Enough about Facebook. What’s your ISP done for you lately?

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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.

American Customer Satisfaction Index, 2018 Telecommunications Report: Comparative results for all US consumer industries

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

Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (2)

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If we’re short on remedies for our Internet ills, we’re sure not short on the red flags and warning signs.

Last week, for example, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier published his 14th book –– Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World. It seems to be selling well — hardly surprising given the importance of the topic and Schneier’s knack for describing arcane technical ideas in a punchy, readable style.

Schneier shares an abiding interest in tech policy, much like former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, whose own policy prescriptions we looked at in the previous post. His recent paper — “Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism” — argues it’s time for the IT industry to “deal responsibly with the world they created.”

Wheeler reminds us that in Washington, tech companies have been “taking fire from both sides of the aisle.” The appearance before Congress two weeks ago of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey showed how daunting it will be to “regulate” the big platforms. And the Internet’s biggest monopolist — Google/Alphabet — didn’t even show up for this convo. What’s a good Republican supposed to do with that kind of snub? Continue reading

Internet good or bad? Yes (2)

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The Internet keeps getting busier — more people going online and spending more time once they get there. It’s also becoming a worse place to be, on almost any objective measure: mental health, privacy, safety, social cohesion, cyberwarfare, etc.

Can we love the Internet and still hate what it’s doing to us?

In two reports released in April, the Pew Research Center provides some surprising answers. The first report doesn’t bury the lead. It’s entitled “A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society” But there’s a sharp counterpoint accompanying that finding. These respondents see good for themselves as individuals — but for society, not so much (gen-pop survey here). Continue reading

How to mitigate digital harms? First, be very patient (3)

And on to the third and last main question of the Pew/Elon survey. The tough one — ok, smart guy, you got any solutions? Or to quote the original:

“Do you think there are any actions that might successfully be taken to reduce or eradicate potential harms of digital life to individuals’ well-being?”

I’m a pessimist about the harms but an optimist about solutions:

  • Yes, there are interventions that can be made in the coming years to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology.
  • No, there are not interventions that can be made to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology

So, “yes” is the answer here. And finally…

“Please elaborate on your response below about why you do or don’t think there can be actions taken to mitigate potential harms of digital life.” Continue reading

Net neutrality isn’t the endgame

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.)

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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 everyone in the way that best suits their needs. The fundamental issues go much deeper than the current debate. 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

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