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History of the Quickly Subverted 1996 Telecommunications Act - Community Broadband Bits Episode 89

If all had gone according to the plan behind the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we would have lots of competition among Internet service providers, not just cable and DSL but other technologies as well. Alas, the competing technologies never really appeared and various incarnations of the FCC effectively gutted the common carriage requirements at the heart of the Act.

Earl Comstock joins us today to explain what they had in mind when they spent years developing the goals and text of the Act. A staffer to Senator Stevens - and yes, we discuss the legacy of Senator "series of tubes" Stevens and you might be surprised when you learn more about him - Earl helped to craft the Act and then had to watch as the FCC and Courts misinterpreted it.

At the heart of our conversation is what they believed would be necessary to achieve the goals of expanding access to telecommunications service to all.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Big Incumbents At It Again In Kentucky; Mimi Pickering in the Richmond Register

Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.

Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.

In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:

It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.

Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.

The bill appeared to be on the fast track to passage, breezing through the Senate Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism Committee only ten days after being introduced. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, AARP, the Kentucky Resources Council, and several smaller cable and Internet service providers expressed opposition to the bill:

"We are not giving up our land lines. We want to hang onto them even as we get our cellphones because we think the land lines are more dependable," said Jim Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky.

...

Smaller cable companies and Internet providers told senators they worry the bill lacks language to protect them from unfair competitive tactics by AT&T once it's freed of even more PSC regulation, following earlier phone deregulation measures that passed in 2004 and 2006.

Pickering knows quick passage is dangerous. From her opinion piece:

How is this good for Kentucky? There is no good reason for the General Assembly to rush thorough the AT&T-backed legislation and surrender the rights and protections guaranteed to us under our long-standing communications laws.

SB 99 is bad news and big trouble for all of us, unless of course you are one of these telecommunication giants.

In Fear of Comcast Warner Cable

It is hard to say just how bad of an idea it is for us to allow Comcast to buy Time Warner Cable. This is not just about consumers having to pay more, which they do every time we allow massive consolidation, but about access to information.

I can't help but think back to our conversation with Barry Lynn on monopoly a few weeks ago. People get so focused on consumer prices and a narrow view of competition that they miss important impacts of consolidation.

One impact is moving Comcast from the seventh biggest DC lobbyist to the fourth.

This consolidation is a recognition that the private sector simply will not provide meaningful competition for Internet access. Communities need to recognize what a do-nothing approach means: relying on a distant cable monopoly for the most important services of the 21st century.

If I had to guess what will happen - Comcast will buy Time Warner Cable but have to sell off some pieces to get approval. Comcast will grow larger and more powerful, making future mergers even more difficult to stop despite more and more evidence that these firms are strangling our economy. We can stop it - but will we? Specifically, will we force our representatives in DC to stop it?

Stay tuned to the organizations that are covering it well - Free Press, Karl Bode, Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and many others.

Cable Industry Dumps Dark Money into DC

The Center for Public Integrity released data last year showing some of the ways big cable companies are distorting our republic by funnelling millions into political groups working to further the interests of massive corporations rather than local businesses and citizens.

The head cable lobbying group, the National Cable & Television Association, collects some $60 million in membership dues, and is currently headed by a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Michael K "Revolving Door" Powell makes some $3 million a year.

They spent nearly $20 million lobbying in 2012, employing 89 federal lobbyists of which 78 had worked in government jobs.

This cable cabal donates heavily to groups like Americans for Prosperity while also donating to both sides of the aisle, from the Democratic Attorneys General Association to the Republican Mayors and Local Officials coalition. One has to spread the wealth around to ensure they can continue their cozy relationship and not fear any real competition.

Until we fix the way elections are financed, we cannot hope to match the political might of a few massive monopolies.

Kansas Legislature Introduces Bill to Limit Internet Investment

Get updates to this story here.

With Senate Bill No. 304 [pdf], the Kansas Legislature will consider a bill to revoke local authority to build networks. If passed, this bill would create some of the most draconian limits on building networks we have seen in any state.

The language in this bill prohibits not only networks that directly offer services but even public-private partnerships and open access approaches. This is the kind of language one would expect to see if the goal is to protect politically powerful cable and telephone company monopolies rather than just limiting local authority to deliver services.

The bill states that the goal is to

encourage the development and widespread use of technological advances in providing video, telecommunications and broadband services at competitive rates; and ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are each provided within a consistent, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory federal, state and local government framework.

Yet the bill does nothing but discourage investment, with no explanation of how prohibiting some approaches will lead to more investment or better services. It does not enable any new business models, rather it outlaws one possible source of competition for existing providers.

The bill contains what will appear to the untrained eye to be an exemption for unserved areas. However, the language is hollow and will have no effect in protecting those who have no access from the impact of this bill.

The first problem is the definition of unserved. A proper definition of unserved would involve whether the identified area has access to a connection meeting the FCC's minimum broadband definition delivered by DSL, cable, fiber-optic, fixed wireless or the like. These technologies are all capable of delivering such access.

However the bill also includes mobile wireless and, incredibly, satellite access. As we have noted on many occasions, the technical limits of satellite technology render it unfit to be called broadband, even if it can deliver a specific amount of Mbps. Satellite just does not allow the rapid two-way transmitting of information common to modern Internet applications. Mobile wireless comes with high costs, prohibitively low monthly caps, and often only works in some areas of a rural property. This is not a proper measure of having access to the Internet.

The second problem with the fake unserved exemption is the challenge of demonstrating an area meets it. If one suspected that a territory with over 90% of the residents did not meet the overly broad definition, one would have to engage in an expensive survey to prove it at the census block level. Data is not ordinarilly collected at that granular level - and even when it is, it is often based on unverified claims by existing carriers.

Even if anywhere in Kansas qualified as unserved under this definition, the cost of proving it would only add to the extremely high cost of building to such a low density population, breaking any business plan that could attempt it.

This is not the absolute most restrictive bill we have seen revoking local authority to build networks, but it is second. It does allow communities to build networks for public purposes, including schools, which is the differentiator in this case.

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These types of bills make a mockery of our political system. Whether to invest in essential infrastructure (or how to) is a decision that should be made at the local level, where people know how their unique mix of assets and challenges relate to ensuring everyone has fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. There is no need for the state or federal authority to overrule local decision-making. The only reason we see it popping up in state after state (most recently Georgia) is because powerful cable and telephone companies want to ensure they face no competition - even in the most rural areas of the country.

This is not a matter of taxes. As we note in a recent fact sheet, most community networks have not used taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, the cable and telephone companies have a history of benefits from the public sector, from ongoing subsidies to having built their networks originally as monopolies protected from competition.

For those new to this issue, I highly recommend our fact sheets on community networks, videos, and our interactive map of community networks.

We have covered many stories in Kansas over the years, including the network in Chanute that has helped many local businesses (see our case study) and a more recent investment by the city of Ottawa.

We will provide ongoing coverage as this bill moves forward.

Industry Lobbyists Oppose Gigabit Communities Race to the Top Proposal - Part 2

This is Part 2 in a two-part series discussing comments submitted to the FCC in response to a petition filed by Fiber-To-The-Home Council proposing a new Gigabit Community Race to the Top program.

In Part 1 of this post, I focused mainly on the complaints filed by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) against FTTHC’s Race to the Top proposal. While there was nothing new in those arguments (we see them all the time from industry spokespeople), I wanted to highlight their errors in light of this promising proposal to promote community networks. This post will focus on some of the more technical arguments which further demonstrate the industry’s false assertions.

NCTA attacks the FCC’s authority to implement Race to the Top, claiming that neither Section 254 (addressing universal service) nor Section 706 (addressing “advanced telecommunications capability”) of the Telecom Act authorize such a program.

The cable lobby’s argument against Section 254 authority hinges on the statute’s requirement that universal service funds only support services in small and rural markets that are “reasonably comparable” to those available in the rest of the country. Therefore, NCTA argues, Race to the Top would “enable a small number of communities to receive faster broadband speeds than the vast majority of Americans in urban areas have chosen to purchase.”

NCTA essentially believes its members get to dictate American broadband policy. If the majority of Americans “choose to purchase” only single-digit Mbps (megabits-per-second) broadband because that’s the only affordable option in their area, then the FCC cannot subsidize faster networks, anywhere. Or so argues the NCTA.

Even more tortured is the NCTA’s argument against the FCC’s Section 706 authority to implement Race to the Top. Section 706 instructs the FCC to regularly assess the deployment of “advanced telecommunications services,” and when it finds that such services are not rolling out fast enough, the FCC must make efforts to accelerate deployment.

NCTA thinks it’s clever to point out that the FCC “has never defined ‘advanced telecommunications capability’ for purposes of Section 706 to mean gigabit services” and it “has rightly made no finding that the deployment of gigabit services is not reasonable and timely.” But the reason the FCC has not made such definitions or findings is because they are self evident.

The last three FCC Broadband Progress Reports have found that advanced telecommunications services, defined as at least 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up (4/1), are not being deployed in a timely manner. If 4/1 broadband is rolling out too slowly, then surely gigabit broadband is rolling out even slower. As a matter of simple logic, accelerating gigabit broadband deployment will also accelerate 4/1 broadband deployment (once fiber is installed, network operators can choose whatever speed they want). Therefore, it follows that if the FCC has the authority to accelerate 4/1 broadband deployment under Section 706, it likewise has the authority to accelerate gigabit broadband deployment.

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A separate attack on the FCC’s authority was advanced by the Rural Broadband Association (NTCA), which consists of competitive local exchange carriers that already qualify as eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs). NTCA argues that the FCC is forbidden by law from granting universal service funds to non-ETCs, which is technically true. Aside from this complaint, NTCA fully supports Race to the Top. In other words, NTCA supports a Race to the Top program that only subsidizes ETCs, like its members.

NTCA’s argument disregards one of the FCC’s key powers - forbearance. Forbearance allows the FCC to selectively suspend certain regulations when it finds that the regulation would do more harm than good. Since Race to the Top is based on a competitive bidding process, unnecessarily restricting the number of eligible bidders would make the program less competitive, more expensive and ultimately less effective. So the FCC would certainly be justified in suspending the ETC requirement for Race to the Top, especially since the program has its own eligibility requirements to ensure funds are used effectively.

In conclusion, FTTHC’s Gigabit Community Race to the Top proposal holds much promise precisely because it would be open to a wide variety of applicants including nonprofits and municipalities, and because it focuses on last-mile fiber networks. We optimistically look forward to the FCC opening a formal rulemaking proceeding so we can address the weak opposing arguments discussed here.

Surprise! Industry Lobbyists Oppose Gigabit Community Race to the Top Proposal - Part 1

This is Part 1 in a two-part series discussing comments submitted to the FCC in response to a petition filed by Fiber-To-The-Home Council proposing a new Gigabit Community Race to the Top program.

The Fiber-To-The-Home Council (FTTHC) recently submitted a proposal to the FCC to create a Gigabit Communities "Race to the Top" program. The proposal suggests granting unclaimed portions of universal service funds (USF) to qualifying entities in small and rural markets willing to build gigabit networks. While the proposal may need some adjustments, the idea holds potential for encouraging community owned networks and we hope the FCC takes the next step by opening an official rulemaking proceeding.

What makes this proposal so promising for community networks is that it may not require grantees to qualify as “eligible telecommunications carriers” (ETCs), a technical requirement placed by the FCC on USF recipients. This requirement virtually assures that USF funds go to already established telcos and not to upstart community networks.

Instead, Race to the Top lays out its own qualifying criteria which opens the door for a broader variety of recipients, including co-ops, nonprofits and municipalities, taking a similar approach as the federal stimulus BTOP program. Furthermore, Race to the Top has the potential to improve on BTOP in one major aspect by focusing on last-mile networks, which BTOP grants largely shied away from.

The FCC comment period for this initial proposal has closed and the majority of submitted comments are supportive. But I want to highlight some of the misleading comments submitted by a few industry lobby groups - National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) and USTelecom. This post will focus on the NCTA, the main lobbying apparatus of the massive cable corporations. A future post, Part 2, will discuss the others.

NCTA opposes the petition on multiple grounds which jump out in bold headings like “Funding Gigabit Networks is a Poor Use of Federal Subsidies” and “Overbuilding of Existing Networks Is Wasteful.” These comments rely on the illusion that cable service is already adequate in rural areas, and where it is not, cable companies will fill the gaps (eventually). A skeptic could also read these comments as a cry for market protection, a plea to not increase competition.

These assertions strike at the heart of why community owned networks are so important - they reflect community self-determination. Communities should not have to wait for a profit-driven corporation to meet local needs; certainly not when it comes to critical infrastructure like broadband.

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NCTA’s aversion to any form of competition is clear from its request that the FCC “not devote limited USF resources to… markets that already have broadband service.” Keeping in mind that industry incumbents consider “broadband service” to mean anything as slow as a few hundred kbps (kilobytes per second), NCTA essentially believes universal service funds should play no role in providing alternatives to outdated networks.

NCTA’s self-serving definition of “broadband service” disregards other statutory requirements of universal service including “quality” and “just, reasonable and affordable rates.” 

NCTA alleges that Race to the Top “relies almost entirely on speculation about the economic and social effect” of subsidizing gigabit networks. Anyone who has been paying attention knows it is not speculation that community owned networks help local governments, schools, businesses and residents save money (I count at least six stories highlighting cost savings on MuniNetworks.org in the past month alone). We have also featured stories about how community networks improve educational opportunities, spark local entrepreneurship, expand community infrastructure, and protect user privacy.

NCTA points to cable-offered “‘business class’ broadband throughout… their hybrid fiber-coax networks” and “Metro Ethernet and other fiber-based services that offer speeds of 1 Gbps or even 10 Gbps.” What NCTA fails to mention is that in many small and rural markets where a cable incumbent offers these services, it is often the only provider of such services, which results in high prices and limited adoption (see this letter for an example of the hoops Redhat had to go through to get advanced services from Time Warner Cable).

The flaw in NCTA’s argument is that it solely treats availability as the ultimate end, completely ignoring affordability. In contrast, affordability is one of Race to the Top’s stated objectives. Time and time again, we see how community owned networks introduce much needed competition which drives prices down and adoption rates up. Race to the Top can help more communities achieve the same result.

Additional comments made by NCTA and the others attack the FCC’s power to implement Race to the Top and the idea of including entities aside from “eligible telecommunications carriers.” I will discuss these comments in Part 2.

AT&T Lobbying Likely to Increase Wisconsin School, Library Telecom Costs

The University of Wisconsin recently withdrew from its contract with WiscNet, threatening the future of the network. Stop the Cap! reports the University bowed under pressure from Republican lawmakers and threats of litigation from the likes of AT&T, CenturyLink, and the Wisconsin State Telecom Association (WSTA). Costly litigation could interrupt UW's research and educational work and UW must consider its relationship with the legislature and the future of state funding.

Once again Republican legislators chose the powerful telecom lobby over taxpayers. WiscNet is a buyer coop that allows schools and libraries to keep their telecom costs lower by working together. Weakening WiscNet means the schools and libraries may have to pay higher fees just to maintain the same level of service. 

The telecom industry makes generous contributions to most Wisconsin lawmakers, but Republicans in particular have been enthusiastic about knee-capping any perceived threat to AT&T's monopoly in much of the state. With WiscNet in the cross hairs, ALEC legislators in Wisconsin can expect renewed campaign support. Senator Paul Farrow and Representative Dean Knudson, spearheading efforts to dismantle WiscNet, receive sizeable donations from WSTA, CenturyLink and TDS Telecom.

If WiscNet cannot recover from the loss of UW, local taxpayers will be the ultimate losers as they have to pay more to keep essential institutions connected. WiscNet provides economical broadband service to members all across the state and ample evidence suggest higher rates accompany private service. From the Stop the Cap! article:

Many of WiscNet’s members report that “going private” for Internet connectivity will more than double their costs. This was confirmed by Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau, which reported a member paying WiscNet $500 month for Internet service would face bills of $1,100 or more if provided by AT&T or other telecom companies.

But the benefits of WiscNet go far beyond higher costs (which are substantially higher than the example cited for larger institutions). WiscNet has enabled all manner of cost-sharing, including centralizing data storage. These are examples of how local governments and institutions can be responsible stewards of public dollars; unfortunately a majority of Wisconsin Legislators seem to believe the best use of public money is to pad the profits of AT&T.

We've written about these efforts in past years but it seems that AT&T is closer than ever to expanding its revenue from the taxpayers of Wisconsin, all with the blessing of state legislators who scream about wasted taxpayer dollars.

Public Service Commissioner Calls Mississippi Gov "Coin-Operated"

We have watched in growing horror as AT&T and other telco lobbyists have gone from state to state gutting telecommunications oversight. In several states, you no longer have an absolute right to a telephone - the companies can refuse to serve you if they so choose.

We tip our hat to Phil Dampier at Stop the Cap, who alerted us to this story. AT&T convinced Mississippi legislators to remove consumer protections for telecommunications.

Northern District Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley is unhappy with a new state law that will strip oversight over AT&T. Presley plans to personally file suit in Hinds County Circuit Court against the law, calling it unconstitutional.

“It violates the state constitution,” Presley said of the bill during an interview with the Daily Journal. “There’s no doubt AT&T is the biggest in the state, and this bill will allow them to raise rates without any oversight at all.”

House Bill 825 strips away rate regulation of Mississippi landline service and removes the oversight powers the PSC formerly had to request financial data and statistics dealing with service outages and consumer complaints. The law also permits AT&T to abandon rural Mississippi landline customers at will.

As we've seen elsewhere (as in California), AT&T worked with ALEC to push this through - though Rep Beckett (R-Bruce) doesn't think AT&T will raise its rates or abandon parts of the state. Time will tell - but Beckett won't be the one to suffer when the inevitable occurs. Thanks to AT&T and ALEC, he already got his.

How AT&T and Time Warner Cable Pass Anti-Competition Broadband Bills

In keeping with our coverage of states that revoke local authority to prevent AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and the like from having to deal with any actual competition, we want to highlight the video below that explains how a modern bill becomes a law.

It ain't like it used to be and it doesn't have to be like this. North Carolina's anti-competition bill came only after years of campaign contributions and heavy lobbying. We discussed the history of that bill with Catharine Rice as well as the recent reprehensible South Carolina law.

Video: 
See video