a letter that it needs to shut up and go away:
"In this instance we regret that you were not satisfied with attempts by FCC staff to facilitate a more satisfactory resolution of the underlying issue. At this point, you might want to contact the company directly to see if you and the company can arrive at a resolution that is more acceptable to you. You will receive no further status on your complaint from FCC staff."
While the net neutrality rules don't specifically cover interconnection, they do give the authority for the FCC to resolve complaints on a case-by-case basis. In this case, the FCC clearly found nothing wrong. And that's a good thing; one narrative of incumbent mega ISPs before the rules were passed was that the FCC would run amok, competitors would abuse the rules, and we'd be wandering a minefield of unintended consequences and protracted legal battles, decimating the telecom landscape as we know it. Yet here, the FCC quickly saw a stupid complaint and shot it down with minimal fuss.

Obviously that's only one complaint, and we'll need to watch the FCC closely to see just what trips the agency's definition of anti-competitive behavior. But so far so good, and none of it has required "heavy handed regulation." Simply having rules in place has already helped on the interconnection front, with companies like Netflix, Cogent, Level 3 and the mega ISPs (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon) getting along famously simply due to the threat that a regulator might just do its job.

CNS, meanwhile, insists it's going to proceed and file a formal net neutrality complaint, for whatever that winds up being worth (and it won't be much).

15 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 6 October 2015 @ 11:47am

Verizon's Sneaky Zombie Cookies Now Being Used Across The Entire AOL Ad Empire

from the snoopvertising dept

Poor Verizon. Telco executives for years have sat in their board rooms bored by the billions to be made on telecom and transit, jealously eyeing Facebook and Google ad revenue, and desperately dreaming of being seen as more than just a dull old phone company. That's why the telecom giant recently paid $4.4 billion to acquire AOL, and is now throwing tens of millions at a new Internet video service aimed squarely at Millennials (hey kids, why get Internet video right from the source or a disruptive content company when you can get it from the phone company?).

And, lucky you, the same kind of greasy principles that have guided the company's legacy telecom networks are being applied to this brave, new, hipper advertising frontier. You'll recall that the company was widely criticized for manipulating user traffic streams to insert "zombie cookies," or unique identifier traffic headers that track user behavior online and can be abused by third parties. Only discovered by researchers two years after being implemented, it only took Verizon another six months of sustained criticism to finally let users opt out of being watched.

With AOL now part of the Verizon family, it's rather unsurprising to learn that Verizon's now extending the use of these stealth trackers across the entirety of the AOL ad empire:

"Verizon said in a little-noticed announcement that it will soon begin sharing the profiles with AOL’s ad network, which in turn monitors users across a large swath of the Internet. That means AOL’s ad network will be able to match millions of Internet users to their real-world details gathered by Verizon, including — “your gender, age range and interests."...AOL will also be able to use data from Verizon’s identifier to track the apps that mobile users open, what sites they visit, and for how long."
So not only is Verizon now using its AOL acquisition to expand its plan to modify traffic to watch people, the telco's still opting users in by default and bouncing this traffic around the Internet unencrypted so it can be abused by third parties. Verizon of course insisted this could never happen, right before it did. But whereas you might see this as a dramatic expansion of a horrible precedent, Verizon thinks you shouldn't worry because this is all occurring under the roof of one giant, happy, Verizon family:
"I think in some ways it’s more privacy protective because it’s all within one company,” said Verizon’s Zacharia. “We are going to be sharing segment information with AOL so that customers can receive more personalized advertising."
Are you comforted yet? It seems like only a matter of time before freshly-Verizon-owned media properties (The Huffington Post, Engadget, TechCrunch et al) pen furious missives informing us that this Verizon snoopvertisement-dominated Internet is a step in the right direction. It's worth reminding Verizon users that they can opt out of having their traffic modified and tracked via the Verizon privacy portal or by calling 866-211-0874. Of course this should be disabled by default if not outlawed all together, but hey -- at least we're all part of one big, loving Verizon family, right?

23 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 6 October 2015 @ 9:37am

Reddit's New 'Upvoted' Clickbait Website Will Ignore Everything That's Great About Reddit

from the the-future-of-democracy-is-solitary-confinement dept

Reddit of course has been trying to balance advertising with the website's uncontrollable, valuable, but occasionally ugly democratic side for some time with decidedly mixed results. The company's recent new content moderation policy raised all manner of eyebrows for its attempt to keep what makes Reddit great in place, while applying often arbitrary and inconsistent restrictions on subjectively-defined objectionable content. It's a debate that of course will likely continue long through the point where Reddit is ultimately supplanted by some other, better method of organic Internet interaction.

If Reddit's latest venture is any indication, the company wants that time to come sooner rather than later. The company is cooking up a new website dubbed Upvoted that will take existing popular content on Reddit and write it up as Upworthy-esque clickbait fare. Unlike Reddit however, there will be no reader interaction or commenting on the new property. Execs see this as a way to harness potential ad money lost to other websites who often simply write up stories that unfold first on Reddit:

"Upvoted is a way for Reddit to recapture some of the attention (and, ahem, traffic) that the site loses when other news organizations take stories from the site; it serves as a kind of introduction to the world of Reddit for non-users; and it acts as a testing ground for advertisers who may be hesitant to dive straight into advertising in a world moderated by unaffiliated, unpaid volunteers. Upvoted may be our first look at what the future of Reddit might hold."
But wait: is the "future of Reddit" really about taking Reddit content, stripping away all of the best democratic aspects of the Reddit community, then shoving the entire construct into an entirely un-interactive, more traditional media mold? Like the relentless push to kill ye olde news comment section, there seems to be a bizarre shift toward taking the wonderful, bidirectional power of the Internet -- and demanding it once again become a one-way medium of expression and publication without any of this nasty democratic thought stuff.

To hear Reddit tell it, it's not gutting interactivity for the sake of obtaining more ad cash, it's doing this out of a love of the Reddit community:
"The stuff our community creates on a daily basis blows our mind. Unfortunately, rather than telling that story, some news outlets take our users’ content and repackage it as their own. They don’t tell the backstory of our communities. We think our users’ stories need to be told, but with them at the center of it."
On one hand, you can understand exec logic here; they see the laundry list of websites mindlessly regurgitating Reddit AMAs into news stories and see that as easy money they should be cashing in on. But operating a massive democratic community and operating a news organization are not somehow magically synonymous, and there's obviously no guarantee that the stories Upvoted posts will be heard under the din of countless other, click-bait oriented like-minded efforts. It's also worth noting that Upvoted's going to be heavily focused on native advertising:
"Rather it will post sponsored content paid for and approved by advertising partners—and written by the same editorial team that writes editorial posts. “They’re going to be just as interesting as actual content,” Chang says. “It could be a piece on Tesla, a piece on how WiFi works, no matter what it’ll be good content—and it’ll just happened to be sponsored."
So again, your ingenious master plan is to take Reddit content, try to write it up, strip away everything that's great about Reddit (interactivity, democracy), pepper that content with heavy advertorial content, and hope for the best? If people really think that's the "future of Reddit," the future of Reddit is going to be some other, better, more-interactive and open platform not-named Reddit.

50 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 6 October 2015 @ 6:13am

14 Mayors Have To Join Forces And Beg Verizon To Upgrade Its DSL Network

from the please-sir-may-I-have-another dept

We've long noted how it's now Verizon's modus operandi to take millions in subsidies and tax cuts from state or local governments in exchange for delivering fiber optic broadband upgrades. Except time and time and time again those fiber upgrades never actually arrive, and just as often the impacted states or cities let Verizon get away with it. Now that Verizon's focused solely on more profitable (read: capped with overages) wireless service, the telco has not only frozen FiOS fiber upgrades, but it's actively disconnecting many unwanted DSL customers completely.

In the hopes of getting Verizon to change course, fourteen mayors from cities in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Massachusetts have joined forces and written a letter to the telco (pdf) literally begging the company to upgrade its network and give a damn about its paying customers:

"Our cities lie within the core footprint of Verizon Communications and have long valued the quality jobs and fiber upgrades that Verizon promised to bring to our communities...But consistently and increasingly, our consumers have complained that FiOS service is not available to them. These are not isolated complaints – there are millions of residents in communities throughout the Northeast who have been left without service, and with no plan or promise for future resolution."
And again, these aren't just neighborhoods that Verizon promised (and was paid) to upgrade to fiber, these are areas where Verizon is now not even willing to repair DSL lines -- even after natural disasters. You see, it's a much better deal for Verizon if you ditch your unlimited-consumption DSL line and instead sign up for a shared wireless data plan with overages of $15 per gigabyte. And with no fixed-line broadband competition and an industry awash in regulatory capture, Verizon doesn't have to much care what you think about it letting taxpayer-funded fixed-line infrastructure rot on the vine.

Indeed, the Mayors make it clear they've raised these concerns with Verizon repeatedly, and the company simply couldn't care less:
"Based on irrefutable evidence of your company’s poor service record, lack of transparency and accountability, or demands for exclusive agreements with landlords throughout the region, we are deeply concerned that you have not acted like a good corporate citizen and that an incomplete FiOS rollout will result in decreased competition and the reduction of benefits to consumers throughout the Verizon footprint. As elected officials, it is our obligation and our responsibility to bring these complaints to your attention."
That sound you hear is Verizon engaged in a good belly laugh, realizing that, like most incumbent ISPs, it all but controls most state legislatures and regulatory agencies, which is why few if any of them have done much to help shore up last-mile broadband competition. Verizon's now going state by state getting these loyal politicians to sign off on gutting all remaining regulations governing DSL and POTS (plain old telephone service), under the promise that wireless will finally unveil the amazing telecom future the telco was paid to deliver with fiber years ago.

So while it's understandable that the Mayors of cities like New York, Buffalo, Newark, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are annoyed at Verizon, they might find it to be more productive to write to state leaders who've spent the better part of a generation now idiotically throwing money at Verizon in exchange for hot air and legalese.

Read More | 34 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 5 October 2015 @ 4:06pm

Motherboard's Version Of 'Valuing Discussion' Involves No Longer Letting You Comment

from the we-like-you-better-wearing-this-muzzle,-ok? dept

Add Motherboard to the quickly growing list of news websites killing their comment section because they're so breathlessly in love with reader interaction and visitor conversation. Like The Verge, Recode, Popular Science, The Daily Beast and numerous other websites before it, Motherboard has decided that there's simply no value whatsoever to having a healthy, on-site local community. As such the website is shoving any and all reader interaction over to less transparent and noisier discourse avenues like Facebook, Twitter and e-mail because comments as a "medium" are inherently somehow unhealthy:

"We at Motherboard have decided to turn off our comments section, a decision we've debated for a year or more. What finally turned the tide was our belief that killing comments and focusing on other avenues of communication will foster smarter, more valuable discussion and criticism of our work. What percentage of comments on any site are valuable enough to be published on their own? One percent? Less? Based on the disparity in quality between emails we get and the average state of comments here and all over the web, I think the problem is a matter of the medium."
One, just because only some readers can be bothered to comment doesn't magically devalue the entire comment section, as many reader simply lurk. I'm a lurking reader quick to head to the comment section to see if there's anything a reporter may have overlooked, misunderstood, or missed entirely. Did that tech blogger screw up the Wi-Fi specs on device Y or battery size of gadget Z? Does anybody else think this story makes light of X or misinterprets Y? Does anybody else in here feel the way I do? As a writer I find comments similarly valuable, even if you sometimes have to dig through detritus.

And that's just it: news comments foster community, but they also provide transparency, accountability, and crowdsourced fact checking right below the article, and that's what many sites like least of all. They just won't admit it.

In contrast, Motherboard pretends that their reporting will become just that much better if it doesn't have to worry about pesky public reader interaction:
"Good comment sections exist, and social media can be just as abrasive an alternative. But for a growing site like ours, I think that our readers are best served by dedicating our resources to doing more reporting than attempting to police a comments section in the hopes of marginally increasing the number of useful comments. That doesn't offer any real value to other readers of the site, and we'd all wager that the scorched Earth nature of comments section just stifles real conversation."
Unlike other news websites, Motherboard at least admits that it doesn't want to spend the time and money to cultivate a thriving local community. Still, it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that weeding the troll comment garden comes at the cost of better reporting. In fact, some studies have shown that simply having a writer show up in the comment section and briefly treat site visitors like human beings raises the discourse bar dramatically. And as several websites have noted, having a healthy comment section pays dividends in the form of loyal visitors. By blocking comments, you're sending that community elsewhere (not that Techdirt minds -- Motherboard readers are welcome to comment here).

Motherboard seems to miss absolutely all of the benefits of on-site community, consistently coming back to this strange idea that as a "medium" comments are inherently flawed:
"Comment sections inspire quick, potent remarks, which too easily veer into being useless or worse. Sending an email knowing that a human will actually see it tends to foster thought, which is what we want.
Because nitwits never send barely coherent single-sentence idiot bile via e-mail, right? Comments are simply a blank slate input field. How is that a flawed "medium"? The flaw is it forces outlets to work just a little bit harder, and doesn't allow them to filter what gets said and heard. As such, Motherboard yearns to head back to the era of "letters to the editor," which it may or may not respond to or publish:
"So in addition to encouraging that you reach out to our reporters via email or social media, you can now also share your thoughts with editors via letters@motherboard.tv. Once a week or thereabouts we'll publish a digest of the most insightful letters we get."
Or hey, we might not. And that's the problem: when only outlet-approved voices are made public you've muted an entire avenue of news dialogue correction and thrown the baby out with the bathwater, all in a misguided belief that we should try and force the open Internet back into the Walter Cronkite era of audience interaction. Of course all of these news editors and authors are just so dumbstruck and dizzy with the idea of not having to interact with snotty critics anymore, they can't see the forest (news as a healthy, fluid public conversation) for the trees (bile-lobbing blowhards).

64 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 5 October 2015 @ 10:35am

Hey, Remember How Net Neutrality Was Supposed To Destroy The Internet?

from the chicken-little dept

Before and after the FCC imposed new net neutrality rules, you'll recall there was no limit of hand-wringing from major ISPs and net neutrality opponents about how these "draconian regulations from a bygone era" would utterly decimate the Internet. We were told investment would freeze, innovation would dry up like dehydrated jerky, and in no time at all net neutrality would have us all collectively crying over our busted, congested, tubes.

And, of course, shockingly, absolutely none of that is happening. Because what the ISPs feared about net neutrality rules wasn't that it would senselessly hurt their ability to invest, but that it would harm their ability to take aggressive and punitive advantage of the lack of competition in last mile broadband networks. Obviously ISPs can't just come out and admit that, so what we get instead is oodles of nonsense, including bogus claims that net neutrality violates ISPs' First Amendment rights.

About a year ago, you'll recall that companies like Netflix, Cogent, and Level 3 accused most of the major ISPs of intentionally letting their peering points get congested. The goal, these companies claimed, was to kill the long-standing idea of settlement-free peering, and drive services like Netflix toward striking new interconnection deals that would, presumably, be jacked up over time. One year on and Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer notes that most of the congestion that plagued these interconnection points last year has somehow magically disappeared:

"Speaking to investors during the Deutsche Bank 23rd Annual Leveraged Finance Conference, Dave Schaeffer, CEO of Cogent, said that the FCC's adoption of net neutrality rules that include Title II regulation, and passage of similar rules in the European Union, have led to ports on other networks becoming unclogged. "The adoption of the Open Internet order and Title II jurisdictional authority were mirrored in the EU and on June 30 the European Commission adopted a set of regulations that were passed by the parliament and the council," Schaeffer said. "As a result of that we have seen significant port augmentations."
Schaeffer proceeded to note that AT&T and Verizon "are nearly congestion free" and would be completely congestion free sometime in the fourth quarter. Negotiations with other ISPs appear to also be going well. Funny how that works, huh? And note the FCC didn't even have to do all that much; we simply needed the mere threat of a regulator actually doing its job to make the mega-ISPs play nice. In other words, net neutrality rules that were supposed to destroy the Internet have instead resulted in companies that were at each other's throats a year ago suddenly getting along famously, and the Internet itself working better than before.

Sure, some ISP think tankers are being paid to pretend the last few weeks that network investment has dried up, but there's absolutely no indication that's the case. In fact, the biggest ISPs historically opposed to net neutrality have announced major deployment projects since, including Comcast's plan to deploy two gigabit fiber to 18 million homes, Verizon's plan to invest heavily in the fifth-generation of wireless technology, and AT&T's $68 billion acquisition and subsequent plans for fixed-wireless broadband and (when they can bothered to get around to it) gigabit fiber.

Granted, ISPs will argue that it's still early and that the sky will likely fall due to net neutrality any day now. A more likely explanation is that incumbent ISPs and their army of paid mouthpieces were utterly and unmistakably full of shit.

48 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 2 October 2015 @ 9:25am

Cable Company Totally Unsure What Neighborhoods It Serves, Wants $117,000 For Broadband Service

from the bungled-and-the-botched dept

Here's a tip if you're looking to move or building a new house: get your ISP to write you a letter confirming that they service your new address. While you're at it, get three copies of it from three different executives, have it notarized, and force the ISP to swear a blood oath, because even then you may find yourself without service at your new address. As we've noted a few times, users often assume ISPs actually know what neighborhoods they service, only to later have a Kafka-esque introduction to the U.S. broadband industry's blistering incompetence and dismal customer service.

The latest example comes via a Wisconsin resident who planned to build a new home on a lot both Frontier Communications and Charter Communcations said they were able to service. To be sure, the user double and triple-checked with Charter before beginning the build process:

"Despite not being in a densely populated area, Marshall said the lot was advertised as "cable-ready." Before committing to the purchase, Marshall said, “I looked on Charter’s website, and I typed in the address of the lot, and it said, ‘yep, we can service you.’" Just to make sure, Marshall said he looked up the addresses of neighboring homes and got the same answer. Just to make extra sure, Marshall said he called Charter “and gave them the address, and they said, ‘yup we can service that lot.’" Construction on the house began in November 2014 and finished in June."
The user did everything right short of getting the promise in writing. And guess what? Charter wasn't able to service that lot. Worse, after admitting error about its own network coverage, the cable operator informed the user it would cost him a whopping $117,000 to provide service:
""Once my house was built, I called [Charter] to set up service, and that’s when they told me they made a mistake. I was too far away from their network," Marshall said. In June, a Charter construction coordinator told him he’d have to pay $117,000 to cover all labor, materials, and permitting for a network extension to serve the home. Marshall would have to pay the entire $117,000 up front before Charter would begin construction, and the price would not go down even if other homeowners signed up for service.
The user got the same runaround from Frontier Communications, who originally promised it was able to deliver 24 Mbps to that address, only to later admit it could only provide around 3 Mbps -- at best (and which will likely be force-bundled with an expensive legacy voice landline the user won't want). The kicker is that both of these companies have lobbied to erect state barriers to community broadband, which is often an organic response to this kind of dismal coverage and customer service. So again, this is a market where you've got lumbering ISPs with absolutely no incentive to expand or improve service, literally writing state law ensuring that nobody can do anything about it.

Fortunately the FCC has finally started to attack these state laws so communities can improve their own broadband in cases of market failure, but it's a contentious fight with states busy pretending that it's their god-given right to erect duopoly-protectionist laws written by AT&T and friends. Meanwhile, our national broadband map, which cost $300 million to build, often doesn't help matters. Plug your name into the government mapping apparatus, and it will often not only hallucinate broadband providers in your area, but it will utterly fabricate available speeds. That's because it relies largely on the word of ISPs eager to pretend that the U.S. broadband industry is awash in competition, with much of the data never fact checked.

And good news, everyone! Charter Communications is on the cusp of buying both Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks (in a $79 billion merger), and Frontier is busy gobbling up AT&T and Verizon's unwanted DSL territories. In other words, there's a pretty good chance this exact brand of incompetence could be coming to your neighborhood very soon.

So if you're moving to a new area and an ISP claims they offer broadband, get it in writing. Wander the neighborhood asking neighbors what services they can get. Get sixteen company executives on tape insisting they provide service. Because most U.S. ISPs not only don't know the physical footprint of their network, it's abundantly clear they have absolutely no interest in accurate data, customer service, or being accountable for false promises. When you're the only game in town, you quite frankly don't have to give a damn. And when you're the one buying and writing state telecom law, it's remarkably easy to keep it that way.

47 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 1 October 2015 @ 1:48pm

Amazon Bans Sale Of Competing Apple TV, Chromecast Devices To 'Avoid Customer Confusion'

from the heaping-piles-of-bullshit dept

Amazon has come up with a rather ingenious way to give its own Fire TV streaming video devices a leg up in the market place: stop selling major competing products. In a letter sent this week to the company's marketplace sellers, Amazon announced that it would no longer be allowing new listings for either the Chromecast or Apple TV starting today, and that existing retail stock of both products would be discontinued at the end of the month. Google of course just unveiled two new versions of the Chromecast, which has been historically outselling Amazon's own streaming devices.

Amusingly, Amazon unloads what has to be one of the larger piles of ambiguous bullshit in defense of an anti-competitive position seen in some time:

"Over the last three years, Prime Video has become an important part of Prime," Amazon said in the e-mail. "It’s important that the streaming media players we sell interact well with Prime Video in order to avoid customer confusion."
Hilarious. Except it's up to developers to embed Chromecast support into their services and apps, and both Google and Apple publish open software development kits that allows any application to be utilized on both devices. In other words, it's Amazon's choice that Chromecast and Apple TV won't play nicely with Amazon Prime Instant Streaming. It has nothing to do with the devices not "interacting well" with Amazon's services. Bloomberg even helps prop up this nonsensical explanation further by repeating the idea that Prime Video "doesn’t run easily on rival’s devices."

Meanwhile, on what planet exactly are you "avoiding customer confusion" by suddenly removing access to hugely popular, competing products?

Apparently other streaming competitors like the Roku and game consoles have yet to see Amazon's ire and will remain sold, for now. Obviously none of this is the end of the world, since Amazon controls just 1% of the overall retail market and these devices can be bought at a long-list of retail alternatives, including Apple and Google themselves. Still it's an utterly-idiotic decision that's sure to invite antitrust scrutiny at worst, and an absolute shit storm of negative PR at best.

55 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 1 October 2015 @ 10:31am

ISP Announces It's Blocking All Facebook And Google Ads Until Companies Pay A Troll Toll

from the entitlement-mindset dept

By now you're probably familiar with the narrative pushed by some ISPs that they are somehow owed a cut of advertising and content revenue simply because content company traffic touches their network. The idea that ISPs should be allowed to double dip in this fashion was an idea first floated by former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, who truly set off the net neutrality fight in the States back in 2005 by proudly and stupidly declaring that Google shouldn't be able to "ride his pipes for free." The narrative is still often used here in the States by net neutrality opponents, usually with Netflix portrayed as the hungry, selfish bogeyman.

The idiotic belief that content companies should be charged an additional "telco tax" to fund network upgrades has since wormed its way into pampered, duopoly telco board rooms worldwide. The latest case in point: Caribbean and South Pacific ISP Digicel has started blocking Google and Facebook ads from appearing on the company's mobile network in the apparent belief that the service provider is owed a slice of these companies' ad revenues. In a notice posted to the Digicel website, this move is framed as something that was motivated purely for altruistic, pro-consumer reasons:

"(Digicel is) deploying ad control technology at the network level on its networks across the globe to ensure a better experience for customers and to encourage the likes of Google, Facebook and Yahoo to help connect the 4.2 billion unconnected people across the globe. Ad control technology benefits both consumers and network operators alike. With ads using up as much as 10% of a customers’ data plan allowance, this move will allow customers to browse the mobile web and apps without interruption from unwanted advertising messages."
What sweethearts. Of course, the notice then proceeds to make it clear what this is really about. And that's Digicel and billionaire owner Denis O'Brien's belief that they are owed a cut of content company ad revenue simply because content company traffic touches their network:
"Companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook talk a great game and take a lot of credit when it comes to pushing the idea of broadband for all – but they put no money in. Instead they unashamedly trade off the efforts and investments of network operators like Digicel to make money for themselves. That’s unacceptable, and we as a network operator, are taking a stand against them to force them to put their hands in their pockets and play a real role in improving the opportunities for economic empowerment for the global population.”"
O'Brien's been mentioned by Techdirt previously for attempts to sue satirists for so much as joking about him, so hopefully he doesn't take offense when I note that both he and Digicel are utterly full of crap here. The cornerstone of the ISPs' flimsy entitlement argument almost always involves claiming that companies like Google, Netflix, and others get a "free ride" on ISP networks. We've debunked this idea time and time again, even going so far as to urge these folks to pay Netflix's bandwidth bill for a month if they truly believe content companies don't pay for bandwidth and transit. Strangely, we've yet to be taken up on the offer.

Of course, the idea that Google, which is spending billions on wireless service and fiber to the home, "puts no money in" is laughable. Not only do these companies pay plenty for bandwidth, they own half-a-planet's worth of transit and content delivery networks at this point; and that's before you even get into their last-mile broadband efforts, where they're busy exploring everything from 3.5GHz wireless experiments to broadband by hot air balloon and drone in a quest to expand their global ad empires.

Of course, many of these efforts challenge the stranglehold legacy telecom companies have enjoyed for a generation or more, and the predominant response to this new economy evolution has been not to compete -- but to pout. Indeed, O'Brien's tirades are little more than the crying of a pampered child who is -- obviously for the first time in a long while -- being told he's not able to eat the entire carton of ice cream in one sitting.

87 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 1 October 2015 @ 9:32am

As Comcast Broadband Usage Caps Expand, Company Still Refuses To Admit They Even Have Caps

from the Tomato,-tomahto dept

Like the boiling frog metaphor, Comcast continues to slowly deploy usage caps in a growing number of uncompetitive markets in the hopes that nobody will notice until it's too late. As noted previously, Comcast has started imposing a 300 GB monthly cap in more than seventeen "trial" markets, after which users have to pay $10 for each additional 50 GB of usage. In a most recent wrinkle, the cable operator has also started offering users the honor of paying $30 if they want to avoid these usage caps entirely. It's a glorified rate hike on what's already some of the most expensive broadband in the world.

Amusingly, for some time now Comcast spokespeople have been scolding any reporters that call these restrictions a "usage cap," in the belief that changing the terminology will somehow fool the public into thinking paying more for the same service is somehow reasonable. No, states Comcast, it doesn't impose usage caps -- it delivers friendly neighborhood "data thresholds" that provide greater "choice and flexibility."

This week the company's usage caps went live in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and the Keys, and once again Comcast spokesfolk are making the rounds trying to force journalists to adhere to specific lingo when discussing the plan:

"Charlie Douglas, a Comcast spokesman, argues that its wireless-style plans aren’t a cap. A true cap, he argues, was what Comcast implemented in 2008 when it told users that if they used more than 250 gigabytes per month they would be first warned and then cut off from service. That plan ceased in May 2012. Comcast insists that its offering since then is better described as a “data usage plan.” “We don’t call it a cap,” Douglas says. “We call it a data plan just like wireless companies have data plans."
Apparently, Comcast believes it gets to unilaterally redefine what a broadband usage cap is, and that the public is too stupid to realize when they're looking at a rate hike if you just call it something else. Contrary to common wisdom, usage caps don't really help network congestion, and even the cable industry has admitted caps aren't about congestion anyway. What are they about? Comcast's deep-rooted love of fairness, apparently:
"Why would a company that has plenty of capacity on its network need a data plan? It’s not a matter of capacity, Douglas argues, but fairness. “Ten percent of our customers are consuming half of all of the data that runs on our network each month,” Douglas says. “So part of the rationale for all of these trials is this principle of fairness. Those who want to use more pay more, and those who want to use less pay less."
Right. Except fairness would be simply moving those 10% of users on to business plans if they're such heavy users, and leaving the rest of the user base alone. Fairness would be truly usage-based plans that let your grandmother pay $5 a month for her thrice-weekly viewing of the Weather Channel website and e-mail use. Instead, Comcast is imposing caps and overages (a rate hike) on all users right on the eve of the 4K and Internet video revolutions, knowing full well most user households will run face-first into the caps over the next few years.

That's of course because caps aren't about "fairness" either, they're about ensuring that Comcast gets to keep revenues fat and bloated as more cable TV customers cut the cord and shift to Internet video. Apparently Comcast believes its users are collectively too stupid to realize this, and that by simply fiddling with basic definitions (it's not a usage cap, it's a wholesome family consumption calculator!) the public will nod dumbly and graciously accept one of the biggest rate hikes in Comcast history.

20 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 30 September 2015 @ 11:44am

Tennessee Voraciously Defends Its Right To Let AT&T Write Awful State Broadband Laws

from the ill-communication dept

After fifteen years in an apparent coma, earlier this year the FCC woke up to the fact that ISPs were effectively paying states to pass laws focused entirely on protecting uncompetitive, regional broadband duopolies. More specifically, they've been pushing legislation that prohibits towns and cities from improving their own broadband infrastructure -- or in some cases partnering with utilities or private companies -- even in areas local incumbents refused to upgrade. It's pure protectionism, and roughly twenty states have passed such ISP-written laws nationwide.

While it received less press attention because it happened on the same day as the net neutrality vote, back in February the FCC voted to start pre-empting some of these state laws because they run contrary to the FCC's Congressionally-mandated mission of improving broadband access to all (not to mention, common sense). This, not too surprisingly, riled up all of the telecom companies' paid loyal supporters in Congress, who, like Marsha Blackburn, immediately started whining and pretending this was a states' rights issue (you'll note that letting your local incumbent cable and phone company literally write state law is perfectly fine, however).

In March, the state of Tennessee sued the FCC, again framing the state's decision to cozy up to telecom giants as a states' rights issue, and claiming the FCC violated federal law and overstepped its authority. Tennessee state law, pushed for by AT&T, has stopped Chattanooga-based EPB from expanding broadband services into additional areas. The FCC's attempt to thwart this god-given protectionist effort, Tennessee claimed this week in a new court filing, violates Tennesee's "inviolable right to self-governance":

"In a brief filed Friday in a federal appeals court, Tennessee argued that states have an "inviolable right to self-governance," which means that a state may delegate powers to its political subdivisions—i.e. cities and towns—as it sees fit..."Far from being a simple matter of preemption, as the FCC claims, this intervention between the State and its subordinate entities is a manifest infringement on State sovereignty," Tennessee's lawyers wrote Friday.
In other words, Tennessee argues, it's completely within its right to let AT&T write shitty telecom law that ensures Tennessee remains a broadband backwater, and the federal government has no standing to intervene in this noble effort. In contrast, the FCC has argued that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directs the FCC to take action to remove barriers to broadband investment, which is precisely what AT&T Tennessee's law is. Tennessee's motivation here is to ensure they can keep gobbling up AT&T and Comcast campaign contributions without federal interference. The FCC's motivation here (contrary to years' past), is to actually bring better, cheaper broadband to more people.

The courts could rule either way, but the FCC will get its chance to respond to Tennessee in a filing expected by November 5. Meanwhile, Tennessee residents can rest easy knowing their taxpayer dollars are not only being used to prop up AT&T's crappy, stagnant broadband empire -- but to thwart efforts to actually bring broadband competition and lower prices to the state.

Read More | 29 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 30 September 2015 @ 8:27am

Microsoft 'Addresses' Windows 10 Privacy Concerns By Simply Not Mentioning Most Of Them

from the delightfully-invasive dept

Since launch, Windows 10 has seen no limit of criticism for violating user privacy. Some of these concerns have been legitimate -- such as the fact that the OS keeps communicating with Microsoft when core new search services like Cortana have been disabled, or that users don't seem to have complete, transparent control over what the operating system is doing. But other complaints seem to have been based on false rumors that Windows 10 is embedded with a nefarious "keylogger" that tracks everything you type and say or is reporting your BitTorrent activity to Hollywood middlemen.

So far, Microsoft's been dead silent on these issues for months, which hasn't done much to defuse the situation. This week, the company decided to finally comment on user concerns in a blog post and both consumer and enterprise privacy documents that address at least some user worries. Microsoft's Terry Myerson starts by promising that Windows 10 user data is encrypted in transit, the company isn't scanning your files or e-mails to blast you with ads, and any data collection Microsoft is engaged in is simply the company trying to develop a "delightful" OS experience:

"We aspire to deliver a delightful and personalized Windows experience to you, which benefits from knowing some things about you to customize your experience, such as knowing whether you are a Seattle Seahawks fan or Real Madrid fan, in order to give you updates on game scores or recommend apps you might enjoy– or remembering the common words you type in text messaging conversations to provide you convenient text completion suggestions."
Microsoft also takes a few shots at Google in the entry:
"Unlike some other platforms, no matter what privacy options you choose, neither Windows 10 nor any other Microsoft software scans the content of your email or other communications, or your files, in order to deliver targeted advertising to you."
The problem with Microsoft's response is largely one of omission. Sure, the OS doesn't scan your e-mail and files for ad purposes, but you'll note the company doesn't really mention the OS's ingrained search and Cortana data being used for that purpose. Microsoft also doesn't really address why users don't really have control over telemetry (crash) data as in previous Windows versions (the enterprise version of Windows 10 allows crash telemetry data reports to be disabled entirely, while the mainstream Home and Pro versions of Windows don't). Ars Technica probably puts it best:
"There's nothing new here and nothing that's likely to convince those concerned about Windows 10's privacy. Two classes of data are excluded—communications (including e-mail and Skype) and file contents—but everything else appears to be fair game for ad targeting. So while Cortana can't use your e-mail to tailor ads to your interests, it appears that she could use the appointments in your calendar to do so, for example."
Microsoft also doesn't really address concerns about Windows 10 just being annoyingly chatty, sending numerous reports back to the Redmond mothership even when the operating system is configured to be as quiet and private as possible. The core problem with Windows 10 remains that opt-out settings remain muddy and in some cases ineffective, and it's not really clear how a lot of the OS-collected data is being used. Microsoft's blog post fails to really address this, though the company at least promises to start elevating the privacy conversation to the level of security-related discourse.

Granted, there's no shortage of people who will simply never trust the company no matter how much progress is made, justifiably citing decades of bad behavior as precedent. And while it's lovely that Microsoft's focused on crafting a "delightful" OS experience, the refusal to give Windows 10 users total, clear control over their OS still doesn't reflect a company that now claims to be in the vanguard of consumer privacy issues.

76 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 29 September 2015 @ 11:18am

Russia 'Investigating' Apple Over The Diabolical Menace That Is LGBT-Friendly Emojis

from the sanctioned-bigotry dept

Russia's been nothing but busy since passing its 2013 LGBT propaganda law, designed to protect minors from the terrifying menace of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships" while upholding "family values" through government-encouraged discrimination and hatred. The law has had two major benefits for the Russian government; allowing Putin and friends to use homophobia to encourage distrust of heathens in the West (at the cost of increased violence against the LGBT community), while providing feeble justification for the country's heavy-handed censorship efforts.

Most attempted enforcement of the law is comical in nature, like the government's apparent decision recently to "investigate" Apple for violating the law with a several-year-old set of LGBT-friendly....emojis (which Apple included back in iOS update 8.3). The "investigation" was apparently prompted by a Russian lawyer by the name of Yaroslav Mikhailov, who has previously had political opposition journalists investigated for their comical posts to Instagram:

"The case, brought by police in Russia's Kirov region 600 miles northeast of Moscow, follows a complaint by a local attorney named Yaroslav Mikhailov, Russian newspaper Gazeta reported. Mikhailov argued that that Apple is violating Russia's ban on so-called "gay propaganda" in the presence of minors by including the emojis in the iOs 8.3 package. The case, opened last month, is awaiting expert analysis of the cartoon motifs to determine whether they count as "gay propaganda," the newspaper reported.
According to an older report by Russia's Izvestia newspaper, the investigation was also prompted by a complaint from Mikhail Marchenko, a Russian senator who apparently believes the more racially diverse and LGBT-inclusive emojis somehow "disrespect" traditional families:
"Mr Marchenko claims the symbols - which depict smiley-faced same-sex couples - violate a controversial 2013 law which prohibits promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships. The law allows Russian authorities to block access to websites deemed to promote homosexuality. Mr Marchenko said in his complaint that the emojis "promoted non-traditional sexual relationships", "denied family values" ​​and showed "disrespect for parents and other family members."
These are, apparently, the moral-fabric-eroding cartoon representations that have some so deeply, deeply offended:
War on emojis
Diabolical indeed. Should Apple be found "guilty" of the offense, the company could be fined the Russian equivalent of roughly $15,000 in Tim Cook couch change, and sales of its products could be suspended in the country for three months. Again, this kind of blisteringly-idiotic behavior would be funny were it not for the fact that the Russian-government-sanctioned bigotry has resulted in a dramatic spike in violence against the LGBT community.

28 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 28 September 2015 @ 3:53pm

Toronto Sun: We Value Criticism And The Voice Of The Reader So Much, We're Killing Both

from the disingenuous-drivel dept

At this point it has become a personal pastime of ours to track the idiotic reasons websites give for killing their local news comment sections. Instead of simply admitting nobody on their writing or editorial staff wants to deal with on-site conversation, or acknowledging they've never liked readers being able to point out story errors right below articles, lazy websites instead give a rotating crop of hilarious excuses. These usually range from claims they're killing comments because they really care about building relationships, to claims their muting all on site dialogue because they just so love conversation.

The Toronto Sun is the latest to join what's now a massive trend, a note to readers proclaiming that the paper is regretfully killing its news comment section because the paper just can't figure out how to interact with human beings in the digital age, and would like to roll the clock back to an era where only editor-approved thinking reaches the readers' eye. The note from Sun editor James Wallace begins:

"The voice of our reader has always been a critical part of the Sun."
So critical that we no longer feel like allowing it on site!
"As a paper, we pride ourselves both on dishing out and taking criticism - especially when the latter comes from our readers."
Yes we're so proud of this criticism we're eliminating the ability for you to view this criticism at all. Like other comment-killing websites, the Sun pretends this is a temporary measure while the website figures out a better way to deal with reader feedback and opinion (read: throw it at social media and forget about it):
"Therefore we have decided, for the time being, to no longer allow commenting on most online articles until we sort out a better and more accountable way for our readers to interact with us and each other. Like a growing number of news organizations, we are also moving away from anonymous commenting because there are other options that encourage respectful, civil debate. Much of that debate already takes place on social media."
What the Sun and other websites don't yet understand is that by eliminating site comments, you're not only killing a strong, local, on-site community, you're harming news transparency. Like it or not news is now a conversation between sites, between news outlets, and perhaps most importantly between the public and news outlets. Having a comment section -- however filled with bile poorly-managed sections can be -- is part of that transparent process of fact collection, analysis, and correction.

As more and more sites have shuttered comments I've become increasingly aware of my own knee-jerk tendency to head to the comments to see what the author may have missed or misinterpreted; something I can no longer do at places like The Verge, ReCode, Reuters, Popular Science, The Daily Beast, and many others. Shoveling this important discourse over to social media is one way of hiding the reality that your reporters and your outlet can make errors, may not always have the full picture, and aren't (gasp) infallible:
Except if the Sun really valued conversation and reader insights it would leave the comment section intact and weed the troll garden via better comment system design. But if you don't understand the value of comments, don't care about transparency, and are too cheap and lazy to spend time cultivating local community, you get half-assed mea culpas like the Suns':
"We regret having to make this decision and are working on a solution that will best serve you, our readers, and the Sun. Meanwhile, keep your comments, views and opinions coming. We value them."
Yes, your opinions are so valuable we've decided to dig a six foot hole and bury them. If you want to interact with us, please feel free to shout at us at the curated nitwit cacophony that is Facebook, Tweet at us via the fractured, cordoned off hallways of Twitter, or fire a letter to the editor our way which we'll promptly ignore. For the sake of conversation and respectful debate, of course.

23 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 28 September 2015 @ 11:41am

Facebook Hopes Renaming Internet.org App Will Shut Net Neutrality Critics Up

from the it's-only-bad-when-other-people-do-it dept

Facebook is trying its best to defuse worries that the company is trying to impose a bizarre, walled-garden vision of the Internet upon the developing world. As we've been discussing, Facebook's Internet.org initiative has been under fire of late in India, where the government has been trying to not only define net neutrality, but craft useful rules. Early policy guidelines have declared Internet.org to be little more than glorified collusion, since while it does offer limited access to some free services, it involves Facebook determining which services users will be able to access (and encrypted content wasn't on the Facebook approval list).

Initially, Facebook's response to these concerns was tone deafness. Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that net neutrality supporters worried about Facebook's plans were extremists who were hurting the poor. But in more recent weeks Facebook has been softening its stance, allowing a broader range of content on board the free service, and also renaming the Internet.org app in the hopes of blunting criticism:

"Today the company said it will change the name of its Internet.org app and mobile website, now available to mobile phone users in 18 countries, to Free Basics by Facebook. The change is intended to better distinguish the app and website from Internet.org, the larger initiative that spawned it and is incubating many technologies and business models to help get the web to new users faster."
And by "better distinguish," we mean help Facebook distance the app from criticism that the company is setting itself up as the gatekeeper to content in the developing world. To be fair, renaming it "free basics" and eliminating the "Internet.org" name does help clarify what Facebook's actually offering. And the company does appear to be opening the door to more content partners, and is working to ensure encrypted services will work "wherever possible." Still, many people still don't like the precedent set by letting Facebook be the gatekeeper for what's considered acceptable content, and argue that if Facebook really wanted to help the poor, it would offer subsidized real Internet access.

Other than changing the name and opening the Facebook gates slightly wider, the company is showing no sign that it plans to back off the core idea behind the Internet.org initiative. It also shows no sign that it actually understands why some critics are troubled by Facebook's vision. Former FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin (a huge friend to US telcos during his tenure) is now Facebook's vice-president for mobile and global access policy (read: global lobbyist), and recently declared that Facebook couldn't be a bigger friend to net neutrality:
"When users purchase internet access, they should be able to go where they want to, and that concept of net neutrality rules in context of operators who originally wanted to sell different tiers of speeds to consumers so that certain services can be accessed on a faster basis....He said that Facebook supports the concept of net neutrality and its program internet.org is to enable people to realize the importance of internet by providing access to basic web service free of data cost."
In short, that's a former FCC boss with no credibility on the subject basically implying that Facebook couldn't possibly be violating net neutrality, since that's something only a telecom operator can do. Facebook still apparently believes that nobody is bright enough to see past its shiny veneer of altruism to realize that the company is trying to corner developing nation advertising and content markets for the next thirty years. Hopefully more intelligent and nuanced thinking prevails, and those purportedly so desperate to help the poor will ultimately decide to do so by offering dirt-cheap Internet access, not a bastardized, AOL-esque vision of the Internet buried under layers of cheap public relations paint.

31 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 25 September 2015 @ 10:34am

Government Report Declares Broadband An Essential, Uncompetitive Utility, Wistfully Ponders If Perhaps We Should Do Something About It

from the bureaucratic-prattle dept

For years players in the telecom sector have bickered over whether or not to call broadband an essential utility (water, electricity), or keep on acting as if it's simply a luxury. A semantic battle for sure, though ISPs have traditionally fought the former classification because it generally means regulators actually doing their jobs, like checking to make sure that ISP broadband usage meters are accurate (helpful tip: they often aren't and regulators couldn't care less). Also if you declare broadband a necessary utility, that means somebody has to do something about the fact that the lion's share of the country remains on sluggish, last-generation speeds thanks to limited to no real competition.

In an otherwise rather droll report this week, the United States government stopped beating around the bush and formally declared broadband an essential utility. The full report by the government's new "broadband opportunity council" (pdf) is the latest hang-wringing, bureaucratic effort to study the broadband sector to death, despite the fact that even the nation's sixth graders likely know the core problem with the broadband industry is duopoly power and regulatory capture. The report, after consulting "248 diverse stakeholders" ranging from telecom companies to consumer advocacy groups, shockingly concludes that the government hasn't been acting in accordance with this new reality:

"Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions. Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities. However, not all Federal programs fully reflect the changing social, economic and technological conditions that redefined the need for and benefits of broadband. In some cases, programs that can support broadband deployment and adoption lack specific guidelines to promote its use. Other programs have not integrated funding for broadband commensurate with its importance and role in program execution and mission.
Gosh, are we daring to suggest that blindly throwing subsidies at AT&T and Verizon, ignoring how that money gets spent, and then turning a blind eye to the lack of last-mile competition hasn't really been working? While previous, pricey government brainstorming sessions comically turned a blind eye to the lack of competition (our bland, politically-timid 2010 National Broadband Plan jumps immediately to mind), this latest report by the freshly-forged council at least acknowledges the reality on the ground:
"Today, nearly 40 percent of American households either do not have the option of purchasing a wired 10 Mbps connection or they must buy it from a single provider. Three out of four Americans do not have a choice of providers for broadband at 25 Mbps, the speed increasingly recognized as a baseline for broadband access. Lowering barriers to deployment and fostering market competition can drive down price, increase speeds, and improve service and adoption rates across all markets.
The report proceeds to give a number of no brainer recommendations, like paying attention to where taxpayer subsidies go (ingenious!), removing ISP-written state laws preventing communities from improving local broadband when nobody else will (insightful!), and actually basing policy on real-world evidence instead of simply playing partisan patty cake (pioneering!). Of course these are all things that should have been obvious for the last fifteen years; government was just too terrified of upsetting deep-pocketed campaign contributors (and NSA partners) like AT&T and Comcast to actually make meaningful progress.

Hopefully in another five years we can look forward to a new report that realizes that if you want better broadband, perhaps you shouldn't let the nation's duopoly providers write all of our telecom laws, all-but own state legislatures and Congress, and effectively act as institutionally-bone-grafted government intelligence analysts?

Read More | 16 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 25 September 2015 @ 6:18am

Now That Nielsen Can Actually Be Bothered To Track Internet Video, The Numbers For Traditional TV Are Getting Ugly

from the viva-la-revolucion dept

For years, we've noted how popular TV ratings firm Nielsen has turned a bit of a blind eye to cord cutting and the Internet video revolution, on one hand declaring that the idea of cord cutting was "pure fiction," while on the other hand admitting it wasn't actually bothering to track TV viewing on mobile devices. It's not surprising; Nielsen's bread and butter is paid for by traditional cable executives, and really -- who wants to take the time to pull all those collective heads of out of the sand to inform them that their precious pay TV cash cow is dying?

Now that Nielsen has decided to join us in 2015 and start tracking streaming service and mobile device viewing, the numbers, shockingly, aren't looking all that hot. Nielsen's latest analysis shows a number of things, most notably a decline in pay TV subscribers but a sharp uptick in users who are only subscribing to broadband:

"According to Nielsen’s second-quarter Total Audience report, the number of homes with pay-TV subscriptions—a crucial number for the industry—is down 1.2% to 100.4 million from 101.6 million a year ago. The number of broadband only homes rose 52% to 3.3 million from 2.2 million...Meanwhile, the share of homes with subscription video on demand rose 18% to 45% in the second quarter of 2015 from 38% in the second quarter a year ago. The number of homes with enabled smart TVs rose to 18% from 11%."
So, yeah. Traditional TV is slowly and surely dying. While Nielsen helped prop up the industry belief that cord cutting was over-hyped, other tracking firms were busy pointing out that not only were cable TV providers slowly hemorrhaging subscribers each quarter, but the number of new pay TV subscriptions weren't scaling in line with new home ownership growth like they used to.

And that's before you even get to traditional broadcast numbers. Data had already shown a sharp downtick in viewership for traditional cable channels, starting with children's programming and now even impacting the supposedly untouchable ESPN. Nielsen's latest traditional ratings data also shows that TV viewership ratings continue to drop, with fall's TV premiere season landing with a thud for every major show without Kermit the frog in it:
"According to Nielsen fast national data, every returning Tuesday night drama suffered double-digit ratings declines, while the three new series were a mixed bag. Leading off the night at 8 p.m., ABC's reboot of "The Muppets" put up decent numbers, averaging 8.91 million viewers and a 2.8 among adults 18-to-49, making it the night's No. 2 rated show behind "The Voice."..Networks have always banked on Premiere Week as an interval of peak sampling, but Tuesday night's PUT (or people using television) levels were discouraging. The number of adults 18-to-49 watching primep-time programming dropped 8% versus the year-ago period and overall usage in the demograhic for the last two nights is down 10%.
Gosh, it's almost like viewers are headed to a fictional land where they have more control over what they view for much less money? It gets worse: TV viewing among adults 18-to-24 dropped 20% from last year, and male usage in that holy-grail demographic has wilted by roughly 24%. Again, cable and broadcast executives (and if you're Comcast NBC Universal, that's one and the same) could stop all of this right now if they were willing to offer more flexible channel lineups and compete on price, but they've grown too fat and comfortable to notice the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

53 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 24 September 2015 @ 11:08am

The Wall Street Journal Doubles Down On Dumb: Falsely Claims Net Neutrality ('Obamanet') Has Crushed Broadband Investment

from the it's-election-season dept

Last week, we noted that the Wall Street Journal appeared to have reached a completely new low in the "conversation" about net neutrality, with a bizarre, facts-optional missive about how Netflix was to blame for pretty much everything wrong with the Internet. According to Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Netflix is the diabolical villain at the heart of a cabal to regulate the Internet, cleverly convincing regulators to treat hard-working, honest companies like Comcast unfairly. As we noted, the screed is part of a broader telecom-industry attempt to vilify Netflix for not only its support of net neutrality, but for daring to erode traditional cable TV subscriptions through (gasp) competition.

This week the Journal decided to double down on notably cryptic and dumb editorials, with another rambling tirade about net neutrality. Piece author Gordon Crovitz, who we've repeatedly documented as aggressively wrong on everything from surveillance to encryption, begins by riling up the partisans in claiming "'Obamanet is hurting broadband":

"The FCC never planned to set rates and terms for broadband under the laws that dictated how railroads operated in the 1880s and the phone system in the 1930s. But President Obama decided “net neutrality” was good politics, so he demanded that the commission impose the most extreme form of regulation. Today bureaucrats lobbied by special interests determine what is “fair” and “reasonable” on the Internet, including rates, tariffs and business arrangements. The FCC got thousands of requests for new regulations within weeks of the new rules."
Right, except none of that is true. While the FCC has issued some warnings about interconnection shenanigans (which has resulted in Netflix, transit and last mile ISPs suddenly getting along famously), the FCC is forbearing from most of the more aggressive portions of Title II regulations. And despite the fact that anti-net-neutrality folks don't want to believe him, it's clear that FCC boss Tom Wheeler doesn't want to regulate broadband pricing. The proof is in the fact that the agency continues to turn a blind eye to industry prices (it's simply never even mentioned as an issue), and the agency has effectively given the green light to usage caps, overages and zero rating.

If they had any sense, net neutrality opponents should be happy about this, as it's abundantly clear the FCC's only looking to enforce the most ham-fisted of neutrality abuses (filtering, blocking, heavy throttling of competing services), and ISPs can continue doing precisely what they're doing now (aggressively cashing in on uncompetitive markets) with no worry of regulatory interference. Most ISPs understand the message is subtle but it's there: ISPs can continue to experiment with this kind of "creative" pricing, they just need to be subtle about it. There's zero indication that Wheeler has any interest in serious rate regulation.

Crovitz then proceeds to parrot a new missive the broadband industry has loyal mouthpieces chanting at the top of their lungs the last few weeks: that, like neutrality opponents ingeniously predicted, the FCC's new rules have indeed stifled broadband sector investment. Like FCC Commissioner Pai last week, his evidence once again comes courtesy of broadband-industry tied "consultant" and professional statistics-massager Hal Singer:
"Now Mr. Singer has analyzed the latest data, and his prediction has come true. He found that in the first half of 2015, as the new regulations were being crafted in Washington, major ISPs reduced capital expenditure by an average of 12%, while the overall industry average dropped 8%. Capital spending was down 29% at AT&T and Charter Communications, 10% at Cablevision, and 4% at Verizon. ( Comcast increased capital spending, but on a new home-entertainment operating system, not broadband.)"
Except Mister Singer cherry picked his statistics and ignored context. AT&T and Charter's capex dropped because both were winding up major investment projects ("Project VIP" and a digital video upgrade, respectively) that had nothing to do with net neutrality. Singer also intentionally ignores that capex reductions in AT&T and Verizon's fixed-line networks are because those companies had already frozen "next-gen" broadband deployments and are hanging up on unwanted DSL users, something that again has nothing to do with net neutrality. So right out of the gate, the vast majority of Singer and Crovitz's "proof" evaporates into thin air.

While Singer acknowledges that Comcast boosted capex, he intentionally ignores that the company subsequently announced a huge nationwide plan to deploy two-gigabit broadband service. And while Verizon's capex dropped 4% due to winding down LTE upgrades (that tends to happen when a job is complete), the company just last week announced a huge investment initiative in 5G wireless broadband technology. Odd that Singer and Crovitz somehow forget to mention that two of the country's biggest neutrality opponents just announced major new investment initiatives yeah?

Singer also ignores the fact that capex was up for a huge number of broadband ISPs, including Google Fiber, Sprint, T-Mobile, Frontier, Windstream, Suddenlink, and Time Warner Cable -- not to mention continued growth on the municipal (community driven) broadband front. In short, Crovitz, Singer, Pai and other neutrality opponents are trying to make a claim that -- no matter how you twist the data -- simply can't be substantiated. The capex fluctuations they're pointing to as proof positive of broadband industry damage are perfectly ordinary and have absolutely nothing to do with net neutrality. Period. Full stop.

In the short term only the courts, not stat farmers, sockpuppets and bullhorns, can kill net neutrality. But since a 2016 administration change would allow the selection of a new (and decidedly anti-neutrality) FCC boss with the power to dismantle the rules, there are obvious benefits to riling up the uninformed masses just ahead of election season. You just hope some of them are able to read a simple spreadsheet.

Read More | 27 Comments | Leave a Comment..

More posts from Karl Bode >>