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Posted on Techdirt - 4 August 2021 @ 3:40pm

FCC Blocks Elon Musk From Getting Millions In Subsidies For Delivering Broadband To Traffic Medians

from the actually-paying-attention dept

Late last year consumer group Free Press released a report showing how numerous broadband providers had been gaming the FCC's RDOF (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) subsidy program to get money they didn't really deserve. The program doles out roughly $9.2 billion in subsidies paid for by money paid by consumers into the Universal Service Fund (USF). The study clearly showed that during the last RDOF auction a long list of ISPs gamed the system to gain millions in subsidies to deliver broadband to areas that didn't make any coherent sense.

This ISP, for example, nabbed millions of dollars to deploy service to places that already had it -- like five feet outside of Apple's $5 billion new campus. Elon Musk's Starlink also managed to nab $886 million in subsidies to deploy broadband service to places like airport parking lots and traffic medians.

The whole mess was just completely ignored by previous FCC Boss Ajit "what broadband competition problem" Pai. After months of withering criticism from numerous fronts, the FCC under interim boss Jessica Rosenworcel has stepped up and fired off letters to several of the worst offenders, giving them a second chance to apply for funding with proposals that actually serve the public interest:

"The Federal Communications Commission told SpaceX and other companies on Monday that the billions in rural broadband subsidies it doled out last year can’t be used in already connected areas like “parking lots and well-served urban areas,” citing complaints. The commission, in an effort to “clean up” its subsidy auction program, offered the companies a chance to rescind their funding requests from areas that already have service."

Granted the problems with the RDOF subsidy process is just one small part of a much bigger problem. For years the government has doled out billions of dollars to telecom giants for fiber networks they then routinely half deploy. Inaccurate maps and availability data then mar the process further, obscuring not only the lack of access (up to 42 million Americans still can't access broadband) but the way a lack of overall competition harms consumers and raises rates (83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly).

Thanks to the immense political influence giant telecom providers have over Congress and regulators, efforts to improve the entire mess comes glacially, when they come at all. That's not to ignore the huge benefit subsidies can have on less affluent and disconnected areas of the country when applied correctly, but, for decades now, regional monopolies have dictated US telecom policy. And the result has generally what you'd expect: namely billions in pointless tax breaks and subsidies thrown at companies like AT&T in exchange for layoffs, pipe dreams, and perpetually half completed networks.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 August 2021 @ 5:21am

Despite 20 Years Of Experience, Comcast/NBC Still Sucks At Olympics Coverage

from the fourth-circle-of-hell dept

NBC (now Comcast NBC Universal) has enjoyed the rights to broadcast the US Olympics since 1998. In 2011, the company paid $4.4 billion for exclusive US broadcast rights to air the Olympics through 2020. In 2014, Comcast NBC Universal shelled out another $7.75 billion for the rights to broadcast the summer and winter Olympics in the US... until the year 2032. Despite years of practice, we've repeatedly noted how the company has done a consistently terrible job at its core responsibility as the holder of those rights: namely, showing people things they actually want to see in a way that isn't annoying.

For years Comcast has been criticized for refusing to air events live, spoiling some events, implementing annoying cable paywall restrictions, implementing heavy handed and generally terrible advertising, often sensationalizing coverage, avoiding controversial subjects during broadcasts, and streaming efforts that have ranged from clumsy to outright incompetent.

You'd think after 20+ years of criticism Comcast NBC would be doing a better job. Then again, if you know Comcast NBC at all, the fact that they aren't (and have been historically completely oblivious to that fact) probably isn't all that surprising. And of course this year is no different.

While the internet and streaming have allowed Comcast/NBC to offer overall more content to viewers, the way it's being presented continues to be scattershot as hell. The company's coverage jumps from event to event in a head-jerking manner, failing to present much of a cohesive narrative from hour to hour:

"...instead of sticking with single events throughout primetime – introducing them, highlighting the stakes and the protagonists, getting the viewer comfortable with the quirks of competition – NBC has deployed this vast arsenal of broadcast resources to spray America’s households with a kind of inescapable Olympic televisual vomit.

A meaningful tip of the hat to the editor that let "televisual vomit" show up in the pages of The Guardian. And the chaos comes despite the fact that Olympics planners in Tokyo have increasingly tried to schedule events to make them more coherent to audiences in different time zones, especially the west:

"NBC’s programming choices have been consistently bizarre, even more so when you consider that whole chunks of the schedule in Tokyo – for swimming above all, but also in the athletics – were specifically rejigged to cater to the American TV audience, and at several points it’s been unclear to all but the most obsessive Olympics watchers whether what’s on TV at night in the US is live or a replay."

Spend a few moments over at Reddit and you can also find just a general and profound audience confusion in terms of when things will be broadcast, how and where you can watch event follow ups, and what the hell is going on. And while Comcast having its own streaming app (Peacock) should ideally make things better, that doesn't seem to be the case either. Promises of "free coverage" (with ads) via the app haven't been fulfilled because this is Comcast, and Comcast wants to use the opportunity to upsell you to either a streaming subscription or a traditional cable TV subscription if you want to see anything other than celebrity quips:

"Peacock will broadcast the team gymnastics finals for both men and women for free, but to watch any of the men’s basketball coverage you must upgrade to Peacock Premium—which costs $4.99 a month (unless, again, you already have Xfinity Internet or a cable subscription). It’s another $5 to get rid of ads."

Like most things Comcast/NBC does (see: broadband), it still expects to make a profit off of the Olympics thanks to ads, partnerships, viewer tracking data, and sponsored deals. This despite a lack of competence, Peacock itself being a money loser, sagging traditional cable subscriptions, and dipping ratings. Which is why complaints about Comcast/NBC Olympics coverage are more Sisyphean than productive, and we'll all be back here complaining again in a few years.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 August 2021 @ 1:40pm

Telecom Lobbyists Easily Weakened Language In 'Bipartisan' Broadband Infrastructure Bill

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

So we've already noted how the broadband component of the "bipartisan compromise" infrastructure bill was still helpful, but much weaker than many wanted it to be (pretty much the common theme across the infrastructure package). While there are some useful grant funds for underserved "middle mile" and other networks -- as well as the continuation of a helpful but flawed COVID broadband discount program -- the proposal itself doesn't really do much of anything about the core reason US broadband is so expensive: namely, regional telecom monopolization or the corruption that protects it.

Other aspects of the proposal started off well but were steadily eroded throughout the "negotiations" process. For example, many lawmakers wanted the country to boost its standard definition of "broadband" to symmetrical 100 Mbps to better represent modern realities. But the final package implemented a 100 Mbps down, 20 Mbps standard -- and only as it pertains to who can get funding for broadband expansion. The overall definition of broadband remains unchanged.

As Ernesto Falcon at the EFF notes, this weakened standard was courtesy of fixed wireless and cable industry lobbyists, who know that much of their infrastructure can't actually do much better than 10-20 Mbps on the upstream. So we basically lowered the bar to make them happy:

"By defining internet access as the ability to get 100/20 Mbps service, the draft language allows cable monopolies to argue that anyone with access to ancient, insufficient internet access does not need federal money to build new infrastructure. That means communities with nearly decade-old DOCSIS 3.0 broadband are shielded from federal dollars from being used to build fiber. Copper-DSL-only areas, and areas entirely without broadband, will likely take the lion’s share of the $40 billion made available. In addition to rural areas, pockets of urban markets where people are still lacking broadband will qualify. This will lead to an absurd result: people on inferior, too-expensive cable services will be seen as equally served as their neighbors who will get federally funded fiber."

Ernesto has routinely pointed out that fiber broadband is future proof (and feeds most cellular towers in the first place), so if you're going to throw billions of dollars in subsidies at companies, you probably should be encouraging fiber as often as possible. Of course, the government rarely adheres to his advice, frequently throwing countless subsidies at wireless companies for service they don't deliver, or hundreds of millions of dollars at Elon Musk to bring inferior broadband to a couple of traffic medians and airport parking lots.

There were other nonsensical sacrifices made to the broadband component of the infrastructure agreement made under the banner of "bipartisan compromise," including the elimination of any attempts to lend a hand to the popular community broadband efforts taking root across the country out of frustration. Again, not based on any hard data or factual reality, but because telecom lobbyists don't really like anything that could potentially erode regional monopoly revenues.

As noted previously, these kinds of downgrades are uniformly framed in beltway DC coverage as a "bipartisan compromise." In reality, it's really only the people who want decent baseline standards and the barest levels of sector oversight who are having to compromise. And more often than not the press helps politicians frame their decisions to pander directly to sector lobbyists as simply being principled spendthrifts.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 August 2021 @ 6:21am

Cell Phones Still Somehow Get The Entirety Of The Blame For Teen Depression

from the little-too-convenient dept

For years now a strong narrative has emerged that the increase in teen depression (and suicides) is almost single handedly being caused by social media and cell phone use. Though quite often when you look a little more deeply at the studies in question you'll find they're a bit undercooked, tend to make overly broad assumptions about trends, and are often contradicted by other studies.

For example, a 2019 study out of the UK of 12,000 adolescents found that most links between life satisfaction and social media use were "trivial," overall accounting for less than 1% of a teenager's sense of wellbeing. Another study from last year combed through 20 different studies on social media's impact on young adults and kids and found "there doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues."

There's clearly a lot going wrong in the world, and a lot of it emotionally exhausting. Yet for whatever reason cell phone social media usage continues to often get the entirety of the blame for teen depression. An opinion column in the New York Times last week, for example, points to a new study showing a dramatic spike around the world in "teenage loneliness" starting in 2012:

"In a paper we just published in The Journal of Adolescence, we report that in 36 out of 37 countries, loneliness at school has increased since 2012. We grouped the 37 countries into four geographic and cultural regions, and we found the same pattern in all regions: Teenage loneliness was relatively stable between 2000 and 2012, with fewer than 18 percent reporting high levels of loneliness. But in the six years after 2012, rates increased dramatically. They roughly doubled in Europe, Latin America and the English-speaking countries, and rose by about 50 percent in the East Asian countries."

But again that whole causation/correlation monster rears its head. The author of the piece and study even proceeds to acknowledge that they couldn't actually make the link the article itself is trying to forge:

"These analyses don’t prove that smartphones and social media are major causes of the increase in teenage loneliness, but they do show that several other causes are less plausible. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we’d love to hear it."

I imagine that the heavy dose of shallow peer comparison on social media and ceaseless marketing likely does contribute to some teen depression. And too much social media use likely isn't the healthiest thing in the world. But blaming cell phones entirely for the problem of teen depression seems utterly too convenient. Often these platforms and technologies are just windows to cultural and environmental dysfunction, which, if you hadn't noticed, there's a hell of a lot of at the moment.

There's structural racism, the continued threat of a white nationalist movement, the collapse of a stable environment leading to countless, recurring disasters, incompetently run and financed education systems (at least here in the U.S.), substandard mental health care (at least in the US), rampant mass murder via firearm (at least in the US), and examples everywhere you look of leaders proving themselves either too corrupt or incompetent to handle the challenges of the modern age. That the biggest contributor to teen angst is the fact they now have a supercomputer in their pocket -- itself doesn't really compute.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 August 2021 @ 1:33pm

Judge Shoots Down ViaSat's Quest To Stall Starlink Launches

from the star-wars dept

For a few years, scientific researchers have warned that Elon Musk's Starlink low orbit satellite broadband constellations are harming scientific research. Simply, the light pollution Musk claimed would never happen in the first place is making it far more difficult to study the night sky, a problem researchers say can be mitigated somewhat but not eliminated. Another problem is there are simply so many low orbit satellites being launched, the resulting space junk is creating navigation hazards. US regulators, so far, have done little to nothing about either problem.

Enter ViaSat, which clearly isn't keen on having its captive business market disrupted by new competition. Back in January, the company urged the FCC to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX’s low-orbit Starlink constellation, arguing that the fledgling system poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth. Since the 80s, satellite systems have had a baked in exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), excluding their businesses from environmental review. But the sheer scale of what Starlink and Amazon are doing (more than 50,000 low orbit satellites in orbit) should change that equation, ViaSat argues:

"...given the sheer quantity of satellites at issue here, as well as the unprecedented nature of SpaceX’s treatment of them as effectively expendable, the potential environmental harms associated with SpaceX’s proposed modification are significant,” the company stated.

“Relying on the Commission’s decades-old categorical exemption to avoid even inquiring into the environmental consequences of SpaceX’s modification proposal would not only violate NEPA, but also would needlessly jeopardize the environmental, aesthetic, health, safety, and economic interests that it seeks to protect, and harm the public interest,” Viasat continued."

The thing is, ViaSat is most certainly only really interested in its own revenues here, even if the concerns it's pushing are legitimate ones. But after petitioning for change saw no reaction at the FCC, ViaSat sued the agency last May, demanding a pause of Starlink satellite broadband deployments. This week, judges made it clear that wasn't going to happen. Though the court's order (pdf) did grant a motion to expedite the appeal, which should speed up the legal feud somewhat.

The FCC and Space X have largely been aligned on this issue, insistent that any environmental harms can be mitigated. Space X, meanwhile, quite correctly notes that ViaSat's environmental concerns are likely performative and its arguments not entirely consistent:

"Viasat's newfound environmentalism is belied by its actions at every turn. Viasat failed to raise any environmental concerns in connection with any other satellite authorization, including SpaceX's authorization to operate Starlink satellites at a different altitude and its prior request (nearly identical to the one at issue here) to lower many of those satellites. To the contrary, Viasat—a non-US licensee that has previously sought to escape Commission regulation altogether—ultimately relies on "competitive harm" to support its stay request. But stifling competition and protecting profits is not what NEPA is about."

But again, ViaSat is correct that the concerns about space junk and light pollution are legitimate ones that aren't being taken particularly seriously at the FCC. But the solution to that problem likely isn't going to come at the hands of a company predominately and transparently only looking out for its own best interests.

The FCC under both Trump and Biden has been very eager to give Musk's Starlink pretty much anything it wants, including some extremely dubious subsidies. All of this favorable treatment and subsidization comes despite the fact Starlink isn't going to have quite the innovative impact many assume. As noted previously, the service will only have the capacity to reach 400 to 800,000 subscribers in its first few years (a max of 6 million several years from now), a small drop in the bucket when you consider upwards of 42 million Americans lack broadband access, and another 83 million live under a broadband monopoly.

So there are still legitimate questions here about whether Starlink will really be worth the cost(s), and whether Starlink will be able to remain financially viable (the majority of past efforts on this front have not). And while a self-interested competitor like ViaSat may have been the wrong messenger for worries about space junk and light pollution, the concerns themselves likely aren't going anywhere.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 August 2021 @ 5:46am

After Exploiting Covid Broadband Program, Verizon Faces Unsurprising Opposition To Tracfone Merger

from the surely-they'll-behave-THIS-time dept

When last we checked in with Verizon, the company had just been caught exploiting the government's Covid broadband relief program to upsell struggling Americans to more expensive plans. Now, as Verizon tries to gain regulatory approval for its $6.2 billion acquisition of Tracfone, consumer groups and a small cadre of Senators are wondering if a company that thinks nothing of exploiting struggling Americans in need is a good steward for a discount phone company whose client base is predominantly comprised of low-income Americans.

Five U.S. Senators recently wrote the FCC, rather timidly wondering if Verizon would use the acquisition to simply upsell these lower-income Americans to more expensive plans (spoiler: yes):

"Senators Richard Blumenthal, Sheldon Whitehouse, Dianne Feinstein, Ron Wyden and Ed Markey said in a letter "Verizon would have significant incentives and opportunities to push subscribers from Lifeline and inexpensive prepaid services to higher revenue plans."

The amusing part here is that there's 40 years of documented history showing how Verizon and AT&T's overall strategy is to acquire everyone, then use that consolidation and reduced competition to relentlessly nickel and dime their subscribers. This is just a factual reality and the way publicly-traded companies are structured to take full tactical advantage of the market and weak regulatory environments to the benefit of investors. It's not some errant opinion that this will happen again in the wake of yet another industry merger, it's the likely outcome based on decades of history.

Yet the concern that they'd do so again here (spoiler: they will) is framed as some kind of radical theoretical or -- as is the preference of the DC Beltway "he said, she said" reporting set -- purely a partisan concern expressed only by Democrats. But the fact Congress could only cobble together five Democratic Senators interested in giving a shit shows you pretty clearly that apathy to this kind of mindless consolidation is very much a bipartisan sport.

1.7 million of Tracfone's customers currently enroll in the FCC's Lifeline program. Started under Reagan and expanded by Bush, the program doles out a measly $9.25 monthly credit that struggling Americans can use to get a discount off of their phone, wireless, or broadband bill (they have to choose one). It's literally the very least the government can do to help poor people afford telecom services, but it's been endlessly demonized by folks like Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai, who think even this half-assed effort is a bridge too far.

If this telecom merger follows the pattern of other U.S. telecom mergers, a bipartisan coagulation of lawmakers will trip over themselves to ignore warnings and approve the deal. They'll then sign off on a bunch of flimsy conditions -- most likely crafted by Verizon -- that not only won't really do all that much, but won't be enforced or adhered to. Meanwhile, Verizon gets way with rather nebulous claims that this deal creates amazing synergies and benefits that you just can't get without greater industry consolidation:

"The company said the proposed deal "will bring value and benefits to value-conscious consumers in a myriad of ways."

Then in two to three years, when policymakers and the press have forgotten all about the deal, Verizon will exploit the consolidation to steadily raise rates. The very same policymakers who signed off on yet more consolidation in the space will then stand around with their hands on their hips and a dumb look on their face wondering how we got here. Right before signing off on yet another "growth for growth's sake" telecom megamerger that benefits absolutely nobody outside of the Hamptons set. Rinse, wash, and repeat, with absolutely nobody learning anything from the experience.

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Posted on Techdirt - 30 July 2021 @ 6:22am

Broadband Portion Of Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan Appears Watered Down But Still Helpful

from the watered-down dept

As we've noted previously, the broadband component of the Biden infrastructure bill has slowly been whittled down during "bipartisan negotiations." What was first a $100 billion proposal is now a $65 billion proposal, with things industry didn't like (like support for community broadband) slowly hollowed out. And while the White House fact sheet on the agreement offers some detail on the compromise (which still isn't technically final), it remains arguably vague:

"The deal’s $65 billion investment ensures every American has access to reliable high-speed internet with an historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment, just as the federal government made a historic effort to provide electricity to every American nearly one hundred years ago.

The bill will also help lower prices for internet service by requiring funding recipients to offer a low-cost affordable plan, by creating price transparency and helping families comparison shop, and by boosting competition in areas where existing providers aren’t providing adequate service. It will also help close the digital divide by passing the Digital Equity Act, ending digital redlining, and creating a permanent program to help more low-income households access the internet."

Fortunately Cyrus Farivar at NBC obtained a leaked draft copy of broadband grant portion of the infrastructure plan and linked to it in his reporting (something that's annoyingly uncommon in press policy coverage).

At first look, there's some notably good things in it, including very clear signals that the government realizes its broadband maps are hot garbage, and plans to do something about it after Congress passed the DATA Act last year. The leaked draft also makes it clear that any new subsidized networks will need to deliver broadband at speeds of 100 Mbps down, 20 Mbps up. That's notably better than the current FCC "broadband" definition of 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up, or the even more pathetic standard of 10 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up used in many previous subsidy programs:

"A draft copy of the 68-page broadband section of the infrastructure bill obtained by NBC News would establish a de facto minimum standard of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up, and it would require that internet service providers have an eye toward even higher speeds, most likely through fiber optic service.

Note this only changes the broadband definition for this specific grant program, not the overall definition of broadband, which remains at a fairly pathetic 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up. And while the 100/20 standard is weaker than the symmetrical 100/100 many wanted (cable and fixed wireless providers lobbied for this because they can't reach the full 100/100 provided by full fiber), it's still progress. Industry had lobbied fiercely against any update to any of the definitions, as doing so only illustrates market failure.

The leak also indicates that the proposal extends the COVID "Emergency Broadband Benefit" (EBB) program, though reporter chatter indicates it will be at a lower rate than it's at currently ($50 discount for low-income Americans, $75 discount for tribal areas). But reading through the proposal it's not really clear if they managed to include any additional guardrails on the program to stop the ISPs currently abusing it to upsell users to more expensive options (which was undermining the whole point).

As with all policy, details and implementation will matter. The proposal isn't final, and as Ars Technica notes, its final form could still feature narrow definitions of broadband speeds (to ensure satellite and wireless options are considered "serving" a neighborhood), strict restrictions on qualifications for low-cost plans, and an overly generous definition of what constitutes a "low cost" plan. A lot of this stuff won't be fully obvious until we see final language and implementation.

While many of these improvements will help, DC historically has been quite averse to doing anything to truly target the real cause of the problem they're trying to fix (regional monopolization and the corruption that protects it). In part because DC is absolutely slathered with Comcast, Verizon, Charter, AT&T, and T-Mobile campaign contributions and lobbying cash, but also because these companies are bone grafted to our intelligence gathering apparatus. AT&T, for example, is effectively a dutiful and patriotic part of government now, further reducing an already fleeting interest in holding it accountable.

As a result, all too often the answer to the broadband problem in DC is "throw more subsidies at it," despite a very clear track record this doesn't work all that well. The other popular DC approach to broadband dysfunction is to apply regulatory band aids on the problem without fixing the underlying rot first. So you get these elaborate bureaucratic fixes like the EBB, which genuinely does help low income Americans by giving them a broadband discount (when it works), but doesn't really cut to the root cause of why US broadband is slow, expensive, and patchy.

In twenty years of covering telecom I've lost track of how many big, well hyped proposals government has unveiled that claim they'll finally fix the problem that is US broadband. Corruption means that most of the time these solutions just nibble around the edges of the real issues or get weakened down steadily by lobbying influence. Refuse to fix corruption, and nothing changes, something exemplified in countless other sectors. That said, the proposal does seem to include things of value, though it remains unclear when a full text of the actual bill will be made available to the public.

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Posted on Techdirt - 29 July 2021 @ 6:34am

Exec That Tried To Send Critical Reporters A Dead Pig Blames 'The Drinking Culture At eBay'

from the bad-ideas-all-around dept

Last year, you might recall how a group of eBay executives were arrested for a truly bizarre (an understatement) stalking and harassment campaign aimed at critical reporters. Angry at the critical coverage of eBay by a small news site (Ecommercebytes.com, published by David and Ina Steiner), a team of six eBay executives and employees engaged in a year long campaign of terror against the couple that included death threats, spying on them, and even sending them everything from dead cockroaches and a bloody pig mask. The crew even tried to send the reporters a dead pig, though it never managed to ship.

These weren't really low-level employees, either. They included eBay’s senior manager of global intelligence, a manager of eBay's global intelligence center (GIC), a contractor who worked as an intelligence analyst within the GIC, and a senior manager of special operations for eBay’s global security team --and a former cop. And all of them lost their jobs for their decision to engage in this bizarre campaign of terror against what's really just a fairly ordinary and polite industry trade outlet run by a couple of genuinely decent people.

This week saw the manager of eBay's global security team Philip Cooke plead guilty to the charges in court. At his sentencing hearing, Cooke insisted that it was eBay's "drinking culture" that was apparently responsible for his atrocious judgement:

"A former eBay security official who pleaded guilty for his role in a cyberstalking conspiracy has asked for leniency in sentencing while blaming his actions in part on a "drinking culture" at eBay that contributed to his alcoholism.

"eBay had a bar on campus that opened at 3:00 p.m., and drinking was part of the culture, with alcohol present throughout the office space where it was typical to take morning shots of alcohol with co-workers," a sentencing memorandum for 56-year-old defendant Philip Cooke said yesterday. It was filed in US District Court for the District of Massachusetts."

It's pretty hard to blame gin and tonics for a campaign that required this much focus, attention, and detail. The real and obvious problem was the corporate rot that infected eBay's overall corporate culture (and still may). Cooke was ultimately promoted by eBay to director of security operations and given a raise to $205,000 in June 2020 -- ten months after the campaign began -- before ultimately losing his job once allegations came to light a few months later. If the story had never gone public, there's a not insubstantial chance he'd still be working at eBay.

Last week, the Steiners filed an unsurprising lawsuit (pdf) against the executives. But that lawsuit also included former eBay CEO Devin Wenig and eBay Chief Communications Officer Steven Wymer, who were not originally charged by the DOJ. The lawsuit accuses both of sanctioning the behavior from the highest levels of eBay leadership. According to the complaint, the two executives:

"provided the other Defendants with carte blanche authority to terminate the reporting of the Steiners by whatever means necessary, with Defendant Wymer expressing "... I want to see ashes. As long as it takes. Whatever it takes." Defendant Wymer promised the defendants he would "embrace managing any bad fallout" if the plan went south, further directing, "We need to STOP her." All of the horrific, vicious and sickening conduct that followed was committed by employees of eBay and PFC, while acting in the scope of their employment under the authority of and for the benefit of eBay and PFC."

Again it's astonishing the lengths these guys went to in order to harass a fairly small and relatively polite blog. There is some incredible culture rot needed for an effort like this to materialize and persist for so long. If this is how they felt about a fairly innocuous trade blog, you can only imagine their disdain for bigger outlets that do more serious investigative reporting. The idea that this was just a strange one off caused by just a few errant, sauced executives still seems a little hard to believe.

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 July 2021 @ 6:24am

ISPs Abuse FCC Covid Broadband Discount Program, Showing It's A Band Aid On A Much Bigger Problem

from the band-aids dept

For more than a year the Covid crisis has showcased the essential nature of broadband and the high prices Americans pay due to limited telecom competition. While fixing this competitive logjam has long been a work in progress, the pandemic has culminated in renewed efforts to ensure affordable broadband access is a top priority.

At the forefront of these efforts was the creation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, which doles out a $50 per month subsidy to those struggling economically during the pandemic (it jumps to $75 per month for those living on tribal lands). The program ends when funds run dry or the pandemic ends, whichever comes first.

Over 825 participating ISPs enrolled a million users in discounted broadband plans in just the first week alone. The EBB is now providing essential, immediate aid to the nation’s marginalized and minority populations, routinely hit the hardest by the lack of affordable broadband. But while the majority of internet service providers (ISPs) are participating in good faith, several of the biggest industry players have exploited the program in a quest to generate additional revenue.

Last May, the Washington Post reported that Verizon was exploiting the program to force broadband customers to sign up for more expensive broadband tiers than they currently subscribed to (defeating the point of the whole program):

"Annie Styles from Arlington, Va., who pays $79 per month for her Internet, says Verizon told her she would have to switch to a plan that would cost her closer to $95. “I stopped pursuing it with them after the math didn’t work out,” she says.

Sharon from Harrisburg, Pa., who asked to be identified only by her first name, said she was told by two customer service representatives that she could receive the EBB discount only if she increased her current Internet speed and reconfigured her TV package, too. She said the ultimate price would have depended on what video package she was forced to switch to, as well as new equipment with fees — but she dropped her EBB application out of frustration before she got that far."

Verizon also refused to apply the discount on the company’s older DSL lines, often the only option for users in long neglected markets. Only once the strategy began making headlines did the company shift its trajectory, insisting in a statement that it was always the company’s intent to provide its customers “a wide range of choices to best fit their needs.”

"Verizon's behavior as an EBB provider demonstrates its disdain towards serving low-income consumers, such as TracFone's Lifeline subscribers," consumer group Public Knowledge wrote in a May filing opposing Verizon’s planned acquisition of the prepaid phone provider.

Other broadband providers, including Charter, T-Mobile, and AT&T, restricted which tiers of service qualified for the government discount. Frontier Communications was last week found to be only approving users if they signed up for the company's fastest service tiers. While this did not violate agency rules (left intentionally broad to encourage ISP participation), it limited applicant choice and often shoveled struggling families toward options they can't really afford.

In a bid to protect low-income consumers from bill shock when the program ends, the FCC required that ISPs give qualifying users clear notice that the program was ending, then get their explicit opt-in consent before subscribing them to a more expensive broadband plan.

But several broadband providers, including Charter, have been criticized for requiring that low-income Americans sign up for a more expensive tier of service upon their initial application. If they refuse, they are rejected from participation entirely, something news outlets say wasn’t initially made clear to users in the company’s FAQ. That runs counter to the point of the EBB program, which was to protect consumers from expensive broadband during an economic crisis -- not leave them saddled with even higher bills once the program ended.

A recent study by consumer group Free Press found that the average U.S. household expenditure on broadband jumped 19 percent in the first three years of the Trump era. The study also found that standalone cable broadband prices jumped 34 percent between 2015 and 2020, nearly four times the rate of inflation.

But many applicants to the EBB program say they’re struggling to even make it through the approval process. One report indicates that Charter and Comcast customers are being rejected at no fault of their own. One Comcast customer on Medicaid with a disabled daughter told Protocol they’d been rejected by the ISP four times, despite being approved by the FCC:

"Over the last several weeks, Corsaro said he's reapplied and been rejected by Comcast another three times. He's followed the circuitous trails of automated FCC phone lines that all lead to dead ends and appealed to the kindness of mystified Comcast agents, who have told him again and again that he needs to finish the FCC's verification process. "I keep telling them, 'I've been approved. There's nothing to finish,'" Corsaro said."

While the EBB program is providing welcome aid to many struggling Americans stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide, significant improvements and tougher, clearer guard rails for ISPs may be required if it’s to be made permanent. If carriers continue to exploit loopholes in the program, Congress could mandate a low-income tier like the one that New York State passed into law (which was met with a lawsuit and subsequent injunction courtesy of the telecom industry).

Consumer groups say much more needs to be done in order to improve both broadband access and affordability. A new Pew study found that a quarter of Americans still lack broadband access at home, with forty-four percent citing cost as the primary reason. Up to 42 million Americans lack access to broadband, and roughly 83 million Americans find themselves stuck under a monopoly where they have just one choice in internet service providers.

Regional monopolization and a lack of competition is directly responsible for the higher broadband prices paid by US consumers, putting an essential lifeline to healthcare, opportunity, employment, and education just out of reach for many. As such, it’s essential to adopt policies that drive creative broadband alternatives to market, lowering historically high broadband prices through competition. At the same time, restoring the consumer protection authority stripped away from the FCC by the Trump administration would ensure that government regulators have the tools needed to protect consumers.

While Covid has been an unspeakable tragedy, it has also been the catalyst for real change. The government insists a $1 billion investment to improve broadband infrastructure in tribal areas -- part of a Covid relief bill passed last December -- was just a “down payment” on the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, which itself aims to set aside $100 billion to shore up US broadband coverage gaps. Assuming the proposal can survive "bipartisan negotiations" in the Senate, which have continued to whittle away at the scope of the effort.

Until the government realizes the true scope of the problem, the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, warts and all, at least gives struggling Americans a fighting chance. Those curious if they qualify for discounted broadband service under the program should visit the FCC application website. Users experiencing unnecessary barriers when signing up for the EBB program should file their complaints directly with the FCC.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 July 2021 @ 5:01am

AT&T Gets Loyal Lawmakers To Push A Broadband Tax For 'Big Tech'

from the you're-not-helping dept

Hoping to capitalize on legitimate animosity against "big tech," AT&T lobbyists and policy makers have been busy recirculating a fifteen-year-old talking point. Namely, that big tech companies should throw billions of dollars at big telecom companies to subsidize their broadband deployments. The argument that AT&T has been pushing since 2004 or so is that since big tech companies get a "free ride" on telecom networks (which has never been true), they should pay telecom giants billions of additional dollars... just because.

The argument never made any coherent sense. Tech giants like Netflix and Google pay not only billions of dollars for bandwidth, they also spend billions of additional dollars on cloud, transit, undersea cable, CDN, and other broadband infrastructure. U.S. consumers and businesses alike also pay an arm and a leg for bandwidth courtesy of limited competition. When it comes to U.S. telecom, nobody gets a free ride.

Telecom giants like AT&T also invest billions of dollars in telecom infrastructure. But they also receive billions upon billions in taxpayer subsidies, dubious tax breaks, and regulatory favors in exchange for network upgrades that are always mysteriously half-delivered. There's not a day that goes by where some telecom company isn't getting ridiculous sums of money for projects that don't make sense or simply never get deployed. So if you were serious about reforming the FCC's USF or subsidy systems used to expand broadband access, that would be the place to start.

Instead, AT&T has asked captured regulators like FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr to push for a broadband tax on tech giants. Carr recently pushed the idea in a an editorial over in a Newsweek Op/Ed, and since then outlets from CNET to Axios have been parroting the idea as if it's a good faith effort. It's not. It's an AT&T policy and lobbying missive being dressed up as a legitimate idea by corrupt lawmakers and regulators.

Now, Senators Roger Wicker, Shelley Moore Capito, and Todd Young have introduced a doomed bit of legislation dubbed the Funding Affordable Internet with Reliable (FAIR) Contributions Act. It too suggests that "big tech" has gotten a "free ride" on US telecom networks and should be subject to a new tax to fund broadband deployments:

"For too long, Big Tech has been able to profit off of the critical infrastructure used for common day-to-day activities while not helping at a sufficient level to improve those capabilities with broadband investment in states like West Virginia. With communications platforms moving away from telephone networks toward internet heavy platforms, it’s important now more than ever that we start looking at ways that Big Tech can step up and help close the digital divide and secure true universal service for West Virginians."

Again, the gross irony here is that for the better part of twenty years, West Virginian lawmakers have been in persistent thrall to regional telecom monopoly Frontier Communications. This generally involves doing everything the telecom giant asks, then throwing billions in unaccountable subsidies at the company in exchange for jack shit. The same problem is repeating itself in most states across America. So to come out and suggest the country's broadband shortcomings are Google's, Netflix's, or Amazon's responsibility to fund and fix is fairly laughable.

Our broken and corrupt telecom regulatory approach is precisely why US broadband is so expensive, patchy, and slow by global standards. Yet you'll note that the AT&T loyal Republicans (and some Democrats) pushing this stuff never acknowledge the need for reform of the telecom industry and the subsidies we throw its direction. They're usually not even capable of acknowledging the sector has any problems.

Josh Hawley and friends have spent several years hyperventilating over "big tech monopolies" but rarely (if ever) acknowledge the problems with regional telecom or energy monopolies. They're using legitimate concerns about "big tech" to push policies of interest to "big telecom." But with very few exceptions, the modern GOP is genuinely not interested in fixing any problems. They're interested in keeping campaign contributions from the likes of Comcast and AT&T flowing. And their only interest in "big tech" is finding leverage that will force them to carry race-baiting disinformation, a cornerstone of modern GOP power.

That's not to say "big tech" doesn't have ample problems that need fixing. It's also not to say that the subsidy and FCC funding mechanisms propping up our feeble broadband efforts aren't in dire need of reform. But this "big tech gets a free ride and therefore should throw billions at the telecom industry" is not a serious argument, and anybody treating it as such hasn't been paying attention to more than fifteen years of telecom history. If you want to fix the US broadband industry and improve service the path is obvious: tackle regional monopolization and the corruption that enables and protects it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 July 2021 @ 5:30am

Netflix Finally Faces Competition, Tries To Pretend Otherwise

from the nothing-to-see-here dept

Netflix had a pretty good run there for a long while. Thanks to low prices and an innovative streaming system, the company simply hoovered up streaming video subscribers as the cable TV industry stumbled around in the dark, busy pretending the cord cutting phenomenon either wasn't real or would end once Millennials started procreating. As a result, there was a big long window where Netflix's only real competitor was a bunch of fairly terrible "me too" half assed offerings from the traditional broadcast and cable sector.

That was then, this is now. With cable giants finally figuring out this whole streaming thing (Comcast's Peacock, Dish's SlingTV, AT&T's HBO Max) after numerous face plants (Verizon's Go90, AT&T's HBOMaxUltraExtreme), and numerous movie studios and broadcasters going direct to consumer (Disney+, AppleTV+) Netflix is finally started to see its market share slowly eroded. In fact the company's latest earnings report indicates Netflix lost 430,000 subscribers in the US and Canada. Like clockwork, Netflix now has to turn from innovation to turf protection.

And like the countless companies before it, part of that process involves pretending that things aren't changing under their feet. During the company's earnings call for example, Netflix executives tried to pretend roaring competition wasn't the primary reason for the subscriber dip:

"In the past year and a half, Disney, Apple, WarnerMedia, Comcast and others have launched streaming platforms, and there are more than 100 streaming services for consumers to choose from, according to data company Ampere. Yet on a call for investors, executives dismissed the idea that competition was behind the weaker figures. “Does HBO or Disney... have a differential impact compared to the past? We’re not seeing that in the [data] we have,” said Reed Hastings, Netflix co-chief executive. “That gives us comfort.”

Sure, some of the headaches could stem from COVID-related chaos, but it's hard to just brush off the impact Disney+ and other popular services have had on Netflix growth. Hastings' denial amusingly parallels the cable industry's "nothing to see here" approach of the last decade. However interesting it is to watch startups try to disrupt a sector, I've always found it just as interesting to watch companies gain popularity and critical mass, then inevitably pivot away from innovation to protectionism, timidity, and turf protection (Microsoft in the early aughts, Google over the last five years).

Seeing whether Netflix has the chops to maintain supremacy in the face of competent competition should prove entertaining, starting with the company's foray into video game streaming. There's still a lot of obstacles for Netflix to overcome, including a flood of studio/broadcaster direct to consumer offerings, and telecom giants that are not only starting to field competent streaming competitors, but remain eager to use their monopolies over broadband to erect unfair and arbitrary competitive barriers (see: pointless broadband usage caps).

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 July 2021 @ 3:28pm

FTC Formally Embraces Right To Repair As Movement Goes Mainstream

from the you-should-own-the-things-you-buy dept

One of the bigger bright spots in the last few years of often thorny or downright ridiculous policy debates has been the continued ascension of the right to repair movement. Whether it's Apple's wasteful restrictions or bullying of independent repair shops, Sony and Microsoft's efforts to monopolize game console repair, or John Deere's efforts to drive up repair costs for tractor owners, "right to repair" as a movement was born out of a genuine and bipartisan public annoyance at repair monopolies, obnoxious DRM, and self-service restrictions related to tools, documentation, and parts.

And despite Apple and friends' best attempt to smear the movement as some dangerous and diabolical cabal only of use to sexual predators, its popularity shows no signs of slowing down. There's legislation pending on both the federal level and in two-dozen states. Prompted by an FTC report showing industry opposition to the movement is largely fluff and nonsense, the Biden administration recently issued an executive order urging the FTC to do more. And now the FTC, with a bipartisan vote of 5-0, has adopted a new policy paper (pdf) and says it will take tougher action against illegal repair restrictions:

"The Federal Trade Commission today unanimously voted to ramp up law enforcement against repair restrictions that prevent small businesses, workers, consumers, and even government entities from fixing their own products. The policy statement adopted today is aimed at manufacturers’ practices that make it extremely difficult for purchasers to repair their products or shop around for other service providers to do it for them. By enforcing against restrictions that violate antitrust or consumer protection laws, the Commission is taking important steps to restore the right to repair."

The problem, of course, is the same problem facing the FTC on numerous fronts, from privacy to safety in bleach labeling. Namely that the agency's authority is generally restricted under the FTC act to tackling corporate practices that are clearly "unfair and deceptive." The agency also continually suffers from budget and staffing shortcomings (by well-lobbied Congressional design), so tackling the full scope of a problem like this often isn't logistically or financially possible.

Still, the FTC argued that there's a lot more it can do to lend markets and consumers a hand on the right to repair front, whether that's doing a better job enforcing existing warranty laws, engaging in better coordination with state and local policymakers, or doing a better job holding companies that attempt to monopolize repair accountable under antitrust law:

"These types of restrictions can significantly raise costs for consumers, stifle innovation, close off business opportunities for independent repair shops, create unnecessary electronic waste, delay timely repairs and undermine resiliency,” FTC Chairperson Lina Khan said during the meeting. “The FTC has a range of tools it can use to root out unlawful repair restrictions. And today's policy statement would commit us to move forward on this issue with new vigor."

Ideally you'd still want a comprehensive right to repair law to shore up shortcomings in FTC authority. Much like privacy laws, that's generally opposed by a broad coalition of cross-industry lobbyists who'd very much like to keep nickel and diming customers on a whole range of fronts, be it the phone industry or medical device manufacturing. But the more companies like Apple, John Deere, or the auto industry try to fight against reform using stupid, fear-mongering arguments, the more attention these shitty practices receive, the more annoyed the public gets, and the more bipartisan support develops.

That's a major reason why right to repair went from a niche concern just a few years ago, to seeing consistent coverage via the likes of CBS News. That's a positive development any way you slice it, and a nice contrast to many of the thornier and seemingly insurmountable tech policy debates that tend to consume DC, get mired in debate, and seemingly go nowhere.

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 July 2021 @ 6:23am

Biden Still Hasn't Picked An FCC Boss, But He Just Tagged A Comcast Lobbyist As Ambassador To Canada

from the priorities-priorities dept

Consumer groups have grown increasingly annoyed at the Biden administration's failure to pick a third Democratic Commissioner and permanent FCC boss six months into his term. After the rushed Trump appointment of unqualified Trump BFF Nathan Simington to the agency (as part of that dumb and now deceased plan to have the FCC regulate social media), the agency now sits gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners under interim FCC head Jessica Rosenworcel.

While the FCC can still putter along tackling its usual work on spectrum and device management, the gridlock means it can't do much of anything controversial, like reversing Trump-era attacks on basic telecom consumer protections, media consolidation rules, or the FCC's authority to hold telecom giants accountable for much of, well, anything. If you're a telecom giant like AT&T or Comcast, a gridlocked agency remains a policy gift.

It will take months to appoint and seat a third commissioner and permanent FCC boss. It will take additional months to get that person settled in place to even start working on serious policy proposals. In other words, by the time the FCC is fully staffed, a full year may have been wasted that could have been spent on tackling the not insubstantial problems in the telecom space. While Biden certainly has been aggressive on other fronts (appointing Lina Khan head of the FTC), fixing the mess in telecom clearly hasn't been a top priority.

What has been more of a priority? Appointing former Comcast lobbyist David Cohen to the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, apparently. Cohen held the very first fundraising dinner for Biden's Presidential campaign back in 2019, and has now been amply rewarded for his loyalty:

"Biden has nominated David Cohen, a former senior executive vice president at NBCUniversal owner Comcast, to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Canada. Cohen is currently a senior advisor to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts."

Comcast historically gets very angry when you call Cohen a lobbyist, despite the fact he spearheaded the company's lobbying and policy efforts for the better part of the last decade. After the U.S. updated its feeble lobbying rules in 2007 to require lobbyists to register if they spent any more than 20% of their time lobbying, Comcast simply called what Cohen did...something else. More specifically the company's "Chief Diversity Officer," despite Cohen's actual lack of any, you know, diversity. Cohen was a huge architect of gaining government approval of Comcast's massive 2011 merger with NBC Universal.

Making an aging telecom retiree and loyal fundraiser happy in his twilight years certainly isn't the end of the world. But it's still not a great look when you've prioritized rewarding telecom lobbyists over properly staffing the agency that oversees telecom.

Previous FCC boss Ajit Pai spent four years studying how the FCC worked as a Commissioner, then when appointed agency Chairman by Trump, set about using that knowledge to ruthlessly dismantle not just consumer protections, but state and federal oversight of telecom in general. Usually, Pai operated in perfect symmetry with large regional telecom monopolies like AT&T and Comcast, embracing some extremely ruthless behavior along the way. Reversing those policies requires a certain level of urgency from team Biden that so far really hasn't been particularly apparent.

How tough Biden will be on telecom remains an open question. While his executive order contained some interesting promises, most can't be accomplished without a properly staffed FCC, or an agency head with a backbone. I can still see things going either way here. I can see him appointing a tougher, Lina-Khan esque type interested in genuine reform. But I can also see him making a safe pick that chirps all the right notes (5G is great! damn that digital divide!) but, like so many in DC, isn't willing to truly acknowledge monopolization and corruption are the primary causes of U.S. telecom dysfunction.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 July 2021 @ 3:38pm

Telecom Industry Spends $320,000 Every Day Lobbying Against Policies It Doesn't Like

from the dirty-deeds-done-dirt-cheap dept

We've noted repeatedly that while "big tech" has faced intense scrutiny over the last few years, "big telecom" has largely seen the exact opposite. Despite being every bit as problematic as tech giants (worse in some ways given their natural monopolies over broadband access), in the last few years the media and telecom sectors (one in the same when it comes to AT&T and Comcast) managed to effectively lobotomize the FCC, obliterate longstanding (and bipartisan) media consolidation rules, gut countless consumer protections, and generally turn the U.S. government into a giant bobble-headed doll with a rubber stamp.

Such favors didn't come cheap. A new joint study by the top telecom union (CWA) and Common Cause found that during the last Congress alone the telecom lobby spent $234 million lobbying the government, or roughly $320,000 every single day. Comcast of course was the biggest spender at more than $43 million in lobbying expenditure, with AT&T not too far behind at $36 million. Money spent to gut oversight of the telecom sector while these same companies pushed for dramatically expanded oversight of the "big tech" companies whose ad revenues they've long coveted.

Given our lobbying disclosure and campaign finance laws are garbage this tally is likely a dramatic undercount, and doesn't include all the dodgy nonsense the industry uses to influence policy, press coverage, and public discourse. You know, like the fake consumer groups or dead and fake people the telecom industry created to create the illusion of support for the net neutrality repeal. Or the money funneled into DC via so-called "dark money" groups:

"Under Citizens United and its progeny, ISPs, trade associations, and other corporations can make unlimited expenditures in federal elections and unlimited contributions to super PACs and dark money groups to be spent on supporting or opposing federal candidates,” the report said.

In addition to gutting the FCC, killing net neutrality, crushing telecom specific privacy rules, and generally demolishing federal (and state!) consumer protection authority, the report notes how telecom lobbying during the last Congressional period helped dismantle all manner of laws with bipartisan support. Including laws that would have shored up network resiliency in the wake of industry outages after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, laws that would have helped fund community broadband, and laws that would have restored basic consumer protections like net neutrality:

"The groups found that one of the industry’s top targets during the last Congress was the Save the Internet Act, which would have restored net neutrality and the FCC consumer protection authority stripped away during the Trump administration (amidst a flood of empty promises). Telecom lobbyists also fought against the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which includes money to help fund local community broadband. And they successfully derailed the RESILIENT Networks Act, proposed as an attempt to shore up Puerto Rico network resiliency after prolonged telecom outages from hurricanes Irma and Maria."

It takes a lot of time and money to keep the U.S. government appropriately feckless and slack-jawed in the face of obvious and rampant regional telecom monopolization. All propped up by a very elaborate ecosystem of think tanks, consultants, economists, academics, and marketing firms hired to pretend there's no actual problem that needs fixing. As such, you really can't fix the U.S. broadband problem (or any of a number of issues, like climate change) until you tackle the underlying corruption that enables it. But if you hadn't noticed, there's no real DC interest in actually doing that, so here we are.

The report recommends shoring up lobbying laws so that lobbyists can't just tap dance around requirements (see Comcast lobbyist David Cohen avoiding requirements by just calling what he did something else). The report also recommends passing the the For the People Act, which includes several provisions shoring up lobbying and campaign finance loopholes. But given the Congressional votes you'd need to pass such laws are compromised by the very lobbying these proposals want to fix, you're stuck with a chicken-and-egg scenario where dysfunction and corruption remains the norm.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 July 2021 @ 6:30am

The Government 'Fix' For The T-Mobile Merger Continues To Look Like A Convoluted Mess

from the synergies-indeed dept

Remember when the FCC rubber stamped the Sprint T-Mobile merger without even looking at impact analysis? Remember when a long line of economists and experts noted the merger would likely erode competition, raise rates, and kill jobs -- and both U.S. regulators and the court system completely ignored them? And remember when the FCC and DOJ both cobbled together a "fix" to this problem by trying to throw some spectrum at Dish Network, a proposal we noted was likely to fail?

You'll never guess how things are going.

First, T-Mobile's promise (still available on the company's website) that the deal would provide a flood of new jobs wound up being bullshit. The company has laid off 5,000 workers and counting -- likely more once they eliminate the second redundant Sprint headquarters. Deal critics estimated that the deal could result in anywhere between 10,000 to 30,000 lost jobs over a period of several years, and we're already well on our way toward that goal.

Second, the DOJ/FCC fix for the deal leaned heavily on the idea that T-Mobile would help Dish run a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) on T-Mobile's network while Dish spent the next seven years building its own, full 5G network. But the two sides immediately proved completely incapable of getting along, with Dish running to both state and federal regulators to complain that T-Mobile had already started reneging on several of its promises (like shuttering its 3G/CDMA network, still used by Dish wireless subscribers, earlier than Dish had expected).

This week those hostilities culminated in Dish effectively giving T-Mobile a demotion and hiring AT&T as the company's primary network partner. The 10 year, $5 billion deal gives AT&T wholesale revenue, and Dish customers access to AT&T's network in more rural and hard to reach places. That in turn gives Dish more time to try to complete a viable fourth wireless network and meet the deployment obligations set out by the FCC (reaching 70% of the population by 2025).

While telecom trade mags seem content to pretend this shouldn't be a big deal, other experts continue to express meaningful doubts that Dish will ever become a meaningful fourth major competitor. Or that they'll face any meaningful penalties should they fail to reach their deployment promises:

"If T-Mobile is able to shirk this regulatory obligation with impunity, what’s to prevent future consent orders from being ignored?” Hal Singer, an economist who testified against the merger approval tells The Verge..."The decree always gave Dish an easy out,” Singer says. “The real target of the regulation was T-Mobile. And now T-Mobile is getting to slither out."

Think about it. Dish is bleeding both TV and wireless subscribers at an alarming rate. It has little real experience in wireless. The company's CEO, Charlie Ergen, is purportedly a terrible boss. The company is routinely at the heart of industry feuds, be they the spat with T-Mobile, or a steady parade of retransmission arguments. Dish also has a long history of hoovering up wireless spectrum, promising amazing things, then not really delivering (just ask T-Mobile circa 2018 or so).

Yet for any of this to succeed, Dish needs to remain financially viable, deploy a top-shelf nationwide 5G network, ensure that network is popular with consumers, keep state and federal regulators happy by meeting all of its deployment goals on time, then nab meaningful market share from a U.S. telecom sector extremely resilient to being challenged in any way by upstart competitors or disruption. It's certainly possible, and a meaningful fourth competitor would be a great outcome were it to actually work, but history and the odds simply aren't in Dish's favor.

I still tend to think this entire transaction was intended from the start to be theater aimed at justifying approval of a deal that should have been blocked outright. Dish may genuinely think it can succeed here (given the collapse of its satellite TV business, its options are either shift to wireless or die), but I doubt AT&T would invest heavily in this venture if it thought that it would ever result in Dish becoming a meaningful threat to the company's market share. There are just too many things that need to line up for this to succeed at any real scale, including the need for competent and consistent U.S. regulatory oversight and accountability (good luck with that).

This could end with Dish stringing feckless US regulators along for six years (the window in which it's prohibited from selling its spectrum), then selling its vast and valuable spectrum troves when things get too hard--using a small portion of that cash to pay off its legal bills and whatever pathetic government fine results. Or, as some on Wall Street are speculating, Charlie Ergen could make a weak show of things before ultimately selling everything to AT&T as he retires and walks off into the sunset, leaving the wireless industry more consolidated than ever.

At which point, if telecom megamerger history holds, everybody who supported this deal or was involved with it in any way (regulators, think tankers, lobbyists, executives) will take their cut of the proceeds then walk off pretending none of this ever happened. And when the impact of consolidation directly results in endless layoffs and higher prices for consumers and businesses, all of those same folks will shrug and pretend that's just a very strange coincidence.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 21 July 2021 @ 4:55am

Axios Parrots A Lot Of Dumb, Debunked Nonsense About Net Neutrality

from the learning-nothing-from-history dept

I've talked a lot about how the Trump net neutrality repeal was a massive con. It effectively gutted the FCC's consumer protection oversight at telecom monopoly behest, then tried to ban states from being able to protect US consumers as well. Worse, it was based on a bunch of absolute bullshit about how doing this would spur network investment, create jobs, and result in amazing new innovation. All propped up by bad data and fake and dead people hired by the telecom industry. It was a massive ploy to further obliterate meaningful oversight of predatory, widely disliked regional telecom monopolies under the guise of progress.

And it worked flawlessly. None of the promised benefits materialized, but the industry got everything it wanted, namely: regulators too enfeebled to do much about US telecom market failure, high prices, and limited competition. Worse perhaps, the dumb gambit was all propped up by a select number of experts and press outlets that appear to have learned absolutely nothing from the experience.

Like Axios, for example. As we recently noted, Biden's executive order prods the FCC to restore net neutrality and the agency's Title II authority over broadband providers. The FCC can't do this until the Biden administration gets around to actually staffing the FCC. The simple act of appointing and seating a new agency boss alone could take much of this year, so any real action on more contentious issues like net neutrality likely won't happen for some time.

But the telecom industry is getting a running start undermining such efforts by trotting out the same nonsensical talking points they've been using for fifteen years. And they're getting the inadvertent (?) help of outlets like Axios, which this week parroted a long list of false industry claims verbatim without even bothering to fact check them. Such as the idea that Trump regulators engaged in "light touch" regulation (aka: letting AT&T do whatever the fuck it wants), which frames doing anything other than that as something heavy handed.

Then there's this utterly false Axios claim from unnamed "industry leaders" that net neutrality harms network investment:

"Industry leaders fear net neutrality rules will pave the way for the government to set broadband prices and have argued that the rules deter investment in the sector."

First, the US government is terrified of seriously regulating broadband prices. It's treated as the most radical policy proposal possible by the majority of both campaign-cash slathered parties. I doubt even under the most progressive of potential Biden appointments would the FCC seriously regulate broadband rates. Even when the agency has expanded consumer protection rules (like net neutrality), they've gone to comical lengths to avoid treating broadband like a utility or regulating prices (see: the forbearance language in the 2015 net neutrality order). The threat of this happening has been used by industry for scare-mongering purposes for 25 years, yet it never materializes, even if treating broadband more like a utility might make sense given broadband's essential nature (see: Covid).

Second, it takes about sixty seconds of research to find that the claim that "net neutrality hurt broadband investment" was never actually true. Yes, AT&T, Comcast, and friends claimed that net neutrality rules hampered investment, but there are several different studies now showing how that claim was absolutely false. And ample earnings reports, SEC filings, and other data showcasing how AT&T and others cut network investment in the wake of the repeal. There's even a long list of industry CEOs on the public record making it very clear net neutrality didn't impact investment.

If you're a reporter and you you feel the need to give an industry lobbyist ample room to make various claims, you should at least point out where that lobbyist might not be telling the truth so your readers have some vague idea where the truth actually is. But Axios doesn't do that. Instead, it lets former FCC boss turned top cable lobbyist Mike Powell make all kinds of unsubstantiated claims about what net neutrality is (or isn't): :

"Net neutrality has become an expensive, time-wasting exercise that has little real world effect," Michael Powell, president of cable trade group NCTA, said in a statement. "The drama detracts from focusing on genuine broadband issues, most critically our collective effort to get broadband to communities that lack service."

Again, the "real world effect" was that the FCC was left largely powerless to protect consumers right before a pandemic struck and gave everybody a painful crash course on the importance of broadband. The "real world effect" was that the repeal left federal and state regulators less prepared to rein in billing fraud (like bogus fees) and other harms of mindless monopolization (aka limited competition). And the "real world effect" was that with neither competition nor regulatory oversight to constrain them, regional telecom monopolies doubled down on shitty behavior, price hikes, and layoffs just as most folks predicted.

Axios proceeds to quote a Powell claim (again unchallenged) that doing anything other than letting AT&T dictate all federal telecom policy is doomed to failure:

"Of course, we can all suit up to play another game of ping pong, with yet another administration, but the inevitable years-long regulatory proceeding, exhaustive court challenges and likely trip to the U.S. Supreme Court some three or four years from now serves no one."

Yes, ideally you'd want Congress passing a net neutrality law to prevent the wobbling back and forth of the FCC as it shifts between parties. But because the US Congress is a corrupt mess in thrall to telecom monopolies, that's not happening anytime soon. And yes, the FCC restoring its consumer protection authority might run face-first into a rightward-lurching Supreme Court, but your alternative is to simply not try to do anything to fix this corrupt dysfunction, which is certainly AT&T and Comcast's preferred endgame.

Again, the net neutrality repeal didn't just kill "net neutrality rules," it gutted the FCC's consumer protection authority and tried to ban states from filling the consumer protection void. And again, the repeal involved a whole lot of dodgy data and outright fraud on the part of the telecom lobby. A reader walks away from the Axios piece understanding exactly none of that. The entire piece is a perfect example of the problem with "view from nowhere" or "he said, she said" journalism, where the truth gets lost somewhere amidst efforts to create the kind of bland, illusory balance that won't offend sources or advertisers.

You'd like to think the press learned a little something from the net neutrality repeal and the last four years of Trumpism, but as the net neutrality (read: basic oversight for regional telecom monopolies) debate heats up once again, there's already ample evidence that's simply not the case.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 July 2021 @ 5:43am

MAGA 'Freedom Phone' Targets Rubes With Dubious Promises Of Privacy

from the one-born-every-minute dept

If you hadn't noticed, there's been no shortage of dodgy folks attempting to cash in on the MAGA craze. There's also been no shortage of folks eager to cash in on the generalized animosity against "big tech" driven by bogus claims of "Conservative censorship" (aka: people being held vaguely accountable for being racist assholes on the internet via clumsy Silicon Valley moderation practices that don't work well at scale).

Enter the $500 Freedom phone, a new device being targeted at MAGA devotees promising an "uncensorable App Store," all your favorite right-wing apps preloaded, and promises that users can take "back control" from big 'ole mean big tech.

Amusingly there's no real detail anywhere on the website in terms of specs or build, meaning users have no real idea what they're actually signing up for. But when The Daily Beast had somebody take a closer look at the device, they found it was likely a Chinese-made A9Pro (retail: $120) running a modified version of Google's Android OS dubbed "FreedomOS":

"Freedom Phone appears to be a simple rebranding of a budget phone called the “Umidigi A9 Pro,” made by the Chinese tech company Umidigi. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Finman confirmed that the Freedom Phone was manufactured by Umidigi, but couldn’t say immediately which Umidigi phone it was based on.

The Freedom Phone’s $500 price tag would represent a substantial markup on the Umidigi A9 Pro. That phone is available on Chinese retail giant AliExpress for $120 — less than one quarter of the price of a Freedom Phone."

The phone in question appears to be one of several discounted Android phones with insecure configurations that are vulnerable to a long list of trivial vulnerabilities. The low cost, high-customizability of such phones make them more vulnerable than more expensive options, and less likely to see consistent security updates. In short, the Freedom phone appears to not only be an overpriced version of a fairly underwhelming phone, it potentially makes its customers more vulnerable to the type of spying and government surveillance they're being told they're avoiding.

In a post to Twitter, the phone's creator proclaims the phone is "the first major pushback on the Big Tech companies that attacked us - for just thinking different." Though as several Twitter users were quick to point out, a completely unmoderated or managed app store means it's easy for any random idiot (or government) to launch a bevy of privacy-violating and malware-laden apps designed to hoover up your personal details:

As Gizmodo notes, the ironic part is there's ample resources for folks genuinely interested in freeing themselves from Google and Apple. There's massive online communities designed around letting you bypass the Android/iOS gatekeeper logjam, often for a fraction of the cost of the Freedomphone. The Linux-based Pine phone, for example, offers a significantly cheaper option with greater transparency into what you're actually buying. The /e/ Foundation also sells refurbished and "de-Googled" discount phones that are likely notably more secure at a lower price point (with caveats).

Of course this all assumes that you genuinely care about privacy and aren't just gesticulating wildly based on a bunch of bullshit fed to you by a NYC real estate conman with a terrible combover.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 July 2021 @ 6:28am

It's 2021 And Bullshit Broadband And Cable TV Fees Are Somehow Still A Thing

from the you'd-think-we-would-have-fixed-this-by-now dept

For years we've talked about how the broadband and cable industry has perfected the use of utterly bogus fees to jack up subscriber bills -- a dash of financial creativity it adopted from the banking and airline industries. Countless cable and broadband companies tack on a myriad of completely bogus fees below the line, letting them advertise one rate -- then sock you with a higher rate once your bill actually arrives. These companies will then brag repeatedly about how they haven't raised rates yet this year, when that's almost never actually the case.

One 2019 Consumer Reports study found that about 24% of consumer bills are comprised of bullshit fees, generating cable giants $28 billion in additional revenue annually. The problem is just as bad over in broadband (see Centurylink's utterly nonsensical "Internet Cost Recovery" fee). Often cable and broadband companies will try to give such fees official-sounding names like "regulatory recovery" so that consumers falsely blame government for being nickel-and-dimed. But between TV fees, hardware fees, usage fees, and other surcharges, bundled customers dole out a small fortune every year for absolutely nothing.

It's fraud, but fraud that has somehow been normalized over decades.

I've been writing about this problem for the better part of twenty years, so it's disheartening to see the Washington Post still covering this bullshit in 2021 without much having changed:

"Most of the price hike that I didn’t expect was Comcast sneaking in additional “fees” — not taxes, just expenses related to Comcast’s cost of doing business. I’m paying $27.05 on top of my bundle price for Comcast’s cable service to carry local broadcast networks and pro sports games. Yes, my Comcast bill, [Consumer Reports senior counsel Jonathan] Schwantes said, isn’t as bad as many others he has seen, which can include 12 or more line-item fees. Some companies, he added, try to make people think their fees are government taxes, but they’re not.

Amusingly, Comcast tries to pass off falsely advertising low prices then socking users with bullshit fees as some kind of consumer benefit:

"Comcast tells me this is exactly what its customers want. It said it disclosed its copious additional fees to me in various fine-print communications — though only after I entered my credit card number. “We conduct extensive consumer research and host focus groups and incorporate our findings into the way we present information to our customers, all in an effort to help ensure they have a positive experience and can easily understand the details of their service,” said Jennifer Khoury, Comcast’s chief communications officer."

By and large, federal regulators couldn't give any less of a shit about this problem. That leaves a patchwork collection of State AGs who'll occasionally dole out some light fines and flimsy wrist slaps. But that leaves most consumers utterly unprotected from being ripped off by their local cable TV or telecom company. As you can tell from similar behavior in the banking and airline industries, the federal government, at some point, just declared it perfectly okay to rip people off with utterly nonsensical fees, provided you're just marginally clever about it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 July 2021 @ 5:58am

GAO Tells US Government Its Speed Definition For Broadband Sucks

from the keeping-the-bar-at-ankle-height dept

The US has always had a fairly pathetic definition of "broadband." Originally defined as anything over 200 kbps in either direction, the definition was updated in 2010 to a pathetic 4 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up. It was updated again in 2015 by the Wheeler FCC to a better, but still arguably pathetic 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream. As we noted then, the broadband industry whined incessantly about having any higher standards, as it would only further highlight industry failure and a lack of competition.

Unfortunately for them, pressure continues to grow to push the US definition of broadband even higher. Back in March, a coalition of Senators wrote the Biden administration to recommend that 100 Mbps in both directions become the new baseline. And last week, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a new report noting that the current standard of 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up is simply too pathetic to be useful. The focus was on small businesses, but the GAO politely noted that the FCC should update its definition soon:

"Is broadband fast enough for small business owners? As they shift to more advanced uses of broadband, their speed needs are likely increasing. However, the FCC has not updated its speed benchmark for 6 years. We recommended that the FCC determine whether its current definition of broadband really meets the needs of small businesses."

Granted entrenched ISPs fight tooth and nail against upgrading the standard for several reasons. One, higher speed standards means having to work harder for the billions in subsidies we throw at them for networks that routinely wind up half-deployed anyway. Two, better broadband definition more clearly highlights the lack of broadband competition, especially at faster speeds. That, in turn, brings more public and policymaker attention to their regional monopolies, and the state and federal corruption that protects and enables it. All bad things if you're a largely unaccountable telecom monopoly.

Former FCC boss and industry BFF Ajit Pai refused to upgrade the FCC's broadband definition during his term, something current interim FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel said "confounds logic." But if your over-arching policy goal is to protect AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast revenues from any threat to the status quo, it's perfectly logical. Rosenworcel will now need to update the definition on her watch, something she can't do (thanks to partisan gridlock) until the Biden administration gets around to finally staffing the FCC (which it appears in no rush to actually do).

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 15 July 2021 @ 6:35am

You Can Now Pay AT&T Extra To Adhere To The Dictionary Definition Of 'Unlimited'

from the pay-me-more-to-avoid-my-nonsense dept

For years, US wireless carriers have had a... somewhat nebulous relationship with the dictionary definition of "unlimited." As in, for the better part of two decades they've sold wireless data plans professing to be "unlimited," then included all manner of heavy handed limitations, often buried in mouse print. Verizon received wrist slaps for this way back in 2007. AT&T recently settled accusations that it lied to consumers about the throttling limitations in the company's "unlimited" plans (impacted consumers got all of $22 for participating in the class action).

None of these penalties were meaningful enough to really change industry behavior. AT&T and Verizon for example now charge more for "unlimited" plans that don't throttle 4K or HD video. And you need to pay more if you want to use your phone and "unlimited data plan" as a mobile hotspot. Sprint at one point even tried throttling all games, music, and movies unless users paid more.

Somehow we normalized paying wireless providers more money just to avoid arbitrary restrictions, then celebrate when they ease off even modestly. For example this week, AT&T announced that users that buy the company's most expensive wireless plan ($85-per-month "Unlimited Elite) will no longer see their connection throttled after a set amount of usage. In short, if you want AT&T to get close to adhering to the dictionary definition of "unlimited," you'll need to pay more:

"AT&T is adding a few more benefits to its $85-per-month top-tier unlimited plan at no added cost. Unlimited Elite subscribers will now truly have access to unlimited high-speed data and will no longer be subject to deprioritization after hitting 100GB of data per month. Customers will also get a bump from 30GB of monthly hotspot data up to 40GB as well as up to 4K video streaming — boosted from a maximum of 1080p. The new plan features will be added automatically for all current subscribers starting this week."

Network management technologies have evolved to the point where well-built modern networks can detect, adapt, and avoid congestion bottlenecks by deprioritizing select traffic with virtually no detection by the end users. So there's no real reason for many of these kinds of arbitrary restrictions to exist, outside of creating a sort of pricing funnel that shovels you to the most expensive plan if you'd simply like your connection to work normally. Yet the press has normalized this sort of thing to the point where outlets applaud a company for charging you more to avoid bizarre restrictions.

AT&T only made this modest concession because a similar plan by T-Mobile pressured it to (read: competition). But as investors inevitably force AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to exploit the reduced competition from the Sprint/T-Mobile merger over the next few years, you'll see more and more nickel-and-diming, less real price competition, and fewer and fewer meaningful concessions. Especially if the government can't be bothered to restore net neutrality or the FCC's authority over telecom providers.

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