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Save the White Spaces! From Public Knowledge

The FCC is now contemplating how much newly freed spectrum to retain for public use and how much to auction off to private companies for their exclusive use. Public Knowledge is leading the effort to ensure we retain enough shared spectrum to unleash more innovation and public benefits rather than simply padding the profits of a few massive firms that already control plenty of it.

In addition to the Gigabit Libraries Network's White Spaces Pilot Project, we have shared white space technology stories from North Carolina and New York

Public Knowledge recently created a video on the prevalence of spectrum in our lives, included below. Most of us take for granted the fact that shared (or unlicensed) spectrum permeates our culture. 

Instead of sitting by while the resource is auctioned off to the highest bidder, Public Knowledge has also created a petition to retain the spectrum needed for white space technology to spur more innovation. From the petition:

One of the most promising new technologies uses the empty spaces between television channels, the so-called "TV white spaces" (TVWS). The United States currently leads the world in this new technology. In the few short years since the FCC approved use of the TVWS, companies have built and shipped equipment to bring needed broadband to rural communities, creating jobs and expanding opportunities.

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We call on the FCC to set aside 4 reclaimed TV channels, or 24 MHz, for TV white spaces. This will still leave the FCC more than enough to auction to wireless companies for their commercial needs. By reserving 24 MHz of "unlicensed" spectrum across the country for TV white spaces, the FCC will encourage further innovation in wireless services and foster the growth of next generation WiFi contributing billions of dollars in new products and consumer savings.

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Solar Powered Wireless on the Reservation - Community Broadband Bits Episode #76

When it comes to building a community owned wireless network, few have more experience than Matthew Rantanen, our guest for the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week. Rantanen has an impressive list of titles, two of which are Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association (SCTCA) and Director of the Tribal Digital Village Initiative.

We discuss the need for better network access on reservations generally and how several reservations in southern California were able to build their own wireless networks using unlicensed spectrum and the power of the sun. This success has inspired others, including in Idaho, to take similar approaches to ensure modern connectivity.

We also discuss the importance of unlicensed spectrum to ensure that underserved communities can build the networks they need without having to ask for permission and the role that Native Public Media plays in expanding access to media across North America.

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 16 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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Wireless Internet Access Fact Sheet

Wireless networks have been incredibly successful, from home Wi-Fi networks to the billions of mobile devices in use across the planet. So successful, in fact, that some have come to believe we no longer need wires.

We developed this fact sheet to clarify some misconceptions about what wireless Internet networks are capable of and the importance of fiber optic cables in building better wireless networks as our bandwidth needs continue to increase.

This fact sheet defines important terms, offers some key points clarifying common misconceptions, compares 4G and 3G wireless to wired cable, and more. We also include references to additional resources for those who want to dig deeper.

Download our Wireless Internet 101 Fact Sheet Here [pdf].

If you want updates about stories relating to community Internet networks, we send out one email each week with recent stories we covered here at MuniNetworks.org. Sign up here.

Hey FCC: Time to Expand Unlicensed Spectrum!

Remember that Washington Post story about bigger, free Wi-Fi networks? It went hugely viral with all manner of outlets picking the story up, unintentionally distorting it, and amplifying it.

Some good has come of it. For one thing, I was reminded that Ars Technica does a really good job of tech reporting, better than anyone else in my estimation. Cecilia Kang offered a follow-up story to clarify the original that should help more people to understand what is at stake.

But more importantly, we saw a lot of media coverage about something really important, whether we allocate future spectrum for everyone to use (much like Wi-Fi) or will we reserve it just for AT&T, Verizon, or another big corporation?

Harold Feld has a strong opinion on the matter:

This past week, we’ve had quite the discussion around Cecilia Kang’s WashPo piece describing a plan by the FCC to create a national WiFi network by making the right decisions about how to allocate spectrum between licenses for auction and what to leave available for the unlicensed TV white spaces (“TVWS” aka “Super WiFi” aka “Wifi on steroids”). As Kang describes, the FCC’s opening of sufficient spectrum for TVWS could lead to “super WiFi networks (emphasis added) around the nation so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.”

Needless to say, the article faced much pushback, despite a subsequent Washpo clarification to indicate the FCC was not, actually, planing to build a network. Amidst the various critics, there were some general defenders of the concept. My colleagues at EFF noted that increasing the availability of open spectrum for WiFi-type uses , and my friends at Free Press argued that such a free public wifi network (or, more accurately, series of networks) is in fact possible if the FCC makes enough good quality spectrum, suitable for broadband and usable out doors, available on an unlicensed basis.

I will now go a step further than any of my colleagues. I will boldly state that, if the FCC produces a solid 20 MHz of contiguous empty space for TV White spaces in the Incentive Auction proceeding, or even two 10 MHz guard channels that could nationally produce two decent sized LTE-for unlicensed channels, then we will have exactly the kind of free publicly available wifi Kang describes in her article. Or, “Yes Cecilia, there really is free national public wifi. Don’t let the haters and know-it-alls tell you otherwise.” ...

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I wrote a much shorter, far less impressive piece for the Media Action Grassroots Network that embraces a similar argument:

You know how you can buy a simple little device for as little as $30 now to set up your own Wi-Fi network that creates an easy in-home network? Imagine if your neighborhood could do that too!

Wi-Fi works in your home because the federal government, which manages how the public airwaves are divided for various uses, decreed that a small slice of spectrum would be unlicensed - sitting there for anyone to use however they wanted. But that spectrum is not suited for a neighborhood-wide network. ...

And we have seen others take notice as well, including the Baltimore Sun Editorial Staff:

The companies who oppose the FCC's plan argue that the agency's mission to serve the public interest would best be achieved through the revenues from an auction of the airwaves. The last such auction, in 2008, generated nearly $20 billion for the government. That's a substantial amount of money, to be sure, but the relatively small portion of the spectrum that the commission now proposes to leave open to unlicensed use would be worth only a fraction of that — a pittance compared to the economic activity that could be generated through the creation of new products and services to take advantage of the unlicensed spectrum.

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Therein lies the danger. The big wireless lobbyists are pushing Congress and the FCC hard to ensure that they get the licenses. Republicans in particular are arguing that we need the billions (perhaps 3-5?) of dollars that an auction would fetch for the treasury. This would be a terrible tradeoff.

I doubt that anyone has a handle on the value of Wi-Fi, but it is orders of magnitude higher than a onetime infusion of a few billion dollars. How much would you pay any given day to use Wi-Fi? Multiply that by over 200 million people. And this new spectrum could allow bigger networks than Wi-Fi supports -- an even greater potential value!

Verizon and AT&T know this, of course. They will gladly spend billions to ensure that we are stuck paying far more for services from them than we can build for ourselves if only we are allowed to use our spectrum to do so.

Write your elected representatives to support increased unlicensed spectrum.

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.

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.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

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!

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.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Verizon and Big Cable Win - Competition Loses

Once again, we are witnessing the federal government allowing a few massive telecommunications companies to collude rather than compete. Verizon is about to ally itself with major cable companies, to the detriment of smaller competitors in both wireless and wireline.

One of the reasons we so strongly support the right of communities to decide locally whether a community network is a smart investment is because the federal government does a terrible job of ensuring communities have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. By building their own networks, communities can avoid any dependence on the big cable or telephone companies that are more interested in consolidating and boosting shareholder dividends than they are in building the real infrastructure we need.

The Department of Justice released a statement on August 16th, that it will allow the controversial Verizon/SpectrumCo deal to move forward with changes. We have watched this deal, bringing you you detailed review and analysis by experts along with opinions from those affected. One week later, the slightly altered deal was also blessed by the FCC.

Many telecommunications policy and economic experts opposed the deal on the basis that it will further erode the already feeble competition in the market. In addition to a swap of spectrum between Verizon and T-Mobile, the agreement consists of side marketing arrangements wherein Verizon agrees not to impinge in the market now filled with SpectrumCo (Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, and Bright House Communications).

Verizon has been accused of hoarding spectrum it doesn't need. The marketing arrangements constitute anti-competitive tools that the DOJ has decided need some adjusting. From the announcement:

The department said that, if left unaltered, the agreements would have harmed competition by diminishing the companies’ incentive to compete, resulting in higher prices and lower quality for consumers.

The deal was considered inevitable when FCC Chairman Julian Genachowski released a statement indicating that his agency had no problem following the DOJ. A PDF of the FCC statement can be viewed here.

In scrutinizing the deal, the FCC and DOJ bisected the analysis, which worked in the parties' favor. Susan Crawford looked at the process:

Bottom line: The companies involved in the transaction can credibly claim that the deal itself is not going to change the facts on the ground for most Americans. Without “merger-specific harms,” and with an impressive display of bureaucratic sleight-of-hand – FCC got the spectrum part of the deal but DOJ got the joint marketing arrangements, and the two agencies have different statutory authority and DNA, leading to lots of finger-pointing and careful behavior – the companies will avoid being interfered with unduly by the feds.

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Harold Feld, another strong critic of the deal, recently commented on the issue of FCC authority in this particular review. Feld notes that challenging FCC authority is a growing trend, and not good for telecommunications policy. Those who challenge it are diluting at what many consider an already tepid application. In essence, the "repeat loudly and often and eventually they will believe you" phenomena is creeping in and even FCC Commissioners are buying it. From Feld:

Given all this, it is rather difficult to understand why both Commissioner McDowell and Commissioner Pai likewise question the FCC’s authority to engage in ongoing monitoring in the wake of the agreements.  Given that this transfer involved spectrum, cable, broadband, and even broadcasters (shout out to my NBC peeps! What it is O & Os!), the only way this could implicate more FCC jurisdictions would be if one of the parties owned a maritime radio service.

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Given that there is no question that the FCC has authority to entertain complaints going forward, and certainly has authority to monitor how the markets under its jurisdiction are developing, it is hard to understand the jurisdictional argument even as the worship of empty formalism.

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I would think that “we’ll keep an eye on things, anyone with complaints can file over here” would be applauded as the lightest touch possible rather than condemned as regulatory overreach.

Feld goes on:

Which requires me to point out one of the more unfortunate problems in telecom policy (and regulatory policy) these days. There is a huge difference between “it’s bad policy, don’t do it” and “you don’t have authority.” It is unfortunate that those who agree with the FCC on matters of policy increasingly seek to cast their arguments as arguments of regulatory authority. I get that if you don’t like the policy, you would prefer the FCC not have authority to implement it. But just as real lawyers read the footnotes, real lawyers (and non-lawyers) ought to be honest about the difference between policy and authority. Certainly there are times when authority is genuinely contestable, and I will never blame a litigant for making the traditional Hail Mary pass at jurisdiction. But where, as here, the authority of the FCC over reseller agreements is well established, attacks on authority can only be the interpreted as careless or disingenuous.

The FCC and the DOJ may have tried to lighten the negative impact this deal will have on competition by making slight adjustments. Their efforts amount to putting a band aid on a bullet wound. The decision to allow this deal to move forward was telecommunications business as usual.

Crawford, like many others, sums up this deal for what it is:

"...the SpectrumCo transaction is an outcome, not a cause, of the primitive approach to communications that characterizes this country."

Verizon Wireless Busted for Violating Network Neutrality

In December, 2010, Verizon Wireless began operating its network via C-Block spectrum with licenses it acquired in the 2008 auction. In keeping with net neutrality rules unique to C-Block usage, Verizon agreed long ago that it would not block or limit consumers' ability to tether on their 4G LTE network.

Tethering allows a consumer to use a device, such as a smartphone, as a modem to funnel Internet access to an additional device. On July 31, the FCC agreed to end an investigation into whether or not Verizon Wireless had violated this rule. In exchange, Verizon Wireless would make a $1.25 million "voluntary contribution."  Verizon Wireless did not admit it broke the rules. The FCC's consent decree requires the practice cease and that Verizon Wireless implement policies to curtail the behavior.

The story began in 2011. Verizon Wireless began charging its customers an addition $20 per month to allow them to tether additional devices to their smartphones and called the feature "Mobile Broadband Connect."

The Free Press filed a complaint. The FCC began their investigation in October, 2011. From the Free Press website:

Free Press argued that by preventing customers from downloading these applications that allow customers to use their phones as mobile hotspots, Verizon violated conditions of its 700 MHz C Block licenses, the spectrum in which Verizon operates its LTE service. When Verizon purchased the licenses, it agreed to abide by conditions that it not “deny, limit or restrict” its customers’ ability to use the applications or devices of their choosing.

The company also asked the Google Play Store store to block Verizon Wireless customers from accessing software that would enable tethering. Google complied with the request, even though it has often advocated for net neutrality, but were not investigated because they are not an ISP.

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From Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood:

Today's action makes it clear that Verizon was flaunting its obligations as a spectrum-license holder and engaging in anti-competitive behavior that harmed consumers and innovation.

The FCC sent a strong signal to the market that companies cannot ignore their pro-consumer obligations. Unfortunately, the fact that Verizon worked to block these apps in the first place is a clear indication that wireless providers have a strong incentive to discriminate against certain content and applications, an incentive that continues to threaten online freedom and innovation. While we are pleased that the FCC finally acted on our long-standing complaint, and did so before taking action on Verizon's pending spectrum acquisitions, we remain concerned that consumers of other carriers lack the same basic protections that Verizon's customers have under the law.

We encourage 4G users to test to see it Verizon Wireless got the message and changed its ways. Apparently, Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth ran this test three days after the consent decree was released. At the time, Verizon Wireless was still trying to charge $20 for the ability to tether.

Using the micro-USB to USB cable that came with the phone, connect the phone to a laptop, and turn both on. On the phone, go into Settings, and possibly More Settings or Advanced, looking for “USB Tethering.” Tap it and see what happens. What happened to us was a “Sign up” screen inviting us to incur that $20 per month.

Related:

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Apparently, Verizon isn't the only big corporate telco snubbing its nose at net neutrality protections for consumers. The freepress just reported on AT&T's similar attempt to nickel and dime customers with added restrictions:

AT&T just announced that unless its iPhone customers subscribe to a more expensive "mobile share" unlimited text-and-voice plan, the company will cripple the device's built-in FaceTime app so users can't make mobile video calls.

So if you want to use an app rather than make a call -- something you'll be able to do on a "3G" network when Apple updates its operating system -- then you first have to pay for more old-fashioned phone calls and text messages. Say what?

You can learn more and let the FCC know your thoughts on AT&T's policy change at the freepress Take Action page.

The FCC has only applied the bare minimum of regulations on wireless, far less than what we, and groups like Free Press, believe are best of innovation and consumer protection. But AT&T and Verizon are running roughshod over even these basic rules. We are heartened to see the FCC upholding its rules and protecting the public interest in this case.

Harold Feld Examines The Meaning Behind The Verizon/SpectrumCo/Cox Deal

Several months ago, we wrote this post but it got lost in the system. We think it still worthwhile, so here it is.

The word "cartel" drums up many negative annotations - drug cartels, oil cartels. Never anything positive, such as bunny cartels or chocolate cartels. Harold Feld (of Public Knowledge) explains the emergence of another cartel in My Insanely Long Field Guide To The Verizon/SpectrumCo/Cox Deal, on his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog. This is  great tutorial on how the deal came about and what it can mean for the future of broadband.

Rather than chocolate, drugs, oil, or bunnies, the product in question is telecommunications services. At the heart of the cartel are the familiar names: Verizon, Cox, and SpectrumCo. The latter being a consortium of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House. All the big hitters in telecom are involved in a way that is veiled, secretive, and not good for competition.

"It's almost as if your companies got in a room together, and you agreed to throw in the towel and stop competing against each other," Sen. Al Franken to representatives from Verizon and the cable companies at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, March 21, 2012.

Feld's investigation begins with the licensing and collecting of spectrum by SpectrumCo but ends with a more practical look at how these big hitters have decided that it is better to join forces than to compete. Side agreements, secretive multi-layered entities, and threaded loopholes keep the FCC at bay. This begins as an article about telecommunications, but quickly expands into an antitrust primer. The most alarming facet of this situation is that the product in question is information.

Joel Kelsey of Free Press testified at that same committee, warning how this deal will compromise access, quality, and affordability to broadband in America and how drive us further behind the rest of the world.

Update:

On August 16, 2012, the Department of Justice announced that it approved the deal with changes. Citing:

"...the spectrum transactions facilitate active use of an important national resource and thereby promise substantial benefit to wireless consumers."

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Five Cities Denounce Verizon/Comcast Spectrum Deal

If you live in Boston, Baltimore, Albany, Syracuse, or Buffalo, you won't be getting FiOS from Verizon. Absent any public investment, you will likely be stuck with DSL and cable... like 80% of the rest of us.

Not long after Verizon announced it would cease expanding FiOS, we learned that Verizon was coming to an arrangement with the cable companies that would essentially divide the broadband market. Verizon won't challenge cable companies with FiOS and the cable companies won't challenge Verizon's "Rule the Air" wireless domain.

For a while now, the FCC has reviewed a potential deal for a Verizon purchase of Comcast's wireless spectrum. The possible deal involves multi-layered questions of anti-competitive behavior, collusion, and corporate responsibility. 

Along with many other interested parties, such as the Communications Workers of America, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and  the five towns are publicly opposing the deal. They have expressed their derision to the FCC but whether or not they will influence the result remains to be seen.

From a FierceTelecom article by Sean Buckley:

Curt Anderson, chair of the Baltimore City Delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, expressed...outrage on the agreement the telco made.

"Under this transaction, Baltimore will never get a fiber-optic network, and the city will be at a disadvantage," he said. "The direct job loss will be the hundreds of technicians that would be employed building, installing and maintaining FiOS in the area. The indirect costs of this deal are even higher: the lack of competition in telecommunications will raise prices and reduce service quality.

And:

The deal, said Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, "is not in the best interest of those who need to get and stay connected the most and is "a step backwards in bridging the digital divide."

Though these five cities would indeed be better off with FiOS than under the status quo, they would be much better off if they considered building a fiber-optic network owned by the community. Think of it like FiOS, with faster speeds, lower prices, better customer service, and an actual responsibility to put local needs first.

Regardless, the federal government needs to take action against anti-competitive collusion that drives prices up and investment down.

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