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Comcast: Usage-Based Billing for All Customers Within 5 Years; ‘We’re Also Allowed to Do Fast Lanes’

comcast highwayComcast will introduce usage-based billing on all of its broadband customers nationwide within five years, whether they like it or not.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen told Variety he predicts the new usage limit will likely be 350GB a month but could increase to 500GB in 2019. Cohen claims consumers in usage-capped test markets prefer a preset usage limit and an overlimit fee of $10 for each additional 50GB of usage.

But Stop the Cap! has learned at no time has Comcast surveyed customers about whether they want their Internet usage metered or capped. That question is evidently not an option.

If Time Warner Cable territories are merged under the Comcast brand, usage billing would likely immediately follow.

Usage caps will go a long way to protect Comcast’s cable television package from online video, which if viewed in significant amounts could put customers over their monthly usage limit and subject them to higher fees.

“We’re trying to go slowly, not out of a regulatory concern (but because) we have no desire to blow up our high-speed data business,” he said.

cohenIf the merger is approved, Comcast will face significantly less competition in many Verizon service areas also served by Time Warner Cable. Verizon FiOS expansion has ended and the company continues to de-emphasize its DSL service, which is the only broadband competition Time Warner Cable faces in many upstate New York and western Massachusetts communities.

An unrepentant Cohen also doubled down on paid prioritization — Internet fast lanes — declaring regardless of what the FCC decides on Net Neutrality, Comcast still has the right to offer paid prioritization to customers.

“Whatever it is, we are allowed to do it,” said Cohen, speaking at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in New York. “We are not sure we know what paid prioritization, or what a fast lane, is. Fast lane sounds bad… (but) I believe that whatever it is, it has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years.”

The way Comcast’s lawyers read “Title II,” even if the FCC declares broadband ISPs to be common carriers, Cohen says Comcast will go right on selling prioritized access, claiming Title II doesn’t prohibit paid prioritization — indeed, he said, “the whole history” of Title II is that carriers are allowed to provide different levels of service at different prices, reports Variety.

Cohen said he expects Washington regulators will promptly approve the company’s buyout of Time Warner Cable with no delays, insisting the deal is “not that difficult” in terms of antitrust implications.

 

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FCC Chairman Promises “New and Improved” Net Neutrality Proposal That Is More of the Same

Phillip "Section 706 is a road to nowhere" Dampier

Phillip “Section 706 is a road to nowhere” Dampier

After thousands of consumers joined more than 100 Internet companies and two of five commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission to complain about Chairman Tom Wheeler’s vision of Net Neutrality, the head of the FCC claims he has revised his proposal to better enforce Internet traffic equality.

Last week, huge online companies like Amazon, eBay, and Facebook jointly called Wheeler’s ideas of Net Neutrality “a grave threat to the Internet.”

In response over the weekend, an official close to the chairman leaked word to the Wall Street Journal that Wheeler was changing his proposal. Despite that, a closer examination of Wheeler’s ideas continues to show his unwavering faith in providers voluntarily behaving themselves. Wheeler’s evolving definition of Net Neutrality is fine… if you live in OppositeLand. His proposal would allow Internet Service Providers and content companies to negotiate paid traffic prioritization agreements — the exact opposite of Net Neutrality — allowing certain Internet traffic to race to the front of the traffic line.

Such an idea is a non-starter among Net Neutrality advocates, precisely because it undermines a core principle of the Open Internet — discriminating for or against certain web traffic because of a paid arrangement creates an unfair playing field likely to harm Internet start-ups and other independent entities that can’t afford the “pay to play” prices ISPs may seek.

Paid traffic prioritization agreements only make business sense when a provider creates the network conditions that require their consideration. If a provider operated a robust network with plenty of capacity, there would be no incentive for such agreements because Internet traffic would have no trouble reaching customers with or without the agreement.

But as Netflix customers saw earlier this year, Comcast and several other cable operators are now in the bandwidth shortage business — unwilling to keep up investments in network upgrades required to allow paying customers to access the Internet content they want.

While there is some argument that the peering agreement between Comcast and Netflix is not a classic case of smashing Net Neutrality, the effect on customers is the same. If a provider refuses to upgrade connections to the Internet without financial compensation from content companies, the Internet slow lane for that content emerges. Message: Sign a paid contract for a better connection and your clogged content will suddenly arrive with ease.

net-neutrality-protestWheeler has ineffectively argued that his proposal to allow these kinds of paid arrangements do not inherently commercially segregate the Internet into fast and slow lanes.

But in fact it will, not by artificially throttling the speeds of deprioritized, non-paying content companies, but by consigning them to increasingly congested broadband pipes that only work in top form for prioritized, first class traffic.

With Wheeler’s philosophy “unchanged” according to the Journal, his defense of his revised Net Neutrality proposal continues to rely on non germane arguments.

For example, Wheeler claims he will make sure the FCC “scrutinizes deals to make sure that the broadband providers don’t unfairly put nonpaying companies’ content at a disadvantage.” But in Wheeler’s World of Net Neutrality, providers would have to blatantly and intentionally throttle traffic to cross the line.

“I won’t allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service,” Mr. Wheeler wrote (emphasis ours) to Google and other companies.

But if your access to YouTube is slow because Google won’t pay Comcast for a direct connection with the cable company, it is doubtful Wheeler’s proposal would ever consider that a clear-cut case of Comcast “forcing” customers into a “slow lane.” After all, Comcast itself isn’t interfering with Netflix traffic, it just isn’t provisioning enough room on its network to accommodate customer demand.

Another side issue nobody has mentioned is usage cap discrimination. Comcast exempts certain traffic from the usage cap it is gradually reintroducing around the country. Its preferred partners can avoid usage-deterring caps while those not aligned with Comcast are left on the meter.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Some equipment manufacturers are producing even more sophisticated traffic management technology that could make it very difficult to identify fast and slow lanes, yet still opens the door to further monetization of Internet usage and performance in favor of a provider’s partners or against their competitors.

With Internet speeds and capacity gradually rising, the need for paid priority traffic agreements should decline, unless providers choose to cut back on upgrades to push another agenda. Already massively profitable, there is no excuse for providers not to incrementally upgrade their networks to meet customer demand. Prices for service have risen, even as the costs of providing the service have dropped overall.

Wheeler seems content to bend over backwards trying to shove a round Net Neutrality framework into a square regulatory black hole. Former chairman Julius Genachowski did the same, pretending that the FCC has oversight authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. But in fact that section is dedicated to expanding broadband access with restricted regulatory powers:

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 (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms) by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.

The spirit of the 1996 Telecom Act was  deregulation — that language pertaining to “regulatory forbearance” encourages regulators to restrain themselves from reflexively solving every problem with a new regulation. The words about “removing barriers to infrastructure investment” might as well be industry code language for the inevitable talking point: “deregulation removes barriers to investment.”

1nnWith a shaky foundation like that, any effort by the FCC to depend on Section 706 as its enabling authority to oversee the introduction of any significant broadband regulation is a house of cards.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In the Verizon network management case, the court found that the FCC was not allowed to use Section 706 to issue broad regulations that contradicted another part of the Communications Act.

U.S.C. 153(51) was and remains the FCC’s Section 706-Achilles Heel and the judge kicked it. This section of the Act says “a telecommunications carrier shall be treated as a common carrier under this [Act] only to the extent that it is engaged in providing telecommunications services.”

The current president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Michael Powell — coincidentally also former chairman of the FCC under President George W. Bush — helped see to it that broadband was not defined as a “telecommunications service.” Instead, it is considered an “information service” for regulatory purposes. This decision shielded emerging Internet providers (especially big phone and cable companies) from the kinds of traditional telecom utility regulations landline telephone companies lived with for decades. Of course, millions were also spent to lobby the telecom deregulation-friendly Clinton and Bush administrations with the idea to adopt “light touch” broadband regulatory policy. A Republican-dominated FCC had no trouble voluntarily limiting its own authority to oversee broadband by declaring both wired and wireless broadband providers “information services.”

Tom Wheeler is the former president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association

Tom Wheeler is the former president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association

So it was the FCC itself that caused this regulatory mess. But the Supreme Court provided a way out, by declaring it was within the FCC’s own discretion to decide how to regulate broadband, either under Title I as an information service or Title II as a telecommunications service. If the FCC declares broadband as a telecommunications service, the regulatory headaches largely disappear. The FCC has well-tested authority to impose common carrier regulations on providers, including Net Neutrality protections, under Title II.

In fact, the very definition of “common carrier” is tailor-made for Net Neutrality because it generally requires that all customers be offered service on a standardized and non-discriminatory basis, and may include a requirement that those services be priced reasonably.

Inexplicably, Chairman Wheeler last week announced his intention to keep ignoring the straight-line GPS-like directions from the court that would snatch the FCC’s attorneys from the jaws of defeat to victory and has recalculated another proposed trip over Section 706′s mysterious bumpy side streets and dirt roads. Assuming the FCC ever arrives at its destination, it is a sure bet it will be met by attorneys from AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon with yet more lawsuits claiming the FCC has violated their rights by exceeding their authority.

Wheeler also doesn’t mollify anyone with his commitment to set up yet another layer of FCC bureaucracy to protect Internet start-ups:

Mr. Wheeler’s updated draft would also propose a new ombudsman position with ‘significant enforcement authority’ to advocate on behalf of startups, according to one of the officials. The goal would be to ensure all parties have access to the FCC’s process for resolving disputes.

Anyone who has taken a dispute to the FCC knows how fun and exciting a process that is. But even worse than the legal expense and long delays, Wheeler’s excessively ambiguous definitions of what constitutes fair paid prioritization and slow and fast lanes is money in the bank for regulatory litigators that will sue when a company doesn’t get the resolution it wants.

Wheeler promises the revised proceeding will invite more comments from the public regarding whether paid prioritization is a good idea and whether Title II reclassification is the better option. While we appreciate the fact Wheeler is asking the questions, we’ve been too often disappointed by FCC chairmen that apply prioritization of a different sort — to those that routinely have business before the FCC, including phone and cable company executives. Chairman Genachowski’s Net Neutrality policy was largely drafted behind closed doors by FCC lawyers and telecom industry lobbyists. Consumers were not invited and we’re not certain the FCC is actually listening to us.

The Wall Street Journal indicates the road remains bumpy and pitted with potholes:

Mr. Wheeler’s insistence that his strategy would preserve an open Internet, without previously offering much insight into how, has been a source of disquiet within his agency. Of the five-member commission, both Republicans are against any form of net neutrality rules, which they view as unnecessary. Commission observers will be watching the reaction of the two Democrats, Ms. Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, to Mr. Wheeler’s new language.

“There is a wide feeling on the eighth floor that this is a debacle and I think people would like to see a change of course,” said another FCC official. “We may not agree on the course, but we agree the road we’re on is to disaster.”

There is still time to recalculate, but we wonder if Mr. Wheeler, a longtime former lobbyist for the wireless and cable industries, is capable of sufficiently bending towards the public interest.

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Sprint Applying Speed Breaks to Top 5% of Wireless Data Users Accessing Congested Cell Sites

throttleEffective June 1st, all Sprint contract and prepaid customers, as well as those using Virgin Mobile USA and Boost will find their wireless data speeds throttled if Sprint finds they are among the top 5% of users on a congested cell site.

Text messages are being sent to all customers about Sprint’s new “fairness algorithm” that it will use as part of its data “prioritization management.”

“Beginning 6/1/14, to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times, Sprint/Virgin Mobile USA/Boost may manage prioritization of access to network resources in congested areas for customers within the top 5 percent of data users.”

Such text messages are unlikely to be understood by average customers who have no idea how much data they use, don’t understand what “prioritization of access” means, or what would make them a “top 5 percent” data user. What many do understand is that they were sold “unlimited use” plans that will be much harder to use if they are identified as a 5%‘r.

Fierce Wireless found answers to several unanswered questions:

  • Boost and Virgin customers exceeding 2.5GB of data use a month used to find their data speeds cut to 256kbps until the beginning of their next billing cycle. In March, Sprint announced it was further cutting speeds in the punishment zone to 128kbps for affected prepaid customers;
  • Sprint’s postpaid/prepaid customers are likely to find themselves throttled once they exceed 5GB of usage per month.

speedbumpSprint says the throttle will only be activated on “congested cell sites” and will impact WiMAX, 3G and LTE 4G networks owned by the company. Anyone who has used Sprint’s 3G network will discover most urban and suburban Sprint cell towers are frequently congested, judging by the low speeds many customers endure. Rural customers or those served on the edge of a suburban area may never find themselves throttled and Sprint promises once traffic clears, the throttle is shut off.

At the same time, once Sprint labels you a “heavy user,” they can leave you in the penalty box for up to 60 days because the network prioritization will also apply during the following month of service.

“Customers that continue to fall within the top 5 percent of data users will continue to be subject to prioritization,” Sprint said.

The approach “will enable us to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times,” Sprint said in a statement sent to FierceWirelessTech.

Other wireless carriers also have employed speed throttling to control their grandfathered “unlimited data” customers, Fierce Wireless notes:

During September 2011, Verizon Wireless implemented what it  termed a “network optimization” plan to limit the bandwidth for the operator’s top 5 percent of 3G smartphone users who are on a grandfathered unlimited data plan. (Ed. Note: However, because of FCC requirements, Verizon cannot throttle its 4G LTE customers.)

One month later, AT&T Mobility  instituted a similar plan, targeting the top 5 percent of users on unlimited plans in specific high-traffic locations. However, AT&T was forced to alter its approach in early 2012 after an outcry from users who were unprepared to have their speeds reduced, particularly in cases where some of them had only consumed 2 GB of data. AT&T’s revised policy slowed speeds of unlimited data users who exceeded specific data thresholds.

T-Mobile US also uses a form of prioritization, noting “certain T-Mobile plans may be prioritized” over service plans under its GoSmart Mobile prepaid brand.

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More Evidence the Wireless Data “Traffic Tsunami” is a Scam to Grab More Spectrum

telecoms reg forumWireless operators are playing up fears that without comprehensive reassignment of wireless spectrum to their businesses, a massive data crunch will slow wireless networks to a crawl.

Policy Tracker covered the Telecoms Regulation Forum in London last week and found two very different stories coming from mobile operators.

Mark Falcon, head of economic regulation at UK mobile operator Three, told the Forum that he did not really believe predictions of exponential growth in demand for mobile data. Few others believe them either, he added.

Blades

Blades

Falcon’s comments were frank and very rare in an industry that typically sings from the same hymn book on spectrum matters. More typical were remarks from Telefonica Europe’s chief regulatory officer Nick Blades who claimed a wireless apocalypse was imminent without major reallocation of spectrum for the use of wireless phone companies. Blades dismissed views that small cell antennas and offloading more traffic to Wi-Fi would make enough of a difference.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been criticized by consultants for overestimating required future spectrum requirements for wireless operators. A growing consensus outside of the wireless industry suggests the risks for wireless data tsunamis are “overblown.”

While AT&T and Verizon Wireless lobby heavily for spectrum reallocation in the United States, they routinely tell shareholders they have more than enough capacity to handle traffic for the foreseeable future and are looking for new and creative (and profitable) applications they can add to their existing wireless networks.

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The 5 Cable & Phone Companies Intentionally Sabotaging Your Use of the Internet

network_map-1024x459

Level 3′s global network: Orange lines represent Level 3-owned infrastructure, yellow lines show leased or co-owned connections.

Five of the largest Internet Service Providers in the country are intentionally sabotaging your use of the Internet by allowing their network connections to degrade unless they receive extra compensation from content companies they often directly compete with.

Mark Taylor, vice president of content and media for Level 3, wrote a lengthy primer on how Internet providers exchange traffic with each other across a vast global network. While clients of Level 3 are likely to have few problems exchanging traffic back and forth across Level 3′s global network, vital interconnections with other providers that make sure everyone can communicate with everyone else on the Internet are occasional trouble spots.

Every provider has different options to reach other providers, but favor those offering the most direct route possible to minimize “hops” between networks, which slow down the connection and increase the risk of service interruptions. These connections are often arranged through peering agreements. Level 3 has 51 peers, minimized in number to keep traffic moving as efficiently as possible.

This oversaturated port in Dallas cannot handle all the traffic trying to pass through it, so Internet packets are often dropped and traffic speeds are slowed.

This oversaturated port in Dallas cannot handle all the traffic trying to pass through it, so Internet packets are often dropped and traffic speeds are slowed.

Taylor writes most peering arrangements were informal agreements between engineers and did not involve any money changing hands. Today, 48 of the 51 Level 3 peering agreements don’t involve compensation. In fact, Level 3 refuses to pay “arbitrary charges to add interconnection capacity.” Taylor feels such upgrades are a matter of routine and are not costly for either party.

Peering agreements have been a very successful part of the Internet experience, even if end users remain completely in the dark about how Internet traffic moves around the world. In the view of many, customers don’t need to know and shouldn’t care, because their monthly Internet bill more than covers the cost of transporting data back and forth.

Because of ongoing upgrades the average utilization of Level 3′s connections is around 36 percent of capacity — busy enough to justify keeping the connection and providing spare capacity for days when Internet traffic explodes during breaking news or over the holidays.

csat-1024x635However, Taylor says more than a year ago, something suddenly changed at five U.S. Internet Service Providers. They stopped periodic upgrades and allowed some of their connections to become increasingly busy with traffic. Today, six of Level 3′s 51 peer connections are now 90 percent saturated with traffic for several hours a day, which causes traffic to degrade or get lost.

“[The] congestion [has become] permanent, has been in place for well over a year and [...] our peer refuses to augment capacity,” Taylor wrote. “They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfill the requests their customers make for content.”

Taylor adds all but one of the affected connections are U.S. consumer broadband networks with a dominant or exclusive market share. Where competition exists, no provider allows their Internet connections to degrade, said Taylor.

Taylor won’t directly name the offenders, but he left an easy-to-follow trail:

“The companies with the congested peering interconnects also happen to rank dead last in customer satisfaction across all industries in the U.S.,” Taylor wrote. “Not only dead last, but by a massive statistical margin of almost three standard deviations.”

Taylor footnotes the source for his rankings, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. The five worse providers listed for consumer satisfaction:

  • Comcast
  • Time Warner Cable
  • Charter Communications
  • Cox Communications
  • Verizon

AT&T has also made noises about insisting on compensation for its own network upgrades, blaming Netflix traffic.

level3In fact, Netflix traffic seems to be a common point of contention among Internet Service Providers that also sell their own television packages. They now insist the streaming video provider establish direct, paid connections with their networks. Level 3 is affected because it carries a substantial amount of traffic on behalf of Netflix.

Ultimately, the debate is about who pays for network upgrades to keep up with traffic growth. Taylor says Level 3′s cost to add an extra 10Gbps port would be between $10-20 thousand dollars, spare change for multi-billion dollar Americans cable and phone companies. Normally, competition would never allow a traffic dispute like this interfere with a customer’s usage experience. Angry customers would simply switch providers. But the lack of competition prevents this from happening in the United States, leaving customers in the middle.

This leaves Taylor with a question: “Shouldn’t a broadband consumer network with near monopoly control over their customers be expected, if not obligated, to deliver a better experience than this?”

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Tom Wheeler: The Neville Chamberlain of the Internet; More Big Telecom Appeasement

Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, 1937-1940

Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, 1937-1940

“If you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” — Neville Chamberlain, 1938

Another day, another damage control effort from FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, still reeling from days of criticism in response to his plan to revisit the issue of Net Neutrality next month.

In a lengthy blog post, Wheeler still believes it’s all a big misunderstanding:

“Some recent commentary has had a misinformed interpretation of the Open Internet Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) currently before the Commission,” writes Wheeler. “There are two things that are important to understand.  First, this is not a final decision by the Commission but rather a formal request for input on a proposal as well as a set of related questions.  Second, as the Notice makes clear, all options for protecting and promoting an Open Internet are on the table.”

Except they are not.

Wheeler channels former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by declaring a deep desire for “peace in our time” with half-measures instead of direct confrontation with Big Telecom interests.

“I believe this process will put us on track to have tough, enforceable Open Internet rules on the books in an expeditious manner, ending a decade of uncertainty and litigation,” Wheeler declares. “The idea of Net Neutrality (or the Open Internet) has been discussed for a decade with no lasting results. Today Internet Openness is being decided on an ad hoc basis by big companies. Further delay will only exacerbate this problem.”

The troubles with Net Neutrality are a problem of the agency’s own making and its leadership’s utter failure to show courage in the face of Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T’s power and influence. Former FCC chairman Michael Powell (now top cable industry lobbyist) created the problem when he invented a classification for broadband as an “information service” out of thin air without any clear authority. At the heart of Powell’s “policy statement” were four basic Internet principles:

  1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
  2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

net_neutralityPowell’s principles stood as long as the FCC’s policies moved in lock-step with the telecommunications industry. When the FCC strayed from industry talking points and started showing some enforcement teeth, some of the same telecom companies that send the FCC cupcakes took them to court.

Former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski who insisted the FCC had authority over broadband because he said so believed the best way forward was to involve the industry in the development of Net Neutrality policies they could live with. After multiple private phone conversations and closed-door meetings, companies like Verizon helped write the guidelines for protecting the Open Internet and then, after they were implemented, sued the FCC in federal court.

“We are deeply concerned by the FCC’s assertion of broad authority for sweeping new regulation of broadband networks and the Internet itself,” said Michael E. Glover, Verizon’s senior vice president and deputy general counsel. “We believe this assertion of authority goes well beyond any authority provided by Congress, and creates uncertainty for the communications industry, innovators, investors and consumers.”

That’s gratitude for you, and it wasn’t the first time.

Phillip "Your Wallet=Czechoslovakia" Dampier

Phillip “Your Wallet = Czechoslovakia” Dampier

In 2010, an exasperated D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t exactly encounter Perry Mason when the FCC legal team showed up to defend its order demanding Comcast cease throttling broadband traffic. When the FCC threatened to fine Comcast, the cable company sued claiming the FCC had no authority over how they run their broadband business. Commission lawyer Austin C. Schlick delivered a less-than-robust defense of the FCC’s scheme.

“If I’m going to lose I would like to lose more narrowly,” Schlick confided. “But above all, we want guidance from this Court so that when we do this rule-making, if we decide rules are appropriate we’d like to know what we need to do to establish jurisdiction.”

Justice A. Raymond Randolph had none of it.

“We don’t give guidance,” Randolph grumbled, “we decide cases.” The FCC lost.

Legal experts already knew the FCC was on thin ice.  First, the Powell’s statement was never codified by the Commission’s own rulemaking procedure.  Second, the Commission framed the broadband policy as a set of “guidelines,” a term considered legally vague.  Third, the FCC relied on the concept of “ancillary” authority — borrowing regulatory authority from so-called “policy statements” coming from Congress, to claim jurisdiction.

DC Circuit Court

DC Circuit Court

So it should come as no surprise that the same framework declared invalid when the FCC tried to spank Comcast was just as useless in shoring up the FCC’s authority to enforce Net Neutrality.

U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel, writing for a three-judge panel, said that while the FCC has the power to regulate Verizon and other broadband companies, it chose the wrong legal framework for its open-Internet regulations.

“Given that the commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the commission from nonetheless regulating them as such,” Tatel wrote.

Judge Tatel could not have been more clear. In his second ruling, he noted the FCC’s ongoing resistance to reclassify broadband service under the well-grounded definition of a “telecommunications service” is at the heart of the problem.

But Wheeler, like his immediate predecessor Julias Genachowski, still stubbornly grips Powell’s flawed framework like a life-preserver off the Titanic:

The FCC promises Verizon it won't do it again

The FCC promises Verizon they won’t have to sue again.

I am concerned that acting in a manner that ignores the Verizon court’s guidance, or opening an entirely new approach, invites delay that could tack on multiple more years before there are Open Internet rules in place.  We are asking for comment on a proposed a course of action that could result in an enforceable rule rather than continuing the debate over our legal authority that has so far produced nothing of permanence for the Internet.

I do not believe we should leave the market unprotected for multiple more years while lawyers for the biggest corporate players tie the FCC’s protections up in court.  Notwithstanding this, all regulatory options remain on the table. If the proposal before us now turns out to be insufficient or if we observe anyone taking advantage of the rule, I won’t hesitate to use Title II. However, unlike with Title II, we can use the court’s roadmap to implement Open Internet regulation now rather than endure additional years of litigation and delay.

Here is some news Wheeler can use: No matter what policies the FCC enacts or how, if they run contrary to the interests of Big Telecom companies, they will sue anyway. Net Neutrality appeasement by collaboration did not stop Verizon from promptly suing the FCC to overturn in court the rules the company helped write.

Wheeler needs to deal his reclassification card or get out of the game. It is increasingly clear it is the only legal basis under which the Court of Appeals will readily accept the FCC’s authority to oversee broadband.

Wheeler has his own set of Powell-like principles – the Four No-No’s of the Net:

Let me be clear, however, as to what I believe is not “commercially reasonable” on the Internet:

  • Something that harms consumers is not commercially reasonable. For instance, degrading service in order to create a new “fast lane” would be shut down.

  • Something that harms competition is not commercially reasonable. For instance, degrading overall service so as to force consumers and content companies to a higher priced tier would be shut down.

  • Providing exclusive, prioritized service to an affiliate is not commercially reasonable. For instance, a broadband provider that also owns a sports network should not be able to give a commercial advantage to that network over another competitive sports network wishing to reach viewers over the Internet.

  • Something that curbs the free exercise of speech and civic engagement is not commercially reasonable. For instance, if the creators of new Internet content or services had to seek permission from ISPs or pay special fees to be seen online such action should be shut down.

But there are plenty of loopholes in Wheeler’s proposals. First, “degrading service” goes undefined. As we’ve seen recently, there is a difference between purposely throttling a broadband connection and not maintaining and upgrading it to handle growing traffic. Second, Wheeler’s idea of what is “commercially reasonable” is not defined either. A provider could make all of its owned sports networks exempt from usage caps. That is neither “exclusive” or “prioritized.” It just doesn’t count against your usage allowance. Third, you might have open access to all of this content but won’t want it because your provider’s preferred partners get faster and more responsive service and less waiting for pages or videos to load.

Wheeler’s apparent naiveté about this industry and its behavior is beyond belief considering the decades he worked on behalf of the cable and wireless industry. Netflix foreshadows an Internet future without robust Net Neutrality. Verizon, Comcast and others ignore complaints about the degrading performance of Netflix, refusing to upgrade their connections of behalf of paying customers, until Netflix also agrees to pay them. When Netflix drops a check in the mail, the problem disappears. It doesn’t seem to matter that customers paying a very high price for Internet service cannot get the service they deserve unless someone else also pays.

If we can see this problem, it is extraordinarily curious why Wheeler cannot (or will not). Wheeler’s tough talk is cheap, but American broadband is not. Without direct action that reclassifies broadband as a telecommunications service, nothing Wheeler proposes or gets enacted is likely to survive the next inevitable court challenge.

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FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler Explains His Net Neutrality Policies… at the Cable Industry Convention

Wheeler

Wheeler

Federal Communications Commission chairman Thomas Wheeler this morning defended his forthcoming Net Neutrality policies in front of an audience of cable executives attending the Cable Show in Los Angeles.

“If you read some of the press accounts about what we propose to do, those of you who oppose Net Neutrality might feel like a celebration was in order,” Wheeler told the cable industry audience. “Reports that we are gutting the Open Internet rules are incorrect. I am here to say wait a minute. Put away the party hats. The Open Internet rules will be tough, enforceable and, with the concurrence of my colleagues, in place with dispatch.”

“Let me be clear,” Wheeler continued. “If someone acts to divide the Internet between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ we will use every power at our disposal to stop it. I consider that to include Title II. Just because it is my strong belief that following the court’s roadmap will produce similar protections more quickly, does not mean I will hesitate to use Title II if warranted. And, in our Notice, we are asking for input as to whether this approach should be used.”

Wheeler also used the forum to acknowledge that cable companies are now the “principal provider of broadband” in the United States, a slap at telephone company DSL service that continues to lose market share.

Wheeler’s comments primarily addressed intentional interference with Internet traffic and remained silent about whether the FCC would allow providers to delay network upgrades that gradually allow service to degrade while selling improved “Quality of Service” contracts to content providers like Netflix.

“Prioritizing some traffic by forcing the rest of the traffic into a congested lane won’t be permitted under any proposed Open Internet rule,” Wheeler insisted. “We will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's Speech and Chat with Michael Powell 4-30-14.mp4

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler spoke before the 2014 NCTA Cable Show this morning to speak about Net Neutrality and chat with NCTA president Michael Powell. (39:15)

Wheeler’s remarks in full can be found below the jump:

… Continue Reading

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Netflix Agrees to Pay Comcast for Improved Video Streaming; Could ‘Limit Competition’

comcast toll plazaNetflix has agreed to compensate Comcast in return for assurances that the cable company’s subscribers would no longer be caught in the middle of a dispute between Comcast and one of Netflix’s content distributors.

The multi-year agreement between the two companies will bring Netflix direct access to Comcast’s broadband network with a Service Level Agreement that will guarantee streaming stability for customers who have loudly complained about Netflix’s deteriorating performance.

The controversial arrangement has probably established a precedent for other large Internet Service Providers likely to seek compensation to handle Netflix traffic. As of this evening, both AT&T and Verizon have already acknowledged they are negotiating with Netflix for similar arrangements.

Caught in the middle of the dispute are Comcast customers paying for a reliable Internet connection and getting slowing connections and re-buffering problems while attempting to watch Netflix content during peak usage times.

One side accuses Comcast of violating Net Neutrality while the other blames Netflix for dumping enormous Internet traffic on Internet Service Providers without compensation for network upgrades. Also in the crossfire is Cogent, a third-party company delivering Netflix content to Comcast’s front door.

How Netflix Distributes Its Streaming Movies and TV Shows

netflix cdnNetflix has traditionally avoided owning the “pipes” that distribute movies and TV shows to paying customers. Instead, it usually contracts with “transit providers” to send content from Netflix headquarters on to “content distribution networks (CDN)” that manage video streaming. A Netflix video may pass through a number of connections on a variety of independently owned networks before it arrives at the front door of your Internet Service Provider. Companies like Comcast handle “the last mile” of the journey that began at Netflix and ends at your computer or television set.

Netflix does not rely on just one transit provider to handle its traffic. Level 3, Cogent, and XO Communications all reportedly serve in that capacity, depending on where traffic is headed. The same is true for the CDN’s Netflix contracts with to regionally stream content to each subscriber.

Netflix determines how to handle your streaming movie request behind the scenes, selecting a CDN that is close to you and capable of delivering the most stable streaming experience at that moment. If you are a Comcast or Verizon customer, Netflix often selects Cogent to handle its content. Cogent is also well known for its relatively low cost.

If you are served by Cablevision, Frontier, or certain other providers like Google Fiber, Netflix will instead direct your streaming request to a CDN located within your provider’s own network. These “Open Connect” boxes store Netflix content in a type of cache and can stream it to customers directly without sending video packets across multiple third-party networks. Theoretically, Open Connect offers an efficient and stable way of distributing Netflix content to customers. It also saves Netflix money and in return, it costs the ISP nothing — Netflix pays for the equipment and service.

Cogent vs. Big Telecom

220px-CogentlogoNetflix and YouTube together are now estimated to cover 50 percent of all video traffic on the Internet, and that traffic is growing. Cogent dutifully passes that video content along to Internet Service Providers like Verizon and Comcast that have customers waiting to watch. But it is a two-way street. Any outbound traffic from customers could also be forwarded to Cogent to send on. Traditionally, both sides have managed the traffic by gradually increasing the bandwidth and speed of their connections to one-another. But as Netflix traffic grows and grows, companies like Comcast and Verizon believe they are being saddled with the costs to upgrade their networks in ways that are out of proportion to the traffic they send in the other direction. ISPs often grumble about the cost but keep on upgrading to keep paying customers happy. Verizon and Comcast are suspected of dragging their feet on those upgrades in an effort to win compensation.

Verizon and Comcast argue they should be paid by content producers responsible for generating tons of Internet traffic to help cover the cost of upgrades. Instead, Netflix offered its Open Connect boxes, which keep Netflix traffic within an ISPs own network, reducing the necessity of constantly upgrading connections with other transit providers. Verizon and Comcast don’t want Netflix’s solution — they want cold hard cash.

Conflict of Interest

Some network engineers cannot understand all the controversy about Comcast’s arrangement with Netflix. Some believe Netflix is simply shifting traffic away from third-party Cogent to Comcast directly, presumably at a cost savings. They suggest customers will be happy that streaming quality is restored and Netflix also wins a guaranteed level of performance they never had with Cogent.

2hatBut that argument does not explain why Netflix was compelled to make a financial arrangement with Comcast. The two companies have been in negotiations on the subject of traffic compensation for months. Many industry observers believe those talks went nowhere until Netflix customers began complaining about the increasing network slowdowns. Some even dropped their Netflix subscriptions over the issue.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings admitted he made a deal with Comcast to restore customer confidence in Netflix and end subscriber frustration. It was also increasingly clear Comcast was in no hurry to improve things on its own, despite the fact its own customers were the ones most directly affected.

So why wouldn’t Comcast (or Verizon or Time Warner Cable) take Netflix up on its offer of free Open Connect boxes that would reasonably solve streaming problems without forcing anyone to spend a fortune on upgrades? Simply put, all three companies are direct competitors of Netflix. Helping Netflix offer a top quality streaming experience is not in the best interests of Comcast (or others) that are facing potential cord-cutting customer losses in their subscription video businesses. Verizon has partnered with Redbox to deliver streamed video, Comcast operates Streampix, its own online streaming service, and Time Warner Cable offers a variety of on-demand and streamed video content for its cable TV subscribers. None of these services have suffered from traffic congestion issues.

ISP Payday

ISP Payday

What About Net Neutrality? What About Paying Customers?

With Net Neutrality tossed out by the courts, there is little any regulator can do to resolve disputes until Net Neutrality can be properly enforced under a stronger regulatory framework. Some argue the congestion issues creating the problems with Netflix are not a true violation of Net Neutrality in any event because providers are not artificially prioritizing traffic.

They are simply not keeping up with upgrades that just so happen to directly impact a competitor while leaving their own services unscathed.

Providers also seem characteristically unconcerned about complaining customers, passing blame for the problem on to Netflix. Besides, they remind you, paying for an Internet connection alone does not entitle you to any guarantee of performance.

The Dam Breaks

With this week’s agreement between Comcast and Netflix, both AT&T and Verizon wasted no time admitting they are both seeking compensation from Netflix as well. Other providers are likely to follow.

Netflix warned investors that paid agreements with ISPs could adversely affect its earnings due to increased costs. Although stopping short of suggesting price increases for Netflix customers could come as a result, Wall Street wasted no time worrying about the financial impact of deals like the one between Netflix and Comcast.

The Wall Street Journal reported the momentum appears to be shifting in favor of large Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T and away from content producers.

Janney Capital analyst Tony Wible suggested Comcast’s toll booth could create a barrier for other content producers if the cable company asks for significant compensation.

“Although there is no prioritization benefit [from the deal], we suspect that the exchange of money for resolution/performance could (if large) effectively limit competition,” said Wible. “In essence, Netflix could be trading [profit] margins for subscribers. Few others can match Netflix’s [spending budget to acquire content] without incurring massive losses. The competition may now have to cope with additional fees that sway their willingness to compete if they do not already have a large subscriber base.”

In other words, a new Internet startup could face hard questions from investors about how it intends to cover ISP demands for compensation in return for a suitable connection to reach customers. A large venture like Netflix has enough resources to handle those costs and negotiate for a better deal while a smaller startup may not.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Netflix Comcast Agreement 2-24-14.flv

Netflix has signed a deal with Comcast to ensure smooth streaming, in what is being called a landmark agreement. Wall Street Journal reporter Shalini Ramachandran explains the agreement. (3:39)

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Peer Wars: Netflix SuperHD Streaming May Explain Video Traffic Slowdowns for Some Customers

The largest drops in streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the expense of their customers' online experience.

The largest drops in Netflix streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the cost of their paying customers’ online experience.

Netflix performance for Verizon customers is deteriorating because Verizon may be delaying bandwidth upgrades until it receives compensation for handling the growing amount of traffic coming from the online video provider.

Verizon customers have increasingly complained about Netflix slowdowns during prime-time, especially in the northeast, and Netflix’s latest statistics confirm FiOS customers have seen average performance drop by as much as 14% in the last month alone.

Verizon told Stop the Cap! a few weeks ago the company was not interfering with Netflix traffic or degrading its performance, but there is growing evidence that may not be the whole story. The Wall Street Journal reports Netflix and at least one bandwidth provider suspect phone and cable companies are purposely stalling on upgrading connections to handle traffic growth from Netflix until they are compensated for carrying its video traffic.

The dispute involves the plumbing behind parts of the Internet that are invisible to consumers. As more people stream movies and television, that infrastructure is getting strained, intensifying the debate over who should pay for upgrades needed to satisfy America’s online-video habit.

Netflix wants broadband companies to hook up to its new video-distribution network without paying them fees for carrying its traffic. But the biggest U.S. providers—Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T Inc. —have resisted, insisting on compensation.

The bottleneck has made Netflix unwatchable for Jen Zellinger, an information-technology manager from Carney, Md., who signed up for the service last month. She couldn’t play an episode of “Breaking Bad” without it stopping, she said, even after her family upgraded their FiOS Internet service to a faster, more expensive package. “We tried a couple other shows, and it didn’t seem to make any difference,” she said. Mrs. Zellinger said she plans to drop her Netflix service soon if the picture doesn’t improve, though she will likely hold on to her upgraded FiOS subscription.

She and her husband thought about watching “House of Cards,” but she said they probably will skip it. “We’d be interested in getting to that if we could actually pull up the show,” she said.

Netflix relies on third-party traffic distributors to deliver much of its streamed programming to customers around the country. Cogent Communications Group is a Netflix favorite. Cogent maintains two-way connections with many Internet Service Providers. When incoming and outgoing traffic are generally balanced, providers don’t complain. But when Cogent started delivering far more traffic to Verizon customers than what it receives from them, Verizon sought compensation for the disparity.

“When one party’s getting all the benefit and the other’s carrying all the cost, issues will arise,” Craig Silliman, Verizon’s head of public policy and government affairs told the newspaper. The imbalance is primarily coming from the growth of online video, and as higher definition video grows more popular, traffic imbalances can grow dramatically worse.

A spat last summer between Cogent and some ISPs is nearly identical to the current slowdown. Ars Technica reported the traditional warning signs providers used to start upgrades are increasingly being ignored:

“Typically what happened is when the connections reached about 50 percent utilization, the two parties agreed to upgrade them and they would be upgraded in a timely manner,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer told Ars. “Over the past year or so, as we have continued to pick up Netflix traffic, Verizon has continuously slowed down the rate of upgrading those connections, allowing the interconnections to become totally saturated and therefore degrading the quality of throughput.”

Schaeffer said this is true of all the big players to varying degrees, naming Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. Out of those, he said that “AT&T is the best behaved of the bunch.”

Letting ports fill up can be a negotiating tactic. Verizon and Cogent each have to spend about $10,000 for equipment when a port is added, Schaeffer said—pocket change for companies of this size. But instead of the companies sharing equal costs, Verizon wants Cogent to pay because more traffic is flowing from Cogent to Verizon than vice versa.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix's Open Connect program experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said with Time Warner Cable, which refuses to participate.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix’s Open Connect program, experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said of Time Warner Cable, which refuses to take part.

Netflix offered a solution to help Internet Service Providers manage its video traffic. Netflix’s Open Connect offers free peering at common Internet exchanges as well as free storage appliances that ISPs can connect directly to their network to distribute video to customers. Free is always good, and Netflix claims many ISPs around the world have already taken them up on the offer, slashing their transit costs along the way.

A few major North American ISPs have also agreed to take part in Open Connect, including Frontier Communications, Clearwire, Telus, Bell, Cablevision and Google Fiber. Open Connect participating ISPs also got an initial bonus for participating they could offer customers – exclusive access to SuperHD streaming.

But most Americans would not get super high-resolution streaming because the largest ISP’s refused to participate, seeking direct compensation from content providers to carry traffic across their digital pipes instead.

On Sep. 26, 2013 Netflix decided to offer SuperHD streaming to all customers, regardless of their ISP. As a result, one major ISP told the newspaper Netflix traffic from Cogent at least quadrupled. ISPs taking Netflix up on Open Connect saw almost no degradation from the increased traffic, but not so for Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast customers.

Net Neutrality advocates fear the country’s largest phone and cable companies are making an end-run around the concept of an Open Internet. Providers can honestly guarantee not to interfere with certain web traffic, but also refuse to keep up with needed upgrades to accommodate it unless they receive payment. The slowdowns and unsatisfactory performance are the same in the end for those caught in the middle – paying customers.

“Customers are already paying for it,” said industry observer Benoît Felten. “You sell a service to the end-user which is you can access the Internet. You make a huge margin on that. Why should they get extra revenue for something that’s already being paid for?”

Some of the web’s biggest players including Microsoft, Google and Facebook may have already capitulated — agreeing to pay major providers for direct connections that guarantee a smoother browsing experience. Netflix has, thus far, held out against paying ISPs to properly manage the video content their subscribers want to watch but in some cases no longer can.

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House of (Credit) Cards: How to Blow Through Your Usage Cap With One Netflix Show

house-of-cards

“…every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless, at first, small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood, sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted.” — Francis Underwood

Addicts of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards may need to grab a card of a different kind to cover overlimit fees charged by your Internet Service Provider for blowing past your usage allowance.

As online video streaming moves into the realm of 4K — the next generation of high-definition video — watching television shows and movies online could get very expensive because of the massive file sizes involved. It’s all just in time for ISP’s increasing enforcement of usage caps.

courtesy-notice-640x259Gizmodo just did the math for those intending to spend a weekend watching the entire second season of the made-for-Netflix series in high-definition:

Streaming in 1080p on Netflix takes up 4.7GB/hour. So a regular one-hour episode of something debiting less than 5GB from your allotment is no big deal. However, with 4K, you’ve got quadruple the pixel count, so you’re burning through 18.8GB/hour. Even if you’re streaming with the new h.265 codec—which cuts the bit rate by about half, but still hasn’t found its way into many consumer products—you’re still looking at 7GB/hour.

But you’re not watching just one episode, are you? Of course not! You’re binging on House of Cards, watching the whole series if not in one weekend then certainly in one month. That’s 639 minutes of top-quality TV, which in 4K tallies up to 75GB if you’re using the latest and greatest codec, and nearly 200GB if not. That means, best case scenario, a quarter of your cap—a third, if you’re a U-Verse customer with a 250GB cap—spent on one television show. Throw in a normal month’s internet usage, and you’re toast.

Sure you can send 900+ emails, download hundreds of songs, upload hundreds of pictures, but you can't watch one standard and one HD movie a day at the same time without blowing past your AT&T DSL limit.

Sure you can send 900+ emails, download hundreds of songs, upload hundreds of pictures, and play online games 24 hours a day, but you can’t also watch one standard and one HD movie a day at the same time without blowing well past your AT&T DSL limit.

What is worse is that h.265 is still more theoretical than actually available to most consumers, so customers will either have to settle with degraded video or prepare to eat close to 19GB an hour at the highest resolution. No wonder Netflix has introduced video degradation settings to save you from your ISP’s arbitrary cap. Of course, your video quality will suffer, especially on a big screen television.

Comcast customers (and presumably Time Warner Cable customers also eventually subjected to Comcast’s cap) will still have a generous 100GB left over to watch, browse, and send that avalanche of e-mails usage cappers love to boast about. If you live in the reality-based community and have a family active online, that 100GB isn’t going to go too far. Video game addicts regularly face downloading huge updates, many ranging from 8-12GB apiece. Call of Duty: Ghosts? That’s 39.5GB. Madden NFL 25? Another 12.51GB, says Gizmodo. Using a file backup cloud storage service can also eat your allowance for breakfast.

Gizmodo also mentions Sony’s Unlimited Video service has 70 titles (and growing) available in 4K. A Sony representative admits a single two-hour movie will burn up 40GB. Watch a few of those and you are well on your way to blowing your allowance Vegas-style.

AT&T cooked up the arbitrary de facto standard overlimit fee now adopted by many American ISPs, and granular it isn’t. Exceed your allowance by even 1 kilobyte and you will be charged an extra $10 for 50 extra gigabytes. Because AT&T, Comcast, Suddenlink, and others are not already paid enough for broadband service and their modem rental.

Online video is the online application most likely to put you over your limit. Most ISPs don’t like to talk about that, however. They prefer to explain caps in terms of activities no online user is likely to ever exceed, including sending thousands of e-mails, viewing hundreds of thousands of web pages, transferring boatloads of songs and images, and watching YouTube videos at low resolution.

If you don’t watch online video, your cable or phone company thanks you for paying for cable television instead. If you haven’t used a peer-to-peer network in years, chances are you won’t exceed any limits either. But as Internet usage continues to evolve, anything that appears to be a competitive threat delivered over your ISP’s broadband pipe can be effectively controlled with the elimination of flat rate Internet service and imposing overlimit fees that deter usage.

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