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Wireless Industry Claims Removing Regulatory Hurdles Will Save $1.6 Billion on 5G Deployment

Accenture’s six-page analysis.

CTIA, America’s largest wireless industry trade group and lobbyist, commissioned a research consultant to produce a six-page analysis that unsurprisingly concludes stripping some oversight responsibilities regarding cell tower placement would reduce the cost to deploy 5G wireless small cells by as much as $1.6 billion over the next nine years.

The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering industry-friendly proposals that would “streamline” and “modernize” the historic and environmental regulatory requirements for wireless deployments, exclude small cells from certain federal regulatory reviews, and put a strict limit on completing environmental impact reviews on new tower and antenna installations or else they will be automatically approved.

The Accenture analysis, produced at the request of CTIA, claims that it will cost an average of $9,730 for each 5G small cell regulatory review. But the report also states only 28-29% of installations will face this type of review. The CTIA implies it is much worse than that in its new 30-second ad complaining about regulatory burdens. That ad suggests 5G small cell “approval can take a couple of years.”

As the FCC ponders further deregulation of cell tower and antenna placement, wireless industry players are sharing their horror stories with the FCC to strengthen the agency’s likely  view that installation rules and oversight should be relaxed.

In January, Sprint complained it faced a demand to pay a $90,000 “tribal review fee” for six tower upgrades in the Chicago area. The company claims the towers were located in historic preservation areas, but not in areas of tribal significance. Sprint added in its letter to the FCC it only planned to install additional antenna equipment at those tower sites to increase capacity, not erect new towers.

The wireless industry is also lobbying to get cut-rate access to public infrastructure like street lights, on which it eventually plans to place 5G network equipment.

In states like California, AT&T has pushed hard for new legislation that would mandate cities and counties to give the company open access to public infrastructure in public rights-of-way or utility easements. In a 2017 bill before the California Senate, companies like AT&T would face a fee limit of $100-850 per small cell per year, indexed for inflation,

With multiple wireless companies prepared to enter the 5G marketplace, utility poles could get crowded.

Cities and counties may also find their right to object to what eventually ends up on their poles curtailed as a result of the deregulation effort.

CTIA’s new 30-second advertisement claims 5G small cells can be installed in about 90 minutes, but only after waiting years for a sluggish review process. (30 seconds)

Fidelity Communications Caught Running Astroturf Website to Kill Broadband Competition

Sock Puppet “consumer group” opposing municipal broadband in Missouri is outed by their own website.

Fidelity Communications, a small Missouri-based independent cable operator providing service in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, has been outed as the creator and backer of a ‘grassroots’ group trying to prevent West Plains, Mo., from launching a public broadband network that would directly compete with Fidelity.

West Plains, a community of 12,000 in south-central Missouri, runs a public fiber network originally envisioned connecting city buildings, a local medical center, fire, police, and highway offices together. Local cable company Fidelity Communications had shown no interest in providing fiber connectivity in West Plains, so city officials explored the idea of building a city owned and operated fiber network itself. As word spread around town that fiber broadband was under consideration, locals began lobbying city officials to open the network up for private commercial and residential users as well.

By January 2016, supported by a dozen major employers willing to participate as network “anchors,” the city of West Plains got into the internet provider business.

West Plains has been challenged by a lack of digital infrastructure and has seen at least 500 jobs disappear over the past few years. Inadequate service from cable company Fidelity Communications, which suffered from frequent speed slowdowns and service interruptions, drove demands for an alternative.

Local officials have been extremely cautious about entering the broadband business, and have been reluctant to grow their network too quickly. The goal of the network these days is to provide robust and reliable high-speed internet access essential for the local digital economy and the jobs it creates. But city administrator Tim Stehn is also concerned about being a careful steward of the community’s finances.

“Of course, as a city administrator, I’m concerned, because if we would go completely to all businesses and residents, we’re looking at a high price tag that is estimated at $15 million,” Stehn told Christopher Mitchell in a 2017 interview for Community Broadband Bits. “What scares me the most is the customer service aspect of this. If we’re going to do this, I want to make sure the city is successful and that we can respond at serving the customer service. That’s the piece that really scares me the most.”

West Plains’ fiber network has grown carefully over the last few years, both in terms of its reach and its capabilities. At the outset, the network offered 25/25 Mbps dedicated connections primarily to business customers. But where West Plains’ fiber loop passes residential homes, the city has also been willing to provide service to local homeowners as well.

Last September, the city announced a three-month trial of the city’s 1 Gbps Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON). Up to 80 businesses and 14 homes in the Southern Hills district were invited to participate. West Plains’ GPON network offers participants a shared 1 Gbps connection. City officials were confident that even though the network is shared, there will be plenty of capacity available — much more than what DSL and cable broadband networks offer. The results of the pilot are designed to ascertain how much peak usage traffic the network will face and help local officials decide on what kinds of speed tiers to offer going forward.

The community’s progress since 2016 has not gone unnoticed. As Stop the Cap! has documented before, one of the best ways to force a stubborn incumbent phone or cable company to upgrade their network is to threaten to compete with it. Last September, Fidelity Communications suddenly announced it, too, was now offering gigabit internet service — at least for download speeds — within West Plains.

The residential service features 1 Gbps download speeds with 10 Mbps uploads, with a flat price of $79 per month, fees and Wi-Fi included, taxes may still apply. The higher speeds support multiple video streams, high-end online gaming, unlimited wireless devices and rapid transfer of huge data files, along with the capability to handle other bandwidth-hungry applications.

Over the past several months, Fidelity completed network upgrades, acquired 1 Gig-capable customer modems and freed up the bandwidth necessary to support the new 1 Gig speeds. These improvements will bring convenience and ease to those using the Internet in West Plains.

“As time goes on, technological demands keep increasing,” said Don Knight, Missouri general manager for Fidelity. “Fidelity intends to meet that demand by providing broadband speeds not normally available in rural areas.”

West Plains receiving gigabit service from two gigabit providers should be welcome news for local residents and businesses. But it apparently was not good news for Fidelity, which does not appreciate the competition.

Stop City Funded Internet has references to “Fidelity” — the area’s local cable company in certain file paths to images and other documents on its website.

StopCityFundedInternet.com was registered on Dec. 13, 2017 (and last updated Jan. 23, 2018, concealing the identity of the entity that registered the domain name behind an anonymous proxy service provided by Namecheap, a well-known domain name registrar.)

When the website went live, it claimed to be a “collection of fiscally conservative Missourians who believe that the role of government is to provide essential services that enhances the lives, safety and prosperity of local communities as opposed to leveraging taxpayer funds on high-risk endeavors that compete with services already provided by the private sector.”

This “independent” website coincidentally promotes the products and services of Fidelity Communications.

The website appeared to borrow heavily from a similar (failed) campaign to stop municipal broadband in Fort Collins, Col. The most common message of anti-municipal broadband campaigns is ‘taxpayer dollars will be wasted on failing broadband networks that take away from investments in schools, local infrastructure spending, and reducing crime.’ The Stop City Funded Internet campaign hit on all three of these messages, along with what it claims are examples of “failed” public broadband projects. The group’s website links to several “news articles” about municipal broadband that are actually opinion pieces typically written by industry-funded groups and individuals.

“West Plains is already a “Gig City,” with other private internet providers,” the website claims, without referring to Fidelity Communications directly. “In fact, residents already have access to a Gig connection for $80 per month. $80 per month is a price that is in line with many other cities around the country. The City of West Plains should focus its limited taxpayer funding on more pressing priorities, like fixing our roads and bridges, improving public safety and supporting our schools. And spending taxpayer dollars subsidizing a broadband utility would mean fewer resources for other services residents need and enjoy.”

The group invites those who oppose public broadband to register for e-mail updates, which will likely involve a $15 million bond and public referendum that would be needed to build out the city’s fiber to the home network to the entire community.

Isaac Protiva of West Plains found something unusual about the sudden appearance of the group and its website, which had no presence in the community before. For one, the group seemed to have an ample budget to spend on targeted Facebook ads for local residents. The ads promote the group’s website and Facebook page. That isn’t the case for Protiva’s own website: Internet Choice West Plains, which promotes the public broadband effort out of his own pocket.

Protiva also discovered certain elements on the group’s web page directly referenced “Fidelity:”

  • Header image: The main image from the homepage has a file name of “Fidelity_SCFI_Website_V2”
  • Privacy Policy: An image from the Privacy Policy page was hosted, or stored, on a website named “Fidelity.dmwebtest.com”

The website’s attempt to painstakingly avoid any connection to Fidelity Communications makes it a classic industry-sponsored astroturf operation. A private company secretly finances an “independent consumer group” that falls in line with the company’s public policy agenda. Many companies even brazenly reference such groups as evidence that their business views are in line with those of the public. In this case, the website developer accidentally outed the operation.

After Protiva began to publicize his efforts to document Fidelity’s funny business, the company initially responded by trying to hide the evidence. The website owners disabled the Internet Achive’s ability to snapshot the website’s history to scrub evidence of the accidental ties to Fidelity, Protiva claims. He also claims the group is heavily censoring its Facebook page.

Presented with strong evidence of the connection between Stop City Funded Internet and Fidelity Communications, the company finally came clean in a Facebook post:

San Jose Mayor Quits FCC’s Industry-Stacked Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee

Liccardo

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has resigned from the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC), claiming the panel has been stacked with telecom industry players that will advocate for the interests of the telecom industry, not the public.

“It has become abundantly clear that despite the good intentions of several participants, the industry-heavy makeup of BDAC will simply relegate the body to being a vehicle for advancing the interests of the telecommunications industry over those of the public,” Liccardo wrote in his resignation letter.

The corruption was baked in from the earliest days of the BDAC, originally created by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in January 2017 to help resolve the digital divide between those who have access to internet service and those who don’t. BDAC was charged with providing advice and recommendations on how to accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet access. Pai used the BDAC partly as a front group to advocate for his own long-standing goal of reducing or eliminating what he believes are regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment.

Controversy erupted almost immediately as the BDAC member nomination process began. Pai and his staff packed the 30-member group with telecom industry corporate executives, trade groups, and free market scholars frequently funded or sponsored by telecom companies. According to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), the FCC initially accepted only two of the 64 city and state officials nominated to serve on a committee that was likely to recommend major changes to local and state zoning and permitting laws. Liccado was one of the two.

CPI filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC to force the agency to divulge detailed information about applicants and those approved to serve as panel members. They found three out of four members appointed worked for big telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, and TDS Telecom. Crown Castle International Corp., the nation’s largest wireless infrastructure company, and Southern Co., the nation’s second-largest utility firm, also have representatives on the panel. The “broadband experts” chosen as members largely came from conservative think tanks that have industry funding ties or connections with wealthy conservative donors like the Koch Brothers.

Liccardo sensed trouble on the committee as early as last August.

“It’s not lost on us that among the 30-odd members of the BDAC, only two represent local government,” Liccardo said. “We’ll see where things go in the weeks ahead, but it’s fair to say the footprints are in the snow.”

Gary Carter, who works for the city of Santa Monica, Calif., where he oversees City Net, one of the nation’s oldest publicly owned networks, thought he would be the perfect candidate to serve on the BDAC. The FCC didn’t think so.

“When I called [the FCC] to check on the status of the BDAC selection process [earlier this year] and identified myself as an employee from the City of Santa Monica, the gentleman on the phone laughed hysterically,” Carter said. “At first I didn’t get the joke. When I saw the appointees for the municipal working group—only three out of 24 positions were from local government—I got the joke.”

The corruption has not been a surprise to one telecommunications executive serving as a BDAC member. He candidly told CPI the committee was purposely “stacked” to guarantee findings and proposals that echo Pai’s anti-regulatory agenda.

“It’s definitely stacked towards private enterprise,” said the executive, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation from FCC officials. “It’s nothing new. The [current] FCC serves private enterprise.”

Nick Degani, senior counsel to the FCC and Pai’s wireline legal advisor, told BDAC members at a July meeting that only a few city officials were chosen because they are the ones that need guidance, not telecommunications companies.

City and state officials locked out of Pai’s panel warn that BDAC recommendations could soon lead to new rules that will ignore local residents’ wishes in favor of the interests of cable, phone, and wireless companies. Recommended rule changes could allow telecom companies to gain free or very low-cost access to public buildings on which it can place cell towers or the small cells that will end up on utility poles. Much of the equipment the industry wants to place threatens to clutter neighborhoods with unsafe, overloaded utility poles and some new infrastructure could block scenic views or be placed in sensitive environmental areas.

CPI spoke with many local officials who asked to participate as a member of BDAC, but were turned down:

“There are reasons you have to get a permit if you want to dig up the side of the street,” said David Frasher, city manager of Hot Springs, Arkansas, who also was nominated—but turned down—for a seat on the BDAC.

“The city needs to know if you’re going to block traffic or create a hazard to sidewalk users,” Frasher said. Maybe there’s a way to streamline those regulations, “… but with only 10 percent city government representation, how helpful will the end product be?”

The FCC also didn’t choose David Guttenberg, member of the Alaska state legislature. He said service providers writing local rules for internet deployment makes him fear for Alaskan residents, many of whom have such poor wireless service that they have trouble downloading emails.

“They [telecommunications companies] are only going to look after their own self interests,” Guttenberg said. “Find me the guy that works for telecommunications on this committee that’s going to sign onto a plan telling their business to do something they don’t want to do. Find me that guy.”

What Pai has done by packing the panel with industry representatives is, in the end, “pretty standard in Washington,” said Sarah Treul, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The FCC expects certain outcomes from this advisory committee.”

Pai

That point was not lost by San Jose Mayor Liccardo, who finally had enough after witnessing several cases of BDAC’s industry members wielding veto power and unilaterally rewriting collaborative proposals to fit the agenda of large cable and phone companies.

“One working group, which did not have a single municipal representative among its 30+ participants, created a draft model state code that included provisions to eliminate all municipal control over when, how, and whether to accept industry applications for infrastructure deployment,” Liccardo complained. “Another working group had an industry representative dramatically re-write its draft municipal code in the 11th hour, pushing aside the product of months of the working group’s deliberations. The result, in each case, were provisions that plainly prioritized industry interests.”

Also dovetailing with Pai’s narrative, many telecom companies griped about the cost of complying with local rules and regulations. In April, Larry Thompson, CEO of the National Exchange Carrier Association, with 1,300+ local telephone company members, complained one member had to pay $700,000 in costs to comply with environmental laws, historical preservation rules, zoning, and construction-related paperwork.

A representative from Comcast worried that the BDAC’s work has been so polarized towards the telecom industry, excluded state and local officials will have every reason to resist the BDAC’s findings and recommendations and refuse to adopt them.

“If they don’t feel included, not only are they outside throwing [darts] at this process, but then in the end it’s those groups that we want to adopt these model codes,” said David Don, vice president of regulatory affairs at Comcast.

But Liccardo warns Pai and his Republican allies are laying the foundation to “steamroll” over local officials by bulldozing local control of zoning and code rulemaking. For that reason, he quit the committee.

“The apparent goal is to create a set of rules that will provide industry with easy access to publicly funded infrastructure at taxpayer subsidized rates, without any obligation to provide broadband access to underserved residents.”

If Pai does manage to enact new federal rules that are as industry-friendly as Liccardo and other city officials fear, the FCC could overrule local zoning and permitting rules on a scale never seen before.

“It’s obvious that this body is going to deliver to the industry what the industry wants,” Liccardo said.

That appears to be Mr. Pai’s agenda as well.

Here Comes the First FAKE Net Neutrality Bill, Courtesy of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-AT&T)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who claims to represent the interests of voters in Tennessee but generally prefers the views (and campaign contributions) from AT&T and Comcast, is the first Republican to propose a bait-and-switch “net neutrality” broadband bill she claims will protect a free and open internet, but will actually prohibit net neutrality as America has known it over the last two years.

“No blocking. No throttling. The Open Internet Preservation Act will ensure the internet is a free and open space,” Blackburn tweeted to her followers shortly after giving an exclusive interview introducing her bill to Breitbart News. An early copy was also furnished to TechFreedom, an industry-funded front group that has opposed net neutrality. “This legislation is simple, it provides light-touch regulation so companies can invest and innovate, and make sure our internet is up to 21st century standards.”

Congresswoman Blackburn hopes you will take her word on that and not bother to actually read and understand what her bill actually does to the concept of a free and open internet.

We did read the bill and are prepared to help you understand it.

No overt censorship but plenty of “reasonable network management”

Blackburn’s bill non-controversially forbids the censorship of “lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.” Virtually every ISP in the country has already volunteered they have no intention of censoring legal content on the internet. But Blackburn’s bill includes a safety clause that allows ISPs to avoid accusations of tinkering with traffic — “reasonable network management,” which in this case is vaguely defined in the bill as “a practice that has a primarily technical network management justification.” Blackburn also defines a network management practice “reasonable” if “it is primarily used for and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband internet access service.”

Despite that word salad, there is nothing in her bill that clearly defines what is “legitimate” and what is not. Comcast, for example, has its own view about how it manages and prices traffic on its broadband service. Stream XFINITY content and it does not count against your Comcast cap. Stream Hulu and it does. Comcast claims that is fair if one considers the ‘particular network architecture’ that delivers Comcast’s own content is allegedly different from the public internet. Blackburn’s bill would treat data caps, zero rating, and Comcast’s version of “fairness” as all perfectly legal.

Large telecommunications companies have insisted there is no need to pass laws or enact regulations governing internet censorship because they would never contemplate blocking legal content,  making the need for legislation unnecessary. But they are strongly likely to favor her bill, creating a direct contradiction to their repeated insistence net neutrality was “a solution in search of a problem.” There is a reason for the sudden support among many Republicans for Blackburn’s concept of net neutrality — blocking regulatory agencies from oversight of internet service provider interference and abuse.

The “Specialized Services” Hindenburg-sized loophole

Blackburn’s bill covers all the bases for the telecom industry she routinely supports.

Most importantly, her bill creates an enormous loophole allowing internet service providers to offer “specialized services” to the public any way they choose, as long as they do not “threaten the meaningful availability of broadband internet access service or [offer services] that have been devised or promoted in a manner designed to evade the purposes of this section.”

Blackburn defines a “specialized service” as “services other than broadband internet access service that are offered over the same network as, and that may share network capacity with, broadband internet access service.’’

That effectively means any website, streaming service, cloud storage or app could qualify as a “specialized service.” Blackburn’s bill would allow an ISP to establish paid prioritization (fast lanes) for selected content, usage cap non-preferred content, or steer web users to preferred websites and services. It effectively makes all internet content open to ISP manipulation. Just to be certain ISPs are protected from net neutrality rules for next generation applications and services, her bill also permanently forbids regulatory agencies from expanding the definition of net neutrality.

Obliterating the concept of states’ rights

Republicans are usually strong proponents of limiting the power of the federal government, especially when it comes to preempting state laws, but that concept is turned on its head when Big Telecom campaign contributions are at stake. Blackburn completely abandons any pretense of a state being able to write its own laws governing internet openness by specifically banning that option:

“No State or political subdivision of a State shall adopt, maintain, enforce, or impose or continue in effect any law, rule, regulation, duty, requirement, standard, or other provision having the force and effect of law relating to or with respect to internet openness obligations for provision of broadband internet access service.”

Permanently assuring ISPs easy court victories if net neutrality violations are uncovered

Blackburn’s bill ignores several years of court rulings on net neutrality cases that have called out the flaw of the FCC’s earlier dependence on defining the internet as an “information service” subject to oversight under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecom Act. The courts have ruled this foundation is inadequate to enforce net neutrality. The foundation that has proved adequate and has so-far survived court challenge exists in Title II of the Communications Act, made applicable when the internet was redefined as a common carrier “telecommunications service.” Rep. Blackburn’s bill would return net neutrality enforcement to the same flawed authority courts have already ruled does not apply, neutering net neutrality in the courts.

Critics contend Rep. Blackburn’s real motive is to permanently end oversight of large cable and phone companies and prevent federal agencies from coming to the rescue of content providers and consumers.

“Blackburn’s legislation fails at the very thing it claims to accomplish. It prohibits a few open-internet violations, but opens the door to rampant abuse through paid-prioritization schemes that split the internet into fast lanes for the richest companies and slow lanes for everyone else,” said Craig Aaron, Free Press Action Fund President and CEO. “This bill’s true goal is to let a few unregulated monopolies and duopolies stifle competition and control the future of communications.”

“Congress must reject last week’s FCC ruling and restore Title II authority at the agency,” Aaron added. “The 2015 rules worked extraordinarily well from the get-go, with investment and innovation flourishing across the sector. That’s because they gave the FCC the authority to prevent paid prioritization and other forms of discrimination, while promoting competition, open markets, universal service and equal access.”

The Many Lies of Ajit Pai About Net Neutrality

Pai

I’ve done a LOT of interviews and talk shows on the issue of Net Neutrality over the last two weeks. After listening to the talking point-festooned “experts” and show hosts with a political agenda, your listeners, readers, and I will not be gaslighted by the exceptionally ridiculous condescension campaign now underway by Net Neutrality opponents.

For those who don’t know, “gaslighting” refers to manipulating someone into questioning or second-guessing their beliefs by distorting facts, attempting to delegitimize evidence with falsehoods, confusing the issues, and suggesting one lacks credibility to speak or write on an issue… because they said so.

Fortunately, when these “facts” come from a cable/telco bought-and-paid-for policy institute or lobbyist, it is easy to identify these campaigns and debunk them. It is also entertaining to turn the tables by questioning the source of their talking points and the agendas in play. We always ask these individuals where the money comes from for their “policy institute” and the answers are always not revealing. For the record, Stop the Cap! doesn’t accept corporate donations, period. We accept contributions exclusively from individuals. It takes just a few seconds to explain our funding while the other side takes minutes tap-dancing around the corporate dark money that funds their efforts.

Phillip Dampier: Don’t gaslight me, bro!

Thankfully, there have been a lot of newspaper reporters taking time to understand the issues and have shown professionalism in their reporting. But some radio talk show hosts unfortunately don’t do as well and rely on short-sighted political positioning, “rescue” their cornered allies with convenient commercial breaks, interrupt, or change the subject with baited questions when the facts don’t go their way. Net Neutrality is NOT a conservative or liberal issue, but some attempt to make it one by injecting President Barack Obama’s name into the debate or claim Net Neutrality represents government control of the internet.

Speaking of facts, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s latest arguments for his Christmas gift repeal of Net Neutrality for the telecom industry uses similar gaslighting and false talking points that distract from a fact-based debate on these issues.

As millions of consumers express outrage over Pai’s unbending agenda to allow internet service providers to create an unlevel internet playing field and paid prioritization fast lanes that favor some content over others (as long as they disclose it), Pai and his staff are now resorting to calling Americans who favor the current free and open internet “desperate” or ignorant about how the internet works.

But you know more than you think, reminded each month (when the bill arrives) of the special ability of companies like Comcast to abuse the customer relationship with skyrocketing rates, data caps, and unhelpful customer service. Giving companies like this more ways to charge you more for the same service has never worked to your advantage.

Net Neutrality is one of only a few tools available to the FCC to keep ISPs in check. Banning data caps and zero rating schemes would be another great way to protect consumers from Wall Street’s insatiable demand for companies to extract more revenue from consumers. Investors know full well in a monopoly/duopoly marketplace there is every incentive to gouge and very little risk of losing customers doing so.

Our friends at Free Press did considerable research to debunk some of Mr. Pai’s talking points in a long series of tweets we thought would be illuminating:

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