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Remembering David Carr, and His Writing on Monopoly Power

Stacy Mitchell, Co-Director of ILSR and Director of the Community-Scaled Economy Initiative, took a few moments to look back over the work of David Carr. Carr's work included investigating monopolies in the telecommunications space. Stacy's story, re-posted here, originally ran on ILSR.org.

What will we do without David Carr, the brilliant media columnist at the New York Times who died last week? At ILSR, we will especially miss his writing on monopoly power, Amazon, and the book business. Below we’ve excerpted and linked to a few of his best recent pieces on those subjects.

In Modern Media Realm, Big Mergers Are a Bulwark Against Rivals — July 16, 2014

Comcast’s bold strategy of acquisition kicked off a wave of defensive consolidation, fueled by a combination of fear and abundant capital in the media realm.

I talked to the head of one company that creates television and movies, who expressed a common sentiment. “When Comcast decided to get bigger,” he said, “we all had to ask ourselves, Are we big enough? We all have to think about getting bigger.”

And why not? No one is stopping them.

With big data, a Big Brother government and now big media, size creates its own prerogatives. When Amazon used its market dominance to limit access to Hachette books over a price dispute, regulators yawned. When AT&T and DirecTV propose a tie-up in response to Comcast, the market issues are just another deal point. Cable companies slowed down content from clients (which are also competitors) like Netflix, and it was treated as a business dispute.

For the most part, the current government has passed on regulating potential monopolies, and as citizens, we have become inured to the consequences of bigness.


Amazon Absorbing Price Fight Punches — June 1, 2014

Someone forgot to tell the book business that it was dead. Last Thursday afternoon, I walked over to the Javits Center in Manhattan, where a throng of people had gathered for BookExpo America, the industry’s annual campfire — so many people that I wondered if there was a free whiskey concession…

The immense space was brimming with a surprising amount of optimism: After years of downward spiral, the industry seems to have found some kind of equilibrium.

It has also watched with a mix of giddiness and anxiety as the Hachette Book Group, one of the big Manhattan publishers, has taken on Amazon in a bitter dispute over pricing. Hachette is suffering big losses because Amazon is delaying delivery of Hachette titles while also eliminating discounts. (Its authors are getting clobbered in the process.) Amazon is taking a reputational hit for not putting its customers first, which has long been its guiding philosophy.

Hachette is the first big publisher to enter talks with Amazon since the last round of negotiations, and book people have rejoiced watching the bully get sand — a heap of negative press — kicked in his face.

Amazon, beloved by Wall Street (until recently) and its customers for putting growth and low prices ahead of profits, is getting a bit of an image makeover right now, and the results have not been pretty.

On one level, this is just one corporate giant fighting with another — Hachette is owned by Lagardère of France — over the share of e-book profits. So why the fuss? The answer is that books are different from the thousands of other products Amazon sells.

As the uproar grows, Amazon is learning that while it may own the publishing industry with a 40 percent market share of all new books sold, according to Publishers Weekly, it doesn’t own the debate….

 

Growling by Comcast May Bring Tighter Leash — Sept. 28, 2014

Comcast has a long corporate tradition of smiling and wearing beige no matter what kind of criticisms are hurled at it. That public posture is in keeping with the low-key approach favored by Brian L. Roberts, the company’s chief executive, as he seeks to take over the world. It’s worked very well so far.

But in a filing submitted to the Federal Communications Commission last week in defense of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, the company lashed out uncharacteristically at its critics. And David L. Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist, continued the salvo in comments to reporters and in his written remarks.

Watching Comcast’s ballistic response to opponents of its $45 billion takeover bid was a bit like watching a campaign debate go off the rails. The front-runner, ahead by 20 points, is besieged by ankle-biters who suggest he is a lout and a bully. He finally loses it and goes off on his opponents in a fury, generally acting like, well, a bully.

 

Questions for Comcast as It Looks to Grow — April 6, 2014

It is hard to say how rugged the questions will be when Comcast goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to defend its proposed megamerger with Time Warner Cable.

We do know that Comcast is feeling pretty confident about its chances. In a recent interview with C-Span, David Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast and the man who will represent the company, said, “ I have been struck by the absence of rational, knowledgeable voices in this space coming out in opposition or even raising serious questions about the transaction.”

Really? How can the largest cable company in the country bid to buy the second-largest and gain control over 19 of the country’s top 20 markets — corralling a 30 percent market share in cable and a 40 percent share in broadband — and there be no serious questions?

 

Why Barnes & Noble Is Good for Amazon — July 14, 2013

Having a bookstore in your neighborhood, as opposed to one that is bookmarked on your browser, is an invitation. Not long ago, I was walking by an airport bookstore and thought, “What if this was the only place to buy books?” Similar to Hollywood, only the blockbusters would get shelf space…

Bookstores offer discoverability, not just the latest Dan Brown or Carl Hiaasen book on the front table, but sometimes treasures deep in the stacks, a long tail of midlist authors and specialty books. Even as the book business consolidates, the physical object displayed in an actual place will continue to be an important part of the ecosystem.

Let’s hope it survives.

 

Telecom’s Big Players Hold Back the Future — May 19, 2013

Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was meant to lay down track to foster competition in a new age, allowed cable companies and telecoms to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly. If you are looking for the answer to why much of the developed world has cheap, reliable connections to the Internet while America seems just one step ahead of the dial-up era, her office — or her book — would be a good place to find out.

 

Navigating a Tightrope With Amazon — April 29, 2012

Mr. Bissinger, who has built a franchise on journalistic excellence and rhetorical intemperance — see his Twitter account — managed to choose his words carefully when talking about how his e-book ended up as a bug on the windshield of Amazon’s relentlessness on pricing.

That may have a little something to do with the fact that he has a great big book, “Father’s Day,” being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in just two weeks. It would be a bad time to stick his finger in the eye of a company that sells more books — including his — than any other company in the world.

“It’s a shame that the e-book was not on sale at Amazon,” he said. “Amazon is a crucial outlet for any author, and when you lose them, it’s terrifying. It’s a killer for ‘After Friday Night Lights’ because it was just gaining momentum and books have a very small window of opportunity.”

Like Wal-Mart, Amazon is big enough to set prices in certain categories. Suppliers are left to scramble to meet those objectives or pass up the opportunity to work with the largest retailers in the world. Amazon’s might when it comes to pricing will only grow as the impact of the Justice Department’s lawsuit begins to emerge. But sometimes the company’s tactical aggression lands hard on the people who supply it.

 

Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis - April 16, 2012

The Justice Department finally took aim at the monopolistic monolith that threatened to dominate the book industry. So imagine the shock when the bullet aimed at threats to competition went whizzing by Amazon — which not long ago had a 90 percent stranglehold on e-books — and instead, struck five of the six biggest publishers and Apple, a minor player in the realm of books.

That’s the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ’N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead…

But pull back a few thousand feet and take a broader look at the interests of consumers. From the very beginning and with increasingly regularity, Amazon has used its market power to bully and dictate. It leaned on the Independent Publishers Group in recent months for better terms and when those negotiations didn’t work out, Amazon simply removed the company’s almost 5,000 e-books from its virtual shelves. The Seattle Times just published a series with examples of how Amazon uses its scale not only to keep its prices low, but also to keep its competitors at bay…

After a week of watching the Justice Department and Amazon team up, I’ve learned that low prices come with a big cost. Maybe I’ll order it at my local bookstore instead.

 

Photo of David Carr by Ian Linkletter.

Still Time to Register for F2C 2015…But Hurry!

If you are still contemplating whether or not to trek to New York City on March 2nd and 3rd for Freedom to Connect 2015, now is the time to take action. Tickets are going fast and seats are limited. ATTENDANCE IS BY REGISTRATION ONLY and this year the event is hot!

Register online through EventBrite.com.

A working agenda has just been posted. An email from David Isenberg, who tirelessly plans and promotes the event every year, described some of the issues to be discussed:

  • The aspects of the Internet's protocol suite that make it the success it has become
  • The all-fronts attack on the Internet by the National Security Agency
  • How community controlled networks, especially the fiber to the home networks being built by communities such as Chattanooga TN and Wilson NC, as well as alternative networks being built by Google, Ting and others, are challenging incumbent telcos and cablecos
  • Title II as the centerpiece of the FCC Open Internet Report and Order

The agenda will continue to develop as planning progresses, so be sure to revisit.

Guest speakers include:

  • Chris Mitchell from ILSR and MuniNetworks.org
  • Susan Crawford, Cardozo Law School
  • Harold Feld, Public Knowledge
  • Jim Baller, Baller Herbst Stokes & Lide
  • Deb Socia, Next Century Cities
  • Gigi Sohn, FCC
  • Tim Wu, Columbia Law School

...and many, many others.

If you are unable to attend, you can still livestream Tuesday's event for a $25 fee. Sign up at http://freedom-to-connect.cleeng.com/.

Susan Crawford on the Responsive City - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 125

Susan Crawford, author of Captive Audience and now co-author of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance joins us for Community Broadband Bits #125. We discuss the idea of a Responsive City.

Susan contrasts her visions of a Responsive City with more traditional notions of a "smart" city and notes that having fiber throughout a community is a necessary base.

We discuss a few of the examples from the book that discuss how local governments are being transformed and how we would like to see them continue to transform in coming decades.

Read the transcript here.

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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 31

More cities around the country are taking action and joining the Next Century Cities coalition. What started as a league of 32 is poised to double in size after the NCC launch, according to Jason Koebler with Motherboard. 

“The group includes cities that have built their own municipal broadband networks, cities that want to build their own, and cities that have worked with companies such as Google to bring fiber, gigabit-speed internet to their residents—the idea being that cities that don't have ultrafast internet can learn how to jump through legislative and logistical hoops from those who have been there before.”

Boston is one of the Next Century Cities founding members and the Boston Herald’s Jordan Graham writes that the city is facing some unique challenges.

“The city has been plagued by slow internet access for years — blamed in part on Verizon’s refusal to build its FiOS network in the city as well as the infrastructure challenges that any old city faces.” 

Meanwhile in Michigan, more than 400 policy makers, tech providers and broadband champions came together to talk about broadband strategies and implementation plans for Michigan communities. 

While cities and states are forming coalitions, individuals can make an impact as well. Andrew Banchich of Buffalo, NY is rooting for his city to get on the municipal Internet super-highway. The Buffalo native announced the creation of the “Free the Web” forum to help get the message out to local policymakers.

“Municipal Internet would provide Buffalo residents with faster, more reliable Internet speeds, at a lower cost. It would help stimulate Buffalo’s economy, improve the quality of life for our residents, provide service to some people who might not currently have access to the Internet, help attract people from other cities, promote healthy competition between other Internet providers, and support our booming medical campus, where scientists and researchers rely on fast Internet connections.” 

Many reporters seem to be hung up on trivial matters like how long it takes you to download a movie, but Claire Cain Miller with the New York Times gets it, she really gets it!

“America’s slow and expensive Internet is more than just an annoyance for people trying to watch “Happy Gilmore” on Netflix. Largely a consequence of monopoly providers, the sluggish service could have long-term economic consequences for American competitiveness.”

The Consumerist's Kate Cox thinks this kitty will help you understand why US consumers seem to be content to pay more for slower Internet. Spoiler Alert: even the cat doesn't get it.

Following the same story, Gerry Smith with Huffington Post, Anne L. Kim with Roll Call,  and Elizabeth Hagedorn with Cleveland’s News 5 and Newsy covered New America Foundation’s new Open Technology Institute report, that says very clearly: big US cities are falling behind, while (no surprise here) Chattanooga, Lafayette, and other smaller cities are the ones competing globally with the likes Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo and others. 

As Susan Crawford shows in an article this week, a new investigation reveals that your Internet Service Provider may already be intentionally slowing down Internet speeds.

 “M-Lab’s data suggests the logical conclusion that Verizon and Comcast, as well as Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and AT&T, are intentionally squeezing data coming from some incoming networks — in particular, networks associated with Netflix, which competes with these companies in video entertainment. Customers of these eyeball networks are getting degraded service that cannot be explained by anything other than business decisions.” 

Lots of questions surround building broadband networks, and this week, Chris Mitchell took part in a unique conversation on with Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica. As a follow-up to Brodkin’s coverage of cities taking control of their broadband futures, Mitchell joined former FCC official Blair Levin, Wilson NC broadband operations manager Will Aycock, and Ted Smith with the Civic Innovation Office in Louisville, KY for UNITE Live: a discussion on cities revolutionizing broadband. But, as Brodkin continued, it’s not quite time to uncork the champagne.

As always, we have much more work to do. 

Next Century Cities Launch Webcast on October 20

Municipalities are increasingly realizing they need to take steps to ensure fast, affordable, reliable Internet access for local citizens. Some are doing the work themselves with publicly owned projects while others seek public-private partnerships. In order to capitalize on collaboration, a group of city leaders are now forming Next Century Cities.

On October 20, 2014, they will webcast the official launch from Santa Monica at 9:30 a.m. - 1 p.m. PT / 12:30 p.m. - 4 p.m. ET. From the announcement:

We're proud to announce the official launch of Next Century Cities. Next Century Cities is a new, city-to-city collaboration that supports community leaders across the country as they seek to ensure that all have access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet. Founding Partners represent dozens of cities from across the United States.

On October 20, we will be officially launching at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, CA. Our event will bring together mayors from communities across the country, as well as successful technologists who have helped to implement and run some of the nation's most impressive broadband networks. We're proud to host mayors and leaders from across the country for a series of thought-provoking discussions about how high-quality broadband Internet has begun to empower American communities.

Featured speakers will include

As part of the event, Susan Crawford will moderate a panel discussion with Mayors and city leaders from a variety of communities.

The event will also include a panel discussion moderated by Christopher Mitchell with information and innovation leaders from the cities of Santa Monica, Boston, Kansas City, Portland, Raleigh, and Lafayette.

You can register online for the free event.

Bill Moyers on Network Neutrality and Threat from Comcast

Bill Moyers has returned to again discuss Network Neutrality with guests Susan Crawford and David Carr from the New York Times. The show is embedded below and well worth watching, especially toward the end as Bill reveals the revolving-door between the top levels of the Federal Communication Commission and industry lobbyists.

During the show, they also discuss the importance of ensuring communities are able to build their own networks as an alternative to the massive cable monopolies.

Finally, a post from John Nicols on BillMoyers.com outlines what action you can take to ensure the FCC protects the open Internet. Scroll about halfway down for the specific steps.

Video: 

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

For the second time this year, one of the major defenders of the cable and telephone companies has admitted that DSL cannot provide the Internet access we need as a nation. This admission validates our research as well as that of Susan Crawford and others that show most Americans are effectively stuck with a cable monopoly.

On April 7, 2014, the Diane Rehm show hosted another discussion on telecommunications policy with guests that included Jeffrey Eisenach, the Director of the Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

During that show, Eisenach stated, "The vast majority of Europeans still only have DSL service available, which we in the United States consider really almost an obsolete technology now."

Interestingly, Eisenach and others have repeatedly claimed that there is no market failure in the US - that we have plenty of choices. But most Americans have to choose between what most now admit is an obsolete DSL product and cable. Eisenach would add 4G LTE as another competitor, but as we have noted many times, the average household would have to pay hundreds of dollars per month to use their LTE connection as a replacement for DSL or cable.

The average household uses something like 40-55 GB of data per month. Given the bandwidth caps from LTE providers, the overage charges quickly result in a bill of approximately $500 or more depending on the plan. This is why the overwhelming majority of the market uses mobile wireless as a complement, not substitute to wired networks.

We are left with one conclusion: there is no meaningful competition or choice for most of us in the residential telecommunications market. And no real prospect of a choice either as the cable companies only grow stronger.

This is not the first time Eisenach admitted that DSL is insufficient for our needs. Back in January, on Diane's show, he again used Europe's dependence on DSL as evidence that it was falling behind: "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Even those who only want the private sector to deliver services are starting to admit that the existing providers are failing us. What more do communities need to take an active role in ensuring their needs are met?

On the Media Talks Cable Consolidation, Municipal Networks With Crawford and Baller

The possible merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and the FCC's recent announcement to review state barriers have created a significant buzz in the world of telecommunications. Two recent NPR interviews with Susan Crawford and Jim Baller provide insight into how the merger may affect consumers and why a new light is shining on municipal networks.

Crawford spoke with Brooke Gladstone for a recent interview for On the Media. The two addressed some of the consequences of the potential merger. Crawford also discussed the option of municipal broadband investment is an alternative gaining traction. As our readers know, Crawford authored Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. Crawford joined us in a past episode of the Communiy Broadband Bits podcast.

Jim Baller, President of the Baller Herbst Law Group, also joined On the Media when he spoke with Bob Garfield. Baller and Garfield talked about the cable and telecom lobby's efforts to block municipal authority to build networks. Baller supplied a few of the many examples of successful communities that have blossomed as a result of their investment. We have interviewed Baller three times for our podcast.

 

Each interview is a little over six minutes.

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.

New Case Study of Leverett, Mass, Muni Network

We first reported on Leverett in the spring of 2012. Leverett, a small town of 2,000, also attracted Susan Crawford's attention. Crawford and Robyn Mohr recently wrote a case study on the community's efforts to build its own fiber network. The Berkman Center for Internet & Society released the paper on December 16, 2013.

Readers will remember that Leverett, tired of being dismissed by large providers, decided to build a FTTH network to each home in town. Construction of the network, funded by a modest tax increase, is now underway.

The report, Bringing Municipal High-Speed Internet Access to Leverett, Massachusetts offers these main findings, as reported on Crawford's blog:

LeverettNet is a last-mile fiber to the home network that will be operated by a publicly controlled Municipal Light Plant entity. The MLP will operate independently of Leverett’s political infrastructure, but will be required by state law to charge subscribers no more than the cost of providing service.

The network will connect every household in Leverett. Although every residence and business will be linked to LeverettNet, individual homeowners will have the discretion to decide whether to subscribe.

LeverettNet was planned to take advantage of MassBroadband 123, a publicly funded fiber network recently built to connect towns (but not individual homes and businesses) in Massachusetts.

Long-term leadership, planning, and community engagement by Leverett’s public officials prompted the citizens of Leverett to approve a modest property tax increase in return for the long-term benefits of a FTTH network.

Although LeverettNet has opted for a tiered set of access plans, had it decided to deliver 1Gbps to every home and business in Leverett the cost of service to subscribers—including Internet access and phone service, state and local taxes, access fees, network operation fees, and maintenance fees—would have been $61.30 per household per month.