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House and Senate Hold Hearings on GOP Fake Net Neutrality Alternative Supported by Telecom Lobby

Phillip Dampier January 21, 2015 Astroturf, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments
Thune

Thune

The House and Senate today held back-to-back hearings on the issue of adopting a Republican alternative to the president’s idea of Net Neutrality.

After the president directly addressed his support of strong Net Neutrality protections, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler indicated he intended to act on the issue next month. Now many Republican legislators have changed their original view that Net Neutrality was “a solution in search of a problem” into a high priority agenda item demanding immediate attention, hoping to cut off Wheeler’s regulatory solution with new legislation.

That came in the form of a proposed new bill to define the principles of Net Neutrality from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

“By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs,” Thune wrote in a statement.

Both hearings were stacked against reclassification of broadband under Title II to assure strong Net Neutrality principles, including three witnesses formerly with the FCC that have moved into industry advocacy jobs.

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

Former FCC chairman Michael Powell is today America’s top cable lobbyist. Meredith Baker quickly left the FCC in 2011 after voting in favor of the Comcast-NBC merger deal, taking a lucrative position at Comcast before moving on to become the country’s top wireless industry lobbyist. Robert McDowell left the FCC in 2013 to take a job at the same law firm hired by Comcast to successfully challenge the FCC’s authority to fine the cable company over its past speed throttling practices. Today, McDowell’s employer also represents the interests of AT&T and Verizon.

Other witnesses testifying included Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee from the Multicultural, Media, Telecom & Internet Council, which claims to be a civil rights organization but in fact receives the bulk of its funding from corporate interests, including large telecom companies. It often advocates for the corporate agendas of its sponsors, including opposition to Title II reclassification and past support for the failed AT&T-T Mobile merger deal.

Tom Simmons, senior vice president of public policy for small cable operator Midcontinent Communications also appeared, opposing strong Net Neutrality policies. Simmons said that once the company explained Title II reclassification and how it would increase customers’ cable bills, support for Net Neutrality diminished.

Just two witnesses testified on behalf of consumer interests. Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge strongly advocated for Title II reclassification of broadband and Paul Misener, vice president of Global Public Policy for Amazon.com strongly opposed Internet fast lanes and other traffic manipulation practices.

The New York Times today reported that the Republicans may have an increasingly uphill fight with some of their own traditional supporters to push through legislation Internet activists claim is riddled with company-friendly loopholes.

“The libertarian conservative base is pretty astute at recognizing crony capitalism and understand how campaign finance and corporate influence affects policy,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a Net Neutrality advocacy group. “And this is a pretty transparent moment for all that.”

Revolving Door: When Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell Speaks, It’s Verizon and AT&T Talking

Phillip Dampier January 20, 2015 Consumer News, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
D.C.'s perpetually revolving door keeps on spinning.

D.C.’s perpetually revolving door keeps on spinning.

A former Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission is calling on the federal agency to stop consideration of strong Net Neutrality rules and defer to a Republican drafted bill that would dramatically weaken Open Internet protections.

Robert McDowell said the FCC should defer to Congress and avoid adopting a “Depression era law designed to regulate phone monopolies” as the foundation for Net Neutrality enforcement.

“While Republicans and Democrats try to work out a deal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should hit the pause button on next month’s vote and let the elected representatives of the American people try to find common ground,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday. “At the end of this constitutional process, all sides may be able to claim victory. It’s time to consider a different path — one that leads through Congress — to end the Net Neutrality fiasco. Although the legislative process can be perilous, Congress can provide all sides with a way out.”

McDowell’s comments fall tightly in line with the fierce lobbying campaign against Net Neutrality being run by companies like Comcast and AT&T.

That may not be surprising considering McDowell’s trip through the notorious “D.C. Revolving Door,” where ex-government employees go to work on behalf of the industries they formerly regulated.

McDowell

McDowell

After retiring from the FCC, McDowell landed a position with the law firm Wiley Rein LLP, a corporate favorite for litigation against government oversight and regulatory public policies. It was Wiley Rein LLP that represented Comcast in 2010, successfully arguing the FCC had no right to oversee Comcast’s Internet service under the Section 706 “information service” framework still at issue today.

The D.C. Circuit unanimously ruled, “the Commission failed to tie its assertion of ancillary authority over Comcast’s Internet service to any ‘statutorily mandated responsibility,'” a long-winded way to say that the FCC’s reliance on its limited authority to oversee broadband as an “information service” in reality gave the FCC almost no right of oversight at all.

Ironically, that case is what prompted Internet activists to demand the FCC reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service” under Title II to give the FCC the authority it needs to oversee broadband providers, exactly what McDowell does not want.

The ruling (emphasis ours):

Turning to ancillary authority, the Court rejected each of the statutory provisions on which the Commission relied.  Relying on a number of Supreme Court precedents, the Court held that “policy statements alone cannot provide the basis for the Commission’s exercise of ancillary authority,” id. at 22, and thus rejected the Commission’s reliance on Section 230(b) and Section 1 of the Communications Act and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  The Court explained that allowing congressional policy to create “statutorily mandated responsibilities” sufficient to support the exercise of ancillary authority “would virtually free the Commission from its congressional tether.” Id. at 23.  The Court then rejected the remaining statutory provisions that “at least arguably delegate regulatory authority to the Commission,” id. at 16, on a variety of substantive and procedural grounds, including waiver.

Few media sources have bothered to disclose that McDowell’s new employer counts among its current clients two of the biggest Net Neutrality foes in the industry: AT&T and Verizon.

Republicans’ Fake Net Neutrality Alternative Contains Grand Canyon-Sized Loopholes

Thune

Thune

When Sen. John “Net Neutrality is unjustified” Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred “Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem” Upton (R-Mich.) last week magically became Internet activists ready to solve the Net Neutrality issue with an “unambiguous” bill to “protect Americans” from greedy ISPs, you will pardon me if I am just a tad suspicious.

The two Republicans who champion “less government regulation is better” and “let the marketplace decide for itself”-principles are proposing new legislation that will regulate the conduct of Internet Service Providers, claiming it will tie their hands and prevent the launch of Internet fast lanes and ban traffic degradation.

The two legislators are traveling in a fast lane of their own — hurrying to schedule hearings, mark up a bill, and speed it to the floor for consideration by the end of this month. That’s a marked departure for the U.S. Congress-as-usual, the one that can’t manage to pass virtually anything, much less in a hurry. So where is the fire?

It is at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, scheduled to vote on its own new Net Neutrality proposal by the end of February. Thune and Upton are hoping to launch a pre-emptive strike against the anticipated strong Open Internet protections the FCC will probably enact on a party line vote. The FCC is likely to pursue a reclassification of broadband away from the lobbyist-lovin’, largely deregulated “information service” it is today towards a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Communications Act. That represents Comcast’s worst nightmare.

???????????????????????????????Current FCC rules have allowed traffic shenanigans from ISPs like Comcast that don’t mind slowing their customers’ Netflix experience to a crawl until the streaming company opens its checkbook. The FCC’s anticipated new proposal would strictly forbid any creative end-runs around the concept of paid fast lanes Comcast can get away with today.

The proposed Republican alternative suggests a “third way” compromise only Comcast and AT&T could love. While ostensibly banning intentional interference with Internet traffic, the two legislators include a Grand Canyon-sized loophole in the form of one word you could fly an Airbus A380 through: reasonable

SEC. 13. INTERNET OPENNESS.

(a) OBLIGATIONS OF BROADBAND INTERNET ACCESS SERVICE PROVIDERS.—A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged (1) may not block lawful content, applications, or services, subject to reasonable network management; may not prohibit the use of non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management; may not throttle lawful traffic by selectively slowing, speeding, degrading, or enhancing Internet traffic based on source, destination, or content, subject to reasonable network management; may not engage in paid prioritization; and shall publicly disclose accurate and relevant information in plain language regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings, except that a provider is not required to publicly disclose competitively sensitive information or information that could compromise network security or undermine the efficacy of reasonable network management practices.

No ISP has ever declared its own traffic management policies unreasonable, so whatever they do, in their minds, is “reasonable” by definition.

Upton

Upton

The proposed bill would keep Net Neutrality far away from the critical Title II foundation it needs — essential armor that will help withstand inevitable court challenges by providers outraged by the government’s attempt to interfere with their free speech rights (at the expense of their customers’ freedom from content-killing traffic slowdowns).

The concept of “network management” is Play-Doh in Comcast and AT&T’s hands. It could mean balancing traffic by adding more capacity as needed or implementing a “fair access policy” that rations inadequate capacity. Both could easily be called “reasonable” by them. Customers paying for 25Mbps and getting 6Mbps during the evenings may think otherwise.

But no worries, the Republicans’ plan requires ISPs to disclose exactly how they are undercutting the broadband service you paid good money to receive. They claim that will give you an “informed choice,” except for many Americans, there is no choice.

The FCC’s plan is much more likely to stop to the tricks, traps, and traffic manipulation in whatever form arises now or in the future. It uses well-established precedent that is unlikely to be thrown out by the courts, delivers real oversight desperately needed in the monopoly/duopoly broadband marketplace, and will actually protect consumers.

The Republican alternative primarily protects AT&T, Comcast, and their chances of getting more campaign contributions from their friends in the cable and phone business. In short, it isn’t worth your time, and you should tell your member of Congress it isn’t worth theirs either.

President Obama Calls for an End to State Bans on Community Broadband; Public Networks Save $

Obama

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama will be in Cedar Falls, Iowa today to announce steps his administration plans to take to improve broadband in the United States, including a call to end laws that restrict community broadband development that limits competition.

“Today, too few Americans have affordable and competitive broadband choices, but some communities around the country are choosing to change that dynamic,” says a statement issued by the White House. “As a result – as outlined in a new report being issued today – cities like Lafayette, Chattanooga, and Kansas City, have broadband that is nearly one hundred times faster than the national average, yet still available at a competitive price. By welcoming new competition or building next-generation networks, these communities are pioneers in broadband that works, and today in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the President is highlighting their remarkable success stories and providing municipal leadership and entrepreneurs new tools to help replicate this success across the nation.

The report, produced by the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisers, finds no evidence to support industry contentions that community-owned broadband duplicates existing broadband services and wastes taxpayer dollars. It also challenges cable and phone industry-backed groups claiming publicly owned broadband networks are business failures.

It cites the success of Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber service, operated by the local municipal utility. Not only is EPB successful financially, but it has introduced Chattanooga residents to the kind of competition sorely lacking in most cities for telecom services.

cedar falls“EPB’s efforts have encouraged other telecom firms to improve their own service,” states the report. “In 2008, for example, Comcast responded to the threat of EPB’s entrance into the market by investing $15 million in the area to launch the Xfinity service – offering the service in Chattanooga before it was available in Atlanta. More recently, Comcast has started offering low-cost introductory offers and gift cards to consumers to incentivize service switching. Despite these improvements, on an equivalent service basis, EPB’s costs remain significantly lower.”

In Wilson, N.C., Time Warner Cable customers pay significantly less for cable and broadband service than other North Carolina customers because of the presence of Greenlight, the community-owned fiber to the home provider. TWC customers in Wilson pay stabilized prices for service while residents in the nearby Research Triangle pay as much as 52 percent more for basic Internet service, according to the report. Greenlight’s competition has brought gigabit broadband to the community as well as lower prices for customers who decide to remain with Time Warner. The combined savings is estimated at more than $1 million annually for Wilson residents.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Those who believe municipal broadband is a waste of taxpayer dollars should consider the story of Lafayette, La.’s LUS Fiber. In addition to bringing superior broadband service to a city dominated by a cable operator that used to treat the market as an afterthought, the presence of LUS’ fiber to the home network has forced Cox Cable to improve service, offer significant customer retention deals to departing customers and defer rate increases. The investment in community broadband has saved residents an estimated $4 million from rate hikes that went ahead in other Cox cities, with an estimated total savings of between $90 and $100 million for Lafayette-area broadband customers over LUS’ first 10 years of service.

Taxpayer-supported institutions like local government, law enforcement, and schools have also seen dramatic savings by switching to municipal solutions. In Scott County, Minn. the local government’s annual bond payment for constructing their own broadband network is $35,000 less than what the county used to pay private companies for a much slower network. Area schools that formerly paid private sector telecom companies $58 per megabit of Internet speed now pay $6.83 — a savings of nearly 90 percent. Schools also received dramatic speed increases from 100 to 300Mbps. They paid less for more service — from $5,800 a month before to $2,049 a month today. Those payments go straight back to the county government instead of into the hands of out-of-state investment bankers and shareholders. On the state level, Minnesota’s public institutional network is saving taxpayers almost $1 million a year.

With the broadband profit gravy train for big cable and phone companies grinding to a halt in competitive areas, several of these companies have spent millions lobbying state governments to outlaw public broadband services. They have succeeded in 19 states, primarily with the assistance of the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which appeals to primarily Republican lawmakers with claims government broadband is unfairly competing with the private sector. In fact, private providers have not been driven out of communities where they face municipal competition, but they have been forced to lower prices and improve service for customers.

Today the president will call for a new effort to support local self-determination for broadband by strongly opposing industry-backed, anti-competitive deterrents and bans on community-owned networks. The president will also sign a letter addressed to FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler encouraging him to move forward with a federal ban on state broadband laws that restrict broadband development.

He will also announce additional funding for rural broadband expansion and take steps to bring local leaders together to explore how the development of community broadband initiatives in their cities and towns can make a major difference in the 21st century digital economy. The president recognizes that most Americans lack sufficiently competitive choices for broadband service and often have just one choice — the cable company — for broadband speeds greater than 25Mbps. That means many Americans are seeing their broadband speeds lag while their monthly bills continue to grow.

Community-owned broadband may be the only alternative many cities have for better broadband as would-be competitors are scared off by high construction costs and an inability to secure cable television programming at competitive prices for their customers.

FCC’s Tom Wheeler Falls in Line Behind President Obama’s Strong Net Neutrality Agenda

Wheeler

Wheeler

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has foreshadowed his revised plan for Net Neutrality will include reclassification of broadband as a utility, allowing the agency to better withstand future legal challenges as it increases its oversight of the Internet.

Tom Wheeler’s latest comments came during this week’s consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. Wheeler stressed he supports reclassification of broadband, away from its current definition as an “information service” subject to Section 706 of the Telecom Act of 1996 (all two broadly written paragraphs of it) towards a traditional “telecommunications service.” Under the Communications Act of 1934, that would place broadband under Title II of the FCC’s mandate. Although at least 100 pages long, Title II has stood the test of time and has withstood corporate lawsuits and challenges for decades.

Section 706 relies almost entirely on competition to resolve disputes by allowing the marketplace to solve problems. The 1996 Telecom Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, sought to promote competition and end “barriers to infrastructure investment.” Broadly written with few specifics, large telecom companies have successfully argued in court that nothing in Section 706 gives the FCC the right to interfere with the marketing and development of their Internet services, including the hotly disputed issues of usage caps, speed throttling, and the fight against paid fast lanes and Internet traffic toll booths. In fact, the industry has argued increased involvement by the FCC runs contrary to the goals of Section 706 by deterring private investment.

An executive summary of a report published on the industry-funded Internet Innovation Alliance website wastes no time making that connection, stating it in the first paragraph:

Net neutrality has the potential to distort the parameters built into operator business cases in such a way as to increase the expected risk. And because it distorts the operator investment business decision, net neutrality has the potential to significantly discourage infrastructure investment. This is due to the fact that investments in infrastructure are highly sensitive to expected subscriber revenue. Anything that reduces the expectation of such revenue streams can either delay or curtail such investments.

netneutralityUnfortunately for consumers, even the chairman of the FCC concedes the broadband marketplace isn’t exactly teeming with the kind of competition Section 706 envisioned to keep the marketplace in check. In fact, Wheeler suggested most Americans live with a broadband duopoly, and often a monopoly when buying Internet access at speeds of 25Mbps or greater. Further industry consolidation is already underway, which further deters new competitors from entering the market.

Net Neutrality critics, the broadband industry, and their allies on Capitol Hill have argued that adopting Title II rules for broadband will saddle ISPs with at least one hundred pages of rules originally written to manage the landline telephone monopoly of the 1930s. Title II allows the FCC to force providers to charge “just and reasonable rates” which they believe opens the door to rate regulation. It also broadly requires providers to act “in the public interest” and unambiguously prohibits companies from making “any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.”

Both Comcast and Verizon have challenged the FCC’s authority to regulate Internet services using Section 706, and twice the courts have ruled largely in favor of the cable and phone company. Judges have no problem permitting the FCC to enforce policies that encourage competition, which has allowed the FCC some room to insist that whatever providers choose to charge customers or what they do to manage Internet traffic must be fully disclosed. The court in the Verizon case also suggested the FCC has the authority to oversee the relationship between ISPs and content providers also within a framework of promoting competition.

DC Circuit Court

DC Circuit Court

But when the FCC sought to enforce specific policies governing Internet traffic using Section 706, they lost their case in court.

Although Net Neutrality critics contend the FCC has plenty of authority to enforce Net Neutrality under Section 706, in reality the FCC’s hands are tied as soon as they attempt to implement anti-blocking and anti-traffic discrimination rules.

The court found that the FCC cannot impose new rules under Section 706 that are covered by other provisions of the Communications Act.

So what does that mean, exactly?

Michael Powell, former FCC chairman, is now the chief lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. (Photo courtesy: NCTA)

Michael Powell, former FCC chairman, is now the chief lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. (Photo courtesy: NCTA)

In 2002, former FCC chairman Michael Powell (who serves today as the cable industry’s chief lobbyist) presided over the agency’s decision to classify broadband not as a telecommunications service but an “information service provider” subject to Title I oversight. Whether he realized it or not, that decision meant broadband providers would be exempt from common carrier obligations as long as they remained subject to Title I rules.

When the FCC sought to write rules requiring ISPs not block, slow or discriminate against certain Internet traffic, the court ruled they overstepped into “common carrier”-style regulations like those that originally prohibited phone companies from blocking phone calls or preventing another phone company from connecting calls to and from AT&T’s network.

If the FCC wanted to enforce rules that mimic “common carrier” regulations, the court ruled the FCC needed to demonstrate it had the regulatory authority or risk further embarrassing defeats in the courtroom. The FCC’s transparency rules requiring ISPs to disclose their rates and network management policies survived Verizon’s court challenge because the court found that policy promoted competition and did not trespass on regulations written under Title II.

The writing on the wall could not be clearer: If you want Net Neutrality to survive inevitable court challenges, you need to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

Major ISPs won’t hear of it however and have launched an expensive media blitz claiming that reclassification would subject them to 100 pages of regulations written for the rotary dial era. Broadband, they say, would be regulated like a 1934 landline. Some have suggested the costs of complying with the new regulations would lead to significant rate increases as well. Many Republicans in Congress want the FCC to wait until they can introduce and pass a Net Neutrality policy of their own, one that will likely heavily tilt in favor of providers. Such a bill would likely face a presidential veto.

Suggestions the FCC would voluntarily not impose outdated or irrelevant sections of Title II on the broadband industry didn’t soothe providers or their supporters. Republican FCC commissioners are also cold to the concept of reclassification.

O'Rielly

O’Rielly

“Title II includes a host of arcane provisions,” said FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly in a meeting in May 2014. “The idea that the commission can magically impose or sprinkle just the right amount of Title II on broadband providers is giving the commission more credit than it ever deserves.”

Providers were cautiously optimistic in 2014 they could navigate around strong Net Neutrality enforcement with the help of their lobbyists and suggestions that an industry-regulator compromise was possible. Early indications that a watered-down version of Net Neutrality was on the way came after a trial balloon was floated by Wheeler last year. Under his original concept, paid fast lanes and other network management and traffic manipulation would be allowed if it did not create undue burdens on other Internet traffic.

Net activists loudly protested Wheeler’s vision of Net Neutrality was a sellout. Wheeler’s vision was permanently laid to rest after last November when President Barack Obama suddenly announced his support for strong and unambiguous Net Neutrality protections (and reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service), No FCC chairman would likely challenge policies directly advocated by the president that nominated him.

Obama spoke, Thomas Wheeler listened. Wheeler’s revised Net Neutrality plan is likely to arrive on the desks of his fellow commissioners no later than Feb. 5, scheduled for a vote on Feb. 26. It’s a safe bet the two Republicans will oppose the proposal and the three Democrats will support it. But chairman Wheeler also listens to Congress and made it clear he doesn’t have a problem deferring to them if they feel it necessary.

“Clearly, we’re going to come out with what I hope will be the gold standard,” Wheeler told the audience in Las Vegas. “If Congress wants to come in and then say, we want to make sure that this approach doesn’t get screwed up by some crazy chairman that comes in, [those are] legitimate issues.”

If that doesn’t work, the industry plans to take care of the Net Neutrality regulation problem itself. Hours after any Net Neutrality policy successfully gets approved, AT&T has promised to challenge it in court.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fox Business News Net Neutrality Wheeler 1-8-15.flv

Free Press CEO Craig Aaron appeared on Fox Business News to discuss Tom Wheeler’s evolving position on Net Neutrality. (3:54)

AT&T to Federal Trade Commission: Our Speed Throttling is None of Your Business

Image courtesy: cobalt123AT&T has asked a federal judge in California to throw out a lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission over wireless speed throttling, claiming the federal regulator has no authority over how AT&T manages its network.

The FTC filed a lawsuit in October 2014 alleging AT&T was throttling the speeds of its grandfathered “unlimited data” customers by as much as 90 percent and failed to sufficiently disclose the practice in violation of the FTC Act.

Although AT&T discloses its network management policies in broad terms deep within its website, the original complaint charges AT&T failed to directly notify customers identified as the ‘heavy unlimited users’ targeted for wireless speed reductions reportedly as low as 56kbps for up to 30 days or more.

AT&T’s lawyers claim the FTC has no jurisdiction to file the lawsuit because a portion of AT&T’s business — cellular voice service — is defined by the Communications Act as a regulated common carrier service by the Federal Communications Commission. The FTC had argued AT&T’s mobile data services are unregulated and do not fall under the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction.

AT&T’s attorneys argue two apparently contradictory assertions about wireless regulation that both require the court, in AT&T’s view, to dismiss the FTC’s case:

  1. AT&T acknowledges that its mobile data services are not subject to Title II regulatory oversight by the FCC as a common carrier service. Therefore, federal agencies like the FTC have no jurisdiction to interfere in AT&T’s private business decisions on issues like data caps and speed throttling because it is an unregulated service;
  2. AT&T claims the FCC has asserted sweeping authority over wireless services under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Therefore it should be up to the FCC alone (and not the FTC) to decide the fairness of AT&T’s network management practices. But AT&T doesn’t remind the court this is the same authority that large telecom companies sued into impotence by successfully arguing the FCC exceeded its mandate attempting to assert jurisdiction on data services to enforce concepts such as Net Neutrality and attempting to fine Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer network traffic.

ftcAT&T calls the FTC’s claims it can intervene in services not regulated by the FCC “irrelevant,” arguing once one of AT&T’s services is subject to the FCC’s common carrier regulation, all of its services become untouchable by the FTC.

“The FTC lacks jurisdiction to prosecute this action because AT&T is a common carrier subject to the Communications Act and therefore outside the FTC’s authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act. 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2),” argues AT&T. “Indeed, the FTC itself has recognized that, as drafted, the exemption altogether removes common carriers such as AT&T from its jurisdiction and has asked Congress to modify the statute. So far, Congress has refused.”

“But whether AT&T’s network management program is ‘unfair’ and whether its disclosures were ‘inadequate’ are issues for the FCC to decide, and in fact the FCC is in the process of so deciding, just as Congress intended,” AT&T said. “Congress drafted Section 5 to avoid subjecting common carriers like AT&T to precisely this sort of conflicting authority of separate federal agencies over the same conduct.”

Should the FCC find AT&T in violation of its transparency rules, AT&T will have a strong legal case to have that ruling tossed as well on the grounds the agency has no mandate from Congress to regulate mobile data services under Section 706/Title III of the Communications Act — the same case other telecom companies have successfully argued in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Ironically, AT&T’s apparent regulatory loophole will vanish should the FCC order that broadband services of all kinds be reclassified as Title II telecommunications services as part of the ongoing effort to implement strong Net Neutrality policies.

FCC Introduces New Consumer Complaint Center; Will Forward Your Sad Story… Back to the Cable Company

Phillip Dampier January 6, 2015 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment
Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator.

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator.

The Federal Communications Commission has mildly beefed up its largely toothless cable complaint hotline with a brand new consumer online complaint center that guarantees to forward submitted angergrams back to your telephone or cable company within one business day.

As Congress largely deregulated cable and competing local telephone exchange carriers and put them out of reach of most federal and state oversight, the FCC has largely been left acting as a concierge – managing and forwarding consumer complaints received on its 1-888-CALL-FCC hotline. Now it has an online complaint center to keep the toll-free number company.

The new FCC website is a one-stop place to file complaints about cable, phone, and other telecom companies and has been simplified to make it easier to understand – a welcome change from the nearly impenetrable Electronic Comment Filing System that dates back to the Clinton Administration.

But in reality, there isn’t much the FCC can actually do to enforce any action in your favor. So if your complaint deals with any of these issues, it is technically outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction:

  • Burial of telephone or cable wires
  • No dial tone to local phone service
  • Stand-alone satellite TV billing, rates and programming
  • Installation of non-bundled service
  • Stand-alone cable TV service, rates and programming (not including basic tier)
  • Internet services, rates, and billing

Despite the limitations, most cable and telephone companies assign executive-level customer service agents and supervisors to manage complaints forwarded from state or federal regulators that could give them headaches later on. That will get you a more empowered representative that can make things happen that “Miss Raisin” in the provider’s Philippines-based call center cannot.

The FCC also gets to track and monitor both the complaints received from consumers and the response from your provider. That can help the FCC identify hot-button issues that need more attention and uncover bad actors that might need special scrutiny, especially if those companies later seek approval for their merger deal or have other business before the FCC.

So far, the largest number of complaints received are about relentless telemarketing robocalls. Since telemarketers have discovered the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry and accompanying enforcement is more “bark” than actual “bite,” an increasing number are ignoring the law with little or no consequences.

The FCC’s disclaimer on such matters does not exactly leave providers quaking in their boots:

We do not resolve individual complaints on these issues. However, the collective data we receive helps us keep a pulse on what consumers are experiencing, may lead to investigations and serves as a deterrent to the companies we regulate.

Fiber Games: AT&T (Slightly) Backtracks on Fiber Suspension After Embarrassed by FCC

HissyfitwatchAT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s public hissy fit against the Obama Administration’s sudden backbone on Net Neutrality may complicate AT&T’s plans to win approval of its merger with DirecTV. forcing AT&T to retract threats to suspend fiber buildouts if the administration moves forward with its efforts to ban Internet fast lanes.

Hours after Stephenson told investors AT&T wouldn’t continue with plans to bring U-verse with GigaPower fiber broadband to more cities as long as Net Neutrality was on the agenda, the FCC requested clarification about exactly what AT&T and its CEO was planning. More importantly, it noted responses would become part of the record in its consideration of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of the satellite television provider. The regulator could not send a clearer message that Stephenson’s statements could affect the company’s $48.5 billion merger deal.

AT&T responded – four days after the FCC’s deadline – in a three-page letter with a heavily redacted attachment that basically told the Commission it misunderstood AT&T’s true intentions:

The premise of the Commission’s November 14 Letter is incorrect. AT&T is not limiting our FTTP deployment to 2 million homes. To the contrary, AT&T still plans to complete the major initiative we announced in April to expand our ultra-fast GigaPower fiber network in 25 major metropolitan areas nationwide, including 21 new major metropolitan areas. In addition, as AT&T has described to the Commission in this proceeding, the synergies created by our DIRECTV transaction will allow us to extend our GigaPower service to at least 2 million additional customer locations, beyond those announced in April, within four years after close.

Although AT&T is willing to say it will deliver improved broadband to at least “15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas,” it is also continuing its fiber shell game with the FCC by not specifying exactly how many of those customers will receive fiber broadband, how many will receive an incremental speed upgrade to their existing U-verse fiber/copper service, or not get fiber at all. AT&T routinely promises upgrades using a mix of technologies “such as” fiber to the home and fixed wireless, part of AT&T’s broader agenda to abandon its rural landline service and force customers to a much costlier and less reliable wireless data connection. It isn’t willing to tell the public who will win fiber upgrades and who will be forced off DSL in favor of AT&T’s enormously profitable wireless service.

Your right to know... undelivered.

Your right to know… undelivered. AT&T redacted information about its specific fiber plans.

Fun Fact: AT&T is cutting its investment in network upgrades by $3 billion in 2015 and plans a budget of $18 billion for capex investments across the entire company in 2015 — almost three times less than what AT&T is ready to spend just to acquire DirecTV.

The FCC was provided a market-by-market breakdown of how many customers currently get U-verse over AT&T’s fiber/copper “fiber to the neighborhood” network and those already getting fiber straight to the home. But this does not tell the FCC how many homes and businesses AT&T intends to wire for GigaPower — its gigabit speed network that requires fiber to the premises. Indeed, AT&T would only disclose how many homes and businesses it plans to provide with traditional U-verse using a combination of fiber and copper wiring — an inferior technology not capable of the speeds AT&T repeatedly touts in its press releases.

That has all the makings of an AT&T Fiber Snow Job only Buffalo could love.

AT&T also complained about the Obama Administration’s efforts to spoil AT&T’s fast lane Money Party:

At the same time, President Obama’s proposal in early November to regulate the entire Internet under rules from the 1930s injects significant uncertainty into the economics underlying our investment decisions. While we have reiterated that we will stand by the commitments described above, this uncertainty makes it prudent to pause consideration of any further investments – beyond those discussed above – to bring advanced broadband networks to even more customer locations, including additional upgrades of existing DSL and IPDSL lines, that might be feasible in the future under a more stable and predictable regulatory regime. To be clear, AT&T has not stated that the President’s proposal would render all of these locations unprofitable. Rather, AT&T simply cannot evaluate additional investment beyond its existing commitments until the regulatory treatment of broadband service is clarified.

AT&T’s too-cute-by-half ‘1930s era regulation’ talking point, also echoed by its financially tethered minions in the dollar-a-holler sock-puppet sector, suggests the Obama Administration is seeking to regulate AT&T as a monopoly provider. Except the Obama Administration is proposing nothing of the sort. The FCC should give AT&T’s comments the same weight it should give its fiber commitments — treat them as suspect at best. As we’ve written repeatedly, AT&T’s fabulous fiber future looks splendid on paper, but without evidence of spending sufficient to pay for it, AT&T’s piece of work should be filed under fiction.

FCC to AT&T: Put Up or Shut Up; Agency Seeks Details About AT&T’s Fiber Pause Over Net Neutrality

Stephenson: No fiber for you

Stephenson: No fiber for you

AT&T’s decision to suspend fiber broadband upgrades over the Obama Administration’s strong support for Net Neutrality may backfire on the telecom giant’s multi-billion dollar bid to acquire DirecTV.

The Federal Communications Commission has dispatched a letter to Robert W. Quinn, Jr., AT&T’s senior vice President and federal regulatory & chief privacy officer, inquiring whether AT&T really meant what it said about plans to suspend fiber expansion and that might impact at least two million additional homes that are part of a broadband expansion commitment included in AT&T’s offer to acquire DirecTV.

The FCC’s Jamillia Ferris wants AT&T to clarify CEO Randall Stephenson’s comments at a recent investor event, requesting information that may reveal whether AT&T was using the suspension of its fiber buildout as a political weapon against Net Neutrality.

“We made some comments in the DirecTV announcement that we would build fiber to two million additional homes,” Stephenson said at a Wells Fargo technology conference last week. “We will obviously commit to that once the DirecTV deal is done, we will keep going. But what we have also announced on top of that is that we are going to deploy fiber to 100 cities. And look, we can’t go out and just invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities other than these two million not knowing under what rules that investment will be governed. And so we have to pause and we have to just put a stop on those kinds of investments that we are doing today.”

The FCC’s request suggests the company’s answers may impact how the FCC treats AT&T’s request for approval of its merger with DirecTV.

Requested from AT&T no later than Nov. 21:

(a) Data regarding the Company’s current plans for fiber deployment, specifically:

(1) the current number of households to which fiber is deployed and the breakdown by technology (i.e., FTTP or FTTN) and geographic area of deployment;

(2) the total number of households to which the Company planned to deploy fiber prior to the Company’s decision to limit deployment to the 2 million households and the breakdown by technology and geographic area of deployment; and

(3) the total number of households to which the Company currently plans to deploy fiber, including the 2 million households, and the breakdown by technology and geographic area of deployment;

(b) A description of

(1) whether the AT&T FTTP Investment Model demonstrates that fiber deployment is now unprofitable; and

(2) whether the fiber to the 2 million homes following acquisition of DirecTV would be unprofitable; and

(c) All documents relating to the Company’s decision to limit AT&T’s deployment of fiber to 2 million homes following the acquisition of DirecTV.

Net Neutrality Freakout: Wall Street Popping Prozac, GOP Furious, Big ISPs, Allies Shocked and Appalled

President Barack Obama’s strong commitment to robust Net Neutrality protections for the Internet has created a nightmare scenario for Net Neutrality opponents who can no longer count on an ex-telecom industry lobbyist now in charge at the Federal Communications Commission to take care of their business interests with watered down, damage-controlled, net-protection-in-name-only.

The attacks on President Obama’s convictions began almost immediately after his video was published on whitehouse.gov with Sen. Ted Cruz’s declaration that Net Neutrality was Obamacare for the Internet, a statement that may have played well with his Texas tea party base, but was quickly parodied on social media:

4

Hal Singer from the ironically named Progressive Policy Institute opined that President Obama’s decision to declare real Net Neutrality would likely lead to the new majority of Republicans to completely defund the agency in retaliation. PPI is strongly opposed to Net Neutrality and many other consumer protection measures and represents the interests of the George W. Bush wing of the Democratic Party, which consists of about six people (and Harold Ford, Jr. probably wishes he was one of them.)

net neutrality fee“We are stunned,” Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who is now president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg reporters. After six years of supine oversight of giant telecommunications companies from former FCC chairman Julius “Data caps are innovative” Genachowski and the installation of an ex cable and wireless industry lobbyist as chief regulator of the country’s telecommunications industry, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have faced few challenges to their regulatory wish lists.

The Washington Post “Innovations” editorial page proved once again the Post is now the leading publication neocons and pro-business conservatives keep hidden under their mattresses next to the Wall Street Journal for those private moments. WaPo devoted news space to a hack editorial from Larry Downes, who turned up in Congress earlier this summer to cheerlead the merger of AT&T and DirecTV and has vociferously opposed Net Neutrality since at least 2011.

In his generally fact-challenged piece, Downes proclaims the Obama Administration was seeking nothing less than to saddle the Internet with oppressive outdated regulations written in 1934, that the courts threw out earlier hybrid/compromise Net Neutrality regulations simply because they lacked the words “commercially unreasonable,”  and that implementing Net Neutrality would destroy investment in the world’s leading cable, mobile, and fiber networks.

Downes does not get out much, because other countries as diverse as South Korea, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Japan and Singapore have long since passed the United States, with much of Europe poised to follow their lead. Some of them even enforce Net Neutrality and the sky failed to collapse as a result. Broadband life is good in Bucharest.

Nothing about the Obama Administration’s proposal for Net Neutrality would do anything beyond preserving the Internet as we know and love it and judges told the FCC’s attorneys they had no authority to impose Net Neutrality under the freak flawed framework established by Michael Powell, former FCC chairman-turned cable industry lobbyist.

Downes also laims he is shocked, shocked I tell you to discover the FCC isn’t immune to political pressure from the White House and other Beltway forces. Except he is one of those Beltway forces.

The Post was content disclosing that Downes was simply a co-author of “Big Bang Disruption:  Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014) and the project director at the harmless-sounding Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.

If you suspected Downes was just a tad closer to the industry he often advocates for than the newspaper was letting on, you would be right.

net neutrality comicIn fact, Downes is a “fellow” at the Bell Mason Group, a corporate advisory firm “passionate about partnering with forward-thinking corporate venturing and innovation executives, […] helping clients build risk-reduced, impactful programs and overcome corporate antibodies and obstacles [and deliver] measurable value.”

Net Neutrality is an example of one of those “risky corporate obstacles” to total monopoly control that could deliver Big Telecom companies “measurable value.” Among Downes’ past clients is a tiny phone company named AT&T, but you wouldn’t know it from Bell Mason’s well-scrubbed website. Too bad for them archive.org took a snapshot of an earlier version of his bio, revealing his less-than-arm’s-length relationship with AT&T.

None of this is apparently pertinent to the editors of the Washington Post. Disclosing Downes’ co-authorship of a far-less germane book one critic called a “big bang disappointment” was more than enough.

Bloomberg News avoided the hopelessly unbelievable talking points about Internet takeovers and concluded President Obama threw his FCC chairman under the bus. But even that conclusion originated from the conservative, anti-Net Neutrality group the Heritage Foundation, quoted in the piece:

“He threw Tom Wheeler under the bus,” said James Gattuso, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy group. Obama’s strong stance makes it harder for Wheeler to reach a compromise among proponents of regulation, Gattuso said.

Except proponents of Net Neutrality are tired of compromises that favor ungrateful telecom companies that routinely sue even the most minor consumer protections out of existence. Wheeler was rumored to be proposing yet another compromise as late as last week, one that would protect deep-pocketed content companies but leave consumers open to further abuse from high cost fast lanes and speed throttles.

Various tea party groups ginned up with claims of an imminent Obama socialist takeover of the Internet, Maoist censorship and protectionist rate regulation took to the comment sections of various news pieces and wrote comments like this:

“I don’t want government control that would force private companies not to control what I can see on the Internet.” 

riskyFor public policy mavens that claim Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem, countering Wall Street’s decisive view that Net Neutrality is a disaster for plans of revenue boosting schemes are harder to counter.

Obama’s intervention effectively kills Wheeler’s mixed plan, Paul de Sa, a senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York, said in a note. It will be hard for the FCC, with a majority of Democrats appointed by Obama, to deviate significantly from his preference, and strong rules are likely, de Sa said.

Obama’s intervention “does not lead to price regulation of broadband,” in part because the FCC has no desire to do so, he said. Debate in Washington will intensify, with Congress holding “interminable hearings” and trying to prohibit the FCC from applying the strong rules, de Sa said.

The meaning to investors was clear: Internet profiteering plans are on indefinite hold. Comcast Corp. fell 63 cents or 1.2 percent, to $52.33 at 10:39 a.m. in New York trading, and are down as much as 5.1 percent this week. Time Warner Cable Inc. dropped $3.34, or 2.5 percent. AT&T Inc. fell 16 cents to $34.97 and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) fell 15 cents to $50.57.

A move to fully reclassify broadband, even if it includes “forbearance” from rate regulation, as President Obama suggested, would send investors scurrying, according to Kim Wallace, a policy analyst at Renaissance Macro Research. That is because it would cast doubt on cable and telecom companies’ abilities to generate a “sufficient return” on capital investments, which they expect to be sky high based on the limited amount of competition that exists today.

Craig Moffett, perennial cable stock booster, had the temerity to blame the latest developments on Comcast.

“The great irony is Comcast helped start this ball rolling by trying to buy Time Warner Cable in the first place,” said Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “With the specter of possible price regulation hanging in the balance, [the question is] would Comcast still want to increase its exposure to distribution assets” in broadband.

The Wall Street press provides some salve for the chafed telecom industry high-flyer — the likely prospect of litigation tying up Net Neutrality long enough for Republicans to write new telecom laws that would lead to near-total regulatory capitulation and a free hand for providers. But investors sure hate uncertainty, so the Money Party will have to be postponed for now.

We have four illuminating news stories to share today on Net Neutrality:

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/PBS Why is Obama weighing in on net neutrality 11-10-14.mp4

More than 3 million commenters crashed the Federal Communications Commission website in July to weigh in on the issue of net neutrality. Now President Obama has added his strong support, directing the FCC to protect equal access to all web content. Judy Woodruff speaks with U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith about the president’s move. (7:33)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Ex-FCCs Furchtgott-Roth Copps Debate Net Neutrality 11-10-14.flv

Former Federal Communications Commission members Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Michael Copps talk about President Barack Obama’s call for the “strongest possible rules” to protect the open Internet and the value of so-called net-neutrality rules. They speak with Cory Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg West.” (7:00)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Here is why you should care about net neutrality 11-10-14.flv

CNN explores why you should care about Net Neutrality and reminds us in a world of distorted punditry exactly what “Net Neutrality” is. (3:58)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fox Business Michael Powell Net Neutrality 11-10-14.flv

Fox Business gives former FCC chairman Michael Powell an unchallenged platform to present his views on Net Neutrality. It becomes clear which side Fox is on when they call porn peddler Larry Flynt the quintessential Net Neutrality advocate. (5:08)

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