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Commentary: Verizon’s New Tech News Website Censors Out Net Neutrality, Electronic Spying, Credibility

“Verizon’s treatment of the news is a testament to the need for strong Net Neutrality protections.”

Sugarstring's logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Sugarstring’s logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Verizon Wireless’ launch of Sugarstring, a high-budget tech news website targeting millennial 20-somethings with tech and lifestyle news they can use seemed innocent enough until its editor revealed in a private e-mail Verizon considers reporting on electronic spying and Net Neutrality issues “verboten.

Verizon is deeply embroiled in both issues and evidently has no interest spending money enlightening the masses, so it has told its staff (but not you) both topics are forbidden.

The Daily Dot reported the revelation straight from Cole Stryker, Sugarstring’s editor.

“I’ve been hired to edit SugarString.com,” writes Stryker in a recruiting email to Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill. “Downside is there are two verboten topics (spying and net neutrality), but I’ve been given wide berth to cover pretty much all other topics that touch tech in some way.”

Verizon’s cavalier censorship policies say a lot about the company’s interest in controlling the messages that people see and read online. The news site is intended to be a high-profile destination for Verizon Wireless’ mobile customers and will logically get significant exposure from the company bankrolling it.

Verizon might argue that since it pays the bills, it has a right to decide what information should pass through its websites. It is hardly a big stretch for them to argue that if they own the wires over which you receive Internet service, they should have a say in what travels across those as well.

Censorship need not be crude and obvious as it often was on foreign propaganda broadcasts during the Cold War. Today’s “news management” is much more subtle and more insidious.

Take RT (formerly Russia Today), the Moscow-based 24/7 English-language news network. Although dropped by many major cable systems including Time Warner Cable after Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, the network is still growing and finding more places on the air around the world.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

RT is nothing like what shortwave listeners used to endure from English-language Radio Moscow World Service during the Communist years. You couldn’t miss that station. Broadcasting on up to 47 frequencies simultaneously, 24 hours a day, it was easily the most commonly encountered signal on the shortwave dial. Plodding features like, “On the Occasion of the 45th Anniversary of the Stunning Achievements of World Socialism,” or “The Voices of Soviet Public Opinion Demand Peace and Progress for the Non-Aligned World” (Part 36) were everything you might expect and less.

Radio Moscow boldly told listeners in its series, “The History of the Soviet Union, the Socialist Revolution, and Its Aims and Results,” that elections in the USSR were superior to those in other countries because the government took the money out of politics. Only by putting national infrastructure entirely in the hands of the people, along with public ownership of the means of production, can a nation achieve true democracy. They didn’t bother to mention the USSR was a one-party state, which made elections pro-forma, or that the entire Soviet economy was a basket case since the days of Leonid Brezhnev. (10:01) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Radio Moscow has been replaced by RT Television, which in the post-Soviet era now exists primarily to boost all-things Putin. The propaganda has been sharpened up by employing U.S. reporters and moving to the far more subtle practice of “self-censorship.” A former RT reporter fed up with increasingly strident propaganda over the matter of Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine quit live on the air. In a later interview on CNN, Liz Wahl told Anderson Cooper that RT’s staff was made up mostly of impressionable young people eager to win favor from RT’s management. They quickly learned and accepted that certain points of view or story subjects were either frowned upon or outright verboten. Instead of being sent to a gulag for disobedience, those straying from Putin’s party line were taken off stories, reassigned to menial work, or shunned. Who wants that?

Avoiding certain topics or points of view at the behest of corporate management (or the state) is just as insidious as directly slanting the news to one’s favor. Few real journalists would accept a job (or stay) at a news organization that was compromised by coverage limits or editorial interference that came from conflict with a corporate or political agenda.

That Verizon chooses to ban stories that embarrass Verizon, such as Edward Snowden’s revelations that Verizon voluntarily provided the National Security Agency (NSA) the phone records of all of its customers and is still actively engaged in tracking its customers’ web activities, does not mean it is going to block you from visiting CNN.com tomorrow. That Verizon doesn’t want to fuel the public consciousness of Net Neutrality is understanding considering the company has paid its lawyers plenty to fight the principle in court, openly admitting it favors paid fast lanes for traffic. But Verizon is clearly on a road that, if unchecked, eventually leads to content and traffic manipulation.

Verizon steps far over the line of jounalistic integrity informing editors to avoid both issues while saying nothing to readers and it isn’t the first time Verizon has crossed the line.

censorshipTim Karr from Free Press reminds us Verizon has a very different view about the First Amendment that the rest of us:

In a 2012 legal brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Verizon mangled the intent of the First Amendment to claim that the Constitution gives the phone company the right to control everyone’s online information. In the brief, which was part of the company’s successful bid to overturn the FCC’s Open Internet Order — Verizon argued that the First Amendment gives it the right to serve as the Internet’s editor-in-chief. The company’s attorneys claimed that “broadband providers possess ‘editorial discretion.'” even when they are “transmitting the speech of others.”

Verizon continued in this vein, asserting that “Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others.” And that means that Verizon could privilege its SugarString version of the news over the content of real news sites, because the company believes it should be able to “give differential pricing or priority access” to its own content.

What Verizon cannot “manage,” it wants the right to censor:

When it comes to a question of customer freedom vs. profits, Verizon follows the money every time:

In 2011, Free Press and others caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon’s $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots on their own. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

All of these examples challenge Verizon’s ongoing assertion it has no incentive to censor, block, or interfere with online content, making Net Neutrality unnecessary. You have just seen another example of why Net Neutrality is urgently needed. Verizon has demonstrated repeatedly it puts its own interests above its customers, so regulators should respond with a clear, unambiguous, and robustly enforced policy of Net Neutrality that protects the interests of you and I.

The Capitol Forum’s Insightful Review of the Comcast-Time Warner Merger Deal: A Tough Sell

be mineWall Street is increasingly pessimistic about Comcast and Time Warner Cable pulling off their merger deal as regulators stop the clock to take a closer look at the transaction.

The Capitol Forum, an in-depth news and analysis service dedicated to informing policymakers, investors, and industry stakeholders on how policy affects market competition, specializes in examining marketplace mergers and their potential impact on American consumers and the general economy. The group has shared a copy of their assessment — “Comcast/Time Warner Cable: A Closer Look at FCC, DOJ Decision Processes; Merits and Politics May Drive Merger Challenge, Especially as Wheeler Unlikely to Embrace Title II Regulation for Net Neutrality” — with Stop the Cap! and we’re sharing a summary of the report with our readers.

The two most important government agencies reviewing the merger proposal are the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice. The FCC is responsible for overseeing telecommunications in the United States and is also tasked with reviewing telecom industry mergers to verify if they are in the public interest. The Department of Justice becomes involved in big mergers as well, concerned with compliance with antitrust and other laws.

In many instances, the two agencies work separately and independently to review merger proposals, but not so with Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Sources tell Capitol Forum there is a high level of coordination and information sharing between DOJ and the FCC, potentially positioning the two agencies in a stronger legal position if they jointly challenge the merger. Readers may recall AT&T’s attempt to buy T-Mobile was thwarted in 2011 when the FCC followed the DOJ’s lead in jointly challenging the merger on competition and antitrust grounds. With a united front against the deal in Washington, AT&T quickly capitulated.

comcast cartoonDespite a blizzard of Comcast talking points claiming the cable industry is fiercely competitive, Capitol Forum’s report indicates the DOJ staff level believes the cable industry suffers dearly from a lack of competition already, and allowing further marketplace concentration would exacerbate an already difficult problem.

Capitol Forum reports the DOJ’s staff is inclined to “take an aggressive posture with regards to [antitrust] enforcement.”

The DOJ would certainly not be walking the beltway plank to its political doom if it ultimately decides to oppose the merger.

Few on Capitol Hill are likely to fiercely advocate for a cable company generally despised by their constituents. The Capitol Forum report notes that Comcast faces powerful opposition and its political support is overstated. Comcast’s lobbying efforts and ties to President Obama and several high level Democrats have also been widely exposed in the media, which makes it more difficult for D.C.’s powerful to be seen carrying Comcast’s water.

In fact, the report indicates a regulatory challenge against Comcast and Time Warner Cable would face considerably less political opposition than what the FCC faces if it reclassifies broadband as a “telecommunications service,” protecting Net Neutrality and exposing the industry to stronger regulatory oversight.

The report suggests FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who seems intent on opposing reclassification of broadband under Title II, may appease his critics by taking a stronger stance on the Comcast/Time Warner deal instead.

Wheeler has already expressed concern about the state of competitiveness of American broadband. He considers providers capable of delivering at least 25Mbps part of broadband’s key market, which in many communities means a monopoly for the local cable operator.

Understanding “The Public Interest” and the Implications of a Combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable on Competition

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC will review the transaction pursuant to Sections 214 and 310(d) of the Communications Act of 1934, in order to ensure that “public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served thereby.”

The merger proposal must also demonstrate it does not violate antitrust laws.

It is here that merger opponents have a wealth of arguments to use against Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Despite Comcast’s insistence the deal would have no competitive implications, the Capitol Forum reports the merger’s potential anticompetitive effects are “widely recognized and evidence from the investigation could provide DOJ and FCC with a solid foundation to challenge the merger.”

Although the two cable companies don’t directly compete with each other (itself a warning sign of an already noncompetitive marketplace), the report finds “a wide array of anti-competitive effects and several antitrust theories” that would implicate the cable company in a Clayton Act violation.

Comcast is betting heavily on its surface argument that by the very fact customers will not see any change in the number of competitors delivering service to their area, the merger should easily clear any antitrust hurdles. That argument makes it more difficult for the DOJ to fall back on the usual market concentration precedents that would prevent such a colossal merger deal. To argue excessive horizontal integration — the enlarging of Comcast’s territory — the DOJ would first have to prove Comcast’s size in comparison with other cable companies is a reason for the courts to shoot down the deal. Or it could bypass Comcast’s favorite argument and move to the issue of vertical integration — one company’s ability to control not just the pipes that deliver content, but also the content itself.

octopusHere the examples of potential abuse are plentiful:

  • Comcast would enjoy increased power to force cable programmers to favor Comcast in cable programming pricing and policies while allowing it to demand restrictions on competitive online video competitors or restrict access to popular cable programming;
  • Comcast could impose data caps and usage-based pricing to deter online viewing while exempting its own content by delivering it over a Wi-Fi enabled gateway, game console or set top box, claiming all are unrelated to Comcast’s broadband Internet service or network;
  • Force consumers to use Comcast set top boxes that would not support competing providers’ online video;
  • Use interconnection agreements as a clever way to bypass the paid prioritization Net Neutrality debate. Netflix and other content producers would be forced to compensate Comcast for reliable access to its broadband customers;
  • Noting AT&T has declared U-verse can not effectively succeed in the cable television business without combining its customer base with DirecTV to qualify for better volume discounts, there is clear evidence that a super-sized Comcast could command discounts new entrants like Google Fiber could never hope to get, putting them at a distinct price disadvantage.

The FCC’s scrutiny of Comcast’s merger deal has already uncovered evidence previously unavailable because of non-disclosure agreements which show Comcast’s heavy hand already at work.

The report notes Michael Mooney, a senior vice president and group general counsel at Level 3, told the Capitol Forum the dispute earlier this year between Netflix and Comcast could have been resolved in about five minutes had Comcast added a port to relieve congestion at an interconnection point. The cost? Just $5,000. Had Comcast been willing to spend the money, millions of Comcast customers would have never experienced problems using Netflix.

Whether Comcast is ultimately deemed too large to permit another consolidating merger or whether it is given conditional approval to absorb Time Warner Cable remains a close call, according to the Capitol Forum, despite the fact consumers have urged regulators for something slightly more concrete – a single sentence, total denial of its application.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Capitol Forum The Consumer Welfare Test.mp4

The Capitol Forum broadly explores how the “consumer welfare standard” has become a part of the antitrust review process over the last 30 years. Sometimes, a strict antitrust test is not sufficient to protect “the public interest” of consumers, and allows the dominant player(s) to harm competition. In the digital economy, corporate mergers that empower companies to restrict innovation can prove far more damaging than classic monopoly abuse. (15:52)

AT&T Adds Atlanta, Chicago and Decatur for GigaPower Gigabit Fiber Most Won’t See Anytime Soon

Notice the word "may"

Notice the word “may”

AT&T has promised an undisclosed number of customers in Chicago, Ill., and Atlanta, Decatur, and Newnan, Ga., will eventually get GigaPower upgrades to AT&T’s U-verse service, after moving customers to an all-fiber network that will deliver up to 1Gbps service.

“As a city that prides itself on creating a favorable environment for investment and innovation, I am happy to see AT&T bringing its ultra-high speed fiber network to the City of Atlanta,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “This is a great opportunity for our residents, businesses and visitors, who all stand to benefit from this new service. The City of Atlanta is one of the fastest growing tech hubs in the United States and a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity.  U-verse with AT&T GigaPower service will complement this engine of economic growth and help pave the way for future opportunities.”

But before the mayor gets too excited, he should consider AT&T’s track record for GigaPower upgrades in other cities where the service is offered. Customers complain the gigabit upgrade is difficult to get in single family homes, with most of the upgrades targeting multi-dwelling units like large condos or apartment blocks or new housing developments.

Customers in Austin complain to Stop the Cap! AT&T GigaPower looks more like a demonstration project than a serious effort at expanding super fast fiber broadband. Although pockets of service are established in some upscale areas, nobody at AT&T is willing to answer customers’ questions about exactly when service will arrive in unserved neighborhoods. Technicians are privately telling readers it will take more than a year for serious expansion efforts to begin across Austin.

While AT&T drags its feet on fiber expansion, it has no trouble hurrying out press releases suggesting cities including Atlanta, Augusta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Greensboro, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Oakland, Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, San Francisco, and San Jose will soon see GigaPower in their areas. But AT&T isn’t putting much money where its mouth is, failing to significantly increase capital spending to upgrade the U-verse network.

In fact, AT&T executives have repeatedly reassured investors the company has no plans for a significant uptick in wireline capital spending — exactly what would be required to complete the gigabit expansion effort AT&T promises in press releases. In contrast, AT&T’s 2012 $14 billion Project Velocity IP (or VIP) was the company’s most visible and ambitious network build out initiative in wired service since the introduction of U-verse. Project VIP delivered a clear expansion of U-verse into new areas and brought new fiber connections to buildings, many that are now in use to offer GigaPower service in Austin.

Fiber broadband expansion is not cheap, and even after AT&T committed $14 billion to its expansion effort two years ago, the results are modest for U-verse because a considerable portion of the funds spent were invested in AT&T’s wireless network instead — always a priority:

State / City Investment amt. (wireless & wireline) U-verse locations Business connections On-net buildings Total investment (2010-2012)
California $1.15 billion 127,700 30,400 800 $7 billion
 — San Diego 15,950 2,900 90 $750 million
Texas $1 billion 138,300 24,200 600 $7 billion
Georgia $675 million $2.5 billion
 — Atlanta 12,100 11,450 400
Florida $425 million 25,050 18,450 550 $2.8 billion
Indiana $325 million 18,000 1,300 60 $1.3 billion
Michigan $275 million 35,550 2,150 70 $1.55 billion
Missouri $250 million 27,300 3,650 150 not reported
North Carolina $250 Million 9,900 1,800 50 $1.5 billion
Ohio $225 million 31,200 1,100 40 $1.5 billion
Alabama $200 million 6,600 600 20 $1.4 billion
Louisiana $175 million not reported 2,100 35 $1.2 billion
Mississippi $175 million 5,800 175 4 $975 million
Tennessee $175 million 13,600 325 9 $1.4 billion
Connecticut $140 million 6,600 1,100 40 $750 million
South Carolina $140 million 21,100 250 9 $850 million
Wisconsin $140 million N/A 525 20 $725 million
Oklahoma $120 million 13,850 875 25 $700 million
Kansas $110 million 10,150 650 30 $725 million
Nevada $110 million not reported 200 7 $600 million
Arkansas $90 million 8,750 1,000 25 $700 million

Chart courtesy: FierceTelecom

Data compiled from publicly released company information.

Reflecting on the numbers, it would take an investment at least equal, if not greater, than AT&T spent on Project VIP for AT&T to significantly upgrade the communities it claims will soon have access to GigaPower. Instead, it is more likely AT&T will introduce a handful of gigabit show projects and then incrementally upgrade selected neighborhoods over the next 3-5 years.

Existing competition makes all the difference as to what customers will pay for gigabit service from AT&T, assuming they can buy it at any price. As Google Fiber tears up the streets of Austin, it is clear Google will deliver real competition in that city, forcing AT&T to price its gigabit service at $70 a month (for customers willing to have their online activities tracked by AT&T). In nearby Dallas, where competition isn’t as robust, customers will have to pay at least $120 a month for the service.

J.D. Power & Associates Tie Vote! Hemorrhagic Fever vs. Comcast vs. Time Warner Cable

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

Take Comcast’s affair with J.D. Power & Associates, for example. In Comcast’s filings with regulators, it is very proud that J.D. Power cited Comcast for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. Comcast touted the fact it had managed to increase its TV satisfaction score by a whopping 92 points and Internet satisfaction was up a respectable 77 points. (Comcast didn’t mention the fact J.D. Power rates companies on a 1,000 point scale or that it took the cable company four years to eke out those improvements.)

Last month, J.D. Power issued its latest ranking of telecommunications companies and… well, the love is gone.

If customer alienation was an Olympic event, J.D. Power awarded tie gold medals to both Comcast and Time Warner Cable for their Kafkaesque race to the bottom.

The survey of customer satisfaction largely found only dissatisfaction everywhere in the country J.D. Power looked. While Comcast likes to cite its “customer-oopsies-gone-viral” blunders as “isolated incidents,” J.D. Power finds them epidemic nationwide.

skunkThe highest rating across television and broadband categories achieved by either cable company was ‘Meh.’ J.D. Power diplomatically scored both cable companies on a scale that started with “among the best” as simply “the rest.” Customers in the west were the most charitable, those in the south and eastern U.S. indicated they were worked to their last nerve.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications, in a statement.

Having competition available from a high-scoring provider also demonstrates what is possible when a company actually tries to care about customer service. In the same regions Comcast fared about as popular as hemorrhagic fever, WOW! Cable and Verizon FiOS easily took top honors. Even AT&T U-verse scored far higher than either cable company, primarily because AT&T offers very aggressive promotional packages that include a lot for a comparatively low price.

Other cable and smaller phone companies didn’t do particularly well either. Frontier and CenturyLink both earned dismal scores and Charter Cable only managed modest improvement. The two satellite television companies did fine in customer satisfaction for television service, but it was the two biggest phone companies that managed the best scores for Internet service. Among cable operators, only independents like WOW! (and to a lesser extent Cox) did well in the survey.

If J.D. Power is the arbiter of good service Comcast seems to claim it to be, the ratings company just sent a very clear message that when it comes to merging Comcast and Time Warner Cable, anything multiplied by zero is still zero.

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

Earthlink Customers Benefit from Time Warner Cable Maxx Broadband Upgrades

earthlink_logoEarthlink customers in New York, Los Angeles and Austin are receiving letters from Time Warner Cable advising them they qualify for the same speeds Time Warner Cable broadband customers are receiving as part of the TWC Maxx upgrade program.

Standard Earthlink customers in these cities will get speed upgrades from 15/1Mbps to 50/5Mbps at no extra charge. Turbo speed customers will see speeds rise from 20/2Mbps to 100/10Mbps, also at no additional cost.

twcmaxStop the Cap! reader Iris was immediately suspicious about the tone of Time Warner’s letter, which has the potential of confusing customers that own their own cable modems. The letter suggests customer-owned equipment might not be compatible with the speed upgrades. Customers are given a phone number to verify their eligibility, and some who have contacted Time Warner Cable report back they have been given a brief sales pitch to ditch their own modem in favor of one from Time Warner Cable, which costs $5.99 a month forever.

Time Warner could have simply enclosed its list of approved modems, which would answer customer concerns without having to make a phone call. But that wouldn’t give the company a chance to score extra revenue convincing customers to toss their old equipment in the trash while paying an unnecessary monthly modem fee for the rest of their lives.

For the record, your old modem probably will continue to work even if it isn’t capable of delivering the fastest speeds. If 50/5Mbps is fast enough for current Earthlink Turbo customers, they might want to consider downgrading service until they can budget to buy a new modem capable of taking full advantage of the faster 100/10Mbps speeds now on offer.

For your convenience, here is the latest Time Warner Cable Approved Modem List for TWC Maxx upgrade areas:

approved modems

 

Cable Lobby Forgot to Mention It’s the Sole Backer of Sock Puppet Group ‘Onward Internet’

onward-internetWith millions at stake charging content producers extra for guaranteed fast lanes on the Internet, some lobbyists will go to almost any length to throw up roadblocks in opposition to Net Neutrality.

The sudden appearance of Onward Internet, a group that erects enormous “Internet suggestion boxes” at busy intersections in New York and San Francisco is a case in point.

At least a half-dozen 20-somethings, some dressed for a science fiction convention, staff the displays while encouraging people to write and toss in their own ideas about what they expect from the Internet over the next decade.

A higher bill and usage caps, unsurprisingly, were not among the suggestions. But it is doubtful the mysterious people behind Onward Internet are interested in hearing that.

Advocacy group ProPublica spent weeks trying to find who was paying for the youthful exuberance, giant black boxes, and hopelessly optimistic YouTube videos telling viewers the Internet was made to move data, and how amazing it was your Internet Service Providers valiantly kept up with the demand, helped connect industries and even topple dictatorships. Well, not corporate dictatorships in this country anyway.

With that kind of “feel good” message, ProPublica undoubtedly smelled industry money, especially after seeing lines like, “The Internet is a wild, free thing; unbounded by limits, unfettered by rules, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the Internet continues to advance.” But it took a leak from a worker hired to file permits and buy space in San Francisco for the street displays to finally blow the whistle.

Onward Internet = the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, America’s largest cable industry lobbyist.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

This appears to be a repurposed dumpster.

You couldn’t find a bigger critic of Net Neutrality if you tried.

The NCTA played coy with ProPublica when the group first confronted the cable lobby with the evidence.

“What led you to the conclusion that this is an NCTA effort,” asked NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz.

Busted, Dietz followed up with a statement suggesting the NCTA needed to keep its involvement top-secret because it might ‘bias’ the feedback they received:

“We’ve kept NCTA’s brand off Onward Internet because we want to collect unbiased feedback directly from individuals about what they want for the future of the Internet and how it can become even better than it is today,” Dietz told ProPublica. “The cable industry is proud of our role as a leading Internet provider in the U.S. but we feel it’s important to hear directly from consumers about how they envision the future so we can work hard on delivering it.”

“We had always intended to put the NCTA brand on it but we wanted to collect as much unbiased feedback as we could for a few weeks before putting our name on it,” Dietz later told VentureBeat.

The NCTA is hoping unwitting consumers submit comments they can use to oppose Net Neutrality and Title 2 reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service.”

Because if that happens, the Money Party may end before it even begins.

The NCTA’s astroturf effort is nothing new. A panoply of well-funded, telecom-industry backed sock puppet groups muddy the waters on these issues everyday, from Broadband for America to various think tanks and bought and paid for researchers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Onward Internet Decide the future of the Internet 10-8-14.mp4

Onward Internet is hoping you will share comments they can use to prove you oppose Net Neutrality. The NCTA is a strong opponent of Net Neutrality, which allows LOLCATS, movies, and dictatorship toppling to occur without paying even MORE money to the cable company for a fast lane that should have been fast in the first place, considering how much we are spending on it. Now Big Cable also want usage caps and allowances. The revolution has been capped. (1:22)

Marsha Blackburn Angry that FCC Chairman Wants to Run Tenn. Broadband… When AT&T Should

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is angry that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is sticking his nose into AT&T, Comcast, and Charter Communications’ private playground — the state of Tennessee.

In an editorial published by The Tennessean, Blackburn throws a fit that an “unelected” bureaucrat not only believes what’s best for her state, but is now openly talking about preempting state laws that ban public broadband networks:

Legislatures are the entities who should be making these decisions. Legislatures govern what municipalities can and cannot do. The principles of federalism and state delegation of power keep government’s power in check. When a state determines that municipalities should be limited in experimenting in the private broadband market, it’s usually because the state had a good reason — to help protect public investments in education and infrastructure or to protect taxpayers from having to bailout an unproven and unsustainable project.

Chairman Wheeler has repeatedly stated that he intends to preempt the states’ sovereign role when it comes to this issue. His statements assume that Washington knows best. However, Washington often forgets that the right answers don’t always come from the top down.

It’s unfortunate Rep. Blackburn’s convictions don’t extend to corporate money and influence in the public dialogue about broadband. The “good reason” states have limited public broadband come in the form of a check, either presented directly to politicians like Blackburn, who has received so many contributions from AT&T she could cross daily exercise off her “things to do” list just running to the bank, or through positive press from front groups, notably the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

According to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, three of Blackburn’s largest career donors are employees and PACs affiliated with AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. Blackburn has also taken $56,000 from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the lobby for the big telecoms.

Combined, those organizations donated more than $200,000 to Blackburn. In comparison, her largest single donor is a PAC associated with Memphis-based FedEx Corp., which donated $68,500.

Phillip "States' rights don't extend to local rights in Blackburn's ideological world" Dampier

Phillip “States’ rights don’t extend to local rights in Blackburn’s ideological world” Dampier

Blackburn’s commentary tests the patience of the reality-based community, particularly when she argues that keeping public broadband out protects investments in education. As her rural constituents already know, 21st century broadband is often unavailable in rural Tennessee, and that includes many schools. Stop the Cap! regularly receives letters from rural Americans who complain they have to drive their kids to a Wi-Fi enabled parking lot at a fast food restaurant, town library, or even hunt for an unintentionally open Wi-Fi connection in a private home, just to complete homework assignments that require a broadband connection.

Blackburn’s favorite telecommunication’s company — AT&T — has petitioned the state legislature to allow it to permanently disconnect DSL and landline service in rural areas of the state, forcing customers to a perilous wireless data experience that doesn’t work as well as AT&T promises. While Blackburn complains about the threat of municipal broadband, she says and does nothing about the very real possibility AT&T will be allowed to make things even worse for rural constituents in her own state.

Who does Blackburn believe will ride to the rescue of rural America? Certainly not AT&T, which doesn’t want the expense of maintaining wired broadband service in less profitable rural areas. Comcast won’t even run cable lines into small communities. In fact, evidence has shown for at least a century, whether it is electricity, telephone, or broadband service, when large corporate entities don’t see profits, they won’t provide the service and communities usually have to do the job themselves. But this time those communities are handcuffed in states that have enacted municipal broadband bans literally written by incumbent phone and cable companies and shepherded into the state legislature through front groups like ALEC.

Chairman Wheeler is in an excellent position to understand the big picture, far better than Blackburn’s limited knowledge largely absorbed from AT&T’s talking points. After all, Wheeler comes from the cable and wireless industry and knows very well how the game is played. Wheeler has never said that Washington knows best, but he has made it clear state and federal legislators who support anti-competitive measures like municipal broadband bans don’t have a monopoly on good ideas either — they just have monopolies.

That isn’t good enough for Congresswoman Blackburn, who sought to strip funding from the FCC to punish the agency for crossing AT&T, Comcast and other telecom companies:

Marsha is an avowed member of the AT&T Fan Club.

Marsha is an avowed member of the AT&T Fan Club.

In July, I passed an amendment in Congress that would prohibit taxpayer funds from being used by the FCC to pre-empt state municipal broadband laws. My amendment doesn’t prevent Chattanooga or any other city in Tennessee from being able to engage in municipal broadband. It just keeps those decisions at the state level. Tennessee’s state law that allowed Chattanooga and other cities to engage in municipal broadband will continue to exist without any interference from the FCC. Tennessee should be able to adjust its law as it sees fit, instead of Washington dictating to us.

Notice that Blackburn’s ideological fortitude has loopholes that protect a very important success story — EPB Fiber in Chattanooga, one of the first to offer gigabit broadband service. If municipal broadband is such a threat to common sense, why the free pass for EPB? In fact, it is networks like EPB that expose the nonsense on offer from Blackburn and her industry friends that claim public broadband networks are failures and money pits.

In fact, Blackburn’s idea of states’ rights never seems to extend to local communities across Tennessee that would have seen local ordinances gutted by Blackburn’s telecommunications policies and proposed bills. In 2005, Blackburn introduced the ironically named Video Choice Act of 2005 which, among other things:

  • Would have granted a nationwide video franchise system that would end all local oversight over rights-of-way for the benefit of incumbent telephone companies, but not for cable or other new competitors like Google Fiber;
  • Strips away all local oversight of cable and telephone company operations that allowed local jurisdictions to ensure providers follow local laws and rules;
  • Prohibited any mechanism on the local level to collect franchise payments;
  • Eliminated any rules forbidding “redlining” — when a provider only chooses select parts of a community to serve.

More recently, Blackburn has been on board favoring legislation restricting local communities from having a full say on the placement of cell towers. Current Tennessee law already imposes restrictions on local communities trying to refuse requests from AT&T, Verizon and others to place new cell towers wherever they like. She is also in favor of highest-bidder wins spectrum auctions that could allow AT&T and Verizon to use their enormous financial resources to snap up new spectrum and find ways to hoard it to keep it away from competitors.

Not everyone in Tennessee appreciated Blackburn’s remarks.

Nashville resident Paul Felton got equal time in the newspaper to refute Blackburn’s claims:

Rep. Marsha Blackburn is on her high horse (Tennessee Voices, Oct. 3) about the idea of the Federal Communications Commission opposing laws against municipal broadband networks, wrapping herself in the mantle of states’ rights. We know that behind all “states’ rights” indignation is “corporate rights” protection.

The last I heard, there was only one Internet, and anyone can log into Amazon or healthcare.gov just as easily from any state. Or any budget.

No, this is about the one Internet being controlled by one corporate giant (or two) in each area, who want to control price and broadband speed, and now want to link the two. They don’t want competition from any pesky municipal providers hellbent on providing the same speed for all users, at a lower price. Check the lobbying efforts against egalitarian ideas to find out which side of an issue Marsha Blackburn always comes down on.

But comments like these don’t deter Rep. Blackburn.

“Congress cannot sit idly by and let a federal agency trample on our states’ rights,” she wrote, but we believe she meant to say ‘AT&T’s rights.’

“Besides, the FCC should be tackling other priorities where political consensus exists, like deploying spectrum into the marketplace, making the Universal Service Fund more effective, protecting consumers, improving emergency communications and other important policies,” Blackburn wrote.

Remarkably, that priority list just so happens to mirror AT&T’s own legislative agenda. Perhaps that is just a coincidence.

Netflix Aggravates Canada’s Identity Crisis: Protection of Canadian Culture or Big Telecom Company Profits?

netflix caThe arrival of Netflix north of the American border has sparked a potential video revolution in Canada that some fear could renew “an erosion” of Canadian culture and self-identity as the streaming video service floods the country with American-made television and movies. But anxiety also prevails on the upper floors of some of Canada’s biggest telecom companies, worried their business models are about to be challenged like never before.

Two weeks ago, the country saw a remarkable Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing featuring a Netflix executive obviously not used to being grilled by the often-curt regulators. When it was all over, Netflix refused to comply with a CRTC order for information about Netflix’s Canadian customers.

Earlier today, the CRTC’s secretary general, John Traversy, declared that because of the lack of cooperation from Netflix, all of their testimony “will be removed from the public record of this proceeding on October 2, 2014.” That includes their oral arguments.

“As a result, the hearing panel will reach its conclusions based on the remaining evidence on the record. There are a variety of perspectives on the impact of Internet broadcasting in Canada, and the panel will rely on those that are on the public record to make its findings,” Mr. Traversy wrote in a nod to Canada’s own telecom companies.

Not since late 1990’s Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who defended Canadian content with her support of a law that restricted foreign magazines from infiltrating across the border, had a government official seemed willing to take matters beyond the government’s own policy.

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais threw down the gauntlet when Netflix hesitated about releasing its Canadian subscriber and Canadian content statistics to the regulator. Mr. Blais wanted to know exactly how many Canadians are Netflix subscribers and how much of what they are watching on the service originates in Canada.

With hearings underway in Ottawa, bigger questions are being raised about the CRTC’s authority in the digital age. Doug Dirks from CBC Radio’s The Homestretch talks with Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa. Sept. 19, 2014 (8:40) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Netflix has operated below regulatory radar since it first launched service in Canada four years ago. The CRTC left the American company with an impression it had the right to regulate Netflix, but chose not to at this time. The CRTC of 2010 was knee-deep in media consolidation issues and did not want to spend a lot of time on an American service that most Canadians watched by using proxy servers and virtual private networks to bypass geographic content restrictions. But now that an estimated 30% of English-speaking Canada subscribes to Netflix, it is threatening to turn the country’s cozy and well-consolidated media industry on its head.

Ask most of the corporate players involved and they will declare this is a fight about Canada’s identity. After all, broadcasters have been compelled for years to live under content laws that require a certain percentage of television and radio content to originate inside Canada. Without such regulations, enforced by the CRTC among others, Canada would be overwhelmed by all-things-Americans. Some believe that without protection, Canadian viewers will only watch and listen to American television and music at the cost of Canadian productions and artists.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Netflix vs the CRTC 9-22-14.flv

Kevin O’Leary, Chairman, O’Leary Financial Group is furious with regulators for butting into Netflix’s online video business and threatening its presence in Canada is an effort to protect incumbent business models. From BNN-Canada. (8:45)

A viewer watches Netflix global public policy director Corie Wright testify before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in Ottawa (Image: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

A viewer watches Netflix’s Corie Wright testify before the CRTC. (Image: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

But behind the culture war is a question of money – billions of dollars in fact. Giant media companies like Rogers, Shaw, and Bell feel threatened by the presence of Netflix, which can take away viewers and change a media landscape that has not faced the kind of wholesale deregulation that has taken place in the United States since the Reagan Administration.

Before Netflix, the big Canadian networks didn’t object too strongly to the content regulations. After all, CRTC rules helped establish the Canadian Media Fund which partly pays for domestic TV and movie productions. Canada’s telephone and satellite companies also have to contribute, and they collectively added $266 million to the pot in 2013, mostly collected from their customers in the form of higher bills. Netflix doesn’t receive money from the fund and has indicated it doesn’t need or want the government’s help to create Canadian content.

“It is not in the interest of consumers to have new media subsidize old media or to have new entrants subsidize incumbents,” added Netflix’s Corie Wright. “Netflix believes that regulatory intervention online is unnecessary and could have consequences that are inconsistent with the interests of consumers,” Wright said, adding viewers should have the ability “to vote with their dollars and eyeballs to shape the media marketplace.”

That is not exactly what the CRTC wanted to hear, and Wright was off the Christmas card list for good when she directly rebuffed Mr. Blais’ requests for Netflix’s data on its Canadian customers. Wright implied the data would somehow make its way out of the CRTC’s offices and end up in the hands of the Canadian-owned broadcast and cable competitors that know many at the CRTC on a first name basis.

Does Netflix pose a threat to Canadian culture? Matt Galloway spoke with John Doyle, the Globe & Mail’s television critic, on the Sept. 22nd edition of CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show. Sept. 22, 2014 (8:31) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Mr. Blais, obviously not used to requests being questioned, repeated demands for Netflix’s subscriber data to be turned over by the following Monday and if Netflix did not comply, he would revoke Netflix’s current exemption from Canadian content rules and bring down the hammer of regulation on the streaming service.

Blais

Blais

The deadline came and went and last week Netflix defiantly refused to comply with the CRTC’s order. A Netflix official said that while the company has responded to a number of CRTC requests, it was not “in a position to produce the confidential and competitively sensitive information, but added it was always prepared to work constructively with the commission.”

Now things are very much up in the air. Many Canadians question why the CRTC believes it has the right to regulate Internet content when it operates largely as a broadcast regulator. Public opinion seems to be swayed against the CRTC and towards Netflix. Canadian producers and writers are concerned their jobs are at risk, Canadian media conglomerates fear their comfortable and predictable future is threatened if consumers decide to spend more time with Netflix and less time with them. All of this debate occurring within the context of a discussion about forcing pay television companies to offer slimmed down basic cable packages and implement a-la-carte — pay only for the channels you want — is enough to give media executives heartburn.

To underscore the point much of this debate involves money, American TV network executives also turned up at the CRTC arguing for regulations that would compensate American TV stations for providing “free” programming on Canadian airwaves, cable, and satellite — retransmission consent across the border.

Netflix does not seem too worried it is in trouble in either Ottawa or in the halls of CRTC headquarters at Les Terrasses de la Chaudière in Gatineau, Québec, just across the Ottawa River. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Heritage Minister Shelly Glover have made it clear they have zero interest in taxing or regulating Netflix. Even if they were, the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement may make regulating Netflix a practical impossibility, especially if the U.S. decides to retaliate.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Canadian Press CRTC vs Netflix 9-19-14.mp4

Dwayne Winseck, Carleton School of Journalism and Communication, defended the role the CRTC is mandated to play by Canada’s telecommunications laws. (1:41)

UN: U.S. Broadband Ranking Slips Again; Now 19th Place in Penetration, 24th in Wired Connections

All of the top-10 broadband rankings for accessibility, affordability, speed, and subscription rates have been awarded to countries in Europe and Asia, while the United States continues to fall further behind.

This week, the UN Broadband Commission issued its annual report on broadband and had little to say about developments in North America, where providers have maintained the status quo of delaying upgrades, raising prices, and limiting usage. As a result, other countries are rapidly outpacing North America, preparing the infrastructure to support the 21st century digital economy while officials in the U.S.A. and Canada cater primarily to the interests of large incumbent cable and telephone companies.

The United States has fallen from 20th to 24th place in wired broadband subscriptions, per capita. Virtually every country in western Europe now beats the United States, as does Hong Kong, Belarus, and New Zealand. Canada scored better, taking 14th place.

fixed broadband penetration 2013

Only managing a meager 19th place, only 84.2% of Americans are online. Iceland has 96.5% of their population on the Internet, closely followed by the other northern European nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Also scoring superior to the United States: Andorra, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Canada did better than its southern neighbor as well, coming in at number 16.

percentage using the internet

With big profits to be made in wireless, large wireless phone companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T helped the U.S. achieve its best rating — 10th place in wireless. But the countries that exceeded the United States did much better (Canada was not rated this year.)

With the arguable exception of wireless, the United States is no longer a world leader in broadband and continues a slow but steady decline in rankings as other countries leapfrog over the U.S.

At least 140 countries now have a National Broadband Plan in place, most maintaining stronger oversight over telecommunications infrastructure than the largely unregulated U.S. broadband marketplace. After reviewing broadband performance across most UN member states, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development recognized several traits common in countries where broadband has been particularly successful:

Competition is essential to promote enhanced broadband. A monopoly or duopoly (usually a telephone company and cable or wireless operator) is not enough to promote healthy broadband advancements. At least three, near-equal competitors are required to achieve the best upgrades and price competition. The presence of smaller competitors or those charging considerably different pricing had little effect on competition.

Countries with the best speeds have national policies promoting the installation of fiber optic technology, at least in multi-dwelling units and new developments. Although the cost of fiber and its installation can amount to as much as 80% of a broadband expansion project, many countries have been successful compelling competing providers to share a single fiber optic network (and its costs) to make the investment more affordable. In terms of ultra-high-speed broadband, there are still not many consumer apps and services that need Gigabit speeds, but such services are on their way. Experience shows that technology typically moves faster than most people anticipate – so countries and operators need to start planning now for the imminent broadband world.

technology cost

A coherent regulatory foundation that emphasizes competition over regulation was the most effective policy. But regulatory frameworks must guarantee a level playing field among competitors and strong oversight to make sure competitors play fair. Regulation is not keeping pace with the changes in the market – Internet players offering equivalent voice and messaging services are, by and large, subject to relatively limited requirements (including consumer protection, privacy, interoperability, security, emergency calls, lawful intercept of customer data, universal service). Asymmetric regulation has resulted in an uneven competitive landscape for services. Governments and policy-makers need to review and update their regulatory frameworks to take into account evolving models of regulation.

Telecommunication and broadband access providers need to explore business arrangements with Internet content providers that will accelerate global investment in broadband infrastructure, to the mutual benefit of all, including end-consumers. Internet companies and Internet content providers need to contribute to investment in broadband infrastructure by debating interconnection issues and agreeing fees/revenue shares with other operators and broadband providers.

That last issue is now being hotly debated in the United States, where providers are seeking compensation from streaming video providers like Netflix, which now account for a substantial amount of Internet traffic.

Comcast Extends Free 6 Months of Internet Essentials Offer An Extra 10 Days As Regulators Ponder Merger

ieAs regulators ponder Comcast’s application to acquire Time Warner Cable, the issue of affordable Internet has been a hot topic as part of the merger review. So it is no surprise Comcast has announced it is extending its recent offer of six free months of Internet Essentials service to income-challenged families with school age children an extra 10 days.

“On August 4th, we made a special announcement: we are offering any family that has not yet signed up for Internet Essentials, up to six months of free service, if they apply before September 20th,” said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen on Comcast’s blog.  “Today, I’m thrilled to announce we’re going to extend that offer through Tuesday, September 30th.”

Comcast admits that only families that have never applied for Internet Essentials in the past can receive free service. Those already enrolled or who attempted to enroll in the past do not qualify.

The cable company does not make participation easy and is intent on protecting the revenue it earns selling regularly priced Internet service by keeping current customers out of the Internet Essentials program.

Just qualifying for Internet Essentials requires navigating an obstacle course:

The program is only available to households:

  • that have at least one child who is eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP”) and as confirmed annually while enrolled in the program;
  • do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment; and
  • have not subscribed to any Comcast Internet service within the last ninety (90) days.
Internet Essentials promises no rate increases, but the fine print suggests otherwise.

Internet Essentials promises no price increases, but the fine print suggests otherwise.

The program will only accept new customers for three full school years. After that, if Comcast decides it doesn’t want to offer the service any longer, customers are out of luck. Comcast can also restrict enrollment periods when it accepts new participants and requires annual verification paperwork demonstrating continued participation in the NSLP.

Comcast can throw families out of the program: if a child relocates outside of the household, loses NSLP eligibility, if a bill is paid late, if Comcast decides to stop offering the program, or if your account is closed. If you move, your account will be closed even if you choose to continue Comcast service at your new address, so don’t plan on going anywhere.

If and when Comcast determines your participation in Internet Essentials is over, your rates will automatically reset to standard Internet pricing without further notice. So much for promises of no rate increases. Those regular prices start at around $40 a month + a monthly modem rental fee of around $8 — quite a difference from $9.95.

Although the terms and conditions do not reflect it, Comcast claims to be continuing an “amnesty program” for would-be applicants with past due balances:

If customers have an outstanding bill that is more than one year old, then as long as they meet all the other eligibility criteria, they can apply to the program and we will provide amnesty for that back due bill for the purpose of connecting to Internet Essentials. If customers’ outstanding bills are less than a year old, however, then we would like them to settle that debt with us before they can be eligible to apply for the program. We are willing to work with families whose debt is reasonable enough that that they could pay us back in installments.

For more information, visit www.internetessentials.com or, for Spanish, www.internetbasico.com. You can also call 1-855-8-INTERNET or, for Spanish, 1-855-SOLO-995.

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