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Open Technology Institute Wants FCC to Raise Minimum Broadband Speed to 50Mbps

Phillip Dampier September 27, 2016 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments

50-20The Federal Communications Commission should redefine broadband as speeds of at least 50/20Mbps, according to the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

The advocacy group argues that the FCC’s current definition of 25/3Mbps is too slow to support the growth of high-bandwidth online applications including high-definition video, cloud computing, and online gaming.

“People use their connections for many reasons, and often multitask,” the group writes in a filing submitted to the FCC this month. “It is easy to see how multiple people with multiple devices engaging in multiple online activities on the same residential connection can quickly lead to buffering, slow load times, and frustration even with a 25/3 connection.”

In general, consumer groups want the FCC to push providers to offer faster speeds, particularly telephone companies still relying on ADSL, a technology that first became widely available in the 1990s. There are millions of consumers still reliant on DSL technology on copper wire phone networks that can only support speeds of 6Mbps or less. Many of those are Verizon and AT&T customers, particularly in suburban and rural areas bypassed by Verizon FiOS or AT&T U-verse. Almost no AT&T or Verizon ADSL customers come close to achieving the FCC’s current minimum definition of broadband: 25/3Mbps.

The OTI argues that it isn’t just the speed required by applications, it is also the number of concurrent connections. As emerging technology like the Internet of Things introduces new devices that will share a user’s home broadband connection, faster internet speeds may be needed.

“The general consensus around IoT is that, with potentially billions of new devices connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi or cellular signals, capacity will need to increase,” the organization writes.

But the OTI will have to contend with provider opposition to redefining broadband speeds upwards. The NCTA – the Internet and Television Association, the nation’s largest cable lobbying group, wants the current definition maintained by the FCC.

“The current benchmark accommodates the expected needs of even those households using an atypically large amount of bandwidth, accounting for multiple streams of bandwidth intensive applications like HD streaming video, in addition to web browsing, email, and other applications,” the NCTA wrote. “The Commission should reject the notion of adopting a future-oriented, ‘aspirational’ benchmark, which would be necessarily divorced from the realities of the marketplace.”

Many NCTA members already offer speeds in excess of 50Mbps, although many cable companies also cap their customers’ usage.

Cheapest Thing Verizon Wireless Employee Ever Sold: Your Private Customer Records

vzw-for-saleA Verizon Wireless employee is facing up to five years in prison for peddling customer phone records and location data to private investigators for as little at $50 a month.

The employee, Daniel Eugene Traeger, worked as a network technician for Verizon and agreed to supply a private investigator with private customer information for a pittance, making it perhaps the cheapest service ever offered with the Verizon Wireless name attached.

Traeger’s lawyer worked out a plea agreement with prosecutors that could substantially shorten his possible sentence for pleading guilty to a felony count prohibiting unauthorized access to a protected computer. The Consumerist obtained a copy of the plea agreement.

Traeger quickly adopted the Verizon Wireless way of doing business, substantially raising his snooping rate to as much as $750 a month by 2013.

In all, prosecutors claim he earned more than $10,000 selling customer data using network tools readily available to Verizon’s network technicians.

California Consumer Seeks Class Action Case Against Frontier for False Advertising

frontier new logoDorothy Ayer said she was quoted a price of $69 a month for a package including landline phone and broadband service from Frontier Communications, but when she received her first bill, she claims she was charged $426.55.

Ayer filed a class action complaint against Frontier Communications Sept. 12 in U.S. District Court for the Central Division of California, claiming the phone company regularly engages in unlawful, unfair, and deceptive business practices including false advertising.

Ayer claims Frontier promised her all installation charges, activation fees and other miscellaneous costs found on her first bill would be waived, but now that the bill is in her mailbox, the company wants to be paid in full.

The lawsuit asks the court to recognize the economic harm and injury done not only to Ms. Ayer, but to other similarly situated Frontier customers. The lawsuit claims Frontier Communications benefits from falsely advertising the prices of its services without properly informing customers of the many other charges the company levies on the first bill.

If Ayer is successful, Frontier will be forced to notify all affected customers and presumably refund or credit their accounts.

The case is being handled by attorneys Todd M. Friedman and Adrian R. Bacon of Law Offices of Todd M. Friedman PC in Woodland Hills, Calif.

Cable Industry Lobby Drops “Cable” from Its Name

Phillip Dampier September 19, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

ncta-logo-2016The country’s largest cable industry lobbying group has decided to drop the word “cable” from its name, rebranding itself NCTA – The Internet & Television Association.

It is the fifth name for the cable industry’s trade association since its inception in 1951 as the National Community Television Council. The name change was introduced by its president and CEO Michael Powell, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Since 2001, when the group was rebranded the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the NCTA has gradually shifted its emphasis away from television and towards the internet.

“Modernising our brand injects a new sense of excitement into our effort to represent an industry that is America’s largest and fastest home internet provider and the creator of the world’s best television content,” Powell said.

The group is expected to continue to spend heavily on lobbying Congress to take the industry view on matters regarding television and broadband.

History of the NCTA

  • 1951: National Community Television Council was formed in September 1951, after a handful of community antenna (CATV) operators met at a hotel in Pottsville, Pa.;
  • 1952: The group rechristened itself the National Community Television Association in January 1952;
  • 1968: As “CATV” became less popular than simply calling it cable television, the NCTA again renamed itself as the National Cable Television Association;
  • 2001: As internet access began to play a prominent role for cable operators, the NCTA again rebranded, this like as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association;
  • 2016: With broadband now offering the greatest percentage of cable industry profits, the group dropped “cable” from its name, now calling itself NCTA – The Internet & Television Association.

Charter Official Tells Berkshires He Doesn’t Know How Much Their Set-Top Boxes Actually Cost

charter-rumsfeld

Charter channels Don Rumsfeld

A Charter Communications executive told a western Massachusetts cable advisory board he had no idea how much Charter’s set-top boxes cost the company.

The question was just one of many asked by concerned public officials and residents worried cable bills could skyrocket as much as 50 percent after Charter takes over for Time Warner Cable early next year in the region.

Charter will require all cable television subscribers to rent a set-top converter for each connected television that will cost $6.99 a month each after a two-year grace period. The Five-Town Cable Advisory Committee that represents the interests of residents of Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield, and Stockbridge, Mass., call that illegal, claiming it violates a 10-year agreement signed in 2013 with Time Warner Cable and transferred to Charter in 2015.

Charter promised officials there would be no changes after taking over Time Warner Cable’s 10-year contract, but officials and some residents are now pushing back against the cable operator after learning customers paying $14 a month for 20-channel basic service will now have to pay at least $21 — a 50% rate hike — to keep cable service after Charter Spectrum arrives.

charter spectrum logoThe Berkshire Eagle covered an open meeting held last night at the Great Barrington Firehouse, where residents and officials wondered why they could only lease a cable box from Charter, and asked the company to share how much the set-top box actually costs the company.

Charter representative Tom Cohan and his lawyer responded they did not know the cost of the equipment and added Charter’s upgrade, which will digitally encrypt all cable television channels, would have happened with Time Warner Cable as well.

Cohan also declared that since Charter views the encrypting of cable channels as “an upgrade,” that means they are not in violation of the agreement with the towns, and they have no say in the matter anyway.

“As the cable operator, we have authority over what technology we use,” said Cohan.

Town officials pointed out there has not been a case of prosecutable cable theft over the last five years, making encryption unnecessary.

“It’s not proper to make us pay for something we don’t need and don’t want,” said Linda Miller, the committee’s chairwoman. “We don’t want to file a lawsuit, but we will if we have to.”

Cable Industry Declares War on Set-Top Box Compromise They Lobbied For

The cable industry prepares for war over a watered-down set-top box reform proposal many companies initially supported.

The cable industry prepares for war over a watered-down set-top box reform proposal many companies initially supported.

You can’t please cable companies any of the time.

After months of an intense lobbying effort to kill Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s set-top box reform proposal that would have created an open standard allowing manufacturers to compete for your box needs, the cable industry has declared war on the watered-down compromise released last week that many cable operators lobbied for as a suitable alternative.

“While we appreciate that Chairman Wheeler has abandoned his discredited proposal to break apart cable and satellite services, his latest tortured approach is equally flawed,” said Comcast’s vice president of government communications Sena Fitzmaurice in a statement. “He claims that his new proposal builds on the marketplace success of apps, but in reality, it would stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing an overly complicated government licensing regime and heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space. The Chairman’s new proposal also violates the Communications Act and exceeds the FCC’s authority.”

That’s a veiled threat Comcast may take the FCC to court if they proceed with the watered down reform policy now advocated by Chairman Wheeler.

Charter Communications, newly enlarged with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in its family, also issued a statement claiming the FCC will ruin everything:

cable-box“Enabling consumers to use apps instead of set-top boxes may be a valid goal, but the marketplace is already delivering on the goal without overreaching government intervention. The FCC’s mandate threatens to bog down with regulations and bureaucracy the entire TV app market that consumers are increasingly looking to for innovation, choice and competition.”

Sensing blood in the regulatory waters, the pile on from Congress and programmers that depend on their relationships with large cable operators was inevitable and quick:

The top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Monday that he is doubtful.

Pallone

Pallone

“While I commend Chairman Wheeler for working to solve this difficult issue, I’m concerned that this latest proposal will not work, particularly when it comes to licensing,” Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.) said in a statement. “Ultimately, I’m skeptical that the revised plan will benefit consumers.”

Scotland and Ireland Promise 100% Broadband Coverage

Phillip Dampier September 13, 2016 Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband No Comments

scotlandThe governments of Scotland and Ireland are promising their rural constituents they will have an absolute guarantee of access to broadband within the next 3-5 years, regardless of where they live.

Ministers at Holyrood have issued a Prior Information Notice on Public Contracts Scotland to lay the foundation for rural broadband expansion by describing the scope of the project for the benefit of potential partners that may wish to bid for a contract. Scotland has achieved 85% coverage six months ahead of the target date, with many of the biggest challenges to reach isolated properties still ahead.

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Connectivity Fergus Ewing told the media there is more work to be done to guarantee every rural home in Scotland is connected.

“We are putting digital connectivity at the heart of our agenda and delivering 100% superfast broadband for Scotland by the end of the next Parliament is one of our priorities,” Ewing said.

Naughten

Naughten

In Ireland, skepticism has met the claims of Communications Minister Denis Naughten’s claim that every single home in Ireland will have access to reliable, high-speed internet within the next five years.

Today (2pm EDT), the minister is holding a live broadcast through Facebook to take questions about his commitment from communities across rural Ireland. Critics suggest it will be hard for those without internet access to share that fact with the minister when the event is taking place on a website they cannot easily access.

“Most people don’t believe that this National Broadband Plan is real. I can’t blame them. I was as big a cynic as everyone else in relation to it,” said Naughten. “As I said to the team in the department, we will under-promise and over-deliver, because I am sick and tired of promises being made, and (the government’s) failing on it.”

Naughten claims the “vast majority” of rural Ireland will be connected within three years. The last two years will be reserved to tackle the hardest cases.

“You are going to be dealing with peripheral areas – the sides of mountains, isolated rural valleys, and so forth – so it will take time to get to those particular locations,” he said.

Naughten said Irish broadband expansion wasn’t just to allow access to an online entertainment service.

“It will have a transformational impact on Ireland equivalent to rural electrification, and we want people to be prepared for it because it’s going to open up massive new opportunities for business and for entrepreneurs,” Naughten said. He added the benefits of telecommuting would improve the environment by reducing emissions and the demands on existing infrastructure, as well as opening up jobs opportunities in rural communities.

FCC Chairman Announces Compromise Set-Top Box Reform; Free ‘Apps’ for One and All

explorer 8000[Editor’s Note: Federal Communications Commission chairman Thomas Wheeler today released a compromise proposal hoping to get the cost of set-top box equipment down for millions of Americans forced to lease equipment to watch cable television.

Wheeler originally proposed requiring an open standard for set-top box equipment that would open the market to competition by allowing manufacturers to directly sell equipment to consumers and compete for their business. Cable operators, programmers, and various special interest groups that depend on financial contributions from those operators immediately launched an unprecedented pushback claiming set-top box reform was racist, anti-minority, promoted copyright theft, and was illegal and unconstitutional. Small cable operators claimed they might be driven out of business, and programmers claimed companies like Google might fundamentally change the channel lineup on new equipment that would leave them in a disadvantaged position.

In fact, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue earned by cable operators charging the same price for equipment fresh out of the box or handed down in beat up condition to the fifth customer in eight years was more likely the driving factor.

Mr. Wheeler capitulated and released a more modest proposal promising cable operators would be forced to offer free “apps” for devices like Roku and Apple TV. But cable operators will likely own and manage those apps and have direct control of authentication methods and anti-piracy measures that are likely to be proprietary. Still, apps like TWC TV which covers Time Warner Cable’s lineup on devices like Roku have allowed consumers to ditch expensive set-top equipment and irritating Digital Adapters that don’t function well and have almost tripled in price since their introduction. Making sure these apps provide comparable functionality with set-top boxes and are released to a variety of devices will be key to whether Wheeler’s proposal, delivered in full below courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, has a measurable impact on cable bills.]

FCC chairman: Here are the new proposed rules for set-top boxes

There’s never been a better time to watch television in America. We have more options than ever, and, with so much competition for eyeballs, studios and artists keep raising the bar for quality content. But when it comes to the set-top-box that delivers our pay-TV subscriptions, we have essentially no options, creating headaches and costing us serious money in rental fees. That makes no sense, which is why I’m sharing a proposal with my fellow commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission to change the system.

Wheeler's compromise

Wheeler’s compromise

Ninety-nine percent of pay-TV subscribers currently lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite or telecommunications provider, paying an average of $231 a year for the privilege, according to a recent analysis. The collective tab is $20 billion annually in rental fees. In a recent study, 84% of consumers felt their cable bill was too high. What they may not realize is that every bill includes an add-on fee for their set-top boxes. We keep paying these charges even after the cost of the box has been recovered because we have no meaningful alternative.

Pay-TV providers will be required to provide apps — free of charge — that consumers can download to the device of their choosing.
Earlier this year, the FCC launched a process to unlock the set-top-box marketplace. We were motivated by the desire to give consumers relief, but we were also mandated to take action by Congress and the law, which says that consumers should be able to choose their preferred device to access pay-TV programming.
Over the past seven months, the Commission conducted an open proceeding where we heard from pay-TV providers, programmers, device and software manufacturers, consumers groups, and, most important, the American people. We listened.

Now, I am proposing rules that would end the set-top-box stranglehold. If adopted, consumers will no longer have to rent a set-top box, month after month. Instead, pay-TV providers will be required to provide apps – free of charge– that consumers can download to the device of their choosing to access all the programming and features they already paid for.

appletvIf you want to watch Comcast’s content through your Apple TV or Roku, you can. If you want to watch DirectTV’s offerings through your Xbox, you can. If you want to pipe Verizon’s service directly to your smart TV, you can. And if you want to watch your current pay-TV package on your current set-top box, you can do that, too. The choice is yours. No longer will you be forced to rent set-top boxes from your pay-TV provider.

One of the biggest benefits consumers will see is integrated search. The rules would require all pay-TV providers to enable the ability for consumers to search for pay-TV content alongside other sources of content. Just type in the name of a movie, and a list will come up with all the places it is scheduled for broadcast and where it can be streamed (like Amazon Prime or Hulu).

Integrated search also means expanded access to programming created by independent and diverse voices on the same platform as your pay-TV providers. Consumers will more easily find content even if it’s not on the pay-TV service to which they subscribe.

These rules will open the door for innovation, spurring new apps and devices, giving consumers even more choice and user control.

While our primary focus during this proceeding was to promote consumer choice and fulfill our congressional mandate, we recognize that protecting the legitimate copyright interests of content creators is also key to serving the public interest. To ensure that all copyright and licensing agreements will remain intact, the delivery of pay-TV programming will continue to be overseen by pay-TV providers from end-to-end. The proposed rules also maintain important protections regarding emergency alerting, accessibility and privacy.

Large pay-TV providers, which serve more than 90% of subscribers, will have two years to fully implement the new requirements.  Medium-sized providers will have an additional two years to comply, and the smallest providers would be exempt.

This is a golden era for watching television and video. By empowering consumers to access their content on their terms, it’s about to get cheaper — and even better.

Net Neutrality End Run: AT&T Exempts Its Own DirecTV Content from Its Mobile Data Caps

directvAT&T Mobility customers can now stream AT&T-owned DirecTV video on their mobile devices without fear of hitting their data allowance, because AT&T has exempted its own content from mobile data caps.

AT&T customers using the DirecTV iPhone app discovered the sudden exemption in an update released today, according to a report in Ars Technica:

“Now you can stream DirecTV on your devices, anywhere—without using your data. Now with AT&T,” the app’s update notes say under the heading “Data Free TV.” This feature requires subscriptions to DirecTV and AT&T wireless data services.

It sounds like the data cap exemption may not apply to all data downloaded by the app, as the update notes further say that “Exclusions apply & may incur data usage.” The service is also “Subject to network management, including speed reduction.” We’ve asked AT&T for more information and will provide an update if we receive one.

Customers can also use the app to download shows recorded on their home DVR straight to their mobile device(s) for viewing. Updates to the DirecTV apps for Android and iPad devices introducing similar exemptions are still pending as of this morning.

A description of "what's new" in the DirecTV app released this morning in the iTunes app store.

A description of “what’s new” in the DirecTV app released this morning in the iTunes app store.

AT&T is engaging in a practice known as “zero rating,” which exempts certain provider-preferred or owned content from that provider’s own data caps or allowances. Critics call zero rating an end run around Net Neutrality because users are more likely to use services that don’t count against their data allowance over those that do. The FCC’s definition of Net Neutrality prohibits providers from artificially enhancing the performance of certain websites at the expense of others, but says nothing about data caps or zero rating.

Chima

Chima

“All forms of zero rating amount to price discrimination, and have in common their negative impact on users’ rights,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director of Access, a group fighting for global preservation of Net Neutrality. “Zero rating is all about control. Specifically, control over the user experience by the telecom carrier — and potentially its business partners. We can see this is true when we look at how zero rating is implemented technically. Technologically, it is about manipulation of the network, where you guide or force the user to change the way they would otherwise use it.”

The FCC seemed to agree with Chima, specifically banning AT&T from exempting its own streaming video services and those of DirecTV from AT&T’s data caps in the agreement allowing AT&T to acquire DirecTV. But the FCC only mentioned AT&T’s caps on its DSL and U-verse home broadband services, not AT&T Mobility. AT&T took full advantage of the apparent loophole for its mobile customers.

AT&T has previously stated it does not discriminate against online content and is happy to exempt other video services from its data allowances and caps if those companies pay AT&T for the privilege.

The benefit of zero rating is obvious for AT&T. The company can now market its cell phone services to DirecTV customers with a significant advantage over competitors — free access to DirecTV video not available from Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile. It can also strengthen its earlier promotion offering unlimited DSL/U-verse service to those who bundle either product with a DirecTV subscription, by pitching zero rating for customers on the go.

AT&T’s competitors T-Mobile and Verizon also engage in zero rating on their mobile service plans.

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