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Deadline for Net Neutrality Comments Extended 2 Weeks; Industry: Many Comments Are “Fake”

Phillip Dampier August 14, 2017 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

If you have not filed a reply comment with the Federal Communications Commission on the subject of Net Neutrality, you now have two extra weeks to send one.

At the request of consumer groups and some members of Congress, the FCC extended the deadline for reply comments — those in response to existing filings — until Aug. 30, 2017. The two-week extension is far less than the eight weeks requested by many, and was granted despite objections for any extension from the cable, wireless, and telephone company lobbying organizations.

While it is the policy of the Commission that ‘extensions shall not be routinely granted,’ we find that an extension of the reply comment deadline is appropriate in this case in order to allow interested parties to respond to the record,” the FCC wrote. “While we recognize that Movants have requested an eight-week extension of the reply comment deadline, we find, consistent with past Commission precedent granting partial extensions, that an additional two weeks is an appropriate period of time to extend the reply comment deadline in order to provide parties additional time to analyze the technical, legal, and policy arguments raised by initial commenters.”

Few in Washington expect the more than 11 million comments on the issue of keeping an open internet will make much difference to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai or his Republican colleague Michael O’Rielly, both fierce opponents of Net Neutrality. The third Republican Commissioner, Brendan Carr, was sworn in with returning Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel last Friday. Carr has a paper trail opposing Net Neutrality, while Rosenworcel is on record supporting it, along with her colleague Mignon Clyburn. In the end, the vote is likely to be 3-2 in favor of repealing Net Neutrality.

Unusually, the FCC has taken the step of characterizing the quality of comments received on the Net Neutrality issue, calling the vast majority of them exceptionally brief and containing little more than a declaration of the author’s “ultimate policy preferences.” It also suggested a large number of comments were “apparently fabricated,” noting that many were signed without the consent of the person named and others lack any names at all.

The telecom industry characterized the delay as giving more time for what Lawrence Spiwak, president of the telecom industry-friendly Phoenix Center calls “sophistic clicktivism” to “pad the record” in favor of Net Neutrality. Other groups funded by the telecom industry have spent months attempting to discredit the enormous number of comments — the most ever received by the FCC — by suggesting the majority were fake or fraudulent and not worthy of being taken seriously.

Verizon Tells FCC Revealing Big Telecom Merger Details Irrelevant to Net Neutrality Proceeding

Verizon has told the Federal Communications Commission it should reject a bid from a consumer group to release confidential corporate merger information to the public so it can learn what economic incentives, if any, exist to begin charging content providers extra fees for internet fast lanes and zero rating.

Incompas, which advocates for increased competition in the wireless industry, asked the Commission in July to publicly disclose details of recent telecom mergers obtained in confidence from the companies involved to “interested commenters” in the Net Neutrality proceeding allowing consumers can obtain valuable insight into the “economic incentives and abilities of incumbent broadband providers to curb competition, including through their control of residential broadband connections.”

The group specifically called out AT&T’s merger with DirecTV, Comcast’s failed merger with Time Warner Cable, and Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. All of the entities involved either operate wireless networks themselves or partner with a provider that does. Incompas believes a document release will show increased concentration and market power and the marked impact that can have on what consumers pay for service and how those companies plan to treat competing traffic.

The information disclosure sought by the group was vehemently opposed by Verizon, which doesn’t want its business secrets revealed to the public.

“There is no legal justification or sound policy basis to justify making this highly sensitive business information available in the Restoring Internet Freedom proceeding,” Verizon countered in its filing. The phone company does not want to publicly release details about its connection agreements with other companies or exactly how many customers it serves. “[N]othing has changed since the adoption of these protective orders that warrants the Commission weakening these protections by allowing this sensitive business information to be disclosed to potentially millions of ‘interested commenters’ in the Restoring Internet Freedom proceeding.”

While some Net Neutrality critics have sought to dismiss the more than 13 million comments received so far by the FCC on Net Neutrality as confused ranting, Verizon takes an opposite position saying the Commission is already bogged down with quality comments on Net Neutrality and does not need more, claiming it would only add to a flood of analysis on Net Neutrality. Verizon claimed among the submissions received by the FCC are “millions of comments, thousands of pages of expert testimony and declarations and hundreds of substantive analyses and submissions with detailed economic, legal and policy arguments.”

Charter Communications did not appreciate the proposal either, claiming it was unfair.

“Such an outcome would eviscerate the core protection of the commission’s protective orders, thereby unfairly punishing Charter’s past compliance and threatening the commission’s ability to obtain sensitive information from private parties in the future,” Charter officials wrote.

Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

AT&T: Using taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to subsidize 4G LTE upgrades for its customers.

With taxpayer subsidies on the horizon, phone companies cut back investing their own money on rural broadband expansion hoping taxpayers would cover funding themselves.

That is the conclusion of Dave Burstein, a long-standing and well-respected industry observer and publisher of Net Policy News. Burstein is concerned the unintentional consequence of Obama and Trump Administration rural broadband funding programs has been fewer homes connected than what some carriers would have managed on their own without government subsidies.

“Since 2009, carrier investment in broadband in rural areas has gone down drastically,” Burstein wrote.

As a result, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans to spend $4.53 billion from a public-financed Mobility Fund over the next decade to advance 4G LTE service, primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support. Burstein suspects much of that money could end up being unnecessarily wasted.

“Under current plans, most of the money is likely to go where telcos would build [4G] without a subsidy, [or will be used to] buy obsolete technology, or give the telcos two or three times what the job should cost,” Burstein wrote. “Any spending on wireless except where towers or backhaul is unavailable should be assumed wasteful until proven otherwise.  Realistic costs need to be developed and subsidies allocated on that basis.”

AT&T’s rural fixed wireless expansion program, funded substantially by U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers, is a case in point. AT&T is receiving almost $428 million a year in public funds to extend wireless access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says. Much of that investment is claimed to be spent retrofitting and upgrading existing cell towers to support 4G LTE service. But AT&T claims 98% of its customers already have access to 4G LTE service — more than any other carrier in the country, so AT&T is actually spending the money to bolster its existing 4G LTE network, something more likely to benefit its cell customers, not a few thousand fixed wireless customers.

(Source: AT&T)

“An AT&T exec in California said communities didn’t need to worry about the impact of the CAF-funded project, since it was almost all going to be on existing towers,” Burstein wrote, allaying fears among members of the public that money would be spent on lots of new cell towers. “I don’t know what loophole AT&T is using to get the money, but it’s a pretty safe guess they would have upgraded most of them without the government paying. 4G service now reaches all but 3-5 million of the 110-126 million U.S. households. Probably half [of the less than five million] targeted would soon be served without a subsidy – if the telcos knew no subsidy was likely. Before spending a penny on subsidies, the FCC needs to do a thorough assessment of what would be built without government money.”

Burstein

Wireless executives were delighted when the U.S. government in 2009 committed to spending $7 billion in taxpayer funds on broadband stimulus funding as part of a full-scale economic stimulus program to combat the Great Recession.

“Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 had promised to bring affordable broadband to all Americans,” Burstein noted. “The clamor to reach these last few million was so loud, telcos became confident the government would pay for it if they just stopped their own investment. They aren’t stupid and refused to spend their own money. Before 2009 and the expected huge stimulus program, most telcos expanded their networks each year, based on available capital funds.”

Burstein believes some phone companies became better experts at milking government money to pay for needed network upgrades than frugally spending public funds on rural broadband expansion. As a result, after eight years and massive spending, Burstein notes fewer than two million of the “unserved” six million homes were reached by wireline or wireless broadband service when the funding ran out.

Under Chairman Pai’s latest round of rural broadband funding, Burstein believes much of this new money is also at risk of being wasted.

“[Pai] needs to dig into the details of what he’s proposing,” Burstein wrote. “Nearly all cells with decent backhaul will be upgraded to 4G; Verizon and AT&T have already reached 98% of homes. Government money should go to building towers and backhaul where that’s missing, not filling in network holes the carriers would likely cover.”

Rural advocacy groups have been frustrated for years watching rural telephone companies deliver piecemeal upgrades and service expansion, often to only a few hundred customers at any one time. When they learn how much was spent to extend broadband service to a relatively few number of customers, they are confused because companies often spend much less when they budget and pay for projects on their own without government subsidies.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Burstein is currently suspicious about the $200 million approved in subsidy funding to extend rural broadband in parts of upstate New York. Burstein notes Pai is factually wrong about his claim that the hundreds of millions set aside for New York would be spent on “unserved areas of rural New York.”

“Most of that money will not go to unserved areas,” Burstein reports. “Some grants are going to politically connected groups. I’ve read the rules and the approved proposals. The amounts look excessive based on the limited public details.”

Telephone companies have become skilled negotiators when it comes to wiring their rural service areas. Most want more money than the government has previously been willing to offer to help them meet their Return On Investment expectations. Burstein noted that under normal circumstances, a government program offering a 25% subsidy to extend rural broadband into areas considered unprofitable to serve would be enough in most cases to get approval from rural phone companies like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications. But many phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest (now a part of CenturyLink) did not even file applications to participate in early funding rounds. Qwest’s lack of interest was especially problematic, because the former Baby Bell served the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions where some of the worst broadband accessibility problems persisted.

Burstein claims Jonathan Adelstein, then Rural Utilities Administrator, had to double his subsidy offer to get Qwest’s attention with a 50% subsidy.

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

“Qwest refused, demanding 75%,” Burstein noted. “That was probably twice the amount necessary and Adelstein rightly refused. They knew the government had few ways to reach those unserved without paying whatever the telcos demanded. A few years later, Qwest is part of Centurylink. Many of those lines are now upgrading under [public] Connect America Funds with what amounts to a greater than 100% subsidy.”

Net Neutrality appeared to have no impact on telephone company investment decisions, even in rural areas. The investment cuts followed a trend that began even before President Barack Obama took office. Wireless carriers slash investments in rural areas when management is confident the government is motivated to step in and offer taxpayer dollars to expand rural broadband service. When those funds do become available, a significant percentage of the money isn’t spent on constructing new infrastructure to extend the reach of wired and wireless networks into unserved rural areas. Instead, it pays for expanding existing infrastructure that may coincidentally reach some rural customers, but is still primarily used by existing cellular customers.

“In many extreme rural areas, only the local telco has the ability to deliver broadband at a reasonable cost,” noted Burstein. “You need to have affordable backhaul and a local staff for repairs. Because the ‘unserved’ are in very small clusters, often less than 100 homes, it’s usually impractical for a new entrant to bring in a backhaul connection.”

Instead, AT&T is attempting to fill some of the gaps with fixed wireless service from existing cell towers. While good news for customers without access to cable or DSL broadband but do have adequate cellular coverage to subscribe to AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service, that is not much help for those in deeply rural areas where AT&T isn’t investing in additional cell towers to extend coverage. In effect, AT&T enjoys a win-win for itself — adding taxpayer-funded capacity to their existing 4G LTE networks at the same time it markets data-cap free access to its bandwidth-heavy online video services like DirecTV Now. That frees up capital and reduces costs for AT&T’s investors. But it also alienates AT&T’s competitors that recognize the additional network capacity available to AT&T also allows it to offer steep discounts on its DirecTV Now service exclusively for its own wireless customers.

Republican FCC Nominee Forgot to Mention He Represented AT&T and Verizon

Phillip Dampier August 1, 2017 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (left) with FCC general counsel and Republican FCC nominee Brendan Carr (right). (Image: Victor Hugo Mora Mendoza)

Federal Communications Commission Republican nominee Brendan Carr forgot to mention in sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate that his work at a D.C. law firm included representing AT&T, Verizon, and the wireless industry’s top lobbying trade association.

Carr, who today works as general counsel to the FCC under current chairman Ajit Pai, was nominated by Pai to serve as the third Republican FCC commissioner.

“Brendan’s expertise on wireless policy and public safety will be a tremendous asset to the Commission,” Pai said in a statement.

Mignon Clyburn is currently the sole Democratic Party commissioner, likely to be rejoined eventually by Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel if her re-nomination to the FCC is approved by the Senate.

At a confirmation hearing, Carr testified he “accepted a job at a law firm where [he] could gain broad experience working on various telecommunications issues” before taking a clerkship which “helped spark [his] interest in public service,” according to BroadbandBreakfast. What Carr did not mention is that work took place at D.C. powerhouse law firm Wiley Rein, where Carr represented the interests of AT&T, Verizon Communications (also a former client of Chairman Pai), and the industry-funded U.S. Telecom and CTIA trade associations which represent phone and wireless companies respectively.

The revelation isn’t expected to create a problem for Carr’s confirmation among Republicans, and Democrats don’t seem likely to create any obstacles for Carr either, perhaps because of a largess of campaign contributions from some of the same cable and phone companies that are likely to share Carr’s positions on issues expected to come before the Commission. Carr is widely expected to support Chairman Pai’s efforts to kill Net Neutrality policies at the FCC.

Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Fla) told BroadbandBreakfast the issue won’t cause any delay in his upcoming confirmation vote. Nelson’s third largest contributor over the last five years was Comcast, which contributed close to $70,000 last year to Nelson’s campaign with a panoply of Comcast lobbyists and their families also donating significant sums. Verizon was Nelson’s 16th largest contributor with more than $37,000 in donations to his campaign last year and many thousands more from Verizon’s lobbyists.

Net Neutrality: A Taste of Preferential Fast Lanes of Web Traffic in India

Unclear and unenforced Net Neutrality rules in India give a cautionary tale to U.S. internet users who could soon find Net Neutrality guarantees replaced in the U.S. with industry-written rules filled with loopholes or no Net Neutrality protections at all.

As India considers stronger enforcement of Net Neutrality protection, broadband providers have been merrily violating current Net Neutrality guidelines with fast lanes, sometimes advertised openly. Many of those ISPs are depending on obfuscation and grey areas to effectively give their preferred partners a leg up on the competition while claiming they are not giving them preferential treatment.

Medianama notes Ortel advertises two different internet speeds for its customers – one for regular internet traffic and the other for preferred partner websites cached by Ortel inside its network. The result is that preferred websites load 10-40 times faster than regular internet traffic.

Ortel’s vice president of broadband business, Jiji John, said Ortel is not violating Net Neutrality.

“Cache concept is totally based on the Internet user’s browsing. ISP does not control the contents and it has nothing to do with Net Neutrality,” John said in a statement.

Critics contend ISPs like Ortel may not control the contents of websites, but they do control which websites are cached and which are not.

Alliance Broadband, a West Bengal-based Internet provider, goes a step further and advertises higher speeds for Hotstar — a legal streaming platform, Google and popular movie, TV and software torrents, which arrive at speeds of 3-12Mbps faster than the rest of the internet. Alliance takes this further by establishing a reserved lane for each service, meaning regardless of what else one does with their internet connection, Hotstar content will arrive at 8Mbps, torrents at 12Mbps and the rest of the internet at 5Mbps concurrently. This means customers can get up to 25Mbps when combining traffic from the three sources, even if they are only subscribed to a much slower tier.

Alliance Broadband’s rate card. Could your ISP be next?

Which services are deemed “preferred” is up to the ISP. While Alliance may favor Google, Wishnet in West Bengal offers up preferential speeds for YouTube videos.

The ISPs claim these faster speeds are a result of “peering” those websites on its own internal network, reducing traffic slowdowns and delays. In some cases, the ISPs store the most popular content on its own servers, where it can be delivered to customers more rapidly. This alone does not violate Net Neutrality, but when an ISP reserves bandwidth for a preferred partner’s website or application, that can come at the expense of those websites that do not have this arrangement. Some ISPs have sought to devote extra bandwidth to those reserved lanes so it does not appear to impact on other traffic, but it still gives preferential treatment to some over others.

Remarkably, Indian ISPs frequently give preferential treatment to peer-to-peer services that routinely flout copyright laws while leaving legal streaming services other than Hotstar on the slow lane, encouraging copyright theft.

American ISPs have already volunteered not to block of directly impede the traffic of websites, but this may not go far enough to prevent the kinds of clever preferential runarounds ISPs can engineer where Net Neutrality is already in place, but isn’t well defined or enforced.

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