Update on Muni Broadband Decision. The Fate of Pinetop, N.C.

Last week, I wrote about the 6th Circuit’s decision in the muni broadband caseTN v. FCC. I mentioned in passing that the opinion pretty much keeps the status quo. Then I found from a reader about Pinetop, N.C.

 

As reported here and here, Greenlight, the muni provider of Wilson, N.C., took advantage of the FCC’s 2015 Order and began offering gigabit broadband in Pinetop, population 1400. Pinetop lies in Edgecomb County, next door to Wilson County. Under the 2010 N.C. anti-muni law, Greenlight could serve anyone in Wilson County but not go outside Wilson County to neighboring Edgecomb  County. But Wilson decided to take a shot and honor Pintetop’s request to provide service (Greenlight already provides electric service in Pinetop as a muni electric provider, so it wasn’t much of a leap).

 

The legal situation on this is now somewhat complicated. The 6th Cir. had not stayed the FCC’s preemption order in 2015, so it was totally legal for Greenlight to offer service. What is unclear now is how to read NC law now that it is “un-preempted” by the Sixth Circuit overturning the FCC. I admit I have no idea how to even begin to answer this question.

 

But it’s not an abstract legal question. The availability of broadband in Pinetop matters a great deal to the people of Pinetop.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

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FCC Loses It’s Muni Broadband Test Case. What Comes Next?

Sometimes the law is clear. Sometimes it isn’t.

 

While that seems obvious, we often miss it in policy debates. But it is rather important to keep in mind when reading Tennessee v. FCCIn a case released August 10, the Sixth Circuit reversed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 2015 Order preempting restrictions the state of Tennessee and the state of North Carolina imposed on their municipalities with regard to providing broadband service. While Commissioners Pai and O’Reilly are certainly entitled to their victory laps, it is equally important to applaud Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Rosenworcel and Clyburn for doing what they believed was both the right policy and the right call under the law. The petitions from the City of Wilson, NC and from the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, TN raised novel questions of law. The FCC’s Order was a test case. On a very narrow and murky legal question, the FCC majority bet wrong — at least according to the 6th Circuit.

 

For myself, not surprisingly, I thought the FCC majority had the better argument. But I can’t say the Sixth Circuit was utterly wrong in holding the contrary. The limits of the Tenth Amendment and preemption power are generally unclear. The interpretation of Section 706 (47 U.S.C. 1302) as providing authority to the FCC remains relatively undefined. Based on the language in the dissent in Verizon v. FCC, which inspired munibroadband proponents to bring the petition and support the case, it looked like a good shot. Similarly, the facts of the case — already existing munibroadband providers, clear demand for them to expand their services, a willingness to expand service but for the relevant state laws restricting service — made this a favorable fact pattern.

 

Unfortunately, sometimes the best bet in the world doesn’t pay off. But that is why people bring test cases — to try to resolve questions in the law that move policy in the direction those bringing the case favor. It is neither an overreach nor illegal for Petitioners to bring test cases, to have an agency resolve them, and for the agency and those who brought the petition to the agency to defend them in court. To the contrary, this is how the rule of law works under the principles of the common law.

 

I stress this point because whether you bring conservative test cases to challenge laws and test limits or progressive cases to challenge laws and test limits — or cases that don’t easily fit in the conservative/progressive paradigm — we want agencies to actually address these cases in a timely fashion. As I remarked many years ago, when the FCC’s efforts to encourage competition in the 700 MHz auction resulted in a mixed result, we need  agencies to be willing to actually address novel circumstances and try new things because otherwise the law will ossify and we lose one of the most important elements of administrative law, the ability of an agency to respond to changing circumstances and provide a suitable record for Congressional action where necessary.

 

Bellow, I give a brief recap of the case and a forecast on what comes next for the muni broadband movement . . .

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The FCC Sets the Ground Rules For Shutting Down The Phone System — And Sets the Stage For Universal Broadband.

Here’s the funny thing about the world. The two Orders the FCC will vote on tomorrow (Thursday, July 14) probably have more impact on the future of our communications infrastructure than the Title II reclassification of broadband. But like most momentous things in technology, no one notices because they are technical and everyone’s eyes glaze over.

 

In particular, no one notices the sleep inducing and incredibly vaguely named item “Technology Transitions,” we are talking about the conclusion of a 4 year proceeding on how to shut down the legacy phone system and move all our national communications platforms to a mix of digital platforms. That does not mean we’re getting rid of copper and going to all fiber (a common misconception). In fact, in many communities, the old copper lines might get pulled out and replaced with wireless technologies (what we call wire-to-wireless transition). Those who still remember when Verizon tried this after Super Storm Sandy on Fire Island will understand why so many of us wanted to make sure we have an organized transition with quality control and federal oversight.

 

But most people don’t remember this anymore. And, if you are not one of the 60 million or so people (mostly rural, poor or elderly) who still depends on the traditional copper line telephone, you may wonder what this has to do with your life. The short answer is: the old phone system still provides the backbone of our communications system of shiny digital thingies we take for granted. The old copper line phone system is also the workhorse of most ATMs, retail cash registers, and thousands of other things we take for granted every day. Why? Because the old copper line network has been around forever. It’s an open system everyone can – by law – plug into and no one ever imagined would go away.

 

But even more important for the future of our communications infrastructure – the Federal Communications Commission made this a values driven transition. In a bipartisan unanimous 5-0 vote back in January 2014, the FCC rejected the idea of making the Tech Transition a “get out of regulation free zone” and adopted four basic principles to guide the transition: Universal Access, Competition, Consumer Protection and Public Safety.

 

As a result, for once, for once, we actually have a chance to prevent the inequality before it happens. It took 100 years, but if there is one thing Americans took for granted, it was that we all had the same phone system and could all communicate with each other on equal terms. The rules the FCC adopts will make it possible to preserve this principle of universal access. Because this network forms the backbone of the broadband network, if we work together and don’t blow it, we can achieve the same success with broadband that we achieved with basic telephone service.

 

I dig into this below . . .

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H.R. 2666: House Prepares to Give ISPs License To Price Gouge (Even More).

The House Rules Committee has scheduled a floor vote for Friday April 15 (today!) for an amended version of H.R. 2666 aka the “No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act,” aka the “Twice The Evil of the Beast” Act. Ostensibly, the bill is supposed to codify the commitment made by President Obama, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, and just about everyone else that the FCC would never use the classification of broadband as a Title II service to engage in “utility style rate regulation.”

 

Surprise! As I explain in a much shorter version over here, H.R. 2666 basically removes the authority of the FCC to take action on any complaints relating to overcharges, fees or other nasty practices that broadband providers may do to overcharge you — provided they disclose them honestly (and, since there is not exactly a lot of competition, disclosure doesn’t help much). It also effectively strips the FCC of its authority to address zero-rating — even in the worst anticompetitive cases where a provider zero-rates its own content while applying its broadband cap (however discriminatory) to rival services. Along the way, it renders various merger commitments involving offering low cost service to the poor unenforceable and has lots of other nasty impacts.

 

Needless to say, the collective trade associations of the broadband industry are thrilled.

 

That’s not just me talking. That’s from the President’s veto threat message. Additionally, this group of 50 public interest groups think H.R. 2666 is a very, very bad bill, and 30 groups signed on to this letter explaining how H.R. 2666 will screw up privacy protection by letting ISPs charge you for it (aka “pay for privacy” like this from AT&T).

 

I’m going to repeat a pitch here I will repeat often: If you think letting broadband providers price gouge and undermine net neutrality is a bad thing, please call your Representative in the House directly, or use this link to go to BattleForTheNet.com and call your Representative (they have a tool to help find your Rep and have a script — but use your own words, that is always more convincing.

 

Made your call? Good. See below for lots more details so you can explain to your friends why they should call. . . .

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If McConnell Trusted His Own Party, He’d Follow the “Bork Precedent” and Hold A Vote.

There are a lot of interesting questions about the possibility that the President will appoint Judge Sri Srinivasan to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. For example, what happens if the D.C. Circuit has not yet voted out the net neutrality case? If Srinivasan is nominated and confirmed, would he be able to participate in an appeal of the net neutrality case? I, however, do not propose to answer either of those questions here.

 

No, I’m going to take a moment to urge Republicans to do the right thing and follow the Bork precedent of which they make so much — have a vote and reject a nominee you don’t like. That’s what the Constitution says ought to happen, and it’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do.  The meaning of “with advice and consent of the Senate” has changed a bunch over the years, but it is clearly intended as a restraint and means of forcing cooperation between the Senate and Executive, as discussed by Hamilton in Federalist No. 76.  (Hamilton thought the power to reject appointments would be little used. Unfortunately, George Washington was right about the corrupting influence of party factionalism.)

 

So why have Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, refusing to hold even a hearing on the as-yet-unnamed Obama Appointee? Fear. They cannot trust their own party to toe the line, especially the 8 Republican Senators facing difficult re-election fights in swing states.

 

While the check on the President is the need for advice and consent of the Senate, the check on the Senate is that they do their work openly, with each member accountable to their state. If Republicans really believe that “the people deserve to decide,” they would vote to reject the nominee and let “the people decide” if they approve of how their Senator voted. But of course, that would mean letting the people actually talk to their Senators while considering the vote, and potentially voting against those Republican Senators who disappointed their independent and swing-Democratic voters.

 

So the GOP elite leadership have conspired once again to take matters out of the hands of the people. Not by following the Bork precedent, which got a floor vote. Not even by filibustering the nominee, as the combined Republican/Dixicrat alliance did for Abe Fortas. No, the GOP leadership have such little trust for their own party, and the voters, that they will not even let the matter come to the floor.

 

More below . . .

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A Reflection on the First Thanksgiving.

It is fashionable now to conflate the 250 year American experience between the European settlers and the Native Americans as simply one of oppression and displacement. Or, as one friend put it: “I’m Thankful that a bunch of European religious fanatics came over and displaced the native population.”

But it wasn’t like that at the First Thanksgiving, or for about 35 years thereafter. In failing to appreciate the efforts of English settlers and Wampanoag tribes in the region to live together in peace in the first three decades of English migration to Plymouth, we ignore both that a better world was possible — and that we have the capacity to build a better world today . . .

 

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In Memoriam: Wally Bowen — Internet Pioneer, Community Activist, and A Hell of God Guy.

Last week, we lost a true leader for rural communities, a true champion of social justice in communications policy, and a personal friend and inspiration.  Wally Bowen, founder of Mountain Area Information Network, died of ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) on November 17 at the age of 63.

You can read his official obituary here. As always, such things give you the what and the where, but no real sense of what made Wally such an amazing person. I don’t have a lot of personal heroes, but Wally was one. Simply put, he gave the work I do meaning.

It’s almost Thanksgiving, and I am truly thankful for the time we had with Wally on Earth, even if I am sorry that it ended too soon. I elaborate below . . .

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Broadband Access As Public Utility — My Speech at Personal Democracy Forum.

On June 4, I gave a speech at Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) on Broadband Access As Public Utility (the official Title was The Internet As Public Utility, but my original title and my conception still is about broadband access specifically because “the Internet” has become a very vague term). For those unfamiliar with PDF, it is a truly awesome conference organized by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej that brings together folks from all over the tech world to discuss how tech can make a better world and be an expression of our values. This year’s focus was on how tech can facilitate civic engagement. This year was my first time to PDF, but I am definitely going to do my damndest to come back next year.

 

I’m pleased to say my speech was well received.  I’ve included the video below. (You can find videos of the other speakers in the PDF15 Archive.)  My speech turned out to be about 15 minutes long, which means it was 3 minutes over. Even so, there are some significant differences between what I wrote in advance and as actually delivered (which happens to me often), which is why I reprint my original “as prepared” remarks below the fold.

 

A few basic points I want to make as take aways. As I keep stressing, the term “utility” and “public utility” does not imply any particular mode of regulation or requirement for natural monopoly or market power. The term goes back to the concept first elaborated in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on the purpose of government, including: “the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit would never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.” The Federalist Papers further expands on this idea, justifying the Constitution as necessary to create a government sufficiently “vigorous” to meet the needs of the people.

 

The innovation of the post-Civil War era was to identify services which, although provided in many cases by the private sector, were too important and too central to society to be left wholly to the dictates of the market and private companies. It is in this sense that Franklin Delano Roosevelt meant “utility” in his letter to Congress calling on creation of the Federal Communications Commission, which begins: “I have long felt that for the sake of clarity and effectiveness the relationship of the Federal Government to certain services known as utilities should be divided into three fields: Transportation, power, and communications.” To use the older statutory language, these services are “affected with the public interest,” and therefore government has a responsibility to ensure their fair, affordable ubiquitous availability.

 

I argue that broadband, in the tradition of all our previous communications services, now falls into this category of services so essential that they are public utilities. I do this knowing full well that those opposed to any form of government oversight of essential service or opposed to the public provision of critical infrastructure will deliberately misconstrue this to mean traditional rate-of-return regulation. To this I can only say *shrug*. The first step in ensuring proper broadband policies lies in reclaiming the term public utility for what it really means — a service so essential that the government has a responsibility to ensure that, one way or another, everyone has fair and affordable access. We must embrace that fundamental value as firmly as we should reject a return to rate regulated private monopoly provision — or the worse alternative of entirely unregulated private monopoly provision.

 

Enjoy.

 


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Comcast/TWC/Charter — OK, NOW It’s Time To Pop The Champagne, And Thank Staff For Doing Their Job.

Yesterday I wrote that it was too soon to start celebrating and that we could expect Comcast to muster its vast army of lobbyists and effectively bottomless treasury to keep trying to push its merger through. I even gently chided Tim Wu for declaring the Comcast deal “dead.”

 

Well, I am incredibly happy to eat crow on this one. To my surprise, Comcast decided to pack it in rather than push like Hell for the next few weeks. But on reflection, Comcast’s decision makes sense for several reasons. I will break these out in a separate post. But first, before the wonky stuff, I want to pause and reflect on the last 16 months.

 

At the start of 2014, things looked grim. First, the D.C. Circuit threw out the old Net Neutrality rules. Then Comcast announced it would buy Time Warner Cable. People believed that in corrupt Washington, no one could stop the well-connected Comcast whose CEO plays golf with Obama from getting what it wanted, and assumed the “former cable lobbyist” Tom “dingo” Wheeler would simply hand the Internet over to his cable buddies.

 

In February 2015, the FCC reclassified broadband as Title II. Today, Comcast will announce that it is abandoning its effort to acquire Time Warner Cable in response to resistance at every level of government. And Tom Wheeler appears on track to put a real pro-consumer, pro-competition agenda in place.

 

I know it is typical at this point for me to remind everyone that we have proven once again that Citizen’s movements are citizen driven!   And it is indeed the case that without the massive and coordinated efforts by the grassroots at every level — like my friend Hannah Jane Sassaman and the Media Mobilizing Project taking it to Comcast HQ in Phildelphia (and who continues to organize efforts to reform Comcast’s practices via the city’s refranchising process), the folks at TURN and Greenlining who opposed Comcast at the California Public Utility Commission, and everyone who wrote to the FCC or called their member of congress — we could not have won these battles and the battles yet to come.

 

But we also need to actually appreciate the hardworking folks at the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission who actually did their jobs and looked at the facts and recommended the right thing — despite all the pressure some of the most powerful corporations in America could bring to bear. The staff who took the time to pick apart all the carefully prepared expert statements and the professionally prepared and packaged “evidence” submitted by Comcast and sift through the millions of pages of documents submitted into the record, patiently building the legal and factual case against the merger that could survive not only judicial scrutiny, but the anticipated counter-attack by the army of coin-operated think tanks and shills.

 

Yeah, those guys. The despised “bureaucrats” and the FCC and DoJ bosses who had their backs and gave them room to do the right thing. Them. They did their jobs. They worked hard at it. They came to the right result.

 

Next time you want to score cheap points or enjoy the pleasures of easy cynicism, remember that. I’m not saying they’re perfect, or all good and pure and noble. Heck, I spend a good deal of my time trying to swim upstream and push staff in directions they may not want to go, and am not afraid to call out the bad calls, the politically based decisions, and the stuff that’s just plain wrong — often in rather snarky and unflattering terms. I’ve got a job to do as well, and that means making sure that those in charge don’t get a free pass when they side with special interest against the public interest.

 

But I am saying that there are a lot of people at the FCC — and in federal service generally — trying to do their job and get it right. Sometimes they even succeed, if the process lets them. When that happens, it would not kill you to say “thanks.”

 

Stay tuned . . . .

 

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Today is FCC Net Neutrality Order Day! What Happens Now?

Word is today the FCC will release its network neutrality order reclassifying broadband as Title II. I’ll update with a link when that happens.

UPDATE: Here is the Order in all it’s yummy geeky goodness.

UPDATE #2: I goofed on the length of time parties have to file petitions for review with the federal appeals courts. I cited 47 U.S.C. 402(c). But as a kind reader emailed me, the mandatory time limit in 402(c) only applies in the limited number of instances listed in 47 U.S.C. 402(b) — cases with exclusive jurisdiction in the D.C. Circuit. In most cases, including here, petitions are filed under 402(a), which directs the filer to the procedural rules under the time allowed under 28 U.S.C. 2344. That gives parties 60 days to file a Petition for Review, not the 30 days specified in 47 U.S.C. 402(c). This error is now corrected below.

My only excuse is I was dashing this off quickly in the morning and forgot about this distinction between 402(a) and 402(b). It was annoyingly sloppy on my part. My thanks to the reader who chose to correct me very gently by email rather than mocking me disdainfully on Twitter or in the comments section.

Below is a (relatively) short FAQ on what happens now.

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