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FCC Releases Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress

Section 702 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to report annually on whether "advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." The FCC kicked off its tenth such report on Tuesday by releasing a "Notice of Inquiry," (NOI) in effect asking individuals and groups around the country to offer relevant data and comments. 

This process amounts to a kind of crowdsourced "State of the Union" on broadband issues. In addition to determining how many people in what areas have broadband access, this NOI also asks the critical question of how exactly the FCC should define broadband. The current definition of 4mbps download capacity and 1mbps upload may have been sufficient in the past, but isn't adequate for even recreational household use by many Americans today, let alone the demands of running a business and conducting commerce online.

This NOI also asks some arcane but important questions about other aspects of broadband definitions, including latency (the speed of data moving within a network, a different measure than bandwidth) and the widespread use of data caps and other policies in the telecom industry. 

Obviously the answers to all these questions have significant implications for municipal networks. Inadequate or overly-loose definitions of broadband allow incumbents to claim that they are providing excellent service to just about everyone in a given area, when that is often far from the truth. Many restrictive state laws limiting municipal networks, as well as federal grant programs that may support such networks, are based on whether an area is defined as already served or underserved, which may be dependent on FCC benchmarks. As is often the case in regulatory issues, the devil is in the details.  

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler introduced the NOI with the following statement:

Congress has instructed us that all Americans should have access to robust broadband services, no matter where they live. Because consumers demand increasing levels of bandwidth capacity to support the applications they want to use online, we are asking if it is time to update the benchmark broadband speed. And as more people adopt faster broadband speeds, we are asking if all consumers, even in the most rural regions, should have greater access to better broadband. 

We here at ILSR believe the answer to both questions is a resounding "YES." The due date for initial comments is September 4th, and ILSR intends to make its voice heard.

Understanding the Wilson and Chattanooga FCC Petitions - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 110

Given the exciting development of the FCC opening comment on petitions from Wilson, NC and Chattanooga, TN to restore local authority to their states, Lisa and I decided to take over this week's podcast of Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about the petitions, some background, and interview Will Aycock from Wilson's Greenlight Gigabit Network and Danna Bailey from Chattanooga's EPB Fiber network.

We finish with some instructions on how you can comment on the record. The Coalition for Local Internet Choice also has commenting instructions and some sample comments.

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 22 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

ILSR Submits Comments to FCC on Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently submitted comments to the FCC as part of its Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet proceeding. ILSR focused on the issue of paid prioritization, reclassification, and regulation of content. We also provided some examples of municipal networks that provide fast, reliable, affordable service and do not rely on paid prioritization to serve customers.

From the ILSR comments:

The FCC should be extremely wary of any arguments that claim paid prioritization or other discriminatory practices are necessary to increase investment in next-generation networks. These networks are already being built and paying for themselves in both public and private approaches (as well as partnerships mixing the two). ILSR sees no reason to believe any additional revenues gained by discriminatory pricing would be reinvested in improving DSL and cable networks as the largest firms operating these networks generally face little competitive pressure to upgrade. That is the problem, not a lack of revenue in the current model.

Our reading of the various court decisions suggest the only option for the FCC to preserve the open Internet and prevent big cable and telephone companies from tinkering with the established principle of non-discriminatory carriage is reclassification and urge the FCC to take this step. However, we also urge the FCC to take actions to prevent any regulation of content. The FCC should concern itself with the transmission of information, regardless of what that information is, consistent with long-held Internet principles.

The Open Internet proceeding has inspired an estimated 1 million+ comments. The outpouring strained the FCC's system and as a result, the FCC extended the comment period to July 18th.

The full document is available below for download and available on the FCC's electronic filing system.

The FCC Is Our Best Shot to Restore Local Authority

For the first time in many years, we have an opportunity to repeal some particularly destructive state laws limiting investment in community networks. To be clear, this is our best shot. I've already covered the background and offered a blanket encouragement for you to post comments.

Chairman Wheeler has been looking for an opportunity to expand local authority by removing state laws that limit investment in Internet networks. The cable and telephone companies are marshalling their considerable forces to stop him. But we can, and must help.

We have spent years analyzing these state barriers for ways to restore local authority. The FCC, using its Section 706 power, is our best shot. The carriers have far too much power in the state capitals, which means that even when we have public opinion squarely on our side, the carriers easily kill state bills to restore local authority.

Anyone who thinks we have a better shot at rolling back state barriers individually in the states rather than with this FCC is wrong. Really wrong. Between Art Pope and Time Warner Cable lobbyists, there is no hope for any legislation that would threaten cable monopolies in North Carolina.

These petitions on municipal networks are not some FCC smokescreen related to the network neutrality proceeding. In fact, we at ILSR remain publicly frustrated with the FCC's failure to act more strongly in protecting the open Internet. But Chairman Wheeler, for reasons that seem somewhat personal to him, is particularly motivated to remove the anti-competitive laws passed by big cable and telephone company lobbyists. It strikes a chord with him and I, for one, am glad to see him taking action on it.

Anyone who claims action on municipal networks is some sort of trade for giving up on network neutrality is, once again, really wrong. For one thing, a trade requires two parties and I have yet to identify a single entity that would trade meaningful open Internet protections for rolling back a few barriers to municipal networks. Haven't found one. Not even us.

Further, restoring local authority on municipal networks is not a trade for the FCC later preempting local authority over the rights-of-way because once again, no one is ready to take that deal. Advocates of local decision-making authority tend to oppose preemption as a matter of course.

In the case of the current FCC proceedings, it must be noted that the FCC is actually being asked to preempt preemption, which is to say the principle remains that local authority should be respected. The FCC will remove state restrictions on local authority; no community will be required to take action it prefers not to.

This is a key opportunity. The FCC's Section 706 Authority allows it to remove barriers investment. No one is talking about creating new regulations.

For those still skeptical about these petitions, let me suggest this: If this is all some elaborate game of 3D chess masterminded by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, let's call him on it. Let's assemble a great record of how local governments can increase investment in next-generation services and states should not revoke their authority to decide for themselves how to invest or partner to improve and expand Internet access. In the worst case scenario, we will have compiled a great case for our position.

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice has posted instructions on how to file. File anytime between now and August 29. We are still working on a resource with recommendations and such for MuniNetworks.org and will publish them soon.

Chattanooga Will Ask FCC to Preempt State Barriers in Tennessee

Since January, when the DC Circuit Court of Appeals suggested the FCC has the authority to preempt state anti-muni laws, local communities have publicly supported the notion. Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (EPB) will join those communities when it petitions the FCC to preempt similar laws in Tennessee, reports The Center for Public Integrity.

Danna Bailey, vice president of corporate communication at EPB recently told The Center:

“We continue to receive requests for broadband service from nearby communities to serve them,” Bailey said. “We believe cities and counties should have the right to choose the infrastructure they need to support their economies.”

Chattanooga, one of the publicly owned networks that have inspired FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, has proved itself as a strong economic development tool. According to the article:

A day after his meeting with Berke, Wheeler wrote in his blog, “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to pre-empt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.”

A number of other communities with municipal networks, or in the process of deploying them, have passed Resolutions that support the FCC:

In addition to communities with firsthand experience, the American Public Power Association (APPA) also passed a Resolution in June, urging Congress, the FCC, and the Obama Administration to unequivocally support:

…the ability of local governments, including public power utilities, to provide advanced communications services that meet essential community needs and promote economic development and regional and global competitiveness. 

The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a similar Resolution at its annual meeting in June, which read:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Soon after, a coalition from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) joined together for a letter of support to Chairman Wheeler:

The importance of Internet choice at the local level has never been more important. In many places in the U.S, locally-driven projects—including innovative partnerships with private sector companies—have demonstrated that local creativity and local authority is a viable means by which new next-generation broadband infrastructure can emerge.

Fortunately, support is also coming from DC. In late June, a collection of Senate and House Members penned a letter to Chairman Wheeler, asking him to take action and begin the process. In a statement fully supported by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Members wrote:

Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Local communities, regional coalitions, and federal leadership all recognize the importance of local Internet choice. The country is ready for the next step, Chairman Wheeler. We support you!

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.

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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.

Local Government Groups: "We Need Local Authority"

As the FCC considers the role of local authority in expanding Internet access, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is hearing from coalitions opposing state barriers on municipal networks. On July 3, Executive Directors from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) sent Wheeler a joint letter of support [pdf].

From the letter:

The diversity of cities and counties in America also reflect differing values and needs. As such, Local governments should have the flexibility to address broadband and Internet access in a way that meets the needs of the people they serve.

The importance of Internet choice at the local level has never been more important. In many places in the U.S, locally-driven projects—including innovative partnerships with private sector companies—have demonstrated that local creativity and local authority is a viable means by which new next-generation broadband infrastructure can emerge.

The letter was close on the heels of a parallel Resolution passed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) at their June 22nd Annual Meeting. From the final Resolution:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

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.

Senators and Representatives Back FCC Move to Restore Local Authority

Citing the importance of Internet access to economic development, a number of Congressional Democrats are calling on FCC Chairman Wheeler to make good on his intention to remove barriers to community owned networks. Senator Edward Markey is the lead from the Senate and Representative Doyle in the House. And this Minnesotan takes pride in seeing both Senators Franken and Klobuchar signed on.

The letter [pdf] makes a strong case for local decision-making:

[L]ocal communities should have the opportunity to decide for themselves how to invest in their own infrastructure, including the options of working with willing incumbent carriers, creating incentives for private sector development, entering into creative public-private partnerships, or even building their own networks, if necessary or appropriate.

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Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Signing the letter included Senators Edward Markey, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, and Cory Booker as well as Representatives Mike Doyle, Henry Waxman, and Anna Eshoo. We thank each of them for standing up for local authority.

Yesterday, we gave a brief update of what has happened thus far on this issue. This is a very important moment, as so many communities have recognized that at the very minimum, they need a plan for getting next-generation networks.

Cable and DSL simply aren't good enough to compete in the modern economy but the big carriers have enough clout in state capitals to push laws limiting competition and enough power in DC to feel confident in their anti-consumer mergers. Given this dynamic, communities are smart to examine whether local investments will reduce their dependency on distant carriers with different interests - but they cannot do that where state law restricts local authority.

Given that the letter asks Chairman Wheeler to respond with a plan for restoring local authority, we should soon learn what the next steps will be in our efforts to ensure communities have all options on the table for improving Internet access to their businesses and residents.

U.S. Conference of Mayors Passes Resolution to End State Barriers

On June 22, Mayors from around the country gathered at the U.S. Conference of Mayors 82nd Annual Meeting. Members of the Standing Committee on Transportation and Communications voted to combine Resolution #115 "Net Neutrality" and #114 "Preserving a Free and Open Internet."

Resolution #115 was of particular interest to community broadband advocates because it called on the FCC to preempt state laws erecting barriers to local authority.

The final product, officially approved by the USCM, retained the language supporting Chairman Wheeler's intention to help smooth the road for publicly owned networks:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Resolution #115 was introduced by Mayor Paul Slogin of Madison, Wisconsin.