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
While sexy Google Fiber deployments get the lion's share of media attention these days, it's the notably less sexy service in states like West Virginia that continue to perfectly exemplify just how broken U.S. broadband really is. Local Charleston Gazette reporter Eric Eyre has quietly done an amazing job the last few years chronicling West Virginia's immense broadband dysfunction, from the State's use of broadband stimulus subsidies on unused, overpowered routers and overpaid, redundant consultants, to state leaders' attempts to bury reports highlighting how a cozy relationship with companies like Frontier, Verizon and Cisco has led to what can only be explained as systemic, statewide fraud on the taxpayer dime.
It's of course the one-two punch of regulatory capture and the resulting lack of competition that are to thank for West Virginia's problems, which certainly aren't unique across the country. In state after state, the largest, incumbent ISPs throw cash at the state legislative process, allowing them to literally write state telecom law aimed at protecting their uncompetitive geographical fiefdoms from real competition. Because the nation's suffering through a particularly nasty bout of partisan nitwit disease, when someone tries to do something about it, they're ironically assailed as anti-business, anti-American, or anti-states' rights.
I tend to focus on West Virginia as a shining example of this dysfunction because things have gotten so bad there, local players have stopped even the slightest pretense that the entire legislative process isn't under the thumb of the country's biggest and wealthiest telecom companies. Case in point is this latest report by Eyre citing complaints by West Virginia Delegate Randy Smith, who says things have reached the point where nobody, from any party, can get a bill through the West Virginia legislative process if it doesn't first get approval from Frontier Communications. From a recent post to his Facebook page:
"As you know, Frontier Communications is the only game in town for many rural communities in West Virginia when it comes to Internet service. After introducing the legislation, I spoke with someone in leadership and was told it'd go nowhere because it would hurt Frontier. In other words, Frontier has its hands in our state Capitol...No wonder they're called Frontier. Those are the kinds of speeds you'd expect on the American frontier in the 17th century."
What reckless, dangerous bills was Smith trying to pass? One would have restricted ISPs from advertising their service as "broadband" unless it offered speeds of 10 Mbps (the FCC's new definition is already 25 Mbps, or 10 Mbps for rural subsidized service). Another would have allowed consumers to take complaints about poor broadband service directly to State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey -- if the state Public Service Commission refused to hear their complaints. But because both would have marginally threatened Frontier's monopoly in the State, they weren't even seriously considered. Frontier's facing a lawsuit in the state for long repair delays and for advertising broadband speeds users can't actually get.
Again, West Virginia's certainly not unique; the ISP stranglehold over the state legislative process just tends to be more sophisticated and better obfuscated in larger States. Regardless of the state, attempts at reform are usually assailed by those professing to adore free markets, when more often than not what they really adore is being able to abuse government to help protect mono/duopoly revenues. That's why, although it was massively overshadowed by the net neutrality vote the same day, yesterday's FCC vote to begin gutting protectionist, ISP-written state laws is an incredibly important first step toward returning some degree of power back to local communities while taking the fight directly to the bloated and corrupt broadband industry status quo.
Sure, Verizon may be endlessly misleading when it comes to everything from the spectrum crunch to network investment. And when it comes to anti-competitive telecom behavior it wrote the book. Hell, Verizon's even in many ways directly responsible for this week's net neutrality ruling by suing to overturn the original flimsy net neutrality rules -- rules every other ISP had absolutely no problem with. But while you can say a lot of things about Verizon, you can't say the company doesn't have a sense of humor.
As you might expect, Verizon took to the company's blog to protest the FCC's new TItle II based net neutrality rules. Amusingly however, it posted the entire thing in Morse code -- piggybacking on the oft-repeated ISP mantra that applying older Title II regulations to broadband is a dangerous and historically backwards proposition (because all old laws are automatically bad laws, get it?).
If you look for a translation, you're further directed to a press release (pdf) that appears to be written on an old typewriter. In that, Verizon trots out ye olde bogeyman that the FCC is using "antiquated regulations" for a modern era:
"Today’s decision by the FCC to encumber broadband Internet services with badly antiquated regulations is a radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors."
Of course if we were to stop using laws just because they smell like mothballs, we'd be in for quite an adventure. After all, the Constitution is pretty old, right? As is the Communications Act of 1934 and the revamped Telecommunications Act of 1996, which govern spectrum allocation and without which Verizon couldn't function as a company. Stupid old laws. So unnecessary! It's an overly-simplistic argument, made more so by the fact that Verizon's FiOS network -- and the voice component of their wireless network -- are governed by Title II in some instances to glean Verizon some lovely tax breaks.
Verizon stumbles forth unabated, insisting that it has your best interests at heart:
"What has been and will remain constant before, during and after the existence of any regulations is Verizon’s commitment to an open Internet that provides consumers with competitive broadband choices and Internet access when, where, and how they want."
Yes, so committed is Verizon to an open Internet, it has violated the principles of Internet and device neutrality more aggressively than perhaps any other company, whether that's trying to block GPS radio functionality unless you use their navigation software, or charging completely illogical fees to use basic functionality embedded in phones (like tethering, or Bluetooth). Verizon's also fairly insistent on ignoring the fact it was their lawsuit that pushed the FCC toward Title II in the first place, so if there's "regulatory uncertainty" at play, the lion's share of the blame belongs on Verizon's shoulders.
Still, you've got to hand it to Verizon for at least showing a sense of humor about the whole thing. That's more than Comcast or AT&T were capable of.
Today was, no hyperbole intended, probably one of the more historic -- albeit at times one of the dullest -- days in FCC history. The agency, led by a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries few expected anything from, bucked a myriad of low expectations and voted 3-2 to approve Title II-based net neutrality rules after an unprecedented public-driven tech advocacy campaign. While net neutrality will likely get the lion's share of today's media attention, the FCC also today voted to begin a prolonged assault on ISP-driven, protectionist state telecom law.
First, it's important to note that despite a 3-2 vote approving the Title II-based rules, we won't get to see the actual rules today. Despite claims by neutrality opponents that this is some secret cabal specific to net neutrality, the agency historically has never released rules it votes on (pdf) until well after the actual vote. It's a dumb restriction that's absolutely deadly to open discourse, but it's not unique to one party or to this specific issue.
As for when we'll actually get to see and start dissecting the actual Title II rules ourselves, we may be waiting weeks -- in part, ironically, thanks to neutrality opponents on the Commission that spent the last few weeks professing to adore transparency:
"In fact, it could take weeks before the final rules are published, the official said. That’s because the two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly—who oppose net neutrality of any sort—have refused to submit basic edits on the order. The FCC will not release the text of the order until edits from the offices of all five commissioners are incorporated, including dissenting opinions. This could take a few weeks, depending how long the GOP commissioners refuse to provide edits on the new rules."
Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Reilly voiced their opposition to the new Title II-based rules by not only voting against them, but by trying to bore meeting attendees to death. Pai, a former Verizon regulatory lawyer, offered a mammoth speech in which he ironically lamented "special interests" and claimed repeatedly to only be opposing net neutrality out of a concern for consumer wallets. O'Reilly tried to top Pai with an even longer, duller speech that continually insisted the FCC was trying to conduct a secret, regulatory takeover of the Internet. A visibly emotional Wheeler was having none of it:
"This proposal has been described by one opponent as, quote, a secret plan to regulate the Internet. Nonsense. This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concepts: openness, expression, and an absence of gate keepers telling people what they can do, where they can go, and what they can think."
While the net neutrality rules are incredibly important, the FCC's decision on municipal broadband may actually wind up being more meaningful over the long run. As we've noted for years, neutrality violations are really just a symptom of a lack of competition. Around twenty states now have laws in place -- usually based entirely on ISP/ALEC model legislation -- that prohibit towns and cities from improving their own broadband infrastructure -- even in instances where nobody else will. In some cases these rules even go so far as to prohibit towns and cities from striking public/private partnerships to improve broadband service.
Specifically, the FCC voted 3-2 to approve petitions by EPB Broadband in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina. Those petitions requested that the FCC use its authority to ensure timely broadband deployment using "measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment." While some politicians have lamented the FCC's move as a trampling of states' rights, these individuals ironically have had no problem with ISPs writing state telecom law that tramples those same rights. The justifications for these restrictions have never been coherently supported, and Wheeler was quick to highlight the hypocrisy of the position:
"You can’t say you’re for broadband and then turn around and endorse limits on who can offer it. You can’t say, ‘I want to follow the explicit instructions of Congress to remove barriers to infrastructure investment,' but endorse barriers on infrastructure investment. You can’t say you’re for competition but deny local elected officials the right to offer competitive choices."
Needless to say, this is likely only a new chapter in the debate over both issues, the precise wording of the neutrality wording will be debated for months if not years, and you can expect ISP legal action on both fronts aimed at protecting the uncompetitive status quo. It also probably goes without saying that opponents of net neutrality and those who like it when AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are allowed to write protectionist telecom law aren't taking the day's events very well. One of the best freakouts of the day belonged to Hal Singer, author of that misleading study we've previously debunked claiming that you'd face $15 billion in new taxes under Title II:
While some grieve the death of imaginary "innovation angels," thousands of others are celebrating a rare instance where Internet activism was able to overcome lobbying cash and push a government mountain toward doing the right thing.
Graphics card powerhouse Nvidia hasn't been having very much fun lately. First, the company took an Internet wide beating from gamers after selling a 4 GB graphics card (the GTX 970) that wasn't really a 4 GB graphics card, resulting in the $300+ purchase choking on high-end resolutions (or when using, say, Oculus Rift). After months of complaints and a false advertising suit, the company finally took to its official blog to acknowledge that the company "failed to communicate" its graphics card's limitations to the marketing department and "externally to reviewers at launch." Yeah, whoops a daisy.
Perhaps a bigger deal was Nvidia's December decision to roll out mobile graphics card drivers that prevented paying customers from overclocking the cards they own. The ability for consumers to do as they see fit with their own hardware, Nvidia claimed at the time, was a bug in the company's driver software that needed to be removed for the safety of the consumer (read: Nvidia got tired of processing returns and calls from idiots who didn't understand things pushed to work harder get hotter than ever when in confined spaces).
"As you know, we are constantly tuning and optimizing the performance of your GeForce PC.
We obsess over every possible optimization so that you can enjoy a perfectly stable machine that balances game, thermal, power, and acoustic performance. Still, many of you enjoy pushing the system even further with overclocking. Our recent driver update disabled overclocking on some GTX notebooks. We heard from many of you that you would like this feature enabled again. So, we will again be enabling overclocking in our upcoming driver release next month for those affected notebooks.
If you are eager to regain this capability right away, you can also revert back to 344.75."
While it's certainly great to see Nvidia listen to customer feedback, you'd think that after years of catering to the obsessively-anal gaming community, Nvidia would know better than to keep making the same PR mistakes. When you cater the lion's share of your business to technical enthusiasts capable of fact-checking your performance claims and PR fluff down to the millisecond, your marketing bullshit leash is notably shorter. It's not entirely clear why Nvidia needs to be reminded of this every few months, but you'd think this lesson would ultimately find its way to the company's central processor and take up permanent residence in system memory.
I recently toured a maker space in Burlington, and while I lack the inclination to build amazing contraptions out of Raspberry Pis, soldered metal and imagination myself, there's a Lego-loving corner of my brain that has an endless appreciation for the fusion of technology and creativity aided by modern marvels like 3D printers. It probably goes without saying that inexpensive and/or communal 3D printers, milling machines and other tools have opened the door toward a massive realm of new innovation, whether that's building less expensive prosthetic limbs, robotics or drones.
Of course, the fact that a lot of this technology can also help build weapons has resulted in no limit of hysteria that has a great potential to hamper a lot of the better aspects of this technological evolution. The latest case in point comes courtesy of FedEx, which is refusing to ship a computer controlled (CNC) mill dubbed the Ghost Gunner. Sold by Defense Distributed, the $1,500 machine can carve any number of aluminum objects from digital designs. With a few cheap extra parts, it can also help craft untraceable, semi-automatic firearms. This, apparently, has worried the FedEx legal and marketing departments:
"This device is capable of manufacturing firearms, and potentially by private individuals,” FedEx spokesperson Scott Fiedler wrote in a statement. “We are uncertain at this time whether this device is a regulated commodity by local, state or federal governments. As such, to ensure we comply with the applicable law and regulations, FedEx declined to ship this device until we know more about how it will be regulated."
Of course, we're entering an era where anything can be built at home, and just because firearms are among them, that doesn't make the tools illegal. Any lathe or mill can be used to help make a firearm; Defense Distributed appears to have gotten attention because of founder Cody Wilson's salty demeanor, and the fact it's specifically marketing their milling machine as a potential firearms maker. Again though, that doesn't magically make the ownership of such technologies against the law:
"But buying, selling, or using the Ghost Gunner isn’t illegal, nor is owning an AR-15 without a serial number, says Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. "This is not that problematic,” he says. "Federal law does not prohibit individuals from making their own firearms at home, and that includes AR-15s."
When pressed, FedEx hasn't been able to give a decent reason why it has suddenly added milling machines to its list of unshippable materials alongside hazardous waste and corpses. As we've noted when discussing the hysteria over firearm printing instructions or legislative efforts to thwart gun printing, this is a genie that's well out of its bottle, and no limit of cajoling the agitated djinn back into confinement is likely to be successful. Still, it seems inevitable that we try, in the process stumbling on and over a myriad of technological potential in the misguided quest to roll back the clock to a simpler age.
from the this-blog-post-will-not-count-against-your-data-usage-allotment dept
After having their wrists slapped for more ham-fisted neutrality abuses like throttling and blocking, ISPs have been increasingly clever when it comes to ways to abuse their stranglehold over the uncompetitive broadband last mile. On the fixed-line broadband front the major net neutrality battlefield is currently interconnection, with ISPs accused of allowing their peering points to tier 1 operators and content companies to deteriorate in order to glean new direct interconnection payments. This effectively has shifted one major portion of the neutrality debate from the user's connection to the edge of the network.
In mobile, the current net neutrality hotbed is usage caps and so-called "zero rated" apps. In developing countries the practice of zero rating apps is quite common, with major companies like Facebook and Google (see Facebook Zero or Google Free Zone) offering low-income developing nations access to select Internet services. Except we've discussed how an ad-laden, walled garden, corporation-curated version of the Internet isn't always doing these countries much of a favor, and you have to wonder what that vision of the "Internet" evolves into.
Here in the States, the practice of zero rating is rather more nefarious and complicated, but again is presented under the pretense of doing the consumer a favor. AT&T's Sponsored Data, for example, allows deeper-pocketed companies to pay AT&T an additional toll to have their content exempt from user usage caps, something that automatically puts smaller companies at a disadvantage. T-Mobile has similarly experimented with exempting only the biggest music services from user caps, similarly creating an unlevel playing field for smaller companies, independent operations or nonprofits. The real trick of these efforts is that many consumers wind up applauding them not understanding they're supporting an erosion of a healthy, balanced Internet.
"At its core, this decision isn’t so much about Bell or Videotron. It’s about all of us and our ability to access content equally and fairly, in an open market that favours innovation and choice,” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in a speech delivered Thursday morning in London, Ont. "It may be tempting for large, vertically integrated companies to offer certain perks to their customers, and innovation in its purest form is to be applauded,” Mr. Blais said, adding the CRTC wants to see broadcasters create “new and exciting ways to view content." "But when the impetus to innovate steps on the toes of the principle of fair and open access to content, we will intervene,” he said. "We’ve got to keep the lanes of our bridges unobstructed so that everyone can cross."
Except when faced with such restrictions here in the States, companies like AT&T usually just get more clever about it. AT&T doesn't exempt their content from usage caps, for example, but the practice of letting large companies pay to bypass AT&T's caps is nearly as bad (the CRTC decision didn't address this evolution of the issue, just as the FCC has remained mute on the subject). In other words, we're seeing time and time again that it's easy to violate neutrality even with rules in place. You just have to be a good tap dancer and lobby for neutrality rules with truck sized-loopholes (like the proposal currently being pushed by Thune and Upton here in the States that's most likely co-written by AT&T and Comcast lawyers).
That's of course why you need a flexible, objective regulator and intelligent neutrality protections that can adapt to what's literally going to be decades of net neutrality cat and mouse (and again, it's worth noting the Thune proposal also hamstrings FCC flexibility). Instead what we often see in the States are regulators that have largely laughed off the threat posed by both usage caps and zero rating efforts, not to mention willfully ignored that wired and wireless usage meters often aren't reliable. ISPs want to bill like utilities, but refuse to be regulated as such.
Many regulators seem to recognize that abuse of usage caps is a core part of the neutrality battle. In fact, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Norway, Chile and now Canada have all now made it clear that carriers can't use their arbitrary usage caps to gain unfair market advantages. As the European Union bickers over its possible rules, Internet grandpappy Tim Berners-Lee penned a guest blog entry this week for EU Digital Single Market Commissioner Andrus Ansip, highlighting that as countries craft net neutrality rules, they have to understand that the conversation doesn't magically stop with prohibiting throttling and blocking:
"Of course, it is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping 'positive discrimination', such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators. In effect, they can become gatekeepers - able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day. Imagine if a new start-up or service provider had to ask permission from or pay a fee to a competitor before they could attract customers? This sounds a lot like bribery or market abuse - but it is exactly the type of scenario we would see if we depart from net neutrality."
So while neutrality supporters here in the States are generally pleased to see that FCC boss Tom Wheeler is embracing Title II based rules, the discussion doesn't end there. In fact, it's only just beginning. Regulators truly interested in protecting net neutrality need to be every bit as tenacious, clever and intelligent as carrier executives who tirelessly look for creative new ways to abuse their uncompetitive telecom fiefdoms. Given the regulatory quality in most countries, that's a damn tall order, but in the all-too-common absence of truly healthy and competitive broadband markets, there's really no other choice.
We've discussed numerous times that as the Internet video revolution accelerates, the cable and broadcast industry's response has predominantly been to double down on bad ideas in the false belief that they can nurse a dying cash cow indefinitely. Netflix nibbling away at your subscriber totals? Continue to glibly impose bi-annual rate hikes. Amazon Prime Video eroding your customer base? How about we increase the hourly advertising load! Similarly, cable industry efforts at "innovative" viewing options (like TV Everywhere) are often more about giving the impression of innovation than actually innovating.
This has been going on for a while, and as complaints in this Reddit thread attest, another favorite tactic has been to heavily edit some programs for the same purpose. Fans of particularly popular programs tend to be the first to notice that their favorite content is now edited or accelerated, which may drive them to look elsewhere for a better quality version of that product (piracy, Netflix). Behold, even many executives in the cable and broadcast industry appear to be aware that adding more ads and degrading the quality of your product might not be the greatest idea for an industry at the cusp of a major competitive sea change:
"It is important for us to consider the effect this is having on the viewer experience,” said Jackie Kulesza, executive vice president and director of video at Starcom USA. “We want to ensure our message is seen by receptive viewers."..."They are trying to deal with a problem in a way that is making the problem bigger,” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast at media buyer Omnicom Media Group of the practice of increasing the commercial loads to make up for declining ratings."
Except the cable and broadcast industry has repeatedly shown it's not really worried about the "viewer experience." Why? Because for all of the bitching the public does about their cable company and its historically abysmal customer service, the industry knows the vast, vast majority continue to pay them an arm and a leg for bloated bundles of miserable programming that barely gets watched. Even as cord cutting accelerates, the industry isn't worried; plan B is to abuse its monopoly over the broadband last mile to ramp up deployment of broadband caps, recouping their lost pound of flesh via broadband overage fees.
Over the last few months we've discussed how FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has been waging a one man war on net neutrality and Title II using what can only be described as an increasingly aggressive barrage of total nonsense. Back in January Pai tried to claim that Netflix was a horrible neutrality hypocrite because the company uses relatively ordinary content delivery networks. Earlier this month Pai one-upped himself by trying to claim that meaningful neutrality consumer protections would encourage countries like Iran and North Korea to censor the Internet.
Now on the surface, it appears that Pai just doesn't understand technology very well. Of course, once you understand that he was once a regulatory lawyer for Verizon, you realize he's simply dressing broadband duopoly profit protection up as some kind of deeper, meaningful ethos. As such, lamenting that Title II is "Obamacare for the Internet," is just political theater designed to rile up the base to the benefit of the broadband industry.
With net neutrality set for a vote this week, Pai has accelerated his master plan to make the largest number of inaccurate net neutrality statements in the shortest amount of time possible. For example, Pai co-wrote an editorial in the Chicago Tribune last week that tries to use Obamacare fears to insist Americans will lose the right to choose their own wireless plans if Title II based rules come to pass:
"If you like your wireless plan, you should be able to keep it. But new federal regulations may take away your freedom to choose the best broadband plan for you. It's all part of the federal government's 332-page plan to regulate the Internet like a public utility...take T-Mobile's Music Freedom program, which the Internet conduct rule puts on the chopping block. The "Un-carrier" allows consumers to stream as much online music as they want without charging it against their monthly data allowance."
Except as we've noted recently, classifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II absolutely does not involve "regulating ISPs like utilities." In fact, Wheeler's stripping away many of the tougher aspects of Title II, something you'll see immeasurably annoy consumer advocates when the full rules are released later this week. And while I personally think zero rated apps like T-Mobile's Music Freedom plan set a horrible precedent and should be reined in by the rules, the FCC's made every indication that they see usage caps and zero rated apps as "creative" pricing models that won't be touched.
At the heart of Pai's assault on net neutrality has been an absolute flood of press releases and public speeches in which Pai insists that he's aggressively fighting consumer protections because he cares so very much about the little guy. His February 6 press release, for example, throws around his love of the "American People" and "small, independent businesses and entrepreneurs" like so much disingenuous digital confetti. Yet when you actually bother to ask said entrepreneurs -- like this letter (pdf) from 100 companies including Yelp, Etsy, Kickstarter, Tumblr and GitHub -- they unequivocally make it clear Commissioner Pai doesn't speak for them:
"We are the “small, independent businesses and entrepreneurs” that Commissioner Pai referenced in his February 6, 2015 press release about the FCC’s impending net neutrality rulemaking, and we write to say unequivocally that his release does not represent our views on net neutrality. Quite the opposite, entrepreneurs and startups throughout the country have consistently supported Chairman Wheeler’s call for strong net neutrality rules enacted through Title II."
One marginally clever thing Pai's been doing is that he's been raising an absolute hysterical media shitstorm for weeks over the fact the FCC hasn't released the proposed rules ahead of Thursday's vote. And it's impossible to claim he's wrong: FCC restrictions bar the agency from publicizing drafts ahead of a vote, no matter which party is in power. That's something that's been the bane of telecom reporters (and public discourse) for years.
That said, as a former Verizon lawyer, Pai doesn't really give a damn about transparency. Phone and cable companies absolutely adore the lack of transparency that allows them craft abysmal anti-consumer regulations on the state and federal level every day. Similarly, were Pai's party in office pushing an agenda he liked (like oh, letting Verizon do effectively whatever it likes, no matter how anti-competitive) you can be fairly sure his love of transparency would be notably absent from the conversation. Still, Pai's attempting a futile Hail Mary attempt to delay this week's vote because he just loves transparency so much it hurts.
In short, you've got a former Verizon regulatory lawyer claiming to represent the interests of everybody except the companies he's actually busy looking out for. Layered on to that is a media that pretends it's not just a little bit absurd that a living, breathing example of revolving door regulation is claiming to be a champion of the American public. Pai knows the rules will be approved on Thursday; he's just hoping his theatrical performance wins him a chance to lead the FCC (and the likely destruction of these very same rules) should we see a 2016 party shift.
If those ambitions are unattainable, perhaps Pai can rejoin Verizon and contribute to the industry's legal assault on consumers and the rules more directly -- to the great and immeasurable benefit of puppies and school children everywhere.
Last month, BlackBerry CEO John Chen tried to kiss up to major wireless carriers on the issue of net neutrality with a truly bizarre missive that received ample mockery in the technology press. Basically, Chen tried to argue that we don't need tough neutrality rules -- but we really should consider rules that force app developers to make content for unpopular mobile platforms. Like oh, BlackBerry, which after endless missteps now controls just 2% of the smartphone market. This was, to hear Chen tell it, because when companies refuse to make apps for unpopular platforms they're violating something Chen called "app neutrality":
"Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users. This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level."
Of course, as we pointed out at the time, Netflix isn't discriminating against anybody. If BlackBerry wasn't currently a train wreck and had a big enough market share to justify their time, Netflix would surely develop an app for BlackBerry users as well. As most of you know, net neutrality is about protecting the Internet from the bad behavior of companies that have built massive last-mile broadband monopolies courtesy of regulatory capture. In contrast, developers aren't making apps for BlackBerry simply because people aren't using BlackBerry's products. And while Google and Apple do dominate the smartphone market, the primary reason is because they offer a good product. That's in contrast to say, AT&T or Comcast, which offer a crap product because they have a government-protected monopoly over the last mile and have no incentive to improve.
I have no idea from the bowels of which ISP think tank or telco meeting room this "app neutrality" talking point originated; Chen and BlackBerry's incoherent tirade dominates the search results for the term. But it's worth noting that Mark Cuban actually argued a very similar point two days earlier, but, fortunately for Cuban, the media was too busy mocking BlackBerry to notice. Here's a snippet of Cuban's insight on the issue of app neutrality:
"There are basically 2 doors that control the availability of apps to the vast majority of smart phones in this country. They are owned and controlled by 2 of the largest tech companies in the world, Apple and Google. If you want your app to reach any type of audience (yes there are other app platforms supporting phones on the margin, but they are tiny by comparison), you have to make Google and Apple happy."
Again, this ignores that Apple and Google have come to dominate the smartphone market because they make a kickass product. Not to say either of those companies doesn't engage in anti-competitive behavior, and I don't think anybody would argue Apple's app approval process isn't bizarre. But that has nothing to do with net neutrality, and Apple and Google are a far, far cry from government-pampered duopolists like AT&T and Comcast. Still, Cuban proceeds to insist that net neutrality rules need to ensure Apple and Google play nice too:
"The mobile app economy is far from open. It’s dominated by two companies. It is in the best interest of the entire mobile eco-system to address this duopoly while we are re-examining net neutrality. We should seriously consider requiring Apple to to allow and support 3rd party app stores and to require that Google continues to support and enable 3rd party stores and more importantly to integrate them into the Play Store, much as Amazon does with Marketplace integration."
Cuban is again showing he doesn't quite understand how the broadband industry works or what net neutrality actually is. Consumers actually do have a choice of what kind of smartphone to buy or what apps to install. While there are some smartphone freedom constraints (usually imposed by the aforementioned carriers, mind you), users still can buy a Windows phone, or a BlackBerry phone, or some offshoot hackable Android ROM that provides greater application freedom and allows them to install whatever unsigned applications they'd like. They can also access something called the Internet for even greater freedom. That's in contrast to a Comcast customer who, if they want decent broadband, usually doesn't have any other choice. The two discussions are nothing alike, and I don't think that's a particularly complicated point to understand.
Still, like "search neutrality" before it, somebody somewhere pretty clearly hopes that the idea of "app neutrality" will shift people's attention away from what the net neutrality conversation is actually about: highly-tactical telecom carrier abuse of an uncompetitive broadband market. Fred Campbell of the Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology (a policy group dedicated to "liberate the ingenuity and creative spirit of America’s high-tech entrepreneurs and enterprises through market-oriented government policies") also rushed to the "app neutrality" argument when the group recently suffered a small stroke over the FCC's Title II plans:
"Chairman Wheeler’s description of his plan in Wired is disingenuous. His proposal will not ‘ensure the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.’ Some of the biggest gatekeepers on the mobile Internet today are using their power over mobile operating systems to deny access to application developers, yet these behemoths are exempted from the FCC proposal. The fact is, application developers will still have to ask someone for permission before they can access the mobile Internet.
The Chairman’s plan is also discriminatory. He is proposing to apply privacy limitations on Internet service providers through ‘Section 222′ while exempting Internet ‘edge’ companies whose fundamental business model is to profit from collecting and selling personal information about consumers. The Chairman’s discriminatory decision to exempt the Internet’s biggest data collectors from this privacy provision appears designed to protect the Administration’s political allies in Silicon Valley, not consumer privacy."
You see, Google, Apple and Netflix's domination of the smartphone and streaming video market is bad, even though consumers still actually have an organic market choice when it comes to those services. AT&T, Comcast and Verizon's stranglehold on the broadband market is to be ignored -- even praised -- because, uh, well, I'm not sure. You'd think those endlessly espousing the value of "free markets" would find the latter situation equally untenable, since it often involves companies literally writing state telecom law to further insulate government-protected duopolies from said market freedom. Unless of course it's not really about loving free markets or meaningful personal values at all, and it's really just about offering any old flimsy, inconsistent argument to help carriers protect the revenues received from uncompetitive (and certainly not free) markets?
While the government and industry pay a lot of lip service toward expanding broadband availability and competition, we've noted how giant phone companies like AT&T and Verizon are actually backing away from unwanted DSL markets. Through a combination of apathy (failing to repair the lines timely) and price hikes for services that cost less than ever to offer, the telcos are actively driving DSL users to either cable competitors or wireless (or both, since cable operators now help sell Verizon wireless services). Fixed-line broadband is perfectly profitable, it's just not profitable enough quickly enough for telco investors.
As a result, these companies are shifting their attention to significantly-more-expensive wireless services with caps and overages, and pretending this is just as good as an uncapped, less expensive DSL line. The result? A huge swath of the country where the cable broadband monopoly is going to be more potent than ever, resulting in worse customer service (if that's even possible) and higher prices than ever before.
Of course, AT&T and Verizon can't just come forth and say that they no longer care about huge swaths of the country, so as they go state to state trying to gut all regulations requiring they continue to offer fixed-line services, they're claiming that if state legislatures do their bidding, the states will somehow be awash with amazing new technologies. AT&T calls this the "IP transition," and has been successful in conflating a general shift toward wireless and IP networks with the company's refusal to upgrade fixed-line assets. Both companies have even gone so far as to have folks like Steve Forbes issue editorials proclaiming DSL lines are dead -- news to those for whom that's their only reliable connectivity option.
It's of course not just rural regions that are impacted by this shift: Baltimore's one of several cities (like Boston, Alexandria and Buffalo) that didn't get chosen for Verizon's now-dead FiOS expansion plans. With Verizon not willing to spend the money for further FiOS expansion, the company needed something to tell locals that not only aren't seeing upgrades, but in some cases are now waiting months for repairs. This month's excuse? Parts are just too hard to find:
"It's not just the wires that are going bad, it's the switches," said Sherry Lichtenberg, the principal researcher for telecommunications at the Washington-based National Regulatory Research Institute. "It's really hard to find parts." AT&T officials have said the company sometimes has to scrounge on eBay for parts."
Yes that's AT&T, a company that saw $132.4 billion in revenues last year, claiming that it has to head to eBay to upgrade its networks. Of course, parts aren't hard to find when you replace those older parts -- like in more upscale development communities where AT&T is slowly starting to offer very limited 1 Gbps fiber deployments (deployments, it should be noted, that AT&T also claims it paused over net neutrality). Parts also aren't hard to find when you're offering wireless LTE services with $15 per gigabyte overages. Parts are, apparently, only hard to find in areas you're intentionally abandoning -- but don't want to admit you're intentionally abandoning.
You might recall that top cable industry lobbyist Michael Powell, formerly head of the FCC, got much of the current Title II debate rolling back in 2002 when he reclassified cable broadband as an "information service." This effectively opened the door to a massive era of broadband deregulation Powell and friends at the time insisted would usher forth an immense new wave of broadband competition. If you've checked your broadband bill or oh, stepped outside lately, you may have noticed that this utopian broadband landscape never materialized.
A huge part of Powell's justification for rampant deregulation (or really, the need for any meaningful regulators whatsoever) was that broadband over powerline was going to make the market so damn competitive that regulators really wouldn't be needed. Powell repeatedly ignored engineers who stated broadband over powerline caused massive radio interference in trial markets, and wasn't suitable for even a niche broadband deployment technology. As such, Powell's "great broadband hope" never took flight, and what we wound up with was a more potent and uncompetitive broadband duopoly than ever before.
Now heading the cable industry's biggest lobbying operation, the NCTA, Powell has popped up with a little bit of revisionist history, as he heavily criticizes the current FCC's shift back to Title II. According to Powell, the cable industry will most certainly sue over the FCC's new rules, and he blames everybody but himself for turning net neutrality into a "partisan issue":
"He suggested that after the principles became a declaratory ruling under the chairmanship of his successor, Kevin Martin, it they were probably applied in a "reckless way" [the Comcast/BitTorrent decision] that led to being overturned in court," which he said put a bigger spotlight on it, after which it became a 2008 campaign issue for Obama, then was promulgated as a rule and political imperative, and that is where he thinks the issue "got off the rail."
Of course Powell ignores the fact that if he hadn't massively deregulated the broadband industry in the first place based on flimsy justifications and bad data, we likely wouldn't be having this conversation. Powell then continues with the idea that it's everybody else's fault for net neutrality becoming a partisan issue (like oh, claiming neutrality is "Obamacare for the Internet"):
"Asked to make the "Republican" case for network neutrality, Powell said Republicans are "no different from Democrats in that they want their messages to be heard," and Republican kids want to go to Nickelodeon, and everybody wants to use their iPhone. These services and apps are not partisan, he said. It was the President's "interjection" into the issue that turned it into "party political partisanship," Powell said.
He's half right. As we've noted countless times, Democrats and Republicans alike support net neutrality, and a growing number of conservatives are supporting Title II because they realize it's the best available option in a market that's simply not going to be competitive any time soon. The difference is, if you back away from partisan pattycake for a moment, you'll notice that Powell's a huge part of the reason that competition doesn't exist. And as cable's top lobbyist he's still busy pretending the industry's hyper competitive while defending practices like unnecessary usage caps -- directly aimed at abusing the lack of competition he helped facilitate.
Republican, Democrat or aardvark, it's unfortunate that nobody in this country appears particularly interested in somehow documenting and remembering what people have previously said and done; it might just come in handy sometime when trying to determine credibility.
If you've followed the net neutrality discussion here in the U.S. since the beginning, you'll recall the debate began in earnest back in 2005 when then AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre declared that Google should pay an extra, arbitrary toll simply for using the AT&T network. By Whitacre's government-pampered, duopolist logic, any content company that so much as touches an ISP's network should pay a levy to offset infrastructure costs -- well -- just because. Soon, a seemingly endless array of hired telco flacks started telling anybody who'd listen that content companies were getting a "free ride" and really needed to start paying their "fair share."
As we've repeatedly explained (perhaps unnecessarily if you have anything resembling critical thinking skills), this reasoning is incoherent and stupid, since customers and content companies alike already pay plenty for bandwidth and infrastructure. Still, somehow Whitacre's absurd attempt to try and offload network operation costs to others went viral globally, and we've repeatedly seen overseas telcos trying to argue the same point ever since. Of course, whereas Google used to be the global telco whipping boy, we're increasingly seeing Netflix playing that role given its more vocal support of net neutrality.
It's the painfully dumb idea that just won't die. French Minister of Culture and Communication Fleur Pellerin has spent the last few years with an incumbent telco bug in her ear, demanding that she force Google, Netflix and other content companies to pay some kind of a "bandwidth tax." As we've seen here in the States, Google appeared willing to (at least temporarily) go mute on net neutrality, and as Glyn has noted previously, Google France appeared willing to trample neutrality principles, allowing some degree of ISP double dipping to protect mobile handset market share.
Apparently feeling encouraged, Pellerin has ramped up her efforts for this new content company tax in order to "level the playing field" for French TV and filmmakers (read: incumbent French phone company Orange):
"France's culture minister is as keen as ever to tax tech behemoths to "level the playing field" for French TV and filmmakers. According to news reports, Fleur Pellerin plans to introduce a new tax on "the use of bandwidth", although exactly how this will be calculated is not clear...In January, the minister said she wanted a "level playing field "for French broadcasters alongside the likes of Netflix. The news was welcomed by some ISPs who want to offer so-called specialised services – basically incorporating lots more speed and bandwidth."
As a general rule of thumb, I've found that almost anytime somebody claims to be interested in "leveling the playing field," they're usually busy trying to do the exact opposite. There's still no details on precisely how Pellerin's plan would work, but it's likely going to run face-first into the EU's looming net neutrality rules, which, if they're worth anything, will at the very least ban these kinds of ridiculous "troll tolls." Here in the States, most phone companies have been forced to shift their attention from ham-fisted troll tolls to more subtle, clever ways of abusing market power, whether that's interconnection, usage caps or zero rated apps.
Still, Ed Whitacre's viral meme that phone companies have the inherent, god-given right to double or triple dip is the gift that just keeps on giving.
As companies expand the amount of data hoovered up via their subscribers, a common refrain to try and ease public worry is that consumers shouldn't worry because this data is "anonymized." However, time and time again studies have highlighted how it's not particularly difficult to tie these data sets to consumer identities -- usually with only the use of a few additional contextual clues. It doesn't really matter whether we're talking about cellular location data, GPS data, taxi data or NSA metadata, the basic fact is these anonymous data sets aren't really anonymous.
The latest in a long stream of such studies comes from MIT, where researchers explored (the actual study is paywalled) whether they could glean unique identities from "anonymous" user data using a handful of contextual clues. Studying the purportedly anonymous credit card transactions of 1.1 million users at 10,000 retail locations over a period of three months, the researchers found they could identify 90% of the users' names by using four additional data points like the dates and locations of four purchases. Using three clues, including more specific points like the exact price of a purchase, allowed the identifying of 94% of the consumers. Intentionally trying to make the data points less precise didn't help protect consumer privacy much:
"The MIT researchers also looked at whether they could preserve anonymity in large data sets by intentionally making the data less precise, in order to examine whether preserving privacy would still enable useful analysis. But the researchers found that even if the data set was characterised as each purchase having taken place in the span of a week at one of the 150 stores in the same general area, four purchases would still be enough to identify more than 70 percent of users."
Note they're not saying they can ascertain your personal identity from this data alone, but they (or a hacker that nabs this data) can identify you if they have just a smattering of other contextual clues as to who you are. In an age when cellular companies track and sell your daily location down to the minute, and your automobile, insurance companies and toll payment systems are all gathering even more precise data, that's not going to be a particularly difficult task. The gist of the study isn't going to be a shock to most of you: privacy in the modern age -- unless you're willing to go to extreme lengths -- is an illusion.
"We are showing that the privacy we are told that we have isn't real," study co-author Alex "Sandy" Pentland of MIT said in an email...The study shows that when we think we have privacy when our data is collected, it's really just an "illusion", said Eugene Spafford, director of Purdue University's Centre for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security. Spafford, who wasn't part of the study, said it makes "one wonder what our expectation of privacy should be anymore."
That said, it's very important to remember that we can probably trust that companies rushing head first toward vast new revenue generation opportunities are spending the time and resources necessary to ensure consumer privacy is at the very top of their list of priorities.
One of the very first things new FCC boss Tom Wheeler did when he entered office was to get wireless carriers to agree to a list of voluntary cell phone unlocking guidelines. The six "demands" are largely common sense and uncontroversial, and include requiring that carriers offer unlocked devices to active overseas service members, make their postpaid and prepaid unlocking policies as clear as possible, respond to unlocking requests within two business days, and automatically notify customers when their contract period ends and their phone can be unlocked.
I'd heard that carrier lobbyists balked at this last request fearing it would "advertise" unlocking, but ultimately acquiesced out of fear of tougher, non-voluntary rules coming down the pike. Note this is entirely separate from the fight over keeping cell phone unlocking legal and the need for DMCA exemption process reform. The rules also don't require that carriers simply sell unlocked phones outright, since that would probably make a little too much sense. After agreeing to the rules, carriers had more than a year to adhere to all six requirements, and the final deadline arrived last Wednesday.
Interestingly it's Verizon and AT&T, arguably the worst of the major carriers when it comes to attempts to stifle openness over the years, that come out ahead in adhering to all six guidelines (though your mileage may vary, and since the rules don't require much, this may not mean much). For Verizon, that's in part thanks to the Carterfone conditions placed on its 700 MHz spectrum, though that hasn't stopped the company from fighting openness in general tooth and nail in other ways. As I've noted previously the conditions have plenty of loopholes -- and anti-competitive behavior is allowed just as long as companies ambiguously insist that what they're doing (like blocking Google Wallet, or locking bootloaders) is for the "safety and security of the network."
Similarly interesting is the fact that T-Mobile, despite a recent reputation for being a fierce consumer advocate, sits right alongside Sprint when it comes to failing to adhere to the fairly simple requirements after a year's head start. Khanifar notes T-Mobile saddles prepaid and postpaid users with a number of strange restrictions, including the fact that users can't unlock more than 2 devices per line of service in a 12 month period. Between this, the company's opposition to Title II and its failure to understand the problems with zero rated apps, T-Mobile's showing it still needs to actually earn that ultra-consumer-friendly reputation.
Khanifar proceeds to note that despite carrier struggles this is at least a step in the right direction, even if we still need DCMA reform to ensure unlocking remains perfectly legal. That said, he quite justly highlights how cell locking no longer makes any coherent sense, for anybody:
"It's worth taking a step back and examining the absurdity of these locks. If you've paid for your AT&T phone, committed to a 2-year contract, and agreed to an "early termination fee," what purpose does a lock really serve? If you've paid cash to purchase a prepaid device, why should it come locked to just one carrier? There's plenty of evidence that locks serve little real commercial purpose. Verizon's business hasn't suffered since they stopped locking their phones. Countries like China and Israel have made locking devices outright illegal with no harm to their wireless industries and plenty of gain for consumers. But unfortunately it's unlikely that Congress or the FCC will take action to implement a similar policy here in the US."
Of course unlocked, open devices widens the competitive door, and with the kind of lobbying power AT&T, Verizon and the entertainment industry wield over Congress, getting real DMCA reform or mandated unlock-at-sale rules in play will likely be nothing short of a miracle.
If you recall, the wireless industry has spent much of the last decade proclaiming that a "spectrum crunch" was afoot, declaring that unless the government did exactly as requested, wireless growth and innovation would grind to a halt. AT&T was quick to claim that it needed to buy T-Mobile because of said spectrum crunch, though the company's own leaked documents highlighted that this simply wasn't true (this hubris being a big reason the deal was rejected). Verizon has also spent years crying spectrum poverty when convenient, despite repeated analysis showing its holdings lead the industry.
Yes, there is finite spectrum, but as with all network capacity constraints this has increasingly been mitigated by Wi-Fi offloading, new technologies and smart engineering (not to mention unlicensed options and technologies we haven't even conceived yet). If there is a "spectrum crunch," it's predominantly among smaller competitors that lack the resources to buy huge swaths of spectrum, or the political power to get regulators to tilt the entire playing field (and spectrum auction process) in their direction. Of course, both AT&T and Verizon have breathlessly and repeatedly denied that they warehouse extra spectrum to help keep would-be competitors at bay.
After years of warning of spectrum armageddon, Verizon's again making it clear that the entire spectrum crisis was contrived nonsense. After nabbing another $10.4 billion at the recent AWS-3 auction, Verizon CTO Tony Melone this week stated that despite years of claiming spectrum poverty, Verizon never really felt pressured to buy such a huge swath of spectrum:
"In a conference call with investors, Tony Melone, Verizon Communications' executive vice president of network, said that "entering the auction there was no markets where we felt compelled to acquire spectrum, irrespective of the price." Verizon did not feel pressure to aggressively bid for spectrum because it already had at least 40 MHz of AWS-1 spectrum in many U.S. markets, especially in the eastern United States, Melone said."
It's always kind of amusing when the network guys forget to adhere to narratives set by the policy folks (like the Verizon CFO's recent slip up in admitting Title II isn't a big deal). But Melone's comments are a far cry from claims made by Verizon's policy blog just a few years ago, when the company was trying to get regulatory approval for a huge co-marketing deal with the cable industry:
"Rather than waste time arguing about spectrum efficiency, let’s focus on the issue on which we all agree: America’s wireless consumers face a spectrum crunch that won’t be relieved by Verizon’s spectrum purchase. It’s up to the industry, as well as policymakers, to help ensure that more spectrum reaches the marketplace soon, so America’s wireless industry remains the global leader in innovation that it is today."
Said spectrum crisis seems to materialize out of thin air when Verizon needs something, then just as quickly disappears when the company candidly decides to talk about its holdings. Of course, Verizon gets away with this kind of stuff, in part, because the tech press (with the occasional exception) loves to regurgitate company claims unskeptically. And if you've been paying attention, you'll note that congestion has long been a useful bogeyman to scare regulators into bending rules to the benefit of the biggest, least competitive companies. Remember the Exaflood? How about usage caps? Does anybody notice a pattern?
With Verizon's bloated belly full from the recent AWS-3 spectrum purchases, and new technologies constantly evolving to more than meet mobile network demands, that should be the last we hear about Verizon's spectrum shortfall for a long while, right? Of course not. The big telco threat these days is that if the government imposes tough net neutrality protections, we'll see a dramatic decrease in innovation and network investment leading to (you guessed it) network performance and capacity issues (though we've illustrated how these claims too are bunk).
You'd think we'd reach a point, after so many years of false claims, where the press would no longer just take the claims of lumbering, bloated duopolists at face value. If there's a crisis, it remains a crisis of critical thinking.
"The proposed rules "are more progressive than we expected," said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, a trade group that represents drone makers, including Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc. "But once you spend some time looking at them, some of the things proposed would be devastating to the future of the industry."
According to the FAA fact sheet and the actual rules (pdf), the rules require direct line of sight (read: a human on the ground) and forbid nighttime use:
"Specifically, the FAA is proposing to add a new part 107 to Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) to allow for routine civil operation of small UAS in the NAS and to provide safety rules for those operations. Consistent with the statutory definition, the proposed rule defines small UAS as those UAS weighing less than 55 pounds. To mitigate risk, the proposed rule would limit small UAS to daylight-only operations, confined areas of operation, and visual-line-of-sight operations."
The rules also note that drone users can't fly their drones faster than 100 mph, or higher than 500 feet. Drones also can't be flown over major population masses, which outlaws pretty much all operation in most urban environments. While a lot of hobbyist uses remain unimpaired, once you start to add up the restrictions it becomes clear that the proposed rules pretty much ban any of the drone delivery ambitions held by companies like Amazon or Google. Commenting to The Guardian, Amazon was quick to threaten that they'll just take their Amazon drone delivery ambitions to countries with more progressive drone rules in play:
"The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers," Paul Misener, Amazon vice-president of gobal public policy, said in a statement to the Guardian. “We are committed to realising our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need."
I personally always thought Amazon's drone delivery ambitions had more than a small component of hot air, designed predominately to help give the PR impression of intense innovation. I'm a tough sell on the practicality of urban drone delivery anyway; in my head I've always imagined a very dystopian Terry Gilliam-esque affair, where bands of hooligans construct increasingly elaborate steampunk slingshots to shoot down drones, street urchins then scurrying in rapt alleyway pursuit of Prime deliveries and pepperoni pizzas. Then again maybe I'm just being too cynical, and this cat and mouse criminality opens up an entire world of drone delivery security countermeasure-driven business models I've not even thought of.
Of course with the FAA banning night and urban use, we're talking about a lot more than just Google and Amazon's ambitions getting curtailed. Surveillance and the government's use of drones is also obviously a concern. Alongside the new rule proposals the White House issued Presidential memorandum requiring government agencies to detail the time and location of drone operations (though what loopholes are carved out for intelligence and law enforcement remains unclear). Drone operators that take taxpayer money will also need to clearly document what's being done with collected data.
It's worth reiterating that these are just draft rules and we've still got a public comment period that could extend the already-delayed drone rule making process another two years. By the time the public and companies get done hammering away at them over the next few years, we may actually wind up with rules far better than most people ever imagined.
To counter the PR hit from Google Fiber, AT&T has recently been proclaiming that it too is now offering 1 Gbps services under the company's "Gigapower" brand -- but pretending that Google has nothing to do with it. On the surface, it looks like AT&T is taking on Google blow for blow, and that this is a wonderful example of how competition works. And while that's true up to a point, as we've discussed previously, AT&T's offering is highly theatrical in nature. AT&T's actually been slashing its fixed-line CAPEX each quarter, but is offering 1 Gbps speeds to a few, scattered high-end developments where fiber is already in the ground.
But in the locations AT&T is deploying 1 Gbps services, it's actually engaged in something that -- in typical AT&T fashion -- sets an even worse precedent. On the heels of scattered Gigapower deployments in Austin, AT&T this week announced it's also offering symmetrical 1 Gbps speeds in portions of Kansas City. After the press release gets done insisting that AT&T "moved quickly to bring more competition to the Kansas City area" with a 1 Gbps offering for $70 a month, quadruple asterisked fine print explains that to actually get this $70 price point, you have to agree to opt-in to AT&T's "Gigapower Internet Preferences" program:
"U-verse High Speed Internet 1Gbps: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps for $70 per month****, includes waiver of equipment, installation and activation fees, and a three year price guarantee...**** U-verse with AT&T GigaPower Premier offer is available with agreement from customer to participate in AT&T Internet Preferences. AT&T may use Web browsing information, like the search terms entered and the Web pages visited, to provide customers with relevant offers and ads tailored to their interests."
Assuming the company's Kansas City pricing mirrors its Austin pricing, if you choose to opt-out of this particular brand of snoopvertising, you'll need to pay $100 a month. That's right: even when faced with real price competition, AT&T can't help but be AT&T -- and try to charge users a $30 premium just to opt-out of a behavioral ad program. AT&T's Internet Preferences FAQ can't be bothered to detail the technology used, though it's most likely deep packet inspection (you know, the kind of technology small companies like NebuAD and Phorm were absolutely destroyed for using).
AT&T's pretty clearly not very familiar with how this whole price competition thing works, and needless to say, most sensible Kansas City and Austin users will be taking their broadband business to Google if they want to avoid AT&T being AT&T. Not that we'll get to see this on AT&T earnings numbers; since the entire project is a bit of a show pony to begin with, the company doesn't disclose how many Gigapower customers it serves. AT&T just wants you to believe it's on the cutting edge -- even if that cutting edge predominantly involves make believe -- and forcing consumers to pay a premium for privacy.
While Comcast gets a lot of well-deserved grief for having the worst customer service in any industry, the company was actually among the first companies to use effectively Twitter as a front-line customer service tool, giving the company a more human face and a more direct line to customer issue resolution. One of the people running Comcast's Twitter presence was Frank Eliason, who not only took on an entire Internet's worth of Comcast-related anger on a daily basis, but from what I saw as a telecom beat blogger during his tenure was well-liked by most of the Comcast customers who dealt with him. Eliason left Comcast back in 2010, and has since marketed himself as an expert at treating customers properly.
It's worth noting that despite Eliason's help, Comcast wasn't able to shore up its abysmal customer service back then because Twitter was essentially a band aid attached to a rotten apple. As a result, Comcast's struggles continue today. In a blog post, Eliason rather politely gives Comcast some fairly simple advice: stop upselling everyone all the damn time, and more importantly, stop being cheap:
"Customer service is often the most expensive line on any company’s balance sheet, especially for a company like Comcast which has more than 300 million interactions each year. To help mitigate this we have watched company after company shift service to the cheapest source possible. Call centers tried to shift to become sales centers. This is why any time a customer calls, they’re pitched everything under the sun instead of actually helping you with the reason why you called in the first place. We have been in a age of outsourcing, and finding the cheapest means possible to provide customer service. Comcast has become the poster child for this shift in company thinking."
With the company trying to get regulatory approval for its Time Warner Cable deal, Comcast has been making an awful lot of promises about finally fixing its unprecedentedly-awful support. Comcast has even gone so far as to hire a new VP of "Customer Experience" and design a new app that tries to tell you when your barely-trained technician is scheduled to arrive. But these are all still inexpensive band aids for a problem that runs to the root: Comcast's not spending the serious money necessary to improve horrible customer service because it doesn't have to. We've spent a decade gutting regional regulatory authority because of an often blind aversion to any regulations whatsoever, yet we've done little to nothing to seriously improve broadband competition woes.
As a result, Comcast's customer satisfaction rankings are actually getting worse, and not even the best advice will be changing that anytime soon.
But it's something else stupid that Samsung did this week that got less press attention, but that I actually find far more troubling. Numerous Samsung smart TV users around the world this week stated that the company has started injecting ads into contentbeing watched on third-party devices and services. For example, some users found that when streaming video content from PC to the living room using Plex, they suddenly were faced with a large ad for Pepsi that actually originated from their Samsung TV:
"Reports for the unwelcome ad interruption first surfaced on a Subreddit dedicated to Plex, the media center app that is available on a variety of connected devices, including Samsung smart TVs. Plex users typically use the app to stream local content from their computer or a network-attached storage drive to their TV, which is why many were very surprised to see an online video ad being inserted into their videos. A Plex spokesperson assured me that the company has nothing to do with the ad in question."
Now Samsung hasn't responded yet to this particular issue, and you'd have to think that the company accidentally enabled some kind of trial ad injection technology, since anything else would be idiotic brand seppuku (in fact it does appear like it has been working with Yahoo on just this kind of technology). Still, users say the ads have them rushing to disable the smart portion of Samsung TVs, whether that's by using a third party solution or digging into the bowels of the TV's settings to refuse Samsung's end user agreement. And that raises an important point: many consumers (myself included) want their TV to be as slack-jawed, glassy-eyed, dumb and dim-witted as possible.
Like broadband ISPs and net neutrality, Samsung clearly just can't help itself, and is eager to use its position as a television maker to ham-fistedly inject itself into a multi-billion dollar emerging Internet video market. But that runs in stark contrast to the fact that most people just want their television (whether it's 720p or 4K) to simply be a dumb monitor they hook smart devices of their choice up to. Just like people want their broadband ISPs to get out of the way and provide a quality dumb pipe, many people just want a traditional, dumb television to do a great job displaying the signals sent to it and nothing more.
Dumb TVs just make more sense for most users: many people own televisions for ten years, and the streaming hardware embedded in these sets quickly becomes irrelevant even with updated firmware. Dumb TVs, with less sophisticated internals, should also be cheaper to buy. And if you're any kind of respectable audiophile, you've got game consoles and devices like Roku hooked into a receiver and a decent 5.1 (or above) system, making the set's internals redundant. Swapping out a crop of the latest and greatest (not to mention relatively cheap) Rokus or Chromecasts every few years just makes more sense for most of us.
Last I saw, around 50% of people who buy connected TVs aren't using the connected portion of the set. Yet if you peruse the latest sets (especially the ongoing standards minefield that is 4K or UHD) you'll find that buying a dumb television is getting increasingly more difficult. I won't even get into the problems with HDCP 2.2 DRM stifling 4K growth and confusing the hell out of consumers on the bleeding edge, as that's another article entirely.
Bottom line: I want my pipes dumb, my TVs dumber, and my choice of a full variety of intelligent devices and services without bull-headed companies stumbling drunkenly into my line of sight. Samsung's clumsy week simply couldn't have illustrated the growing need for dim-witted television sets any better.
Desperate to stop the FCC's passage of meaningful Title II-based net neutrality rules later this month, ISPs and their loyal friends in Congress have taken a multi-pronged approach. First, ISPs encouraged Senator John Thune and Representative Fred Upton to table an incredibly feeble set of net neutrality rules that are actually worse than the ones Verizon sued to overturn back in 2010. The plan is to offer a particularly-awful set of rules, compromise a tiny bit, then offer up the final, still-historically-pathetic rules as a "bipartisan" solution to net neutrality that makes Title II unnecessary. The effort is (despite what some in the tech press believe and for lack of a more technical term) garbage and is going nowhere.
The second wing of the attack on Title II rules appears to be the launching of simultaneous House and Senate investigations into whether the White House "improperly" pressured FCC boss Tom Wheeler into adopting Title II rules. Because the President voiced support for Title II rules back in November, and FCC boss Tom Wheeler declared he would be supporting Title II rules last week, neutrality opponents insist there's a cabal of the highest order afoot. As such, they're demanding records of all correspondence between the White House and the FCC because they're so very concerned about transparency and the fact that the FCC potentially violated rules dictating it be an independent agency:
"Republicans are citing a succession of events, including Obama’s statement, that they say shows the White House may have thwarted the FCC’s regular process. The letter asks for information about communications between the FCC and the executive branch relating to the proposal, which would ban Internet-service providers from blocking, slowing down, or speeding up websites in exchange for payment
"Since the FCC is an independent agency that derives its authority from Congress and not the White House, it is highly concerning that the White House would seek to take on this level of involvement in the regulatory process of the FCC, or attempt to supplant completely the agency’s decision-making apparatus," Johnson wrote in the letter, which demands documents by Feb. 23."
It's important to note that however shifty the White House can be on a litany of issues, it didn't do anything out of the ordinary here in providing a little political cover for a controversial decision, and nobody spearheading these investigations can cite any specific examples of rules being broken. As Public Knowledge is quick to point out, the White House commenting on FCC policy is pretty standard operating procedure for both parties and perfectly legal:
"...every President in the last 30 years has weighed in publicly with the FCC on issues of national importance. It did not violate the FCC’s independence when President George W. Bush publicly called for Chairman Michael Powell to vote on deregulating media ownership, or when President Bill Clinton wrote a public letter to Chairman Reed Hundt to ban hard liquor advertising on television. It also did not violate the FCC’s independence when President Ronald Reagan asked Chairman Mark Fowler to drop his proposal to rescind the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules. Similarly, President Obama has not violated the independence of the FCC by making his support for strong net neutrality rules under Title II public."
If you've been reading the profiles on Wheeler's mindset shift, you'll also notice he appears to be the kind of guy who actually bases his decisions on careful consideration of the facts, and in very un-partisan political fashion appears willing to change his position if consistently contradicted by said facts (strange and unfamiliar, I know). Wheeler was told by more than a few telecom lawyers that his attempt to use the "commercial reasonableness" standard under Section 706 of the Telecom Act to police ISP behavior would be legally untenable and abused by ISPs, so he's decided to go Title II. He was also, on at least one occasion, called a dingo.
The White House gave political cover, but there's nothing new or seedy about that. There's also nothing new about broadband ISPs using politicians like marionettes, or partisan politicians pretending to be outraged when the other party does something that's fairly standard operating procedure. Similarly, there's nothing new about politicians pretending to adore certain values that are nowhere to be found when they're the ones in power.
For example, former Verizon regulatory lawyer turned FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai spent the week whining about the fact that the FCC's neutrality plans haven't been made public ahead of the February 26 vote. Pai, a walking personification of revolving door regulators, absolutely is correct that we should all be able to read the net neutrality rules right now. Still, FCC rules prohibiting publication of proposals ahead of a vote have been in place for years, impact both parties, and have been the bane of telecom beat reporters for years. Of course, you'd have to ignore the fact that Pai is the same gentleman who denies that the broadband market is uncompetitive, and has absolutely no problem with ISPs non-transparently writing state laws that keep things that way. As such, you wonder just how far this sudden breathless interest in transparency goes, and whether or not it will choose to stick around should the FCC bear witness to a 2016 party shift.
It's worth reiterating for the thousandth time, however, that despite this kind of partisan histrionics, net neutrality isn't a partisan issue, and it's a concept strongly supported by Progressives and Conservatives alike. It has only devolved into a droll, Democrat/Republican feud because companies find partisan politics to be a useful form of distracting idiocy. It has been especially useful the last ten years as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast coordinate round after round of partisan pattycake to deflect attention from the real problem: their anti-competitive stranglehold over the broadband last mile, and the abysmal customer service and awful pricing that Democrats, Republicans and Independents all get to enjoy as a result.
They've been deregulating a broken duopoly market for fifteen years. When the market then continually gets worse (Comcast's awful customer support, for example), they just turn around and pretend it's getting better and better. It's an entirely philosophy based on make believe driven solely by making as much money as humanly possible with a total disregard for the health of the Internet.
I'm really not some blind advocate for government regulation, but I'm an absolute supporter in instances where it's very clear free market dogma, a hope and a magic pony ride isn't going to protect the consumer from abuses (environmental issues, uncompetitive telecom markets).
Your region is the norm, not the exception. It's why the FCC's muni-broadband decision was such a big deal this week.
Yeah I think there's inevitably going to be wording issues, and I get the sneaking suspicion that a lot of the areas that probably need the most policing (zero rating) will probably see the least. But at least the framework will be there (unless they're overturned) to adapt and deal with bad behavior.
I think people are justly skeptical given the government's behavior on so many front (especially surveillance). But as somebody that's been writing about this stuff for fifteen years, I really can say this is an instance where a subsection of the federal government is honestly trying to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming partisan bile and lobbying cash.
Wheeler's point I think is a good one.
"This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech."
You can make it clear to your friend that the goal is maintaining what the Internet is in the face of monopoly power over the last mile, not restricting speech in any way. It's obviously an endless battle to prevent government over-reach, just like it's an endless battle to prevent monopoly abuses. But having some basic rules of the road with teeth is, at least to me, a balance between the two.
I believe it's about 8 pages, with the rest being supplemental material. But yes, lots of conversation still to be had depending on the wording of the rules. The post vote Q&A is painfully ambiguous in terms of interconnection and zero rated apps.
"Please, PLEASE don't tell me you're siding with Defense Distributed"
Absolutely not. I realize what Wilson is and that he's intentionally bringing most of this on himself because he has a loud mouth. That said, I still don't think banning the shipping of perfectly legal items because of the way they're marketing sets a particularly great precedent.
But what's being advertised in this case is a device that can legally construct legal weaponry. Can it really be argued that by shipping this product FedEx knowingly supports use of that product to murder? If that's the case, it seems like we'd be seeing a lot more instances of companies refusing to ship all manner of product for fear of legal liability.
Fixed the product name, thanks -- apparently I thought Gunner sounded cooler.
"Similar to how general purpose color copiers are problematic when viewed in money counterfeiting context."
Right, but FedEx isn't refusing to ship copiers because they can be used in counterfeiting. Just because a milling machine is advertised as a gun maker doesn't change the law or the actual device being shipped.
" If the advertizing said "CNC machine perfect for milling small parts such as metal straws, rifled barrels, triggers for mechanical devices and other small metal parts that need to withstand explosive force", FedEx probably wouldn't bat an eye shipping it. But that's not what he put on the shipping invoice. He's marketing it as a firearms manufacturing tool. That's also the reason they provided."
So if I take a mannequin, advertise it as a "rotting dead body" (TM) and sell it, FedEx will refuse to ship that too? The fact that something is marketed in a particular fashion doesn't change the nature of that very thing's molecules, or the law.
I cut the cord years ago, and was recently invited to give Dish's new SlingTV service for a spin. Have to admit that the entire concept of watching live television with ads felt aggressively alien to me. The ads in particular seemed even ridiculous than I'd remembered them: a cycle of selling you awful food layered with selling you the medicines you wouldn't need if you ate better.
Well then sir, would you be interested in our premium anti-viral service package that, for a mere $10 more a month, ensures that all of your anti-virus traffic and data due to infection doesn't count against your usage cap? Sound like a good deal?
I've seen countless instances where ISP meters bill customers for bandwidth even during prolonged power outages, so you can be absolutely sure they'd freak out should anybody suggest that these meters be checked for accuracy...
Yes, I always love how the excuse is that they're simply "experimenting with creative pricing," yet the pricing models I consistently see simply involve taking already pricey flat rate pricing, and tacking caps and overages on top. The only way they'd bother with truly creative pricing that offers real value is if they were competitively motivated to do so...