Last week, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler — who has deep roots in the cable TV and wireless phone industries — proposed a surprise: broadband carriers, both wired and wireless, should be regulated as common carriers under title 2 of the Telecommunications Act so that they provide uniform broadband service to all consumers. In addition, the FCC proposed that the definition of broadband should be upgraded to 25 Mbps. (It has been 4 Mbps.) Consumers will benefit from these actions.
As a compensatory gift to the cable TV companies, Mr. Wheeler proposes that there should be no last mile (the distribution cable from the carrier’s central office to the customer premise) unbundling. (The phone companies were ordered years ago to unbundle their last mile — that’s what allows companies such as DSL Extreme to offer low cost DSL service over the local carrier’s twisted pair.) AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast spend tons of money on lobbyists. They’ll expect to receive favors from Congress in return for their largesse, so Mr. Wheeler’s proposal will be in for rough sledding when it hits Congress.
If you read my article about Tom Wheeler last year, you know that I disapprove of his appointment to the chairmanship of the FCC. Why? He’s a long-time lobbyist for both the cellular phone and cable TV industries. The fox is now guarding the hen house.
The FCC can reclassify Internet service as a telecommunications service and adopt network neutrality rules under Title II of the Telecommunications Act – rules that are unencumbered by the restrictions imposed by Section 706. To ensure that reclassification does not result in onerous regulation, the FCC should immediately forbear from applying those Title II provisions that are not necessary to protect consumers.
The sky hasn’t fallen with today’s FCC announcements. Let’s not panic. But if we don’t start getting serious about this, as a public, we will lose the most important medium in human history. That would be worse than tragic.
Susan Crawford, in a ten-minute YouTube video interview, states that she’s focusing on U.S. mayors as the people best positioned to break wired broadband monopolies. She joked that she’s given up on the U.S. Federal government doing anything to roll out world-class high-speed Internet throughout the nation.
Last month Ms. Crawford wrote an opinion column for The Boston Globe that urged mayors to take their cities’ broadband infrastructure seriously. Most cities do great jobs with supplying safe water, trash pickup, and sewage disposal systems. Now they just need to roll out fiber-based broadband Internet access to their residents.
President Obama has nominated Tom Wheeler, another in a long line of political hacks at the FCC, for the FCC chair. This choice receives mixed reviews from observers: Obama’s new FCC chairman isn’t a reflexive shill for carriers, but he’s still a bad pick. His close ties to the cable TV and mobile phone industries worry me. Wheeler is former head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the mobile wireless trade group CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association). Translation: he lobbied for these industries. He’s also a major Obama campaign fund raiser. (His predecessor, Julius Genachowski, was an Obama election campaign committee official.) Nothing new here — it merely continues a long tradition of patronage at the FCC.
Remember Obama’s “no lobbyists in my administration” pledge?
In my opinion, Mr. Wheeler is way too closely connected to industries that fall under the FCC’s oversight. You can bet that his cable TV and cellular provider buddies hope that Congress approves his nomination as FCC Chairman. It’s ironic that the two segments of the American electronic communications market that are infamous for gouging the consumer are the industries for which he’s been a champion. If he runs the FCC, don’t expect change in either of these cozy shared marketplaces. Both industries are fat and happy, with limited competition. In fact, expect legislation to prevent municipalities and Google Fiber et al from competing with the incumbents.
Now, more than ever, the FCC Chairman should be independent of industry associations. Tim Wu, respected telecommunications observer, writing in The New Yorker, described The Coming War Over Net Neutrality. uncoveror comments,
The FCC, by getting in bed with the industries it is supposed to regulate, has undermined its very reason to exist. They are a corrupt agency for sale to the highest bidder.
I hope that Wheeler’s appointment is bounced by Congress and Mr. Obama instead nominates Susan Crawford, who doesn’t seem to be in any industry’s pocket. I almost forgot: she didn’t raise election funds for Mr. Obama. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
Video clip: former FCC board member Nicholas Johnson calls Wheeler’s nomination “somewhere between bizarre and outrageous”.
The rollout of broadband Internet access in the United States has degenerated into a partisan battle between lawyers, MBAs, and other unqualified parties while engineers who actually understand the technologies were busy doing other things. This Forbes article (How the FCC sees Broadband’s 95% Success as 100% Failure), together with its comments, summarizes the battle.
The availability of broadband to the last 10 million or so Americans is at issue. Here’s the opinion of senior RF design engineer Rich Abrahams:
Last time investigated, this was still a free country so we all choose where we live! Rural living is fine. However you have to put up with the good and the bad based on this choice.
The only solution that makes any economic sense is to connect rural folks via satellite-based internet. However I’ll be damned if I’ll agree to subsidize this. Let them pay the going price based on their choice of living venue.
As we’ve often discussed, spectrum is finite and therefore a precious resource to be managed and used sparingly. So far we’ve failed dismally at getting this across! Eventually we’ll have to prioritize its use.
95% coverage is great – you’ll never get to 100%
Rich’s opinion seems reasonable to me, yet it conflicts with the Telecommunications Act of 1996:
SEC. 706. ADVANCED TELECOMMUNICATIONS INCENTIVES.
(a) In General: The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans . . .
Leaving aside the vague wording in the Act (What does “reasonable and timely” mean? What does “advanced telecommunications capability” mean — 128kbps, 6Mbps, or 1Gbps?), running a fiber-optic cable to each farmhouse in rural America will be expensive — a farmer probably couldn’t afford to pay for the installation himself. Do we want to follow the American telephone model established in 1913 in which businesses and urban residential subscribers subsidize rural residential subscribers?
For consumers, Mr. Genachowski’s 4-year reign has been both good (opposed AT&T / T-Mobile “merger”) and bad (continued growth of de facto broadband shared monopoly). The FCC has been a political playground for decades: Genachowski was a Harvard Law buddy of Mr. Obama.
Like most federal agencies, the FCC provides a cushy resting-place for ambitious lawyers who change chairs every time the music stops. Inevitably, at least one of those chairs resides within an enterprise that the agency regulates.
Lawyers have run the show at the FCC for too long.
I’d like to see an engineer appointed FCC Chairman. Absent that pipe-dream, I’d like to see Susan Crawford appointed Chairwoman. I like her motives, but I fear that, like most lawyers, she thinks that every problem can be fixed with a new law.
While listening to podcasts, I came upon Susan Crawford’s argument that in the United States, access to the Internet has been managed to benefit large corporations, and not for the benefit of the public. She points out that retail communication costs are rising in the United States, while they’re falling in most other countries. Why? Lack of competition. She recently appeared on Bill Moyers’ PBS TV show with Susan Crawford. She’s studied and documented the parceling of the American broadband market by the usual suspects: AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time-Warner, et al.
Both the telephony and cable-TV industries require very large capital investments, so the entry fee is high, effectively keeping newcomers out of their markets. Ms. Crawford has discovered that the incumbent cable-TV and telephone companies have consolidated and co-operated so that each broadband vendor enjoys a monopoly or at worst a shared monopoly.
Despite plummeting computing and data transport costs, average monthly AT&T bills have risen(!). This makes no sense. One reason for this absurdity? Itemized bills with numerous indecipherable items; the amount of each creeps upward imperceptibly a few times each year. Another reason: bloated management filled with MBAs, lawyers, and “managers” who don’t know Ohm’s Law. It’s surprising that this gouging has taken place under the watchful eyes of fifty state Public Utilities Commissions and the Federal Communications Commission. Mr. Johnston explains that the common carriers’ lobbyists have helped shape regulations to favor the regulated companies.
I’d like to learn what happened to the billions of dollars that were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 Broadband Initiative. All that I can find is reports of meetings filled with pontificating windbags. When I learned that Miami’s WLRN-FM planned to air an interview with Michael Grunwald, the author of a new book titled THE NEW NEW DEAL about the 2009 Stimulus, I listened. The interview aired on Monday 1 October’s Topical Currents show and was conducted by Ariel Gonzalez. I was certain that they’d cover the 2009 Broadband Initiative. They didn’t.
I don’t know where online to learn what happened to the 2009 Broadband Initiative money. Can you help me, please?
Instead what they did was congratulate each other on how liberal each is, what an omniscient President Mr. Obama is, what a surprisingly astute manager Vice President Joe Biden is, and how few dollars were wasted. It was, on a public radio station that’s supported in part by taxpayer dollars, an hour-long advertisement for Democrats by a Democrat interviewer of a Democrat author about a dubious Democrat expenditure of taxpayer dollars. It was a new low-point for WLRN-FM.
Oct 21, 2012: I found a page on NTIA’s website with links to a description.of the disbursement of funds to each state. Florida has received almost 9 million dollars for studies and improvement of bandwidth to public libraries. To a cynic, this sounds like make-work by a bloated government that just keeps growing larger and less effective.
It’s difficult to discern the exact total dollar amount designated for Florida, since some grant recipients span multiple states. Most of the grant descriptions sound worthwhile. Have any of their plans become reality? I’ll need to drill down into each grant recipient, I guess.
Some states report that they’ve created new offices with their grants. Read: more government jobs. Some of the project descriptions for many states sound like they were written with the assistance of a B.S. generator. This paragraph appears in many states’ reports:
This project was originally funded for broadband planning activities and two years of data collection. In September of 2010, this project was amended to extend data collection activities for an additional three years and to identify and implement best practices.
Government bloats quickly, and almost never thins down.
Cisco’s firmware update removes your administrator access to your own router!
An accountant once advised me, “always ask for more than you reasonably expect to receive”. Software and web-based service companies have taken this advice to its limit: they don’t ask; they just take. Facebook tramples on users’ privacy, and when they’re caught, they apologize and retreat until the heat goes away. We reluctantly expect this bad behavior from service vendors.
The newest twist on the abuse-of-privacy theme is Cisco’s recent update of its Linksys brand EA3500 and EA4500 routers. The routers shipped with firmware that, when connected to the Internet, connects to Cisco, without notice to the routers’ owners, and downloads updates from Cisco. The update then removes administrator access rights to the router, adds remote administrator capability <yikes!> and, when the router owner attempts to login as admin to his own router, he’s redirected to a Terms Of Service (TOS) page to which he’s required to agree. Buried in the terms is an agreement to allow Cisco to collect whatever information they wish to. In a small network, this is the firewall between your computers and the hordes waiting outside the gates. You’ve agreed to install spyware on this critical component.
At one time both Cisco and Linksys were honorable companies. Cisco built a good reputation in the enterprise marketplace; Linksys did the same in the small business and home office (SOHO) marketplace. Linksys was founded by a husband and wife team who originally built small boxes that linked computers and peripherals together. Linksys produced the classic WRT54G router, which I like. When they looked for a corporate buyer, they wisely chose Cisco; they insisted that Cisco retain the Linksys name.
With this stupid firmware update, Cisco has seriously damaged the good reputations of both brand names. Cisco issued two apologies and rolled back the update. Not good enough. To ensure that it doesn’t happen again, heads should roll.
Read Cisco’s “apology”. It doesn’t apologize for bad intent; it apologizes for failure to clearly define its (bad) intent. That’s no apology. I repeat: heads — upper managers’ heads — should roll.
Does this sound too harsh? No, it’s necessary. Look at the stupid way that Yahoo! stored clear-text passwords on its servers. Yahoo! replaced its CEO (again).
The Internet knits today’s society together, yet most of us aren’t familiar with exactly what comprises “The Cloud”. Last month, NPR’s Terry Gross interviewed Andrew Blum, the author of a new book, Tubes, A Journey to the Center of the Internet. The book explores the hardware infrastructure that instantly transports data across the globe. Ms. Gross asks the questions that any layperson would ask, and the author replies with amusing stories of his adventures inside the Internet’s data centers, points of presence, repeater huts, and cross-connect centers.
I found Mr. Blum’s descriptions to be easy to understand. I’ve worked inside similar facilities and don’t think that I could describe their components so clearly.
Much of the Internet is built atop older telephone and telegraph infrastructure. (Likewise, American highways are built atop the trails that were blazed by Indians a thousand years ago.) Fiberoptic cable often shares the conduit, cable trays, and trenches where 100-year old lead-sheathed oil-impregnated paper-insulated copper cable still resides.
Click here to read the brief article and/or listen to the 25 minute interview.
Last week I watched a 2 year old re-run of Undercover Boss. It followed 58 year old Mike White, DirecTV’s new CEO as he posed as a trainee at several sites within DirecTV’s 23,000 employee organization. Mike learned how to crawl through attics and perform field service, materials warehousing, new customer installs, and customer call handling.
DirecTV has taken a technology that was exotic, expensive, and demanded the attention of highly-skilled engineers, and turned it into a profitable, affordable commodity. I’m impressed. (Their fleet of geostationary satellites orbit 22,000 miles from the Earth, yet most customers’ dishes are tiny.)
Their front-line personnel are conscientious.
Something’s wrong with their technician support helpline: an installer waited on hold for 21 minutes while she, the customer, and Mike waited for someone at DirecTV to answer the phone.
Something’s wrong with their materials logistics: A field service technician wasted time at a customer’s site trying to locate a working receiver to replace the customer’s failed receiver.
The frontline employees work harder than the company’s officers. Management needs to provide prompt support to their field technicians.
This report certainly throws cold water on the proposed $39 billion deal, but ultimately the outcome of the anti-trust case that DOJ (Department of Justice) filed will decide whether the “merger” is anti-competitive. The trial begins in February. If AT&T loses, it must pay T-Mobile $4 billion, so expect AT&T to fight with tooth and nail.
We likewise now conclude, as reflected in the details of the analysis and findings below, that the Applicants have failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that the competitive harms that would result from the proposed transaction are outweighed by the claimed benefits. Staff thus finds, as has DOJ , that the proposed transaction would likely lead to a substantial lessening of competition in violation of the Clayton Act. A transaction that violates the Clayton Act would not be in the public interest. In addition, with respect to certain discrete alleged harms unique to the FCC`s public interest analysis, Staff finds that substantial and material questions of fact exist as to the nature and extent of those potential harms.
It doesn’t get brighter for AT&T. The FCC draft document closes with:
The Applicants submitted an Economic Model to demonstrate the price effects of their proposed transaction. Contrary to their assertions, the Economic Model does not provide any basis to conclude that there would be no harm to consumers. Instead, this Appendix shows that the Economic Model is unreliable. In addition, when given more reasonable inputs, the Economic Model shows that unilateral incentives are expected to cause prices to increase, harming consumers.
I’m happy with this conclusion. Are you?
Addendum: For comic relief, read AT&T Response to FCC Staff Report, which AT&T published on December 1. They’re not giving up without a fight, regardless of how absurd their arguments sound.
Lawyers who can’t even define “frequency spectrum” are making decisions about frequency spectrum use.
Last week, the fifth annual Symposium on Position, Navigation and Time was held at Stanford University. The “father of GPS”, Professor Brad Parkinson, warned of threats to GPS systems, including the threat from LightSquared.
As I feared, LightSquared has become a political basketball, with our Boy King trying to score 3 points. Mr. Obama’s DNC (Democratic National Committee) received a total of $90,000 from LightSquared’s owner, his wife, and its CEO. Subsequently, Obama’s FCC Chairman (and Harvard school chum) expedited approval of LightSquared’s controversial plan without conducting GPS interference tests or allowing sufficient time for public comment.
Mr. Obama, desperate for a success of some sort, apparently thinks that this is a quick way to both roll out wireless broadband and return financial favors. Mr. Obama invested $50,000 in SkyTerra (which later became LightSquared) in 2005, and in return a major SkyTerra investor contributed $50,000 to Obama’s 2008 campaign. Michelle Malkin details this in LightSquared: Obama’s Dangerous Broadband Boondoggle. Last week, A LightSquared vice-president threatened to sue the FCC if the FCC denied LightSquared’s plan to deploy its cell-tower LTE data network.
Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures.
It sounds like LightSquared is also becoming desperate. In my September article LightSquared’s problems highlight RF spectrum limits, I mentioned that the US military has opposed LightSquared’s plans, because LightSquared’s wireless signals will interfere with GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers. This includes E911 and aircraft navigation systems. As a quick patch, LightSquared has hurriedly proposed directional antennas for its transmitters, and stated that they’ll (at least initially) limit the bandwidth of their signal. It sounds like desperation to me.
GPS uses 1575.42 MHz, 1227.60 MHz, and 1381.05 MHz signals with CDMA modulation. I think that the first 2 frequencies’ signals are about 11 MHz wide. According to L-band authority Richard Abrahams, by the time the satellites’ 300 Watt signals travel over 11,000 miles and arrive at our GPS receivers they’re very weak — perhaps -125 dBm to -150 dBm. Because of size constraints, most mobile GPS receivers include antennas with minimum gain. The GPS signal that’s endangered by LightSquared’s plan is the 1575.42 MHz signal.
Apparently LightSquared has rights (inherited from SkyTerra) to use 1525 to 1559 MHz. (These frequencies were reserved for satellite use only, but LightSquared is trying to slip through an FCC loophole. As long as it maintains a functional satellite service, it may retain its FCC license to use 1525 tp 1559 MHz. It owns one geostationary satellite, SkyTerra 1.) Because their proposed LTE signal will be transmitted from cell towers at levels of up to 15 Kilowatts (that’s +72 dBm!) by amplifiers of less than perfect linearity, spurious signals from LightSquared’s signal will spread into the 1570 MHz region. These spurious signals, to GPS receivers, will be noise.
In September, two high-ranking witnesses — Air Force Space Command four-star Gen. William Shelton and National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Director Anthony Russo — exposed how the White House pressured them to alter their congressional testimony and play down concerns about LightSquared’s interference threat to military communications.
LightSquared’s advocates claim that the fault lies with GPS receivers with insufficient selectivity. They claim that a high-pass filter ahead of each receiver will work wonders. This is a pipe dream. Mr. Abrahams points out that the LightSquared transmitters will, because of the nature of LTE modulation and the difficulty of providing truly linear amplifiers at that frequency, transmit spurious signals outside their allocated frequency.
The article Will FCC’s Political Favor for LightSquared Result in GPS Interference? sums up the many twists and turns in this story. It mixes complicated technical issues with politics. The timing of LightSquared’s largest investor Mr. Falcone’s contribution to the DNC (Democratic National Committee) one week after visiting the White House, followed by the FCC’s waiver is troubling.
Here’s the quid pro quo:
Sept 22. 2009 · Philip Falcone and LightSquared CEO visit White House.
Sept 29, 2009 · Mr. Falcone contributes $30,400 (the maximum allowed from an individual) to the DNC. Mrs. Falcone also contributes $30,400 to the DNC. (Later, in 2010, LightSquared’s CEO also contributes $30,400 to the DNC.)
Sept 30, 2009 · Harbinger (Falcone’s hedge fund) and SkyTerra merger agreement is signed.
For decades the FCC has been a political playground for lawyers and lobbyists with no technical knowledge. The current FCC, like the current administration, is the sad result of this slide into incompetence and corruption.
As a retired Western Electric physicist told me, “When MBAs and lawyers pretend that they’re scientists and engineers, we’re doomed.” Community organizers are even worse.