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FCC to Investigate Barriers to Community Networks

We are supportive of the announcement today from the Federal Communications Commission. We salute the FCC for beginning to examine how state level barriers against municipal networks deter investment in the networks both communities and the nation desperately need.

From the statement:

The Commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition. One obvious candidate for close examination was raised in Judge Silberman’s separate opinion, namely legal restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities.

The FCC has a history of encouraging states not to pass such laws (Commissioner Clyburn, previous FCC Chair, former Commissioner Copps) and the National Broadband Plan made recommendation 8.19: "Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks."

Even if communities choose not to build their own networks, having that capacity changes the dynamic of the big cable and telephone companies - something Franklin D. Roosevelt described as the "birch rod" in the cupboard (regarding municipal electricity):

But on the other hand the very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population. I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a "birch rod" in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the "child" gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.

With the recent network neutrality decision from the Circuit Court, the FCC has a very clear path to ensure all local governments can decide locally whether such an investment is wise, rather than being preempted by a state legislature that may have been misled by powerful lobbyists.

We are calling on our readers, local governments, and all concerned citizens to applaud the FCC decision to examine these barriers. One thing you can do to help is to reach out to Senators and your representatives in DC. Make sure they know you support a local decision-making process rather than one-size-fits-all rules dictated by those in the capital.

If you want more background on Section 706 and municipal networks, listen to our recent podcast interview with Harold Feld.

We are also cheered by the continued stated committment of the FCC to preserving the open Internet and hope this process will achieve that end. We continue to believe that properly classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service and appropriate forbearance for unnecessary regulations is the best approach for safeguarding the Internet. However, we recognize the intense pressure by some of the most powerful corporations in DC not to take that route. Our work is cut out to ensure there are no loopholes that would damage the Internet.

Susan Crawford on National Public Radio

"Unless somebody in the system has industrial policy in mind, a long-term picture of where the United States needs to be and has the political power to act on it, we'll be a Third World country when it comes to communications."

Susan Crawford recently spoke with Dave Davies on NPR's FreshAir. During the conversation Crawford touches on a variety of interrelated topics that affect telecommunications in the U.S. The interview is worth a listen; Crawford and Davies discuss her book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, and get into U.S. telecommunications policy.

Crawford discusses the recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision on network neutrality. Davies and Crawford also tackle the inteplay between the court decision and role of government in bringing access to more people:

I think the problem is actually much more profound than mere discrimination by a few cable actors when it comes to high-speed Internet access. We seem to currently assume that communications access it a luxury, something that should be left entirely to the private market, unconstrained by any form of oversight.

The problem is, that's just not true in the modern era. You can't get a job, you can't get access to adequate healthcare, you can't educate your children, we can't keep up with other countries in the developed world without having very high capacity, very high-speed access for everybody in the country. And the only way you get there is through government involvement in this market.

That's how we did it for the telephone. That's how we did it for the federal highway system. And we seem to have forgotten that when it comes to these utility basic services, we can't create a level playing field for all Americans or indeed compete on the world stage without having some form of government involvement.

You can listen to the 38 minute interview and read the transcript at the NPR website.

A Roadmap for the FCC To Ensure Local Authority to Build Networks - Community Broadband Podcast #84

When the DC Circuit Court handed down a decision ruling against the FCC's Open Internet (network neutrality) rules, it also clarified that the FCC has the power to overrule state laws that limit local authority to build community networks. Harold Feld, Senior Vice President for Public Knowledge, joins us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #84 to explain the decision.

Harold exlains what Section 706 authority is and how all the DC Circuit judges on the case felt that the FCC, at a minimum, has the authority to strike down laws that delay or prohibit the expansion of broadband infrastrcturue.

We then discuss how the FCC can go about striking down such laws to reestablish local authority - a community in a state like North Carolina could file a petition with the FCC for action or the FCC could decide to take action itself. Either way, it will have to build a record that laws revoking local authority to build networks are harmful to expanding this essential infrastructure.

Finally, some of this power filters down to state public utility commissions, but just how much is unclear at present.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Danger of "Sponsored Data" via AT&T, Others

AT&T has announced a program that has put many of us on edge - "Sponsored Data." As an example, I may have a 500 MB cap on my monthly AT&T plan, but Facebook could pay AT&T so that its content does not count against my cap. Both Free Press and Public Knowledge have taken strong stands against the program, arguing that the FCC should not allow it. And the L.A. Times explains that it won't save consumers any money.

But those who defend the program argue that it is nothing more than a modern day 1-800 number, where the other party pays for the call. I find the argument unpersuasive.

For decades, 800 numbers were a fraction of calls made. Most phone calls have been local in nature, so even if 800 numbers were a substantial amount of long distance calls, it didn't really impact how we used our phones. By contrast, here AT&T will be targeting the most common applications on the Internet, further centralizing power among those with deep pockets to build a moat around their services and hamper innovation.

Additionally, we had unlimited local calling in combination with tolled long distance. If all calls were tolled individually, the 800 number would be a more appropriate comparison. All data counts against the monthly cap except for companies that pay to exempt their data. So if you have a choice between two video streaming services, which would you pick? The one that runs up your AT&T bill more or the one that doesn't?

Finally, with this "pay to play" program, the big wireless carriers have a strong incentive to keep data caps low because if companies like Facebook, Google, and others are willing to pick up the tab.

The whole approach may harm innovation in ways that were spelled out quite well on AVC:

Entrepreneur: I plan to launch a better streaming music service. It leverages the data on what you and your friends currently listen to, combines that with the schedule of new music launches and acts that are touring in your city in the coming months and creates playlists of music that you should be listening to in order to find new acts to listen to and go see live.

VC: Well since Spotify, Beats, and Apple have paid all the telcos so that their services are free on the mobile networks, we are concerned that new music services like yours will have a hard time getting new users to use them because the data plan is so expensive. We like you and the idea very much, but we are going to have to pass.

This isn't the make-believe world of Chicago economists. It is a world where making it big means finding investors - and investors rarely want to go after massive corporations with moats around their products. This is the same reason investors rarely see any prospect of making a quick buck by competing against Comcast.

Network Neutrality Decision and Importance of Community Owned Networks

In a decision announced a few hours ago, the DC Circuit of Appeals has largely ruled against the Open Internet, or network neutrality. These are rules established by the Federal Communications Commission to prevent massive ISPs like Comcast and AT&T from degrading or blocking access to certain sites on the Internet. Decision here [pdf].

The goal is to prevent these big firms from being able to discriminate - to pick winners and losers. For instance, Comcast could charge subscribers an extra $10 per month to access Netflix while not charging to visit similar sites that it owns. The rules were intended to prevent that.

However, the FCC has a history of decisions that have benefited big telecom corporations more than citizens and local businesses. Those decisions limited how it can protect the public interest on matters of Internet access.

This court decision decided that the way the FCC was attempting to enforce network neutrality was not allowed because of how it has decided to (de)regulate the Internet generally. In essence, the FCC said that it didn't want to regulate the Internet except for the ways it wanted to regulate the Internet. And the Court said, somewhat predictably, that approach was too arbitrary. Moving forward, the FCC has the power to enforce this regulation, but it will have to change the way the Internet is "classified," in FCC lingo - which means changing those historic decisions that benefited the big corporations.

Groups like Free Press are pushing to make this change because it will ensure the FCC has the authority it needs to ensure everyone has access to the open Internet.

The lesson for us is that communities cannot trust Washington, DC, to ensure that residents and local businesses have universal, fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. Communities should be investing in themselves to build networks that are accountable to the public and will not engage in anti-consumer practices merely to maximize their profits. Such behavior is inappropriate on matters of essential infrastructure.

Even if the FCC now gets this right and protects the public interest, that may last only as long as this FCC is in power. Communities that trust the FCC to protect them in this matter of incredible importance to their local economy may find that with a new administration, companies like Comcast have a free hand to again insert themselves as a tollbooth between subscribers and the Internet.

As a final word, this is nothing new. In putting together the Standard Oil monopoly, Rockefeller knew the value of cutting special deals with the railroads to benefit his firm at the expense of any potential competitor. When the Schuylkill Canal was built in Pennsylvania, the state decreed that the canal owner could not have an interest in mining, because the ownership of the canal meant it could disadvantage any competitors that needed to use it to ship their materials.

Network neutrality is a common sense regulation so long as we have to deal with monopolies like Comcast - we cannot stand to let Comcast or any other firm impose itself as a gatekeeper between us and anyone with whom we want to communicate or do business.

Addendum: Thanks to Harold Feld for noting that the opinion reinforced the FCC's Section 706 authority, which we believe could be used by the FCC to strike down state laws that limit local authority to build networks:

As we explain in this opinion, the Commission has established that section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 vests it with affirmative authority to enact measures encouraging the deployment of broadband infrastructure.

Read our further coverage of how this decision impacts muni networks.

Crawford Explains Network Neutrality on 99% Invisible

The show was published over a year ago, but it holds up as a good explanation for both network neutrality and the danger of Comcast and other massive cable companies becoming too powerful. The popular podcast 99% Invisible interviewed Susan Crawford on the subject last November.

It is worth listening to and keeping as a reference for those who do not understand the threat. That said, I think the show oversimplifies the dynamic of high speed access -- the big phone companies are not totally irrelevant, just mostly irrelevant when it comes to delivering faster, more reliable services. And this is not technological determinism so much as poor management choices and the pressure Wall Street puts on firms to harvest profits rather than investing for the future.

Common Cause, Network Neutrality, and the FCC Come Together in Episode 73 of Community Broadband Bits Podcast

We welcome Todd O'Boyle of the good government group Common Cause to our Community Broadband Bits podcast this week. He is the Director of the Media and Democracy program there, which recently released an explanation of network neutrality in comic form, which we discuss in our discussion.

We also talk about the impression of municipal networks in Washington, DC, and what the FCC can do about mandating meaningful disclosure of political ads without any action from Congress. These are all issues that impact whether government is responsive to local needs or to a few powerful interests.

Todd and I previously collaborated on two case studies related to his hometown, Wilson in North Carolina. We wrote a case study of that municipal fiber network and The Empire Lobbies Back regarding Time Warner Cable's response to that successful fiber network.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Mudhoney for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Common Cause Network Neutrality Comic

We have reported on network neutrality many times in the past. This has been a policy debate on whether Internet service providers should be able to prioritize some content at the expense of others - should Comcast be able to charge me more to visit Fox News than it does to reach MSNBC? Should it be able to make YouTube videos very slow to load and unreliable unless I pay a special fee to access that site? This is the question of network neutrality.

Common Cause just released a "comic book" that takes a look at the concept, the political influences, and the consequences we may face if we lose network neutrality. "Big Deal, Big Money" also provides some options for action.

A short snippet:

comic-network-neutrality.jpg

Read Big Deal, Big Money here.

War for the Web Documentary Halfway Through Production

War for the Web is halfway through production and just launched a new trailer featuring some of the interviews they have already captured:

They have launched an indiegogo campaign to raise the necessary funds to finish it and are looking for support!