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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 - 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.

42 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.

53 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.

86 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.

19 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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 September 2015 @ 11:15pm

The Trend Of Killing News Comment Sections Because You 'Just Really Value Conversation' Stupidly Continues

from the mute-button dept

Over the last year, there has been a tidal wave of websites that have decided to close their news comment sections because the companies are no longer willing to invest time and effort into cultivating healthy on-site discussion. While that's any site's prerogative, these announcements have all too often been accompanied by amusing, disingenuous claims that the reason these sites are muting their on-site audience is because they're simply looking to build relationships or just really value conversation. Nothing says "we care about your opinions" like a shiny new muzzle, right?

And judging from this NiemanLab conversation with a lot of the sites that have chosen to shutter comments, most of the websites have no intention of looking back. After all, what's the use of a local, loyal, on-site community when you can just offload all conversation (and that traffic) to Facebook and Twitter, right? Dan Colarusso, executive editor of Reuters, for example, doesn't think comments are important because damnit people -- Reuters isn't looking to argue!

"We’re not the kind of news organization that’s about giving our ‘take’ on something. We’re not looking to start an argument; we’re looking to report the news. We felt that, since so much of the conversation around stories had gravitated toward social, that was the better place for that discourse to happen. We did keep comments on our opinion pieces, because we felt that that is where you are trying to start an argument in the best possible way."
Except comments aren't just about having arguments, they're a legitimate and transparent avenue for readers to publicly correct your errors right below the original article, which is something many of these sites likely grew tired of. Sure, poorly managed comments can devolve into a cesspool of banality, but good commenters almost always offer insights the writer or website may have missed, could have been wrong on, or never even thought of. In short, we want you to comment -- we just want you to comment privately so our errors aren't quite so painfully highlighted. For the sake of conversation, of course.

Last week On The Media was the latest to quietly kill comments on the bottom of its newsletter, informing readers that comments just don't provide the "kind of dialogue" they wanted:
"We value our listeners above all and are always keen to know what you're thinking, to hear your questions and concerns, to get feedback on what you like and dislike. So why shut down the comment section? As we hear more from listeners through Facebook and Twitter and directly through our website, we've concluded that the comment section just isn't the best way to have the kind of dialogue we want with our listeners."
By "kind of dialogue" you mean transparent and public? Over at the last bastion of website interaction known as Twitter, Mike amusingly highlighted the disjointed logic of claiming to value dialogue while dramatically reducing the number of avenues for it, and the website's response doesn't really make sense:
Of course "nobody in our writing or editorial staff wants to take the time to cultivate local on-site community" or "we don't like having our mistakes highlighted publicly right below our articles" don't make for very good explanations when it's time to save a little money and axe ye olde comment section. So what we get instead are these vague bloviations about how this is really about an evolution in conversation, and punting the problem to Facebook is really the best thing for everyone. It's really time for some new, flimsy excuses for why websites can't be bothered to value local, on-site dialogue, because "we killed a major, on-site avenue of conversation for the sake of conversation" still doesn't really sound all that convincing.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 23 September 2015 @ 9:34am

Jeb Bush Proudly Promises To Axe Net Neutrality If Elected

from the going-backwards dept

The Jeb Bush campaign this week unveiled a major part of the candidate's technology platform, and it likely includes taking a hatchet to net neutrality rules. The new policy outline on Bush's website spends some time butchering the very definition of net neutrality as well, parroting several long-standing incumbent ISP narratives that net neutrality is somehow about content companies not paying their fair share, or that modernization of existing rules is somehow "antiquated." Indeed, Bush's definition of net neutrality is rather unique:

"The Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rule classifies all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as “public utilities,” subjecting them to antiquated “common carrier” regulation. Rather than enhancing consumer welfare, these rules prohibit one group of companies (ISPs) from charging another group of companies (content companies) the full cost for using their services."
Except as we've been over this ad nauseum; net neutrality isn't about prohibiting ISPs from charging content companies, it's about mammoth broadband providers abusing the lack of last-mile competition to give themselves a leg up in emerging markets. I assume the Bush campaign is referencing the FCC's plan to police interconnection deals between ISPs and the likes of Netflix, something that has actually improved the health of the Internet already. Bush doesn't appear to understand this (or is pretending not to understand this), and proceeds to trot out examples of some poor, little ISPs that will be hurt by the FCC's push to encourage a healthier Internet:
"Small broadband operators—like KWISP (475 customers in rural Illinois) and Wisper ISP (8,000 customers near St. Louis, Mo)—have declared under penalty of perjury that the Net Neutrality rule has caused them to cut back on investments to upgrade and expand their networks."
Any ISP or WISP that has actually cut back on necessary infrastructure investment due the FCC's net neutrality rules frankly either doesn't understand them, or is playing personal partisan patty cake. Even the nation's lumbering mega-ISPs, who've fought net neutrality tooth and nail, have admitted (through their own SEC filings and earnings reports) that their network investment is as healthy as ever. As noted recently, if there are network investment declines, data suggests they've got nothing to do with net neutrality. That net neutrality kills network investment is a dated, disproven dodo that simply won't die.

The Bush policy missive then parrots the idea that the FCC imposed net neutrality rules in "relative obscurity," despite a decade filled will countless open meetings, roundtables, and endless (sometimes nauseatingly so) conversation:
"Agencies today make far more laws than legislators. But unlike courts and legislators, regulators conduct their deliberations in relative obscurity, often outside of the public’s view and effectively accountable to no one, not even the president."
That's just the thing though: net neutrality was passed by regulators only after an unprecedented groundswell of public support demanded protections. It's about protecting consumers and small businesses from the AT&T, Verizon and Comcast's of the world in the absence of competition. Bush is too busy pandering to the mega-ISPs to bother mentioning what his solution for this lack of broadband competition is, or if he's even capable of admitting a lack of competition exists. But in standing up for the mega-ISPs Jeb makes it pretty clear his technology policies are dated somewhere around 2002 or so.

None of this is surprising, since earlier this year Bush proudly declared that net neutrality was the "craziest idea he's ever heard." Of course the craziest idea I've heard is a candidate running in 2016 who thinks it's a smashing idea to defend AT&VerizoCast, and walk back a decade of progress on a subject it's abundantly clear he doesn't actually understand.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 September 2015 @ 10:49am

Apple Bans Non-Graphic, VR Representation Of Ferguson Shooting For No Coherent Reason

from the would-you-please-make-some-sense dept

Apple's ridiculous, inconsistent and incoherent app store approval process is now a thing of legend. The company has long banned apps simply for being able to access other, vaguely-controversial content, whether that's a dictionary (because some words are naughty), or comic book and e-book readers (because, occasional booby references). But Apple's also been known to ban apps critical of Apple products, games with Nazis in it, DUI checkpoint apps, and anything with a confederate flag in it (even if historically accurate). Basically, Apple governs its app store approval process like a puritanical child in the throes of an epic acid trip, and conversations trying to decipher company intent goes accordingly.

Apple's latest ingenious app store approval ban? Virtual reality journalism. Graphic artist Dan Archer thought it might be cool to build a 3D representation of the Ferguson shooting to help people better understand precisely what happened. Note there's no graphic content whatsoever; the app simply shows a 3D representative of the crime scene, 3D models of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson and their alleged locations, and lets the user simultaneously peruse publicly-filed evidence, witness testimony, and published radio chatter:

Note that in and of itself a VR exploration of what happened isn't specifically controversial, and it's a very handy tool in trying to better understand the details of the story. Yet Archer received a phone call from Apple, explaining cryptically that his app would not be allowed on the store because its "scope was too narrow":
"According to the phone call I received, Ferguson Firsthand was disallowed because it “refers to a very specific event, and therefore its scope is too narrow.” I was encouraged to try again with an app that is “topical, but not focusing on any one single incident or topic.” Ferguson Firsthand, in its current state, would need to be “changed so significantly for it to be approved.” The representative was unable to clarify whether an app that reported on multiple, nationwide allegations of police misconduct would better fit the recommendations she had mentioned."
As with previous bans, getting Apple to transparently and more precisely illuminate the exact problem with the VR app was utterly unfruitful. In a companion piece over at Medium, Archer quite-correctly notes that the continued reliance on arbitrary, non-transparent gatekeepers is the last thing the soon-to-explode virtual reality market needs. Sure, those that can afford the $500 for the upcoming HTC Vive or Oculus Rift (not to mention a high-end graphics card) will likely be slightly less-reliant on gatekeepers for content access, but having Apple determine what qualifies as an acceptable journalism tool on less expensive smartphone VR platforms is a scary proposition:
"Leading VR headsets in the market still cost hundreds of dollars (despite becoming a decimal point or two cheaper in the last decade) and a powerful PC to run home experiences. Google cardboard, the SDK that allows journalists to port a game engine experience into VR, was designed to work brilliantly with smartphones, but in light of my phone call with Ms. Apple, almost half (44.1%, according to June 2015 data published by Comscore) of that market share in the US was effectively being cut off."
Archer also notes that Apple's decision directly contradicts its own over-arching principles for its own guidelines:
"Thank you for developing for iOS. Even though this document is a formidable list of what not to do, please also keep in mind the much shorter list of what you must do. Above all else, join us in trying to surprise and delight users. Show them their world in innovative ways, and let them interact with it like never before. In our experience, users really respond to polish, both in functionality and user interface. Go the extra mile. Give them more than they expect. And take them places where they have never been before. We are ready to help."
Or, try to do exactly that and get your project blocked for no coherent reason.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 September 2015 @ 8:28am

Cox Sues Tempe, Arizona For Its Nefarious Plan To Bring Google Fiber To Town

from the pouting-and-crying dept

Google Fiber continues to expand and bring much needed competitive pressure to (and public conversation about) duopoly-logjammed broadband markets. Most recently the company stated it was striking preliminary agreements with San Diego, Irvine, and Louisville, negotiating "fiber hut" placement, coordinating install logistics, and getting cities to sign off on franchise deals. The company also recently announced that it had struck a preliminary deal with Tempe, Arizona, laying the groundwork for the deployment of thousands of miles of new fiber in the city, bringing Google Fiber's potential footprint to sixteen cities.

Like any good incumbent broadband ISP, Cox Communications' first reaction wasn't to welcome the challenge of a new competitor, it was to whine like a petulant child about the fairness of it all:

"It's unfortunate that the Tempe City Council is willing to favor a new entrant into the market, and in doing so appears to have violated federal and state law. The waivers granted by the City also give Google Fiber a free pass on obligations that affect public safety; such as emergency alert messaging and protection of subscriber privacy."
Cox has subsequently followed up this early whining with a new lawsuit accusing the Tempe city council of violating the law. According to the suit (pdf), Tempe violated federal law "by establishing a discriminatory regulatory framework" that gives Google Fiber preference over traditional cable companies:
"Tempe’s bald assertion that Google Fiber is not a cable operator is incorrect," Cox argued. "And based on this incorrect assertion, Tempe’s regulatory scheme allows Google Fiber to provide video programming service to subscribers in Tempe under terms and conditions that are far more favorable and far less burdensome than those applicable to Cox and other cable operators, even though Cox and Google Fiber offer video services that are legally indistinguishable."
Here's the thing though: reports out of Arizona indicate that the Tempe city council's vote opened the door for companies like Cox to negotiate their own, new agreements with the city. Indeed, nothing stopped incumbent ISPs from striking new gigabit fiber deployment deals before Google Fiber, they just lacked the competitive incentive to do so. And while some mega-ISPs originally whined about these deals, they quickly quiet down once they realize these new potential deals let them cherry pick broadband deployment (read: just wire high-end developments), something that pre-Google Fiber days used to be considered a bad thing. Note these recent comments by AT&T:
"In the past if we wanted to go into a city environment, the requirement was you build out the entire city," Stephenson explained in a keynote at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference. Doing that requires a huge capital investment, one that AT&T felt it couldn't make, he noted. Google's entry into Austin, in particular, enabled AT&T to ask the city for the same terms as Google Fiber received. "Google came in and was very targeted in where they wanted to deploy fiber, and they got municipal endorsement (on that). …We said we'll take the same deal that Google got. And we got the same deal that Google got," Stephenson said."
So yes, under the din of enthusiasm over Google Fiber there is a conversation nobody seems to want to have about the problem of cherry-picked next-gen broadband deployment, but that's obviously not what Cox cares about. Cox sees something in local Tempe law that will allow it to bog Google Fiber's progress in Tempe down in the courts (Google Fiber is also slated for Cox's turf in Phoenix, where it has not filed suit). Cox could simply take Google Fiber's market entry as a challenge to negotiate a new citywide deal and up its own game, but apparently the cable operator thinks that hand-wringing and wasting everybody's time with lawyers is the more sensible tactical option.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 September 2015 @ 12:36pm

Time Warner Cable CEO: Cable TV Pricing Is So High Because We're The Mercedes Of Entertainment

from the not-just-a-river-in-Egypt dept

Over the last year we've finally started to see the emergence of more flexible Internet video options like the "skinny bundle," where customers nab a cheaper, smaller base package of channels, with the option to pick and choose from add-on "channel packs." SlingTV is perhaps the most well-known option (though broadcasters have ensured it lacks DVR functionality), and Verizon has also been experimenting with the concept as well (and were sued by ESPN for their trouble). While not the pure "a la carte" play many had called for, it's at least a baby step away from massive, over-priced cable lineups.

Not surprisingly, however, the same cable industry executives that don't think cord cutting is real state they don't see what the skinny bundle fuss is about. In fact, Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus recently crowed that the cable giant isn't seeing any interest in the skinny bundle:

"The headlines over the last several months have been way ahead of the facts," Marcus said. "We're not seeing this mass migration to skinny bundles. In fact, in the second quarter, roughly 82 percent of our video connects took the preferred bundle…which is the fattest of the fat bundle. It's still a great value. We can't lose track of that."
Marcus ignores several things here. One, Time Warner Cable lost 45,000 basic cable subscribers last quarter, users who are either fleeing toward more competitively-priced cable options, or toward the Internet video options Marcus pretends aren't slowly changing the game. Two, many existing Time Warner Cable customers continue to bundle services like television and voice with their cable service, because they're usually penalized financially if they try to purchase services piecemeal. Three, you might see broader adoption of more flexible channel options and pricing -- if you actually offered some.

Like most cable companies, Time Warner Cable pays a lot of lip service to "value," but the bottom line is that it refuses to compete on price. And these companies will continue to refuse to compete on price until Internet video reaches critical mass and customers begin to defect in greater numbers. Until then, cable executives spend the lion's share of their time trying to somehow justify cable's ridiculous pricing. For example, Marcus recently defended his company's high prices by insisting Time Warner Cable is the Mercedes of video viewing options:
"There continues to be this perception that it is not a competitive market; that the market is not somehow working," Marcus says in an interview with Multichannel News. "Living in the world we do every day, competing for customers, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The best governor of pricing is an effective marketplace and we live in that world every day."

"...It can’t be the case that you can get for the really low price all of the great attributes in the products that you can at the higher-end prices. There is always going to be the Hyundai and the Mercedes."
Here's the problem with Time Warner Cable claiming high prices are all you need to claim you offer a luxury service: Time Warner Cable is literally the least liked company in any industry in America, with arguably the worst customer service in the country. Of course, it's not particularly surprising that a guy who is about to personally make $85 million from Charter's acquisition of Time Warner Cable isn't particularly in-tune with the value-needs of his typical customer, but executives like Marcus are going to have to pull their collective heads of of the sand post haste if they want to minimize the impact of the Internet video revolution, and the cheaper, more flexible channel options they insist nobody wants.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 September 2015 @ 3:15am

Comcast CEO Admits You 'Can't Keep Raising Prices Forever,' But Seems Intent On Trying Anyway

from the self-inflicted-wound dept

As Internet video continues to slowly pick away at cable subscriber totals, most cable companies have absolutely refused to compete on price. Apparently, most of them intend to see just how long they can get suckers cable TV customers to keep paying an arm and a leg for bloated bundles of mostly awful content, only actually competing on price when the problem of cord cutting hits critical mass. Until then, cable execs spend their time either pretending that cord cutting doesn't exist, or proudly fooling themselves into thinking they still offer the best video content value in the streaming video and BitTorrent age.

Every so often a cable executive will pop up from milking the cable cash cow to pay a tiny bit of lip service to the idea of lower prices and more flexible cable bundles. The latest case in point is Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who this week at least acknowledged that the cable TV cash cow is not immortal:

"This conversation that is happening right now only is going to accelerate (cable adaptation). I do think on the other side, however, there is a realization that you can’t keep raising prices forever and [without] either having serious margin change or people saying ‘I’m going to live without some channels.’ I think you’re seeing that tension rise. I think these things have a way of correcting or balancing out before something draconian happens. I’m hopeful that is the case."
Except the Internet video revolution isn't going to magically "correct" itself or "balance out." It's going to swallow the cable industry piece by piece until it finally listens to consumers and starts offering better value and better customer service. And while cable TV customer defections are happening at a slow trickle right now (Comcast lost 69,000 subscribers last quarter), it's only going to accelerate as the options improve. These losses will also start hitting Comcast's voice subscriber totals as wireless service improves, digital voice becomes irrelevant, and Comcast customers look for ways to trim their bloated bills.

As Roberts was busy stating the obvious, many were quick to point out that Comcast's busy imposing all manner of new TV and broadband price increases as is the cable industry's proud fall tradition. Cable TV prices are rising, broadband prices are increasing, DVR, set top and cable modem prices are rising -- and there's always a new, obnoxious, below-the-line fee around the corner. And whether it's set top boxes, net neutrality or last mile competition, Comcast works tirelessly to ensure this skyward price hike status quo remains firmly intact, all while offering the worst customer service in any industry.

So go ahead, cut your cable TV line; Comcast will just take its pound of flesh from your broadband bill via rate hikes, sneaky fees, usage caps and overage charges (or a new $30 fee if you want to avoid usage caps entirely). And because many of Comcast's territories are actually becoming less competitive than ever as telcos exit unwanted DSL markets, there's not much customers can do about it short of building their own community ISP.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 September 2015 @ 4:03pm

FCC: Sorry, No -- Net Neutrality Does Not Violate ISPs' First Amendment Rights

from the legal-shenanigans dept

Back when Verizon sued to overturn the FCC's original, flimsier 2010 net neutrality rules, the telco argued that the FCC was aggressively and capriciously violating the company's First and Fifth Amendment rights. "Broadband networks are the modern-day microphone by which their owners engage in First Amendment speech," Verizon claimed at the time. It's an amusing claim given that the entire purpose of net neutrality is to protect the free and open distribution of content and data without incumbent ISP gatekeeper interference. Verizon ultimately won its case against the FCC -- but not because of its First Amendment claim, but because the FCC tried to impose common carrier rules on ISPs before declaring they were common carriers.

That's of course why the FCC finally decided to define ISPs as common carriers under Title II. But in their torrent of lawsuits against the FCC's new rules, ISPs continue to try and hide their anti-competitive intentions behind the First Amendment. AT&T's court filing from earlier this year, for example, made it clear AT&T intends to argue the FCC is violating its First and Fifth Amendment rights:

"In a statement of issues that AT&T intends to raise when the case moves further into the court process, the company said last week that it plans on challenging whether the FCC’s net neutrality order "violates the terms of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, and the First and Fifth Amendments to the US Constitution." The First and Fifth Amendment will be used to attack the FCC's decision to reclassify both fixed and mobile broadband as common carrier services, as well as the FCC's assertion of authority over how ISPs interconnect with other networks."
In its own filing in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (pdf) this week, the FCC argues that this reasoning is, to use a less technical term, crap:
"Nobody understands broadband providers to be sending a message or endorsing speech when transmitting the Internet content that a user has requested. When a user directs her browser to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal editorial page, she has no reason to think that the views expressed there are those of her broadband provider. Nor is there anything in the record to suggest that companies providing mass-market retail broadband service as defined in the Order are seeking to convey any particularized message to their users. Instead, when providing Broadband Internet Access Service, broadband providers function (and are understood by their users to function) simply “as conduits for the speech of others, not as speakers themselves."
You'd think that would be common sense, but ISPs have a long, occasionally-successful history of hiding their dubious and/or anti-competitive shenanigans behind the First Amendment. Verizon has argued it has a First Amendment right to hand your call data over to the government. Comcast has argued its First Amendment rights are violated when it's told to stop blocking competitor channel access to its cable lineup. Charter has tried to argue that requiring it adhere to local video franchise agreements similarly violates its free speech rights.

In the net neutrality case, ISP lawyers are basically throwing everything they can at the wall and hoping something sticks. But the First Amendement claim here is painfully thin, given it's the ISPs interfering in content they didn't create and have no real authority over. It's also risky for ISPs currently protected by common carrier safe harbor protections to start arguing they're responsible for every thought that's transmitted over the Internet. It seems so much wiser for ISPs to stick to the kind of things they're truly good at: like violating your Fourth Amendment rights at every conceivable opportunity.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 September 2015 @ 6:12am

Verizon's Screwing New Jersey Even Harder Than Previously Believed

from the regulatory-capture dept

We've previously discussed how in 1993 Verizon conned the state of New Jersey into giving the telco all manner of subsidies and tax breaks in exchange for a promise to wire the majority of the state with symmetrical fiber. Fast forward to 2015, most of New Jersey remains on aging DSL, and the state decided it would be a wonderful idea to simply let Verizon walk away from its obligations. Of course this isn't new: Verizon's regulatory capture allowed it to do the exact same thing in Pennsylvania, and it's currently busy trying to dodge New York City FiOS build out requirements as well.

But apparently, New Jersey is getting screwed harder than state residents even knew. In addition to the sham 1993 agreement, Verizon got New Jersey officials to sign off on a 2006 statewide franchise agreement that also let the company wiggle out of FiOS deployment obligations. Essentially, Newark and Fulop Mayors began noticing that many buildings in their cities were waiving their right to have FiOS installed, something not happening in more affluent areas:

"Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City and Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark are expected to call a press conference to discuss whether Verizon is fulfilling its obligations under the act. Public records show that 21,392 different properties in Newark have waived their access rights under the franchise agreement, opting out of any right to FiOS availability. In Jersey City, that number climbed to 25,311, nearly a fifth of the city’s properties. In richer municipalities like Trenton, Weehawken, and Hackensack, that number never climbed above 3,000."
Verizon's 2006 franchise agreement required that the telco make its fiber-based FiOS service available to New Jersey's 70 densest municipalities, including poor areas in Newark and Jersey City that might not otherwise see coverage. But Verizon appears to be abusing a loophole in the franchise agreement that allows it to add buildings to an acceptable "waiver" list of exemptions should Verizon run into trouble during installs. But Verizon appears to be making it intentionally difficult for landlords in poorer cities to successfully contact and schedule installs with Verizon:
"What we understand the practice to be is that, if you're in a wealthy high-rise next to the water in Jersey City, they will bend over backwards trying to get into that building," says Seth Hahn of the Communication Workers of America union, which has supported the mayors in their efforts to get more cable laid. "But if you live on the other end of the tracks, they'll send you a letter saying, 'We'd like access to your building.’" After a labyrinth of phone calls and offerings, the landlord will often end up on a waiver list without realizing it, Hahn says."
None of this is to say landlords can't be difficult. In a 2013 PSC filing with the state of New York (pdf), Verizon claims many landlords refused the telco access to building infrastructure, and some even tried to charge the telco for building access. But looking at the data, it seems somewhat obvious that there's a big discrepancy among waiver totals in poorer cities:
Verizon Waivers
Now this could be coincidental, but given Verizon's history on this front, claims that Verizon's using landlords as a bogeyman to justify failure to adhere to obligations seem very likely. You'd need to investigate to be sure, but since New Jersey is already pretty lax on holding Verizon accountable, it's painfully unlikely that the state will ever bother. And letting Verizon get away with this kind of stuff isn't unique; this same story plays out in dozens of states nationwide. Repeatedly.

But the core of this problem is again regulatory capture and these statewide TV franchise agreements. The new laws were pushed by AT&T and Verizon in dozens of states around ten years ago, and were quickly rammed through by campaign-cash soaked state legislatures under the promise of new jobs and lower TV prices thanks to increased competition. But most if not all of the agreements were written by telco lobbyists and lawyers. As such, most of them are basically phone company wishlists, and in some places like Wisconsin, went so far as to gut all consumer protections and even some eminent domain rights.

So yeah, if you didn't realize it already companies like AT&T and Verizon all but own many state legislatures, as evident by the fact they literally write the laws governing their behavior. The end result of that may not be surprising, but the fact that we never seem to learn from decades of this kind of behavior should be.

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