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Prometheus Joins Us to Discuss Community Radio and Internet - Community Broadband Bits Episode 61

The Prometheus Radio Project is an impressive grassroots organization that has successfully opened the radio airwaves to communities after big corporations had effectively locked up unused radio channel for years. Prometheus Policy Director Sanjay Jolly joins us for Episode #61 of our Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Our conversation ranges from the recent history of pirate radio to the many years of actions and organizing that led to the 2010 Local Community Radio Act. Local groups have an opportunity this fall to apply for licenses to broadcast - a capacity that would well complement a community owned Internet network.

The struggle for community radio has many parallels to community owned Internet networks, particularly the right of people to communicate without a few massive corporations acting as gatekeepers, mediating our broadcasts. Additionally, community radio advocates had to fight through years of junk science and misinformation hiding the plain fact that powerful broadcasters simply didn't want to face competition from locally owned stations. Seems familiar.

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 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe 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 Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Governments Should Focus on Infrastructure Despite False Statistics Peddled by NY Times and Others

Having just read the New York Times story "Most of U.S. is Wired, but Millions Aren't Plugged In," I was reminded that even the top mainstream telecom journalists really have little understanding of what they write. This is a bit ranty but comes back together constructively at the end.

I just read that "nearly 98 percent of American homes now have access to some form of high-speed broadband." Really? Just what exactly does that mean? It is definitely not the current FCC minimum standard speed required to engage in basic Internet activities: 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. Not even close.

To get 98%, I can only assume that the author has started with flawed stats from the FCC that are comprised on systematically overstated DSL availability in rural areas by carriers like Windstream, Frontier, CenturyLink, and others. He likely then included satellite Internet access availability, which is explicitly not broadband due to the inevitable lag of a 50,000 mile roundtrip to geosynchronous orbiting satellites.

But we don't know. We just know that Edward Wyatt knows that by some definition, nearly everyone in America has "high speed" broadband. This is news to the vast majority of rural communities I hear from, who see maps paid for by their tax dollars claiming they can get broadband in their homes. But when they call the company to get it, they find it is not actually available, even though that company had just told the government that it is available there.

These are the statistics that are now apparently official, without any need to even note where they come from. Note that this comes after the New York Times repeatedly erred in claiming few Europeans have access to high speed networks.

Wyatt goes on to laud the Obama Administration's stimulus effort to expand broadband networks:

The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks. About half of those infrastructure programs have been completed, with Internet availability growing to 98 percent of homes from fewer than 90 percent.

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As far as federal programs go, this one worked pretty well at accomplishing its objectives. From what I could tell, a key objective was not overly upsetting existing carriers, which is why so much of the money was spent on middle mile connections that have recently been finished or are now being completed.

But very few households were directly served by the stimulus programs. NTIA chose to invest largely in middle mile networks that also connected community anchor institutions - rarely residents. If any last mile investment will result from the middle mile, it probably hasn't been built yet because the middle mile has just been completed or will be soon.

So while the stimulus was certainly better than doing nothing, it has had little impact on the growth from the invented 90% statistic to the invented 98% statistic.

The grand conceit of the article is what big cable and telephone companies have been telling us for years - we don't have an availability problem, the problem is that Americans just don't take advantage of these awesome connections we want to sell them! To paraphrase something I heard Yochai Benkler once say, Americans are not stupid, if you give them a crap product at a high price, they won't buy it.

The point of my frustration boils down to where we should focus our limited resources.

There is a real literacy component to the digital divide and that is a problem. However, solving that problem can be done with comparatively modest investments in programs to teach computer/technical/media literacy. This has been demonstrated by numerous foundations and others in civil society. Blandin Foundation in Minnesota does an excellent job of this. Existing Internet Service Providers can and should help fund these programs because it increases their customer base.

The danger of government focusing on the literacy divide rather than on actual availability, as some influential folks like Blair Levin have argued, is that solving the access divide - making fast, affordable, and reliable access truly available to 98% or more of US households - is a very challenging problem that civil society cannot solve and the private sector will not solve.

Some elected leaders LOVE to focus on the literacy divide because no one opposes those programs. That doesn't mean it is a good use of resources. Sometimes using resources effectively means challenging a few powerful firms that will vigorously oppose any change to an intolerable status quo because they are banking historically high profits by creating artificial scarcity.

Government exists so we can do together what we cannot do alone. Examples include electrifying the entire nation, building roads, and eventually an interstate highway system. Government should be focused on ensuring just about every American has access to fast, affordable, and reliable networks. Not by bragging about deeply flawed statistics provided by self-interested corporations but by making the necessary investments at the local level.

This is my final point - different levels of government have different strengths. We don't want to see a federal network. These networks should be responsive to communities, which means owned and operated locally. But the federal level needs to do its part in demanding accurate data that reflects the true nature of access to the Internet in America - not settling for whatever politically-connected firms want to offer.

We Need Video Reform, Let D.C. Know What You Think

Time Warner Cable subscribers across the country who enjoy CBS programming are out of luck. The two media giants have reached an impasse in their fight over retransmission consent so several major markets are now missing out. CBS has also taken the fight one step farther, blocking TWC broadband subscribers from accessing CBS.com video content.

Public Knowledge as launched a campaign to end this viewer lock-out. From their recent call to action:

It doesn't matter whether CBS or Time Warner Cable is the bad guy here. The only one losing here is you, the viewer.

Some members of Congress are standing up to the media giants. The bipartisan "Television Consumer Freedom Act," [PDF] co-sponsored by Senators John McCain and Richard Blumenthal, takes the first steps at fixing this mess.

But an army of special interest lobbyists likes things the way they are, and they don't care that you are caught in the middle. For this bill to move forward, your members of Congress need to hear from you.

For more detail on how we got here, read Harold Feld's recent Policy Blog on the PK website. PK makes it easy for you to inform your D.C. represenation that you want video reform. 

You can also look up your U.S. Representatives and your U.S. Senators to contact them directly via phone or email.

Jim Baller Discusses Municipal Broadband History - Community Broadband Bits Episode #57

Jim Baller has been helping local governments to build community owned networks for as long as they have been building them. He is the President of and Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group in Washington, DC. Jim joins us for Episode #57 of the Community Broadband Bits[/glossary] podcast to discuss some of the history of community owned networks.

Jim has a wealth of experience and helped in many of the most notable legal battles, including Bristol Virginia Utilities and Lafayette.

We start by noting some of the motivations of municipal electric utilities and how they were originally formed starting in the late 19th century. But we spend the bulk of our time in this show focusing on legal fights in the 90's and early 2000's over whether states could preempt local authority to build networks.

In our next interview with Jim, we'll pick up where we left off. If you have any specific thoughts or questions we should cover when we come back to this historical topic, leave them in the comments below or email us.

You can learn more about Jim Baller on his website at Baller.com.

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 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 can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

FCC Prioritizes Incumbent Protection in Data Collection Order

Patrick Lucey of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, posted this excellent story around the time we published our rant about the FCC's cave-in to industry pressure for no good reason. We liked it so much, we asked to repost it.

In late June the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an order reforming the way it collects data on broadband services. Broadband providers must file forms, known as Form 477, that contain information about their broadband network deployment, customer subscriptions, and speeds offered across the country. The order seeks to expand the FCC’s current broadband data collection efforts and also assume responsibility for administering theNational Broadband Map, initially created by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA). Unfortunately, the vast majority of the order’s contents seem out of line with that goal.

Federal authorities need to collect good data in order to make informed policy decisions. However, the June data order does not add broadband pricing information to the data the FCC would seek to collect. The price residential customers pay for internet access is an important piece of information, not only to understand the state of competition for broadband but also to provide insight on whether services are available at affordable rates.

Past surveys from both the FCC and NTIA have shown that the cost of residential services can be a barrier to broadband adoption for many citizens. A recent newspaper article also note that some citizens may be canceling their existing home subscriptions due to the high cost.  Both the FCC’s own National Broadband Plan and Department of Justice recommended that the FCC collect broadband pricing information to inform their analysis of competition and the American public’s access to broadband.

Yet, rather than discuss the need to collect broadband pricing information, a review of the June order indicates a greater focus on accommodating the interests of internet service providers by stressing how the reforms will reduce burdens associated with reporting data. A “Ctrl + F” word search of the order returns 85 mentions of variations on the word “burden” [burden, burdens, burdensome, burdening], including a combined 15 mentions of the phrases “reducing the burden” and “reduce burdens.” Compare that to only four mentions for the word “price.” Three mentions for the word “affordability” [and all three are found in the same footnote]. The word “adoption” is mentioned 15 times, with the phrase “barriers to adoption” mentioned three times.

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While federal agencies have an obligation to consider the impact or “burden” of regulations and reporting requirements, here it seems to be the overwhelming focus for the FCC in the order.

An encouraging sign are the public statements of Commissioner and Interim Chairwoman Clyburnand Commissioner Rosenworcel. Both acknowledge the need to revisit the topic of collecting broadband pricing information again in the future, with Commissioner Rosenworcel noting how broadband affordability impacts broadband adoption.

Policymakers must be aware of the prices consumers must pay for broadband to understand the state of internet access in America. The FCC should quickly reopen the discussion on Form 477 broadband data and begin collecting price information to make informed policy decisions.

FCC Decides Not to Collect Key Data For No Good Reason

The FCC does not have a good sense of what is happening outside DC in terms of broadband availability and data. This has been a conscious choice - it has refused calls (even those made by the FCC itself) to collect useful data that would lead to data-driven policies to encourage the investment we need.

Not only has the FCC refused to collect data, it refuses to take action as companies like Time Warner Cable refuse to tell potential subscribers what the cost of service is. We have first hand experience along these lines - our goal was to document actual consumers prices for Internet access beyond promotional pricing. When we asked Time Warner Cable sales reps for prices after introductory deals expire, they would not quote a price. They would not give an estimate or provide any examples. 

If you are looking for evidence of a failed market, we submit that when a seller can refuse to quote the price that one will pay in 7 months for the service, or even ballpark it, with impunity, the market is busted. Time Warner Cable isn't worried about driving customers away - it many areas of the country it is only real option for not too slow Internet access. So it does as it pleases.

We also contacted the FCC and asked staff where we could find information on the actual prices of broadband. The person on the other end sounded defeated as her voice dropped. "Oh, we don't collect that," she said, "We don't know any one who does. Have you tried calling the providers?"

Call us old fashioned, but we think it's crazy. Even though Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, etc. are some of the largest corporations in our country, affecting the household finances of tens of millions of Americans, their prices for connectivity are masked in a Cloak of Invisibility with the tacit approval of the regulatory body charged with protecting the public.

The Free Press documents a recent missed opportunity to rectify past decisions that have led to a data black hole:

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission approved changes to its broadband data-collection practices in an order continuing the mapping efforts begun by the National Telecommunications Information Administration. The FCC, however, declined to adopt its own prior proposal to collect broadband pricing information, ignoring strong recommendations from the Justice Department and the National Broadband Plan that it do so. In 2011, when the Commission last proposed collecting broadband pricing data, then-Commissioner Mignon Clyburn stated that the FCC needed this data to "better assess affordable and comparable prices."

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Matt Wood, Policy Director, went on to say:

"We’re deeply disappointed that politics once again trumped the public interest at the FCC. The Justice Department, the National Broadband Plan, numerous prior FCC proposals, the current acting FCC chairwoman, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and the incoming FCC chairman have all identified the need to collect broadband pricing data. But because powerful broadband companies oppose the collection of any information that would show just how uncompetitive this market is, the FCC is once again refusing to collect the basic data it needs to do its job.

"Data-driven, informed policymaking should not be political. In his confirmation hearing, incoming Chairman Tom Wheeler agreed that the Commission needs broadband pricing data to carry out its oversight duties. All eyes will be on Mr. Wheeler to see if his actions match his rhetoric. If the FCC continues to fail to collect vital broadband pricing data,we’ll know that industry capture is here to stay at the agency."

As a consumer and a researcher, I say its time to lift that Cloak of Invisbility and provide the info consumers need for the real situation on competition and price. The only reason not to collect this data is because the industry is embarrassed at how poorly it is meeting the needs of communities. So its lobbyists put strong pressure on the FCC to help it hide the evidence.

The revolving door in DC between industry and regulatory bodies confuses those entrusted with protecting the public, leaving them more sympathetic to industry concerns than what markets need to function and consumers need to make rational decisions.

Communities can opt out of this broken system by making local investments and no longer depending on failed federal agencies to protect the essential services a modern economy needs. Publicly owned networks are regulated by the local public even when DC regulators, protecting local businesses and residents from the predatory practices of the distant cable and telco duopoly.

IP Transition Catches Fire Island - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode #52

We welcome Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge back to the show to discuss the latest update in the so-called IP Transition. Back in episode 32, Harold explained the five fundamental protections needed for our telecommunications system.

Today he returns to discuss the ways in which some of the islands devastated by Sandy are being turned into Verizon experiments as Verizon refuses to rebuild the copper phone number or upgrade to fiber; instead Verizon is installing an inadequate substitute, as we covered in this story.

Harold explains why this turn of events in New York and New Jersey is an important harbinger for the rest of us and why states should not premarturely deregulate important consumer protections like carrier of last resort and public utility commission oversight.

This show is 15 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 can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Understanding the Lifeline Program - Community Broadband Bits Episode #49

The United States has long recognized that everyone should have access to a telephone and has established a variety of government programs to achieve that end. In recent months, the Lifeline program has come under attack and some have labeled it the "Obamaphone" program.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Sarah Morris joins us to explain how the program works. She is Policy Counsel for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. Additionally, Ana Montes with TURN (The Utility Reform Network in California) joins us to offer ground-level insight into the program.

As we work to ensure everyone has access to fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet, we should be aware of the programs that have been successful in expanding access to the telephone.

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 21 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 can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

New York Times on Internet in America, Genachowski Legacy

Eduardo Porter has an important column today in the business section of the New York Times, "Yanking Broadband From the Slow Lane." He correctly identifies some of the culprits slowing the investment in Internet networks in our communities.

The last two paragraphs read:

Yet the challenge remains: monopolies have a high instinct for self-preservation. And more than half a dozen states have passed legislation limiting municipalities from building public broadband networks in competition with private businesses. South Carolina passed its version last year. A similar bill narrowly failed in Georgia.

Supporting these bills, of course, are the nation’s cable and telephone companies.

Not really "supporting" so much as creating. They create the bills and move them with millions of dollars spent on lobbyists and campaign finance contributions, usually without any real public debate on the matter.

Eduardo focuses on Google Fiber rather than the hundreds of towns that have built networks - as have most of the elite media outlets. Google deserves praise for taking on powerful cable and DSL companies, but it is lazy journalism broadly that has ignored the networks built by hundreds of towns - my criticism of the press generally, not Eduardo specifically.

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The person who deserves plenty of criticism is former FCC Chairman Genachowski. From the article:

According to the F.C.C.’s latest calculation, under one-third of American homes are in areas where at least two wireline companies offer broadband speeds of 10 Mbps or higher.

We have 20 million Americans with no access to broadband. The rest are lucky to have a choice between two providers and even then, most still only have access to fast connections from a single provider.

When the National Broadband Plan was unveiled, we were critical of it and believed it would do little to improve our standing. Even its architect, Blair Levin, is annoyed at how Genachowski failed to implement even the modest proposals put forth.

Back in the NYT piece, we find this:

Mr. Genachowski contends that broadband deployment is on the right track. He points to the growing number of high-speed broadband deployments like Google Fiber and municipal projects around the country, as well as to AT&T’s announcement that it will expand the footprint of its U-verse network — the number of homes to which service is available — to 33 million. This uses fiber part of the way and, AT&T claims, can attain up to 75 Mbps.

Absurd. First of all, the supposed AT&T expansion is playing with numbers. If anyone actually gets U-Verse from this new deployment, it will be fewer than 1.5 million people but we really have no way of knowing because neither the states or the FCC really keeps track of these deployments. They just take AT&T's word for it.

As for 75 Mbps, talk about cherry picking data. Most people live far enough away from the DSLAM or have old enough copper wires that they will not even come close to that number. And this is only for downstream - the upstream capacity remains a fraction of that. This is a fantasy in a fantasy but these numbers are repeated by media sources because they come from AT&T.

I'm rather surprised Genachowski did not also take credit for AT&T's pretend fiber press release in Austin or the overblown CenturyLink pilot in Omaha. Communities engaged in the hard work of building a network received scant attention until they had a ribbon cutting where Chairman Genachowski would appear suddenly supportive and trying to take some measure of credit.

FCC Revolving Door

Genachowski likely felt more comfortable with AT&T, CenturyLink, and a few other big corporations because they share his preference for press releases rather than doing the hard work that needs to be done. We look forward to seeing which of these firms he joins as a lobbyist of some sort ... after a stint at a nonprofit to make it less obvious, of course. Wouldn't want to be as obvious as former FCC Commissioner Baker.

Lest I go too far in attacking our former FCC Chairman, we do remain thankful that once in awhile he did stand up the big corporations and meekly request a reasonable concession.. Most recently, he spoke out against legislation in Georgia to revoke local authority to build networks. For years, FCC Commission and acting Chair Mignon Clyburn has fought to preserve local authority and we were pleased to see her get some backup from the then-Chairman. He didn't actually use his power to actually do anything, but it was nice of him to think of us.

As we move forward with the new FCC under Chairman-nomineer Wheeler, we hope to see real progress on expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access to everyone. Given his industry background, we cannot help but be nervous. And the utter disaster Obama has been for a public interest media and telecom agenda does not help either.

As this NYT article confirms, communities are smart to pursue their own strategies in solving this problem, not waiting for DC to sort anything out. And if DC can be bothered to take any action on telecom, it would be smart to start by removing barriers for communities that want to invest in themselves.

Christopher Mitchell to Join FCC Panel on Gigabit Communities

On Wednesday, March 26, Christopher Mitchell will be on the last panel at the Federal Communication Commission's Gigabit Workshop. The full agenda is here and starts at 9 AM EDT.

The entire event will be webcast via fcc.gov/live.

Mitchell's panel will begin at 2:20 EDT and discuss the ways communities can leverage local tools to build their own networks or to attract partners.

All of the panels are scheduled to spend a lot of time answering questions - remote viewers can submit questions to livequestions@fcc.gov. Please do!