Tales of the Sausage Factory

Does Comcast Fear To Win Too Much?

I grant I wasn’t there, but pretty much everyone who was seems to think the D.C. Circuit oral argument in the Comcast/BitTorrent case was an utter disaster for the FCC/pro-NN forces and a total triumph for Comcast. Given my previously voiced opinion about the judicial activists on the D.C. Circuit, I can’t say this surprises me even in light of the previous precedent. Indeed, from what I have heard, the D.C. Circuit appeared breathtakingly eager to rush past the procedural issues and declare that the FCC has absolutely no jurisdiction to regulate anything an ISP ever does, ever.

So why has Comcast, which (along with its trade association) has argued that it would violate its First Amendment rights for the FCC to regulate its conduct as an ISP, posted this blog entry to explain that of course they totally support FCC regulation of broadband ISPs, under the right circumstances, etc.?

Answer: Comcast fears to win too much. For Comcast (and other broadband providers), the ideal world consists of an FCC with jurisdiction but no authority. That is to say, they want an FCC that appears to have authority to do something, but when push comes to shove is prevented from actually doing anything Comcast doesn’t like. Which is why Comcast wanted to win on procedure and, perhaps, get the court to threaten the FCC that it had no authority. In that universe (which could still come to pass), Comcast could keep Congress from giving the FCC explicit authority by saying it has jurisdiction but keep the FCC from doing anything by claiming that it lacked authority for any specific action.

But there is every indication that the D.C. Circuit will go much further, and find that the FCC has no jurisdiction to even consider regulation of ISP behavior no matter what the circumstances, because it doesn’t believe that ancillary authority exists. While that sounds like exactly what Comcast would want, it scares them silly. Because even the fear of this sort of huge loss creates a panic that could lead Congress explicitly delegating the FCC extremely clear and unambiguous authority.

More, including a shout out to all my fellow Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, below . . . .

UPDATE: According to this blog post by Washpo Reporter Cecilia Kang, I’m not the only one thinking this way. A few more choice remarks from NCTA’s Kyle McSlarrow about how the FCC’s role is to be a big ATM for his members may get even this Congress off it’s rear end.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Canada Adopts Comcast/Bitorrent Standard For Network Management

On the eve of the FCC’s upcoming Network Neutrality rulemaking, Canada has now settled its definition of “reasonable network management” and set rules for traffic throttling. Amazingly, the rules the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) settled on for “reasonable network management” look a lot like the standard our own FCC settled on in the Comcast/BitTorrent Order, but even stronger on the notice and transparency side. Hopefully, the FCC is paying attention here as it considers its own rulemaking on the definition of “reasonable network management.”

You can read the CRTC press release here and the detailed order here. The CRTC also says that it will sue this new framework “to review practices that raise concerns or generate complaints.” i.e., it will treat this as the equivalent of the Internet Policy Statement and entertain complaints like the Comcast/BitTorrent complaint.

While this means I will no longer have my realtime experiment to see if unrestricted traffic shaping screws up broadband, it does make the FCC look less like whacked out nutbars who don’t understand engineering and threaten the entire internet and more like foresighted regulators who are ready now to move on to a formal rulemaking rather than merely rely on a framework.

Moe below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

ESPN360.Com Locks Up It's Content — Let The Fragmentation Games Begin!

There’s been a lot of back and forth over whether letting broadband providers lock up content, or content providers lock out ISPs, is a good thing or a bad thing. And now, ESPN360.Com is going to kick off the fragmentation games and let us all find out.

It is a fine old Republican free market anti-deregulatory tradition to deregulate critical infrastructure and hope for the best, pooh-poohing doomsday predictions as ignorant exaggerations and fear mongering by business-hating regulation-loving quasi-commies. And since this philosophy worked so well with our financial sector, we have now moved it to the next major engine of the economy — broadband.

I am so excited! For those who have developed a taste for Lehman Bros-type thrill rides, the ESPN360.com deal will bring back fine memories of your first subprime derivative. You (and the rest of us along for the ride) can look forward to the thrill, the excitement, the dramatic highs and lows of playing high stakes roulette with our digital future. True we’ve lost our mortgage money (literally and metaphorically) playing “follow the Subprime queen.” But don’t worry. As any economist will tell you, the combination of a lack of information, high transaction costs, complex interrelated markets, and poorly understood network effects is just tailor made for that wild west anything goes atmosphere that made all them miners rich in the Sacramento gold fields!

Bet our critical infrastructure? How can we afford NOT TOO!!!

Details below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The FCC Releases the Comcast Complaint Order Part I — Why This Is A Huge Win.

The FCC just released the text of the Order adopted on August 1 finding for Free Press on the Comcast Complaint and Declaratory ruling and denying Vuze’s Petition for Rulemaking. You can get the pdf here.

Larry Lessig pretty much says it all with his letter commending the FCC on its decision. For myself, I see this as another in a series of important wins, building on previous wins. Read it, particularly the footnotes, and you will find reference to the C Block openness conditions, the Adelphia Transaction Order, and every other baby step along the road that proved absolutely critical to getting us this far.

And, just as with those victories, we did not imagine for one moment that we had finished our task or that we had solved our problems. The danger to an open internet that remains a platform “as diverse as human thought” in the face of broadband providers trying to convert it into a combination shopping mall, movieplex and theme park continues. But we prevented Comcast from creating an “industry standard” around blocking or degrading peer-2-peer applications and put every ISP on notice that they will need to make real disclosure of their “network management practices” when those practices block or degrade subscriber choices. That the market would not respond on its own — at least not in a positive way — is evidenced by the fact that Comcast, despite all the negative publicity, promises to change, etc., is still targeting bittorrent. To the contrary, had we not acted, I do not doubt that other broadband ISPs would, over time, have adopted this and similar techniques, and without notifying their subscribers in any meaningful way.

We have also created another positive precedent for the day when a future FCC or Congress will adopt rules that provide the level of protection we need to maintain an open and competitive internet. This FCC opinion establishes the jurisdictional basis for any future rulemaking and, while declining to adopt rules now, explicitly states that the FCC retains the jurisdiction to create rules in the future — noting that the Carterfone network attachment rules began as an adjudication and ultimately culminated in Part 68 of the Commission’s rules. Despite a raft of theories (conspiracy or otherwise) to the contrary, this Order does not weaken our efforts to get general rules or get legislation passed. To the contrary, by recognizing that rules protecting the openness of the Internet further the important interests of the First Amendment (Par. 43 n. 203), this Order strengthens our ability to get rules or legislation in the future.

While it leaves certain critical questions — such as whether a third party can pay a broadband access provider for “premium” treatment regardless of user preferences — unresolved, it does so in a way that leaves us free to come back without any bad precedent or presumption. Copps and Adelstein can continue to press for adoption of a fifth principle on non-discrimination without fear that voting for this Order somehow put them in a box.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

A Reminder Why the PK Petition On Mobile Texting Matters (lest you think I only pick on cable operators).

Today’s NYT has this op ed on Obama’s use of text messaging to announce his VP pick. It provides a nice reminder about the importance of the pending Petition by PK and others on text messaging. Filed after Verizon denied NARAL a short code but reversed itself within 24 hours the mobile texting petition often gets bundled with the Comcast complaint as if they were essentially two examples of the same thing. They aren’t. The Comcast complaint asked the FCC to follow through on its previous commitment to prevent broadband providers from blocking or degrading content or applications. For all the (well deserved) hoopla around the decision, it was at heart, as Commissioner Tate described, “a normal enforcement proceeding, regarding a particular complaint within the confines of the specific circumstances presented.”

The Petition for Declaratory Ruling on mobile text messaging and short codes is not a complaint (although it is an adjudication). It does not seek to punish Verizon as a bad actor, and it only refers to the NARAL incident as an illustration of why the Commission needs to act. Rather, we ask the Commission to decide — for the first time — whether mobile text messaging is a Title II telecommunications service, like the underlying phone number and voice service. If the Commission decides that it is a actually a Title I enhanced service (like the internet access you can buy separately), we ask the FCC to impose rules that would prevent wireless carriers from denying a short code to someone or from messing with anyone’s text messaging.

Not that Verizon or any other provider would be so foolish as to deny the Obama or McCain campaigns short codes or block their text messages. I’m not even worried about independent candidates like Barr and Nader. No, I’m worried about us ordinary schlubs, or even unpopular folks who can’t count on getting a front page story on the NYT if something happens but still deserve the right to organize and spread their message to willing listeners.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

I Suggest Giving Comcast What It Asks For . . . . Heh, Heh, Heh . . . .

As the FCC’s examination into our complaint against Comcast winds down, with what looks like a win for us (although with an opponent like Comcast, I am not going to celebrate a win until after the order is voted), Comcast has increased its efforts to woo McDowell and Tate with a show that “the market” will magically cure all ills by cutting a non-aggression pact with Vonage and a new ex parte filing listing all the wonderful things it has done since the Commission put our complaint out on public notice, which is an obvious sign that no regulatory action is necessary since it is merely coincidence that Comcast (and other broadband providers) have been scrambling with ever more serious urgency as the resolution of the complaint moves closer. Ah Comcast “Change we can believe in until all you stupid regulators go away and we can get back to crushing folks like insects beneath our fiber-coax heel.”

More of interest to us legal (and less credulous) types, Comcast filed a lengthy rebuttal to Marvin Amori’s magnum opus on Commission jursidiction. Marvin’s piece was, of course, a response to the Comcast filing after the Boston Hearing, that asserted the FCC had no authority to sanction Comcast or regulate Comcast’s broadband in the first place. Mind you, Comcast told the a California district court otherwise, and got a stay of the pending class action for blocking bittorrent as a consequence. But the first lesson of law school is that consistency is only a virtue if it serves your client. In any event, this most recent filing (which has not yet shown up online for me to link to) is therefore either the rebuttal to FP’s reply or merely the Nth go round in a “permit but disclose” proceeding.

This is reflected by Comcast’s argument, which largely rehashes previous arguments about the limits of Commission authority and whether Comcast had proper notice it could be subject to a civil complaint and civil sanction. Fair enough. Time now for the FCC to decide and then on to the D.C. Circuit. That’s what process is for, to get the arguments out so we can get a judgment and get on with our lives.

But Comcast does raise one new argument, and an intriguing one at that. And ya know, I think the Commission ought to give it to them. Heh, heh, heh . . .

Why am I chuckling? See below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Of Bandwidth Hogs, QoS, and Regulatory Chameleons

I can live with the internet as a best efforts network. I can live with the internet as a regulated utility. What I absolutely cannot stand is the idiocy of the current regulatory scheme that allows broadband access providers to justify the deregulated state of a competitive best efforts environment because they need to provide a public utility.

Case in point, Comcast’s recent actions of cutting off “bandwidth hogs” and purportedly throttling BitTorrent traffic to its subscribers (Comcast denies it targets BitTorrent traffic). Comcast in its user agreement explicitly reserves the right to cut off users using “too much bandwidth” — although Comcast refuses to say how much bandwidth is “too much.” Comcast defends its actions (including the secrecy of the bandwidth limit) on the grounds that “bandwidth hogs” overload the system capacity and thus slow down everyone’s use of the system.

As I discuss below, Comcast and the other broadband providers are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They claim they have no liability for anything and should not be regulated because they are providing “best efforts” services and everyone knows it. But when they want to cut off users, tier traffic, or indulge in other behavior that sticks it to subscribers they haul out the “Quality of Service (QoS)” and “critical infrastructure” arguments. “What about voice?” They cry. “What about poor crippled Tiny Tim and his medical monitoring unit, cut off by some bandwidth hog downloading pirated child pornography and Al Qeda instructional videos (which, we will admit, makes a very interesting mash up when viewed via deep packet inspection)? You have to let us do whatever we want and charge whatever we want because people are relying on us for critical services.”

Of course, historically, companies that provided critical services were “public utilities.” At which point, the telcos and cable cos amazingly morph back into laissez faire “best efforts” providers and subscribers need to know there are no guarantees and that which we tell you three times may or may not be true.

My further analysis of the amazing regulatory chameleon, the private public utility, below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Responds With Fear and Trembling to My Scolding on Tardiness and Releases Two Additional Items

[Assume aspect of guiding light, hero, and all around object of devotion, Stephen Colbert]

Obviously stung by my scathing critique of the FCC’s failure to release the promised Notice of Inquiry on broadband industry practices, the FCC has now issued the promised NOI (technically, it issued a few hours before my post went live, but I know Stephen would want me to count it as a “kill”).

As an obvious additional attempt to curry my favor, the FCC has released two additional items that address long standing criticisms by myself and others, that the FCC’s annual “Broadband is Bustin’ Out All Over!” Report (aka the Section 706 Report on Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Services to All Americans) dramaticly overstates the status of broadband competition in the country. In addition to the annual Notice of Inquiry, the FCC has also released this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on how to improve the data collection and reporting process.

[End Colbert channeling]
More details below . . .

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