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FCC Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel Blast Republican Colleagues Over Net Neutrality Repeal

The two Democratic minority members of the Federal Communications Commission shared their strong sentiments today in remarks condemning the 3-2 vote to repeal net neutrality. Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel appeared irritated at today’s Open Commission Meeting. They expressed concern that today’s vote appeared politically motivated and ignored more than 20 million comments filed by members of the public, most in favor of net neutrality.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai did not reference any comments from the public in his remarks supporting net neutrality’s repeal, which the FCC website celebrated as, “Reversing Title II Framework, Increases Transparency to Protect Consumers, Spur Investment, Innovation, and Competition.”

Jessica Rosenworcel

“Net neutrality is internet freedom. I support that freedom. I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules. I dissent from the corrupt process that has brought us to this point. And I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today. This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.

The future of the internet is the future of everything. That is because there is nothing in our commercial, social, and civic lives that has been untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power. And here in the United States our internet economy is the envy of the world. This is because it rests on a foundation of openness.

That openness is revolutionary. It means you can go where you want and do what you want online without your broadband provider getting in the way or making choices for you. It means every one of us can create without permission, build community beyond geography, organize without physical constraints, consume content we want when and where we want it, and share ideas not just around the corner but across the globe. I believe it is essential that we sustain this foundation of openness—and that is why I support net neutrality.

Net neutrality has deep origins in communications law and history. In the era when communications meant telephony, every call went through, and your phone company could not cut off your call or edit the content of your conversations. This guiding principle of nondiscrimination meant you were in control of the connections you made.

This principle continued as time advanced, technology changed, and Internet access became the dial tone of the digital age. So it was twelve years ago—when President George W. Bush was in the White House—that this agency put its first net neutrality policies on paper. In the decade that followed, the FCC revamped and revised its net neutrality rules, seeking to keep them current and find them a stable home in the law. In its 2015 order the FCC succeeded—because in the following year, in a 184-page opinion the agency’s net neutrality rules were fully and completely upheld.

So our existing net neutrality policies have passed court muster. They are wildly popular. But today we wipe away this work, destroy this progress, and burn down time-tested values that have made our Internet economy the envy of the world.

Rosenworcel

As a result of today’s misguided action, our broadband providers will get extraordinary new power from this agency. They will have the power to block websites, throttle services, and censor online content. They will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road.

Now our broadband providers will tell you they will never do these things. They say just trust us. But know this: they have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic. And now this agency gives them the legal green light to go ahead and do so.

This is not good. Not good for consumers. Not good for businesses. Not good for anyone who connects and creates online. Not good for the democratizing force that depends on openness to thrive. Moreover, it is not good for American leadership on the global stage of our new and complex digital world.

I’m not alone with these concerns. Everyone from the creator of the world wide web to religious leaders to governors and mayors of big cities and small towns to musicians to actors and actresses to entrepreneurs and academics and activists has registered their upset and anger. They are reeling at how this agency could make this kind of mistake. They are wondering how it could be so tone deaf. And they are justifiably concerned that just a few unelected officials could make such vast and far-reaching decisions about the future of the internet.

So after erasing our net neutrality rules what is left? What recourse do consumers have?

We’re told don’t worry, competition will save us. But the FCC’s own data show that our broadband markets are not competitive. Half of the households in this country have no choice of broadband provider. So if your broadband provider is blocking websites, you have no recourse. You have nowhere to go.

We’re told don’t worry, the Federal Trade Commission will save us. But the FTC is not the expert agency for communications. It has authority over unfair and deceptive practices. But to evade FTC review, all any broadband provider will need to do is add new provisions to the fine print in its terms of service. In addition, it is both costly and impractical to report difficulties to the FTC. By the time the FTC gets around to addressing them in court proceedings or enforcement actions, it’s fair to assume that the start-ups and small entities wrestling with discriminatory treatment could be long done. Moreover, what little authority the FTC has is now under question in the courts.

We’re told don’t worry, the state authorities will save us. But at the same time, the FCC all but clears the field with sweeping preemption of anything that resembles state or local consumer protection.

If the substance that got us to this point is bad, the process is even worse.

Let’s talk about the public record.

The public has been making noise, speaking up, and raising a ruckus. We see it in the protests across the country and outside here today. We see it in how they lit up our phone lines, clogged our e-mail in-boxes, and jammed our online comment system. It might be messy, but whatever our disagreements are on this dais I hope we can agree this is democracy in action—and something we can all support.

To date, nearly 24 million comments have been filed in this proceeding. There is no record in the history of this agency that has attracted so many filings. But there’s something foul in this record:

Two million comments feature stolen identities.

Half a million comments are from Russian addresses.

Fifty thousand consumer complaints are inexplicably missing from the record.

I think that’s a problem. I think our record has been corrupted and our process for public participation lacks integrity. Nineteen state attorneys general agree. They have written us demanding we halt our vote until we investigate and get to the bottom of this mess. Identity theft is a crime under state and federal law—and while it is taking place this agency has turned a blind eye to its victims and callously told our fellow law enforcement officials it will not help.

This is not acceptable. It is a stain on the FCC and this proceeding. This issue is not going away. It needs to be addressed.

Finally, I worry that this decision and the process that brought us to this point is ugly. It’s ugly in the cavalier disregard this agency has demonstrated to the public, the contempt it has shown for citizens who speak up, and the disdain it has for popular opinion. Unlike its predecessors this FCC has not held a single public hearing on net neutrality. There is no shortage of people who believe Washington is not listening to their concerns, their fears, and their desires. Add this agency to the list.

I, too, am frustrated. But here’s a twist: I hear you. I listen to what callers are saying. I read the countless, individually written e-mails in my in-box, the posts online, and the very short and sometimes very long letters. And I’m not going to give up—and neither should you. If the arc of history is long, we are going to bend this toward a more just outcome. In the courts. In Congress. Wherever we need to go to ensure that net neutrality stays the law of the land. Because if you are conservative or progressive, you benefit from internet openness. If you come from a small town or big city, you benefit from internet openness. If you are a company or non-profit, you benefit from internet openness. If you are a start-up or an established business, you benefit from internet openness. If you are a consumer or a creator, you benefit from internet openness. If you believe in democracy, you benefit from internet openness.

So let’s persist. Let’s fight. Let’s not stop here or now. It’s too important. The future depends on it.”

Mignon Clyburn

“I dissent. I dissent from this fiercely-spun, legally-lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling Destroying Internet Freedom Order.

I dissent, because I am among the millions who is outraged. Outraged, because the FCC pulls its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers. Why are we witnessing such an unprecedented groundswell of public support, for keeping the 2015 net neutrality protections in place? Because the public can plainly see, that a soon-to-be-toothless FCC, is handing the keys to the Internet – the Internet, one of the most remarkable, empowering, enabling inventions of our lifetime – over to a handful of multi-billion dollar corporations. And if past is prologue, those very same broadband internet service providers, that the majority says you should trust to do right by you, will put profits and shareholder returns above, what is best for you.

Each of us raised our right hands when we were sworn in as FCC Commissioners, took an oath and promised to uphold our duties and responsibilities ‘to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination… a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.’ Today the FCC majority officially abandons that pledge and millions have taken note.

I do not believe that there are any FCC or Congressional offices immune to the deluge of consumer outcry. We are even hearing about state and local offices fielding calls and what is always newsworthy is that at last count, five Republican Members of Congress went on the record in calling for a halt of today’s vote. Why such a bipartisan outcry? Because the large majority of Americans are in favor of keeping strong net neutrality rules in place. The sad thing about this commentary, it pains me to say, is what I can only describe as the new norm at the FCC: A majority that is ignoring the will of the people. A majority that will stand idly by while the people they serve lose.

We have heard story after story of what net neutrality means to consumers and small businesses from places as diverse as Los Angeles’ Skid Row and Marietta, Ohio. I hold in my hand letters that plead with the FCC to keep our net neutrality rules in place but what is striking and in keeping with the new norm, despite the millions of comments, letters, and calls received, this Order cites, not even one. That speaks volumes about the direction the FCC is heading. That speaks volumes about just who is being heard.

Clyburn

Sole proprietors, whose entire business model, depends on an open internet, are worried that the absence of clear and enforceable net neutrality protections will result in higher costs and fewer benefits because you see: they are not able to pay tolls for premium access. Even large online businesses have weighed in, expressing concern about being subject to added charges as they simply try to reach their own customers. Engineers have submitted comments including many of the internet’s pioneers, sharing with the FCC majority, the fundamentals of how the internet works because from where they sit, there is no way that an item like this would ever see the light of day, if the majority understood the platform some of them helped to create.

I have heard from innovators, worried that we are standing up a mother-may-I regime, where the broadband provider becomes arbiter of acceptable online business models. And yes, I have heard from consumers, who are worried given that their broadband provider has already shown that they will charge inscrutable below-the-line fees, raise prices unexpectedly, and put consumers on hold for hours at a time. Who will have their best interests at heart in a world without clear and enforceable rules overseen by an agency with clear enforcement authority? A toothless FCC?

There has been a darker side to all of this over the past few weeks. Threats and intimidation. Personal attacks. Nazis cheering. Russian influence. Fake comments. Those are unacceptable. Some are illegal. They all are to be rejected. But what is also not acceptable, is the FCC’s refusal to cooperate with state attorney general investigations, or allow evidence in the record that would undercut a preordained outcome.

Many have asked, what happens next? How will all of this – Net Neutrality, my internet experience, look after today? My answer is simple. When the current protections are abandoned, and the rules that have been officially in place since 2015 are repealed, we will have a Cheshire cat version of net neutrality. We will be in a world where regulatory substance fades to black, and all that is left is a broadband provider’s toothy grin and those oh so comforting words: we have every incentive to do the right thing.

What they will soon have, is every incentive to do their own thing.Now the results of throwing out your Net Neutrality protections, may not be felt right away. Most of us will get up tomorrow morning and over the next week, wade through hundreds of headlines, turn away from those endless prognosticators, and submerge ourselves in a sea of holiday bliss. But what we have wrought will one day be apparent and by then, when you really see what has changed, I fear, it may not only be too late to do anything about it, because there will be no agency empowered to address your concerns. This item insidiously ensures the FCC will never be able to fully grasp the harm it may have unleashed on the internet ecosystem. And that inability might lead decisionmakers to conclude, that the next internet startup that failed to flourish and attempted to seek relief, simply had a bad business plan, when in fact what was missing was a level playing field online.

Particularly damning is what today’s repeal will mean for marginalized groups, like communities of color, that rely on platforms like the internet to communicate, because traditional outlets do not consider their issues or concerns, worthy of any coverage. It was through social media that the world first heard about Ferguson, Missouri, because legacy news outlets did not consider it important until the hashtag started trending. It has been through online video services, that targeted entertainment has thrived, where stories are finally being told because those same programming were repeatedly rejected by mainstream distribution and media outlets. And it has been through secure messaging platforms, where activists have communicated and organized for justice without gatekeepers with differing opinions blocking them.

Where will the next significant attack on internet freedom come from? Maybe from a broadband provider allowing its network to congest, making a high-traffic video provider ask what more can it pay to make the pain stop. That will never happen you say? Well it already has. The difference now, is the open question of what is stopping them? The difference after today’s vote, is that no one will be able to stop them.

Maybe several providers will quietly roll out paid prioritization packages that enable deep-pocketed players to cut the queue. Maybe a vertically-integrated broadband provider decides that it will favor its own apps and services. Or some high-value internet-of-things traffic will be subject to an additional fee. Maybe some of these actions will be cloaked under nondisclosure agreements and wrapped up in mandatory arbitration clauses so that it will be a breach of contract to disclose these publicly or take the provider to court over any wrongdoing. Some may say ‘Of Course this will never happen?” After today’s vote, what will be in place to stop them?

What we do know, is that broadband providers did not even wait for the ink to dry on this Order before making their moves. One broadband provider, who had in the past promised to not engage in paid prioritization, has now quietly dropped that promise from its list of commitments on its website. What’s next? Blocking or throttling? That will never happen? After today’s vote, exactly who is the cop of the beat that can or will stop them?

And just who will be impacted the most? Consumers and small businesses, that’s who. The internet continues to evolve and has become ever more critical for every participant in our 21st century ecosystem: government services have migrated online, as have educational opportunities and job notices and applications, but at the same time, broadband providers have continued to consolidate, becoming bigger. They own their own content, they own media companies, and they own or have an interest in other types of services.

Why are millions so alarmed? Because they understand the risks this all poses and even those who may not know what Title II authority is, know that they will be at risk without it.

I have been asking myself repeatedly, why the majority is so singularly-focused on overturning these wildly-popular rules? Is it simply because they felt that the 2015 Net Neutrality order, which threw out over 700 rules and dispensed with more than 25 provisions, was too heavy-handed? Is this a ploy to create a “need” for legislation where there was none before? Or is it to establish uncertainty where little previously existed?

Is it a tactic to undermine the net neutrality protections adopted in 2015 that are currently parked at the Supreme Court? You know, the same rules that were resoundingly upheld by the D.C. Circuit last year? No doubt, we will see a rush to the courthouse, asking the Supreme Court to vacate and remand the substantive rules we fought so hard for over the past few years, because today, the FCC uses legally-suspect means to clear the decks of substantive protections for consumers and competition.

It is abundantly clear why we see so much bad process with this item: because the fix was already in. There is no real mention of the thousands of net neutrality complaints filed by consumers. Why? The majority has refused to put them in the record while maintaining the rhetoric that there have been no real violations. Record evidence of the massive incentives and abilities of broadband providers to act in anti-competitive ways are missing from the docket? Why? Because they have refused to use the data and knowledge the agency does have, and has relied upon in the past to inform our merger reviews. As the majority has shown again and again, the views of individuals do not matter, including the views of those who care deeply about the substance, but are not Washington insiders.

There is a basic fallacy underlying the majority’s actions and rhetoric today: the assumption of what is best for broadband providers, is best for America. Breathless claims about unshackling broadband services from unnecessary regulation, are only about ensuring that broadband providers, have the keys to the internet. Assertions that this is merely a return to some imaginary status quo ante, cannot hide the fact, that this is the very first time, that the FCC, has disavowed substantive protections for consumers online.

And when the current, 2015 Net Neutrality rules are laid to waste, we may be left with no single authority with the power to protect consumers. Now this Order loudly crows about handing over authority of broadband to the FTC, but what is absent from the Order and glossed over in that haphazardly issued afterthought of a Memorandum of Understanding or MOU, is that the FTC is an agency, with no technical expertise in telecommunications; the FTC is an agency that may not even have authority over broadband providers in the first instance; the FTC is an agency that if you can even reach that high bar of proving unfair or deceptive practices and that there is substantial consumer injury, it will take years upon years to remedy. But don’t just take my word for it: even one of the FTC’s own Commissioners has articulated these very concerns. And if you’re wondering why the FCC is preempting state consumer protection laws in this item without notice, let me help you with a simple jingle that you can easily commit to memory: If it benefits industry, preemption is good; if it benefits consumers, preemption is bad.

Reclassification of broadband will do more than wreak havoc on net neutrality. It will also undermine our universal service construct for years to come, something which the Order implicitly acknowledges. It will undermine the Lifeline program. It will weaken our ability to support robust broadband infrastructure deployment. And what we will soon find out, is what a broadband market unencumbered by robust consumer protections will look like. I suspect the result will not be pretty.
I know there are many questions on the mind of Americans right now, including what the repeal of net neutrality will mean for them. To help answer outstanding questions I will host a town hall through Twitter next Tuesday at 2pm EST. What saddens me is that the agency that is supposed to protect you is abandoning you, but what I am pleased to be able to say is the fight to save net neutrality does not end today. This agency does not have, the final word. Thank goodness.

As I close my eulogy of our 2015 net neutrality rules, carefully crafted rules that struck an appropriate balance in providing consumer protections and enabling opportunities and investment, I take ironic comfort in the words of then Commissioner Pai from 2015, because I believe this will ring true about this Destroying Internet Freedom Order:

“I am optimistic, that we will look back on today’s vote as an aberration, a temporary deviation from the bipartisan path, that has served us so well. I don’t know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress, or overturned by a future Commission. But I do believe that its days are numbered.”

Amen to that, Mr. Chairman. Amen to that.

Editor’s Note: In deference to journalism style books and the forthcoming introduction of several pieces of proposed legislation to enshrine the idea of an open internet into law, we are henceforth referring to “net neutrality” in lowercase. Since Stop the Cap! began, we have consistently referred to the concept as “Net Neutrality,” but because we will soon see various bills and policy proposals outlining different ideas about what that represents, it is more appropriate to refer to it as a general concept as opposed to a singular policy. The change should not suggest any editorial commentary about the principle of net neutrality or its importance. Most print publications began referring to net neutrality in lowercase more than a year ago. We now join them for the reasons referenced above.

FCC Repeals Net Neutrality 3-2 in Party Line Vote

Pai

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines on Thursday to repeal landmark 2015 rules aimed at ensuring a free and open internet, setting up a court fight over a move that could recast the digital landscape.

The approval of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal marked a victory for internet service providers like AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc and hands them power over what content consumers can access.

Democrats, Hollywood and companies like Google parent Alphabet Inc and Facebook Inc had urged Pai, a Republican appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump, to keep the Obama-era rules barring service providers from blocking, slowing access to or charging more for certain content.

Consumer advocates and trade groups representing content providers have planned a legal challenge aimed at preserving those rules.

The meeting was evacuated before the vote for about 10 minutes due to an unspecified security threat, and resumed after law enforcement with sniffer dogs checked the room.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, said in a statement he will lead a multi-state lawsuit to challenge the reversal. He called the vote “a blow to New York consumers, and to everyone who cares about a free and open internet.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, said in the run-up to the vote that Republicans were “handing the keys to the Internet” to a “handful of multi-billion dollar corporations.”

Shares of Alphabet, Apple Inc and Microsoft Corp moved lower after the vote.

Schneiderman

Pai has argued that the 2015 rules were heavy handed and stifled competition and innovation among service providers.

“The internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We weren’t living in a digital dystopia. To the contrary, the internet is perhaps the one thing in American society we can all agree has been a stunning success,” he said on Thursday.

The FCC voted 3-2 to repeal the rules.

NEXT STEPS

Consumers are unlikely to see immediate changes resulting from the rule change, but smaller startups worry the lack of restrictions could drive up costs or lead to their content being blocked.

Internet service providers say they will not block or throttle legal content but that they may engage in paid prioritization. They say consumers will see no change and argue that the largely unregulated internet functioned well in the two decades before the 2015 order.

Democrats have pointed to polls showing a repeal is deeply unpopular and say they will prevail in protecting the rules, either in the courts or in U.S. Congress.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said in a written dissent released on Thursday that the decision grants internet providers “extraordinary new power” from the FCC.

“They have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic. And now this agency gives them the legal green light to go ahead,” she said.

Several state attorneys general said before the vote they would work to oppose the ruling, citing problems with comments made to the FCC during the public comment period. Other critics have said they will consider challenging what they consider to be weaker enforcement.

Net neutrality supporters had rallied in front of the FCC building in Washington before the vote.

The 2015 rules were intended to give consumers equal access to web content and prevent broadband providers from favoring their own content. Pai proposes allowing those practices as long as they are disclosed.

Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who heads a trade group representing major cable companies and broadcasters, told reporters earlier this week that internet providers would not block content because it would not make economic sense.

“They make a lot of money on an open internet,” Powell said, adding it is “much more profitable” than a closed system. “This is not a pledge of good-heartedness, it’s a pledge in the shareholders’ interest.”

The chief executive of USTelecom, a lobbying group that represents internet providers and the broadband industry, said in a statement the industry has “renewed confidence to make the investments required to strengthen the nation’s networks and close the digital divide, especially in rural communities.”

A University of Maryland poll released this week found that more than 80 percent of respondents opposed a repeal. The survey of 1,077 registered voters was conducted online by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland from Dec. 6-8.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Writing by Chris Sanders; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Meredith Mazzilli

Charter Spectrum Hurrying Out 100 Mbps Speed Upgrades Before Year’s End

Updated 12/15: The speed upgrades for several regions including upstate New York have now launched. You may need to reset your modem to get the new speeds. You should see at least 100/10 Mbps. If that does not work, call or chat with Spectrum and have them reauthorize your modem. If you are on a legacy Bright House or Time Warner Cable plan, you will not get these upgrades until you change to a Spectrum plan. We will have a report up on the home page shortly about additional gigabit speed upgrades likely to launch next week later tonight. — PMD

“By the end of the year, Charter’s flagship speed will be an industry leading 100 megabits per second (Mbps) in virtually every market we serve. In the last year, we increased that speed 66% – from 60 Mbps to an even faster 100 Mbps – at no extra cost to our customers. Additionally, in a growing number of markets, we have begun upgrading that flagship speed to 200 Mbps.” — Charter Communications blog post for Nov. 30, 2017

Charter Communications is hurrying out 100 Mbps speed upgrades to “virtually all” its markets, whether customers were originally serviced by Charter or were acquired from Bright House Networks or Time Warner Cable.

The company has been on a publicity drive to suggest its merger/buyout of BH and TWC was consumer-friendly. Charter also wants to reassure shareholders concerned about the ongoing trend of cord-cutting and customer backlash over rising internet prices that the value of Spectrum’s faster internet service has improved.

Unfortunately, its publicity campaign also flies in the face of an industry push to convince Americans the Obama Administration’s Net Neutrality policies have neutered investments in broadband upgrades, which is exactly what did not happen with the second largest cable company in the country.

“Since 2014, Charter has invested more than $21 billion in [upgrades] including video delivery, more efficient bandwidth management and advanced compression technologies,” Charter wrote. “This investment has enabled us to improve the quality of our video while reducing the bandwidth needed for its delivery. The bandwidth that is made available can then be dedicated to significantly increasing our broadband speeds.”

Several legacy Time Warner Cable markets, particularly in upstate New York, New England, and some markets in the deep south and Rockies are still waiting for the digital television conversion that will free up bandwidth for internet speed upgrades. Albany, N.Y. is nearly complete and Rochester, N.Y. is next on the list.

Sources suggest Charter may find a way to boost speeds in almost all of its markets, regardless of whether digital TV conversions are complete. That would mean communities in these areas would see standard internet speeds rise from 60 Mbps to 100 Mbps at no extra charge. Those who agreed to pay Charter’s $199 upgrade fee for “Ultra” 100 Mbps service would see their speeds rise to as high as 300 Mbps.

A quick check showed no speed changes in the Rochester market as of this afternoon, but that could change before Christmas. Customers can check if they received an upgrade by briefly unplugging their cable modem and resetting it. A speed test will verify whether your areas has received an upgrade. Customers still holding onto a legacy Bright House or Time Warner Cable plan will see no speed changes. This is part of Charter’s effort to convince customers to abandon older plans and switch to Spectrum plans and pricing.

If speed upgrades are not in place by the end of 2017, they will be coming for the remaining Time Warner Cable markets in early 2018.

Meanwhile on Oahu, in Hawaii, Spectrum internet customers are welcoming gigabit internet (introductory price $104.99/mo). Those who don’t want to pay that much also received a free speed upgrade. What was 60 Mbps in the summer increased to 100 Mbps in the fall and as of Dec. 1 is now 200 Mbps. Similar speed increases will be coming to the cities that get gigabit upgrades from Charter. We anticipate all of those cities designated for gigabit service from Spectrum already have substantial competition from gigabit speed fiber to the home service from AT&T or Verizon.

Verizon Accuses AT&T of “Rigging the Game to Stifle True Competition”

It is rare for AT&T and Verizon to feud in public, even rarer for one company to accuse the other of being anti-competitive, but that is precisely what happened last week in California as the two companies sparred over building a next generation wireless network for first responders.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is a government program to provide emergency responders with priority access to the first nationwide, high-speed wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. AT&T won an extremely lucrative contract to build, operate and maintain the network in states that “opt in” to AT&T/FirstNet’s proposal. But AT&T is not building a separate wireless network apart from its existing wireless infrastructure. It is using $6.5 billion in public taxpayer dollars and free access to an extremely valuable segment of nationwide 700MHz spectrum, known as Band 14, to improve its existing wireless network for individual customers and the first responders that will get priority access in the event of an emergency.

For AT&T to benefit the most financially, it has to convince each of 56 states and territories to “opt in” to its FirstNet deployment plan or do nothing at all, which will result in that state or territory automatically being enrolled in AT&T’s plan. If a state elects to opt out of AT&T’s plan, the wireless company cannot get free access to Band 14 or collect the taxpayer dollars designated for that area.

FirstNet is one of AT&T’s most lucrative contracts in years, and the phone company is doing everything possible to win over state officials in hopes they will embrace the FirstNet plan. It has been a successful effort with more than 30 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands purposely opting in, and more than a dozen still studying AT&T’s offer. To date, no state has opted out.

Verizon, which did not bid on the original FirstNet contract, has not walked away from providing public safety communications and has spent a considerable amount of its advertising budget to promote Verizon’s own services to first responders, designed to assure they get first priority to clogged cellular networks in the event of an emergency. In August, Verizon announced it will privately finance its own “private network core” to directly serve police, fire, ambulance, and related agencies. Verizon’s first responder network will be separate from Verizon’s public network, but the company has also promised full priority access to its public LTE 4G network across the country.

Verizon’s counteroffer comes without taxpayer financing, yet will offer many of the same services as AT&T FirstNet, without costing the country more than $6 billion. Among the services Verizon will give away for free: priority/preemption access, which means in an emergency, first priority will go to emergency officials even if it means dropping your cell phone call or data session. Verizon is also bolstering its Push-to-Talk Plus service, which works with existing land mobile radio networks. This will allow first responders to use the “walkie talkie”-type features already a familiar part of their radio equipment.

Verizon’s offer would seem to be a good deal for consumers and governments in states like New York and California that have yet to opt in to AT&T FirstNet, and in California, Verizon was invited to bid to create an alternative network in a potential “opt out” scenario. Verizon’s director of public-safety solutions group – David Wiederecht, promised the state Verizon would submit its bid by the state deadline, which was last Wednesday. By Friday, California officials leaked word Verizon had reneged on that commitment and did not participate, a fact Verizon later confirmed.

Verizon accused AT&T and FirstNet of colluding to rig the “Request for Proposals” process in California with requirements that were impossible for anyone except AT&T to meet.

“Vigorous competition that allows the industry and the marketplace to continue to grow and innovate is in the best interest of public safety and should be everyone’s shared goal,” Verizon said in a written statement. “Instead, we believe FirstNet and its corporate partner are rigging the game in order to stifle true competition.”

Urgent Communications reported that the among the most onerous requirements imposed by AT&T and FirstNet is that all emergency communications in an “opt out” state must be sent to the FirstNet LTE core network operated by AT&T. That would mean that regardless of who builds and operates the network, AT&T still remains at the core of FirstNet.

“We’re not prepared to have our public safety customers run on a network where we can’t control their ability to connect or their customer experience,” according to the Verizon spokesperson.

Verizon suggests the reason for 36 states to have opted-in to AT&T’s proposal may not be the result of love for AT&T, but rather the punishments the states and territories risk if they don’t sign on with AT&T.

Don Brittingham, Verizon’s vice president of public safety, testified at a Pennsylvania hearing regarding FirstNet and warned states could be effectively stuck with AT&T indefinitely.

“States should not be required to use the network core deployed by (AT&T) FirstNet, as such a requirement would put the state in the untenable position of being driven by the interests and decisions of FirstNet’s commercial partner—a condition that would be unattractive to any prospective state commercial partner,” Brittingham said.

AT&T has also borrowed from its customer preservation policies on the retail side with terms and conditions that could be financially devastating to states that decide to look elsewhere.

Because any competing provider is required to use AT&T’s network core to be a part of FirstNet, AT&T can set whatever price it chooses for third party access. But most onerous of all is the penalty imposed if a state opts out of AT&T FirstNet and chooses a vendor that does not meet every FirstNet guideline. In that case, a state would be required to come hat in hand back to AT&T/FirstNet for service that does meet the guidelines AT&T/FirstNet wrote. In California, that penalty fee would amount to as much as $15 billion, more than twice the amount taxpayers are paying AT&T to build out FirstNet in at least 36 states and territories.

Taken from a FirstNet fact sheet.

AT&T defended the amount of the penalty fee, claiming it has to build or enhance its network to provide public safety communications for at least 25 years, but critics contend the penalty is so risky, most states will opt for the path of least resistance and legal exposure and sign on with AT&T/FirstNet.

Verizon’s complaints about the bidding process received a strong rebuke from AT&T.

“Building a state-of-the art network that meets the needs of first responders is hard. Clearly, AT&T is up for the task,” Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet, said in a statement provided to Urgent Communications. “We’re noticing a pattern: Verizon says they have public safety’s back, but when it comes to the heavy lifting, they are nowhere to be found.”

But then, neither are any competing providers.

Hissyfit Between Google, Amazon Exploited by Anti-Net Neutrality Forces

News that Google is dropping support for YouTube on Amazon-branded set-top boxes, personal assistants, and set-top boxes is being used by anti-Net Neutrality forces to claim those two companies are a much bigger problems for Net Neutrality than cable and phone companies.

Google will make YouTube unavailable to Amazon device owners on Jan. 1, 2018, with the suggestion the company might change its mind if Amazon agrees to carry Chromecast and Google Home devices on its website and support casting Prime Video.

The last straw may have been Amazon’s decision to drop some of Nest’s newest products last month. Nest is owned by Google.

“Given this lack of reciprocity, we are no longer supporting YouTube on Echo Show and FireTV,” said a Google spokesperson to Multichannel News. “We hope we can reach an agreement to resolve these issues soon.”

“Echo Show and Fire TV now display a standard web view of YouTube.com and point customers directly to YouTube’s existing website,” Amazon responded in a statement. “Google is setting a disappointing precedent by selectively blocking customer access to an open website. We hope to resolve this with Google as soon as possible.”

The dispute was welcomed by anti Net Neutrality forces, who proclaimed consumers were the victims of Amazon.com and Google, not AT&T, Comcast, and other large telecom companies.

USTelecom, a group sponsored by the nation’s biggest telephone companies, also pounced on the dispute. CEO Jonathan Spalter:

“Broadband ISPs are committed to providing an open internet for their customers, including protections like no content blocking or throttling,” he said. “Seems like some of the biggest internet companies can’t say the same. Ironic, isn’t it?”

(Headline corrected. Thanks to Morgan Wick.)

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