Barack Obama for Prime Minister

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As net neutrality boils over, Obama calls for much tighter regulation of Internet access

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If you care about the Internet and don’t care to see it co-opted and controlled by gatekeepers like Bell and Rogers, President Obama is your man. Yesterday he made a speech from the White House that has electrified the nation (theirs, not ours). He has called not merely for proactive regulation from the FCC to protect the open Internet. He has explicitly called on the agency to invoke Title II, that part of the Communications Act of 1934 intended to regulate common carriers like phone companies. Obama wants the regulator to treat the Internet like what it has become: a utility-like lifeline, not just an add-on to cable-TV service.

I intend to post more comments on net neutrality shortly, and especially on why our regulator, the CRTC, is fiddling over the fate of broadcast television with few signs it’s prepared to address the much more important problems of broadband availability, high prices, slow speeds and unaccountable service. To say nothing of the CRTC’s political masters. Harper may have found his inner consumer advocate in the runup to the 2015 general election. But he’s an opportunist who cherry-picks consumer issues like pick-and-pay, not a fundamentalist advocate for the open Internet. 

seal-of-the-president-of-the-united-statesFor now, enjoy the thrill of hearing the leader of the free world weigh in on why the open Internet needs government action to protect it from the marauding interests of the incumbent telcos and cablecos (“marauding” may be my gloss). The statement comes in three slices: the setup, then the statement and a link to the video. First, the setup on the White House website:

“MORE than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago. And here’s a big reason we’ve seen such incredible growth and innovation: Most Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally. That’s a principle known as “net neutrality” — and it says that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.

“That’s what President Obama believes, and what he means when he says there should be no gatekeepers between you and your favorite online sites and services.

“And as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers new rules for how to safeguard competition and user choice, we cannot take that principle of net neutrality for granted. Ensuring a free and open Internet is the only way we can preserve the Internet’s power to connect our world. That’s why the President has laid out a plan to do it, and is asking the FCC to implement it.”

Next, Obama’s bullet points on what the FCC needs to do and why (an excerpt from the statement)…

“The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone. I believe the FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online. The rules I am asking for are simple, common-sense steps that reflect the Internet you and I use every day, and that some ISPs already observe. These bright-line rules include:

  • No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
  • No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
  • No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

“If carefully designed, these rules should not create any undue burden for ISPs, and can have clear, monitored exceptions for reasonable network management and for specialized services such as dedicated, mission-critical networks serving a hospital. But combined, these rules mean everything for preserving the Internet’s openness.”

One editorial comment: it’s a great relief to see that the President’s aides put paid prioritization at the bottom of his to-do list above. Blocking, throttling and transparency are live issues, today, in both the US and Canada, and need urgent regulatory attention. As I suggested in a post back in July, paid prioritization is still largely a meme that got spewed out of the shouting matches in Washington this year. Let’s worry about big shortfalls in actual bandwidth for millions of people before we worry about Google coming to us in a “fast lane.”

And finally the movie, which runs just under 2 min…

D.E.

Rogers loses a sub: a study in price gouging & lousy service

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The point of this street-level story is to show how Canada’s broadband oligopoly works in practice, especially the incumbents’ freedom to collect economic rents as ISPs – i.e. charge prices they would never get away with in a competitive market.

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Rogers drives a furious customer into the waiting arms of TekSavvy

I’ve known Jacky and Jimmy* for many years (*not their real names). They’re a happy, successful couple raising a terrific teenage daughter. But after months of terrible service as Rogers subscribers, they were anything but happy. In due course I got a phone call from Jimmy, who was beside himself, wanting to be rescued from their ISP hell. And btw, would I still recommend TekSavvy? Continue reading

Netflix? it’s not the content, stupid, it’s the connectivity (2)

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Fresh evidence from Akamai about Canada’s lousy broadband speeds

Time now for some empirical evidence, featuring Akamai’s recently published State of the Internet report for Q2 of 2014. 

Akamai’s Intelligent Platform is a cloud computing technology that operates in some 90 countries around the world. Because of the scale and sophistication of its operations, it collects and analyzes huge amounts of real-time (not advertised) data about broadband speeds and related variables (based on roughly two trillion requests for Web content every day). Akamai includes in its analysis every country from which it receives requests for content from more than 25,000 unique IP addresses. Currently that’s 139 countries. Continue reading

Netflix redux: it’s not the content, stupid, it’s the connectivity (1)

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“We are now ready to take our place as the most technologically advanced nation on the planet.” -- Stephen Harper, Digital Canada 150, April 2014, p.4

In my previous post I argued that the showdown last month between Netflix and the CRTC has a silver lining: it has pointed the way to a new role for the Commission. That role would acknowledge that the job of trying to regulate “broadcasting” content in the Internet age has become a mug’s game. On the other hand, Canadians have never had world-class broadband connectivity, no matter how much the Harper gang try to spin the story. Speeds here are too slow, service is lousy and prices are way too high. Hence the new role: make connectivity – not content – the Commission’s top priority.

Ottawa has given us low expectations to go with our low bandwidth

What should Canada be aiming for in the broadband future? Continue reading

The Netflix boogeyman and a 21st-century role for the CRTC

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“Though some intervenors think this proceeding is all about Netflix, it’s not.” –Corie Wright of Netflix

“If the Commission fails to act swiftly after this proceeding, a service such as Netflix will become … one of the largest broadcasters in this country in the near future.” –Pierre Dion, CEO, Quebecor

“Canadian consumers can rest assured that our government will continue to stand up for them. We will not allow any moves to impose new regulations and taxes on Internet video that would create a Netflix and YouTube tax.” –Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage

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The thesis: Netflix has handed the CRTC a new lease on life

CRTC ordered Netflix to share its highly sensitive Canadian customer data. Netflix demurred (“stonewalled” by some accounts). The Commission has responded by making Netflix disappear from the history books, expunging its official testimony. Does that mean, as we read recently, that “It’s over, CRTC, Netflix and globalization have won”? Continue reading

Sept 29: CRTC hearing on wholesale mobile wireless services

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Canada is a world leader for high mobile prices, low handset penetration and astronomical revenue per user. These are the results that typify a market in which incumbents aren’t disciplined by either competition or regulation.

Price-gouging and prejudicial contract terms are an established feature of both retail and wholesale markets – one important reason among many for all the failures among Canada’s new entrants. Some of us believe strongly we will never enjoy a fair and competitive retail market unless and until major reforms are made to the way the wholesale market has been allowed to develop.

The CRTC announced in February it was launching a proceeding to look into a number of contentious issues, in particular “to determine whether the wholesale mobile wireless services market is sufficiently competitive, both now and in the future” (Notice of hearing, Telecom Notice of Consultation CRTC 2014-76, para 11). The public hearing phase begins on September 29. Ben Klass and I are intervenors in this proceeding, and the staff liked our filings so much they’ve invited us to appear at the hearing. Continue reading

Net neutrality now as momentous as Janet Jackson’s nipple (2)

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Happy updates (July 25)

1) Ms Marsha. One of the best illustrations of the political clout wielded by the incumbent US broadband providers lies in their ability to kill any attempt at the creation of muni broadband networks. Twenty states have passed laws banning public-sector broadband alternatives, encouraged by the industry lobbies and those who might be harmed by competition, like poor, struggling Comcast. As I note in the 2nd para below, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is one of the great congressional champions of this free-market exercise. She is more determined than ever to ensure nobody in her own state or any state ever gets better, more affordable service. Such is her reputation that in a comment posted to a story in Ars yesterday, a reader added this apology:

A bit off topic: As a Tennessee state resident, I’d like to personally apologize to the rest of the country, hell the world maybe for that matter, for Marsha Blackburn. Another fine example of what you can buy of [sic] you are a corporation with enough money to line the right pockets.

On the upside, Brodkin’s story is entitled “FCC gets its chance to overturn state limits on broadband competition” – reporting on a petition to the FCC from a community-owned electric utility to overturn the state law barring it from providing fiber-based Internet access – in Chattanooga (Tennessee!).

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2) Transparency enforcement. And in other good news related to policing the ISPs, the FCC on Wednesday issued an Enforcement Advisory that holds two surprises. The FCC will fine any broadband provider that intentionally misleads its customers; and the rule behind this notice is one of the few survivors of the DC Circuit appeal by Verizon that vacated most of the 2010 Open Internet Order. The advisory begins thusly:

Providers of broadband Internet access services must disclose accurate information about their service offerings and make this information accessible to the public. This requirement, known as the Open Internet Transparency Rule, has been in full force and effect since 2011. The Transparency Rule ensures that consumers have access to information that helps them make informed choices about the broadband Internet access services they buy, so that consumers are not misled or surprised by the quality or cost of the services they actually receive.

I’ve uploaded the pdf here.

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How about we blame the Republicans instead? (cont’d)

As I was saying in the previous post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should not be getting the rap for the open Internet NPRM issued in May. Especially not for his alleged determination to push through paid prioritization, since a) Wheeler has plainly disavowed it, and b) the Notice spends far more time analyzing other issues I see as a greater threat, like the utter lack of transparency or accountability in what broadband providers sell to the public. And picking this fight with paid prioritization is going to do nothing for the pro-Internet movement in the US or elsewhere (NPRM pdf here).

rep.-blackburn-2Instead, say I, opponents of the big-business, anti-consumer school of thought should pay more attention to what the black hats are saying – who, for convenience, we’ll call “Republicans.” These guys include a broad swath of personalities, from the FCC’s two Republican Commissioners, to the incumbents like Verizon that want no regulation and lots of “flexibility,” to my favorite right-wing curmudgeon, Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee congresswoman who has succeded in getting a bill passed to call a halt to all that outrageous muni broadband that competes with Comcast, TWC et al. They have main three arguments, all of them pure sophistry, but great headline-grabbers. Continue reading

Net neutrality now as momentous as Janet Jackson’s nipple (1)

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Setting the bar for public participation in regulatory affairs

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  • Janet Jackson’s nipple: 1.4 million comments
  • Net neutrality: 1.1 million comments (est)

Realists like Farhad Manjoo at the NY Times have called it “the most important sleep-inducing topic around.” So imagine the surprise when, again last week, public interest in network neutrality hit a crescendo of comments so momentous that it crashed the FCC’s wobbly server setup. That leaves the arcane techno-regulatory idea a mere 300,000 comments behind the flood prompted by the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction – dubbed Nipplegate – during the Superbowl half-time proceedings on February 1, 2004.

Timberlake yanks off Jackson’s bra and her nipple is exposed for 9/16 of a second. She’s treated like a whore and cancels appearances, while Timberlake keeps his endorsements and wins awards. “Nipplegate” makes the Guiness Book of Records in 2006 as the most-searched term in Internet history. The FCC attempts to levy a fine of $550,000 on CBS, and pursues its case for seven years. In 2011, the Supreme Court elects not to hear the FCC’s appeal, for the second time. Interest is so intense that Nipplegate prompts some guys to create a site for uploading cool videos, which becomes YouTube. Continue reading