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

Pai

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

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

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

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

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

But Pai’s own statements lacked transparency:

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

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

Takei

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Cable Association Wants Ban on TV Blackouts During Disasters

Phillip Dampier October 3, 2017 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Polka

The nation’s trade association for independent cable companies wants the FCC to prohibit broadcasters from blacking out TV stations during disasters and local emergencies.

The American Cable Association applauded the FCC’s intervention in the recent retransmission consent dispute between Dish Networks and Lilly Broadcasting, which resulted in the satellite provider losing access to a Caribbean-focused station for viewers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The commission should find it intolerable for a broadcaster seeking to leverage higher retransmission consent fees to block viewers in a state of emergency from accessing critical, and potentially life‐saving, information,” wrote ACA president Matthew Polka. “It is no answer in such a situation for the broadcaster to suggest that viewers should switch providers or install antennas in order to access this information.”

ACA members, often small cable companies providing service in rural areas, also face station blackouts during tough contract renegotiation talks at a time when many stations are asking for unprecedented rate increases — sometimes 100% or more — in return for a carriage renewal agreement. Some stations have used whatever leverage they can find to pressure cable operators to agree to their terms, without disclosing to viewers just how much some stations are asking to renew those contracts. Most cable operators have passed those fees on to subscribers, which can easily add $5-7 a month to a cable television bill just for three or four local stations.

Lilly’s decision to blackout its One Caribbean TV channel left English-speaking viewers in Puerto Rico without an important news source. Most broadcast outlets on that island broadcast for the much larger Spanish-speaking population. The station was quickly returned to Dish’s lineup after it became a political issue.

Polka wants to make sure a similar situation does not happen in the future, so he’s asked the FCC to consider adding a requirement to the FCC’s “good faith” rules that govern acceptable behavior during retransmission consent negotiations forbidding stations from pulling their signal anywhere the FCC has activated its Disaster Information Reporting System, and to guarantee those signals will remain accessible for the duration of the event.

“We urge the commission to propose and seek comment on such a rule change as soon as possible in order to avoid consumer harm in future emergencies,” Polka told the FCC.

Charter’s SpectrumU on Campus Gets Little Interest from Students

Phillip Dampier September 25, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Charter Communications has been quietly testing a streaming video lineup of services on selected college campuses in its service area — so quiet very few students know or care about the service.

In Rochester, N.Y., Charter this year introduced SpectrumU at two suburban colleges – St. John Fisher and Nazareth College. The 50+ channel service at St. John Fisher includes five local network stations, but not the low-powered MyNetworkTV or secondary CW affiliate that are found on the traditional local cable lineup. According to Nazareth’s channel list, SpectrumU at the college comes from Spectrum Enterprise’s Fiber Connect service and lists six network affiliates on the lineup imported from Buffalo, a city 70 miles away. The service is accessible around each campus on the schools’ Wi-Fi networks.

Charter wants participating colleges to set aside a 1Gbps connection to manage Wi-Fi streaming for every 5,000 students on campus. Stop the Cap! found anecdotal evidence Charter may be dramatically overestimating how many students actually use the service. A recent visit to both campuses and guest participation in online college forums found almost zero interest in SpectrumU at either college. Students, it seems, have mostly moved on from linear, live television and do much of their viewing on-demand from other streaming services and apps.

Charter Communications kept publicity and expectations low for the service, setting the monthly subscription price for SpectrumU at $0.00. No password or authentication is required to use the service, and logging into the campus network is simple at schools like Nazareth, where the Wi-Fi password GoldenFlyers was easy to come by on and off campus. While driving around, we could easily access SpectrumU from Wi-Fi on streets surrounding St. John Fisher, although Nazareth’s wireless network was tougher to reach on a tree-lined campus set further back from the main road.

Television services at St. John Fisher College, located near Rochester, N.Y.

Charter dictates the terms and availability of the service, which requires participating schools to subscribe to Charter Spectrum’s Enterprise Fiber Connect service, which supports campus internet and video services. Schools must offer:

  • Charter Clear QAM or fiber video services
  • Charter fiber internet services (preferred)
  • 1Gbps dedicated bandwidth per 5,000 students (~500 concurrent users) recommended
  • Wi-Fi network utilizes WPA or WPA2 encryption
  • Public IP addresses/ranges for whitelisting
  • PAT IPs are supported
  • IP requirements: IPv4: /24 – IPv6: /48
  • AP’s consistent with current fifth generation Wi-Fi technology, 802.11ac (no older than fourth generation 802.11n)

SpectrumU is designed to work exclusively over Wi-Fi, and only with portable smartphones and tablets:

  • iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch running iOS 8 or above
  • All major Android smartphones and tablets running Android 4.2 or above
  • Kindle Fire Phone, all Kindle Fire models except for the 1st generation model

There is no support for streaming set-top boxes like Roku or Apple TV and SpectrumU works differently from the QAM cable TV service available in many dorm rooms. Casting isn’t supported either. The Android version of the app only attracted 69 mixed reviews as of the date of this article.

Charter seems convinced SpectrumU will soon replace traditional internet video streaming, telling campus managers that the service will have “minimal impact if the school’s internet service is robust today, as SpectrumU usage will replace usage of other streaming apps.”

Students doubt it.

“I have never heard of SpectrumU and don’t care,” said Cody, a student we ran into in the parking lot at Nazareth. “I have Amazon Prime and Netflix and I’m good with that.”

Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., are also an early adopter of SpectrumU.

Zephyr, a freshman at St. John Fisher who lives on campus said she doesn’t know anything about the service either, although a roommate in her friend’s dorm room brought their QAM-equipped television to school and can watch the campus TV lineup on it.

“Her boyfriend is a Buffalo Bills fan so he watches the games on her TV, but we really don’t watch it ourselves,” she told us. “Everyone has their own phone or tablet and most people are sharing  passwords from home to watch HBO, Hulu, or Amazon stuff.”

Dylan’s password trading brings him access to Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, CBS, and Sling TV. Even with SpectrumU available for free with no password required, he doesn’t care, preferring to watch on-demand content on his tablet or the PlayStation he brought to school.

“I don’t know anyone who watches Spectrum TV and their company sucks anyway,” said Dylan. “I hate ads and I pretty much only binge watch stuff now, so this is useless for me.”

A few students told us they did bring televisions to campus to watch live television, but many just use an antenna. Nazareth and St. John Fisher are only a short distance from Pinnacle Hill, the location for most Rochester television transmitters, and reception is easy.

“Televisions are what our parents watch,” Serena at Nazareth told us. “I don’t know anyone my age with cable.”

Stop the Cap! tested the Android version of the app at both colleges. It reminds us of Spectrum’s streaming TV app, only less capable. The app does not support DVR-type recording, pause and rewind, or on-demand services — things college students would probably look for the most. We experienced occasional buffering watching CNN in a parking lot, but note Wi-Fi signal strength was not ideal. We also found, despite warnings in student handbooks, a number of student-run hotspots and wireless access points. At one dorm at St. John Fisher, we found over 60 Wi-Fi signals competing with the college’s own wireless network.

Cable companies believe by offering cable services to college students, they will get hooked on those services and subscribe after they leave college. But evidence suggests those under 30 are increasingly unlikely to pay for a cable television subscription and are dubbed “cable-nevers” for having no interest in subscription television. They are, however, avid users of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

Mediacom Touts Gig Speeds But Also Acknowledges Low Scores

While Mediacom introduces gigabit speeds to a growing number of their customers, it also acknowledges it has one of the worst customer satisfaction scores of any cable company in the country.

Company officials were in the Quad-Cities of northwest Illinois and southeastern Iowa to speak about 1,000Mbps service introduced earlier this year for its 92,000 customers in the area, according to an article in the Dispatch-Argus.

“No where else in the country has this much broadband capability,” said Phyllis Peters, director of communications for the north central division of Mediacom. “You can live in Port Byron or Ottawa or down the road in Marion or Carbondale, and you’re using the same amount of bandwidth. You have just as much demand and need for bandwidth as if you were living in Austin, Texas.”

To support the expansion, the company added nearly 30 miles of additional fiber capacity to support the faster internet speeds. But so far, fewer than 250 customers in the area have upgraded to gigabit speeds. Most seem content with paying less for slower speeds, but that does not mean customers are not using their internet connections.

“We’ve been looking at an internet business that has been growing,” said J.R. Walden, senior vice president of technology and chief technology officer for Mediacom. “The bandwidth is growing at as much as 65 percent a year for close to 20 years. It means we have to double the size of the network every 18 months.”

Walden

Walden claims that once gigabit speed is embraced by a larger number of their customers, they will contemplate another upgrade to 10Gbps speeds.

Along with faster wired internet, Mediacom has also been installing Wi-Fi hotspots for its customers. XStream Wi-Fi is available to non-customers for a 30-minute trial or unlimited use during certain special events. Mediacom’s broadband customers get free unlimited access by logging in with their Mediacom username and password.

The cable company has 249 Wi-Fi hotspots in Moline, Rock Island, East Moline, Silvis, Davenport and Bettendorf, mostly in business districts or around event venues. Mediacom customers can also use their credentials to access Wi-Fi from other nearby cable operator-operated hotspots, notably those belonging to Comcast, which dominates in Illinois.

The cable company has also been promoting its internet program for the income-challenged. Connect2Compete is a $9.95-a-month internet service for families with at least one student in kindergarten through 12th grade who qualifies for the federal school lunch program. But like most cable companies, Mediacom’s first interest is to protect its own revenue, so it excludes current customers from enrolling if they already scrape enough money together to pay for regular broadband service or who have a past-due balance or unreturned equipment from an old disconnected account.

The American Consumer Satisfaction Index rates Mediacom dead last in 2017.

That is one of the many reasons Mediacom’s customers dislike the company. It perennially scores dead last among all the nation’s cable operators in Consumer Reports’ annual surveys. The Better Business Bureau has also documented multiple bad reviews and KWQC-TV in Moline reports Mediacom’s internet service is notorious for its repeated outages:

JoEllen Seibel said she’s used the company for internet for the last 8 years and has had little to no connection for the last four months.

“It’s all day long, all day long we get no reception.”

Seibel said technicians have come to her house multiple times to fix the problem but is still without service.

“It makes me frustrated if something is really going on on their end that’s what they need to tell their customers or something instead of just sending someone out.”

Nathan, another Mediacom customer, complained to the Better Business Bureau his internet service is completely unreliable.

“As much as I was excited about our internet speeds, they are never persistent. Internet goes out at least ten times a day,” he told the BBB.

Glendon adds Mediacom advertises fast internet speeds it cannot reliably provide its customers.

“I subscribe to 150/30Mbps internet. I rarely get 150 down, usually 50-60, and during peak [usage periods], [speeds drop] into the teens,” he complains, noting things have not improved despite multiple technician visits and a manager’s intervention.

“Very incompetent company that doesn’t seem to care if they’re billing you for a service they can’t provide,” is Glendon’s conclusion.

“We’re not unaware that some of the customer satisfaction scores put out by third-party organizations have had us on the lower end and we think we can do better and to some extent deserve a better score and we’ve been working on that,” Walden told the TV station.

Cox Introducing $50 Option to Waive Data Caps: The ‘Freedom from Extortion Plan’

As Cox Communications continues to expand its arbitrary data cap program on its broadband customers, the company has announced a ‘cap relief’ option for customers willing to pay $50 more for the same service they enjoyed last year without a data cap.

Company insiders tell DSL Reports Cox will introduce a new $50 option to avoid the data caps and overlimit fees the company began imposing in 2015 starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area.

On Wednesday, Cox is expected to introduce two add-on options to help avoid the bill shock likely if customers exceed 1TB of usage per month and face the $10 overlimit fee for each 50GB of data consumed:

  • $30 a month for 500GB of extra data;
  • $50 a month to avoid data caps altogether and get back unlimited service.

Cox customers in Cleveland were unimpressed with Cox’s data caps when they were introduced in 2015.

These fees are in addition to whatever Cox customers currently pay for broadband service.

“An overwhelming majority of data is consumed by a very small percentage of internet users,” a memo to employees documenting the changes reads. “The new choices are great options for the small percentage of heavy users who routinely use 1TB+ per month and prefer a flat monthly rate, rather than purchasing additional data blocks. In Cox markets with usage-based billing, the less than two percent of customers who exceed the amount of data included in their plan still have the option of paying $10 for each additional 50GB of data when they need it.”

Such claims raise the same questions Stop the Cap! has always asked since we began fighting data caps in 2008:

If data caps only impact <2% of customers, why impose them at all?

Is the actual revenue earned from overlimit fees worth the expense of introducing usage measurement tools, billing system changes, and the cost of customer dissatisfaction at the prospect of an unexpectedly high bill?

What technical reasons did Cox choose 1TB as its arbitrary usage allowance other than the fact Comcast and other operators chose this level first?

Time Warner Cable executives privately admitted in internal company documents obtained by the New York Attorney General’s office that internet traffic costs represent little more than “a rounding error” in expenses for cable companies. But for most consumers, $30-50 to buy a bigger data allowance is hardly that.

In short, the “solution” Cox has decided on this week comes in response to a problem the company itself created — imposing arbitrary, unwanted data caps and overlimit fees on a product that is already intensely profitable at the prices Cox has charged for years. This internet overcharging scheme is just another way to gouge captive customers that will likely have only one alternative — the phone company and its various flavors of DSL or a U-verse product that cannot compete on speed unless you are lucky enough to live in a fiber-to-the-home service area.

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