Tagged: Federal Communications Commission

Defend Net Neutrality…Again

John Oliver did it again. Two nights ago, on Last Week Tonight, he covered net neutrality, explaining it in an accessible way, and advocating everyone to visit the FCC’s website to comment on the proposed rules.

As he explained on the show and what should not come as a surprise given the corporate lapdog that now runs the FCC, commenting on the proposed rules to revoke net neutrality regulation is a lot harder than before. But the Last Week Tonight producers made it easy to comment. They mapped the domain name http://gofccyourself.com to the comment form. (Deep linking FTW!)

While Oliver explains a lot of reasons why net neutrality is important, it might be better to see this from the perspective of Title I vs. Title II. Oliver offered to contrast it, but the explanation comparing the difference between the two didn’t materialize. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to think about Title I vs. Title II in these terms:

  • Title I is an information service. A cable company operates under Title I because the cable company curates the channel lineup and offers a package of television channels. Users have little choice in what channels they get, aside from choosing a tier of channels.
  • Title II is a common carrier utility. A landline telephone company operates under Title II because it doesn’t not select or curate your phone calls. It simply connects one telephone to another.

Most of us think of our Internet service provider as a common carrier. We subscribe to one ISP versus another based on a few factors: upload and download speeds, reliability, and price. We don’t do so because of “exclusive content” or any synergistic nonsense like that. With any ISP, we expect to reach any website, connect any device, and run almost any application.

On the other hand, we think of major platforms on the Internet, such as Facebook or Google, as an information service. However, no one relies on only one of these platforms. Remember when Facebook partnered with HTC to make a “Facebook Phone?” It was a disaster because no one wants to live in this walled garden, even if we might spend a lot of time there.

We have only had net neutrality for two years, but we must keep it because we don’t want our Internet service providers to become an information service.

When an ISP acts like an information service, we get something like we had with America Online (AOL). Today, most people shudder when I mention AOL because think of slow dialup connections and the shrieking modem-handshake sound. But honestly, what made AOL so bad was that it was your internet service provider and your content provider, and while it was easy to use, it was really bad. It was not only a walled garden, like Facebook today, but unlike Facebook, you paid by-the-hour while you were on AOL. I don’t think any consumer wants to go back to these days.

AOL CD 700 Free Hours

You don’t want to know how much you had to pay after AOL’s free 700 hours.

The same is true for wireless. The iPhone was revolutionary, not only as a mobile computing device, but because Apple insisted that it have complete control over the hardware: the wireless carrier could not install any software nor brand the phone. The iPhone was a success in part because Apple relegated AT&T to the role of a wireless common carrier, keeping them from acting like an information service.

I certainly remember this was not the case with some of my old phones, such as a Sprint-branded phone that I got in 2001, that came with the “wireless web.” It was basically an AOL-like service provided by Sprint that had local weather, news, and sports scores. It sucked. The only redeeming feature of this service was that it allowed you to enter a URL, and there were a handful of sites that offered mobile WAP sites, largely because of the success of Palm handhelds.

Sprint PCS Wireless Web, circa 2001

This was the Web on a Sprint PCS Wireless Phone, circa 2001.

The one thing that Pai gets right about “net neutrality” is that is a confusing term. But in this case, let there be no confusion. Internet service providers are by their very nature common carriers. That’s how they market themselves, that’s why consumers subscribe to one ISP versus another, and that’s how the Internet as we know it has flourished in the last decade and a half. Moving ISPs to Title I—as information services—will invite those ISPs to become gatekeepers and walled gardens that stymie innovation. Let’s not go back to the days when “surfing the web” meant scrolling through a mobile “wireless web” browser’s menu or, heaven forbid, entering AOL keywords.

Tell Chairman Pai: Go FCC Yourself-dot-Com!

Title II > Title I

It’s been an exciting week for Internet advocacy in the United States. To put it in crude, succinct, and kinda androcentric-and-infantilizing terms, the Federal Communications Commission grew a pair and ruled to…

  1. regulate ISPs as a Title II Common Carrier instead of a Title I Information Service Provider.
  2. prohibit restrictions against community broadband, such as those in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, where they get faster and cheaper Internet access than in New York City.

Everyone has gone gaga over the first ruling, but I think the second one is just as crucial. Why? If net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet,” community broadband is the “public option” we didn’t get with the Affordable Care Act. It subjects commercial ISPs to competition that is primarily concerned with serving its citizens rather than enriching its shareholders.

The commercial ISPs have complained that if they were subject to Title II common carriage regulation, they would be less inclined to invest in their infrastructure. They would be less likely to expand access, and they would be less likely to increase broadband speeds in the coming years. In other words, they would act like a telecommunications monopoly with little incentive to improve their product. Guess what? They already behave that way.

Most of the country lacks access to viable broadband. For many of those who do have access, they face a Hobson choice when selecting Internet service providers. As for average broadband speeds, at 11.5 Mbps, the United States is hardly in the lead. We rank somewhere between Taiwan (9.5 Mbps) and Singapore (12.2 Mbps) among Asian nations and between Israel (11.4 Mbps) and Finland (11.7 Mbps) among EMEA nations.1

Throughout the twentieth century, AT&T, the telephone monopoly in the US, improved the technology to connect local and long-distance calls more efficiently, but the end-product was more or less unchanged for seven decades. AT&T held a monopoly over US telephone service beginning in 1913, under the Kingsbury Commitment, until 1984, when it was forced to fragment and sell its local exchanges into seven regional Baby Bells. In that time, there were very few functional improvements to the telephone receiver.

Comparing two receivers—one from the 1930s and one from the 1980s—it’s hard to tell what specific improvements there were. Both receivers consisted of a dial and a corded handset, and you could have one in any color you wanted… as long as you wanted black. Why was there no speakerphone? Where is the touchtone keypad? Why couldn’t someone put a call on hold or mute the receiver? If someone missed a call, why couldn’t the phone indicate so with a notification? And, why could someone not walk around any further than the length of the receiver’s cord?

Carterphone

The Carterphone from the late 1960s allowed telephone users to bypass the telephone cord.

The key reason why AT&T did not innovate and improve its product for the consumer was not because it was closely regulated as a utility and that it had to provide universal access, it was because it was a monopoly and no had little incentive to innovate. It was not until the 1980s that consumers were finally able to connect foreign attachments to their telephones, such as answering machines and modems, purchase their own phones, including cordless and touchtone devices, and choose their own long-distance telephone provider and calling plan.

Touchtone telephone

Touchtone “dialing” finally arrives in the 1980s. Was that really so hard?

In other words, with viable competition in underserved markets, commercial ISPs will be forced to, in the words of countless entrepreneurial free-marketeers, “innovate or die.”

Updated because the new WordPress for iOS app turned my Markdown into HTML. Yuck.


  1. This is based on Akamai’s State of the Internet report for the third quarter of 2014. http://www.akamai.com/dl/akamai/akamai-soti-q314-infographic.pdf 

Lapdogs Unite Against Net Neutrality

Next Thursday will be a big day for telecommunications policy in the United States. The FCC is scheduled to vote on whether it will reclassify broadband Internet service as a common-carrier utility (Title II) instead of its current destination as an information service (Title I). Classifying broadband as a utility would allow the FCC to enforce regulations aimed at prohibiting discriminatory and preferential treatment of Internet traffic. In short, under Title II, the FCC could institute and enforce net neutrality rules for an open Internet.

Because these rules threaten the status quo of telecommunications companies, particularly the MVPD (“cable companies”) that dominate the broadband market in the United States, there is an offensive designed to turn public opinion against net neutrality.

One unexpected place for this anti–net neutrality discourse came from the FCC itself. Earlier today, the FCC posted a press release on its website titled “What People Are Saying About President’s Plan to Regulate The Internet.” The document is a selection of quotes that oppose net neutrality, characterizing it as a regulatory burden on the innovative broadband industry.

According to some veteran communication lawyers who monitor the FCC, it is unprecedented for the FCC to release a preemptive, partisan position, such as this one, especially since this is a collage of quotes rather than an actual announcement. Press releases are intended to give news agencies content to reproduce or adapt for their publications. By releasing a series of quotes without any background, this release could serve as the basis for anti–net neutrality news articles, in the coming days, on the eve this potentially historic vote. This is especially troubling since, under the banner of the FCC, it sounds like a quasi official endorsement of these positions. Moreover, the title of the release includes references to “people,” giving the position a folksy, common-sense tone, and to the “president’s plan to regulate the Internet,” which not only sounds like a top-down executive decision but also a push to impose burdensome regulations on “our Internet.”

If this language–of President Obama threatening free-enterprise with regulation–sounds like a tired-old Republican talking point, that’s because opposing net neutrality is a tired old Republican position.

The FCC has five commissioners, each is appointed by the president. In order to ensure some political balance, no more than three commissioners can be from the president’s political party. The source of the press release referenced above is Brendan Carr, a staffer for Commissioner Ajit Pai. Commissioner Pai is one of the two FCC Republican-party commissioners and a net-neutrality opponent.

Another one of Commissioner Pai’s staffers, Matthew Berry, has been active on Twitter promoting Pai’s appearances on conservative talk shows decrying net neutrality and also childishly referring to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as a lapdog. for following the call of President Obama—and nearly four million comments from the public—to reclassify the Internet as a utility.

Even former chairman Robert McDowell (yes, another Republican) has chimed in comparing Obama’s push for net neutrality to the actions of Saudi and Russian dictators. Throughout his seven-year tenure at the FCC, he dogmatically opposed communications policies like net neutrality, universal access, and reviving the Fairness Doctrine. It’s nice to see he has been keeping busy since stepping down from the Commission in 2013.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve last lived with a dog—a small Tibetan Spaniel named Capella—but I think I know what a corporate lapdog looks like.

Update: The press release now indicates that it was issued from the office of Commissioner Ajit Pai.

FCC’s Moment of Clarity

Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps (2001–2009), writing about media consolidation, in an editorial published in Columbia Journalism Review:

I would be spending untold hours listening to big media tell me how their latest merger proposal would translate into enormous “efficiencies” and “economies of scale” to produce more and better news. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked, I saw newsrooms like yours being shuttered or drastically downsized, reporters getting the axe, and investigative journalism hanging by the most slender of threads. Instead of expanding news, the conglomerates cut the muscle out of deep-dive reporting and disinvested in you.

The whole piece is worth a careful read as he confirms everything public interest groups warned would happen if his agency approved the accelerated consolidation of media outlets: diminished newsrooms, lack of competition, a suppression of news covering media ownership.

He also warns that without network neutrality, the Internet has no chance to liberalize journalism and media industries as a whole. This also echoes the years-long warnings of public interest groups, such Free Press, and scholars, such as Tim Wu.

Finally, he recommends reforming the FCC so that it doesn’t favor the interests of media corporations at the expense of public interest.

Obama, can you reappoint him, please?