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Posted on Techdirt - 26 May 2017 @ 11:56am

Charter Spectrum Celebrates Megamerger One-Year Anniversary With Blanket Price Hikes For 'Mispriced' Customers

from the synergies! dept

You may recall that when Charter proposed spending $79 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks last year, the usual promises of job creation, lower prices, better broadband, and improved customer service came along for the ride. The problem: none of those things have materialized under the new company (Spectrum). In fact, like so many telecom mergers, many customers of the nation's now second-largest cable provider say Charter's prices have gotten higher and the company's customer service (already ranked among the worst in any industry) has somehow managed to get worse.

With this week being the one-year anniversary of this mega-deal, customers in acquired territories say the company is engaged in yet another round of blanket rate hikes. In Lexington, Kentucky, for example, Spectrum customers say they're being forced to pay $20-$40 more (plus assorted fees to swap out their cable boxes) for effectively the same service. And when they call in to complain, they're discovering that part of the new Spectrum experience involves a company that's no longer willing to haggle on promotions (because it doesn't have to):

"Fitzgerald tried to haggle — Time Warner usually cut you some slack on price increases in order to keep your business, he said — but the representative stopped him. This is Spectrum’s deal. Take it or leave it.

“It was bull crap,” Fitzgerald said. “They don’t give us any notice, they just spring it on us in the middle of the month. And then they tell us we’re getting an 'upgrade.' This isn’t an upgrade, it’s the same channels we already had!"

Spectrum's latest rate hikes are part of a sweep of customer accounts to identify customers that company executives claim are "mispriced" (read: aren't paying enough). Like Comcast, Charter benefits from a dwindling amount of broadband competition with the telcos, who have simply refused to upgrade their aging DSL networks at any real scale. As a result, customers looking for ISPs that can actually provide the base FCC definition of 25 Mbps usually have only one option to go to: cable. And when they arrive, they're usually forced to bundle TV service they may or may not even want in order to get the best price.

As a result, Charter added 350,000 broadband subscribers last quarter. But even then, Charter managed to lose 47,000 pay TV subscribers last quarter, the majority of them former Time Warner Cable customers that have used the price hikes as an opportunity to cut the cable cord. Customers clearly aren't happy with the way the merger is going, but Charter CEO Tom Rutledge is positively giddy at the "value proposition" he's presenting these customers:

"It’s a difficult thing to model,” said Rutledge, whose 2016 pay package was $98.5 million. “But we’re coming at it both ways, both from creating a value proposition in the pricing and packaging we have, and doing those smart things that you can do with an existing customer base that’s been mispriced to move them in the right direction."

While the former Obama administration approved what is clearly an awful deal, they did affix a few conditions to the merger. Namely that Charter has to adhere to the FCC's net neutrality rules (even if thrown out by the FCC), needs to expand broadband to 2 million additional locations, and can't impose usage caps and overage fees for a period of seven years from the date of the deal's signing. But the current FCC has been busy trying to roll back many of those conditions, making an already awful merger even worse.

Good news though: if you really adore higher rates, bogus promises, and historically-abysmal customer service, there appears to be many more telecom mergers like this one headed your direction.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 26 May 2017 @ 6:35am

Congress Busted Using Cable Lobbyist Talking Points In Attacks On Net Neutrality

from the professional-parrots dept

By now, most Techdirt readers realize that far too many members of Congress don't so much have thoughts about technology policy, as they do bulleted mental lists of talking points provided by a lobbyist happy to do their thinking for them. That has been particularly true when it comes to telecom policy over the last few months, especially the GOP's ham-fisted attack on popular consumer broadband privacy protections and the telecom sector's self-serving frontal assault on net neutrality.

Over the last few weeks, as the FCC was preparing to begin dismantling net neutrality rules, House lawmakers received an email from GOP leadership educating them on how to best defend the agency's extremely unpopular decision. Included in that e-mail was an attached list of talking points (pdf) making all manner of disengenous claims about the net neutrality debate:

"Want more information on the net neutrality discussion?” wrote Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Republican Conference. "Here is a nifty toolkit with news resources, myth vs reality information, what others are saying, and free market comments."

Usually, Congress members cover their tracks well enough to obfuscate the fact they let lobbyists and campaign contributions do the thinking for them. But the Intercept noticed that metadata attached to the talking points clearly indicate they originated with the cable industry's biggest lobbying organization, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA):

"The metadata of the document shows it was created by Kerry Landon, the assistant director of industry grassroots at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of Comcast, Cox Communications, Charter, and other cable industry companies. The document was shared with House Republican leaders via “Broadband for America,” a nonprofit largely funded by the NCTA."

As such, you'll surely be shocked to learn that many of the talking points included in the packet weren't remotely true, including one claiming net neutrality is somehow "anti-consumer," another regurgitating the repeatedly-debunked claim that net neutrality killed network investment, and several repeating the industry's favorite claim that net neutrality protections aren't necessary, because the broadband industry never does anything wrong:

"These “Title II” regulations, rammed through the FCC by the Obama White House, were based on a hypothetical fear of broadband providers blocking certain websites or putting competitors in slow lanes. But despite ten years of the left stoking those hypothetical fears, they never materialized. Why? Because it is not in the interest of broadband providers to degrade the experience of their customers, especially when watching video or streaming services. The broadband providers would lose customers to their competitors if they ever attempted to block content."

Here on planet Earth, we've watched as large ISPs used usage caps to hurt streaming competitors, block users from using certain services unless they pay for more expensive data plans, intentionally congest their networks to drive up interconnection costs, throttle entire classifications of traffic then lie about it, and even group up to block competing mobile apps and services they didn't want to compete with. Anybody that thinks it's hyperbole to state that ISPs will use their size, leverage and the lack of broadband competition to engage in a rotating crop of anti-competitive behaviors simply has not been paying attention.

And again, while it's still unsurprising to see lawmakers mindlessly parrot whatever giant telecom conglomerates tell them to, that doesn't make it any less grotesque. Combine that with the bot that's spamming the FCC with bogus support for the FCC's unpopular policies and the coordinated effort to make net neutrality supporters appear racist and unhinged, and you may begin to notice that the companies pushing this latest anti-consumer agenda aren't particularly concerned about integrity or playing fair.

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Posted on Techdirt - 25 May 2017 @ 6:28am

Despite Claiming It's Now On Par With Apple, Comcast's Already Bad Satisfaction Ratings Are Actually Getting Worse

from the frying-pan,-fire dept

Like clockwork, every few months you'll see a Comcast executive pop up like a meerkat to proclaim the company has seen the error of its ways, and will henceforth focus on dramatically improving its historically abysmal customer service. In 2014, that involved the well-hyped hiring of a new "customer experience" VP who was supposed to "reimagine the customer experience and ensure that we are delighting our customers at each touch point." But these heavily-marketed promises are never matched by measurable improvements in satisfaction studies, where Comcast remains among the worst companies in any industry when it comes to customer satisfaction and support.

In fact, despite these promises by Comcast, things are somehow getting worse.

The well-respected American Consumer Satisfaction Index ranks customer satisfaction across 43 different industries. Their latest rankings of pay TV providers has found that Comcast has slipped four points in the ACSI rankings, from 62 to 58. That fall places it as the second worst-ranked cable TV provider in the United States -- six points worse than the already-bad national average for cable TV providers, and thirteen points lower than industry leader Verizon FiOS:

That's a different story than the one Comcast keeps telling the press, featuring a supposed relentless dedication to shoring up customer service and support. For example, a company executive recently told the Chicago Tribune that Comcast's evolution is moving along so nicely, execs don't even think of Comcast as a cable company any longer -- but as a premiere technology brand more in line with Google and Apple:

"We don't see ourselves as a cable company," (Comcast exec Matt) Strauss said. "We see ourselves as a technology and communication-entertainment company, much more in the consideration set of Apple and Google than more of the traditional cable and satellite providers."

Except consumers don't agree. If you check out Apple's ratings in those same ACSI rankings for cell phone manufacturers, perhaps you can spot a slight difference:

In fact, Comcast is not only nowhere in the same universe as Apple when it comes to customer satisfaction, but the ACSI indicates that most government agencies are more liked than Comcast, including the IRS (at least for individual filers). That's not a particularly impressive feat for a company that has pledged, every six months or so for the better part of the last decade, that it's working tirelessly to fix the cable industry's justifiably abysmal reputation for service.

Of course there's an obvious reason Comcast doesn't really improve: it doesn't have to. Cable's customer satisfaction problems originate with the focus on prioritizing growth at all cost. And, once large, these companies ensure that when they "compete" it's traditionally of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge variety. And as telcos refuse to spend the money needed to upgrade lagging DSL networks, Comcast is slowly but surely building a growing monopoly over fixed-line broadband service, allowing it to impose extremely unpopular usage caps and overage fees (glorified, unnecessary rate hikes) and turn a blind eye to consumer complaints.

And with the current FCC looking to gut everything from media consolidation restrictions to privacy and net neutrality consumer protections, you can expect a hell of a lot more of this particular brand of dysfunction in the years to come.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 May 2017 @ 11:55am

RNC, Chamber Of Commerce Want Robocallers To Be Able To Spam Your Voicemail Without Your Phone Ringing

from the the-evolution-of-annoyance dept

The GOP’s leading campaign and fundraising arm, the Republican National Committee, has thrown its support behind an initiative that could allow marketing firms and robocallers to spam your voicemail inbox -- without your phone ever ringing. Under former FCC boss Tom Wheeler, the agency notably ramped up its assault on annoying robocalls. That included some particularly notable pressure on AT&T, which for years had provided a rotating crop of excuses as to why its customers continued to get hammered by phone marketers even if included on the National Do Not Call Registry.

Under current law, marketers aren't allowed to annoy you via your cellular phone unless you give your express, written consent. In the hopes of boosting revenues without running afoul of the law, the industry has begun pushing for exemptions in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act for "ringless voicemail," which would allow a company to leave you a marketing message in your voicemail, without your phone ringing. Of course you'd be hard-pressed to find a single consumer that thinks this is a good idea, which is apparently why the current FCC is exploring precisely this option:

"Back in March, a marketing firm called All About the Message LLC specifically asked the telecom agency to issue a ruling on the legality of its “ringless voicemail” technology. In its petition, the company said it doesn’t cause “disruptions to a consumer’s life,” such as “dead air calls, calls interrupting consumers at inconvenient times, or delivery charges.” And it stressed that its technology isn’t even a “call” by conventional standards."

In comments filed with the FCC (pdf), the RNC effectively warns the FCC not to stand in the way of its quest for ringless voicemail spam, and tries to argue that blocking such marketing is somehow an assault on the First Amendment:

Political speech is "at the very core of the First Amendment," and subjecting direct-tovoicemail political messages to the TCPA would unnecessarily and improperly restrict that speech. It is a basic canon of constitutional law that the government may not restrict constitutionally protected speech unless “it chooses the least restrictive means to further [a compelling] interest. While the government may have an interest in protecting individuals from unwanted and intrusive phone calls, direct-to-voicemail messages are designed to be nonintrusive so as not to interrupt the recipient.

Again though, this ignores the fact that consumers themselves would still have to clean up their voicemail box of additional spam, and don't want this added nuisance. The effort also runs in stark contrast to recent FCC efforts to actually reduce the level of marketing annoyance most wireless subscribers currently face. In its own filing with the FCC, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce tried to argue that existing consumer protections provided under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act are "archaic" and stifle the evolution of new, (annoying) technologies:

"The Commission cannot continue to sweep new technologies into this technologically-archaic statute. The language in Section 227(b) reflects a compromise by Congress. The Commission should stop undoing this compromise by expanding the reach of the TCPA into new technologies that Congress has yet to consider, weigh, and assess, so as to ascertain whether those technologies should be unlawful and to determine what penalty should attach to their use."

Whether you want to have a voicemail inbox magically filled with political missives, ads for mattresses and assorted other sales pitches apparently doesn't even enter into the equation. If you'd like to share your thoughts with the FCC on this subject, you can find and comment on the particular proceeding in question, here.

60 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 24 May 2017 @ 6:16am

The FCC Doesn't Care That Somebody's Spamming Its Net Neutrality Proceeding With Fraudulent Comments

from the turning-a-big-blind-eye dept

As we recently noted, more than 40% of the 2.5 million comments filed with the FCC on net neutrality are entirely fake. The comments, which oppose net neutrality, have been posted using a bot that's pulling the names used from a hacked database of some kind. When the people that own the actual names behind these comments have been contacted by the media, many have stated they didn't make the comments, and/or have no idea what net neutrality even is.

In an ideal world, the FCC would easily parse out these obviously fraudulent, duplicate comments and shore up the abuse of its API. But because these comments support the current FCC's belief that meaningful net neutrality protections are somehow an assault on "American freedom," the FCC appears poised to completely disregard the fact that a malicious actor is manipulating the FCC's systems. The FCC isn't candidly admitting this, but FCC boss Ajit Pai's non-statements and statements alike so far indicate he's inclined to include the obviously fraudulent comments:

"The FCC didn’t respond to repeated requests to specifically say whether it would filter out the astroturfed comments. Speaking to reporters after announcing a step toward rolling back existing net neutrality protections, FCC Chair Ajit Pai admitted “a tension between having an open process where it’s easy to comment and preventing questionable comments from being filed.” “Generally speaking, this agency has erred on the side of openness,” he said."

When pushed, FCC officials have said they'll purge comments made under obviously phony names, but isn't willing to comment further on the obvious blind eye to manipulation of the comment system:

"Pai said the agency wouldn’t consider comments with obviously fake names, like Wonder Woman and Joseph Stalin, but declined to go further. Reached for comment after Pai’s statement, an FCC official declined to comment specifically on astroturfed comments. "You heard his answer on erring on the side of inclusion," the official said.

And again, the FCC is turning a blind eye to this fraudulent behavior because actual humans overwhelmingly oppose what Pai and friends are up to. Recent analysis of the comments made so far to the FCC indicate the vast, vast majority of consumers -- across all political ideologies -- don't want the agency gutting meaningful oversight of the already uncompetitive broadband sector. That could be problematic later this year, when Pai faces inevitable lawsuits over his rush to kill the protections despite no corresponding market necessity, and the broad public support for the rules.

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 May 2017 @ 10:41am

Apple, Verizon Join Forces To Lobby Against New York's 'Right To Repair' Law

from the making-ownership-more-expensive dept

Over the last year, we've noted the surge in so-called "right to repair" laws, which would make it easier for consumers to repair their electronics and find replacement parts and tools. It's a direct response to the rising attempts by companies like John Deere, Apple, Microsoft and Sony to monopolize repair, hamstringing consumer rights over products consumers think they own, while driving up the cost of said product ownership. John Deere's draconian lockdown on its tractor firmware is a large part of the reason these efforts have gained steam over the last few months in states like Nebraska.

In New York, one of the first attempts at such a law (the "Fair Repair Act") has finally been making progress. But according to New York State's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Apple, Verizon, Toyota, Lexmark, Caterpillar, Asurion, and Medtronic have all been busy lobbying to kill the law for various, but ultimately similar, reasons. And they're out-spending the consumer advocates and repair shops pushing for this legislation by a rather wide margin:

"The records show that companies and organizations lobbying against right to repair legislation spent $366,634 to retain lobbyists in the state between January and April of this year. Thus far, the Digital Right to Repair Coalition—which is generally made up of independent repair shops with several employees—is the only organization publicly lobbying for the legislation. It has spent $5,042 on the effort, according to the records."

To be clear, the vast majority of the time, companies lobbying against this kind of legislation don't like to even admit that they oppose it. But when they do go on the record, it usually features a trifecta of false claims that the bills will make users less safe, pose a cybersecurity risk, and open the door to cybersecurity theft. In Nebraska, for example, we've already noted how Apple claims that allowing people to repair and tinker with the hardware they own will somehow turn the state into a "mecca for bad actors and hackers," and that letting consumers repair their own electronics would cause lithium batteries to catch fire.

Of course, the real reason Apple opposes this legislation is that it stands to lose significant repair revenue once people no longer have to drive half an hour to the nearest Apple Genius bar and support team. The same is true for game console makers Sony and Microsoft, who obviously would prefer it if you're only able to use their significantly-more expensive repair programs. They'll ignore the fact that this kind of behavior not only allows companies to charge an arm and a leg for what very well may be superficial repairs, but helps prop up closed, proprietary ecosystems, hurting customers in a myriad of other ways as well.

And while supporters of these right to repair bills are very candid about the benefits they think users will see, it's telling that the companies lobbying against these rules refuse to comment whatsoever on their opposition, and when they are willing to talk can only trot out a parade of theoretical horribles that don't really make coherent sense.

60 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 23 May 2017 @ 6:33am

Cable Companies Refuse To Put Their Breathless Love Of Net Neutrality Down In Writing

from the words-are-but-wind dept

Apparently, giant broadband providers don't much want to put their sudden, mysterious love of net neutrality into writing. Last week, the FCC voted to begin killing net neutrality, opening the door to a 90-day comment period ahead of a broader rule-killing vote later this year. In the wake of the move, the same large ISPs that have spent a decade trying to kill meaningful regulatory oversight comically went out of their way to (falsely) claim that the killing of the rules doesn't mean all that much -- because these duopolies love net neutrality so much any hard rules simply aren't necessary.

Verizon went so far as to publish a violently misleading video claiming that net neutrality isn't dying and large ISPs aren't trying to kill it. Comcast's top lobbyist David Cohen penned a blog post claiming that the FCC was only trying to "protect the open internet" from "dangerous and inappropriate Title II." And the day before the FCC voted to begin killing the rules, the cable industry's biggest lobbying organization (the NCTA) took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post, pledging the cable industry's "commitment to an open internet":

Over in a corresponding blog post, the NCTA pushed a load of disingenuous prattle insisting that the cable industry will remain on its best behavior after the current FCC gets done dismantling all manner of consumer protections (net neutrality is only one small part of what the agency is up to):

"The cable industry is proud to be America’s largest residential broadband internet provider and we’ve always embraced and delivered a truly open internet experience to consumers. Why? Because it’s what consumers demand and what makes our business grow and thrive. It’s really that simple...No matter what happens with this new FCC proceeding or whatever regulatory model comes next, we will continue to provide an open internet experience for our customers, and we remain willing to work with all parties on ways to promote internet freedom and continued technological progress."

Of course if you recall Comcast's decision to throttle all upstream BitTorrent traffic, use zero rating to hamstring video competitors, or witnessed the rise of unnecessary usage caps and overage fees, you probably recognize that statement as the heaping pile of horse shit that it is.

The Consumerist amusingly reached out to each of the NCTA's 24 cable company members to see if they'd be willing to sign a contract putting their adoration of the open internet into some kind of bonding contract with consumers. Three companies were unreachable, fourteen companies never wrote or called back, and only one company was willing to provide a statement; a complete and total non-answer from Cox Communications:

"Cox has always been committed to providing an open Internet experience for our customers and reversing the classification of Internet services will not change our commitment,” a representative for the company told Consumerist. "We do not block, throttle or otherwise interfere with consumers’ desire to go where they want on the Internet. A stated pledge like that in our contracts with customers is something we are looking into as the debate continues."

In other words, of the twenty-four cable companies claiming to breathlessly adore net neutrality, not one of them was willing to put that adoration into writing. That's because there's one reason these companies are pushing to gut these protections and put all telecom oversight in the hands of an overextended and ill-suited FTC: so nobody can stop them from finding creative ways to abuse the lack of last-mile broadband competition. Anything else is pretense.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 May 2017 @ 10:42am

FCC Guards 'Manhandle' Reporter Just For Asking Questions At Net Neutrality Vote

from the not-so-free-press dept

The FCC apparently doesn't want to talk much about its plan to gut meaningful oversight of some of the least competitive companies in any American industry. Last week, we noted that the FCC had voted to begin the process of gutting popular net neutrality protections, ignoring the overwhelming public support for the rules registered at the FCC's website. This notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) is followed by a 90-day public comment period (you can comment here) ahead of a finalizing vote to kill the consumer protections later this year.

Since the FCC has been getting a few mean tweets over its decision to give consumers the policy equivalent of a giant middle finger, it's understandable that the agency is a bit on edge. That said, veteran defense beat reporter John Donnelly stated last week that this tension culminated in him being shoved up against the wall by two FCC staffers during their May 18 net neutrality meeting. Donnelly was, he stated, "manhandled" for simply trying to ask the agency a question:

The National Press Club was quick to issue a statement on the incident, saying that the FCC's security detail had even taken to following the reporter to the restroom for some unspecified reason:

"Donnelly said he ran afoul of plainclothes security personnel at the FCC when he tried to ask commissioners questions when they were not in front of the podium at a scheduled press conference. Throughout the FCC meeting, the security guards had shadowed Donnelly as if he were a security threat, he said, even though he continuously displayed his congressional press pass and held a tape recorder and notepad. They even waited for him outside the men’s room at one point. When Donnelly strolled in an unthreatening way toward FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to pose a question, two guards pinned Donnelly against the wall with the backs of their bodies until O’Rielly had passed. O’Rielly witnessed this and continued walking."

Again, so it's clear, this wasn't even a particularly controversial reporter (not that it should matter), it was a widely respected veteran who has been covering FCC policy for more than a decade. Numerous members of the press were quick to express their disgust at the incident, and GOP Senator Chuck Grassley proclaimed that there was "no good reason to put hands on a reporter who’s doing his or her job."

This apparently all happened in front of FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly, who took to Twitter to apologize, but to deny that he saw the incident occur:

O'Rielly then proceeded, for some reason, to indicate that he was cold and hungry at the time the event happened:

Clearly the FCC's majority is a little sensitive, but there's absolutely zero justification for this kind of behavior. But it does continue to make it clear that, much like its plan to gut meaningful oversight of telecom duopolies, the fake anti-net-neutrality bot comments flooding the agency's website, or the FCC's potentially-false DDoS attack claims -- there's more than a few subjects the current FCC doesn't want to talk too much about right now.

43 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 22 May 2017 @ 6:27am

Wireless Data Revenues Dip For First Time in Seventeen Years -- Thanks To A Crazy Little Thing Called Competition

from the you-mean-I-don't-get-to-choose-when-I-get-to-compete? dept

We've noted for some time how T-Mobile's crazy idea to be nice to consumers (well, if you exclude their attacks on the EFF and net neutrality) has been a great thing for American consumers. Thanks to more consumer-friendly policies, T-Mobile has been adding more subscribers per quarter than any other major carrier for several years running. This pressure recently resulted in both AT&T and Verizon being forced to bring back the unlimited data plans the companies had been telling consumers they didn't actually want for years.

This added competition has really annoyed Wall Street, which has been grumbling about the shift back to unlimited plans for months. Wall Street had grown comfortable with the non-price competition in the wireless market, where plan pricing often obscured the fact that Americans pay more for mobile data than most developed countries. AT&T and Verizon used a lack of competitive pressure to kill off unlimited data plans in 2011, allowing them to introduce significantly more expensive metered plans -- just as video consumption on mobile began to take off. For the giant incumbents, things were going swimmingly.

Of course as T-Mobile grew, improved its network, and fashioned its often brash and amusing new identity, it slowly but surely became a more viable competitor, forcing both companies to respond. And, just as Wall Street worried, the shift back to unlimited data is having a negative impact on cellular revenues. How negative? According to respected wireless industry analyst Chetan Sharma, cellular data revenues dropped last quarter for the first time in seventeen years. This was part of a number of firsts for an industry not-entirely-familiar with this whole competition thing:

US had a rough start to 2017 with several indicators turning negative for the industry:

  • The US mobile data services revenue has seen QoQ growth for 17 straight years until Q1 2017 when it saw its first negative growth for the quarter. (Q1 is generally a down quarter but for the first time the revenue growth dipped below zero).
  • Verizon suffered its first ever decline in service revenues YoY.
  • For the first time, the net adds for connected (cellular) tablets were negative.
  • For the first time, the postpaid net-adds were negative (AT&T net-adds were impacted due to sun setting of the 2G network).
  • And while T-Mobile added 798,000 postpaid (month to month) subscribers, Verizon and AT&T saw a 289,000 and 348,000 postpaid subscriber reduction, respectively. Before you feel too badly for these industry giants, know that very healthy sector net income still managed to improve 13% overall as operators focused their attentions on other profitable markets (like the internet of things, ads and media, and smart cities), tightened their belts and lowered some expenditures.

    Still, there's little doubt this added competition has been of notable benefit to consumers, who still pay some of the highest prices on the planet, but are at least getting to touch the hem of what real competition is supposed to look like.

    The problem: there's no indication things will stay that way, and some indicators that things could reverse course. The FCC is busy gutting all consumer protections in belief that blind deregulation magically results in telecom utopia, ignoring that this has the opposite intended impact on less competitive markets (especially fixed-line broadband). And there's also every indication that these same regulators are keen to approve Sprint's planned acquisition of T-Mobile, a deal that would reduce the number of players in the space, likely putting an end to this pesky flirtation with competition in fairly short order.

    15 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 18 May 2017 @ 10:19am

    FCC Ignores The Will Of The Public, Votes To Begin Dismantling Net Neutrality

    from the ignoring-the-will-of-the-people dept

    Surprising absolutely nobody, the FCC today voted 2-1 along strict party lines to begin dismantling net neutrality protections for consumers. The move comes despite the fact that the vast majority of non-bot comments filed with the FCC support keeping the rules intact. And while FCC boss Ajit Pai has breathlessly insisted he intended to listen to the concerns of all parties involved, there has been zero indication that this was a serious commitment as he begins dismantling all manner of broadband consumer protections, not just net neutrality.

    As you might have expected, the FCC was quick to release a statement claiming that gutting the popular consumer protections would usher forth a magical age of connectivity, investment, and innovation:

    "In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC proposes to return to the bipartisan framework that preserved a flourishing free and open Internet for almost 20 years. First, the Notice proposes to reverse the FCC’s 2015 decision to impose heavy-handed Title II utility-style government regulation on Internet service providers (ISPs) and return to the longstanding, successful light-touch framework under Title I of the Communications Act."

    Except as we just got done noting, the FCC's net neutrality rules already were 'light touch." The rules were relatively basic, the FCC has consistently shown zero interest in rate regulations, the rules didn't really cover zero rating, and numerous ISP executives have candidly and clearly stated the rules didn't harm them in the slightest. As we've also noted, the plan to shift ISPs back to Title I and an over-extended FTC is a plan that ends with less accountability and oversight of some of the least competitive companies in American industry as they move to grow even larger via media megamergers.

    Anybody that believes consumers, competitors or the health of the internet benefits from giving Comcast additional leeway to abuse the lack of last-mile broadband competition is either intentionally trying to mislead you, or simply hasn't been paying attention.

    What happens next? Again, net neutrality isn't technically dead yet. There will be another vote later this year, followed by inevitable lawsuits -- which supporters have a good chance of winning. Today, with the formal introduction of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) the FCC should soon re-open the agency's comment system, allowing you to share your thoughts on the killing of net neutrality. And while you might be inclined to think that your thoughts on this policy decision don't matter, these comments will come in handy in the inevitable looming legal fight to come.

    You see, when Pai is inevitably sued by competitors and consumer advocates, he'll need to convince the courts that things have changed dramatically enough since the FCC's appeals court victory last year to warrant such a severe reversal in agency policy (they haven't). And these public comments, which again show massive public support for the rules, only make that job that much harder for Pai to claim the move was in the public's best interest.

    As a former Verizon lawyer Pai knows this, and is launching an NPRM attack on the rules in partial hope that things never get that far. We've noted how ISPs (and all the politicians, think tankers, policy wonks and "consultants" paid to love them) are pushing for a new Congressional law on net neutrality. The sales pitch for this law is that it will "put the net neutrality debate to rest" as a "compromise." The reality you're supposed to ignore is that AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter lawyers will be the ones writing it, ensuring that the loophole-packed legislative "solution" is likely worse than having no net neutrality rules at all.

    The short version? The battle for a healthy, open internet is far from over. And there will, sooner or later, be notable repercussions for any regulator and politician that thought ignoring the public interest on this subject was a good idea.

    86 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 18 May 2017 @ 6:30am

    FCC Commissioner Wants To Ban States From Protecting Consumer Broadband Privacy

    from the states-rights!-Or-not! dept

    Despite a last-ditch effort by the EFF and other consumer and privacy groups, the GOP voted back in March to kill consumer broadband privacy protections. As we noted several times, the protections weren't particularly onerous -- simply requiring that ISPs are transparent about what data they're collecting, who they're selling it to, and that they provide working opt-out tools. But because many of these large ISPs are busy pushing into the media sector (AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner being just one example), large ISPs lobbied fiercely to eliminate anything that could dent these future potential revenues.

    Shortly thereafter, at least eight states and a handful of cities rushed in to fill the void. The city of Seattle, for example, passed a new requirement that ISPs receive opt-in permission (the dirtiest phrase imaginable to the marketing industry) before collecting and selling subscriber data. Meanwhile in Maine, a new privacy proposal by State Senator Shenna Bellows is seeing support from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. Bellows cited Congress' decision to overturn the protections as a motivation for the move:

    "With its reckless vote, Congress put Mainers’ privacy up for sale,” Bellows said. “Most people are rightfully appalled by the idea that their Internet service provider could be watching their every move online and selling their information to the highest bidder. We owe it to our constituents to protect their privacy."

    This move by the states to do the job Congress wasn't willing to do has apparently riled the current FCC majority. Speaking at an event at the American Legislation Exchange Council (ALEC), FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly said he would be exploring taking some kind of action against states that move to pass new broadband privacy protections. O'Rielly's comments have previously been backed by current FCC boss Ajit Pai, who has also hinted at taking action against the states:

    "It is both impractical and very harmful for each state to enact differing and conflicting privacy burdens on broadband providers, many of which serve multiple states, if not the entire country,” said Pai. “If necessary, the FCC should be willing to issue the requisite decision to clarify the jurisdictional aspects of this issue."

    And to be clear, many of these state efforts may cause problems. ISPs have to adapt their business to multiple, discordant protections. In same states, you're likely to see overreach, as politicians try to craft legislation based on what's all-too-often a mud-puddle deep understanding of technology. And the patchwork rules also create confusion for consumers, who suddenly find their privacy is (or isn't) protected depending entirely on whether they're over the state line -- or just how loyal their state representatives are to the charms of large ISP and marketing industry lobbyists.

    The problem with this complaint, of course, is we wouldn't be in this situation if Congress and the FCC majority hadn't mindlessly rushed to kill the FCC's basic privacy protections in the first place. It was their choice to ignore the will of the public and push policy solely because AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter thought it would be nice. The resulting fractured policy landscape is their responsibility.

    There's also the fact that both Pai and O'Rielly have taken longstanding issue with the FCC's attempt to thwart ISP-written, state protectionist laws that hamstring local competition. Those laws, O'Rielly and Pai have long declared, are sacred and a matter of states' rights. Odd that when the states defend the anti-competitive fiefdoms enjoyed by giant ISPs, it's a matter of "states' rights," but when those same states move to buck the interests of those same providers and protect consumer privacy, it's suddenly a capital offense.

    During his speech, O'Rielly repeatedly vilified support for privacy and net neutrality as the "whims of the misinformed" and "socialism":

    "The members of ALEC can serve an important role as the new Commission seeks to restore free market principles to broadband offerings. Many of you know all too well of the pressure on us to buckle and acquiesce to the whims of the misinformed screaming for Net Neutrality. You likely face it at your respective statehouses as you debate the various matters before you. The ‘progressive agenda’ being pushed in so many settings is really an effort to use government as a means to redistribute hard earned assets from one group of people to favored interests. Do not let your voices go unheard as Net Neutrality advocates slowly, but surely, seek to drag the U.S. economy toward socialism."

    As we've long noted, ISPs (and the politicians paid to love them) have had immense success portraying both privacy rights and net neutrality as partisan issues, therefore encouraging public bickering and stalling any real progress on policy. In reality, however, both concepts have broad, bipartisan support (only baseball and getting screwed repeatedly by Comcast tend to magically bridge this country's deep, partisan divide). Ultimately, I think we'll find that mindlessly trampling consumer broadband rights isn't quite the "red meat for the base" both Pai and O'Rielly believe it is in their own heads.

    79 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 17 May 2017 @ 6:22am

    It's Time For The FCC To Actually Listen: The Vast Majority Of FCC Commenters Support Net Neutrality

    from the the-will-of-the-@#!$-public dept

    The vast majority of consumers (from both parties) support net neutrality. This has been supported repeatedly not only by independent polls, but even the cable industry's own surveys.

    Yet for most of the last decade, ISP lobbyists and think tankers have managed to frame the subject in the media as a partisan one -- quite successfully using the country's deep political divisions to fuel disagreement and stall real progress. In reality, our collective disdain for growing monopolies like Comcast (and the high prices and abysmal customer service that result) tends to burn through partisan myopia. As a result, most people realize that in the absence of real competition you need some basic rules of the road to protect consumers and Comcast competitors alike.

    That's why, when the FCC passed relatively basic net neutrality protections in 2015, the vast majority of the record 4 million public comments filed with the FCC supported the creation of these rules. And again, data analysis of the comments filed so far show massive opposition to dismantling those same rules. Data scientist Jeffrey Fossett managed to dig through the more than 1.5 million comments filed with the FCC so far and found that -- once you exclude form letter submissions (in common use by both sides), 97% of the remaining comments support keeping the rules intact:

    We recently discussed how some unidentified group or individual isn't happy with the fact that the rules have broad support, and has begun using a bot to stuff the comment section with entirely fake net neutrality opposition. According to Fossett's analysis, a whopping 40% of the 1.5 million comments are courtesy of this bot, which appears to just have pulled names from a hacked database somewhere to craft its phony opposition. You can leave it up to your imagination as to which groups, companies or individuals might benefit by such a massive fabrication, but Fossett makes the impact obvious:

    At the moment, the FCC has frozen all public comments for what's known as a "sunshine period," a bit of bureaucratic prattle during which the FCC is supposed to avoid being lobbied and seriously reflect upon all of the input they've received so far. And Fossett suggests that the FCC may just want to actually listen to what the public (the non-bots among us, anyway) are telling them:

    "The FCC has now entered a “Sunshine” period for docket 17-108, during which it will not consider new comments. Given the magnitude of filings (~695,000 if you exclude the anti-NN spam) and the balance of opinion expressed (97% in favor of net neutrality or 59% if you include the spam), this analysis suggests that the FCC should reconsider its position on net neutrality during this period of reflection."

    While FCC boss Ajit Pai has breathlessly claimed he'll be reflecting very deeply on the public's input, there's every indication he intends to ignore the public and push forward with dismantling the rules anyway. In fact, instead of seriously contemplating the public's support for the rules, the FCC spent a large amount of the sunshine period trying to portray net neutrality supporters as unhinged, unreasonable and racist. And when the FCC votes on Thursday to begin rolling back the rules (with a final killing vote likely later this year), you can be damn sure that Pai will lecture everyone on how he's gutting oversight of some of the least competitive and least liked companies in America -- for the immense benefit of the American people.

    105 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 16 May 2017 @ 11:51am

    New Netflix DRM Blocks Rooted Phone Owners From Downloading The Netflix App

    from the driving-users-to-piracy dept

    As this site has long documented, DRM more often than not provides a false sense of security to those terrified of piracy, yet just as frequently annoys paying customers -- ironically driving those customers to the piracy alternatives the DRM was supposed to prevent in the first place.

    The latest example of this phenomenon: with the latest version 5.0 of the Netflix app, Netflix is now leaning entirely on Google's Widevine digital rights management system. With Netflix recently introducing downloadable shows (assuming the license for that specific program allows it), Netflix's programming partners likely wanted Netflix to utilize Widevine to ensure that Netflix's app "only works with devices that are certified by Google and meet all Android requirements."

    The problem is that there are countless enthusiasts who enjoy rooting their devices and installing custom ROMs... and don't pirate Netflix content. Yet when these users look for the Netflix app in the Google Play store, they're now greeted with this warning message telling them that the device they legally own is no longer compatible with Netflix's app:

    Netflix confirmed its updated DRM plans to Android Police, acknlowledging that not only will the app not be downloadable for rooted phones, but the app itself may no longer even show up in the Play store:

    "With our latest 5.0 release, we now fully rely on the Widevine DRM provided by Google; therefore, many devices that are not Google-certified or have been altered will no longer work with our latest app and those users will no longer see the Netflix app in the Play Store."

    The thinking on the part of Netflix and broadcasters is that those with rooted phones and custom ROMs have greater control over the OS, and therefore have a better chance of being able to bypass the DRM. But again, many of these folks simply modify their devices because they enjoy the greater flexibility it provides, not necessarily because they're looking to pirate content. Now, those users are faced with a choice of either giving up additional control over their device just to watch Netflix, or heading to piracy alternatives if they want to watch Netflix programs.

    The app's listing in the Google Play store appears to be determined by whether or not your device is cleared to run Android Pay, not Widevine. That means that if you've simply got your bootloader unlocked -- and you haven't even fully rooted your phone or installed a custom ROM -- you can still be denied access to Netflix even if you're still using a secure, stock implementation of Android. As a result, many of these users have left reviews for the app warning Netflix that their decision to punish them for modifying devices they own may simply drive them to piracy:

    To be clear, this isn't exactly the apocalypse. There are methods that allow you to hide the fact that your device has been rooted, and many users say they're still able to sideload the Netflix app to the devices (for now). But the fact remains that these customers aren't technically doing anything wrong, but are being punished anyway. All for what's likely a largely false sense of security, given all of the content these companies believe they've secured is going to wind up on BitTorrent networks anyway. As such, the only real net result? Annoyed paying (and now possibly former) customers.

    47 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 16 May 2017 @ 6:22am

    Cable Industry's Own Survey Shows Majority Support Net Neutrality Rules

    from the when-push-polls-backfire dept

    The broadband industry is continuing its brave campaign to convince the public that gutting all oversight of growing monopolies like Comcast somehow ends well for the American consumer and smaller Comcast competitors. Last week this involved the cable industry's top lobbying organization (the NCTA) working with the Daily Caller on a poll the industry clearly hoped would show that the public really hates net neutrality protections. The full survey of 2,194 Americans (pdf) uses omission and leading questions to nudge participants toward taking the view that net neutrality protections are "burdensome regulations" imposed by an out of control government.

    But it didn't work out that way.

    As it turns out, 61% of the survey participants said they support rules prohibiting giant ISPs like AT&T and Comcast from being able to use the lack of last-mile competition in broadband to their anti-competitive advantage:

    Note, again, that just 18% truly oppose net neutrality rules, while 21% still somehow have no apparent idea what any of us have been talking about for the better part of the last decade. And while the results pretty clearly suggest that the majority of the public supports the rules (which previous data has already suggested), this being the post-truth era, ISP-funded think tank employees like the AEI's Roslyn Layton were quick to insist the survey somehow proved the exact opposite:

    Layton, one of Trump's telecom advisors, not only intentionally misstates what the survey actually found -- but she pushes for Congress to proceed on a new net neutrality law. As we've noted numerous times, the FCC knows it may be on shaky legal footing as it tries to roll back the rules via FCC process, since the agency will need to show that the broadband market has changed substantially since the court upheld the rules last year. As such, large ISPs (and friends) are pushing for a new law to "settle" the issue once and for all. You're to ignore that AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Charter will be the ones writing it, ensuring it has so many loopholes as to be effectively useless.

    The NCTA had only modestly better luck with other questions by forcing consumers to pigeon-hole their thoughts into arguably narrow silos. One question for example, asks "when it comes to the role of the federal government in regulating access to the Internet, which of the following comes closest to your view, even if none are exactly right?" Users were then forced to choose one of several narrow options, the majority answering that they thought it best that the government engage in a "light touch" approach to the internet where the government only acts if consumers are harmed:

    So one, despite large ISP hand-wringing, we've noted time and time again that the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules weren't really particularly onerous. Indeed, for those who actually understand them, they clearly are "light touch." They specifically blocked themselves from making use of any of the more onerous provisions of Title II (and, no, they can't just ignore that "forbearance" process and change their minds). In fact, the rules didn't even ban ISPs from using arbitrary usage caps to hamstring competing services (aka "zero rating"), saying the FCC would only step in during obvious evidence of harm (precisely what the majority of the respondents indicated they wanted). And contrary to repeated ISP claims, the rules did not stifle investment.

    Meanwhile, as Ars Technica was quick to point out, the question responses suggest the majority of the public generally approves of the FCC approach in more recent years:

    "The problem with the "ability to set specific prices" and "take action if consumers are harmed" survey answers is that both of them accurately describe the current federal system. The FCC does have the ability to set specific Internet prices, but it doesn't do so and has no intentions of doing so. The FCC's 2015 net neutrality order did not set specific prices for home and mobile Internet service but used Title II authority to let consumers complain about prices and practices that are unjust or unreasonable. In other words, the FCC's current approach is to "monitor the marketplace and take action if consumers are harmed," the approach supported by the majority of people in the cable survey."

    Despite ISPs ceaselessly whining that the FCC overreached when it comes to net neutrality, people need to understand that this is traditionally an agency -- under both parties -- that happily turns a blind eye to predatory duopoly behavior, especially as it pertains to limited competition and how that results in Americans paying significantly more money for broadband than their European counterparts. That the FCC was going to seriously wake up to these problems and begin fully holding these duopolies accountable has never truly been a worry -- even under recent FCC boss Tom Wheeler.

    You'll recall the FCC's $300 million broadband map intentionally omitted including pricing data at ISP request (include it, and somebody might just realize the industry isn't competitive). The FCC (again, under both parties) has also long turned a blind eye to the use of usage caps and overage fees to levy tolls on these uncompetitive markets (and competitiors), and the use of misleading below-the-line fees to jack up the cost of service after users sign up at the advertised rate (read: false advertising). This is, "light touch" regulation by any definition. To a fault.

    And, contrary to public wisdom and large ISP jargon, the FCC passing some fairly modest net neutrality rules -- and returning ISPs to common carriers under Title II so those rules could be adequately enforced (something you can technically thank Verizon for) -- doesn't mean that was going to change anytime soon.

    It's important to understand that the majority of ISPs were okay with the lion's share of the FCC's net neutrality rules, given they gave ample leeway for things like zero rating, and only truly prohibited things most ISPs never intended to do anyway for fear of a PR backlash (blocking a single website or service, for example). The real fear among providers like Verizon is that the FCC might, under some future theoretical leadership, actually wake up and decide to use its authority granted by the Communications Act to do something about the lack of competition in the sector.

    To thwart this theoretical and unlikely future, FCC boss Ajit Pai's current plan is to gut FCC authority over broadband and shovel it over to an over-extended, under-funded, and jurisdiction-limited FTC, where large ISPs know these problems will fall through the cracks. Most reasonable folks realize that until we somehow bring more competition to bear on the sector, we're likely going to need a bit more regulatory supervision than we might otherwise like for some of the least competitive toddlers in American industry. After all, even the cable industry's own survey says so.

    21 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 15 May 2017 @ 9:30am

    The FCC Spent Last Week Trying To Make Net Neutrality Supporters Seem Unreasonable, Racist & Unhinged

    from the ignoring-the-will-of-the-people dept

    Last week, we noted how the FCC was inundated with a flood of pro-net neutrality comments after HBO's John Oliver ran another segment on the subject. The FCC will vote to begin dismantling the rules on May 18, so Oliver even went so far as to craft a special URL (www.gofccyourself.com) to make commenting on the FCC proceeding easier. Unsurprisingly, the surge in annoyed consumers wound up temporarily crippling the FCC's website. And when you look at some of the early analysis of the data, it's not particularly hard to see why:

    Now if you're a giant telecom mono/duopoly, or any of the thousands of sockpuppets they pay to misleadingly portray net neutrality as an unyielding assault on "freedom," this flood of pro-net neutrality sentiment is obviously a PR problem.

    As a result, net neutrality opponents quickly got to work trying to counter the "John Oliver effect" with alternative facts. One, the FCC tried to claim the FCC website didn't choke from a flood of pro-net neutrality supporters, but was the victim of a DDoS attack that just happened to occur at exactly the same time Oliver's segment was airing (a claim security researchers say isn't supported and for which the FCC has yet to offer a shred of evidence).

    Another, as-yet-unidentified player began using a bot and a (likely) hacked database of names to flood the agency's website with fake comments against net neutrality. One analysis of the comments filed so far found that 40% of the 1.5 million comments made so far were created by this busy little bot.

    But the FCC itself also began engaging in a rather obvious and ham-fisted attempt to make net neutrality supporters seem racist, unstable and unreasonable. By Wednesday, as the "net neutrality support was so massive it broke the FCC's website (again)" narrative was peaking in the press, FCC staffer Matthew Berry began linking on Twitter to news outlets claiming that net neutrality supporters were filling the FCC coffers with racist attacks:

    Berry subsequently highlighted a statement made by the Internet Association (a pro-net neutrality group backed by the likes of Reddit and Netflix) criticizing any racist behavior by commenters:

    The news reports being pushed by the FCC (like this one over at the Daily Caller) cling to several misleading narratives. One, that the people watching John Oliver's program were somehow not airing legitimate complaints with Pai's plan to gut all oversight of giant broadband monopolies. Two, that most of these people were hateful, racist, or otherwise horrible people that shouldn't be taken seriously. And three, that the pro side was using misleading "bots" to generate fake support from fake people (despite the fact that only the anti side appears to have used this tactic so far, a story the FCC also appeared eager to bury).

    Take this excerpt from the Free Beacon "story" Berry links to:

    "John Oliver's "grassroots" activism against Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai is full of bot accounts, fake comments, and death threats against the chairman...an analysis of comments to Pai's Restoring Internet Freedom filing, which Oliver has dubbed "Go FCC yourself," shows thousands of comments using fake names and bots posing as "Jesus Christ," "Michael Jackson," "Homer Simpson," and "Melania Trump."...Over 500 were submitted using Chairman Pai's name, as well as 189 from "Donald Trump" and 8 from "Obama." Eleven submissions used some version of the word "f–k."

    If you think about it, the fact that Pai is trying to dismantle consumer protections for one of the most despised industries in America and only eleven people said fuck is actually pretty impressive. Also, for future reference, you don't magically delegitimize people with legitimate complaints just by putting words like activist or grassroots in quotes.

    That said, if you dig through the now 1.5 million comments so far, you'll find that the vast, vast majority of the comments from both sides of the debate are entirely civil. Yes, there are the occasional comments from jackasses and racists, but by and large the feedback the FCC is getting sticks to the issues. And again, analysis of the comments so far has found that most of the original comments (comments made not using form letter systems embraced by both sides) are coming from consumers that actively support net neutrality protections.

    How hard FCC staffers like Berry pushed these outlets to carry this narrative isn't clear. But Berry and the FCC's attempt to counter the Oliver effect also involved highlighting a story run by the Independent Journal Review featuring FCC boss Ajit Pai reading some of the mean comments he's been receiving on Twitter:

    For whatever reason the original story pulled the video, which is embedded below for your enjoyment:

    Now these kinds of segments aren't really new. Countless politicians (including Obama) and celebrities have done similar schticks, where they field unhinged comments from often juvenile and blindly hostile Twitter users. That Pai (who obviously has post-FCC political aspirations) did a similar video isn't a problem in and of itself.

    The problem in this particular instance is that outside of some vagaries, the Independent Journal Review doesn't explain why people might be legitimately angry with Pai. After all, this is the guy that's not only killing net neutrality, but recently helped protect prison monopolies, began axing a program that brings broadband to the poor, killed an attempt to bring competition to the cable box, helped axe consumer broadband privacy protections, and is working to eliminate anything even vaguely resembling oversight of growing monopolies like Comcast. All while insisting he's an unwavering champion of the poor.

    Pai is disliked right now for entirely legitimate reasons. Yet the mean tweets segment tries very hard to make gutting consumer protections seem "folksy," and the corresponding backlash seem unreasonable. When a few reporters pointed out Pai's mean tweets segment was a bit tone deaf to the legitimacy of the public complaints, Pai advisor Nathan Leamer was quick to insist that critics simply couldn't take a joke:

    Again though, the problem isn't Pai reading mean Tweets. The problem is that the segment doesn't explain why Pai is incredibly unpopular with consumers and the internet in the first place. The problem is also that this segment was obviously part of a larger, overarching attempt to make people with very legitimate grievances seem wholly unhinged and unreasonable. Oliver even went so far as to highlight how cable news channels were pushing the narrative as well, in an expanded bit the show did solely for online viewers (skip to the 3 minute mark if you don't want to watch the whole thing):

    As an additional layer of irony, this PR effort was occurring during the FCC's "sunshine" period, an arguably stupid bit of long-standing policy bureaucracy during which the FCC is supposed to pause and "reflect" the will of the public and the facts on the ground.

    And the facts on the ground say net neutrality rules protecting consumers from growing monopolies like Comcast have broad, bipartisan public support. It's also a fact that despite his claim of a "deliberate consideration" of all the facts, Ajit Pai has every intention of completely ignoring public will when the agency votes to begin rolling back the rules this Thursday -- after his agency gets done smearing the consumers he's supposed to be protecting as the very worst sort of villains, of course.

    73 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 11 May 2017 @ 6:22am

    Cisco And Oracle Applaud The Looming Death Of Net Neutrality

    from the friends-like-these dept

    Both Oracle and Cisco (not coincidentally major ISP vendors) have come out in full-throated support of the FCC's plan to kill net neutrality. FCC boss Ajit Pai has been making the rounds the last few weeks in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, trying to drum up support of his attack on broadband consumer protections. Pai met with Cisco, Oracle, Facebook and Apple in a number of recent meetings, but so far only Oracle and Cisco have been willing to enthusiastically and publicly throw their corporate fealty behind Pai's extremely-unpopular policies.

    In its letter, Oracle (which also supported the recent dismantling of consumer broadband privacy protections) is quick to trot out the stale and debunked canard that net neutrality stifled telecom investment:

    "From our perspective as a Silicon Valley technology company, what should have been a purely technological discussion of managing traffic on internet networks has inexplicably evolved into a highly political hyperbolic battle, substantially removed from technical, economic, and consumer reality. Further, the stifling open internet regulations and broadband classification that the FCC put in place in 2015 – for just one aspect of the internet ecosystem – threw out both the technological consensus and the certainty needed for jobs and investment."

    If you're playing along at home, you should, by now, realize this is bullshit. Once again, public SEC filings, earnings reports, and ISP executive statements contradict this claim. Killing net neutrality and broadband privacy protections is about one thing: letting giant incumbent ISPs make more money by abusing the lack of competition in the broadband last mile. And while that's good for ISP vendors like Oracle, that's not so great for the smaller companies that need a healthy, level playing field to do business. That's why over 800 startups have come out in opposition to the FCC plan.

    Like Oracle, Cisco was similarly eager to ignore the vast negative repercussions of the FCC's plan in a statement over at the company's website. In its statement, Cisco also falsely claims that net neutrality stifled investment:

    "The proposal will review what is needed to protect consumers and prevent anti-competitive behavior, while rolling back Title II reclassification, which has inhibited investment. The balanced approach Commissioner Pai unveiled will encourage new investments in broadband networks and speed the development of innovative services, including Internet of Things technologies, telemedicine, distance learning, emergency services, and mobile 5G."

    As we've noted, Pai's "balanced approach" involves first gutting all FCC authority over broadband, then shoveling the remaining, paltry authority back over to an already limited FTC authority that AT&T lawyers have demostrated they're able to tap dance around. Both Cisco and Oracle are well aware that the goal here isn't "balanced" regulations or "protecting consumers"; the goal is to turn a blind eye to the lack of competition in the broadband space (a disease for which neutrality violations are just one symptom) for the sole benefit of their clients at AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Charter.

    Oracle and Cisco's vocal support of the killing of net neutrality comes as former net neutrality supporters like Netflix and Google have remained notably silent this go-round. Contrary to some media narratives, Google hasn't really been a vocal net neutrality supporter since 2010, and its interest in protecting an open internet has waned exponentially after launching an ISP (Google Fiber) and jumping into wireless. Netflix has similarly toned down its rhetoric to aid its lobbying under the Trump administration, while shifting its overall focus toward international expansion.

    That has left startups, consumers, smaller companies (like Roku and Mozilla) under-funded and under-gunned as they fight to keep the internet resembling something vaguely like a level playing field.

    36 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 10 May 2017 @ 10:39am

    A Bot Is Flooding The FCC Website With Fake Anti-Net Neutrality Comments... In Alphabetical Order

    from the faux-outrage dept

    As previously noted, the FCC has begun fielding comments on its plan to dismantle net neutrality protections. As of the writing of this post, nearly 556,000 users have left comments on the FCC's plan to roll back the rules, which will begin in earnest with a likely 2-1 partisan vote on May 18. The lion's share of that comment total were driven by John Oliver's recent rant on HBO. Many others are the result of what I affectionately call "outrage-o-matic" e-mail campaigns by either net neutrality activists or think tanks that let people comment without having to expend calories on original thought.

    Earlier in the week I was looking through the comments and noted how a large number of them all made the exact same (aggressively inaccurate) claim:

    "The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation. I urge the Federal Communications Commission to end the bureaucratic regulatory overreach of the internet known as Title II and restore the bipartisan light-touch regulatory consensus that enabled the internet to flourish for more than 20 years."

    This in and of itself didn't seem like that big a deal, given the aforementioned campaigns often let commenters quickly file a form letter with the agency.

    But it was notable that if this was a form letter, the people who were filling it out magically organized themselves in perfect alphabetical order. And when ZDNet decided to do a deeper dive into these alphabetical duplicate comments, they found that they appear to be produced by a bot that's grabbing the names from somewhere (perhaps public voter registration records or a previous data breach). What's more, the reporter managed to get a hold of many of the folks that purportedly filed the comments, and found several that state they never filed the comments in question, and have no idea what net neutrality even is:

    "We reached out to two-dozen people by phone, and we left voicemails when nobody picked up. A couple of people late Tuesday called back and confirmed that they had not left any messages on the FCC's website. One of the returning callers specifically said they didn't know what net neutrality was. A third person reached in a Facebook message Tuesday also confirmed that they had not left any comments on any website."

    Numerous Reddit users also spotted the bot campaign, and noted the language used by the 128,000 (and counting) phony commenters was pulled from a 2010 press release by the Center for Individual Freedom, which does not appear to be driving the comments with a corresponding campaign. As of this writing, nobody has identified the driver of the bot, and the FCC has stated it doesn't comment on public proceeding input.

    ISPs do have a history of trying to artificially pad anti-net neutrality sentiment, since finding a critical mass of people who blindly support policies that only help companies like Comcast can be... difficult. As Vice News pointed out in 2014, a lobbying organization named the DCI Group (which receives funding from Verizon) paid individuals to flood websites and the FCC comment system with anti-net neutrality sentiement. Whether the work of a similar group, think tank, or other organization, you just know you have a quality argument when you need to pay people (or bot masters) to support your position.

    36 Comments | Leave a Comment..

    Posted on Techdirt - 10 May 2017 @ 9:37am

    The FCC Claims A DDoS Attack -- Not John Oliver -- Crashed Its Website. But Nobody Seems To Believe Them

    from the botnet-bravado dept

    We just got done noting that the FCC's commenting system crashed after comedian John Oliver's latest bit on net neutrality last weekend. Given that Oliver's first bit on net neutrality did the exact same thing, it didn't take long before the media wires were filled with stories about how a flood of outraged net neutrality supporters had crippled FCC systems. Again.

    But then something interesting happened. The FCC issued a statement (pdf) claiming that the agency's website didn't crash because of a flood of annoyed net neutrality supporters, but crashed due to "multiple DDoS attacks" that just happened to have been launched at the exact same time Oliver announced a specially crafted URL (GoFCCYourself.com) to make commenting on the FCC's net neutrality-killing NPRM easier:

    "Beginning on Sunday night at midnight, our analysis reveals that the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos). These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic to our commercial cloud host. These actors were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC. While the comment system remained up and running the entire time, these DDoS events tied up the servers and prevented them from responding to people attempting to submit comments. We have worked with our commercial partners to address this situation and will continue to monitor developments going forward."

    And while that may or may not be true, there's a rising tide of skepticism about the FCC's statement. For one, requests from multiple news outlets for additional detail on the scope and nature of the attack were met with total silence by the agency. And multiple security experts were quick to point out that there were none of the usual indicators, claims of responsibility or online chatter you see online ahead of many DDoS attacks:

    "There don’t appear of be any indications of a DDoS attack in the sensors we use to monitor for such things,” said John Bambenek, a threat intelligence manger at Fidelis Cybersecurity. “It appears the issue with the FCC is less of a DDoS attack, traditionally defined, and more of an issue of crowdsourcing comments generated by John Oliver and reddit."

    Jake Williams, CEO of cybersecurity firm Rendition InfoSec, said the agency “offered no support” to prove a DDoS had occurred.

    "There was no observed DarkWeb chatter about such a DDoS before or after the event and no botnets that I’m monitoring received any commands ordering a DDoS on the FCC’s site,” Williams said.

    Of course that's not definitive proof that the there wasn't a DDoS attack, but the fact that the FCC isn't willing to offer a shred of additional detail -- along with the timing of the mystery "attack" -- remains curious. And given that this is the same FCC that has spent the last few months claiming that gutting all regulatory oversight and public accountability of some of the least liked and least competitive companies in America somehow "restores freedom," lying in a feeble attempt to squash the media narrative that a flood of pissed off consumers broke the FCC's website wouldn't be out of character for the Ajit Pai-led agecy.

    Of course, there's one way to settle any confusion: the FCC could release logs of its network traffic during the attack. Net neutrality activists were quick to demand as much. As was Senator Ron Wyden, who fired off a letter to the FCC asking for some hard data on the width and breadth of the attack. If it really was a malicious attack -- and not just a throng of consumers genuinely annoyed by the FCC's wave of recent anti-consumer behavior -- it shouldn't be particularly hard to prove.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 10 May 2017 @ 6:33am

    Comcast, Charter Join Forces In Wireless, Agree Not To Compete

    from the now-witness-the-power-of-this-fully-operational-battle-station dept

    For several years now, cable giants Comcast and Charter have had their eye on jumping into the wireless business. Both companies gobbled up a large amount of spectrum at the FCC's 2008 700 MHz auction, but a few years later got cold feet after realizing that going solo in wireless would not only be incredibly expensive, but would require something called competition (gross). So in 2011, they struck a deal with Verizon Wireless, which bought the cable sector's spectrum for $3.6 billion, in exchange for a cozy cross-promotional relationship. As an unspoken part of that relationship, Verizon Wireless has been happily driving its unwanted DSL customers to cable, where they're often then sold Verizon Wireless service.

    That 2011 deal also featured language allowing the cable providers to launch their own MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) that leans heavily on WiFi, but uses the Verizon network for cellular backup. So over the last few years, Charter and Comcast have been cooking up new WiFi-centric wireless services they plan to only bundle with traditional cable and broadband inside their own footprints (again, to avoid having to more seriously compete with national established carriers like their friends at Verizon).

    Neither service has launched yet, but this week Comcast and Charter struck a new cooperative deal that will let them use their combined leverage to secure better handset rates. A Comcast announcement states that the agreement will provide both companies with "operational efficiencies" down the road:

    "The efficiencies created are expected to provide more choice, innovative products and competitive prices for customers in each of their respective footprints. Additionally, the companies have agreed to work only together with respect to national mobile network operators, through potential commercial arrangements, including MVNOs and other material transactions in the wireless industry, for a period of one year.

    But the deal, outlined in more detail in this SEC filing, also has a few other interesting conditions -- including one preventing either company from making a major wireless acquisition without involving the other. Some of these provisions immediately set off alarm bells among some consumer advocates, who worry that the agreement will also ensure that the two companies don't compete with each other as they push into wireless:

    "One of the basic ideas of antitrust law is that when companies that compete with each other, or could compete with each other, make an explicit agreement to not compete with each other, that violates the antitrust laws," Feld told Ars today. "Agreeing to coordinate with each other to avoid competition is expressly a violation of the antitrust laws."

    But that doesn't mean Comcast and Charter won't be able to follow through with their plan. It's impossible to say with absolute certainty whether any specific agreement violates antitrust law, and "both Comcast and Charter have very good lawyers," Feld said.

    Right now, some of these worries seem premature. For one, Comcast and Charter always intended to offer their respective, traditional wireless services siloed within their own broadband footprints, not nationwide. Most telecom analysts also feel that Comcast's effort seems a little half-baked, with the company weirdly going out of its way on a recent conference call to downplay expectations for the service. And the cable industry is filled with these kinds of cross-collaborative efforts that quite often tend to go nowhere fast. There's a very strong chance that these companies' wireless services, for lack of a more technical term, suck.

    That said, there is a framework here for some anti-competitive shenanigans. With Trump being bullish on M&As to prop up job claims (real or not), rumors have emerged that Comcast or Charter could acquire Verizon. If an expected Sprint bid to acquire T-Mobile also takes place, you could be looking at a dramatic fixed and wireless telecom consolidation wave that would reduce the already tepid desire to compete substantially. And with a Trump FTC and FCC that believe duopolist oversight and consolidation restrictions are quaint, nobody's going to be looking out for the potential anticompetitive impact of these deals.

    Combine that with the death of privacy and net neutrality consumer protections, and the cable industry's growing monopoly over fixed broadband, and we really could be looking at an anticompetitive firestorm of bad ideas across both fixed and wireless networks. Under that scenario, Comcast and Charter's new arrangement would be the least of our collective worries.

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    Posted on Techdirt - 9 May 2017 @ 10:42am

    The FCC 'Investigation' Into Stephen Colbert Is A Complete Non-Story

    from the words-are-but-wind dept

    Last week comedian and "The Late Show" host Stephen Colbert found himself in a little hot water after he made an oral sex joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the tail end of his opening monologue. If you missed it, here's the relevant bit (the easily-offended can skip down the page).

    Obviously, the monologue wasn't exactly enjoyed by Trump supporters, who collectively backed a somewhat rudderless and unsuccessful attempt to pressure CBS into firing the comedian (whose ratings have, non-coincidentally, been soaring thanks to his Trump tirades). Colbert ultimately issued a follow up comment in which he stated he probably could have more carefully chosen his words, but quite intentionally fell well short of offering an apology to Donald and Vlad.

    Normally this is where the story would have ended. But last Friday afternoon The Hill ran a piece stating that the FCC had received an entirely-ambiguous number of complaints about the monologue, and was going through the process of determining whether or not Colbert's comments violated FCC broadcast TV indecency guidelines. Under current FCC rules, the agency keeps an eye out for broadcast TV content deemed "indecent" before 10PM, and attempts to police "obscene" content after that point. This is all pretty standard FCC practice, with the end result most frequently either resulting in a modest fine or no action whatsoever.

    When asked about Colbert's comments, FCC boss Ajit Pai made a fairly innocuous comment to a talk radio station stating that the FCC would, in essence, manage the Colbert complaints in much the same way they handle every other obscenity complaint:

    "We are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it’s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we’ll take the appropriate action,” he told Talk Radio 1210 WPHT Thursday. “Traditionally, the agency has to decide, if it does find a violation, what the appropriate remedy should be,” he said. "A fine, of some sort, is typically what we do."

    Again, this is a fairly inane comment by an FCC boss, effectively stating that he was simply going to follow normal FCC process. Yet somehow the narrative quickly shifted in the media, with outlets immediately complaining that Pai's actions were somehow a frontal assault on free speech, or worse. The Writers Guild of America fanned these flames by issuing a statement claiming it was "appalled" by Pai's behavior:

    "“As presidents of the Writers Guilds of America, East and West, we were appalled to read recent remarks by Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai,” said WGA East boss Michael Winship and WGA West chief Howard Rodman this morning. “He said the FCC would investigate a joke about Donald Trump by Writers Guild member Stephen Colbert, ‘apply the law’ and ‘take appropriate action’ if the joke were found to be ‘obscene,'” the duo added of the FCC chair’s May 5 response in a radio interview.

    Again though, all Pai really said is that the FCC would do what it has always done when investigating obscenity complaints. In fact, you'll note he never even uses the word "investigation." Yet somehow this idea that Pai was engaged in a rogue attack on free speech quickly ballooned to becomce this week's media narrative du jour.

    Look, Ajit Pai has done plenty of arguably horrible things in just his first few months in office. He has helped the cable industry protect its cable box monopoly. He's helped prison phone monopolies rip off inmate families. He has started dismantling efforts to bring broadband to the poor. He has begun the process of killing net neutrality, solely for the benefit of telecom duopolies. He helped pave the way to the elimination of consumer broadband privacy protections. He's even taken aim at already-finalized telecom merger conditions intended to improve broadband competition.

    Make no mistake: Pai wants to replace meaningful oversight of companies like Comcast with the policy equivalent of wet cardboard. All while pretending -- with the help of misleading, cherry picked data -- that this is all of immeasurable benefit to consumers.

    There's been a torrent of controversial or otherwise abysmal things Pai has been up to that deserve attention. Yet somehow the focus this week has been a hysterical over-reaction to a non-story. Yes, Pai has obvious post-FCC political ambitions and enjoys throwing the occasional red meat to what he hopes will be his future constituents. But his comments on the Colbert indecency complaints are quite arguably the least interesting and most innocuous thing the FCC has been up to.

    Not only did the press hysteria over the Colbert non-story take the media's eye off the ball, it reinforced the narrative that the press is awash in a "fake news" -- requiring a litany of hand wringing and soul-searching -- despite nobody really knowing what the term even means. And while many were quick to insist this proves "the left" also engages in "fake news," that tends to obfuscate the fact that the problem with modern news most frequently isn't that it's fake (though it sometimes is) -- it's that much of it is just good, old-fashioned shitty reporting.

    32 Comments | Leave a Comment..

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