Tales of the Sausage Factory

Put Up Or Shut Up At the FCC on Net Neutrality “Principles”

When the FCC deregulated broadband by declaring it an “information service,” it also adopted four principles that purported to give broadband subscribers a right to “access lawful content of their choice,” “run applications and services of their choice,” “connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network,” and enjoy “competition among network providers, application and service providers.” All subject to “reasonable network management,” of course. So when a bunch of us in 2006 pressed Congress to pass a network neutrality law, a lot of folks claimed we didn’t need one because the FCC already had the authority to deal with any problems that might arise. And, when questioned on this very subject at his confirmation hearing for a second term, FCC Chairman Martin said the FCC had ample authority to deal with any violations of the four principles that might arise.

Thanks to Comcast and their decision to “manage” their network load by degrading BitTorrent,it’s put up or shut up time at the FCC. My employer, Media Access Project, along with Free Press and Public Knowledge, just filed a formal complaint against Comcast and a general Petition for Declaratory Ruling asking that the FCC hold that deliberately messing with a customer’s application while refusing to admit doing it when asked pint blank violates the FCC’s “four principles” and does not constitute a “reasonable network management practice.” This will also press the FCC to find out exactly what the heck Comcast is actually doing (since some folk remain uncertain). Given that Comcast initially denied the very idea as “internet gossip,”, instructed their line staff to lie to customers about it, and are still maintaining that nothing of interest is going on, it looks like the only way will actually find out what the heck is going on and why is to have the FCC pry it out of them.

Hey, maybe they are telling the truth. But the FCC is in a much better position to know whether Comcast is deliberately lying to its customers and, if so, why. Because while my friend and opposite number Jim Harper at Technology Liberation Front may be content to see if the market punishes Comcast for its “lack of transparency”, I see a lot of bad consequences in letting Comcast throttle traffic as a network management tool and then lie (or, at best, mislead) about it when asked about it point-blank by their customers.

At any rate, whether folks think we should regulate this kind of behavior or not (and I recognize that a number of smart folks not employed by cable operators feel we shouldn’t regulate this even if everything bad said about Comcast is true), we deserve to know whether the FCC has the authority to regulate this behavior, and the willingness to do so on an enforcement basis. Because if the cable and telco companies that swore up and down that we didn’t need new rules now come in and say the FCC has no authority to take complaints about their behavior after the fact or no authority to order any remedies, then we should know that. And if the FCC is going to leave us high and dry when broadband providers start degrading applications, then we should know that. Because while some folks may think that lying to your customers is an acceptable network management technique, or even an acceptable technique for managing elected members of Congress, I think most Americans would disagree. And I certainly want to know that by November ’08.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

Comcast and BitTorrent: Why Now?

As both Declan McCullough’s The Iconoclast blog and Farhad Manjoo’s Machinist blog on Salon report, the AP has caught Comcast red-handed interferring with BitTorrent peer-to-peer filesharing with even relatively small, uncopyrighted files. The comes after Comcast denied a TorrentFreak report in August that the broadband provider was blocking BitTorrent uploads from its customers, which appears now to have been simply another outright Comcast lie.

What is particularly surprising is the size of the file in the tests run by the AP — the Gutenburg Bible text used by the AP for the test is only 4.24MB (the average size of an .mpeg or .avi file of a two-hour feature film is 700-900MB). If Comcast is blocking uploads of 4.24MB, the intention to prevent any use of BitTorrent on its network. While Comcast does have serious peak-use capacity constraints on its network, this level of blocking is like using an artillery piece to swat a fly. A more tightly targeted blocking effort would have put highest bandwidth BitTorrent users out of business, freeing up significant newtwork capacity, while rendering the activity almost invisible to tests like that run by the AP. Despite the fact that its network needs significant upgrading, Comcast’s network isn’t being threatened by 4.24MB BitTorrent uploads. Why would Comcast run the risk of the adverse publicity associated with getting caught blocking small files of clearly public-source documents?

I have a hypothesis. Mind you, it’s only a hypothesis, but it fits the available evidence and there’s very little otherwise which explains why Comcast is willing to weather the ensuing bad press. It is clear to anyone who has watched the FCC closely that Chairman Martin has had Comcast in his sights for some time. Comcast is the cable industry’s baddest bad-boy, and a bad-boy which has been defiant and disrespectful of Martin’s authority. There are a number of crucial issues which are coming to decision at the FCC in the next several months which will likely involve Comcast taking it on the chin: commercial cable leased access, carriage dispute resolution procedures, mandatory cable a la carte pricing, cable ownership limits, possible invocation of the 70/70 rule. In short, Comcast is likely to be on the ropes and getting pummeled on some issues in which it is very interested. At the same time the intellectual property mafia has been reaching out to broadband providers. The folks at the RIAA and MPAA regard the internet as the worst mistake they ever let happen and need cooperation from major providers if they are going to have a prayer of cutting into the peer-to-peer filesharing which has dramatically lowered their profits in the last decade. Comcast needs allies to lobby against even the Republican FCC majority wanting its scalp for past misbeaviour. The intellectual property mafia needs large providers who are willing to shut down peer-to-peer filesharing software like BitTorrent. Only the guys in the room where such a deal would have been cut would know for certain, but it’s a plausible hypothesis. And one the FCC should investigate.

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Econoklastic

Why Google May Still Bid

Journalists and industry analysts have been characterizing Tuesday’s FCC decision not to include a wholesale open access condition on the C block licenses as a defeat for Google which makes it very unlikely that Google will bid in the 700 MHz auction, obviating the best chance for emergence of a third broadband pipe to challenge the cablecos and telcos. This seems highly premature to me for several reasons.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Endgame: Martin Antes. AT&T Raises. Google Calls. Does AT&T Fold or Call?

So yesterday, AT&T was extolling the virtues of the Martin plan. Among its virtues, Jim Ciconni included:

In effect, Chairman Martin’s plan faces Google and others with a “put up or shut up” opportunity. If they are serious, they will be able to bid and test their model in the marketplace against the business models of companies already enjoying widespread consumer acceptance.

Critically, Ciconni was referring to the “reserve price” feature of the Martin plan. To protect himself against the threat that even his device only open access would depress auction revenues, if the 22 MHz “C” block did not fetch at least $4.6 billion in bids, the FCC would cancel that part of the auction, split the 22 MHz int two 11 MHz blocks, and reauction without conditions. (Reserve prices are not uncommon in spectrum auctions, although as far as I know they have never been tied to a specific condition.)

So today, Google’s Eric Schmidt called Ciconni’s raise. In a letter to Chairman Martin, Schmidt committed to bidding a minimum of $4.6 for the “C” Block — but only if the Commission adopts all “four opens” that Google demanded in its letter last week and endorsed by the public interest coalition, Frontline, and a bunch of others. That means not just real device attachment and open application rules, but also real wholesale obligations at non-discriminatory prices. (You can find Google’s blog post explaining their letter here.)

The fear that Google would not bid no matter what, or that only one or two companies would bid on a license with wholesale open access conditions, has been one of the central features of the debate. Even ardent believers in real open access like Commissioner Adelstein have expressed real concerns over this. And, as I have noted previously, AT&T and its various sock puppets and Republican subsidiaries have used the threat of messing with the revenues as a major weapon against wholesale open access.

In a stroke, the Google letter changes the nature of the game. Google has now guaranteed that the feds will make their auction projections — but only if they include real open access. Meanwhile, rumors swirl that it may be AT&T, rather than Google, that sits this auction out. Suddenly, we switch from “will including wholesale open access keep out bidders and lower the revenue” to “will not including wholesale open access keep out needed bidders and drive down revenue.”

Meanwhile, the clocks ticks toward deadline. What does it mean? What happens next? And will I ever get a vacation this summer?

See below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

AT&T's $10 DSL and the Renomination of Commissioner Tate: What The Senate Confirmation Hearing Should Ask

The Consumerist runs this good but inaccurate report on AT&T’s offering its mandated $10 DSL intro rate for those who have not subscribed to DSL previously. AT&T accepted this as a merger condition when it acquired BellSouth last year. What Consumerist gets wrong is that this condition comes not from the FTC, which did not review the merger (regular readers will recall that it was the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division that gave the merger a thumbs up with no conditions). The price control aspect came from the FCC, as part of the bucket ‘o concessions AT&T made after it failed to get McDowell unrecused and suddenly had to respond to Democrats rather than blowing them off with bogus concessions.

This matters for two reasons. First, it means that complaining to the Federal Trade Commission, as suggested by Consumerist, is not exactly effective. FTC had nothing to do with the condition and won’t enforce it under their merger authority. If AT&T makes it damn hard for people to order the cheap rate, then there might be a claim as an unfair or deceptive trade practice, but I think that is kind of a stretch.

No, the place to complain is at the Federal Communications Commission. While it doesn’t hurt to file a complaint with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, you will also want to make sure that you copy it to the FCC’s record in the AT&T/BellSouth merger via its Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS). The relevant docket number is 06-74.

But, more importantly, this raises some serious questions that Congress needs to ask not merely about AT&T’s commitment to honoring the merger conditions, but also about the FCC’s willingness to enforce them — especially in light of statements made by Chairman Martin and Commissioner Tate at the time of the merger. Fortunately, President Bush’s decision to nominate Tate for a second term provides an excellent opprtunity for members of the Senate Commerce Committee to put these questions to Commissioner Tate directly.

Because while $10 DSL is important, this is also important to other AT&T merger conditions, such as network neutrality condition. And while, unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t think Martin or Tate are mindless Bellheads or wholly owned subsidiaries of AT&T, I do think it’s important to get them pinned down on the record that they will vigorously enforce the merger conditions and not allow AT&T to weasel out by “complying” in a way that deprives these conditions of meaning.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Open Access Included in Spectrum Notice! Fish In Trees! Rivers Running Uphill!

Yesterday, I wrote, with regard to whether the FCC’s Further Notice on the 700 MHz Spectrum Auction would include questions on our open access proposal:

I think our chances of moving forward to the next round are pretty close to zero. OTOH, I live from day-to-day in the hope of pleasant surprises.

Apparently, I live another day. And so does the open access proposal. As explained by Gigi Sohn, we live to fight another day.

It was a wild meeting. Pushed back from 9:30 to 10:30, then pushed off again until 6:45 p.m. The contentious issue was, as predicted, license size. Apparently, McDowell teamed with the Ds to make sure the Further Notice requested comment on a mix of licenses and not just the large licenses that Martin wanted.

The Order is not yet out, so I can’t really assess yet what the results are. Heck, they don’t even have all the seperate statements up yet. Here are links to the news release, Chairman Martin’s statement (expressing disappointment over the license size issue), Commissioner Adestein’s statement (with a shout out to the public interest coalition!), and Commissioner McDowell’s statement (which basically says “I know I’m the swing vote, but I need to catch up on the comments because I’ve been out with my new kid”).

But whatever happens, I gotta give a shout out to Martin for being willing to put the open access question out there and have it debated. Yes, all credit to the Ds. But I don’t believe we would be positioned to have the discussion about wireless open access if Martin had been dead set against it.

Off to bed. It’s been a day.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Last Month's FCC Network Neutrality Items

Sorry this is so late, but it’s been a busy time, what with Passover and the rush for the FCC’s upcoming 700 MHz auction. But I figure it is still worthwhile to keep folks updated on net neutrality at the FCC.

Of course, last month’s FCC meeting had a lot going on. Take a gander at the agenda for the March FCC meeting (March 22). Notice anything unusual? Yep, it’s veerrrrrryyyyy loooooonnnnnggggg. Thirteen items. So long, in fact, that Chairman Martin called an “intermission” in the middle. At one point Commissioner McDowell sheepishly admited he was still drafting his separate statement on the item to be voted, becasuse he hadn’t gotten a chance beforehand.

I wish I had time to go into detail on these things. I hope to eventually catch up and write about things like the access to inside wiring proceeding and the digital radio rules.

But for now, I will limit myself to the declaratory ruling ruling on wireless services and the Notice of Inquiry on Net Neutrality. As discussed below, the FCC majority once again proves that while they can’t deregulate fast enough, taking action to protect our right to speak freely with one another always needs “more study.”

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

McDowell: “I Am Not A Pawn; Solve Your Own Damn Merger!”

In a very special Christmas episode of the Telecom worlds favorite Telenovella, Death Star Reborn: The AT&T/BellSouth Merger Commissioner McDowell gives his fellow FCC Commissioners a lesson on ethics, the power of the Christmas spirit to facilitate good will towards all men, faith in negotiations in multibillion dollar mergers, and why it REALLY PISSES HIM OFF when people try to use him as “a pawn.”

You can read McDowell’s written statement (and supporting documentation) here, and watch the archive of the video of McDowell’s press conference here. You can see the statement from my employer, Media Access Project, here.

But for my personal analysis, see below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

“Updating” Media Ownership Rules — Is That Like Boiling a Frog?

It’s an old cliche that it’s easy to boil a frog. Don’t drop the frog in the boiling water — he’ll just climb out. Drop him in the pot and raise the temperature a little at a time. Before he knows it, he’ll be dead.

We have that with media consolidation and the non-stop relaxation of the rules. But instead of calling it “boiling,” proponents of consolidation call it “updating.” This attempt to describe relaxing the ownership rules to allow more consolidation as “updating,” when the evidence shows that the last round of consolidation kicked off by the 1996 deregulation has been a disaster for the industry and a disaster for democracy, came up again at yesterday’s media ownership hearings.

Powell tried to frame it as a debate about evidence v. “emotionalism.” He lost because the evidence did not justify his efforts to relax the rules. Now FCC Chairman Martin is trying to frame this as “updating” the rules, when a real “update” would mean forcing the biggest companies to sell off assets to scale back to a healthier size.

My analysis below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Help Stop The Merger Madness

My friends at Free Press have set up this page to file comments opposing the AT&T/BellSouth Merger and the Comcast/Time Warner/Adelphia deal.

I won’t go over old ground again in detail here. You can read why I think the FCC should stop Comcast and Time Warner from dividing up the bankrupt Adelphia cable, the disappointing go ahead from the Federal Trade Commission, and my growing hope that the FCC will impose strong conditions or kill the deal. With a deadline for the companies to walk away from the deal fast approaching, you can help push the FCC to do the right thing.

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