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June 4, 2010

[pdf] Susan Crawford: Rethinking broadband

Susan Crawford says, “We are in the course of a titanic battle for the future of the Internet in the United States. The technology community is radically underrepresented in this battle.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Telephone providers and cable providers have each been merging, increasing monopoly holds on regions.The government has a key role in providing a level playing field for innovators. If you’re worried about personalization at the app level (as per Eli Pariser yesterday), you should be very worried about it at the network level.

“The Net would not exist absent government regulation.” E.g., the telcos were required to allow modems to attach to telephone lines. When cable modems arrived, government regulators were confused. Thinking that competition was right around the corner, the FCC completely deregulated highspeed Net access in 2002 (and 2205,6,7). They took away the “regulated” level but reserved the right to reregulate it (via “ancillary jurisdiction”). The courts have found that labeling a service as deregulated but then regulating it (as in the Comcast case) makes no sense. So, the FCC is proposing to re-regulate, but free of the heavy-handed elements: No rate regulation, etc. But, carriers would be required not to discriminate among bits [= Net neutrality]. This is the FCC’s “Third Wave.” The carriers claim that this is the “nuclear option.”

The FCC needs to regulate to fulfill its mandate to enable Net access to all people. E.g., they need to gather data. And they want to make sure that it’s open for innovation. Also, to keep privacy of packets. It’s great that AT&T is part of this conversation at PDF. But AT&T has spent $6M this quarter for lobbying against any form of regulation. There have also been personal attacks, she says. Comcast spent $29M in the first quarter, she adds.

By 2012, the FCC says, most Americans will have only one choice of provider. [June 5: Susan’s slide actually said that by 2012, 75 to 85 percent of Americans will have one choice of wired provider for 50 to 100Mbps speeds; sorry for the gross gloss. This comes from the National Broadband Plan.] Verizon has backed off on its plans for FIOS. So there will not be another competitor to cable. We should therefore be concerned about Comcast’s plans to merge with NBC, giving it an edge against other major video providers, but also against the growth of online video. Comcast could put content behind an authentication wall, so to see it you’d have to be a cable subscriber. The tech community should watch this merger carefully.

The content providers believe in “vertical integration,” so we’ll see many more mergers.

She says 100 yrs ago, Americans hated Standard Oil which was able to control regional production of oil. Small business people and farmers were enraged by them. Standard Oil required railroads to ship their stuff cheaper, and if the RR’s shipped competitors’ stuff, SO got paid. They also carried out espionage about competitive shipments. Like the electric grid, like the Net, the future of highspeed access depends upon government creation of a level playing field. The tech community should be working together to make sure we retain the ability to innovate.

[I interviewed Susan about the FCC’s Third Way on a Radio Berkman podcast] [Note: On June 5, I made some very minor edits, cleaning up typos and unclear referents, etc., in addition to the insertion noted above.]


May 22, 2010

Understanding spectrum

Christian Sandvig explains spectrum and spectrum policy in this Radio Berkman interview.

Christian — who is both brilliant and a wonderfully generous colleague — textifies the main points here.

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May 7, 2010

Harold Feld’s FCC explainer

Harold Feld explains the FCC “third way” reclassification decision. He goes into a moderate amount of detail, but this is perhaps the takeaway:

…I call this a “legal reset.” Basically, Genachowski is saying “Back in 2002, when we moved cable modem service (and later other forms of broadband access) into the Title I/information services/ancillary authority box, we thought we would still have authority to protect consumers and do other necessary policy things. The Comcast court told us we were wrong. So now we’re going to move broadband access service into the Title II/telecom service box. But nothing substantive/policy changes. We’re just doing what the DC Circuit told us to do by articulating a different theory of authority.”


May 5, 2010

FCC to announce a “third way”

The FCC has said it’s going to announce on Thursday a “third way” to regulate the broadband access providers to make sure that they leave the Net open and neutral. The first two ways are (1) to give up on protecting the Internet, or (2) to reclassify the Net as a communications network that counts as a common carrier (i.e., it has to let all bits go through equally, regardless of the app, origin, content, etc.).

The Washington Post headline of the AP story unfortunately reads “FCC to impose some new regulations on broadband,” thus reversing the actual meaning, which is expressed in the lead sentence: “Federal regulators plan to impose additional rules on broadband providers.” Big, big difference.

Anyway, this is a happier day than two days ago. For how happy, we’ll have to wait until Thursday’s announcement…


May 3, 2010

FCC Chair caving on protecting the Internet?

The Washington Post reports that FCC Chair Jules Genachowski is intending to give up on regulating the access providers – Comcast and the gang — leaving Internet users unprotected and at their mercy.

The Post implies that the Genachowski thinks of this as leaving “broadband services deregulated.” The problem is that that will also leave broadband unprotected. We need to regulate the providers of access so that they don’t get to regulate what we’re allowed to do on our Internet.

This is Chairman Genachowski’s chance to make a difference. That he would abandon the Net to access providers who have already shown that they don’t care about an open, free, innovative Internet is just about unthinkable. Unfortunately, as of today we have to add the “just about.” Let’s hope it’s just a trial balloon.

(Marvin Ammori has a worst-case scenario list of what unregulated access providers could do to the Net … except that almost all of the items are things they’ve already tried to pull.)


April 23, 2010

FiberFete and Plenums

I gave the closing talk at FiberFete on Thursday. FiberFete was a celebration of the complete fiber-ing of Lafayette, Louisiana — an impressive story of a city struggling to overcome entrenched interests with a vision of how low-cost bandwidth can bring about major benefits in education, medical care, and the economy. The Fete was organized by Geoff Daily and David Isenberg as a celebration, and as a way to stimulate interest and enthusiasm in what a fully connected city can do. The day was impressive and even moving as we heard from the CIOs of San Francisco and Seattle, technologists, visionaries, and an awesome group of Lafayette teachers and students.

David wanted me to talk about what we could do if we had ubiquitous, high speed, open, symmetric (i.e., roughly the same speed for uploading and downloading) connectivity. Since I don’t know what we could do, I tried to beg off, but David insisted. So, here’s a summary of what I said in my twenty minutes.

The important thing about ubiquity is not the percentage of people connected, but the ubiquity of the assumption of ubiquity. E.g., we assume everyone has access to a phone, even though “only” 95.7% of American households have one (including cell phones). Nevertheless, the assumption creates a market for innovation.

The core of that assumption is an assumption of abundance…an abundance of information, links, people, etc. Our brains have difficulty comprehending the abundance we now have. There are so many people on line that the work of 1% can create something that boggles the mind of the other 99%. As more people come on line, that rule of 1% will become a rule of 0.01% and then 0.001%. The curve of amazement is going straight up.

The abundance means we will fill up every space we can think of. We are creating plenums (plena?) of sociality, knowledge and ideas, and things (via online sensors). These plenums fill up our social, intellectual and creative spaces. The only thing I can compare them to in terms of what they allow is language itself.

What do they allow? Whatever we will invent. And the range of what we can invent within these plenums is enormous, at least so long as the Net isn’t for anything in particular. As soon as someone decides for us what the Net is “really” for, the range of what we can do with it becomes narrowed. That’s why we need the Net to stay open and undecided.

These abundances are not merely quantitative. They change the nature of what they provide. And they refuse to stay within their own bounds. For example, we go online to get information about a product, probably through a mobile device. There we find customer conversations. These voices are not confined to giving us product reviews. We are also ubiquitously connected to pragmatic advice, to new businesses and institutions that compete with or make use of the item we’re engaged with, to governmental and legal information. If people are unhappy with the product, they may use their online meeting spot as a way to organize an activist movement.

In other words, Clay Shirky is right: The Net makes it ridiculously easy to form groups. In fact, when your information medium, communication medium, and social medium are all precisely the same, its ubiquity will make it hard not to form groups. For example, if your child has a bad cough, of course you’ll go online. Of course you’ll find other parents talking about their kids. Your information search has become a communicative enterprise. Because you’re now talking with other people who share an interest, your communication is likely to spawn a social connection. These plenums just won’t stay apart.

Furthermore, many of these networked groups will be hyperlocal, especially within localities where connectivity is ubiquitous. As we get more of these locations, hyperlocal networks will connect with other hyperlocal networks, creating superlocal networks (although I have no idea what I mean by that term).

These plenums will affect all of our institutions because they remove obstacles to our being more fully human.


April 7, 2010

Reclassifying broadband

I was less depressed than I would have expected about yesterday’s ruling that the FCC does not have the authority to tell Comcast to let us do what we want with our Internet. In part, that’s because I was expecting to lose. In part it’s because this battle is far, far from over. There’s the possibility of an appeal (although the 3:0 decision seems pretty definite), Congressional action, or reclassifying the Internet. The third is the most interesting, although it has its own risks.

I am not a lawyer and I do not understand these things well, but this ruling could spur the FCC to make a simple change in how it classifies the Internet — it’s all about the classifications, people! — which would truly change the game.

So, pardon me (or better, correct me) as I get this wrong, but it all comes down to the various classifications that began with the 1934 Communications Act and were amended in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The 1996 Act institutes a difference between “information services” (like the Net at the time) and “telecommunication services” like the telephone system. Information services include “the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications,” i.e. the Internet. Telecommunication services transmit “information, without a change in its form or content,” i.e., the telephone system. Telecommunication services are considered “common carriers,” and are classified under Title II. Common carriers are not allowed to unjustly or unreasonably discriminate in their services, which is why you can use George Carlin’s seven dirty words in any [email protected]$#%-ing telephone call you want. (I found David Johnson’s post on this helpful, but don’t blame him for my misunderstandings. Stephen Schultze also does an excellent and thorough job on these topics in a Radio Berkman podcast — highly recommended. Also, see Susan Crawford‘s concise explanation of yesterday’s decision.)

In 2002, the Bush FCC decided that if you get Internet access via a cable company, those services should not count as coming under Title II; cable companies are information providers, not telecommunication companies. The courts agreed in the 2005 Brand X decision, which meant the cable companies no longer had to provide wholesale access to ISPs the way telephone companies did under the obligation of common carriers to provide access to all without discrimination. That’s why around that time your choice as a user went from lots of small, competitive ISPs to one or two Big Name cable ISPs.

These classifications are troublesome — everything is miscellaneous, people! — because the Net is eating the other communications media; the Net now carries a good percentage of telecommunications traffic and doesn’t always run via the sorts of telecommunications the Congress envisioned in 1996. So, assuming that the FCC wants to regulate the Internet — and “regulate” here means to keep it free of the de facto regulation by those who provide access to it — it could reclassify broadband as the transmission of information (telecommunications, Title II) rather than as an information service that transforms information. This would make broadband a type of common carrier, preventing providers from discriminating against content they don’t like or discriminate in favor of their own content. There is, of course, dispute about whether the FCC has the authority to reclassify it this way (putting it under Title I, AKA “ancillary powers”), so “the FCC could” actually means “the FCC could and face legal challenges.”

Erik Cecil is among those who have posted very interesting comments on these issues. Erik maintains that, despite the pundits, it would be easy for FCC to reclassify broadband services under Title II as a type of telecommunications. He says the FCC already has a set of regulations about broadband (including requiring wiretapability under CALEA, and 911 VOIP access), and thus is already treating it as a Title II telecommunications service that moves bits without changing them. Public Knowledge, which has been active in pushing for Net Neutrality, also has posted about this.

My own, uninformed point of view? Classification for its own sake is a mug’s game, especially when we’re using categories such as “common carriage” that go back to the age of railroads. So, I don’t much care how broadband services are classified except insofar as it gets us to the social end that I want: maximal access to a maximally open and non-discriminatory Internet.


CEO of Verizon, Ivan Seidenberg, says “we will throttle”:

… the very, very high users, the ones who camp on the network all day long every day doing things that — who knows what they’re doing — those are the —

MURRAY: It’s video, right? I mean, it’s video.

SEIDENBERG: But those are the people we will throttle and we will find them and we will charge them something else.

Anyone want to print up some “Internet Camper” t-shirts


March 8, 2010

Harold Feld explains spectrum

Harold Feld is one of my favoritist writers about the FCC, telecommunications, spectrum, and the whole enchilada. He has posted a piece that explains the intricacies of some recent spectrum policy announcements. It matters a whole lot.

This is not to say that Harold’s post is easy. It unpacks lots, but there’s lots packed in there. Skip to the first subheading for the Explainer part of the piece, and then keep going. And, bear in mind that Harold is partisan and admits it. Which I like. (I also find it refreshing when Brooke Gladstone in passing interjects where stands on an issue.)


March 6, 2010

[bsw] Broadband Strategy Initiative: Phil Bellario on scenario planning

In the latest Broadband Strategy Week series of video interviews, I talk with Phil Bellario, Director of Scenario Planning for the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative. We talk about how you plan for an unplannable future, and how much of the future plans rest upon the present.

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February 14, 2010

Broadband open access an actual possibility

Bloomberg reports that the FCC is considering requiring AT&T and Verizon to lease their physical lines to other companies that want to provide access to the Internet.

AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. would be forced to lease fast Internet lines to rivals providing Web services to small businesses under a proposal being weighed by the Federal Communications Commission.

The idea, proposed to the FCC by computer-services company Cbeyond Inc., has support from the Small Business Administration, which said it could spur job creation. The plan would add to competition for business clients, who are also being courted by cable providers led by Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc.

Letting competitors lease lines into businesses may boost Internet adoption, help small businesses grow and aid job creation, said Colin Crowell, an aide to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “That is certainly something that we’ll look very closely at, and has a lot of appeal as part of a national strategy,” said Crowell. The change may be proposed as part of the FCC’s national plan for increasing the use of high-speed Internet, or broadband, that is to be delivered to Congress in March, Crowell said.

This is (to me) unexpected good news. Assume that we want competition in the Internet access market; the Berkman study for the FCC [pdf] provides evidence that competition is the single most important factor in providing low cost, high speed coverage. But, it’s impractical to think that each competitor is going to get all the permissions and spend all the money required to string (or bury) a new connective fiber. Therefore, requiring those who have strung wires (frequently with generous incentives and handouts from taxpayers) to act as wholesalers to other Internet providers seems like the most pragmatic way to make the market competitive. (I don’t know who Cbeyond is or what their role in this is.)

I did not think the Broadband Strategy Initiative might propose something so transformative of the market. I am encouraged. (BTW, there are interviews with FCC folks working on the Broadband strategy up at Broadband Strategy Week. A new one with Yochai Benkler, leader of the Berkman study, will go up early next week.)


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