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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 15 December 2020 @ 6:33am

Space X Gets $886 Million From FCC To Put Very Small Dent In U.S. Broadband Gaps

from the baby-steps dept

For a country that likes to talk about "being number one" a lot, that's sure not reflected in the United States' broadband networks, or the broadband maps we use to determine which areas lack adequate broadband or competition (resulting in high prices and poor service). While the U.S. government doesn't genuinely know who has broadband and who doesn't (in part thanks to telecom lobbyists who have fought more accurate mapping to obfuscate monopolization) the best estimates we do have aren't pretty.

An estimated 42 million Americans (double FCC claims) still don't have any broadband whatsoever, despite 30 years of industry subsidization. Another 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly, usually Comcast. Tens of millions more Americans live under a duopoly where their only choice is again either Comcast, or some regional phone company that can't be bothered to upgrade its aging DSL lines because it's not profitable enough, quickly enough for Wall Street's liking.

Enter Space X's Starlink, which is promising to cover the night sky in a constellation of low orbit satellites capable of delivering fairly decent broadband, pretty much anywhere. Early beta impressions have been promising, delivering speeds upwards of 100 Mbps for $100 per month (plus a $500 up front hardware fee). It's very promising tech, if you ignore the night sky pollution the technology creates (which Musk promised wouldn't occur) that's hampering scientists and researchers.

It's promising enough that the FCC this week doled out $886 million in subsidies from the agency's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), to deliver broadband to 642,925 rural homes and businesses in 35 states. It's part of a total $9.2 billion in new funding being thrown at an industry that doesn't have a particularly good track record on actually spending this kind of money responsibly. It's not entirely clear why Musk's wealthy business empire needed the extra taxpayer help, or what Starlink exactly intends to do with the money (since it didn't want to tell the press):

"FCC funding can be used in different ways depending on the type of broadband service. Cable companies like Charter and other wireline providers generally use the money to expand their networks into new areas that don't already have broadband. But with Starlink, SpaceX could theoretically provide service to all of rural America once it has launched enough satellites, even without FCC funding.

One possibility is that SpaceX could use the FCC money to lower prices in the 642,925 funded locations, but the FCC announcement didn't say whether that's what SpaceX will do. We asked SpaceX and the FCC for more details and will update this article if we get any answers."

Consumer groups have looked at the Starlink bid more closely and have found that Musk's company exploited a very broken FCC bidding system to obtain money for projects in many urban, affluent areas that don't actually make a lot of sense for a fund designed to help shore up access to low-income and rural communities:

"By bidding for subsidies assigned to dense urban areas, Musk's firm and others were able to get potentially hundreds of millions in subsidies meant for people and businesses in rural areas that would never see broadband deployment without the government's help."

Again, a company run by one of the wealthiest men on the planet exploited a broken FCC system to get taxpayer/ratepayer money that could have gone to actual areas in need. Instead, the company got nearly a billion by promising to service a handful of properties near airports and luxury golf courses it never intended to target anyway. Kind of ironic for a guy who has recently been whining about moving to Texas for (at least in part) unfair taxation reasons.

To be clear, Starlink will be damn near revolutionary for Americans stuck without any service at all. It will also be a huge step up for users stuck on older, expensive, slow, and capped traditional satellite systems. But those expecting Starlink to be a nationwide game changer will likely be disappointed. The $600 first month cost is too steep for the countless Americans who don't have broadband because it's too heavily monopolized and therefore expensive. Musk himself has also made it clear the service simply won't have the capacity to offer service in parts of the U.S. with any significant population density.

In other words: it's not going to seriously challenge the real reason U.S. broadband is so insufferably mediocre and expensive: the regional monopolies enjoyed by telecom giants, and the ocean of folks they pay to keep it that way.

While an improvement over traditional satellite, Starlink also isn't a serious replacement for fiber. It's still not clear what kind of odd, post-net neutrality network management and throttling practices the company will engage in once its networks are fully loaded. If America could be bothered to actually do a serious audit of the state and federal subsidies given the telecom industry over the last 30 years, you'd find taxpayers likely already paid for fiber to every home in America several times over. Instead, those billions went toward a rotating selection of routinely half completed networks and a whole lot of fraud.

That's not to say subsidization doesn't have its role and very clear benefits in shoring up access when done right. But as we keep pointing out, more subsidies can't fix regulatory capture. They can't fix a Congress in bed with telecom lobbyists. They can't fix U.S. broadband policy that has, for twenty years now, basically been dictated by the biggest and most powerful sector monopolies. So while it's absolutely good that Starlink is taking steps to shore up access, those expecting a total sector revolution at the hands of Elon Musk probably shouldn't hold their breath.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 December 2020 @ 6:24am

Consumer Groups Say The FCC Just Blew $9 Billion To Deliver Broadband To Already Served Rich People

from the fluff-and-nonsense dept

The FCC last week held a reverse auction to dole out $9 billion to, purportedly, improve patchy U.S. broadband. But consumer groups say the auction did nothing of the sort, instead delivering $9 billion to a dodgy roster of companies with existing histories of fraud that will be using much of the funds to expand broadband to affluent areas where broadband is often already available.

The reverse auction involved doling out billions from the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), paid into via Universal Service Fund (USF) contributions affixed to your broadband and phone bills. To be very clear: some of this money will absolutely help shore up access in underserved communities. But after digging into the FCC maps of the winning bidders, consumer groups like Free Press say something ugly is afoot. The group found a long list of examples where companies got millions of dollars to dole out broadband to a handful of wealthy homes in affluent areas, many of which already have service:

There are plenty of examples of this in the data. Like this affluent section of LA:

Or here at LAX, where a company is getting ratepayer money to deploy broadband to a whopping two already-served locations near the airport:

Ajit Pai and friends are, you'll recall, the same folks who like to hyperventilate over community broadband as an inevitable taxpayer boondoggle (it isn't, but that doesn't stop them). There's an absolute ocean of telecom-linked consultants, lobbyists, policy wonks, academics, and think tankers who'll be happy to go on at great lengths about how localized community broadband networks are some kind of socialistic hellscape of taxpayer fraud. But bring up how we throw way, way more money at AT&T in exchange for reduced investments, empty promises, and layoffs and...crickets.

Enter this new auction data, which indicates your money is being thrown at ISPs that already have long histories of dodgy behavior and being misleading about how subsidies are spent. That includes Frontier Communications, which has faced repeated accusations of subsidy fraud in places like West Virginia. And Charter Communications (Spectrum), which almost got kicked out of New York State recently for repeatedly lying to regulators about broadband deployment efforts. These are companies with pretty long histories of extremely dodgy behavior, being given millions to do something they've already failed to do, repeatedly.

Of course there are some new players getting money for dubious reasons too. Like Starlink, which is owned by one of the wealthiest men in the history of the planet, getting a billion dollars so it can deploy broadband to, according to the FCC's own logic and data, parking lots near the Pentagon:

Why does one of the wealthiest men in America need ratepayer subsidization to deploy broadband to areas his project was already targeted to serve? Good question! The company wouldn't respond to reporter inquiries asking why the money was needed or what it plans to do with it, which is always a good sign.

There's a good early breakdown of the results and how this auction was supposed to work by Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Telecom consultant Doug Dawson also does a good job breaking down what went wrong, noting that because the FCC let fixed wireless providers pretend fixed wireless is the equivalent of fiber (it's most certainly not), a lot of genuine fiber expansion efforts got the short end of the stick:

"By allowing WISPS to claim gigabit capabilities, the FCC cheated huge numbers of people out of getting fiber. There were numerous electric cooperatives, small telcos, CLECs, fiber overbuilders, and public/private partnerships in the auction hoping to bring fiber to entire rural counties. In looking at the footprints won due to this fiction, I’m guessing the FCC’s decision to allow fixed wireless to falsely bid as gigabit technology killed fiber construction to at least a few hundred rural counties."

I don’t understand why the FCC couldn’t get this right. The FCC could have talked to any one of a hundred telecom engineers I know who would have laughed at the idea that fixed wireless can deliver gigabit speeds across big tracts of extremely rural America. A huge portion of this auction was based upon this lie, and that never bodes well for the long run.

There's this thing deregulatory telecom zealots do where they overhype emerging telecom tech, pretending it's some kind of deus ex machina that will magically fix everything. This lets them pretend that magic new tech will bring competition to market, thereby justifying mindless deregulation and napping regulators. Ex-FCC boss turned top cable lobbyist Mike Powell did this with broadband over powerline (BPL), which wound up being an interference-prone dud. You're seeing it happen again with 5G, despite U.S. 5G being too patchy, underwhelming, and expensive to fix America's affordable broadband problem.

This is all pretty well in line for an Ajit Pai FCC that talks endlessly about its "dedication for the digital divide," but has such little respect for accurate data it can't actually tell you where broadband is or isn't available (but pretends to). And because folks like Pai are so ideologically rigid, they can't even acknowledge that the biggest problem in U.S. broadband is monopolistic domination by a handful of giants resulting in massive swaths of the country where competition is virtually nonexistent. As such it's not surprising the end policies are often fluff and nonsense untethered from the reality on the ground.

A serious, functioning FCC would make accurate data the priority. It would then focus on the best, smartest, and most creative ways to drive new technology and competition to those markets, whether you ideologically agree with the solution or not. Instead, we have an FCC that literally pretends America's broadband competition problems don't exist, misidentifies the real problem out of ideological and partisan hubris, then applies solutions that largely involve throwing billions at companies with a twenty year track record of taking subsidies in exchange for empty promises.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 December 2020 @ 1:38pm

Apple, Cloudflare Join Forces To Encrypt DNS

from the long-overdue dept

Each time you visit a website, your browser interacts with a domain name system (DNS) resolver that converts web addresses to an IP address understood by the machines along your path. Historically however this traffic exchange isn't encrypted, making it possible for your broadband provider or another third party to monitor your browsing data based on your DNS queries. DNS inventors in the 80s didn't really bet on a future where all DNS queries would be tracked, monetized, or weaponized by third parties.

Experts for a while have been arguing (including here at the Techdirt Greenhouse policy project) that it's important that we start encrypting these pathways to bring a little more security and privacy to the equation. Companies like Mozilla have been at the forefront of implementing "DNS over HTTPS," a significant security upgrade to DNS that encrypts and obscures your domain requests, making it more difficult (though not impossible) to see which websites a user is visiting. Recently, even Comcast (a company that's no stranger to monetizing your online habits) joined Mozilla's efforts to take the idea mainstream.

But even DNS over HTTPS (DoH) doesn't fully thwart DNS resolvers from seeing your browsing activity. Enter a new joint effort from Cloudflare and Apple, who say they have joined forces to back a new internet protocol dubbed ODOH, based in turn on existing research out of Princeton (pdf). Cloudflare explains how it works this way:

"ODoH is an emerging protocol being developed at the IETF. ODoH works by adding a layer of public key encryption, as well as a network proxy between clients and DoH servers such as 1.1.1.1. The combination of these two added elements guarantees that only the user has access to both the DNS messages and their own IP address at the same time."

The changes shouldn't add any perceptible latency to browsing speed, but should notably improve user and overall internet security. A good thing in a country that still doesn't seem to think even a modern, simply privacy law for the internet era is necessary to protect the security of the internet and public safety. But as Zack Whitacre at TechCrunch notes, steps still need to be taken to ensure no single party controls both the DNS resolver and proxy:

"A key component of ODoH working properly is ensuring that the proxy and the DNS resolver never “collude,” in that the two are never controlled by the same entity, otherwise the “separation of knowledge is broken,” Sullivan said. That means having to rely on companies offering to run proxies."

Cloudflare told TechCrunch that several partner organizations are already running proxies, allowing for folks to give the system an early spin if they use Cloudflare's security-focused 1.1.1.1 DNS resolver. Everybody else will need to wait until the new protocol comes standard as part of your OS or browser, which depends on how long it takes for the Internet Engineering Task Force to finalize the proposal. That could take months or years, but in a world where your every waking online movement is increasingly tracked and monetized, it should be a welcome shift whenever it finally drops.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 December 2020 @ 6:16am

Deep Dive Shows FCC's Covid Response Was Largely Theatrical Nonsense

from the you're-not-helping dept

Back in March, the Trump FCC put on a big show about a new "Keep America Connected Pledge" to help broadband users during COVID. In it, the FCC proudly proclaimed that it had gotten hundreds of ISPs to suspend usage caps and late fees, and agree to not disconnect users who couldn't pay for essential broadband service during a pandemic. The problem: the 60 day pledge was entirely voluntary, temporary, and because the FCC just got done obliterating its consumer protection authority over ISPs at lobbyist behest (as part of its net neutrality repeal), was impossible to actually enforce. It was regulatory theater.

The rather meaningless pledge has since expired despite the pandemic only getting worse. And because this FCC doesn't actually care about consumer protection (it literally doesn't even collect data on who is getting kicked offline for nonpayment during a plague), many ISPs simply ignored the pledge, and kicked users offline anyway; even disabled Americans who were told repeatedly by their ISPs that they wouldn't be booted offline for nonpayment during the crisis. Meanwhile, most ISPs have also restored their bullshit, arbitrary usage caps, making them a pretty additional penny during a crisis.

This week, Kelcee Griffis did an even deeper dive into the theatrical nature of the FCC's COVID consumer efforts. She obtained 3,000 complaints submitted to the FCC between June and August, and found that in 550 cases, consumers say they were kicked offline or faced late fees despite repeated promises from providers that they wouldn't do that:

"In some instances, customers begged the providers to work out a way to keep them connected, citing relatives who recently died or were hospitalized with the coronavirus, or budget constraints due to pandemic-related layoffs. Others reported they struggled to keep their small businesses afloat amid nationwide closures and stay-at-home orders, saying ISPs only added to their woes."

In many cases, consumers argued that they were actually worse off after getting ISP "help" than they had been if they hadn't done anything at all:

"Customers in New York, Arizona and Pennsylvania said ISPs promised extended or suspended data caps but did not inform them when they must start paying again for the increased capacity, resulting in bills that ranged from about $200 to $600.

A Mesa, Arizona, customer even expressed regret that they accepted help from Cox Communications.

"Now that the [$30 monthly] COVID discount is gone, I have a bill that is $30 higher than it was six months ago," the customer wrote in late July. "That is unreasonable to me. I would have been better off not having the COVID discount since it appears to me they off-set the discount by increasing the fees for the services I had."

Unless you're one of a surprisingly large contingent of folks that thinks kissing AT&T's, Comcast's, and Verizon's asses is helpful and serious adult policy, none of this should be particularly surprising. The FCC basically self-immolated at lobbyist behest, leaving it without the authority to do much during a major health and economic crisis. Even the things the FCC could be doing -- like actually tracking what struggling Americans are getting kicked offline -- it's simply not doing. Instead, it engaged in regulatory theater designed to make it look as if having crippled regulators during a crisis isn't a bad thing.

It's all part of a deep ideological delusion that exists in many corners and is propped up by a massive industry of telecom-linked monopoly apologists. Folks who would have you believe that if you mindlessly pander to natural monopolies, freeing them from "burdensome regulations" (read: absolutely anything that could help real people, markets, or competitors at the cost of monopoly revenues) it somehow results in near-Utopian outcomes. In reality, with neither competition nor adult oversight to constrain them, natural monopolies inevitably just double down on the same bad behavior.

There's literally forty years of history making this point abundantly clear, yet the U.S. seems utterly intent on learning absolutely nothing from history or experience.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 December 2020 @ 6:17am

Stupid Cable TV Retrans Feuds And Blackouts Make Their Way To Streaming TV

from the meet-the-new-boss dept

For the last decade or so, U.S. cable TV customers have been plagued by a steady parade of content blackouts as cable providers and broadcasters bicker over new programming contracts. For the end user, so-called "retransmission feuds" usually go something like this: a broadcaster demands a cable company pay significantly more money to carry the same content. The pay TV provider balks, and one side or the other blacks out the aforementioned content. Consumers spend a few months paying for content they can't access, while the two sides bitch at each other and try to leverage consumer anger against the other guy.

After a while a new confidential deal is struck, customers face a higher bill, and never get any sort of refund for missing content. Wash, rinse, repeat. Over and over again. With regulators largely sitting on their hands as consumers get the short end of the stick.

While some might think the innovative streaming revolution is going to fix stupidity like this, evidence suggests that's not likely. While a different variety of feud, AT&T and Roku have been in a standoff preventing AT&T's HBO Max from appearing on Roku devices. And last week, Sinclair-owned CBS stations were pulled from Hulu completely because the two sides couldn't put on their big boy pants and agree to a new contract without taking it out on paying subscribers:

"Hulu is next in the line of cable providers and streaming services to lose locals due to disputes with broadcasters. Some viewers started receiving scrolling on-screen notices over the weekend, letting them know that their CBS station could be removed from Hulu."

This being Sinclair's particular brand of highly partisan, homogenized disinfotainment, many won't care that they lose access to these networks. Sinclair obviously cares, given that fuboTV, YouTube TV, and SlingTV (Dish Network) removed the company's costly regional sports channels last year from their own streaming lineups, contributing to a $4.18 billion loss for Sinclair in the third quarter. But this sort of stuff is only going to get more common and probably dumber, as broadcasters relentlessly try to extract more and more money from already frustrated consumers during an historic health and economic crisis.

For years, even Wall Street stock jocks have warned that the broadcast industry's relentless price hikes simply aren't sustainable. It's creating a sort of death loop where broadcasters demand more money, cable companies acquiesce and raise rates, and consumers, realizing they're better off skipping TV and reading a book or watching TikTok after several rate hikes each year, finally cut the cord. And while competition from streaming has certainly helped the sector in terms of more flexible choices and lower rates, many of the pay TV sectors dumbest and most self-harming tactics are starting to come along for the ride.

That means a steady parade of rate hikes that erode the value proposition of your monthly streaming subscription, and the routine blackouts and disputes that result in you paying more money for content you can't access. It would be relatively simple for a regulator to bar consumer-harming blackouts during negotiations (or at least ensure consumers are compensated for losing access to content they pay for), but this being a country where consumer protection policy is usually set by industry (which is why there often isn't any), that doesn't seem likely anytime soon.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 December 2020 @ 6:22am

GOP Confirms Unqualified Simington to FCC With Eye On Crippling Biden FCC

from the minority-rule dept

The Senate voted 49-46 Tuesday afternoon along strict party lines to appoint Trump ally NTIA advisor Nathan Simington to the FCC. Simington is hugely unqualified, and his appointment sets another new low in the modern GOP's campaign of sleazy and blisteringly hypocritical politics at the cost of a functioning government or the public interest.

Simington has absolutely no experience in telecom issues, consumer protection, or the other complicated issues facing the FCC. He was nominated because he literally helped write Donald Trump's idiotic and dangerous attack on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and is expected to continue (at least performatively for distraction's sake) the campaign at the FCC. If you ask Trumpland, the campaign is necessary to stop "censorship" of conservatives online. In reality, that censorship doesn't exist (in fact reality indicates the opposite). The campaign is really about bullying tech giants into not policing disinformation and hate speech, now cornerstones of GOP power.

While the 230 drama will get all the press attention, Simington's appointment was rushed through primarily for another reason: to help Mitch McConnell (read: AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast) gridlock the FCC at 2-2 Commissioners for at least the next two years, preventing the reversal of hugely unpopular Trump FCC policies by the Biden FCC.

By law, the party that wins the White House controls a 3-2 majority at the FCC, and gets to appoint the agency boss. But back in August Trump fired Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly for some pretty timid comments (correctly) suggesting Trump's planned attack on social media didn't make much sense. With both O'Rielly and Ajit Pai leaving the agency on January 20, that left the FCC with a 2-1 Democratic majority in the new year. So despite the FCC attack on 230 now crippled with Trump's election loss, and despite Simington being an unqualified Trump sycophant, the GOP rushed the nomination through anyway, knowing he would create 2-2 agency gridlock.

Most every telecom expert and consumer advocate I've spoken to now expect the GOP, should it retain control of the Senate after the Georgia run off elections, to block the appointment of any Democratic FCC boss with a spine, ensuring that the FCC remains mired in partisan gridlock indefinitely. With Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel's term up at the end of 2021, her replacement is likely to be blocked as well, resulting in a GOP 2-1 FCC majority -- despite losing the election. Whatever representative democracy is supposed to look like, this sure as shit isn't it.

The GOP's ploy is a huge gift to telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast, which don't want the Biden administration reversing any of the Trump FCC's hugely unpopular policies, be it the attack on net neutrality, the neutering of the agency's overall consumer protection authority, or the attack on decades-old, bipartisan media consolidation rules.

Gridlocked at 2-2 or even 2-1, the Biden FCC also won't be able to pass any COVID-relief efforts that meaningfully challenges the broadband industry (the whole point), be they restrictions on arbitrary and punitive usage caps, or policies aimed at preventing ISPs from kicking struggling Americans offline for nonpayment. Angry voters will then blame the Biden FCC for the dysfunction foisted upon them by the GOP, a story you'll see playing out across numerous regulatory agencies and policy fights in the coming year as the GOP shifts from Trump sycophancy (and attacks on fundamental democracy) back to obstructionism.

With that as context, Simington's role as a Section 230 attack dog is largely going to be an afterthought and distraction. Though as TechFreedom's Berin Szoka notes, that doesn't mean he can't throw a wrench into the numerous ongoing litigation efforts related to content moderation:

Still, the primary goal here now for Mitch McConnell isn't Section 230. It's protecting the four-year ass kissing the Trump administration gave the telecom industry. An industry every bit as problematic as the "big tech" giants the GOP's faux-populist wing (Josh Hawley quickly comes to mind) exploits for political benefit. "Big telecom" has waged an incredibly successful four-year campaign exploiting the often legitimate anger at "big tech," to call for heavier regulation of the industries it wants to compete with in the ad space, while eliminating most meaningful oversight of its own highly monopolistic sector.

Now, with the GOP's help, they're hoping to keep things that way for as long as is humanly possible. In a functioning country, crippling the nation's top telecom regulator in the middle of a pandemic (one showing how affordable broadband is essential for survival) because some lobbyists told you to would be met with real consequences and scorn. Here, if the press can even be bothered to report on what telecom and the GOP are even doing, it will be met with a shrug and around thirty seconds' worth of attention span.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 December 2020 @ 9:30am

Facing Massive Subscriber Defections AT&T Chooses: Rate Hikes & New, Bogus Fees

from the synergies dept

AT&T's had a bit of a tough stretch lately. Saddled by massive debt from its $200 billion Time Warner and DirecTV mergers in recent years, the company keeps deciding to recoup that debt from its subscribers in the form of relentless price hikes. That, in turn, has resulted in millions of subscribers heading for the exits. In fact, AT&T has lost roughly eight million pay TV subscribers since 2017 -- not exactly the sector domination AT&T executives dreamed of when they first began their massive acquisition spree back in 2015.

Normally, a company hoping to make inroads in a sector like TV (traditional or streaming) would try and focus more on not pissing its subscribers off. But as a government pampered telecom monopoly unfamiliar with things like competition, this is all alien territory for many AT&T executives. So, relatively unsurprisingly, the company is imposing all manner of new rate hikes across its AT&T broadband, TV, and DirecTV service options.

That includes a $5 to $9 rate hike for many of DirecTV and AT&T's already pricey cable bundles, but it also includes entirely new bogus fees the company has introduced design to sound like a government-mandated surcharge, specifically designed so you'll get mad at government, not AT&T:

"DirecTV is also adding a "Federal Cost Recovery Fee of $0.19 per month," similar to a fee that used to be charged once per year. Despite the name, the fee is not mandated by the government. AT&T said the fee covers "expenses that DirecTV pays to the Federal Communications Commission."

While this fee is starting small, AT&T has a history of sneakily raising overall prices by adding new fees and then steadily raising them through the years. The Federal Cost Recovery Fee will be charged in addition to a number of other fees that AT&T excludes from listed prices so that it can advertise lower prices than it actually charges."

In a functional society with functional regulators, companies wouldn't be allowed to make up a completely bogus fee, then blame the government -- all so it can falsely advertise a lower rate. This not being a serious country with functioning regulators, these bullshit fees have become incredibly commonplace across both the cable TV and broadband ecosystem. In fact the cable industry is estimated to make $28 billion annually in bullshit fees. Occasionally these companies will face a class action or regulatory action, but the penalties are almost always a pittance compared to the money made from the bullshit fees in the first place.

Granted a serious country with functioning regulators wouldn't have approved AT&T's DirecTV merger (because it reduced TV sector competition) or the Time Warner merger (because economists repeatedly warned the leverage from vertical integration and overall consolidation hurts both consumers and competitors alike), but hey, here we are.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 December 2020 @ 5:58am

AT&T, HBO Put Another Bullet In Antiquated Theatrical Release Windows

from the inevitability dept

Among the dated and dumb business concepts exposed as folly during the pandemic is the traditional Hollywood film release window, which typically involves a 90 day gap between the time a move appears in theaters and its streaming or DVD release (in France this window is even more ridiculous at three years). The goal is usually to "protect the traditional film industry," though it's never been entirely clear why you'd protect traditional theaters at the cost of common sense, consumer demand, and a more efficient model. Just because?

While the industry has flirted with the idea of "day and date" releases for decades (releasing movies on home video at the same time as brick and mortar theaters), there's long been a lot of hyperventilation on the part of movie theaters and traditionalists that this sort of shift wasn't technically possible or would somehow destroy the traditional "movie experience," driving theaters out of business.

The pandemic has changed everything. To the point where AT&T/HBO this week announced that the company's entire lineup of 2021 films will be released on the company's streaming platform (HBO Max) the same time it hits theaters. There are some caveats: it's a one year trial, and movies will only appear on HBO Max for a month before they disappear (though they may return later). You'll also probably pay far more to watch these movies than it's worth. But it's still a sensible shift given the circumstances, as Warner Brothers (AT&T) made clear it a statement:

“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group,” said Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff. “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.”

Yes, it sucks for those whose livelihoods rely on traditional brick and mortar theaters. But these are the same theaters that saw the writing on this particular wall long before COVID came to town, and decided to spend much of their time pouting instead of adapting for the inevitable. Even then, traditional theaters will someday bounce back, buoyed by those who feel a trip out to the movies is an essential cornerstone of everyday life. It's just not going to be until vaccines are commonplace and congregating indoors for prolonged periods is no longer a potential death sentence.

This isn't exclusively about the pandemic, of course. AT&T has been losing traditional TV and streaming subscribers hand over fist after a bunch of expensive mergers, branding confusing, and other executive incompetence. They're running behind giants like Netflix and others, and want the added attention. Scuttlebutt also suggests the company is hoping to use the announcement to pressure Roku into carrying HBO Max and ending their longstanding feud:

Either way, it's another step in the right direction toward no longer embracing antiquated concepts like release windows that no longer make sense in the broadband era. This being AT&T there's almost certainly going to be dumb caveats tied to these releases (ridiculous pricing probably being among them), but baby steps and all that.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 December 2020 @ 10:44am

Benton Study Again Shows How 'Open Access' Broadband Networks Can Drive Competition, Improve Service

from the build-it-and-they-will-come dept

In 2009, the FCC funded a Harvard study that concluded (pdf) that open access broadband networks (letting multiple ISPs come in and compete over a central, core network) resulted in lower broadband prices and better service in numerous locations worldwide. Of course when the FCC released its "National Broadband Plan" back in 2010, this realization (not to mention an honest accounting of the sector's limited competition) was nowhere to be found. Both parties ignored the data and instead doubled down on our existing national telecom policy plan: letting AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast do pretty much whatever they'd like.

Since then, "open access" has become somewhat of a dirty word in telecom, and even companies like Google Fiber -- which originally promised to adhere to the concept on its own network before quietly backpedaling -- are eager to pretend the idea doesn't exist. Why? Because having ISPs compete in layers over a centralized network may improve service, boost speeds, and reduce prices, but it would eat into monopoly revenues and you simply can't have that.

Of course that doesn't mean the model doesn't work. The original 2009 Harvard study looked at numerous global instances where it worked really well to disrupt the status quo. This week, the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society released a new report (pdf) finding that, once again, open access networks could be a productive path out of the current monopolistic logjam that is the broken U.S. broadband market. Specifically when they're used for so-called "middle mile" broadband networks, with the support of local communities:

"Experience has shown that state and local governments can experiment with and facilitate pragmatic solutions, such as the implementation of open-access, middle-mile networks that help ensure that everyone can use High-Performance Broadband—from building networks that offer affordable broadband service to ensuring that people, such as the newly unemployed, have the resources and skills to use broadband. Perhaps most importantly, state and local governments are nearby, not thousands of miles away, and they hear the voices of local communities."

Open access also works well in last-mile (closer to your home) solutions. The town of Ammon, Idaho showcases precisely why telecom giants despise this model: it brings additional competition to bear on captive markets. The town built a locally owned 30 mile fiber network, then invited ISPs to come in and compete under an open access model. Locals currently have four ISPs to chose from (with more presumably coming), and users can switch ISPs in a matter of seconds.

Open access broadband works. Data continually shows it, and such a model would come in handy during a, say, national health crisis that's busy showcasing how broadband is an essential lifeline to work, education, and survival. Starting small and building outward, government could work with localities and smaller, hungrier telecoms to expand this idea. But federal policymakers don't embrace such a model because, again, monopolies don't like competition. And when you're so politically powerful that you literally write federal and state telecom law with a relentless eye on hamstringing competition, you tend to get what you want.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 4 December 2020 @ 6:28am

Somehow, 5G Paranoia Is Only Getting Dumber

from the protect-me-from-myself dept

We've made it repeatedly clear that 5G now exists in some kind of alternate reality, untethered from this complicated mortal plane. One one side, you've got telecom giants, hardware vendors, and some politicians busy pretending that 5G is a revolutionary game changer, something you just sprinkle around to create near Utopian smart cities, smart vehicles, and miracle cancer cures. On the other side, you've got an international cabal of conspiracy theorists with a head full of pudding, who think 5G gives them COVID or is a diabolical deep state, mind-surveillance tool.

Of course 5G is neither of those things. It's a pretty modest evolution for existing wireless standards. One that's technically less dangerous than existing cellular networks, according to actual experts. And while it will offer faster speeds eventually, U.S. implementation of 5G is spotty and slow (in some cases slower than 4G), resulting in some fairly underwhelming first impressions. It's worth neither the hype nor the fear expended on it so far.

That's not stopping the 5G conspiracy theorists. Earlier this year, folks began burning down 5G cell towers and even hiding razor blades on utility polls in the mistaken belief that 5G spreads COVID, controls minds, or is part of a new diabolical surveillance effort by the "deep state." (If you think any of these claims are true, your head has been filled with gibberish by charlatans and you need a time out).

More recently, scammers selling micro faraday cages for your router have popped up to target the gullible, promising to block the harmful impact of 5G. The products themselves are hysterical in their innate stupidity, actively blocking all wireless signals emitting from wireless routers, at prices that make no coherent sense:

Judging from the overwhelmingly positive Amazon reviews, folks really don't seem to understand they'd be better off just, you know, not buying a wireless router and settling for a traditional (and much cheaper) fixed line router:

Again, 5G exists in this really kind of amazing alternative reality where it's either some amazing technological revolution that's going to change everything, or it's part of some diabolical plot to kill or monitor people who watch too much YouTube. The reality, that 5G is a semi-important but kind of dull evolution of existing technology, rarely makes an appearance.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 December 2020 @ 12:52pm

With Simington Vote, The GOP And Big Telecom Maneuver To Cripple The Biden FCC

from the nice-democracy-you've-got-there dept

We've noted at length how the GOP is rushing this week to appoint Trump ally Nathan Simington to the FCC. Simington, you'll recall, wrote Trump's ridiculous executive order targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the essential law that protects freedom of expression and innovation on the internet. The bumbling attack is necessary, you're told, to "fix" the social media "censorship" of Conservatives that doesn't actually exist. In other words, an unqualified appointment pushing an idiotic solution to a nonexistent problem that actually creates new, unnecessary headaches.

Simington you'll recall is slated to replace Mike O'Rielly, the Republican FCC Commissioner fired last August by Trump for some timid statements suggesting that Trump's plan wasn't a great idea (an argument supported by a massive bipartisan coalition of experts) and the FCC lacks the proper authority to enforce. O'Rielly's term is up at the end of the year, so the GOP is rushing to gain a quick Simington approval in both committee and the broader Senate. The committee vote sped through process this morning along party lines, with the GOP making nary a peep about Simington's lack of any real qualifications for the post.

Attention now shifts to a full Senate vote on Simington.

It gets lost in analysis, but the GOP is threatening Section 230 to bully social media giants into not policing disinformation and race-baiting bullshit, a cornerstone of modern party power. But given the gambit's unlikely success at the FCC in the wake of a Trump loss and Ajit Pai exit, the 230 stuff has almost become a distraction now, at least as it pertains to the FCC.

The goal for McConnell has shifted toward miring the Biden FCC in partisan gridlock to prevent it from being able to reverse unpopular Trump-era policies. Should Simington be approved, the agency would sit at two Republican and two Democratic Commissioners heading into the new year. I've spoken to several consumer groups and insiders familiar with the process who say this is the likely GOP strategy. But it was further highlighted in a letter by Grover Norquist (yes, he's still around) to Mitch McConnell.

Norquist's right wing 501(c)(4) organization, Americans for Taxpayer Reform (ATR), is a telecom-industry favorite, frequently used in policy debates to target things AT&T and Comcast don't like, from functional, adult oversight of the broadband sector, to diabolical plan by many communities to build better, faster broadband networks. Norquist's letter spells out to McConnell (who of course already knew this) that the Simington appointment would be a great way to thwart the Biden FCC from doing much of anything. Of course it's phrased in such a way to suggest Norquist and friends are only interested in genuine, good faith bipartisanship:

"Americans for Tax Reform urges you to confirm Nathan Simington to the FCC before the end of this year,” Americans for Taxpayer Reform president and conservative operative Grover Norquist wrote to McConnell. “Simington’s confirmation now would ensure a 2-2 FCC at the outset of a Biden Presidency. The FCC could continue to pursue important initiatives on a bipartisan basis, but it would be blocked from jamming through partisan initiatives—whether those involve profligate spending or an anti-growth agenda."

Of course if you've tracked the modern "own the libs" GOP for any more than thirty seconds, you already know bipartisan solutions aren't what they're interested in. Most tech policy subjects, like net neutrality or community broadband aren't partisan and have broad, bipartisan support among U.S. consumers. But the GOP, and countless industries like telecom, figured out years ago if you frame them as partisan anyway via disinformation and rightwing news outlets, you can easily drum up animosity among the misinformed, stall consensus, and thereby, derail meaningful reform or constraints on corporate power.

For telecom, Simington's appointment has several advantages. One, it appoints an unqualified sycophant to the FCC who'll spend much of his time fixated on "reining in big tech," while ignoring a parade of bad behavior by "big telecom." That's well in line for a telecom industry that has spent several years exploiting legitimate grievances about tech giants to its own tactical and regulatory advantage without most folks really understanding or noticing.

Two, the 2-2 split gives telecom and the GOP leverage to either block the appointment of a Biden FCC boss with any spine, or block the appointment of anybody whatsoever, effectively crippling the agency for at least two years. That means no reversal of the net neutrality repeal, no restoration of media consolidation rules, and probably not even any meaningful Covid policies (like barring usage caps or preventing ISPs from kicking struggling Americans offline) if they upset AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon in any meaningful way. That will create voter anger at Biden for "not doing more," a tactic you'll see played out across most regulatory agencies as the GOP shifts from mindless Trump sycophancy back to corporatist obstructionism.

Of course the GOP (and telecom) will argue that this most certainly isn't what's happening, as if the party that used dead and fake people to support shitty, unpopular FCC policies is above such tactics. But it's happening all the same. Like Americans for Tax Reform, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr is pushing the talking point (likely provided them in a .pdf by AT&T and USTelecom) that they're doing this to save the economy from harm (which is complete and total nonsense):

"FCC Republican Brendan Carr this week appeared on Fox Business and said, "It would be very valuable to get Simington across the finish line to help forestall what really would be billions of dollars worth of economic damage that I think a Democrat FCC would look to jam through from day one in January or February." (Despite Carr's claims, the Obama-era Title II regulation and net neutrality rules did not slow down investments in broadband networks, but major ISPs have cut back on network spending since the Pai-led FCC deregulated the industry and repealed the rules.)"

Whether it succeeds depends on GOP lawmakers suddenly growing a spine and voting against a terrible and unqualified Trump-chosen FCC Commissioner in the full Senate, or the Democrats finding creative and tactically-clever ways to kill or stall the vote, both of which would challenge recent historical precedent. "Crippling the nation's top telecom regulator with partisan gridlock during a public health crisis is bad" is messaging that pretty much writes itself, but most Democrats, seemingly often incapable of any creative and aggressive tactical responses to threats like this, have (with a few minor exceptions) been silent about the threat, assuming they see it coming at all.

But the ploy also hinges on the GOP being able to hold the Senate via the Georgia run off races, which is no sure bet. Either way, the modern GOP continues to show its primary party platform is to repeatedly proclaim that government can never, ever work, then set about immediately sabotaging any effort that might just test that theory. Given his very first fundraiser was held by a Comcast lobbyist, there's certainly no guarantee a Biden administration will be tough on telecom. But it's also pretty clear "big telecom" doesn't want to risk his administration appointing anybody that might just disrupt the broken status quo and reverse four straight years of anti-consumer Trump policy.

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Posted on Net Neutrality Special Edition - 3 December 2020 @ 6:22am

U.S. Broadband Speeds Jumped 90% in 2020. But No, It Had Nothing To Do With Killing Net Neutrality.

from the damned-lies-and-statistics dept

Last last week, a report out of the UK topped the trending news items at Hacker News. The report found that U.S. broadband speeds -- historically the poster child for mediocrity -- jumped roughly 90% during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The improvements weren't consistent geographically, and the report was quick to note that by and large, the U.S. remains relatively mediocre when it comes to broadband speeds (in large part due to limited competition):

"The US stills lags behind many European and developed nations worldwide, and its major cities also often lag behind their European equivalents. That said, there is cause for celebration in Dallas, Seattle and Austin, after our analysis has shown that these cities are performing extremely well relative to most European capital cities."

I spoke briefly to study author Thomas Buck after he reached out to note that folks were misinterpreting his study. Yes, the study shows U.S. broadband speeds jumped 90% in 2020. But Buck also notes this likely isn't because of policy decisions at the FCC, or because ISPs did much of anything differently. It's most likely because when consumers were forced to stay home to work and attend school during COVID lockdown, they were simply willing to pay more money for already available, faster speeds because they realized faster broadband was essential. Buck put it this way:

"... the findings are more likely to suggest increased consumer spending on high-speed plans for working from home than anything else...speed test data is fascinating and helpful, but using it as proof that net neutrality was bad is a giant stretch by any means. When looking at broadband data, I think it’s more important to discuss the dark spots (subscriber data, full capacity testing at scale, same-year fiber build data) than what we have (hundreds of thousands of speed tests, most of them showing results a fraction of what ISPs advertise)."

Yet a number of folks (including commenters at Hacker News) set to work trying to claim that this sudden boost in speed was courtesy of the FCC's decision to kill net neutrality and effectively self-immolate at telecom lobbyist behest. It's part of a fairly relentless attempt to proclaim that because killing net neutrality didn't immediately result in a rainbow-colored explosion, the repeal itself must have somehow been a good thing.

For example, this entire thread from a Federalist contributor takes the study and creates an elaborate alternate reality where critics of the net neutrality repeal must have been wrong, because (you guessed it) the internet didn't immediately come to a stop:

Yes, many activists and supporters of net neutrality were hyperbolic in trying to explain the very real, very negative impact the net neutrality repeal would have over the longer term. That doesn't mean it wasn't a terrible idea done in exclusive service to telecom monopolies.

Once again, killing net neutrality didn't just kill fairly modest net neutrality rules. It left the FCC incapable of holding giant ISPs accountable for fraud, anti-competitive behavior, predatory billing, bogus fees, privacy violations, and all the other symptoms of a broken, uncompetitive, and highly geographically monopolized U.S. telecom market. If you think that's a good thing (especially during a massive economic and public health crisis that has shown broadband to be an essential lifeline), you either don't understand how any of this works, or are being intentionally misleading.

Speaking of misleading, the study also appears to have popped up in FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr's goodbye letter to Ajit Pai (pdf), in which he attributes the speed jump to Pai's incredible leadership:

"With Internet speeds more than doubling under his leadership, America is now home to the strongest 5G platform in the world."

That is, if you're playing along at home, not true. 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly. Tens of millions more live under a broadband duopoly. Americans pay some of the highest prices in the world for what's routinely patchy service, mediocre speeds, and terrible customer service. And U.S. 5G speeds also provably and dramatically lag behind most other developed nations as well. There's a reason for this: it's called regulatory capture and mindless pandering to powerful telecom monopolies. Resulting in the FCC effectively dismantling itself because Comcast and AT&T told it to.

Again, if you genuinely think having chickenshit regulators commit seppuku because some widely despised telecom monopolists told them to is a good thing, you're either very confused as to how absolutely any of this works, or you're being intentionally misleading. Possibly both.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 December 2020 @ 10:50am

Comcast Increases Prices And Bogus Fees In The Middle Of A Pandemic

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

Last week, we noted how Comcast had expanded its bullshit broadband usage caps during a pandemic, insisting that the confusing, technically-unnecessary restrictions were being deployed in an alleged act of fairness. Of course as we noted, there's nothing "fair" about costly, punitive surcharges that serve absolutely no technical purpose, and exist exclusively so a monopoly can extract additional revenue from monopolized markets and captive subscribers with no alternative ISPs to choose from.

But Comcast's not just using usage caps to extract its pound of flesh. The company is raising prices across most of its services just before the new year, including significant price hikes for its TV services, broadband services, and hardware rental costs. Comcast will also be increasing a bevy of misleading fees, including another $4.50 per month for the company's "Broadcast TV Fee," which is simply some of the cost of programming broken out and hidden below the line, so that the company can falsely advertise a lower rate than you'll see on your final bill:

"Other changes for 2021 include a Broadcast TV Fee increase of up to $4.50 depending on the market; $3 increase for Internet-only service; and up to a $2.50 increase for TV boxes on the primary outlet, with a decrease of up to $2.45 for TV boxes on additional outlets," the Comcast spokesperson added. The fee for a customer's primary TV box is rising from $5 to $7.50, while the fee for additional boxes is being lowered from $9.95 to $7.50."

Comcast isn't engaged in any meaningful network upgrade projects to necessitate such notable price hikes, so this is simply a monopoly raising prices on its services, including an essential utility, during an historic health and economic crisis.

And of course Comcast can get away with this for two reasons. One, roughly 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly (usually Comcast), so there's no place for these customers to flee to. And despite a lot of chippy, feel good talk about the "digital divide" being his top priority, Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai is a feckless bureaucrat who has never had the backbone to stand up to this industry on any issue of real substance. Pai hasn't made so much as a peep as a major US broadband provider imposes major new additional costs in the middle of a pandemic crisis in which broadband in an essential lifeline.

You'd think the obvious one-two punch of limited competition and regulatory capture would drive US policy makers to action. Instead, most US policymakers spend their days either pretending there is no telecom monopolization problem, or engaging in performative histrionics over "censorship" by "big tech monopolies." Having just effectively convinced the Trump FCC to neuter itself at lobbyist behest, the US government is in a weaker position than ever when it comes to standing up to telecom monopolies or protecting already struggling Americans from a telecom monopolization problem we often refuse to even acknowledge, much less fix.

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 December 2020 @ 6:29am

Verizon, NYC Settle Lawsuit Over Verizon's Empty Fiber Promises

from the day-late-dollar-short dept

Like AT&T, Frontier, and other U.S. telcos, Verizon has a long, rich history of taking tax breaks, regulatory favors, and taxpayer subsidies in exchange for networks it only half deploys. That was the case in the 90s when Verizon took a several billion tax breaks from the state of Pennsylvania in exchange for networks it never deployed. It was also the case in New York City, where Verizon was sued by the city for promising to deploy fiber universally to all five boroughs, and then, well, not doing that.

In 2017, NYC sued Verizon, stating a 2014 deal to deploy fiber to the entire city fell well short of the full goal. As some local reporters had warned at the time (and were promptly ignored), the city's deal with Verizon contained all manner of loopholes allowing Verizon to wiggle over, under and around its obligations. And wiggle Verizon did; a 2015 city report found huge gaps in deployment coverage -- particularly in many of the less affluent, outer city boroughs.

Last week during the holiday bustle the city quietly announced it had settled its lawsuit with Verizon. Under the confidential settlement, the city claims Verizon will expand fiber deployment to an additional 500,000 low income homes across the city:

"This settlement will make sure that Verizon builds out its fiber footprint more equitably throughout New York City — especially in low-income communities that have historically been underserved by internet service providers,” said DoITT Commissioner and Citywide CIO Jessica Tisch. “This agreement attacks that unfair imbalance, and recognizes that high-quality internet is a necessity, not a luxury."

The problem, as usual, will be in the follow up. The original lawsuit (pdf) stated that Verizon had deployed fiber to 2.2 million out of the city's 3.3 million residences with FiOS, despite the original 2008 agreement with the city calling for "100%" FiOS availability. An additional 500,000 deployed homes sounds good, especially during a pandemic, but it's still a far cry from the company's original promise to the city. The city likely found the lawsuit to be too costly or unwinnable, and with so much else going on, agreed to settle and at least get something for its efforts.

Granted this isn't just some one-off problem. Telecom giants are so politically powerful (on both the state and federal level) that genuine accountability for failed promises is extremely hard to come by. One simply needs to look at the long list of cities and states that have accused the company of taking subsidies and tax breaks then failing to evenly deploy fiber, whether it's Philadelphia or a huge swath of New Jersey. And again, you'll find much the same story having played out with telco giants like AT&T and Frontier Communications from Mississippi to West Virginia.

As we've noted for a long time, policymakers act as if U.S. broadband mediocrity is just something that happens or is due to America just being really, really big. In reality, the reason U.S. broadband is patchy, expensive, with atrocious customer service? Plain old state and federal corruption we often refuse to even acknowledge, much less do anything about.

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Posted on Techdirt - 30 November 2020 @ 1:43pm

Ajit Pai, Easily The Most Controversial FCC Boss In History, Will Step Down January 20

from the shit-eating-grin dept

While many GOP members continue to happily undermine democracy by fueling Trump's baseless electoral fraud claims, FCC boss Ajit Pai won't be coming along for the ride. In a statement, Pai confirmed that, as is custom, he'll be stepping down as agency head on January 20 as the Biden administration takes over. Historically, the party that controls the White House controls both a 3-2 commissioner majority, and the top spot at the agency.

Pai's tenure wasn't entirely devoid of value. The agency boss did oversee massive and noncontroversial wireless spectrum auction efforts that will deliver troves of valuable spectrum to market, and spearheaded the creation of the nation's first suicide prevention hotline (988).

But by and large Pai's tenure was comprised of a parade of industry-cozy policies, bad data, hubris, and in many instances, outright lies.

The shining example of this was Pai's net neutrality repeal, which not only killed net neutrality rules, but the agency's ability to hold telecom giants accountable for much of anything. The repeal took the consumer protection authority of an agency crafted to police telecom, and shoveled it to the FTC -- which lacks the resources or authority to do the job (which is precisely why the industry wanted this to happen).

To force this hugely unpopular proposal through, Pai lied repeatedly about net neutrality's impact, claiming the modest rules (by international standards) had demolished telecom sector investment. Once repealed, Pai lied just as often about how the repeal had resulted in a huge spike in investment (it hadn't). When reporters contacted Pai's FCC to fact check the agency's dodgy numbers, they were literally directed to telecom lobbyists who'd provided the false data. Reporters who asked tough questions were effectively blacklisted during Pai's tenure.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Pai's office blocked law enforcement inquiries into the broadband industry (and Trumpland's) use of fake and dead people to provide bogus public support for unpopular policies. And when genuine, pissed off, John Oliver viewers wrote to the FCC to complain swamping the FCC website, FOIA data revealed that Pai's office repeatedly lied and claimed it had been the victim of a DDOS attack. The entire affair culminated in Pai dancing with a pizzagate conspiracy theorist in a video the internet would like to forget.

As such Pai's tenure wasn't just pockmarked by bad data and bad policy, it was, as is custom for the Trump era, a shining example of trolling as a government policy, where policymakers take an active enjoyment in being insufferable and hostile. Hostile to the press. Hostile to the public. Hostile to experts and expert data, especially if those experts question entrenched industry ideology.

Pai and friends spent years proclaiming that some modest net neutrality rules were an utterly vile example of "government run amok." Pai's FCC then immediately pivoted on a dime and supported Trump's utterly idiotic plan to have the FCC regulate social media, despite having no authority in that arena. From beginning to end, the entire saga was a pile of lies, nonsense, and hypocrisy. It was not only bad and unpopular policy, at every turn it was done so in a way that poured lemon juice in the wound of those genuinely interested in consumer welfare and data-based decision making.

Of course there are numerous other Pai-era efforts that were equally contemptible. Again using bunk data, Pai orchestrated a massive rollback of decades-old media consolidation rules designed to protect small and mid-sized businesses from giant media (and telecom) monopolies. He also spent years targeting Lifeline, a Reagan-era effort that provides a measly $9.25 to low-income homes to be used on phone, broadband or wireless service. And that's when Pai wasn't busy rubber stamping job and competition killing mergers or trying to ban states from being able to protect consumers in the wake of federal apathy.

Of course in Pai's head, he remains convinced he did wonders for the American consumer:

"I’m proud of the reforms we have instituted to make the agency more accountable to the American people."

Except with a few exceptions (mostly related to noncontroversial spectrum policy), it's hard to see Pai's tenure at the agency as little more than a giant middle finger to accountability and the American public. He effectively neutered the agency's consumer protection authority at lobbyist behest, utterly fabricated justifying data, then turned around and undermined the only chance the public had to have its voice heard. All right before the U.S. was struck by an historic public and human health crisis revealing broadband's essential role as a connective utility.

This being the post-truth era, entrenched telecom monopolies and their various policy tendrils will inevitably applaud Pai's tenure as the pinnacle of innovation and regulatory "reform." But history won't be kind to a man who rubber stamped every fleeting whim of U.S. telecom monopolies, with a disdain for real world data unmatched in agency history (though FCC boss turned top cable lobbyist Michael Powell occasionally got close). If good faith, data-driven policy making is the ideal, Ajit Pai's tenure was the exact opposite of that.

Most of Pai's policies will, in time, be reversed. Though it won't be immediate. Pai's announcement today is likely intended to light a fire under the appointment of Trump ally Nathan Simington. With that creating a 2-2 partisan Commissioner tie, the GOP will likely work hard to block the appointment of a new Democratic Commissioner and boss, potentially gridlocking the FCC for years to come, preventing the reversal of unpopular Trump-era policies. As such, the Georgia run off elections will literally dictate whether the FCC can actually do its job. Ain't "democracy" grand?

Pai himself will likely now either jump to a telecom-backed think tank (where he'll be handsomely rewarded for his slavish devotion to unpopular telecom monopolies and fabricated data), or pursue post-FCC political ambitions, where he'll need to be hopeful that angry Millennial voters have a very short memory.

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Posted on Techdirt - 30 November 2020 @ 6:29am

More Subsidies Alone Won't Fix What Ails U.S. Broadband

from the time-is-a-circle dept

For decades, U.S. taxpayers have thrown countless subsidies, tax breaks, and other perks at entrenched broadband monopolies, hoping that this time we'd finally put that pesky "digital divide" to bed. And while there certainly are countless communities that have been helped by taxpayer-funded projects, there are just as many examples where this money was effectively wasted by unaccountable telecom monopolies, which often receive millions to billions in handouts in exchange for fiber networks that are routinely only half-deployed.

The reason for our failure should be fairly obvious by now. More often than not, telecom giants face little real scrutiny for their subsidy spending decisions by federal or state lawmakers, most of which are in these monopolies' back pockets. The end result: state and federal lawmakers and regulators that tend to downplay the scope of U.S. telecom market failure, refuse to hold telecom monopolies accountable, and refuse to acknowledge that boring, ordinary corruption is truly why, decades in, American broadband is some of the slowest, patchiest, and most expensive in the world.

Under the Trump administration, this corruption problem was personified to almost comedic effect, with federal regulators literally often indistinguishable from telecom lobbyists. While it shouldn't be hard for a Biden administration to outperform the mindless Comcast, AT&T and Verizon ass kissing that was Trumpism, whether the administration will have the courage to stand up to U.S. telecom monopolies remains to be seen. What is clear is that the incoming administration will be making throwing more subsides at the industry one of its highest priorities:

"Their first major opportunity could come as part of a new coronavirus stimulus package, a top priority for Biden as he prepares to enter the White House in January. The president-elect previously endorsed a House-passed relief bill that includes $4 billion in emergency funds to help low-income Americans stay online in a pandemic that has left tens of millions out of work and strapped for cash. Biden also reaffirmed his commitment to universal broadband on Tuesday as part of a broader preview of his economic-recovery agenda."

To be clear, including some broadband help that actually reaches end users would be a good thing. And subsidies by and of themselves aren't necessarily bad. But while the original CARES Act may have been well-intentioned, it included some unrealistic timelines that forced many areas to either rush to spend taxpayer money in haphazard ways, or return it to the government. A follow up proposal that brings some relief to Americans and smaller broadband providers would be welcome. COVID-19 has, after all, brought the issue of broadband into stark relief to those (for whatever reason) who hadn't yet realized that the technology is essential, and our efforts so far have been decidedly half-assed:

"Students can’t go to school without it. Patients can’t engage in telehealth without it. Governments can’t reach all their citizens with the services people expect unless there is access to it,” said Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, in an interview. “If there is a silver lining in 2020, it is that all of this has become clear to people. The problem was here before; it just wasn’t as understood as it is now."

Again though, more subsidies doesn't do a whole lot if you're not effectively tracking where broadband is or isn't available, or where subsidies are spent. We've noted more times than we can count that the FCC's broadband maps are (often by industry lobbying design), effectively useless for actually measuring U.S. broadband; more subsidies can't fix a problem if you don't know what the problem is.

More subsidies don't really address the fact that more than half of Congress is literally a rubber stamp to every fleeting whim of AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Charter, and T-Mobile. Nor can it fix the fact that in many states, corruption is so rampant that telecom giants literally and routinely write anti-competitive telecom law, or state ordinances that hamstring communities' right to make local telecom infrastructure decisions for itself.

More subsidies can't fix the Trump FCC's net neutrality repeal, which effectively neutered the agency, making it harder than ever for it to hold incumbent telecom monopolies accountable for much of anything. In fact, if Congress rushes to confirm Nathan Simington, then blocks the appointment of a Democratic Commissioner, the FCC could remain gridlocked at 2-2, and effectively impotent for at least two years. More subsidies can't fix that.

More subsidies don't address the fact we routinely, repeatedly, rubber stamp competition and job killing megamergers that all but ensure Americans continue to pay some of the highest-prices in the world, something that was already a problem before a massive economic and public health crisis. More subsides don't fix our broken antitrust enforcement mechanism that whistles while looking the other direction as merger after merger is gleefully approved, and the resulting domination crushes innovative smaller companies.

Telecom giants have a complete and total stranglehold over telecom policy making on the state and federal level. Yet year after year, we refuse to address or tackle this corruption, let monopolies dictate the lion's share of U.S. telecom policy, and then stand around with an idiotic look on our faces wondering why the U.S. remains a broadband backwater after throwing so much damn money at the problem.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 25 November 2020 @ 6:30am

Ajit Pai's FCC Does Something Good, Frees Wireless Spectrum The Auto Industry Had Done Little With

from the stopped-clocks,-twice-a-day dept

While we've had no shortage of criticism for Ajit Pai's facts-optional, relentless ass kissing of entrenched telecom monopolies, or his wholesale demolition of U.S. consumer protection, his agency has done a good job bringing more wireless spectrum to market. Doing so wasn't particularly controversial, since everybody, consumers to big carriers alike, benefit from having access to more spectrum -- especially valuable middleband spectrum of great use in 5G deployments. Still, it's complicated and warrants kudos in an era when government often can't tie its own shoes correctly.

Last week, the FCC quietly voted unanimously to add 45MHz of spectrum to Wi-Fi to public access, taking it away from an auto industry public safety initiative that failed to materialize over the last 20 years. Spectrum in the 5.850GHz to 5.925GHz range for several decades had been set aside for something called Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications system that was supposed to warn drivers of traffic dangers. But decades in, 99.9943% of cars still don't have the technology, and many experts had argued this spectrum was better used elsewhere.

Because this spectrum aids his industry BFFs, Pai was keen on moving forward in ensuring this spectrum could be put to better use. Both consumer groups and telecom policy and lobbying groups agreed with the decision, which hasn't happened all that often in the last four years. Public Knowledge counsel Harold Feld, who probably knows more about U.S. spectrum policy than anybody alive, had this to say of the move:

"The addition of 45 MHz of unlicensed spectrum will create a WiFi channel capable of supporting WiFi 6. This will enable wireless providers to dramatically increase the speed and reliability of rural broadband. It will dramatically increase the power of public hotspots and mobile hotspots on which many low-income families rely for access to school and work during the pandemic. Because this relies on already existing technology, the expansion and change to WiFi 6 can happen relatively quickly through software upgrades once the rules become effective."

DSRC services now have to vacate the lower 45MHz within one year. The FCC also set aside around 30MHz for a newer vehicle safety technology dubbed Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X), which the FCC claims will serve the same function using less overall precious spectrum.

The decision wasn't entirely without controversy. The Department of Transit wasn't thrilled, arguing that DSRC tech still could have been useful, that 30 MHz wasn't enough for C-V2X to work ("there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that 30 MHz will suffice to support a safety-driven ecosystem like the one in which DOT and other stakeholders have invested."). The auto industry (which had been accused of "spectrum squatting") understandably opposed the ruling via its various policy organizations. Other critics like Senator Maria Cantwell argued the FCC had been told to pause all controversial decisions during the transition, which is custom.

Still, you'd be hard pressed to find an issue where this FCC and consumer groups align, so progress is progress, even if not everybody's happy with the outcome. Of course, this doesn't make up for Pai's long history of demolishing U.S. consumer protection on behalf of telecom monopolies in fits of lies and rank hypocrisy, but it's still nice to see (most) folks agree on one of his last major decisions as agency boss.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 November 2020 @ 6:34am

Comcast Expands Its Bullshit Usage Caps...In The Middle Of A Pandemic

from the read-the-room dept

Contrary to what some try to claim, broadband usage caps have always been bullshit. They serve absolutely no technical function, do not help manage congestion, and exist exclusively to nickel-and-dime captive customers in monopolized U.S. markets. Worse, they can be used by incumbent ISPs anticompetitively to hamstring competitors in the streaming video and other markets.

Comcast, for years, has been slowly expanding these unnecessary and costly restrictions in line with the frog in the boiling pot fable (you're the frog, unless that wasn't clear). The only area the company hadn't yet deployed the restrictions was in the northeast, largely due to the added competition Comcast sees in the area from uncapped Verizon FiOS. Apparently Comcast has gotten tired of waiting, so they've announced that they've implemented a new 1.2 terabyte cap across the Northeast, which will be fully implemented by March:

"...effective March 1st, residential customers will begin facing overlimit fees for exceeding their data allowance at a rate of $10 for each 50 GB of excess usage, up to a maximum of $100 a month. Customers will not be credited for unused data, cannot rollover unused data, or be charged less than $10 in overlimit fees, regardless if one used 1 MB or 49 GB over the 1.2 TB allowance.

Customers approaching their usage limit will receive email, text messages, and Xfinity X1 on-screen notifications upon reaching 75% (email only), 90%, and 100% of 1.2 TB of data usage. Overlimit fees that subsequently start accumulating will be noted in email and X1 on-screen notifications for each additional 50 GB of usage over 1.2 TB, up to the maximum overage charge of $100."

Folks will quickly (as usual) get caught up in a discussion about how 1 terabyte a month is "fair," ignoring, again, that these restrictions serve no purpose outside of jacking up U.S. broadband bills, which, even under flat-rate pricing, are some of the most expensive in the developed world thanks to monopolization and corrupt state and federal regulators. The industry doesn't even try to pretend that such restrictions "help manage congestion" (they do not). Nor do they help manage "heavy users," which can already be shoved toward more expensive business-class tiers when needed.

It's not a great look for Comcast during a pandemic when broadband is essential and countless Americans are already struggling to pay their bills. Comcast must have done the calculus and figured the outrage will likely be muted enough to prevent any meaningful backlash. After all, unless you live in a Verizon FiOS market in the Northeast, most of these users don't have any competing ISPs to flock to. And historically, neither party has much cared that entrenched monopolies routinely rip off American consumers with costly and confusing restrictions that serve no purpose outside of jacking up already high monthly bills.

With neither competition nor adult regulatory oversight to keep Comcast in check, who is going to do anything about it?

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Posted on Techdirt - 23 November 2020 @ 6:30am

Research Shows iOS Covid Apps Are A Privacy Mess

from the with-friends-like-these dept

Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, recently released analysis he did into 493 COVID-19 related iOS apps across dozens of countries. The results are...not great, and highlight how such apps routinely hoover up far more data than they need to, including unneeded access to cameras and microphones, your photo gallery, your contacts, and far more location data than is needed. Much of this data then winds up in the adtech ecosystem for profit, where it winds up in the hands of third parties.

Only 47 of the apps used Google and Apple's more privacy-friendly exposure-notification system, resulting in a number of folks building their own apps with substandard (in some cases borderline nonexistent) privacy standards. Six out of seven COVID iOS apps worldwide are allowed to request any permissions they'd like. 43 percent of all apps were found to be tracking user location at all times. 44% requested access to the users' camera, 22 percent asked for access to users' smartphone mic, 32 percent asked for access to users' photos, and 11 percent asked for full access to user contact lists.

Albright told Ars Technica that while many of these app makers may be well intentioned, they're often working at cross purposes, while hoovering up far more data than they actually need. Data that in many instances is then being sold to unknown third parties:

"It's hard to justify why a lot of these apps would need your constant location, your microphone, your photo library," Albright says. He warns that, even for COVID-19-tracking apps built by universities or government agencies—often at the local level—that introduces the risk that private data, sometimes linked with health information, could end up out of users' control. "We have a bunch of different, smaller public entities that are more or less developing their own apps, sometimes with third parties. And we don't know where the data's going."

Albright's study focused on iOS, while other studies focused on Android and showed the same problem(s). Albright notes that he didn't find any nefarious activity himself, but he also made it pretty clear than once this data starts circulating in the largely unaccountable adtech universe, it's possible that sensitive data (including your COVID status) could be revealed to third parties:

"some COVID-19 apps he analyzed went beyond direct requests for permission to monitor the user's location to include advertising analytics, too: while Albright didn't find any advertising-focused analytic tools built into exposure-notification or contact-tracing apps, he found that, among apps he classifies as "information and updates," three used Google's ad network and two used Facebook Audience Network, and many others integrated software development kits for analytics tools including Branch, Adobe Auditude, and Airship. Albright warns that any of those tracking tools could potentially reveal users' personal information to third-party advertisers, including potentially even users' COVID-19 status."

That's not to say many of these apps aren't doing good things, but they're doing them so in a way that potentially puts consumer privacy at risk, a particular problem when you can't opt out of using it due to work or school requirements. That's not particularly surprising here in the States, where we can't even pass a baseline privacy law for the internet era, resulting in no real concrete guidance from the top down. The end result is, well, precisely what you'd expect.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 November 2020 @ 6:32am

More Evidence FCC Claims That Killing Net Neutrality Would Boost Broadband Investment Were Bullshit

from the someday-we-might-learn-something dept

Since the very beginning of the net neutrality debate, ISPs have repeatedly proclaimed that net neutrality rules (read: stopgap rules crafted in the absence of competition to stop giant monopolies from abusing their power) utterly demolished broadband sector investment. It was a primary talking point during the battle over the 2010 rules, and was foundational in the Ajit Pai FCC's arguments justifying their hugely unpopular and fraud prone repeal.

Time after time after time, big ISPs and the politicians paid to love them insisted that the rules had crushed sector investment, and repealing them would result in a massive spike in broadband investment. It was a line repeated again by Pai during an FCC oversight hearing in 2018 (for those interested he wasn't under oath, which applies only to Judiciary hearings):

"Under the heavy-handed regulations adopted by the prior Commission in 2015, network investment declined for two straight years, the first time that had happened outside of a recession in the broadband era...we now have a regulatory framework in place that is encouraging the private sector to make the investments necessary to bring better, faster, and cheaper broadband to more Americans."

The problem: a mountain of data continues to make it extremely clear that none of this was ever true.

Numerous studies, earnings reports, and CEO statements had already demolished the claim, yet like a relentless zombie, it simply refuses to die. To this day it remains a core talking point of the outgoing Ajit Pai FCC, most telecom lobbyists, and the absolute army of think tankers, consultants, and academics employed by incumbent telecom giants to pretend the U.S. broadband market is healthy and competitive.

This week, S&P Global took a closer look at U.S. network investment numbers and found, once again, that claims that repealing network neutrality boosted investment to be bullshit. In fact, the firm found that annual investment in fixed U.S. broadband networks is poised to have dropped 7 percent since 2016:

Granted the telecom sector has been in the U.S. government's driver's seat under the Trump administration. In just four short years the industry successfully had broadband privacy rules killed (thanks to GOP Senators), net neutrality rules killed, FCC authority over telecom monopolies kneecapped, and the sector received billions in tax breaks in exchange for doing absolutely nothing. The telecom sector even managed to convince most of DC that "big tech" monopolies are the only monopolies in tech worth worrying about. All in all, a pretty good four years for one of the least liked, least competitive sectors in U.S. industry.

All of this industry ass kissing would, to hear industry and loyal lawmakers tell it, boost network investment, increase employment, and drive more innovation and competition to market. None of that happened. Why? Because when you eliminate all meaningful oversight from a broken, monopolized sector, the companies involved simply double down on the same bad behaviors (layoffs, price hikes, less investment in infrastructure and customer support). Yet for whatever reason, we cling desperately to "free market" narratives that don't apply to a broken sector that sees little real competition and has an unrelenting political stranglehold on both state and federal leaders. No competition and no oversight means more of the same problems.

Of course the sagging investment, eroded regulatory authority, and tens of thousands of layoffs come just as a raging pandemic showcases how broadband (and objective federal leadership on broadband) is more essential than ever. And cocksure policy pundits or campaign-contribution-slathered lawmakers won't learn much of anything from the experience, because there will be absolutely no penalty whatsoever for pushing bullshit narratives or relentlessly kissing the ass of a broken, monopolized market.

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