Tag: "policy"

Posted January 26, 2012 by christopher

I recently stumbled across a great point regarding the spectacular failure of the US (mostly the FCC, but Congress should certainly share some of the blame) to properly regulate broadband connections to the Internet. US policy results in a few massive providers dominating the market. Fred Goldstein, a principal of Interisle Consulting Group, wrote the following:

In truly competitive markets that display some degree of commodity-like characteristics, large and small vendors tend to coexist. I'm drinking coffee right now, which is a good example. Maybe Maxwell House and Folgers (and their parent companies) have a large share of the market, competing on price for their swill. But there is plenty of room for others to differentiate their product. Dunkin and Starbucks have built huge chains on their own style of semi-premium product, while another couple of niches of premium and superpremium beans are easy enough to find. Food markets tend to be like this; check out any Whole Foods (a/k/a The Museum of Modern Vegetables) for a supply of priced-above-commodity products. I feel foolish for selling most (not all, thankfully) of my Whole Foods stock when it was in the dumps a couple of years ago.

The same thing happens in many fields. Apple itself sells computers above commodity price levels. There's a whole "high end" audio business catering to those who like to show off how much they can afford to spend. The automobile industry has mass-market commodity cars and several premium tiers.

Internet access in the US lacks that because the natural monopoly on outside plant is not properly regulated. If it were treated here by EU norms, then any number of ISPs could access the wire. Some would just be cheap; some would offer premium help desks among their services. That doesn't happen, however, when the usual number of "competitors" is two. Even more so when those competitors agree that they should divide up markets between themselves rather than overbuild, or (heaven forbid) let outside information providers onto their facilities.

The wire should be regulated. ISPs shouldn't.

Amen. Physical connections are a natural monopoly. Even if the economics supported many physical providers, having so many would be terribly inefficient. Much better to have networks that are owned by the community and have independent service providers competing to deliver services -- just like the roads.

Posted January 12, 2012 by christopher

Last year we noted that a bill to expand local authority to invest in publicly owned broadband networks would return in 2012. HB 1711 is in Committee and causing a bit of a stir. "A bit of a stir" is good -- such a reaction means it has a chance at passing and giving Washington's residents a greater opportunity to have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet.

Washington's law presently allows Public Utility Districts to build fiber-optic networks but they cannot offer retail services. They are limited to providing wholesale services only -- working with independent service providers to bring telecom services to the public.

Unfortunately, this approach can be financially debilitating, particularly in rural areas. Building next generation networks in very low density areas is hard enough without being forced to split the revenues with third parties.

Last year, House Bill 2601 created a study to examine telecommunications reform, including the possibilty of municipality and public utility district provisioning. The University of Washington School of Law examined the issues and released a report [pdf] that recognizes the important role public sector investments can play:

U Washington Law School

Broadband infrastructure is this century’s interstate highway system: a public investment in an infrastructure that will rapidly connect Washington’s citizens statewide, nationally, and internationally; fuelling growth, competition, and innovation. Like highway access, the path to universal broadband access varies with the needs of the local community.

Our primary goal is to expand broadband access. We believe allowing municipalities and PUDs to provide broadband services addresses the most significant hurdles to broadband expansion: the high cost of infrastructure. In conjunction with a state USF, PUDs and municipalities are well placed to address the needs of their consumers.

A secondary goal is to promote a competitive marketplace. We believe that empowering PUDs and municipalities...

Read more
Posted January 10, 2012 by christopher

One of the reasons community broadband networks face so many unique hurdles (often created deliberately by states in response to cable/dsl lobbying) is because of the many ways in which campaign finance corrupts our national and state governments.

Community broadband networks are focused on meeting community needs, not sending lobbyist armies into Washington, DC, and state capitals (though one of things we do at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is offer help to those that do push pro-community agendas in these areas).

To understand why DC is so focused on furthering the corporate agendas of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and others, is to understand the revolving door. (Also, understanding capture -- which we have explained previously.)

In short, many of the people who make decisions about telecommunications policy in DC have worked, will work, or are presently working for the massive companies that effectively control access to the Internet in most of America's communities.

The good folks at Geke.US have created the following Comcast Venn Diagram illustrating a small piece of the DC revolving door.

Comcast and DC's revolving door Venn Diagram

Reforming this system is a deep, seemingly intractable problem. But for those looking for answers, a good place to start is with the work of Lawrence Lessig. I just finished his Republic, Lost, which offers a grand tour of the problems resulting from the present system of campaign finance.

You can also see a number of his presentations here.

His organization, the Rootstrikers aim to get to the root of problems rather than being distracted by trying to fix symptoms of deeper problems. This is precisely what we do with our focus on community networks.

Many focus solely on resolving digital divide issues, improving rural access to the Internet, lowering the cost of broadband, or the various other problems that result from narrowly-focused private corporations owning and controlling essential communications infrastructure with...

Read more
Posted January 3, 2012 by christopher

It's a new year, but most of us are still stuck with the same old DSL and cable monopolies. Though many communities have built their own networks to create competition and numerous other benefits, nearly half of the 50 states have enacted legislation to make it harder for communities to build their own networks.

Fortunately, this practice has increasingly come under scrutiny. Unfortunately, we expect to see massive cable and telephone corporations use their unrivaled lobbying power to pass more laws in 2012 like the North Carolina law pushed by Time Warner Cable to essentially stop new community broadband networks.

The FCC's National Broadband Plan calls for all local governments to be free of state barriers (created by big cable and phone companies trying to limit competition). Recommendation 8.19: Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks.

But modern day railroad barons like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, etc., have a stranglehold on a Congress that depends on their campaign contributions and a national capital built on the lobbying largesse of dominant industries that want to throttle any threats to their businesses. (Hat tip to the Rootstrikers that are trying to fix that mess.)

We occasionally put together a list of notable achievements of these few companies that dominate access to the Internet across the United States. The last one is available here.

FCC Logo

As you read this, remember that the FCC's National Broadband Plan largely places the future of Internet access in the hands of these corporations. On the few occasions the FCC tries to defend the public from their schemes to rip-off...

Read more
Posted December 20, 2011 by christopher

It is hard to avoid becoming cynical when watching the federal government interact with big corporations like AT&T. So when AT&T announced it would merge with T-Mobile, giving AT&T and Verizon a combined 3 out of 4 cellular subscribers, I thought two things:

1) What a terrible idea. Higher prices, fewer jobs, less choices, etc.

2) The Federal Government will likely not prevent it - instead opting for some minor concessions that no one will bother to enforce.

Sometimes, it is very good to be wrong.

Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post, decodes the language from Wall Street to explain the biggest winner from the federal government blocking the merger: consumers.

“Without the combination, we think the wireless industry will be further weakened by continued hypercompetitive activity, particularly regarding subscriber acquisition costs,” said Nomura Securities analyst Mike McCormack.

That means customers can still get lower rates as the industry competes for their dollars. T-Mobile, for example, will continue to be a low-cost competitor, according to consumer advocacy group Consumers Union. A survey showed that data plans from T-Mobile were $15 to $50 less per month than those offered by AT&T.

An excellent reminder that what is best for Wall Street is not what is best for the 99%. Big companies like AT&T find competing for customers a hassle that lowers their profits -- they consider a market with four sellers to be hypercompetitive. In wireline, they have acquiesced to the "competition" of two competitors -- cable and DSL.

This is one reason communities build their own networks -- the private sector is not truly competitive when it comes to ISPs and most communities have no prospect real of improvement absent a public investment.

But we should rejoice in this victory -- because we earned it. Without the hard work of many grassroots groups, it is hard to imagine the Department of Justice or FCC standing up to such a powerful corporation.

Some quotes from some of the many organizations responsible for protecting the 99% of us who don't benefit from higher prices and fewer choices.

Andrea Quijada of the...

Read more
Posted December 14, 2011 by christopher

I've censored the following, in protest of a bill that gives any corporation and the US government the power to censor the internet--a bill that could pass THIS WEEK. To see the uncensored text, and to stop internet censorship, visit: http://americancensorship.org/posts/15925/uncensor

████████, a █████████████ █████████ ████ ███████ if it ██████ █████ the ████████ in an ██████ to ████ ███████ ████ ████ as ██████ and █████████ ████████████. █████ the ██████ to the ████████ is ███████████, it ████ ██████ █████████ ████ no ██████ on █████ who do not ███████ █████████.

Uncensor This

Posted December 9, 2011 by christopher

If you aren't familiar with SOPA - the "Stop Online Piracy Act" or its companion in the Senate (called PIPA or Protect IP), you should be. This is legislation that would allow the US government to require Internet Service Providers block web sites without due process. Sascha Meinrath and James Losey from the New America Foundation explain the threat in Slate:

The interconnected nature of the Internet fostered the growth of online communities such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. These sites host our humdrum daily interactions and serve as a public soapbox for our political voice. Both the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA would create a national firewall by censoring the domain names of websites accused of hosting infringing copyrighted materials. This legislation would enable law enforcement to take down the entire tumblr.com domain due to something posted on a single blog. Yes, an entire, largely innocent online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority.

If you think this scenario is unlikely, consider what happened to Mooo.com earlier this year. Back in February, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security seized 10 domains during a child-porn crackdown called “Operation Protect Our Children.” Along with this group of offenders, 84,000 more entirely innocent sites were tagged with the following accusatory splash page: “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution." Their only crime was guilt by association: They were all using the Mooo.com domain.

From our point of view, what is most interesting is not who is pushing this bill (Hollywood and the usual suspects that tried to kill the VCR because it would obviously destroy the movie industry) but who is not resisting. After all, whenever the issue of network neutrality comes up, the big telecom companies pay a bunch of organizations like Americans for Prosperity to create astroturf movements to oppose a "government takeover of the...

Read more
Posted December 8, 2011 by christopher

Susan Crawford published an excellent essay in the New York Times presenting her Looming Broadband Monopoly argument as a discussion of the coming digital divide between those with access to next-generation networks and those without.

These numbers are likely to grow even starker as the 30 percent of Americans without any kind of Internet access come online. When they do, particularly if the next several years deliver subpar growth in personal income, they will probably go for the only option that is at all within their reach: wireless smartphones. A wired high-speed Internet plan might cost $100 a month; a smartphone plan might cost half that, often with a free or heavily discounted phone thrown in.

The problem is that smartphone access is not a substitute for wired. The vast majority of jobs require online applications, but it is hard to type up a résumé on a hand-held device; it is hard to get a college degree from a remote location using wireless. Few people would start a business using only a wireless connection.

She identifies the problem as a lack of competition in the market while highlighting the role of lobbying from the wealthy cable companies to keep it that way:

The bigger problem is the lack of competition in cable markets. Though there are several large cable companies nationwide, each dominates its own fragmented kingdom of local markets: Comcast is the only game in Philadelphia, while Time Warner dominates Cleveland. That is partly because it is so expensive to lay down the physical cables, and companies, having paid for those networks, guard them jealously, clustering their operations and spending tens of millions of dollars to lobby against laws that might oblige them to share their infrastructure.

In this essay, her preferred solution is better federal regulation that would require companies that own networks to share parts of their infrastructure with competitors (to significantly reduce the problems of natural monopoly). Unfortunately, she did not explicitly discuss the solution of the communities building their own networks - a topic she has discussed at great length elsewhere in very positive terms. Her essay ties in nicely with the paper we...

Read more
Posted November 19, 2011 by christopher

If you want to predict the future, it helps to understand the incentives that guide action. Unsurprisingly, if a corporation has the option of being more profitable by investing less, it will do so. This is the smart conclusion of Bill Snyder at InfoWorld:

To understand their logic, consider this thought experiment: Imagine that you own a freeway -- say, Highway 101 through Silicon Valley -- and you had the power to pluck a car from a traffic jam with a helicopter and deposit it on a clear stretch of the road. Naturally, drivers who could afford the service would be happy to sign up.

"That highway is like the Internet, and the individual cars are the packets of data. The ISP is essentially the gatekeeper that controls the flow of cars on the highway. If the ISP is allowed to snatch any car from the back of a very long line and put it in front of everybody else when the driver of the car pays a priority delivery fee, would the ISP have an incentive to keep the road congested or to expand the road capacity?" they wrote.

The answer is pretty obvious: If you can make more money by keeping your network congested, why would you invest money to make it less crowded?

He was riffing on a paper, "The Debate on Net Neutrality: A Policy Perspective" by H Kenneth Cheng, Subhajyoti Bandyopadhyay, and Hong Guo.

I think many of us view this as a "well, duh" paper, but it is good to see a rigorous academic paper verifying our gut instincts.

There is a very real danger to letting a few massive corporations control access to the Internet, which is one major reason we see so many communities building their own networks. They want to ensure everyone has fast, reliable, and affordable access to the Open Internet.

Posted November 12, 2011 by christopher

Dane Jasper, the CEO of Sonic.net, one of the few ISPs to survive the death of broadband competition over the past ten years, wrote about "America's Intentional Broadband Duopoly."  It is a short history of how the FCC's flawed analysis (helped along by incredible amounts of lobbying dollars, no doubt).

He starts by asking when the last time anyone offered to sell you broadband over power lines (BPL).  The FCC decided that cable and telephone companies shouldn't have to share their wires (which are a natural monopoly) with competitors (creating an actual marketplace for services) because BPL, satellite, and wireless would put so much competitive pressure on DSL and cable.  FAIL.

Then, in the Brand X decision, they ruled that Cable would not be required to allow competitors to lease their lines either. The FCC did this by reclassifying broadband Internet access as an “information service”, rather than a “telecommunications service”. As a result, common carriage rules could be set aside, allowing for an incumbent Cable monopoly. This decision was challenged all the way to the supreme court, who ruled in 2005 that the FCC had the jurisdiction to make this decision.

To close out Powell’s near-complete dismantling of competitive services in the U.S., the FCC took up the issue of ISPs resale of DSL using the incumbent’s equipment, also known as wholesale “bitstream” access. If Cable is an information service under Brand X, why shouldn’t Telco have the same “regulatory relief”? The result: the FCC granted forbearance (in other words, declined to enforce its rules) from the common carriage requirements for telco DSL services.

For those who are thinking that wireless is finally competitive with cable and DSL, don't forget that while 4G appears much faster (because so few people are using it presently), it still comes with a 2GB monthly cap. So if you want to do something with your connection aside from watching one movie a month, 4G is not competitive with a landline connection.

Pages

Subscribe to policy