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The Many Lies of Ajit Pai About Net Neutrality

Pai

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

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

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

Phillip Dampier: Don’t gaslight me, bro!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charter Introduces Gigabit Service on Oahu; New Standard Speed is 200Mbps

Charter Communications has announced gigabit broadband is available on the Hawaiian island of Oahu for $104.99/month, thanks to DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades being tested in the state.

Spectrum customers in Hawaii will also find their Standard tier internet speeds have also been doubled to 200Mbps, up from 100Mbps. A year ago, the company was selling 60Mbps broadband for the same $65 price it now charges for speeds more than triple as fast.

Charter has been at the rear of companies upgrading to DOCSIS 3.1 technology, primarily because the company is still upgrading legacy Time Warner Cable systems to free up space for boosting broadband speeds. The last analog television service in legacy Time Warner territory is not expected to disappear until 2019, with around half of former Time Warner Cable customers still waiting for upgrades. Charter executives don’t mind that the company is among the last, claiming that by the time DOCSIS 3.1 is fully deployed across their systems, equipment will be cheaper and more plentiful.

Charter plans to roll out DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades in selected cities — almost all facing substantial competition from Verizon FiOS, AT&T Fiber, or a municipal gigabit fiber provider — starting in 2018. But most markets will have to wait until 2019 or later before gigabit speeds become available from Spectrum.

Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge added Spectrum customers will see base plan speeds increase as the company continues its upgrade strategy.

Wall Street Uneasy About Future 5G Broadband Competition; Ponders Idea of 5G Monopolies

Super monopoly?

Some Wall Street analysts are pondering ideas on how to limit forthcoming 5G wireless home broadband, suggesting providers might want to set up local monopolies, keeping competition to a minimum and profits to a maximum.

Verizon’s presentation at its annual Analyst Day meeting drew little praise from analysts and investors in attendance, “landing like a thud” to quote one person at the event.

The issue concerning Wall Street is what impact 5G wireless broadband will have on the internet access marketplace, which is currently a comfortable monopoly or duopoly in most American cities. That may radically change if the country’s four wireless companies each launch their own 5G services, designed to replace wired home broadband services from the cable and phone companies.

This week Verizon formally announced Sacramento would be the first city in the country to get its forthcoming 5G service, with an additional four of five unnamed cities to follow sometime next year.

Verizon will advertise 1,000Mbps service that will be “priced competitively” with current internet providers in the market. But Verizon intends to market itself as “a premium provider,” which means pricing is likely to be higher than one might expect. Verizon claims they intend to roll out 5G service to 30 million households — 25-30% of the country, making Verizon a prominent provider of fixed wireless home broadband service.

But analysts panned Verizon’s presentation for raising more questions than the company was prepared to answer. Barron’s shared the views of several analysts who were underwhelmed.

Notably, Craig Moffett from Moffett-Nathanson was particularly concerned about how to rate 5G service for his investor clients, and more importantly to them, how to forecast revenue and profit.

Moffett

The biggest problem for Moffett is the prospect of additional competition, and what that will do to each current (and future) provider’s share of customers and its revenue. If every major wireless carrier enters the 5G home broadband business, that will raise the prospective number of ISPs available to consumers to six or more — four wireless carriers competing with the phone and cable company. That is potentially very dangerous to big profits, especially if a competitive price war emerges.

“Let’s assume that AT&T is just as aggressive about this opportunity as Verizon,” Moffett told his investor clients. “Will they enter the same markets as Verizon, or different ones? […] If multiple players enter each market, all targeting the same 25-30% [where 5G service will be sold]. Well, what then? Let’s suppose the 30% market share estimate is right. Wouldn’t it be now shared among two, three, or even four [5G fixed wireless broadband] providers?”

Moffett gently proposes a concept where this profit-bruising competition can be abated by following the cable television model — companies agree to stay out of each others’ markets, giving consumers a choice of just one 5G provider in each city instead of four.

“There’s a completely different future where each operator targets different markets […] Let’s say that AT&T decides to skip Sacramento. After all, Verizon will have gotten there first,” Moffett suggests. “If the required share of the [fixed wireless] market is close to Verizon’s estimated 30%, then there is only room for one provider. So AT&T decides to do Stockton, about 40 miles to the south. Verizon would then skip Stockton, but might do Modesto, twenty miles further south… and then AT&T would then skip Modesto and instead target Fresno… unless Sprint or T-Mobile got there first.”

But Moffett is thinking even further ahead, by suggesting wireless carriers might be able to stop spending billions on building and expanding their competing 4G LTE networks when they could all share a single provider’s network in each city. That idea could work if providers agreed to creating local monopolies.

“That would create a truly bizarre market dynamic that is almost unimaginable today, where each operator ‘owned’ different cities, not just for [5G] but also for 4G LTE. If this kind of patchwork were to come to pass, the only viable solution might then be for companies to reciprocally wholesale their networks. You can use mine in Modesto if I can use yours in Fresno. To state the obvious, there is almost no imaginable path to that kind of an outcome today.”

The reason providers have not attempted this kind of “one provider” model in the past is because former FCC commissioners would have never supported the idea of retiring wireless competition and creating a cable monopoly-like model for wireless service. But things have changed dramatically with the advent of Chairman Ajit Pai, who potentially could be sold on the idea of granting local monopolies on the theory it will “speed 5G deployment” to a large number of different cities. Just as independent wireless providers lease access on the four largest carriers today (MVNO agreements), AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint could sell wholesale access to their networks to each other, allowing massive cost savings, which may or may not be passed on to customers.

But it would also bring an end to network redundancy, create capacity problems, and require every carrier to be certain their networks were interoperable with other wireless companies. The federal government’s emergency first responder program also increasingly depends on a wireless network AT&T is building that would give them first priority access to wireless services. How that would work in a city “designated” to get service from Verizon is unclear.

Restricting competition would protect profits and sharing networks would slash expenses. But such prospects were not enough to assuage Wall Street’s insatiable hunger for maximum profits. That is why analysts were unimpressed with Verizon’s presentation, which “lacked the financials” — precise numbers that explain how much the network will cost, how quickly it will be paid off, and how much revenue it can earn for investors.

A small cell attached to a light pole.

Verizon did sell investors on the idea 5G will put an end to having to wire fiber optics to every home. The service will also keep costs to a minimum by selling retail activation kits customers will install themselves — avoiding expensive truck rolls. Billing and account activation will also be self-service.

Verizon also announced a new compact 4G/5G combined antenna, which means 5G service can be supplied through existing macro/small cell 4G equipment. Verizon will be able to supplement that network by adding new 5G nodes where it becomes necessary.

Investor expectations are that 5G will cost substantially less than fiber to the home service, will not cost massive amounts of new investment dollars to deploy in addition to maintaining existing 4G services, will not substantially undercut existing providers, and will allow Verizon to market 21st century broadband speeds to its customers bypassed for FiOS fiber service. It will also threaten rural phone companies, where customers could easily replace slow speed DSL in favor of what Verizon claims will be “gigabit wireless.”

Despite that, Instinet’s Jeffrey Kvaal was not wowed by Verizon’s look to the future.

“Verizon’s initial fixed wireless implementation seems clunky and it withheld its pricing strategy,” Kvaal told his clients. He believes fixed wireless broadband will cost Verizon an enormous amount of money he feels would be better spent on Verizon’s mobile network. “Verizon glossed over 5-10x LTE upgrades that are already offering ~100Mbps of fully mobile service at current prices to current phones without line of sight. A better 5G story might be to free up sufficient LTE capacity to boost the unlimited cap from 25GB to 100GB for, say, a $25 premium. The ‘cut the cord’ concept was successful in voice, in video, and should be in broadband.”

Jangling Shiny Keys of Distraction: Pai Claims Twitter, Edge Providers are the Real Threat to Open Internet

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has gone all out to defend internet service providers and his plan to jettison Net Neutrality, claiming companies like Twitter and other “edge providers” that offer a platform to a diversity of voices are a much bigger threat to an open internet than companies like AT&T and Comcast.

Speaking at the Future of Internet Freedom conference in Washington, Pai faced down the torrent of criticism that has been expressed about his plans to roll back Title II enforcement of ISPs and Net Neutrality rules that protect internet content from discriminatory behavior. In remarks to the audience, Pai used partisan framing to criticize companies like Twitter that he claims have targeted bans on conservative users who violate its terms and conditions and removes tweets for political reasons.

“Now look, I love Twitter, and I use it all the time,” Pai said. “But let’s not kid ourselves; when it comes to an open internet, Twitter is part of the problem. The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate. As just one of many examples, two months ago, Twitter blocked Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) from advertising her Senate campaign launch video because it featured a pro-life message. Before that, during the so-called Day of Action [to preserve Net Neutrality], Twitter warned users that a link to a statement by one company on the topic of internet regulation ‘may be unsafe.’  And to say the least, the company appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users.  This conduct is many things, but it isn’t fighting for an open internet.”

Pai also used additional examples of “edge provider” censorship that he claims targets conservatives far more often than liberals:

  • Apple’s app store bars apps from cigar aficionados as promoting tobacco use
  • YouTube “restricts videos from the likes of conservative commentator Dennis Prager on subjects he considers ‘important to understanding American values.'”
  • Mysterious algorithms target content to specific users but without transparency and disclosure
  • Edge providers champion their own free speech while supporting online censorship at the behest of foreign governments for business reasons.

But Pai’s own statements lacked transparency:

  1. Twitter blocked, then rescinded its block, on one sponsored Tweet from Blackburn that claimed in the ad she ‘stopped the sale of baby body parts.’ Twitter declared the ad was inflammatory and violated Twitter’s advertising standards. Other media fact-checkers were less polite, calling her claim false advertising. “No investigation ever found proof of actual tissue sales. The only criminal charges stemming from the videos were filed against antiabortion activist David Daleiden and another activist in California for violations of privacy. Yet to this day, ‘baby body parts’ remain a rallying cry in conservative and antiabortion circles,” according to a Washington Post story. Twitter’s advertising standards differ from its general code of user conduct.
  2. Apple’s app store does indeed block apps promoting products deemed harmful to users. There is no financial incentive to block these apps, however. The specific language: “Apps that encourage consumption of tobacco products, illegal drugs, or excessive amounts of alcohol are not permitted on the App Store. Apps that encourage minors to consume any of these substances will be rejected. Facilitating the sale of marijuana, tobacco, or controlled substances (except for licensed pharmacies) isn’t allowed.”
  3. Pai suggests YouTube is unfairly restricting Mr. Prager’s videos, but in fact it is only placing advisories on some of his more inflammatory content warning the video may not be suitable for some audiences. YouTube also demonetized certain videos, making them ineligible for pre-roll advertisements, primarily because advertisers do not want to be associated with inflammatory content. But no videos have been censored, blocked, or removed. Anyone can view them by acknowledging the content advisory. Members of the LGBTQ community have also been upset with YouTube for similar actions, so there is scant evidence YouTube’s motives are political and target conservatives.
  4. Pai’s ‘mysterious algorithms’ have existed across the internet for years, including Verizon’s “super cookie” and AT&T that extracted more money from customers to switch off its monitoring and tracking software following customers’ internet usage. Pai was highly instrumental in blocking internet privacy regulations that would have forced the kind of disclosure of practices he suddenly objects to now.
  5. Pai’s claims about American companies caving in to foreign governments’ censorship policies seem to echo his similar 2015 claim that Net Neutrality also helps authoritarian regimes, as long as one interprets Net Neutrality as a “government takeover” of the internet. “If in the United States we adopt regulations that assert more government control over how the internet operates… it becomes a lot more difficult for us to go on the international stage and tell governments: ‘Look, we want you to keep your hands off the internet. Even if the ideas aren’t completely identical, you can appreciate the optical difficult[y] in trying to make that case,” Pai said. But that argument distorts like a fun house mirror. Pai’s declaration that Net Neutrality is a bad thing is based on his premise it would hand the keys to information control to the government to act as gatekeeper. He prefers trusting private companies to be more reliable and safer gatekeepers than the FCC or the Trump Administration. But that argument puts Pai at war with himself, considering his attacks on edge providers — private companies — for bias and censorship. Incidentally and ironically, he raised many of his 2015 objections on RT — the external television service of Russian State Television.

Pai reserved much of his remarks to attack Hollywood celebrities that occasionally inelegantly promote Net Neutrality with inexact language Pai loves to exploit. Among his targets were Mark Ruffalo, who played Hulk, Cher, and George “Sulu” Takei.

Takei

Pai called out Mr. Takei for his suggestion eliminating Net Neutrality would allow internet companies to further monetize the internet by selling additional packages of services to access certain internet content.

“The complaint by Mr. Takei and others doesn’t hold water. They’re arguing that if the plan is adopted, Internet Service Providers would suddenly start doing something that Net Neutrality rules already allow them to do. But the reason that Internet service providers aren’t offering such packages now, and likely won’t offer such packages in the future, is that American consumers by and large don’t want them.”

But of course that didn’t prevent ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to impose data caps on their customers with scant evidence of their necessity and with purely arbitrary allowances. From this regime of data caps, Wall Street analysts push providers to further monetize internet usage to raise revenue to return to shareholders. What customers want has not had much impact on Comcast’s business decisions, as the record on data caps illustrates. The threat of regulation like Net Neutrality enforcement has cooled enthusiasm for these pricing schemes, however, until recently. In April, after Mr. Pai introduced his Net Neutrality repeal plan, Comcast quietly repealed its self-ban on paid prioritization — internet fast lanes.

In a barely competitive marketplace, what customers want may not count for much if they have few, if any alternatives.

Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, which includes as member major Silicon Valley edge providers, called Pai’s speech a diversion from the real issues.

“Chairman Pai’s attack on Twitter is like a boxer losing a fight and taking wild and erratic swings,” Pickering said. “Preventing hate speech and bullying behavior online is not the same thing as allowing cable companies to block, throttle and extort money from consumers and the websites they love. Twitter is an amazing platform for left, right and center. Donald Trump might not be President without it, and Chairman Pai’s plan to kill Net Neutrality will put Comcast and AT&T in charge of his Twitter account.”

Lexington, Ky. Has a Solution for Its Charter/Spectrum Problems: A New Fiber Competitor

An Indiana company will spend between $70 and $100 million building a fiber-to-the-home network delivering gigabit broadband speed in Lexington, Ky., partly in response to months of consumer dissatisfaction with Charter Communications’ Spectrum service.

MetroNet could make Lexington the largest gigabit city in the country, according to the city’s mayor Jim Gray.

“Santa Claus is coming to town,” Gray said.

Headquartered in Evansville, Ind., MetroNet provides internet, phone and television service across a 100% fiber optic network in 35 communities in the midwest —  mostly in Indiana and the western suburbs of Chicago. The company started operations in 2005, wiring the community of Greencastle, Ind. Since then, it has grown with the financial support of billionaire investors including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Nike’s Phil Knight. Oak Hill Equity Partners, a private equity firm, has a financial interest in MetroNet, along with investments in WOW!, Atlantic Broadband, Wave Broadband, and Cincinnati Bell.

MetroNet may have selected Lexington because it has a poorly received cable operator — Spectrum, and Windstream, a competitively inadequate phone company. Windstream does not provide the kind of service AT&T’s U-verse and AT&T Fiber offers in other Kentucky cities.

All of Lexington’s residents could get service from MetroNet is as little as three or four years, because the company has agreed to wire the entire urban service area, a departure from the “fiberhood” concept introduced by Google, wiring individual neighborhoods only after a sufficient number of customers pre-register for service and pay a deposit. The project is likely to win a quick approval from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, allowing construction to begin in January. Because MetroNet sells television service, it will have to apply for and receive a franchise from the city.

“This means three things,” Gray said. “First, a fiber-optic network will provide gigabit speeds to homes and businesses. Second, it will bring a new cable provider to Lexington, which will bring competition to Spectrum and Windstream. MetroNet will have Kentucky basketball. Third, MetroNet has a great record of customer service.”

Prices and packaging:

  • 100/25Mbps $49.95
  • 200/75Mbps $59.95
  • 500/100Mbps $69.95
  • 1,000/250Mbps $89.95
  • Television packages range from $18-79 a month
  • Digital Phone service is $9.95 a month
  • Discounts of $10-20 a month are available for customers selecting a two year “price lock” agreement
  • a $9.95/mo “technology fee” also applies.

Although most welcome the competition, some noticed MetroNet does not intend to sell service at fire sale prices.

“I checked their rates in Lafayette, Ind. and they weren’t that cheap,” commented James Wood. “100Mbps internet + Standard tier TV+ phone was $146/mo for two years.”

MetroNet uniquely charges exactly the prices it pays for cable television networks, with no mark-up. (1:39)

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