Tag: "fcc"

Posted December 10, 2010 by christopher

As part of our continuing effort to shed light on the tendency of privately owned telcos and cablecos to consolidate rather than compete, we would like to note comments from Qwest's Chief Financial Officer. Stop the Cap! has the story:

Chief Financial Officer Joe Euteneuer said the time was right for Qwest to sell operations in the north-central and mountain west region because there were too many competitors in the marketplace. Euteneuer said the telecommunications market needs to resemble the cable-TV business, which has been heavily concentrated into two huge powerhouses — Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

So not only do these executives think there is too much competition (find me a subscriber who believes that!), but believes we should have less and less competition moving forward. These folks are incredibly candid about their plans to diminish what little competition exists -- perhaps because the FCC has made it clear that it plans to take no actions to encourage further competition. The National Broadband Plan pretty much ignores this problem, perhaps its biggest failing.

For those of us who care about the future of broadband and the communities that increasingly depend upon it, the spectre of even larger privately-owned incumbent providers (with increasingly distant headquarters) is daunting. Bigger and bigger incumbents mean it is that much harder to build better networks that will compete with them. These massive companies cross-subsidize their operations to dramatically cut rates in newly competitive areas specifically to drive out new competitors (public and private). Larger companies have greater advantages for securing discounts on key inputs, allowing them to offer lower prices than communities are naturally able.

This is yet more evidence that the private-company approach to broadband infrastructure is bankrupt.

If we are destined to have only a few entities owning the networks on which we depend, those entities must be directly accountable to the communities, rather than focused solely on increasing profits every year.

Posted November 25, 2010 by christopher

The abstract immediately captured my attention:

Policymakers often tell us that the Internet succeeded because of a lack of government regulation. For instance, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell recently noted that the “evolution away from government intervention has been the most important ingredient in the Internet’s success.” These views, while widely shared, happen to be inaccurate. In reality, a diverse range of federal regulations, subsidies, and nondiscrimination protections sustained the Internet’s historic growth.

But what if, as many inaccurately assume, these regulations had never existed? What would today’s Internet look like in such a world? In this essay, I provide a fictional alternate history - in form of a satirical book review - to illustrate how differently the Internet might have developed in a truly privatized world. Although the essay below (beginning after this abstract) is fictional, it draws heavily upon both the regulatory history of the Internet and the policy arguments at issue in today’s leading regulatory proceedings.

This article covers decisions like Carterfone, the FCC's Computer Inquires, giving control over TCP/IP to the National Science Foundation rather than AT&T, and the intentions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It also includes a reminder of the difference between open systems and closed systems:

One important way that open policies achieve this goal is by reducing various types of transaction costs. In open networks, new market entrants can completely avoid negotiating with companies who have “gateway control” over the network. The aspiring entrants do not have to pay—nor seek permission from—the network owners for access. Accordingly, these policies encourage vastly more experimentation and amateur “tinkering.” Closed networks, by contrast, produce relatively less innovation because they rely on centralized network owners to introduce—or at least approve—innovation before it becomes available.

This is a fantastic read (really riveting telecom reading -- how often do you get that?) and a good history lesson for people who were not there to see it firsthand over the years.

Posted November 24, 2010 by christopher

David Isenberg, of isen.blog, has published a short history of Reedsburg's community fiber network that he previously wrote for the FCC when they were gathering evidence of successful networks they would later ignore in formulating a plan to continue the failed status quo of hoping private companies will build and operate the infrastructure we need.

Nonetheless, one cannot say that smart people like David did not try to help the FCC overcome its obsession with national carriers who dominate the conversations, and whose employees often work periodically with the FCC in what we call the revolving door (which itself, is a reason the FCC has been captured).

Back to Reedsburg; it is a small community approximately 55 miles northwest of Madison that just happens to have far better broadband service than just about anywhere else in Wisconsin.

David writes,

RUC first entered the telecommunications business in 1998, when it constructed a ring to tie its wells, its five electrical substations together and to provide Internet access for its high school, middle school and its school administration building. In planning the ring, the city asked Verizon and Charter if they would build it, but they were not responsive. RUS built a partly aerial, partly buried 7-mile ring of 96-strand fiber at a cost of about $850,000. Internet access was provided by Genuine Telephone, a tiny subsidiary of LaValle Telephone Cooperative which ran a fiber from LaValle, about 8 miles NW of Reedsburg.

As they were building the ring, local businesses asked to be connected as well. Reedsburg took the path that so many communities have followed, start by building for yourself and expand opportunistically. Of course, this requires that you originally engineer the network so it can be later expanded, which is good practice regardless of your future plans.

Reedsburg used bond anticipation notes, a financial mechanism that few others have used in building similar networks.

A local bank loaned the initial $5 million in bond anticipation notes for planning and construction. Then RUC issued an...

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Posted November 16, 2010 by christopher

In the world of essential infrastructure, thousands of years of history have taught us that entities, acting on their own narrow interest, cannot be trusted to build or govern the building blocks of commerce or transportation. The temptation to abuse that powerful position has always proved too much for those without accountability to the public.

For instance, if the only way to move goods is a canal, private canal owners will price at a high level or use their position to take a stake in all the industries using the canal. Such an arrangement is great for the canal owners but poor for the rest of society. Witness the history of canals and railroads.

Two options to dealing with this problem have historically been either regulation or public ownership of such infrastructure. Readers of this site are undoubtedly well aware of our preference for public ownership - a structural approach using coops, local government, or non-profits to ensure the interests of the public at large receive the highest priority.

This post explains one of the reasons a regulatory approach, whereby private companies still own the infrastructure (and often make key decisions) but must go through some form of public body that is supposed to prevent the natural interests of the private company from taking over and reducing the benefits to society at large.

Writing in the Financial Times, John Kay explains regulatory capture, the process by which the agency or commission supposed to regulate effectively begins to act more in the interests of those regulated rather than the public. An obvious example of this is the Minerals Management Agency that has long improperly overseen the extraction industry, leading to the BP Gulf Oil Hole.

As Kay rightly explains, there are multiple kinds of capture from outright corruption to something that leads some political science geeks bring up Gramsci and Hegemony...

But the most common form of capture is honest and may be characterised as intellectual capture. Every regulatory agency is dependent for information on the businesses it regulates. Many of the people who run regulated companies are agreeable, committed individuals who are properly affronted by any suggestion that their activities do not serve the public good. Few members of the public, by contrast, ever make contact with a regulatory agency...

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Posted October 15, 2010 by christopher

In all the talk of the need for competition in broadband (or in the mobile space), there is remarkably little attention paid to the difficulties in actually creating competition. A common refrain from the self-interested industry titans (and their many paid flacks) is: "keep the government out of it and let the market decide."

Unfortunately, an unregulated market in telecom tends toward consolidation at best, monopolization at worse. Practicioners of Chicago economics may dispute this, but their theories occur in reality about as frequently as unicorn observations. In our regulatory environment, big incumbents have nearly all the advantages, allowing them to use their advantages of scale to maintain market power (most notably the ability to use cross-subsidization from non-competitive markets to maintain predatory pricing wherever they face even the threat of competition).

The de-regulatory approach of telecom policy over the past 10 or more years has resulted in far less competition among ISPs, something Earthlink hopes to change with a condition of the seeming inevitable NBC-Comcast merger. Requiring incumbents to share their lines with independent ISPs is one policy that would greatly increase competition - but the FCC has refused to even entertain the notion because big companies like AT&T and Comcast are too intimidating for the current Administration to confront.

In the Midwest, Windstream is cutting 146 jobs as part of its acquisition of Iowa Telecom. When these companies consolidate, they can cut jobs to lower their costs... but do subscribers ever see the savings? Not hardly. The result is less competition, which leads to higher prices. Consider that Comcast is the largest cable company, but they are known better for their poor record of customer service than low prices enabled by economies of scale.

We need broadband networks that are structurally accountable to the community, not private shareholders located far outside the community. The solution is not more private companies owning broadband infrastructure, but more private companies offering competing services over next-generation infrastructure that is community owned by coops, non-profits, or local governments.

Photo by...

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Posted October 13, 2010 by christopher

In a TNR Review, Larry Lessig uses The Social Network to explain why we must maintain an open Internet. This fits exactly into our recurring theme on MuniNetworks.org that rules and structure matter greatly.

The full review is excellent and worth reading, but this is the key for our purposes (it comes toward the middle of the article):

Instead, what’s important here is that Zuckerberg’s [Founder of Facebook] genius could be embraced by half-a-billion people within six years of its first being launched, without (and here is the critical bit) asking permission of anyone. The real story is not the invention. It is the platform that makes the invention sing. Zuckerberg didn’t invent that platform. He was a hacker (a term of praise) who built for it. And as much as Zuckerberg deserves endless respect from every decent soul for his success, the real hero in this story doesn’t even get a credit.

Too few appreciate how revolutionary the Internet is because one does not have to ask permission to create content and distribute it via the Internet. However, there is a lot of money to be made and power to be had by forcing creators to ask permission -- this is what big companies like Comcast and AT&T want to do. They want more control over the Internet to further their interests.

The tragedy—small in the scale of things, no doubt—of this film is that practically everyone watching it will miss this point. Practically everyone walking out will think they understand genius on the Internet. But almost none will have seen the real genius here. And that is tragedy because just at the moment when we celebrate the product of these two wonders—Zuckerberg and the Internet—working together, policymakers are conspiring ferociously with old world powers to remove the conditions for this success. As “network neutrality” gets bargained away—to add insult to injury, by an administration that was elected with the promise to defend it—the opportunities for the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow will shrink. And as they do, we will return more to the world where success depends upon permission. And privilege. And insiders. And where fewer turn their souls to inventing the next great idea.

Prior to an important decision in 1968, one had to ask...

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Posted October 4, 2010 by christopher

In an editorial for the October, 2010 issue, Scientific American explains "Why broadband service in the U.S. is so awful, and one step that could change it." This is an excellent shorthand explanation for the poor decisions of the FCC during the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, these decisions are being carried forward by the Obama Administration's FCC.

It was not always like this. A decade ago the U.S. ranked at or near the top of most studies of broadband price and performance. But that was before the FCC made a terrible mistake. In 2002 it reclassified broadband Internet service as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service.” In theory, this step implied that broadband was equivalent to a content provider (such as AOL or Yahoo!) and was not a means to communicate, such as a telephone line. In practice, it has stifled competition.

And the solution?

Yet, puzzlingly, the FCC wants to take only a half-step. Genachowski has said that although he regards the Internet as a telecommunications service, he does not want to bring in third-party competition. This move may have been intended to avoid criticism from policy makers, both Republican and Democrat, who have aligned themselves with large Internet providers such as AT&T and Comcast that stand to suffer when their local monopolies are broken. It is frustrating, however, to see Gena chowski acknowledge that the U.S. has fallen behind so many other countries in its communications infrastructure and then rule out the most effective way to reverse the decline. We call on the FCC to take this important step and free the Internet.

Well said. Read the whole the piece.

Posted September 29, 2010 by christopher

On August 19, 2010, I was one of hundreds of people telling the Federal Communications Commission to do its job and regulate in the public interest. My comments focused on the benefits of publicly owned broadband networks and the need for the FCC to ensure states cannot preempt local governments from building networks.

My comments:

I’ll start with the obvious.

Private companies are self-interested. They act on behalf of their shareholders and they have a responsibility to put profits ahead of the public interest.

A recent post from the Economist magazine’s technology blog picks up from there:

WHY, exactly, does America have regulators? … Regulators, in theory, are more expert than politicians, and less passionate. …They are imperfect; but that we have any regulators at all is a testament … to the idea that companies left to their own devices don't always act in the best interests of the market.

They go on to say

If companies always agreed with regulators' rules, there would be no need for regulators. The very point of a regulator is to do things that companies don't like, out of concern for the welfare of the market or the consumer.

When we talk about broadband, there is a definite gap between what is best for communities and what is best for private companies. Next generation networks are expensive investments that take many years to break even.

With that preface, I challenge the FCC to start regulating in the public interest.

The FCC does not need a consensus from big companies on network neutrality. It needs to respect the consensus of Americans that do not want our access to the Internet to look like our access to cable television.

But while Network Neutrality is necessary, it is not sufficient. The entire issue of Network Neutrality arises out of the failed de-regulation approach of the past decade. Such policies have allowed a few private companies to dominate broadband access, giving communities neither a true choice in...

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Posted September 8, 2010 by christopher

Confused about the inability of the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the massive telecom and broadband carriers? You are not alone. This article explains some of it quite well, but the ultimate lesson is that we would greatly prefer local ownership of networks that are accountable to our needs.

The FCC proves time and time again it cannot be trusted to regulate in the public interest. We need to ensure this infrastructure is operated for us, not distant corporate shareholders.

Posted August 18, 2010 by christopher

Update: You can watch a recording of the event here.

In anticipation of the FCC discussion on Thursday night in Minneapolis (details here), I have a short post up over at Tech.mn.

Although network neutrality can be easily distracted by partisanship, perhaps it is better viewed through the context of scale and long-term impact. Economically, for example, massive media conglomerates like Fox News, ABC and Disney (who can afford to pay ISPs to favor their content channels) could obtain crucial advantages over new and innovative startup ventures that lack both the cash and clout necessary to strike deals with ISPs.

Be sure to attend the FCC Hearing if you are able.

Photo used under Creative Commons license from AdamWillis.

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