Networked disinformation: Bell wins against the facts

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Last February 24th, Ottawa City Council voted on a resolution tabled by councillors Jeff Leiper and Diane Deans to support a now pretty well known CRTC ruling. The Commission decided last July to require the incumbent ISPs to provide their smaller competitors with access to their new fibre networks, which are the future of the Internet.

The resolution called for “the city of Ottawa [to] support the CRTC’s decision to require the sharing of fiber-optic networks between large and small competitors.” That position took an implicit stand against the petition submitted by Bell to the federal cabinet last November calling for the government to over-rule the CRTC on sharing fibre networks.

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Fibreoptic connections use extremely fine strands of glass to transmit data across networks. Instead of electrical pulses, they use beams of light to carry information inside each strand, sometimes with several different wavelengths each carrying huge amounts of data (hence the reference to “optical”). Fibreoptic technology has major advantages over the copper infrastructure used by telcos and cablecos. Fibre has far greater bandwidth and can readily achieve speeds in the tens or even 100s of gigabits per second (1 Gbps = 1000 megabits per sec, 50 times faster than a typical home connection). Optical fibre is much sturdier and cheaper to maintain than copper. It can also carry data over much longer distances without the need for powered devices like repeaters. Optical fibre is being introduced in “last-mile” connections between end-users and ISPs as fibre to the premises (FTTP). It’s FTTP technology that’s at the heart of the debate between Bell and proponents of competitive, affordable Internet access.

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bell-denied-2I watched the live stream of the Ottawa debate and was surprised at the extent to which some councillors had swallowed Bell’s party line. The nays voted down the resolution by a wide margin – 17 to 7. I had an op-ed on the subject published by the Ottawa Citizen the day of the vote, as part of a push by OpenMedia to support the CRTC and discredit Bell’s campaign against competition in Internet access: “Ultra-fast broadband is a local issue, Ottawa.” The Ottawa vote stood in sharp contrast to the very similar exercise that took place in Toronto on February 4 – a triumph for the good guys at 28 for and 5 against a resolution supporting the CRTC decision. Continue reading

A pig in a poke no more: my students rate the ISPs (2)

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As we discussed last time, shopping for an ISP is a fraught endeavor. The numbers you get, if you can get them, never sit still for long. And even if they do, making comparisons between ISPs as you look for a deal is usually all apples and oranges. Ironic when you consider that this kind of competitive product research has become a way of life for North American shoppers, precisely because of how readily information can be obtained online. 

The “up to…” gotcha

For their ISP reports, our student investigators had one other task after getting plan details: capturing actual speeds from their current ISP so as to compare them to advertised speeds. Like the other information gathering on this assignment, the speed tests have a dual purpose. One is to sharpen the student’s grasp of technical concepts; the other is to sharpen their assessment of the ISP’s performance.

Tests of the kind we’re interested in typically measure three variables: download speed; upload speed; and latency (see below). One of the tricky features of advertised broadband speeds is that ISPs always qualify them as “up to” – no guarantees. There are many reasons for this, legit and otherwise. Continue reading

A pig in a poke no more: my students rate the ISPs

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The carrier hotel at 151 Front St West, Toronto, the meeting point for dozens of ISPs and other network operators

“75% of respondents to PIAC’s survey did not know the speed tier to which they subscribe even though 83% of consumers identified download speed as very important or somewhat important when choosing an ISP for their home.”  –Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), Ottawa, January 2013 – Transparency in Broadband Advertising to Canadian Consumers (pdf)

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Like the great majority of the online population, even 20-something communications studies majors have little or no clue what they’re buying from their ISP. That’s why we talk a lot about ISPs in my classes. They’re the main contact point for most people with the public Internet. They’re also the key to understanding what broadband is, how regulation works (or doesn’t), and how gatekeeping is exercised.

One challenge in helping undergrads understand how the Internet works (not just the technology, but the policy and business perspectives as well) is that there’s no textbook. Good sources have to be cobbled together, and there’s often a trade-off to be made between what’s topical and what’s authoritative. So when I went looking for a more engaging kind of written assignment a few months ago, I figured why not have the students develop the data themselves. Send them out to the field – well, at least as far as the living room – to find out exactly what they’re getting from their current ISP, then see if they could do better from the competition. Continue reading

Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (4)

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[This post continues from the previous one, comparing the FCC and CRTC approaches to the principle of universality, and finding the CRTC’s approach to broadband puts this principle at risk.]

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For my money, the key lesson we can take from Chairman Wheeler’s FCC lies in the willingness to admit when they’ve got a big problem on their hands. The FCC spends little time reflecting on its successes, compared to worrying about how they will correct market failures and right social injustices. In that spirit, Wheeler’s recent statement on the new Lifeline proceeding gets straight to the main issue: “…nearly 30% of Americans still don’t have broadband at home, and low-income consumers disproportionately lack access.”

Compare that blunt admission to the CRTC’s habit of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. The rosy glow is not confined to decisions; it’s also been a feature of the CRTC’s research documents. Take last year’s Communications Monitoring Report on telecommunications (pdf uploaded here). Turning to the section on the Internet market sector and broadband availability (p.171), the reader is hard-pressed to see that anything is amiss in this parallel universe. Continue reading

Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (3)

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I’m taking a further shot in this post at the question of the decade: should Ottawa guarantee Internet access to all Canadians?

This question is now drawing a great deal of attention. In April, the CRTC launched a new proceeding to review “basic telecommunications services.” As I wrote previously:

“The most important single question to be addressed in this proceeding is whether the time has come to start treating a broadband connection to the Internet as an essential service to be provided to all our citizens, just as we have done for decades in the provision of basic telephone service.”

As luck would have it, that is exactly the issue the FCC voted to examine on June 18: FCC Takes Steps to Modernize and Reform Lifeline for Broadband.”

Nevertheless, the two agencies see what is at stake in very different terms. These differences are evident in a comparison of the relevant public notices and agency research documents. My reading indicates our American friends are way ahead of us in the assumptions they’ve made about the public interest, as well as in the tools at their disposal to make a success of this epic broadband venture. Continue reading

Rebooting basic telecom services: hope for policy reform?

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The recent Rebooting conference in Ottawa was a terrific experience. Lots of people with lots of good ideas and the opportunity to debate them at length.

cbc_logo_1940_1958Oversimplifying a little, I would divide the conference participants into two general groups. The first and larger of the two was reform-minded, with many calling for serious changes, especially to the CRTC. The second group, while smaller, was just as eloquent in defending what I’d call the status quo. By that I mean maintaining or expanding subsidies for program production; a bigger role for the CBC; and measures explicitly designed to protect broadcasters with a view, among other things, to protecting jobs in the broadcast sector. This perspective tended to cast the socio-cultural objectives of the Broadcasting Act in a favorable light.

My six minutes of fame featured a half dozen reasons as to why there’s an urgent need to reboot the Broadcasting Act, and in particular to redraw the policy goals in section 3 from the ground up.

Why we need reform

1 – The 1991 Act is older than the Web. One simple argument for reform is chronological. The 1991 Act predates the Web by six months: the first publicly available Web page was posted on the Internet in August 1991. Worse still, most of section 3 is based on what became law in 1968 – 47 years ago! The main difference is that the current version is over three times longer and now refers to “programs” and “programming” 31 times. Continue reading

Now playing at the CRTC: your precarious future on the Internet (2)

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In this post, I follow up on my comments about the first day of the CRTC’s hearing to review its framework for wholesale services in the telecom industry. Since the most significant sector to be affected is Canada’s residential broadband service, I’m summarizing evidence here that was compiled recently by the Open Technology Institute (OTI) that compares broadband in 24 cities in Europe, East Asia and the US, along with Toronto. This evidence is consistent with findings from other international studies. It shows Toronto lags far behind the broadband leaders in available speeds; in the penetration of fiberoptic platforms; in symmetric connectivity (uplink bandwidth matches downlink bandwidth); and, most seriously from a social policy perspective, in the high prices Torontonians are forced to pay. I take this evidence as a strong argument in favor of maintaining and extending the regulatory regime that ensures open access to networks for smaller, competitive ISPs – including not just legacy platforms like DSL, but also emerging fiber platforms. Unless the CRTC includes these next-generation platforms, Canada will fall even further behind in its long slide into slow and expensive broadband connectivity.

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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

Last month the Open Technology Institute released the third in a series of annual studies of broadband speeds and prices in 24 cities in the US, East Asia and Europe, plus Toronto (originally 22 cities). I wrote about OTI’s first report back in November 2012 (CRTC’s 2nd pro-consumer decree: 4 reasons not to celebrate); and I had comments a year later about the second report (Broadband data for Toronto: more bad news and getting worse). Continue reading

Now playing at the CRTC: your precarious future on the Internet

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If the Competition Bureau is too short of “facts” on Canadian broadband to advise regulation, as it told the CRTC, here’s a start (source: Open Technology Institute).

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THIS week’s CRTC hearing, launched in October 2013, will cover the changing market in Canada for wholesale wireline telecommunications services, including Internet access. The Commission is hearing arguments as to whether any of its existing policies on wireline services should be eliminated or updated. The biggest bone of contention will involve the treatment of fiberoptic delivery platforms. New entrant ISPs want the Commission to guarantee wholesale access to these next-generation platforms. Deciding in their favor would be an important barometer of the health of Canadian broadband, but that goal is far from a sure thing. Meanwhile, recent data on broadband in 24 cities around the globe, compiled by the Open Technology Institute (OTI), shows once again how terrible the prices and speeds are here in Toronto.

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In my previous post on Barack Obama’s stunning pronouncement on open Internet policy, I misrepresented what the CRTC is up to these days. I claimed 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.”

Not exactly. First, the CRTC recently finished a proceeding on the wholesale market for mobile wireless services. Second, this week features the hearings phase of a proceeding launched in the fall of 2013 that tackles many of the same policy problems on the wireline side. While the scope is all wholesale telecomm services, what really counts here is the Internet access market.

Thanks to the usual tumultuous changes in technology, markets and business models, the Commission has set itself an obscure but potentially far-reaching task (Telecom Notice of Consultation CRTC 2013-551, pdf uploaded here):

“The Commission initiates a proceeding to review the regulatory status of wholesale services and their associated policies, including the wholesale services framework, wholesale service pricing, and the appropriateness of mandating new wholesale services, including fibre-to-the-premises facilities. The purpose of wholesale services is to facilitate competition in retail markets to provide Canadians with increased choice.”

Why the CRTC regulates wholesale Internet access

It may not be clear as to why wholesale services should exist to make retail markets competitive. (Ironically, one of the least convincing arguments made by the incumbents during the wholesale wireless proceeding was that the wholesale arrangements they make with the smaller carriers like Wind have no effect on the health of the retail market for wireless.) Continue reading