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Call to Action: Support Stronger Rules for Mobile 911

An increasing number of Americans are abandoning their landlines for the convenience and economy of mobile devices. Unfortunately, doing so also makes it more difficult to locate the caller in an emergency. In order to correct the problem, the FCC has proposed a stronger set of rules that will increase location accuracy for 911 calls.

As can be expected, 911 Dispatchers and First Responders support the proposed rules. Public Knowledge recently wrote about the changes that could save an additional 10,000 lives per year.

Currently, wireless companies are not required to use specific cell tower information to lead emergency medical personnel to an apartment or the floor from which a call originates. They need only to supply specific information if the call is made from outdoors. As more and more people depend on mobile devices, both indoors and out of doors, our rules need updating.

Public Knowledge has posted a call to action to support stronger rules and ensure more successful rescues:

As a result of consumers’ growing reliance on wireless and reported failures in locating callers on time, the FCC has proposed rules that require carriers to give 911 dispatchers callers’ locations within 100 meters after their first connection with a cell phone tower, and 50 meters after the dispatchers search using location accuracy, such as GPS. They have also included a requirement for vertical location, or the ability to find what floor and building callers are located in.

We encourage you to read and sign the petition drafted by Public Knowledge and to let the FCC know that policy needs to keep pace with technology.

Verizon CEO: LTE Cannot Replace Fiber

Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead is not doing any favors for Comcast as it pursues approval to acquire Time Warner Cable. In August, he came out and publicly stated that no, LTE is not equal to fiber. The Verge quoted Mead, who was refreshingly honest about technical limitations and Comcast's motivations for making such outrageous claims:

"They're trying to get deals approved, right, and I understand that... their focus is different than my focus right now, because I don't have any deals pending," Mead said, a reference to the fact that Comcast is looking for ways to justify the TWC buy. "LTE certainly can compete with broadband, but if you look at the physics and the engineering of it, we don't see LTE being as efficient as fiber coming into the home."

A number of other organizations also try to educate the general public about the fact that mobile Internet access is not on par with wireline service. For example, Public Knowledge has long argued that "4G + Data Caps = Magic Beans." 

Our Wireless Internet Access Fact Sheet dispels common misconceptions, shares info about data caps, and provides comparative performance data between wireless and wired connections. While mobile Internet access is certainly practical, valuable, and a convenient complement to wired connections, it is no replacement. Wireless limitations, coupled with providers' expensive data caps enforced with overage charges, can never replace a home wired connection. Doing homework, applying for a job, or paying bills online quickly drives families over the typical 250 GB limit.

Speaking from experience, my own family of three routinely surpasses 250 GB per month and we are not bandwidth hogs compared to many other families in our social circle. Fortunately for us, the "enforcement of the 250GB data consumption threshold is currently suspended," as I am reminded every billing cycle.

Considering Mead's experience in both wired and wireless, how could any of us question his perspective:

Before moving to Verizon's wireless unit, Mead held executive roles in the company's landline business, responsible for traditional telephone service and high-speed internet to the home. "We know both sides of that pretty well," he continued. "So that may be a little bit of a stretch, and the economics are much different."

Local Businesses Suffer in Tennessee as State Prevents Chattanooga Expansion

As our readers know, the FCC is currently considering petitions submitted by Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. Both communities want the ability to expand their ability to offer advanced telecommunications services, contrary to existing state anti-muni laws. As we glance through the comments, we notice that ISPs, advocacy groups, and local governments are not the only commenters with a vested interest in the outcome. 

There are also compelling stories from individuals, local businesses, and organizations that are looking for better options. In some cases they have one provider but are unhappy with the service so support municipal network expansion. In other cases, they have dial-up (or no service at all) and are maddeningly close to an EPB or Greenlight connection but state restrictions forbid service to them.

We recently spoke with Joyce Coltrin, owner of J & J Nursery located on the edge of Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County. She is about 32 miles from the heart of Chattanooga but only 3/8 mile from the edge of the EPB fiber optic service area. Her only choice for Internet at her nursery is AT&T dial-up. Joyce tells us:

"I could walk right to it - it is the closest provider and we don't have any broadband access!"

Joyce submitted comments early in the proceedings. She choose to send her comments via snail mail because her email is so unreliable.

For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled.

Joyce uses her cell phone to access the Internet while she is at work. Like some of the other business owners in Cleveland, Joyce pays $200 - $300 per month because she is constantly running over data caps to conduct business. There are others who live or work in areas near her that do not have cell phone coverage.

Another local business owner that runs a poultry business almost lost a large number of chicks when their alarm system, dependent on wireless Internet access through a Verizon "MiFi" personal hotspot, failed during cold weather.

Joyce does not plan on expanding to an online store but she finds it difficult to adhere to state business regulations without better connectivity. For instance, she must do business taxes online from home, where she has a little better Internet access.

She knows that Tennessee's anti-muni laws came from giant cable and telco lobbying efforts. She also recognizes the negative impact it is having on Cleveland. In her comments to the FCC, Joyce writes:

College students drive to McDonald's to use Wi-Fi and work from their cars to do homework and projects. This situation is choking business and making our children third class citizens.

I have always been for free enterprise, but when some businesses win due to unfair protection, free enterprise dies.

To read the rest of Joyce's comments, visit the FCC website.

ILSR Co-Signs FCC Comment Endorsing More Open Spectrum

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has joined with Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and the Open Technology Institute, in submitting reply comments to the FCC last week as the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC). The issue at hand is the FCC’s proposal of new rules for how to govern the 3.5 GHz band, a range of the electromagnetic spectrum useful for many different types of communication. 

The PISC comment focused on the importance of getting away from the long-standing FCC policy of simply auctioning off big slices of spectrum for telecom companies to use exclusively, which inhibits innovation and enables a monopolization of the communications marketplace. Verizon and AT&T, who hold licenses to large swathes of the spectrum already, are lobbying to FCC to keep the status quo in place. PISC (and ILSR) support a more open arrangement, allowing multiple users to share the same underutilized spectrum segment, while still avoiding interference. The full text of the comment is available here. 

The language and policy of spectrum management can seem arcane to people unaccustomed to it, but how we regulate and use the electromagnetic spectrum has wide ranging consequences for almost all the technology we use in our daily lives. For a general primer on the importance and possibilities of a more open spectrum licensing policy, see the wireless commons articles we published earlier this summer.

You can view the full text of the PISC comment through the link below.

Spencer Municipal Utilities Expands Upgrade to Fiber in Iowa

Spencer Municipal Utilities (SMU) in Iowa is expanding an upgrade project to bring fiber to approximately 2,000 additional premises. A little over a year ago, we reported on the switch from coax cable to fiber for 700 municipal network customers with no rate increase. According to the Spencer Daily Reporter, the original project is almost completed; the expanded upgrade will cost approximately $4.5 million.

Amanda Gloyd, marketing and community relations manager, told the Daily Reporter:

Since SMU first began offering Internet service to customers the amount used by customers has increased and we expect to see that continue. For example, the average peak usage from customers in the fall of 2010 was 125MB and today it averages around 800MB with maximums over 1,200 MB. The project to convert the whole town of Spencer will take several years and we continue to develop plans for future projects.

In April, the SMU Board of trustees approved a modest rate increase for video and Internet access to help defray increased costs for video content and increased demand on the system. The last time rates went up for video service was early 2013; residential Internet access rates have remained the same since November 2011.

New rates went into effect on June 1. Internet access rates range from $20 per month for 1 Mbps/256 Kbps to $225 per month for 100 Mbps/10 Mbps. Basic level video service begins at $14 per month; "Basic Plus" is $50.75 per month. Digital service and a range of channel choices are available as add-ons.

SMU also provides voice and partners with T-Mobile to provide wireless phone service in the community. The network began serving customers in 2000.

Spencer, population 11,300, is located in the northwest section of the state. In the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #13, Chris spoke with Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (IAMU). Dean shared a story about Hansen's Clothing, a local upscale clothier in Spencer. Thanks to the presence of the SMU network, Hansen's was able to expand its sales to the online marketplace. Hansen's was struggling until it obtained the ability to reach clientele in New York and Los Angeles. The fresh business allowed Hansen's to flourish.

Wireless Commons Part 2: The Possibilities of an Open, Unlicensed Spectrum

In the first part of this series, we discussed how spectrum could be better managed to allow far greater communications capacity, but only if the FCC abandoned its traditional approach of auctioning spectrum to carriers for monopolistic use. In this part, we’ll discuss how devices could take advantage of a new approach to spectrum management and how it might help to circumvent gatekeepers, whether corporate or government.

With increased unlicensed use of the spectrum, an astonishing range of possibilities emerges. Mobile devices could communicate with each other directly, without reference to a central node controlled by a telecom company or monitored by a government. Access points could be strung together wirelessly to create decentralized ad hoc networks, with each device forwarding data from every other, creating a seamless network throughout an entire neighborhood or city. Commotion Wireless is already attempting this on a small scale with just the existing spectrum.

Such networks already exist in a few places, but access to more unlicensed spectrum and permission to use stronger signals would allow them to grow, potentially creating a more decentralized and democratic way to share information and access the internet; an end-run around data caps, future “fast lane” policies, and other drawbacks of relying on one or two telecom oligopolists as a network owner and gatekeeper.

Another exciting possibility for unlicensed spectrum use can be found in emerging Ultra-Wide Band technologies. These allow devices to use a large swath of spectrum at very low power to send information in bits and pieces over short distances, somewhat similar to bitTorrents, and could allow for nearly instantaneous exchange of gigabits of data. All of this is dependent, however, on access to spectrum with the right characteristics, such as low frequency TV bands that can penetrate physical obstacles like walls or trees especially well.

These technologies have political ramifications as well. Rather than having to make monthly payments to a national provider as you do with your cell phone, we would have different models to choose from. Some would be just a matter of buying the right device, just as we already do with computers. Imagine setting up a neighborhood-wide network just as easily as setting up a home Wi-Fi network.

These possibilities are made both more enticing and more urgent by the huge growth in the demand for mobile data worldwide. The near ubiquitous status of increasingly high tech mobile devices, combined with the increased use of smart meters and other remotely controlled devices for homes and businesses, as well as the general growth in the size of audio, video, and other files all drive this trend.

Mobile connections grew from 1% to 13% of total Internet traffic from 2009 to 2012, and Qualcomm expects mobile data usage to grow by a factor of 1,000 from 2012 to 2020. With these demands, it is increasingly important to find new ways to use the spectrum that are not mutually exclusive. In this environment, the allocation of exclusive broadcasting licenses for the vast majority of the spectrum to incumbents who use those rights inefficiently makes little sense.

logo-fcc-2012.PNG

The FCC has some choices to make about how it will meet these challenges. It could simply clear underused spectrum, chop it up, and auction it again for new one-time revenue. Clearing space on the spectrum through reallocation is expensive and time consuming, however, involving complex legal and technical maneuvering.

What if rather than having Wi-Fi, the U.S. Treasury had a few extra billion dollars by auctioning that space on the spectrum to a monopoly provider rather than creating a commons? These are the real trade-offs currently being weighed and you better believe that the big wireless companies and their allies in Congress are working hard to prevent any major changes to the system they rule.

There are smarter approaches. The FCC could create a framework for sharing licensed spectrum, retaining priority use for original license holders while also forcing them to allow intelligent devices that sense and make use of available frequencies to operate within their licensed space. Or they could clear more space to be used for unlicensed communications, currently restricted to a few tiny portions of the spectrum. More unlicensed space is the most likely approach to foster significant development of new wireless technologies, which are difficult or impossible to deploy while telecom companies control so much of the airwaves.

All of this is unlikely to happen in the current regulatory regime. Telecom companies have shelled out billions for exclusive licenses and made large investments in technologies that work within the current business model of spectrum ownership. They also covet the foreclosure value that their ownership provides, meaning the ability to shut out competitors by denying them spectrum. As a result, a few massive telecom corporations have little to gain by democratizing access to spectrum bandwidth.

National elected officials, most of whom are not known for their technological savvy, must weigh the temptation of quick money ($20 billion from one auction in 2008 alone) in new license auctions with the difficult to conceptualize but potentially massive economic and social benefits of a more open spectrum. Unless they feel pressure from ordinary citizens who stand to benefit from greater spectrum freedom, the status quo of expensive, centralized communications and suppression of innovation is unlikely to change.

Spectrum graphic courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Wireless Commons Part 1: Interference Is a Myth, but the FCC Hasn't Caught on Yet

This is the first in two-part series on spectrum basics and how we could better manage the spectrum to encourage innovation and prevent either large corporations or government from interfering with our right to communicate. Part 2 is available here.

We often think of all our wireless communications as traveling separate on paths: television, radio, Wi-Fi, cell phone calls, etc. In fact, these signals are all part of the same continuous electromagnetic spectrum. Different parts of the spectrum have different properties, to be sure - you can see visible light, but not radio waves. But these differences are more a question of degree than a fundamental difference in makeup. 

As radio, TV, and other technologies were developed and popularized throughout the 20th century, interference became a major concern. Any two signals using the same band of the spectrum in the same broadcast range would prevent both from being received, which you have likely experienced on your car radio when driving between stations on close frequencies – news and music vying with each other, both alternating with static. 

To mitigate the problem, the federal government did what any Econ 101 textbook says you should when you have a “tragedy of the commons” situation in which more people using a resource degrades it for everyone: they assigned property rights. This is why radio stations tend not to interfere with each other now.

The Federal Communications Commission granted exclusive licenses to the spectrum in slices known as bands to radio, TV, and eventually telecom companies, ensuring that they were the only ones with the legal right to broadcast on a given frequency range within a certain geographic area. Large bands were reserved for military use as well.

Originally, these licenses came free of charge, on the condition that broadcasters meet certain public interest requirements. Beginning in 1993, the government began to run an auction process, allowing companies to bid on spectrum licenses. That practice continues today whenever any space on the spectrum is freed up. (For a more complete explanation of the evolution of licensing see this excellent Benton foundation blog post.)

Although there have been several redistributions over the decades, the basic architecture remains. Communications companies own exclusive licenses for large swaths of the usable spectrum, with most other useful sections reserved for the federal government’s defense and communications purposes (e.g. aviation and maritime navigation). Only a few tiny bands are left open as free, unlicensed territory that anyone can use. 

NTIA Spectrum Map

This small unlicensed area is where many of the most innovative technologies of the last several decades have sprung up, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and even garage door openers and cordless phones. A recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association concluded that unlicensed spectrum generates $62 billion in economic activity, and that only takes into account a portion of direct retail sales of devices using the unlicensed spectrum. 

On its face, the current spectrum allocation regime appears an obvious solution; an efficient allocation of scarce resources that allows us to consume all kinds of media with minimal interference or confusion, and even raises auction revenues for the government to boot. 

Except that the spectrum is not actually a limited resource. Thanks to the constant evolution of broadcasting and receiving technologies, the idea of a finite spectrum has become obsolete, and with it the rationale for the FCC’s exclusive licensing framework. This topic was explored over a decade ago in a Salon article by David Weinberger, in which he interviews David P. Reed, a former MIT Computer Science Professor and early Internet theorist. 

Reed describes the fallacy of thinking of interference as something inherent in the signals themselves. Signals travelling on similar frequencies do not physically bump into each other in the air, scrambling the message sent. The signals simply pass through each other, meaning multiple signals can actually be overlaid on each other. (You don’t have to understand why this happens, just know that it does.) Bob Frankston belittles the current exclusive licensing regime as giving monopolies on colors. 

As Weinberger puts it:

The problem isn’t with the radio waves. It’s with the receivers: “Interference cannot be defined as a meaningful concept until a receiver tries to separate the signal. It’s the processing that gets confused, and the confusion is highly specific to the particular detector,” Reed says. Interference isn’t a fact of nature. It’s an artifact of particular technologies.

In the past, our relatively primitive hardware-based technologies, such as car radios, could only differentiate signals that were physically separated by vacant spectrum. But with advances in both transmitters and receivers that have increased sensitivity, as well as software that can quickly and seamlessly sense what frequencies are available and make use of them, we can effectively expand the usable range of the spectrum. This approach allows for squeezing more and more communication capacity into any given band as technology advances, without sacrificing the clarity of existing signals. In other words, (specifically those of Kevin Werbach and Aalok Mehta in a recent International Journal of Communications paper) “The effective capacity of the spectrum is a constantly moving target.”

In the next post, we’ll look at how we can take advantage of current and future breakthroughs in wireless technology, and how our outdated approach to spectrum management is limiting important innovation.

New York Media's MetroFocus Talks With Chris About City Wi-Fi

In an effort to bring better connectivity to New Yorkers, the City is transforming old pay phones into free Wi-Fi hotspots. Rick Karr, reporter for MetroFocus from New York Public Media, reached out to ILSR's Chris Mitchell to discuss the project.

Chris and Karr discuss the challenges faced by lower income people in our digital age, many of whom depend on mobile devices for Internet access. From the video:

“Low income people and especially minority populations really depend on mobile devices. So having WiFi that they can use when they’re on the go is going to be a good way of keeping their costs down. But you’re not going to see kids writing term papers on mobile devices,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said that low-income people need better and more affordable options. “Possibly, something run by the city so that it can ensure that low-income people have access in their homes and they don’t have to go outside in order to use their devices.”

According to the New York City Information Technology & Telecommunications website, over 20 locations already offer free municipal Wi-Fi. The City intends to expand the current program and has called for proposals from potential private partners due by the end of June.

Mayor de Blasio has stated that his administration will make free Wi-Fi a priority in order to help reduce the City's income inequality. Maya Wiley, de Blasio's chief counsel told the New York Daily News:

“High-speed Internet access is now as fundamental as water, as fundamental as the railroads were in the 18th century,” Wiley said in an interview with the Daily News.

“If you are low-income and you want to find a job, increasingly, you need high-speed broadband to do it,” Wiley said.

 

Municipal Networks and the Future of Wi-Fi Hotspots

This is a guest post from Jacob Levin - an advocate for a new economy that regenerates people, place and planet. Growing up as the son of an FCC official, dinner conversations often drifted towards tales of how incumbent ISPs were unfairly leveraging their political and economic power to reduce competition. He's done policy research for Public Knowledge, One Economy Corporation and Skype, and has worked on research and development for Republic Wireless.

This work has led him to believe that community control of communications infrastructure is the only way to protect freedom of expression in a digital age. He's an aspiring peasant, and an active member of the Open Masters project, dedicated to creating effective learning communities for people pursuing learning goals outside of traditional education institutions.

This is not your parents’ Wi-Fi. The latest generation of Wi-Fi networks are not only faster and more reliable, they come with some backend changes that community networks can take advantage of. In particular, something called Hotspot 2.0 will allow authorized devices to seamlessly connect to secure Wi-Fi networks, much like mobile phones already do on cellular networks.

Hotspot 2.0 is a new initiative of the Wi-Fi alliance that will bring cellular-like roaming experiences onto Wi-Fi networks. As access points begin to support the Hotspot 2.0 standard, mobile devices will be able to automatically select appropriate Wi-Fi networks and provide stored credentials. No more manually searching through available networks and punching in passwords. The cable industry is betting heavily on Hotspot 2.0, with plans to provide credentials to cable subscribers that will allow them to roam onto any CableWi-Fi access point (including the routers they provide to their customers homes). This could allow cable companies to include mobile phone service in their bundles.

Any community fiber network can begin offering paid wireless service, or bundle wireless service in with existing internet, TV and phone service (like Cable is doing). They can put wireless nodes on top of telephone poles and/or ask wired subscribers to use routers that are pre-set to recognize municipal credentials.

But for those who don’t want to build or maintain a wireless network, Hotspot 2.0 will allow a wired network to offer a credential to its subscribers and establish roaming agreements with those operating wireless networks. For example, multiple communities with their own networks can allow free roaming across partner networks.

If the networks are comparable and there is a roughly similar mix of roaming, they may do it without charging each other. However, a metro center may ask a suburban county to pay in order to recognize the suburbs’ municipal credential, as generally, suburban residents spend more time in municipal areas than vice versa.

A community could create a program that ensured historically marginalized populations and those living in low income areas had a credential that would be honored by local businesses - to create more options for connectivity. Such a program would surely not be sufficient to provide optimal access but would be an improvement over the status quo.

The stunning success of Wi-Fi is leading to a problem in many communities. The more Wi-Fi operating on the same chunk of spectrum leads to inefficiency. But with HotSpot 2.0 and some coordination, neighborhoods could have better performance with fewer networks. FCC rules don’t allow anyone to forcible shut down a Wi-Fi router but a community network could reward those who cooperate with access to fiber backhaul, poles, etc., on favorable terms.

Here are some suggested preparations for the coming HotSpot 2.0 technology. Near-term actions:

  • Ensure new equipment has Hotspot 2.0 capabilities
  • Take inventory of private wireless networks in commonly trafficked areas

Medium-term actions:

  • Develop community network credentials
  • Approach local wireless providers about recognizing community network credentials
  • Create roaming agreements with other networks

Long-term actions:

  • Create credential to address digital divide issues
  • Take precautions to prevent tragedy of the commons

Open Technology Institute Report Offers Overview of Public Broadband Options

Publication Date: 
May 6, 2014
Author(s): 
Ben Lennett, Open Technology Institute
Author(s): 
Patrick Lucey, Open Technology Institute
Author(s): 
Joanne Hovis, CTC Technology and Energy

The Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, along with ctc Technology and Energy, have released an overview of options for local governments that want to improve Internet access. The report is titled, "The Art of the Possible: An Overview of Public Broadband Options."

The paper has been released at an opportune time, more communities are now considering what investments they can make at the local level than ever. The Art of the Possible offers different models, from muni ownership and partnerships to coops. The paper examines different business models and assesses the risk of various approaches.

It also includes a technical section for the non-technical to explain the differences between different types of broadband technology.

From the introduction:

The one thing communities cannot do is sit on the sidelines. Even the process of evaluating whether a public network is appropriate can be beneficial to community leaders as a means to better understand the communications needs of their residents, businesses, and institutions and whether existing services and networks are keeping pace.

The purpose of this report is to enable communities to begin the evaluation of their broadband options. The report begins with an overview of different network ownership and governance models, followed by an overview of broadband technologies to help potential stakeholders understand the advantages and disadvantages of each technology. It then provides a brief summary of several different business models for publicly owned networks. The final two chapters focus on the potential larger local benefits and the risks of a publicly funded broadband project.