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ILSR Statement on FCC Call for More Competition: A Step In the Right Direction

There is little doubt that our readers are aware of Chairman Wheeler's remarks on September 4th at 1776, a start-up incubator in D.C. His message echoed what policy leaders have repeated countless times - competition is lacking in the world of broadband.

Telecommunications has become a popular topic in the past few months as decision makers are discovering that constituents DO care about online access, economic development, and exessive consolidation. ILSR was pleased to see the Chairman address the issue of lack of competition and released the following statement:

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance applauds FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s Agenda for Broadband Competition. We feel it is a positive step coming from the nation’s top communications official.  

“These gigabit developments are positive, but they are not yet pervasive,” Wheeler said. “Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler's recognition that Americans lack a true choice in fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access is an important development. If we want real options for next-generation connectivity, local governments must be free to build then own networks. 

If there is one thing we have learned from the history of essential infrastructure, it is that local governments must have the option of building and owning it themselves. 

Hundreds of communities have already invested in their own fiber networks, keeping money in the local economy and spurring job growth.” says Community Broadband Networks director Chris Mitchell.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - Week of August 29, 2014

"When private industry does not answer the call because of market failures or other obstacles, it is appropriate and even commendable, for the people acting through their local governments to improve their lives by investing in their own future."

~ John McCain, 2005

Wait. What? Brendan Sasso from The National Journal brought up some excellent points this week-- some things we’ve been pondering for a good long while.

Why would so many republican lawmakers who claim to value self-determination and self-rule deny citizens the right to take on Big Telecom? Why would Republicans who rally for smaller government and healthy competition turn around and argue that the State should step in and bar citizens from having their basic broadband needs met?

That quote from Sen. John McCain was spoken when McCain and a bipartisan group of senators (Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman and Democrats Frank Lautenberg, John Kerry, and Russ Feingold) introduced a bill to block states from restricting local governments' ability to provide publicly run and funded Internet service. It can be explained pretty simply, According to Sasso: 

“President Obama has taken a position on the issue this time around. That’s why 11 Republican senators are “deeply troubled” that the FCC would "force taxpayer funded competition against private broadband providers."

Municipal Broadband got a shot in the arm this week from the Center for Public Integrity as well. Allan Holmes wrote extensively about how Big Telecom spends millions of dollars in litigation, advertising and lobbying “instead of investing in improving infrastructure in these communities.” 

“On a scale of 1 to 10 on who is the most powerful lobbying presence in Tennessee, AT&T is a 12,” said a long-time lobbyist in Nashville who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly about lobbying in the state. “They are the big horse in the race, and they are unstoppable.”

AT&T and its president of Tennessee operations Joelle Phillips didn’t respond to CPI emails asking for comment, but Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch definitely added his own thoughts. He outlines some of his concerns:  

“Increasing competition is good. Helping bring more American citizens onto the Internet at high speeds is good. And it is especially good to bring quick digital access to the world’s information to rural areas that are not currently served by private enterprise. As such, there is a place for municipal broadband in America.

More broadly, if citizens want to come together and build a service for themselves using monies that they elect to raise, they should be able to. I struggle to understand how that idea is controversial.”

The initial comments period for the Time Warner merger plan came to an end Friday. Before it closed, ILSR and 64 other reform groups made their voices heard. Value Walk staff reprinted our comments, the basis of the argument is this:

“The merger would give Comcast too much control over the future of the Internet and communications infrastructure and undermine the diversity of ownership and content in media.” 

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves…

FCC Public Comments Round Up

The Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) on the FCC website has been working overtime in the last few months, so we decided this would be a good time to “Roundup” the various petitions that are open for comment regarding Internet rules, give a brief rundown of the timeline, and let you know how you can make your voice heard. There are a couple of key deadlines this week, so make sure to get your comments in! Below is a quick summary of some of the petitions and filings you should be aware of, their deadlines, and next steps.

Net Neutrality (14-28)

After extending the deadline for Initial Comments on Net Neutrality, the FCC received more than a million comments asking them to preserve the open Internet. ILSR submitted its petition July 18, focusing on the issue of paid prioritization, reclassification, and regulation of content. The FCC also extended the deadline for reply comments to September 15.

The commission is expected to establish net neutrality rules by the end of 2014.

Local Authority on Municipal Networks

Wilson, North Carolina (14-115) and Chattanooga, TN (14-116) filed petitions with the FCC July 24th asking them to remove restrictions on their ability to expand and offer services to nearby communities. On July 28th, the FCC opened a public comment calendar for the request.

ILSR stands firm in its support of these communities, and others that have built their own networks. We are not alone. The US Conference of Mayors, several communities, the American Public Power Association, a coalition from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties all joined together to publicly support restoring local authority to communities targeted by state laws to prevent competition.

Initial comments are due August 29th, Reply Comments are due September 29th.

Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

Comcast announced it would by Time Warner Cable Inc. in March. The merger (14-57) would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure.  ILSR signed on to a letter to Chairman Wheeler in April.

You must file your complaint by Monday, August 25 to be considered. Responses to comments are due September 23rd. Replies to those responses are due October 8.

AT&T/DirecTV Merger (14-90)

AT&T and DirecTV announced their intentions to merge in May. The FCC opened proceeding 14-90 June 11. Although some organizations, including ILSR have asked for an extension for comments, the current deadline for petitions is Sept. 16. Replies can be filed until October 16, and responses to those are due by November 5. 

Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress

And finally, the FCC opened a Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress August 5. The Inquiry (14-126)  kicks off the FCC’s tenth “State of the Internet” report, in which they examine whether “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” 

The deadline for the inquiry is September 4, the reply comment deadline is September 19. 

Comcasts Invests in Theme Parks Rather than Better Broadband

While its network continues to offer last generation speeds at high prices and their customer service reps go viral harassing customers who try to leave their grasp, Comcast executives have decided it is time to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade... their theme parks. That's right, as they shift call centers to the Philippines to save money, they are reinvesting it into roller coasters.

Having acquired Universal Orlando Resorts as part of their 2011 merger with NBC Universal, Comcast has decided to step outside its core business of providing Internet access, cable TV, and phone service in noncompetitive markets. According to a March CED Magazine article, Comcast plans to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in both Florida and California in an effort to challenge Disney’s traditional dominance of the field. Attractions in Orlando will include an 1,800 room beach resort and a new Harry Potter ride.

This investment in rides occurs against the backdrop of falling infrastructure investment in the broadband industry, despite rapidly increasing bandwidth demands and claims by ISPs that services such as Netflix are straining their networks and must pay extra for “fast lane” service.

It is possible to imagine a world in which broadband markets are sufficiently competitive to force Comcast, CenturyLink and other incumbents to invest sufficiently in building out and upgrading their networks, delivering better service to their customers. But in our world, Comcast can spend the comparatively small sum of $18.8 million on lobbying (in 2013 according to OpenSecrets.org), becoming the seventh biggest campaign contributor in the nation and pushing legislation like the recent Blackburn amendment that eliminates potential public sector competitors.

KGNU From Boulder Interviews Chris for Independent Colorado Radio

KGNU from Boulder recently interviewed Chris on It's the Economy. This 27 minute interview is a crash course in all the intertwined topics that have the telecom policy crowd buzzing.

Host Gavin Dahl asked Chris about SB 152, the 2005 Colorado statute that constricted local authority and has prevented communities in that state from investing in telecommunications infrastructure. As many of our readers know, the Colorado communities of Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial, have held elections to reclaim that authority under that statute's exepmtion. The two also discussed legislative activities in Kansas and Utah inspired by big cable and telecommunications lobbyists. 

The conversation also delved into gigabit networks, network neutrality, the Comcast/Time Warner mergers, legislative influence, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's recent statement about local authority.

In short, this interview packs a tall amount of information into a short amount of time - highly recommended! 

You could also read a transcript of the interview here.

Community Networks: Checks and Balances

As both AT&T and Comcast seek to increase their market power by buying rivals instead of competing, Barry Lynn reminds us of our history of fighting such consolidated power. From Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.

In the modern era in the United States, efficiency was a favorite defense by industrial autocrats like John D. Rockefeller and financial autocrats like J.P. Morgan of their used of corporate power to arbitrarily determine particularly political economic outcomes. The progressive elite, meanwhile, later turned efficiency into a veritable religion.

That's why the American people learned long ago to reject efficiency as either a goal or a means to public or private governance, and why we consistently rejected it for the first two hundred years of our nation. We understood that efficiency was a code word for top-down autocratic rule by the lords and the private corporate estates or the "public" state. Hence we rejected efficiency in the Declaration of Independence and again in the Constitution. We rejected efficiency when we wrote the Sherman Antitrust Act, then reiterated our rejection time and again in our other antimonopoly laws.

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected efficiency as an excuse for industrial dictatorship when it ordered the breakup of Standard Oil despite the fact that the company had lowered the cost of a gallon of kerosene by more than half. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the efficiency argument again in 1935 when it ruled President Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. In every case, the American people embraced not efficiency but freedom and moved to protect that freedom through the erection of intricate systems of checks and balances designed to scatter power.

Network Neutrality Update

The FCC is hearing the massive public outcry over its plan that would allow the big cable and telephone companies to create fast and slow lanes on the wires most of us depend on to access the Internet. Chairman Wheeler has made some bold claims that he would not allow commercially unreasonable deals but many doubt the FCC has the authority to enforce his tough talk.

Now we see that FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel wants to slow down the rulemaking for "at least a month" given the outcry.

Resistance to the plan does seem to be building with the emergence of over 100 Internet-dependent companies decrying the possibility of fast and slow lanes. Full letter here [pdf].

Mozilla has developed an alternative approach to reclassification that some are saying just might work, but as a naturally conservative person, I will want to see it vetted by trusted experts like Harold Feld. The main problem with reclassification seems to be that Republicans would demagogue it as Obama attempting to take over the Internet - a problem for Democrats already facing an uphill battle in November.

However, Barbara van Schewick - one of the most knowledgeable people on this matter - makes a strong case for the FCC rebooting the whole process, gathering more input, and ultimately reclassifying Internet access as Title II while forebearing many of the Title II powers that would allow the FCC to wield too much control over access to the Internet.

Much like the FCC has long overseen telephone access without censoring the content of our speech, it would be possible for the FCC to reclassify Internet access without getting involved in content.

However, the larger problem remains - the market power of the massive firms like Comcast and AT&T. As long as they continue to wield the power they do (which will grow if consolidation continues), they will buy support in Congress and use the FCC's revolving door to their advantage; no amount of regulation will ultimately contain them.

To preserve the open Internet over the long haul, we have to reduce the overwhelming power of those companies. We can do that with an "all hands on deck" approach to expanding Internet access - ensuring local governments are free to build their own networks as they choose or partner with trusted entities. On this matter, Chairman Wheeler has said he will use FCC power to remove state barriers to communities make those decisions, a tremendous step forward for preserving the open Internet.

This is a very important moment. We need the FCC to preserve the open Internet by continuing to prevent paid prioritization schemes and we need to create alternative networks to end the cable monopoly and reduce their power in DC and state houses.

Below is an excellent video on this subject that explains the problem and what can be done. As we noted in our podcast with Scott Bradner, the way this video presents the key question of who should pay who represents a break with the past traditions, but it may be time to reconsider who should pay when faced with a cable monopoly for Internet access.

Video: 
See video

No Scale Advantage in Netflix Speed Ranking

Netflix has continued to publish monthly rankings of ISPs average speed in delivering Netflix video content to subscribers. Though they first published data about the largest, national ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and the link, they have an expanded list with many more ISPs.

I recognize two municipal networks on the expanded list of 60 ISPs. For March 2014, the Chattanooga EPB network is ranked 4th and CDE Lightband of Clarksville, Tennessee, is ranked 7th.

With the exception of Google Fiber and Cablevision, the top 10 are regional or somewhat smaller ISPs. Combined with the significant spread across the rankings of the biggest ISP, we see no empirical evidence for any kind of benefits to subscribers from scale. That is to say, Netflix data shows that bigger ISPs do not deliver better customer experience.

We do see more evidence that fiber networks deliver faster speeds on average, with cable following, and DSL trailing distantly. This is why DSL networks are losing customers where people have a choice and cable is gaining (most often where there is no fiber option).

Any claims by Comcast that allowing it to merge with Time Warner Cable would result in better service should be subject to extreme skepticism. Many much smaller networks deliver faster connections and raise rates far less often that Comcast, which is at the high end of frequency in rate hikes.

The problem with the biggest companies is that they focus on generating the highest returns for Wall Street, not delivering the best experience to Main Street.

Long List of Public Interest Groups Sign on to Free Press Letter Opposing Comcast Time Warner Cable Merger

The Free Press announced that more than 50 public interest groups, including the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, signed on to its letter in opposition to the Time Warner/Comcast merger.

The letter, addressed and delivered to Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, begins:

The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure. This massive consolidation would position Comcast as our communications gatekeeper, giving it the power to dictate the future of numerous industries across the Internet, television and telecommunications landscape.

In the press release, Craig Aaron, President and CEO of the Free Press, stated:

“The question before the FCC is whether this deal serves the public interest. The answer is clear: A bigger Comcast is bad for America.

“Merging the nation’s two biggest cable-Internet providers would turn Comcast into our communications gatekeeper, able to dictate the cost and content of news, information and entertainment. We need an Internet and video marketplace that offers people high-quality options at prices they can afford — not a near-national monopoly determining what we can watch and download.

“In the past four years, Comcast has raised basic cable rates in some markets by nearly 70 percent. Its top lobbyist has admitted that the price increases will continue to skyrocket if the merger goes through. And that's about the only thing Comcast has said about this deal that you should believe.

“The growing chorus of groups opposing this takeover knows the truth. The only rational choice is for the FCC and Justice Department to reject this merger."

 

Process Matters: Harold Feld's Guide to the Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger

The proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal will be on everyone's mind for many months to come. Thanks to Harold Feld, it is now possible to follow the process as it moves forward. Feld began a series of posts earlier this month that map out the review as it moves from the Department of Justice Antitrust Division to the Federal Communications, and finally to Congress. As Feld notes, the entire process will last six months at least and could run for more than a year. 

In addition to drawing a process map, Feld provides insightful subtleties on the purpose behind each step in the review. He also offers political analysis that may influence the outcome. Feld gets into the unique review process, burdens of proof, and relevant definitions at each stop along the way. Highly recommended, especially for law students.

Part I - Introduction

Part II - Antitrust Review at the DOJ

Part III - Federal Communications Commission analyzes public interest

Part IV - The proposal moves through the committee process and the public has a chance to express themselves to their elected officials (including lobbyists)