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February 18, 2011

National Broadband Map: What the incumbents hath failed to wrought (wring?)

The National Broadband Map is now available. We had wanted to bask in the sunlight provided by the incumbent access providers, but instead we just got freckles. Want to laugh like a broken-hearted clown? View only the places that have fiber to the home.

The map was controversial from its inception, since it at least initially was relying on data coming from parties interested in exaggerating the extent of coverage. (I interviewed Steve Rosenberg at the FCC about his agencies contribution to it, in November 2009.) It does not link to its sources. It did not list my access provider (RCN) as available where I live. Also, the map is very clunky to manipulate. (Hint: Turn off all overlays until you zoom into where you want to see.) (Harold Feld provides a balanced perspective.)

Now want to cry like a generation watching its future slip away? The Republicans seem set on throwing The Master Switch to turn the Internet into a corporate content delivery system. Let your Senators know that you want the Internet to remain the engine of innovation and a public square for free speech.

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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 !@$#%-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 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.)


January 5, 2010

Department of Justice on a weakness of auctions. Susan Crawford comments.

The Department of Justice has filed comments on the FCC’s broadband plans. Susan Crawford, ex of the White House, blogs her reaction. For me, the most interesting of Susan’s comments is:

Re-allocation of spectrum makes sense. But the “foreclosure value” to market-powerful incumbents of buying that spectrum – and keeping their competitors from buying it – may exceed its market value. So DOJ very gently (with lots of caveats) suggests that the highest value use for new spectrum may actually be to make it available for license by new rivals.

This refers to this in the DoJ comments:

The goal in assigning licenses to any such new spectrum designated for commercial services should be to ensure that it generates the greatest ultimate benefits to the consumers of those services. When market power is not an issue, the best way to pursue this goal in allocating new resources is typically to auction them off, on the theory that the highest bidder, i.e., the one with the highest private value, will also generate the greatest benefits to consumers. But that approach can go wrong in the presence of strong wireline or wireless incumbents, since the private value for incumbents in a given locale includes not only the revenue from use of the spectrum but also any benefits gained by preventing rivals from eroding the incumbents’ existing businesses. The latter might be called “foreclosure value” as distinct from “use value.” The total private value of spectrum to any given provider is the sum of these two types of value. However, the “foreclosure value” does not reflect consumer value; to the contrary, it represents the private value of forestalling entry that threatens to inject additional competition into the market.

This is one of the places where pure market forces (whatever that means since we’re already talking about a highly constrained and artificial auction) can work against the social values we’re trying to achieve. I hope the Omnibus Broadband Initiative folks receive the DoJ’s gentle hint as if it were delivered with a 2×4.

[Self-serving:] (I have been posting interviews wit the Broadband Initiative folks at Broadband Strategy Week.


December 24, 2009

Brett Glass on what WISPs need

Brett Glass runs a Wireless ISP (WISP) in Laramie, Wyoming that spreads across some wide open spaces. To compete, he argues, he needs the government to regulate the right aspects and to keep its hands off everything else. (He believes Net Neutrality is unnecessary and will hurt the ability of small ISPs to compete.)

I interviewed him when he came to Berkman to give a talk. (My liveblogging of his talk is here.)

There are more such interviews at Broadband Strategy Week.


December 23, 2009

[bsw] Steven Rosenberg, Broadband Strategy infrastructure manager

Now at Broadband Strategy Week, my interview with the Broadband Strategy Initiative’s Steven Rosenberg:

Steve Rosenberg, Manager of Infrastructure for the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative, talks about understanding the gaps in broadband coverage, and what it would take financially to close those gaps. He oversees the creation of the model.

Rough question summary:

1:18 Q: You map this by geography, and what else?

1:58 Q: It sounds like the first recourse when you discover a gap is to see if the current infrastructure can cover the gap?

3:14 Q: Let me put this most cynically way possible. We could recast this as you saying that you’re identifying the infrastructure providers who have failed to cover the gaps, and then rewarding them by enabling them to do that which they did not find economically viable or socially important enough to do. It sounds like this works against introducing new forms of infrastructure.

6:44 Q: You say the current infrastructure providers haven’t failed, it just wasn’t profitable. The cynical response is that it wasn’t profitable enough, so they red-lined…They somehow first managed to provide access to communities that could pay the most. So the social aim of providing broadband access was sacrificed…

9:24 Q: Does your data correlate access to density and not to socio-economic properties?

10:33 Q: Are you seeing any other clustering of data around the gaps…?

12:00 Q: Your mapping is separate from the somewhat controversial project that the NTIA is doing, right?

13:50 Q: Where is your data coming from?

15:25 Q: Since some of the controversy revolves around the reliability of mapping data provided by the infrastructure providers, what sort of commercial data sources are you using, and how wary are you about the data coming from the infrastructure providers themselves?

v18:36 Q: Another way to mitigate the dangers would be to make the data public before the report comes out.

19:47 Q: If you posted relatively dirty data, announcing it as not fully reliable, might generate such interesting contrasting analyses that might in the open government sort of way might affect your analysis. Any way to bug you on this?

21:40 Q: But you then run the risk of people going to the now-published data and coming back with different results than you did…

22:40 Q: The open gov’t response is that publishing the data in the rawest form possible enables people to do their own models based upon their assumptions. It would enable the broad community of all people, commercial to non-commercial, to make their own models and raise assumptions that you might have missed…

23:40 Q: Let’s talk about the financial modeling you’re doing…

26:50 Q: It sounds incredibly difficult. How many people do you have working on this?

27:50 Q: Will this model have value after the report is done and outside of the FCC?


December 22, 2009

[berkman] Brett Glass on the life of an ISP

Brett Glass is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk. Brett runs a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) in Laramie, Wyoming. “Lessons from Laramie: Broadband Innovation on the Wireless Frontier” [his slides]

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.

Brett begins with a photo of him on a 50′ tower on top of a 6-story building, which is what you have to do to be a WISP in Wyoming. He’s going to talk about what it’s like to be a WISP. “My entire life brought me to this,” although he didn’t know it as the time. He had worked at TI designing chips, and got a masters at Stanford. He was a computer journalist for many years: more than 2,000 published articles. He moved to Laramie because he likes it there. But the only way to get the Internet was at the University of Wyoming which had a couple of T1 lines, or Compuserv at 2400 baud. So, he founded LARIAT as a user group that turned into a non-profit cooperative ISP that bought its own T1 (for $6K/month). He got early circuitry to build wireless connections for the other users. But the members eventually just wanted to be customers, not coop members. So, Brett and his wife took LARIAT private in 2003. He has 18 yrs of experience deploying high speed wireless Internet. It’s growing by about the size of Manhattan island every year.

“Our cost to deploy is less than $100 per sq mile” at DSL speeds. But FCC regulations prevent him from beating cable speeds. The latencies are lower than DSL and much lower than satellite. The big choke point is that he can only get to the backbone through the telephone company, which charges them 10x as much as the telephone company charges to bring it to the rest of the world. They can’t get licensed spectrum because it’s too expensive, and unlicensed has too much noise in it; every baby monitor and wireless mic can disrupt their signal if they’re close enough to the access point.

Fiber is $25/foot. Brett can cover 40 sq. miles for less than $3000 in capital. “Nobody has this sort of cost per sq mile except perhaps the satellite guys.” “We turned out to have invented a really really good way to cover rural areas, and it’s pretty good in urban areas.” He’ll do things like go to the guy with the “trophy house” on top of the hill and offer free wifi so long as they can also transmit from that site.

The primary constraints on his ability to provide coverage and to innovate are political, not technological. “Fiber is nothing but wireless inside an expensive tube. The physics are the same. You just put it in a tube to exclude interference.”

He bid on 700mz auction, and even a tiny sliver to cover a tiny bit of WY went for $3M. There’s no way, he says, the telco that bought it is going to make a profit by using it; they bought it to exclude other players. “The incumbent has so much to lose that they’re willing to bid many times what the independent operator can.” Brett would like “lightly licensed spectrum”: Not polluted by consumer devices. I.e., a wireless broadband band. “It seems perfectly reasonable but national policy doesn’t have anything like that.” He says that white spaces coming available aren’t right for this.

Q: Doesn’t the 1996 Telecommunications Act provide for competition?
A: Short answer: We watched the courts remove the provisions.

Q: The newly-free analog TV bands?
A: This is beachfront property spectrum. Down the frequency it’s easier to penetrate walls. But the FCC did the wrong thing: They allowed consumer devices on the band, which means they can go through the walls and interfere with your neighbors. But there were powerful lobbies. People didn’t think about the science. Only the politics. It should have been reserved for transmitting from towers to get through walls.

“I had a customer I served on the same band you use for your wireless PC. This customer his service was failing on bright sunny days. We came over to his house when he was having trouble. Nothing was blocking his antenna. But on the patio his daughter was sunbathing in a bikini, with a cordless phone positioned right in front of the antenna. Both were on 2.4gH. We got her a phone on a different phone and that solved the problem.”

And, he says, we need to look at regulating only when there are real problems to be solved. E.g., getting inexpensive backhaul to the Internet. But all the focus in DC is on addressing problems that don’t exist, e.g., Net Neutrality. “No one is engaging in the practices they’re talking about outlawing. But no one is addressing the problems that actually exist.” [paraphrasing throughout!]

He shows a graph of Shannon’s law: To get a lot of bandwidth to someone, you need the frequencies to be uncluttered. Get too far down “Shannon’s knee” and the ability to get broadband falls off, but above the knee, returns diminish as noise goes down. This is an argument for cognitive radios [unassigned frequencies negotiated in real time by transmitters and receivers], which Brett’s been working on for years, but doesn’t have spectrum to implement.

Policy recommendations:

Devote more nonexclusively licensed spetrum to wireless broadband, with mandatory “etiquette” to enable cognitive radio. E.g.,. use the 700 MHz “D” Block. Take back the “virtually unused MDS “A” band for local wireless.

Q: Use it or lose it licensing, like liquor licenses?
A: You do that when you want to restrict something, keeping them to a zero-sum number.

Next thing to do: Increase power limits on when the devices are doing broadband in rural areas, not when they’re a baby monitor, etc.

Increase the geographic granularity of spectrum licenses so “little guys” can bid on them. Right now, the FCC offers narrow slices of frequency for large geographic areas; the FCC ought to do the opposite.

We should have a doctrine of “adverse possession” for spectrum. Right now, we have a feudal system when it comes to spectrum. New doctrine would be one like homesteading: If you use the spectrum, you have a claim on it. This is to get past the current policy of hoarding.

Do not write regulations that assume only content proviers are innovators or that only ISPs can be gatekeepers. We should be more worried about Google. “I have lots of competition in many of the areas I operate.” There are 3 WISPs in Laramie. “You don’t have to worry about me being a gatekeeper. But if you can’t get something listed on Google, you’re basically off the Internet.” “It’s easy to hate the big guys. But not all of us are big guys.”

Finally, “fiux the broken middle mile (special access) market.” There’s no competition there. “ISPs have never filtered any content” except maybe with a couple of exceptions, including filtering VoIP but that was taken off the table. Some of the regulations would outlaw some of the most popular service plans Brett’s company offers. He offers basic service for $30/month [rate plan]; for that you’re not allowed to operate a server, because a lot of the bandwidth Brett buys is asymmetric. People can buy a business class connection that does allow more bandwidth.

Q: Who are you buying access from?
A: The local exchange carrier, the only game in town. The only other way is to tap into the Level 3 backbone that runs along the highway. Level 3 doesn’t want to open up service to Laramie, except for hundreds of thousands of dollars + a guarantee of $15,000/month right from the start, which is way beyond that LARIAT makes. And microwave spectrum is too crowded to enable to get to the backbone in Cheyenne. The government should consider telling the carriers that unless they drop their wholesale prices below their retail prices, there could be some federal price caps.

Q: Is Level 3 quoting you that fee because they have sweetheart fees with the incumbents?
A: I can’t speculate. But others have told me that Level 3 only wants to sell to densely populated areas, even though we’ll pay them more per megabit.

Q: You can’t run p2p apps on your network, right?
A: Yes, because they’re servers.

Q: Title 1 Section 1 of Comms Act says that all radio frequencies ought to be used for emergency use. Section 303G [?] requires the FCC to make the best use of the spectrum. Have you considered a First Amendment suit against the FCC to challenge its right to regulate spectrum since there is no longer a scarcity?
A: I don’t have the money to sue the federal government. Interesting idea.

Q: What do you think of LRE, etc.? Or are you happy with 802.11?
A: 802.11 is not ideal for outdoor use. It’s designed for when all the transmitters can hear one another. But it’s good in that environment anyway. Wimax at it’s best is maybe 10% better, and sometimes worse. We tweak 802.11 to make it work better.

Q: Spread spectrum?
A: 802.11 is sometimes spread spectrum [Techie answer. Couldn't follow.]

Q: [me] Your $30/month plan provides a guaranteed minimal connection rate? What is it?
A: We started as a coop, so we had to provide transparency. We have always offered a committed information rate: You can receive and send a particular amount of info. The plus is that if someone is really a bandwidth hog, I can tell them that this is what they’re buying for that price. For $30, you only get 256kbps. Might double during off-peak. We guarantee this by buying enough. We monitor that someone can’t cut into someone else’s guaranteed amount. And we prevent people from doing bursts; everyone gets a VPN tunnel that controls how much bandwidth is allocated to each tunnel to make sure it gets its share and can’t hog. The New America Foundations nutrition label for bandwidth isn’t a bad idea, although it can be hard to figure out what you should be measuring.

Q: Muniwifi?
A: There’s no such things as a free lunch. Very expensive to run a high quality broadband network. You can’t just give it away. People expect to be able to stream and do latency-sensitive things. The amount of taxes you’d have to pay is about what you’d have to pay to a private provider. And they expect it to be ubiquitous, but 2.4gH won’t go through many walls.

Q: Would you consider doing this in developing countries?
A: There’s an advantage. They’re often not deploying telephone infrastructures. You could locate net service with the cellphone towers.
A: It’s just a buzzword for whatever we develop next. Long Term Evolution is the cellphone companies’ word for whatever they build next. Watch out for the hype. No one can violate Shannon’s law.

Q: Do WISPs need to be small? Could they get big enough to get over your scale problems?
A: There are some roll-ups. Some achieve economies of scale. But they don’t come to our area because they couldn’t get the backhaul. And you’d really need a good person in each city, and this knowledge is not easy to come by. And it’s hard to get investors; they walk away when there’s a hint that we might get regulated. I’d love to do it, though.

Q: In Cambridge we have a single ISP…
A: There are some WISPs in Cambridge. There are 4,000 in the US. They hide because they’re worried about being squashed by the big guys.

Q: Why aren’t the other WISPs lining up behind you, supporting your ideas?
A: WISPs are very independent people who climb up on rooftops.

Q: Are there common areas where you can work with people on “the other side”?
A: Depends what you mean by other side. I’ve worked with CTIA. But WISPs are small, homespun businesses. “We’d like to see ourselves enabled, rather than hobbled.”

[Posted without re-reading. All possible errors and stupidities are mine, not Brett's.]


December 17, 2009

The Privacy of Fridges: The Broadband Strategy plan meets the Smart Grid

Nick Sinai is Dir. of Energy and Environment for the FCC’s Broadband Strategy plan. In the latest posting at Broadband Strategy Week, he talks about how the requirements of the Smart Grid will affect the plan. How smart will the grid be? Will the FCC be regulating our refrigerators? Are there privacy concerns? How much bandwidth is required to support it? Who will build it? Will the Smart Grid be based on Internet protocols to ensure interoperability? Will it use the broadband infrastructure or the existing information infrastructure created by the electric companies? Should the energy industry be disrupted (in the good sense)?


December 9, 2009

Verizon’s Director of Internet Policy: Stay the course

Paul Brigner, Executive Director of Internet and Technology Policy at Verizon, says what he would tell the Broadband Strategy Initiative: Build on our this country’s current success providing access to the Internet. Do no harm (= beware of Net Neutrality). And question the research that shows that America has fallen behind other countries in the ubiquity, price, and speed of broadband.

More at Broadband Strategy Week.


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