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History of the Quickly Subverted 1996 Telecommunications Act - Community Broadband Bits Episode 89

If all had gone according to the plan behind the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we would have lots of competition among Internet service providers, not just cable and DSL but other technologies as well. Alas, the competing technologies never really appeared and various incarnations of the FCC effectively gutted the common carriage requirements at the heart of the Act.

Earl Comstock joins us today to explain what they had in mind when they spent years developing the goals and text of the Act. A staffer to Senator Stevens - and yes, we discuss the legacy of Senator "series of tubes" Stevens and you might be surprised when you learn more about him - Earl helped to craft the Act and then had to watch as the FCC and Courts misinterpreted it.

At the heart of our conversation is what they believed would be necessary to achieve the goals of expanding access to telecommunications service to all.

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 30 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Big Incumbents At It Again In Kentucky; Mimi Pickering in the Richmond Register

Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.

Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.

In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:

It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.

Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.

The bill appeared to be on the fast track to passage, breezing through the Senate Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism Committee only ten days after being introduced. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, AARP, the Kentucky Resources Council, and several smaller cable and Internet service providers expressed opposition to the bill:

"We are not giving up our land lines. We want to hang onto them even as we get our cellphones because we think the land lines are more dependable," said Jim Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky.

...

Smaller cable companies and Internet providers told senators they worry the bill lacks language to protect them from unfair competitive tactics by AT&T once it's freed of even more PSC regulation, following earlier phone deregulation measures that passed in 2004 and 2006.

Pickering knows quick passage is dangerous. From her opinion piece:

How is this good for Kentucky? There is no good reason for the General Assembly to rush thorough the AT&T-backed legislation and surrender the rights and protections guaranteed to us under our long-standing communications laws.

SB 99 is bad news and big trouble for all of us, unless of course you are one of these telecommunication giants.

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.

Webinar on IP Transition from Public Knowledge and Center for Media Justice

Public Knowledge and the Center for Media Justice have an eye on the transition from traditional copper landline telephone service to Internet-protocol services. As we move forward, both organizations continue to educate citizens on telecommunications policy and how it can affect us.

On December 12, at 2:00 p.m. EST, both groups will collaborate for a webinar on the transition. What's the Hang Up: A Webinar to Understand the Phone Network Transition and Defend Your Communication Rights, will offer info on the transition and will introduce participants to the "What's the Hang Up" toolkit, designed to help consumers get involved as we move forward. Presenters will be Stephani Chen, Amina Fazlullah, and Sean Meloy.

From the webinar announcement:

The largest telephone companies in the U.S. have announced they want to upgrade the technology that delivers phone service to an all internet-protocol (IP) based telephone network.  The telephone has made universal communications possible keeping families connected, becoming a lifeline in times of crisis, and an economic engine for small businesses.

In order for our communities to continue to experience the benefits of the telephone, we must get involved.  Over the coming months the Federal Communications Commission and other government agencies will be considering how to roll out this transition.

You can register online for the presentation. For some great information on the transition, listen to Chris interview Harold Feld from Public Knowledge in episode #52 of the Broadband Bits podcast.

New Free Press Infographic: Stop the Corporate Cyclops From Gobbling Up Local Media

When we think of the enormous cyclops we don't usually imagine him in a suit and tie but the Free Press does and it works. In their recent Media Giants infographic, the Free Press uses the hulking one-eyed beast to represent corporate behemoths slowly taking control of our media through smaller shell companies.

As media power is consolidated, every one else's voices fade. We all become like the one-eyed cyclops: seeing things through his limited vision. The Free Press sums it up like this:

Media companies are using shady tactics to dodge the Federal Communications Commission’s ownership rules and snap up local TV stations across the U.S.

Gannett, Nexstar, Sinclair and Tribune are on major buying sprees. To grow their empires, these corporations are using shell companies to evade federal caps on how many stations one company can own. And so far the FCC has done nothing to stop this trend.

In some communities, one company owns two, three and even four local TV stations — and airs the same news programming on all of these outlets. The result: An echo chamber where all the news looks and sounds the same.

Take action now through the Free Press' campaign or contact your elected officials directly.

Crap Cable Threatens Cloud Services

For my money, the best headline of last week was "The U.S.'s crap infrastructure threatens the cloud." The rant goes on to explain just how crummy our access to the Internet is.

As a patriotic American, I find the current political atmosphere where telecom lobbyists set the agenda to be a nightmare. All over the world, high-end fiber is being deployed while powerful monopolies in the United States work to prevent it from coming here. Some of those monopolies are even drafting "model legislation" to protect themselves from both community broadband and commercial competition.

He nails a number of important points, including the absurdity of allowing de facto monopolies to write the legislation that governs them. However, Andew Oliver's article is a bit muddled on the issue of "monopoly." I have argued with several people that the term "monopoly" has historically meant firms with large market power, not the more stringent definition of "the only seller" of a good. It is not clear how Oliver is using the term.

Because of this confusion, you can come away from his piece with the firm idea that it is primarily government's fault we have a duopoly of crap DSL and less crappy cable. He repeatedly says "state-sponsored monopolies." However, no local or state government may offer exclusive franchises for cable or telecom services and the federal government hasn't officially backed monopolies for decades.

This is a key point that many still fail to understand - a majority seem to believe that local governments bless monopolies when local governments actually are desperate for more choices. This is why they fall all over themselves to beg Google to invest in their community or they build they own networks (over 400 communities have wired telecom networks that offer services to some local businesses and/or residents).

Poor laws and regulations have helped the massive cable and telephone companies to maintain their status - that is why they spend so much on lobbying and political contributions at all levels of government. They want to and have successfully corrupted the process, neutralizing the power of government to protect consumer interests and prevent a few firms from dominating the market.

wall-street.jpg

What is missing from the conversation is Wall Street's role. Wall Street abhors competition, particularly for something as essential as Internet access because rigorous competition drives down profit margins. Wall Street puts a massive premium on consolidation and preventing competition. It wants a few firms to control this market so they can regularly increase fees and increase shareholder value (at the expense of the rest of our economy).

It isn't JUST federal and state government policy that is rewarding the duopoly, there are a host of reinforcing factors. And while government did indeed establish monopoly for the phone system 100 years ago, it resulted in a fantastic universal service network - so those who might argue a government sanctioned monopoly was never a good idea have a high burden to prove it.

As to how we have moved from a monopoly service model to having choices... well, lobbyists have been paid a lot specifically to mangle that process to benefit a few corporations. Our government has been corrupted and we have to live with the effects every day. But even without government, we would almost certainly we stuck with a monopoly, perhaps even worse as we would lack the few consumer protections we still have.

I was heartened to see the Obama Administration block the AT&T - T-Mobile merger as it suggests that there is a spark of hope for antitrust rules to prevent further consolidation. Stopping consolidation is the first step to having real choices because massive corporations amass not just economy of scale advantages over rivals, but find it much easier to influence the rules in their favor and to disadvantage competitors.

Returning to a fact from Oliver's article, he pays $1500/month for 30 Mbps symmetrical fiber. If he lived in Monticello, he would pay $100/month for that business connection. Community owned fiber is not merely about the technology, it includes numerous other benefits including radically lower prices that help local businesses to succeed.

Photo courtesy of JSquish via Wikipedia Commons

Jim Baller Discusses Municipal Broadband History - Community Broadband Bits Episode #57

Jim Baller has been helping local governments to build community owned networks for as long as they have been building them. He is the President of and Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group in Washington, DC. Jim joins us for Episode #57 of the Community Broadband Bits[/glossary] podcast to discuss some of the history of community owned networks.

Jim has a wealth of experience and helped in many of the most notable legal battles, including Bristol Virginia Utilities and Lafayette.

We start by noting some of the motivations of municipal electric utilities and how they were originally formed starting in the late 19th century. But we spend the bulk of our time in this show focusing on legal fights in the 90's and early 2000's over whether states could preempt local authority to build networks.

In our next interview with Jim, we'll pick up where we left off. If you have any specific thoughts or questions we should cover when we come back to this historical topic, leave them in the comments below or email us.

You can learn more about Jim Baller on his website at Baller.com.

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 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Verizon Caught Forcing Customers to Take Voice Link Service Across New York

The war over keeping copper alive rages on in New York with more stealthy antics from Verizon. Stop the Cap! now reports that, rather than wait for a hurricane to take out the copper lines in the Catskills, it will quietly shift seasonal home owners to VoiceLink as they request reconnection. Stop the Cap! also published a letter [PDF] from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) who allege Verizon has also been installing VoiceLink in the City.

We recently visited this drama with Harold Feld from Public Knowledge on Broadband Bits podcast #52. He and Christopher discussed the issue as it applies to Fire Island in New York and Barrier Island in New Jersey. Verizon has permission from the New York Public Services Commission (NYPSC) to use the VoiceLink product in place of copper wires on a temporary basis as a way to get service to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Seven months is a long time to go without phone service.

Our readers know that VoiceLink short changes users, especially those that rely on phone connections for Life Alert, want to use phone cards, or want the security of reliable 911 service. Feld also noted in his Tales from the Sausage Factory blog, that Verizon was rumored to be making secret plans to expand VoiceLink well beyond the islands, regardless of the limitations of the NYPSC order. 

It appears the rumors were true and only scratch the surface. The letter from CWA District 1 President, Chris Shelton, to the NYPSC relates how members engaged in work for Verizon were trained to install VoiceLink and that the company installed the product in a variety of locations in New York City. One location was a residential building in Manhattan. Reportedly, when elderly residents discovered it would not support Life Alert, they resisted. Verizon counters that it offered VoiceLink as a temporary substitute without charge to the residents, not that it attempted to force the product on residents as CWA alleges [PDF of Verizon's Letter]. According to Verizon, the residents' copper connections were up and running again in June. CWA goes on to allege that Verizon continues to shift staff from copper related positions to installing VoiceLink in Buffalo and Watertown [PDF of Shelton's letter].

CWA Logo

Customers from the Catskills described their experience to Stop the Cap!:

“I got transferred twice and finally ended up talking to someone pushing something called Voice Link.”

...

“I called them back and told them they must be mistaken because I don’t own property on Fire Island and they told me it was no mistake and that they were preparing to distribute Voice Link all across the area and I was lucky to be among the first before they ran out,” the customer tells us.

From another customer:

“When I called to get my dial tone back, Verizon transferred me to a special repair representative who wanted to install Voice Link instead,” he tells us. “It was explained I would be better off with Voice Link and would get more calling features for less money and get national calling, free voicemail, and all of these other extras.”

The customer tried to turn the offer down, but Verizon made it difficult to refuse.

“You really had to argue with them and say no at least a dozen times,” our reader tells us. “The reason I said no is that I tried that same type of service from Verizon Wireless and it sucked. I raised my voice and they finally agreed to reconnect my phone.”

AARP recently expressed its displeasure at Verizon's shenanigans. Wireless Week reprinted parts of their statement [Google Docs]:

AARP Logo

State director for AARP in New York Beth Finkel said in a statement, "Under the cover of Sandy, this push by Verizon could well work towards advancing the company's corporate strategy of steering customers towards more expensive services, but that doesn't match up to protecting the needs and interests of consumers."

AARP’s primary concerns over the switch to Voice Link include compatibility issues with Life Alert and security systems, the possibility of premature and widespread abandonment of wireline services, limitation of Internet service options for Voice Link customers and the end of access to services like collect calling and “0” dial-in access for operators.

Verizon responded by accusing AARP for "crying wolf" and extolled the virtues of VoiceLink. Wireless Week also reports:

[Verizon spokesman John] Bonomo said that Verizon will maintain the copper network where it makes customer service and business sense to do so, adding that the vast majority of Verizon copper customers have no issues at all with their service. 

The complaints and the first CWA letter prompted New York's Attorney General to file an Emergency Petition with the NYPSC. The AG asked the NYPSC to stop Verizon from any more illegal installations and for sanctions:

Unlike Fire Island, wireline network damage from Superstorm Sandy cannot be used as an excuse for substituting Voice Link for wireline service in the Catskills, where the storm had limited impact. Instead, it appears that in the Catskills, Verizon has chosen to pursue the company’s business strategy in blatant disregard for the Commission’s Order.

The Commission’s May 16 Order could not have been clearer in limiting Verizon’s substitution of Voice Link for wire line service to western Fire Island, to enable evaluation of this unproven technology on a pilot basis.

Verizon’s provision of Voice Link outside the confines of western Fire Island is illegal, and its open defiance of the Commission’s May 16 Order must be met with effective sanctions.

NY Public Service Commission Logo

On July 9th, the PSC decided to extend the comment period to September 13. So far, the agency has received over 400 public comments.

Fortunately, New York is not one of the growing number of states to deregulate phone systems so the NYPSC still has authority to act. As Feld notes on his blog:

If New York eliminated its COLR regulations, as a bunch of other states have done, then Verizon would not need to provide service at all. You would take Voice Link and be grateful for it — peasant. As it stands, New York has a Public Service Commission that can investigate and decide based on local evidence and local factors whether anything needs to be done. For example, even if the NY PSC decides Verizon did not violate the terms of its tariff, it might want to provide some guidelines to make sure that these disputes about what kind of sales tactics are permissible do not come up again.

Whatever path New York chooses, other states will be watching. While many have relinquished their ability to act for their own citizens, states that still possess the power to regulate wireline service, and by extension the IP transition, need to take note. Verizon is choosing its business model over the well-being of its customers and not afraid to step on legislative toes to do it. 

IP Transition Catches Fire Island - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode #52

We welcome Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge back to the show to discuss the latest update in the so-called IP Transition. Back in episode 32, Harold explained the five fundamental protections needed for our telecommunications system.

Today he returns to discuss the ways in which some of the islands devastated by Sandy are being turned into Verizon experiments as Verizon refuses to rebuild the copper phone number or upgrade to fiber; instead Verizon is installing an inadequate substitute, as we covered in this story.

Harold explains why this turn of events in New York and New Jersey is an important harbinger for the rest of us and why states should not premarturely deregulate important consumer protections like carrier of last resort and public utility commission oversight.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.