We’ve been inundated lately by a deluge of disturbing news about the Silicon Valley Five. I say time for a bracing reminder about the real gatekeepers in digital life — your ISP. You can quit social media. But unless you’re going off the grid to embrace a 19th century lifestyle, you’re stuck at home with an access provider. Which is where the trouble starts.
I’m going to open with a look at how astoundingly unpopular ISPs are in the US, and why that has a lot to do with chronic lack of competition in retail broadband. We’ll then dig into the FCC’s international comparison of broadband speeds and prices as they affect both Canadians and Americans — and compare those comparisons to what Canadian studies have found. We’ll close by looking at how a class assignment I launched a few years ago has given my students a hard-won understanding of the acutely anti-consumer spirit that rules the industry.
The unpopularity contest
The graph above shows the latest ranking for firms operating in the US consumer economy as compiled by the ACSI, the American Customer Satisfaction Index. You’ll notice that the industries occupying the two ranks at the very bottom are Internet service providers, ISPs, and their subscription TV services. Yes, ISPs are more unpopular than airlines, hospitals and banks — more than any other industry in the entire U.S. consumer economy. Continue reading →
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Pai did kill the neutrality rules today.
(A version of this post was published last night on the HuffPo site.)
Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has a “fix” for the Internet that sets new records for doublespeak, hypocrisy and brazen contempt for evidence.
On Thursday, his draft order — wittily entitled “Restoring Internet Freedom” — is likely to be was blessed by the FCC’s Republican majority, in the face of massive opposition from activists, tech leaders including the Internet founders, the public at large and even some Republican lawmakers. If it does pass, Pai will has realized his heartfelt goal: eradicating the rules established by his predecessor, Democratic chairman Tom Wheeler, designed to safeguard Internet access through the protections afforded by network neutrality (known as the Open Internet Order, launched by the FCC in 2015).
The battle to challenge Pai’s order and save net neutrality is well under way. But even if the battle succeeds, that by itself won’t accomplish what we ultimately hope for: an open Internet used by everyonein the way that best suits their needs. The fundamental issues go much deeper than the current debate.Continue reading →
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.
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.
I 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 new bundle from Bell: Internet access with poutine
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 →
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 →
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)
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 →
[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.]
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 →