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Susan Crawford, Captive Audience, and How to Kill the Cable Monopoly

Susan Crawford, author of the just-released Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, is our guest for the 29th episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. A former adviser to President Obama, she has been a leading figure in the struggle to preserve an open Internet. Susan has long been an advocate of communities deciding for themselves if a community owned network is a wise investment and recognizes the benefits of smart government policies to prevent big companies like Comcast from dominating the telecommunications arena. We talk about her book and reactions to it -- big cable and telephone companies are attacking her under false pretenses by either putting words in her mouth or misrepresenting her main points. But we also discuss the steps concerned people can take to bring force some accountability on the big monopolies. We have previously noted Susan's words and presentations here and we noted some Captive Audience reviews here. Read the transcript from this episode here. 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 17 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment! Listen to previous episodes here. You can download the Mp3 file of this episode directly from here. Find more episodes in our podcast index. Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Susan Crawford's Captive Audience Book Reviewed

I quickly read the just-released Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, and came away quite excited by Susan Crawford's new book. Susan Crawford has been supportive of community owned networks and a loud voice against the poor policies that have allowed a few massive cable and telephone companies to monopolize our telecommunications. Her new book is a good resource for those just getting interested in this issue. After the book was released last week, Susan Crawford appeared on the Diane Rehm show -- an excellent 50 minute interview that comes highly recommended. Be aware that the cable/telephone industry is engaging in character assassination to prevent Susan's message from reverberating around the country. The book led to Sam Gustin's article in Time, "Is Broadband Internet Access a Public Utility?"
State and local laws that make it difficult — if not impossible — for new competition to emerge in broadband markets should be reformed, according to Crawford. For example, many states make it very difficult for municipalities to create public wireless networks, thanks to decades of state-level lobbying by the industry giants. In order to help local governments upgrade their communications grids, Crawford is calling for an infrastructure bank to help cities obtain affordable financing to help build high-speed fiber networks for their citizens. Finally, U.S. regulators should apply real oversight to the broadband industry to ensure that these market behemoths abide by open Internet principles and don’t price gouge consumers.
Art Brodsky also reviewed the book on the Huffington Post. He leads with a reminder of the damage done by the NFL's replacement refs, an apt comparison given how poorly the FCC and Congress have protected the public. Susan will be our guest for the Community Broadband Bits Podcast (episode 29) on Tuesday, Jan 15, and I will be offering periodic thoughts on passages from the book in coming days/weeks.

Susan Crawford Discusses Captive Audience at Berkman Center

Susan Crawford's new book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry & Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, looks to be an excellent read for anyone regularly perusing this site. It is becoming available at bookstores near you. (For why we discourage buying from Amazon, see our Amazon Infographic.) Susan did a one hour presentation at Harvard to celebrate the release of her new book last week. Video below. We will feature an interview with Susan on a podcast in early 2009.

AT&T, Others Overcharge Subscribers Based on Secret Bandwidth Meters

Imagine going to a gas station, putting 10 gallons into your car's 12 gallon tank, and driving off only to find your needle only approaches half a tank? This scenario is quite rare because government inspects gas stations to ensure they are not lying about how much gasoline they dispense.

But when it comes to the Internet, we have found measurements of how much data one uses is unregulated, providing no check on massive companies like AT&T and Time Warner Cable. And we are seeing the results -- AT&T is not open about what its limits are or how to tell when one has exceeded them.

Stop The Cap has noted that AT&T has advertised unlimited bandwidth for its DSL/ U-verse product while chiding and charging customers who exceeded certain amounts of monthly usage. Customers were quietly warned and charged $10 for each additional 50 GB over 150 GB for DSL subscribers or 250 GB for U-verse customers.  Clearly, "unlimited" has several definitions, depending on whether one is a customer or an ISP.

Complaints have also come in from SuddenLink customers and others. The ISP charged usage based customers for bandwidth usage when they didn't even have power. Simlarly, AT&T customers began to complain about inaccurate meters from the beginning of the program. This from a 2011 DSL Reports story - one of many comments from AT&T customers:

AT&T's data appears to be wholely corrupted. Some days, AT&T will under-report my data usage by as much as 91%. (They said I used 92 meg, my firewall says I used 1.1 Gigs.) Some days, AT&T will over-report my data usage by as much as 4700%. (They said I used 3.8 Gig, dd-wrt says I used 80 meg. And no, this day wasn't anywhere near the day they under-reported.)

AT&T's Many Broken Merger Promises

AT&T and others regularly woo their regulators and policymakers with promises to built increase investments or expand networks in return for deregulation or merger approval. A recent Gerry Smith Huffington Post article examines a familiar pattern of broken promises made by telcos, what has developed into a chronic wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am attitude by these massive corporations.

We actually have a name for this, Kushnick's Law: "A regulated company will always renege on promises to provide public benefits tomorrow in exchange for regulatory and financial benefits today." 

Smith revisits promises made back in 2006 when AT&T merged with BellSouth. AT&T promised to roll out broadband to every customer in its territory by 2007. Tell that to Cedric Wiggins from rural Mississippi. From the article:

But five years after that deadline, Wiggins, 26, is still waiting. Inside his trailer, his only affordable Internet option is a sluggish dial-up modem that takes five minutes to load the online job listing sites he has visited since being laid-off as a truck driver in May. Every few months, he calls AT&T to ask when he will receive a faster connection. The answer never changes.

“They said they don’t offer it in my area right now,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Smith found that promises made to gain merger approval are traditionally broken and/or so weakly constructed that the players can comply with little or no effort. Empty promises continue to be accepted by the feds and conveniently forgotten, except people like Wiggins.

No one knows the pattern better than those on the inside:

“We have a problem at the commission, historically, with following-up on merger conditions,” said Michael Copps, who served on the FCC from 2001 to 2011, and who voted to approve the AT&T-BellSouth merger. “A lot of these conditions that get attached are not that great, and they are not always really enforced.”

Comcast Gamed FCC for Internet Essentials "Concession" in NBC Merger

Last year, when Comcast unveiled its Internet Essentials program, the corporate powerhouse received accolades from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. The program was promoted as an example of corporate philanthropy helping to bridge the digital divide.

Comcast received all kinds of positive media coverage for its program. Most of that coverage failed to note that the FCC required Comcast to integrate the program as one of the supposed concessions offered in return for Comcast being able to take over NBC -- giving the largest cable monopolist in the US even more market power.

DSLReports has publicly exposed what many of us suspected all along -- the program was not a concession on Comcast's part. Internet Essentials was originally conceived as a program that would offer slower connections to certain low income households at affordable rates that nevertheless remain profitable for Comcast.

A recent Washington Post Technology profile on Comcast's Chief Lobbyist David Cohen, notes how the program was actually conceived in 2009, but:

At the time, Comcast was planning a controversial $30 billion bid to take over NBC Universal, and Cohen needed a bargaining chip for government negotiations.

“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman” of the Federal Communications Commission, Cohen said in a recent interview.

Eligibility depends on four factors:

Community Broadband Bits 23 - Harold Feld from Public Knowledge

One hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt and AT&T agreed to the Kingsbury Commitment, Harold Feld joins us on Community Broadband Bits podcast to explain what the Kingsbury Commitment was and why it matters. In short, AT&T wants to change the way telecommunications networks are regulated and Harold is one of our best allies on this subject. AT&T is leaning on the FCC and passing laws in state after state that deregulate telecommunications. Whether we want to deal with it or not, these policies are being discussed and consumer protections thus far have taken a beating. This interview is the first of many that will help us to make sense of how things are changing and what we can do about it. We also discuss the ways in which the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission spurred investment in next-generation networks by blocking the AT&T-T-Mobile Merger on anti-trust grounds. Harold is senior Vice President of Public Knowledge and writes the Tales of the Sausage Factory blog. Read the transcript from this episode here. 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 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment! Listen to previous episodes here. You can download the Mp3 file directly from here. Find more episodes in our podcast index. Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Antitrust Enforcement Yields Increased Investment in Wireless

We have long argued that smart antitrust policy promotes investment and competition in the market. Allowing a few firms to consolidate too much power allows them to ignore our needs because we lack alternative service providers. In economic terms, they can use their market power to prevent market entry from innovative new firms.

Harold Feld recented provided more empirical evidence for our view by comparing the present cellular wireless market against that of 20 months ago. He notes new investment from abroad in T-Mobile and Sprint and that U.S. Cellular plans to expand its footprint; AT&T is planning upgrades in its spectrum holdings. Bottom line - investment is starting to happen, which was not the case a year ago. 

Feld breaks out details in FCC and DoJ activities to show the relationship. In addition to the DoJ and FCC mutual block of the AT&T/T-Mobile deal, Feld notes the FCC's new attitude regarding regulatory reform. From the Feld blog:

On top of this, the FCC sudden[ly] started getting all serious about regulatory reforms designed to keep carriers other than AT&T and Verizon in the game as serious players. This included not just the long-awaited data roaming order (which now looks like it will probably survive review by the D.C. Circuit after all), but also revisiting special access, 700 MHz Interoperability, and renewed interest in clarifying the spectrum screen/possibly reviving the spectrum cap. While the last three are still in progress, the fact that the FCC is even talking about them in a serious way is so radically different from what folks expected at the beginning of 2011 that it puts heart into investors and competitors who were looking for some sign that anyone in DC gave a crap or if competitive wireless would end up going the way of competitive telecom and competitive ISPs.

Feld acknowledges that there will be those that jump to conclusions and discourages an all-or-nothing viewpoint in favor of a more measured approach. Also from his blog post:

Community Broadband Bits 18 - Dewayne Hendricks

Dewayne Hendricks is a serial entreprenuer, innovator, and wireless expert. Wired magazine labeled him a broadband cowboy back in 2001. And he is our guest on the 18th episode of Community Broadband Bits. Our discussion focuses on the promise of wireless technologies and how a few entrenched interests in DC (the big broadcasters and wireless telephone companies like AT&T) are preventing innovative approaches that would dramatically improve the capability of all our modern technologies. Hendricks is a prolific tweeter that comes highly recommended from us. And he has kindly recommended two papers readers may want to read following our conversation: David Weinberger's "The myth of interference" and Paul Baran's "False Scarcity" [PDF]. We look forward to inviting Dewayne back soon to discuss the Fiber versus Wireless debate. Let us know if you have any other questions we should ask when he returns! Read the transcript from this episode here. 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 26 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment! Listen to previous episodes here. You can download the Mp3 file directly from here. Find more episodes in our podcast index. Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

FCC Chairman Genachowski Once Again Praises Muni Broadband

Just this week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski highlighted the success of Chattanooga at a speech at VOX Media and SBNation on Winning the Global Broadband Race. From his speech (the entire speech in PDF format is available here):

First, as we said in our National Broadband Plan, we need “innovation hubs” with ultra-fast broadband, with speed measured in gigabits, not megabits.

There have been some positive recent developments on this front.

...

In Chattanooga, the community-owned utility installed a 100% fiber-to-the-premises network, making speeds up to 1 gigabit per second available to all businesses, residences, and institutions

Genachowski also commented on Chattanooga's place in the competitive environment:

Promoting competition also means we need to keep a close eye on developments in places like Chattanooga and Kansas City to see what additional steps we can take to encourage game- changing investments by disruptive broadband competitors.

This is not the first time Chairman Genachowski has referred to municipal networks as a valuable asset. In his August comments on the Google Fiber roll-out, he referred to the importance of municipal infrastructure investments as a way to push the boundaries and compete globally.