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

More on the student ISP ratings: Bell’s Internet disaster (3)

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A new bundle from Bell: Internet access with poutine

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I have bad news for Bell. On our campus, those steaming piles of french fries and gravy didn’t help convince any of my students that Bell has the “best Wi-Fi” or the best anything. And I have detailed files to prove it.

Poutine aside, why would Bell’s marketing department create an association between students resenting their roommates and students signing up for Wi-Fi? Well, first of all because Bell is counting on nobody actually knowing what the hell the “best” Wi-Fi would look like. Wi-Fi is a highly unpredictable technology whose performance depends on many factors out of Bell’s control, from the composition of walls to the type of data being transferred, the age of the router, the extent of bandwidth sharing and so on.

Meanwhile, there’s no clear value proposition for a commodity like bandwidth, except variations on “We’re the Best, period.” So Bell is betting that its brand equity will be enough to get people signing up, even as it’s getting its ass kicked in the Internet access market by Rogers. Bell has other trucks cruising around my neighborhood with another peremptory message slapped on the side: “Bell Internet. Perfect for laptops.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

Broadband speeding up, broadcast TV slowing down?

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This morning brought news that the CRTC has launched a national broadband measurement initiative using the SamKnows platform (“The global leaders in broadband measurement“). The announcement comes hard on the heels of Michael Geist’s Tuesday post entitled Missing the Target: Why Does Canada Still Lack a Coherent Broadband Goal? Ironically, after his well taken lament, the Commission suddenly seems ready to answer Michael’s question – though not in the way some of us might like.

“The CRTC is recruiting up to 6,200 Canadians to help measure the Internet services provided by the participating ISPs. Volunteers will receive a device, called a “Whitebox”, that they will connect to their modem or router. The Whitebox will periodically measure broadband performance, testing a number of parameters associated with the broadband Internet connection, including download and upload speeds.”

On this Commission page, the visitor is offered some details, including how to sign up. In a discussion with some other folks today, there was agreement that the Commission is going to have to work hard to attract mainstreamers who have no technical background. To do so, the project team is going to have to take a more didactic approach, and give up self-congratulatory marketing lingo like a “world-class communication system.” Continue reading

Cancon redux: Canada’s TV “system” battles the Internet

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“Somebody called me a protectionist this week. I’ve been called far worse, but the term rankled because I had not argued that Canadian television should be protected from foreign competition.”

Kate Taylor, Jan 18: A contemporary argument for Canadian content

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The ball’s in somebody’s court and needs to be lobbed back.

Let’s start with who or what is protectionist. The only such reference I made was to  the policy regime we’ve had in Canada since the 1970s:

“Bell and Rogers (plus Shaw and QMI) have made fabulous amounts of money thanks to the vast protectionist apparatus they’ve enjoyed for decades.”

While life may be tougher now, it would be hard to argue that our broadcasters aren’t still benefitting from protectionism: foreign ownership restrictions, simultaneous substitution and restriction of US satellite signals to the approved list are three current examples. Simsub is also a good example of a policy designed to help our TV business rather than TV viewers, who hate it – as in, where are the Super Bowl ads? Continue reading