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

Dialing for digital dollars: inside the Cancon sausage factory

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A little sympathy for Mélanie Joly, please.

melanie-jolyImagine if your job was to save the purveyors of Canadian content from the ravishes of American cultural imperialists, cord-cutters, cord-shavers, cord-nevers, millennials in general, digerati, incumbent ISPs, Reed Hastings, VPN developers, Jeff Bezos, Chicken Little, Hulu, cloud computing vendors, Henny Penny and Reed Hastings. It’s harder than it looks.

Contrary to popular belief, Ms Joly is doing exactly what the Minister of Canadian Heritage should be doing these days: looking for money to put into the pockets of Canada’s network content providers so they can make bigger and better Webisodes for the digital age. Yet her ideas for accomplishing this daunting task have drawn vociferous criticism. Many criticisms have focused on issues outside the Minister’s mandate and are based on little appreciation of how things actually work in her department.

So let’s head on over to the sausage factory where the sausage mandarins have been cooking up our Cancon policy for the last half-century.

We’ll start with Minister Joly’s least popular trial balloon: slapping an “Internet tax” on everyone’s ISP bill. My friends at OpenMedia have been pointing out with alarm that such a tax would only serve to raise the price of Internet access, when Canadians already pay high prices for mediocre service (you can sign their petition here).

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OpenMedia: Joly’s tax would make us as bad as Hungary

Could there be anything worse than this tax “on the Internet”? Yes! A tax on Netflix, an idea that just won’t die, thanks to Joly’s alleged plan to bring the streaming giant “into the system” – Ottawa code for we’re gonna tax the daylights outta Netflix.  Continue reading

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.

fiber-optic-cable

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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

CRTC’s code of conduct for TV providers: too little, too late?

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The CRTC is moving ahead with its Code of Conduct for TV service providers (TVSPs). The Code was initially announced on March 26, as a by-product of the Let’s Talk TV proceeding (Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2015-105). Now, in its best populist spirit, the Commission is asking for public comment on its TV Code:

“Canadians sent us a strong message that they were encountering problems with their television service providers. The CRTC is acting on these comments and has prepared a draft version of a TV Code that reflects what Canadians told us. I invite them to take an active part in the discussions. Now is the time to shape your TV Code.”–CRTC Chair JP Blais, May 12, 2015 (emphasis original)

Less consulting, more research

The Commission may have the substance right, but it has the timing and execution all wrong. The idea that TVSPs provide lousy service isn’t exactly new. Much of the evidence has been anecdotal. A public consultation, however, will not make up for that shortcoming. Worse still, the idea of holding this public consultation arose from the earlier public consultation that was part of Let’s Talk TV. They’re breeding. Continue reading

It’s 2015: Cancon is the aberration, not VPNs or the Internet

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WiTopia is a provider of personal VPN services

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In a Globe and Mail piece last Friday, Kate Taylor starts off by asking the wrong question: Digital content may be cheap, but who will pay to create it? Things go downhill from there.

Ms Taylor’s old-fashioned apology for Cancon, with its predictable sideswipes at “freeriding” Netflix and marauding pirates, is based on ideology rather than evidence. It completely misconstrues the role of security tools like VPNs, at a time when Canadians should be far more concerned about their privacy and security online than about shelf space on the network for domestic TV shows. Most of all, it treats the Internet like a cultural and economic aberration that’s ruining our TV system, when the aberration is Canada’s bizarre and unworkable framework for broadcasting.

Virtual private networks and why you need one

What the article says about VPNs:

“The latest scheme is to use a virtual private network, or VPN, to trick Netflix into believing you are located in the United States and can thus subscribe to the video-streaming service’s American catalogue….

Internet advocates love to preach choice, diversity and freedom – after all, a VPN can also be used by citizens in China to access content censored by their government.”

A VPN is specialized client software that encrypts online messages, and is said metaphorically to “tunnel” through the public Internet. It’s a “virtual” network because there’s no real tunnel or separate physical network. Your data packets are still co-mingling with other people’s packets, but only you and folks with the authentication tools – like a password – can read those packets. The VPN is said to be private for exactly that reason, like an office behind a locked door. Continue reading