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

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

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. 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

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