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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.

Illinois’ ‘Free AT&T from Regulation and Responsibility’ Bill Returns in 2015

Nobody raises phone rates after deregulation like AT&T.

Nobody raises phone rates after deregulation like AT&T.

AT&T’s bill to maximize profits and minimize responsibility to its customers is back for consideration in the Illinois state legislature.

The Illinois Telecom Act is up for review in the spring and AT&T’s team of lobbyists are gearing up to advocate killing off AT&T’s legal obligation to provide low-cost, reliable landline service to any resident that wants service. AT&T says the measure is a reasonable response to the ongoing decline in its landline customer base, but rural and fixed-income residents fear the phone company will walk away from areas deemed unprofitable to serve and force customers to expensive wireless phone alternatives.

Areas in central and southern Illinois are served by a variety of rural phone companies including AT&T and Frontier Communications. Northeast Illinois is the home of metropolitan Chicago, where businesses depend on reliable phone service and the urban poor and senior residents depend on predictably affordable basic landline service.

The state still has as least 1.3 million residential landline customers paying rates starting at $3 a month for basic “Lifeline” service in Chicago to $9.50 a month for rural flat rate service with a limited local calling area. Cell service costs several times more than AT&T’s basic landline rates and signal quality is often challenged in rural areas. In large sections of Illinois where AT&T has elected not to bring its U-verse fiber to the neighborhood service, customers with basic voice calling and DSL broadband service could find themselves eventually disconnected and forced to switch to AT&T’s wireless residential service.

fat cat attAT&T’s Wireless Home Internet plan charges $60/month for 10GB of Internet use, $90/month for 20GB, and $120/month for 30GB. The overlimit fee is $10 per gigabyte. Telephone service is extra.

Customers will need smartphones or hotspot equipment to reach AT&T’s wireless services. Although often discounted or free for those who sign two-year contracts, credit-challenged customers will be required to pay a steep deposit or buy equipment outright.

“Smartphones are wonderful technology but they don’t come cheap and anybody who has traveled across Illinois knows they’re not always reliable,” David Kolata, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, said at a recent news conference. “Traditional home phone service is the most affordable, reliable option for millions of people and we shouldn’t take away that choice.”

The Federal Communications Commission is currently allowing AT&T to experiment with discontinuing landline service in parts of Alabama and Florida. Customers in urban areas are switched to AT&T’s U-verse service, those in rural areas are switched to cell service. Both services are unregulated. If AT&T can sell the Illinois legislature on abandoning its need to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” the company will have the unilateral right to disconnect service, set rates at will, and be under few, if any, customer service obligations.

In states where AT&T won the near-total deregulation it now seeks in Illinois, phone rates quickly soared. In California, AT&T flat rate calling shot up 115% between 2006 and 2013 — from $10.69 to $23 a month. AT&T also raised prices on calling features and other services.

In earlier trials run by Verizon, similar wireless landline replacement devices lacked support for home medical and security alarm monitoring, did not handle faxes or credit card authorizations, and often lacked precision in locating customers calling 911 in an emergency. The equipment also failed during power outages if the customer lacked battery backup equipment.

Shakedown Sharpton: Buy Quid Pro Quo Minority Support for Your Big Telecom Merger Deal

shakedown alLooking for civil rights groups to support your multi-billion dollar telecom merger and keep minority groups off your back?

You couldn’t do better than cutting a check to Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network (NAN) will generate form letters praising your killer deal before regulators or help garner support in Congress for more deregulation and less Net Neutrality. All it takes is a few donations and consulting fees, according to a special report published by the New York Post.

“Al Sharpton has enriched himself and NAN for years by threatening companies with bad publicity if they didn’t come to terms with him. Put simply, Sharpton specializes in shakedowns,” Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal & Policy Center told the Post.

“Once Sharpton’s on board, he plays the race card all the way through,” said a source who has worked with the Harlem preacher. “He just keeps asking for more and more money.”

Sharpton’s 60th birthday party bash last October at Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant departed from the usual friends and family oriented affair most of us would expect, as envelopes arrived from some of America’s largest corporations, including AT&T and Verizon, containing at least $1 million in donations for Sharpton’s civil rights group.

Coincidentally, that same month Sharpton co-signed a letter sent to the FCC urging the regulator to approve AT&T’s deal to buy DirecTV.

“We believe the evidence and the company’s record, as well as future impact and commitments post-merger, provide a clear and compelling basis for the FCC to determine that this merger is in the public’s best interest,” the letter said. “If approved, the combined AT&T-DirecTV will have greater incentive to deploy a state of the art Internet service and give millions of Americans a new way to access the Internet’s economic, social, and civic benefits.”

If approved, the deal would also eliminate one of AT&T’s chief competitors for pay television customers, making DirecTV part of the AT&T family.

Money-Stuffed-Into-PocketWhile the money keeps rolling in, Sharpton has left taxpayers footing his bills. Sharpton himself, his nonprofit NAN, and two for-profit firms controlled by him have racked up $4.7 million in outstanding debt and tax obligations according to federal and New York State records. He owes New York taxpayers $806,875 and after not bothering to pay his personal income taxes in full, he owes $2.6 million in federal liens. Sharpton’s NAN still owes more than $800,000 to the federal government and his two for-profit ventures separately owe New Yorkers nearly $450,000.

Raising money to repay debts appears to be a major priority for Sharpton these days, and companies like Comcast covet his support of their corporate agendas.

Shortly after Comcast announced its intention to acquire NBC-Universal in late 2009, Comcast’s chief executive, Brian L. Roberts, and the head of the company’s lobbying effort, David L. Cohen, met with Sharpton and other representatives of minority groups to talk about their bid. Comcast recognized that support from minority groups would be crucial to answering the inevitable charge that giant media mergers have a tendency to reduce diversity in programming, particularly from and for minorities.

Comcast turned on its money spigot, donating at least $140,000 to Sharpton’s National Action Network. In turn, Sharpton took a sudden interest in the merger, penning letters of strong support to the FCC. Between 2008 and 2010, Comcast’s corporate foundation donated more than $3 million to 39 minority groups that wrote letters to federal regulators in support of the NBC deal. Comcast and NBC Universal also worked out an agreement with advocacy groups guaranteeing increased “minority participation in news and public affairs programming”—so long as the deal went through.

Comcast supporter turned Comcast-owned MSNBC host.

Sharpton: Comcast supporter turned Comcast-owned MSNBC host.

Few expected that Sharpton himself would be a direct beneficiary of Comcast’s gratitude after the merger was approved. Sharpton was suddenly hired (for an undisclosed amount) as host of his own MSNBC weeknight show, still on the network today.

The New York Times noticed.

“Rarely, if ever, has a cable news channel employed a host who has previously campaigned for the business goals of the channel’s parent company,” the newspaper wrote.

Since the cable company began cutting checks to the NAN, Sharpton has towed the line on Comcast’s public policy agenda.

Last July, Sharpton’s group joined several other civil rights groups (most, if not all financially supported by Comcast) complaining that enforcing Net Neutrality would “harm communities of color.”

“The groups wrote to the FCC to tell them that ‘we do not believe that the door to Title II should be opened,'” said Lee Fang in a piece that was quickly censored by a Comcast-owned news outlet. “Simply put, these groups, many of which claim to carry the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr., are saying that Comcast and Verizon should be able to create Internet slow lanes and fast lanes, and such a change would magically improve the lives of non-white Americans.”

“Just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s children have embarrassingly descended into fighting bitterly over what’s left of his estate, the civil rights groups formed to advance Dr. King’s legacy seem willing to sell out their own members for a buck,” Fang concluded.

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.

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.

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