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Congressional Democrats launch effort to restore net neutrality

A resolution of disapproval would overturn the FCC's rollback

Congressional Democrats have formally taken the first step to overturn the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) rollback of net neutrality.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced a resolution of disapproval to negate the FCC order, which was published last week in the Federal Register.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Senate version, which would restore the Obama Administration's FCC Open Internet Order prohibiting internet service providers from blocking, slowing down, or discriminating against content online.

“President Trump and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai might want to end the internet as we know it, but we won’t agonize, we will organize,” Markey said. “I urge my Republican colleagues to join the overwhelming majority of Americans who support a free and open internet."

One vote short

Senate Democrats will need at least one more Republican vote. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) has said she will support Markey's resolution, but Democrats will need 51 votes to prevail.

The task may be harder in the House. So far, supporters of the resolution of disapproval say they have 150 votes. They need 213 to prevail.

“Today millions of Net Neutrality supporters from across the country are putting lawmakers on notice: You have to choose whether you side with big phone and cable lobbyists or with the majority of people in the United States — both Republicans and Democrats — who want to restore Net Neutrality protections," said Sandra Fulton, government relations director at the Free Press Action Fund.

'Radical rewiring of the internet'

Fulton called the FCC's reversal of net neutrality "a radical rewiring of the internet" that hands control of the network to a few powerful internet service providers.

"The FCC repeal blatantly ignored the fact that the 2015 rules were working for everyone, as broadband investment and deployment continued under the Title II-based protections the Pai FCC struck down," Fulton said.

A Congressional resolution of disapproval would be the fastest way to restore the principal of net neutrality, but the clock is ticking. The measure would have to pass both houses of Congress within 60 days of the Order being published in the Federal Register.

Backers of net neutrality are also using the courts in an effort to restore the rule through a series of lawsuits against the FCC. On February 22, 23 state attorneys general filed suit, calling the net neutrality rollback illegal.

Congressional Democrats have formally taken the first step to overturn the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) rollback of net neutrality.Lawmake...

Poll shows consumers want Net Neutrality law

Large majority would like to take the issue out of the hands of the FCC

Net Neutrality can be something of a complex subject, but another poll shows consumers not only understand what it is, they want to keep it.

In short, Net Neutrality holds that internet service providers (ISP) have to treat all web content the same. That means they can't charge extra to sites that use more bandwidth, and they can't favor the content of one site over another.

Some ISPs have protested, saying they've spent millions of dollars building out their networks and should be allowed to manage them as they see fit.

In the latter years of the Obama Administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established Net Neutrality as policy, over the protests of some ISPs.

Change in policy

President Trump's FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is a long-time critic of Net Neutrality, and under his leadership the FCC has taken steps to reverse the policy. But it might not be either good business or good politics.

A new poll of U.S. consumers has found 74% supporting legislation that enshrines the principals of Net Neutrality -- namely a law enabling consumers to use the internet free from government or corporate censorship, while setting up one set of rules that applies to all internet companies.

The poll suggests consumers are comfortable with Congress taking the issue out of the hands of the FCC and setting the policy in stone.

Permanent Net Neutrality law

"Americans overwhelmingly favor a permanent net neutrality law over FCC regulations that can be changed from administration to administration," said Mike Montgomery, Executive Director of CALinnovates, a non-partisan tech advocacy group based in San Francisco, which conducted the survey.

Previous research has suggested consumers are growing more concerned about Net Neutrality issues, such as potential throttling, blocking, and the creation of so-called fast lanes.

Younger consumers appear to feel more strongly about the legislative route than their older counterparts. In fact, 18 to 29 year-olds were almost twice as likely to support making Net Neutrality the law of the land than continuing to leave the issue up to the FCC.

Net Neutrality can be something of a complex subject, but another poll shows consumers not only understand what it is, they want to keep it.In short, N...

Would repealing Net Neutrality hurt small businesses?

An analysis by a business outplacement firm says it would

An analysis of internet rules by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas concludes that rolling back Net Neutrality rules would not just hurt consumers, but small businesses as well.

In 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a set of guidelines that bars Internet service providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast from speeding up, slowing down, or blocking any content, applications, or websites. In other words, all content must be treated equally.

The reasoning behind Net Neutrality is one company's content shouldn't get preferential treatment, just because the company pays a big fee to the ISP.

ISPs have argued that they spend a lot of money building and maintaining their networks, and it's only fair that companies like Netflix, which requires huge amounts of bandwidth, pay extra for the use of that capacity.

Pre-Net Neutrality actions

Challenger, Gray & Christmas said it reviewed internet policies prior to 2015 and found many ISPs, both domestic and foreign, engaged in actions that unfairly affected smaller companies.

It points to the period of 2011 to 2013, when it says AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon blocked Google Wallet, which happened to compete with a service in which the ISPs held a stake.

In 2012, it says AT&T announced plans to disable the FaceTime video-calling app on its customers' iPhones unless they subscribed to more bandwidth, at a higher price.

Internet Privacy Bill

The 2015 Net Neutrality Rule prevents those kinds of actions, but from the start the new chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has targeted Net Neutrality for reversal. John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, notes that President Trump recently signed the "Internet privacy bill," which he says will repeal vital internet-related consumer protections. In the end, he says that hurts businesses.

"The slicing up and selling of the Internet will make it vastly more difficult for companies to remain innovative,” Challenger said. “Not to mention the cost to small businesses and entrepreneurs to have access to the Internet."

Challenger also maintains there is no demand, except from big ISPs, to rollback Net Neutrality. He says polls consistently show that a large majority of people, both Republicans and Democrats, support the concept of Net Neutrality.

An analysis of internet rules by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas concludes that rolling back Net Neutrality rules would not just hurt co...

House panel to hold hearing on Net Neutrality

CEOs of major tech companies asked to appear

Under the Trump Administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has embraced a rollback of the previous administration's Net Neutrality policy, much to the chagrin of consumer advocates and many media companies.

Now, Congress has signaled its intention to get involved. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has announced he will invite the CEOs of leading tech companies that are on opposite sides to appear at a Sept. 7 hearing on the issue.

Walden made the announcement at Tuesday's hearing on FCC funding and oversight. While Net Neutrality has largely been seen as a Democratic Party issue, Walden says a "strong consensus" has formed across party lines that it's time for Congress to get involved and set clear ground rules for the internet.

Intertwined goals

“In some form or another, we have been working for at least 20 years on the intertwined goals of incentivizing the huge investments needed to connect Americans, while keeping the internet open and protecting consumer privacy," Walden said. "With almost everyone in agreement about fundamental principles to prevent anti-competitive behavior such as throttling and blocking, I think we are closer than ever to achieving a lasting resolution. The time has come to get everyone to the table and get this figured out.”

To that end, Walden says the committee has invited the CEOs of Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, and Netflix, along with broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Charter Communications to appear before the full committee.

Contrasting points of view

The media companies and the ISPs may present very different points of view. Media companies say the internet should treat all content the same, and not favor some over other. ISP's generally argue that they paid to build out their networks and that they should not be treated as public utilities.

Consumer advocates who support Net Neutrality worry about a "slippery slope" if the FCC reverses course, and allows ISPs to favor content from large companies over that produced by small companies and non-profit groups.

Some Republicans in Congress have complained that the FCC under President Obama exceeded its authority when it adopted the Net Neutrality rule, benefiting some companies at the expense of others. Walden's announcement suggests lawmakers may be ready to enter the debate, looking to resolve the matter with legislation rather than regulations.

Under the Trump Administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has embraced a rollback of the previous administration's Net Neutrality policy,...

Companies and websites line up in day of protest to protect net neutrality

The 'Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality' takes place on July 12

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has worked diligently in recent months to scrap net neutrality, with chairman Ajit Pai saying that the notion is a massive government overreach.

However, thousands of companies and websites have come out in opposition, and on July 12 they’re launching a massive online protest to make their voices heard.

Entities taking part in the “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality” run the gamut from big-name companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Kickstarter to organizations like Fight for the Future, the Center for Media Justice, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Even popular social media and forum sites like Reddit and Imgur are stepping up to oppose the FCC’s slashing of Title II, the legal framework that supports net neutrality.

“The Internet has given more people a voice than ever before, and we’re not going to let the FCC take that power away from us,” said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future. “Massive online mobilization got us the strong net neutrality protections that we have now, and we intend to fight tooth and nail to defend them.”

Banding together

While the day of protest has garnered massive support from numerous companies and websites, it will only be the latest in a line of protests that have popped up over this hot-button issue.

Last month, comedian John Oliver prompted viewers of his HBO weekly show Last Week Tonight to flood the FCC with comments supporting net neutrality, which promptly crashed the agency’s site. Officials stated that hackers engineered the site’s failure, but net neutrality advocates haven’t been deterred by the dismissals.

“Politicians in Washington, DC need to learn that net neutrality is not a partisan issue and Internet users will not tolerate these attacks on our basic rights – we will come together to protect the web as an open platform for free expression and exchange of ideas,” said Greer.

“The FCC’s plan to dismantle net neutrality will unfairly pad the bottom lines of Comcast and the rest of Big Cable, while undermining the public’s ability to freely communicate, organize, and innovate,” added Mark Stanley, communications director of Demand Progress. “Every few years, a threat so severe confronts the open internet that people, organizations, and companies from across the political spectrum – including some of the largest online platforms – must band together in common cause to fight back.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has worked diligently in recent months to scrap net neutrality, with chairman Ajit Pai saying that the notion i...

FCC suspends probe of free data programs

Critics charge that the reversal undermines net neutrality

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, with the support of Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly, has moved to suspend the agency's probe of what are known as “zero rating” programs offered by wireless providers.

Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T had been under investigation due to charges that their individual streaming packages violated the Net Neutrality Rule. All three carriers have programs under which subscribers may stream data from certain sources without it counting against their data allowances.

“The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is closing its investigation into wireless carriers' free-data offerings,” Pai said in a statement. “These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace. Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data.”

GOP commissioner Michael O'Rielly backed the move, saying the FCC should be supporting wireless providers in what he called “permissionless innovation.”

Just the first step

“While this is just a first step, these companies, and others, can now safely invest in and introduce highly popular products and services without fear of Commission intervention based on newly invented legal theories,” O'Rielly said.

But Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, currently the lone Democrat on the Commission, objected – not just to the speedy reversal of a pillar of Obama administration communication policy, but the manner in which it was done.

“It is a basic principle of administrative procedure that actions must be accompanied by reasons for that action, else that action is unlawful,” Clyburn said. “Yet that is exactly what multiple Bureaus have done today.”

Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality holds that internet service providers may not favor one type of content over another. The FCC was investigating all three companies to determine if their zero rating plans violated that principal.

The agency Friday sent letters to all three companies, informing them that the inquiry has been closed.

Amid a flurry of action Friday, the FCC also reversed another Obama administration move to allow nine internet providers to participate in a federal program to provide subsidized service to low-income households.

The consumer group Free Press joined Clyburn in criticizing both the action and the way it was carried out. Policy Director Matt Wood characterized Pai's initiatives as “strong-armed tactics.”

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, with the support of Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly, has moved to suspend the agency's...

Net Neutrality's days may be numbered

Likely nominee to head the FCC has been a foe of commission 'over-reach'

Net neutrality is one of those issues that might start a bar-room brawl in Washington, D.C., but it's not something that gets the blood boiling in most precincts of the country. Nevertheless, it and related measures handled by the Federal Communications Commission are pocketbook issues that aren't far behind the price of gas and mortgage rates for American families.

The Obama Administration's FCC has taken an activist stance on Internet matters, choosing to apply regulations to what had for most of its life been a Wild West sort of place, where just about anyone could do just about anything.

Most notably, and most controversially, the FCC in March 2015 voted 3-2 to declare that broadband service was a utility and could therefore be regulated. It imposed rules designed to prohibit carriers from treating some traffic differently from others. 

One of the dissenting votes came from commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican who is generally considered to be the leading candidate to head the commission when the Trump Administration rolls into town. Pai has opposed much of what the FCC has done under current chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat.

Though a Republican, Pai was nominated to the FCC by President Obama in 2011. A Harvard Law graduate, he is the son of immigrants from India and grew up in Parsons, Kansas. 

"Days are numbered"

He is particularly dismissive of the net neutrality regulations and in a speech last week said the rule's "days are numbered."

"I’m hopeful that beginning next year, our general regulatory approach will be a more sober one that is guided by evidence, sound economic analysis, and a good dose of humility," Pai said in his speech to a Free State Foundation luncheon, arguing that the net neutrality rules were adopted without any evidence that they were needed.

"There was no evidence of systemic failure in the Internet marketplace.  As I said at the time, 'One could read the entire document . . . without finding anything more than hypothesized harms.'  Or, in other words, public-utility regulation was a solution that wouldn’t work for a problem that didn’t exist."

Besides net neutrality, Pai is thought to be unsympathetic to plans to break cable systems' monopoly on set-top boxes and to outlaw local regulations banning municipal broadband networks.

Pai singled out the set-top box proposal, which he said was being formulated in the dark.

"Right now, the FCC provides information selectively to favored insiders.  To give one example, if you are in the good graces of the FCC’s leadership, you can receive detailed information about the set-top box proposal.  But if you aren’t, you’re left in the dark," he said.

Net neutrality is one of those issues that might start a bar-room brawl in Washington, D.C., but it's not something that gets the blood boiling in most pre...

Appeals court upholds Net Neutrality

Justices rule FCC acted properly when it declared internet a public utility

A federal appeals court has turned aside an industry challenge, upholding the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Open Internet Order – also known as Net Neutrality.

The justices ruled that the FCC acted within its proper authority when it reclassified broadband internet access as a telecom service under law, and it may be regulated as such.

The principal of Net Neutrality is that internet service providers (ISP) cannot discriminate among internet content, charging more for some than others, or slowing some content down, a practice known as “throttling.”

ISPs generally oppose the concept of Net Neutrality, saying some content – such as streaming video – costs more to distribute than others. The industry said it should be allowed to charge more for that kind of content.

Administration action

The Obama administration moved over a year ago to reclassify broadband internet access as a telecom service, under its Title II authority. The move was aimed at preventing ISPs from blocking, censoring, throttling, or degrading online content, services, and applications.

“Today’s ruling is a great victory for the millions and millions of internet users who have fought for years for Net Neutrality,” said Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, one of the public interest groups that intervened in the case.

Aaron said the court spoke loudly and forcefully in support of the FCC's authority to prevent “interference” with consumers' internet service.

“Today’s ruling proves the FCC chose the correct legal path to protect internet users from discrimination by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and other broadband providers,” Aaron said. The agency can now stay focused on safeguarding the open communications networks that power our democracy and our economy and on promoting broadband competition privacy and affordable internet access for everyone.”

Chairman reacts

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler also praised the ruling, calling it a victory for consumers and innovators. In a statement, Wheeler said the issue has been debated for a decade but is now settled.

“Today’s ruling affirms the Commission’s ability to enforce the strongest possible internet protections – both on fixed and mobile networks – that will ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future,” he said.

A federal appeals court has turned aside an industry challenge, upholding the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Open Internet Order – also known as...

Stanford study finds T-Mobile's 'Binge On' promotion is likely illegal

The program sounds good but violates key net neutrality principles, report says

T-Mobile's "Binge On" promotion has perhaps been popular with consumers but, as we reported in November, critics are increasingly expressing doubts about its legality, 

Now a Stanford Law professor who is a recognized net neutrality expert has weighed in with her opinion. Barbara van Schewick says Binge On is "aptly named – it feels good in the short-term but harms consumers in the long run.”

Schewick's report, “T-Mobile’s Binge On Violates Key Net Neutrality Principles," offers the first comprehensive analysis of the "zero-rating" aspects of Binge On. Zero-rating, which simply means that selected content doesn't count against a user's monthly data cap, has come under scrutiny at the FCC. Policymakers are debating whether this and other "zero-rating" programs violate the Open Internet rules.

“The program limits user choice, distorts competition, stifles innovation, and harms free speech on the Internet. If more ISPs offer similar programs, these harms will only grow worse,” Schewick's report finds.

The report could be a game changer. It finds that Binge On violates key net neutrality principles and most likely violates the FCC’s general conduct rule and the transparency rule. In a moment when the FCC is evaluating the question of zero-rating on a case-by-case basis, these findings could move the agency to open a federal investigation.

Picking winners

The basic problem, as Schewick sees it, is that T-Mobile is picking winners and losers online by making Binge On video more attractive than all other video. Research shows that consumers, not surprisingly, strongly prefer zero-rated content over content that counts against their cap.

In one survey cited by Schewick, 74% of users said that they would be more likely to watch videos offered by a new provider if the content did not count against their monthly bandwidth caps. By making Binge On video more attractive than other video, T-Mobile gives the video providers it adds to Binge On a competitive advantage.

And although consumers generally seem to feel that T-Mobile is doing them a favor, Schewick says that, in fact, T-Mobile is constraining consumer choice. 

Net neutrality protects peoples’ ability to use the applications of their choice, but through Binge On, T-Mobile makes additional bandwidth available to consumers without allowing them to choose how to use that bandwidth. Instead, T-Mobile reserves it only for Binge On video.

For example, customers on T-Mobile’s lowest qualifying plan can watch “unlimited” video from Netflix and other Binge On providers, but not more than 4 1/2 hours of video per month from other providers like Amazon Prime, a Netflix competitor.

Schewick also cites T-Mobile's requirement that Binge On content providers spend "substantial" sums of money to make their feeds technically compatible with T-Mobile's system and says that discriminates against small providers and start-ups. 

"Binge On changes innovation on the Internet as we know it. Until now, innovators could reach people all over the world at low costs. But Binge On requires video providers to work with T-Mobile to join on the program and, in many cases, to change their service to meet the ISP’s technical requirements," she said. "As more and more ISPs develop similar programs, innovators will need to work with ISPs around the world to join their zero-rating programs – all just for an equal chance to compete. Small players, non-commercial speakers, and start-ups without the resources to work with numerous ISPs will be left behind."

T-Mobile's other zero-rating program, Music Freedom, does similar damage to the usic industry, Schewick said. 

Schewick also notes that Binge On video is not actually “unlimited:” If customers reach their monthly data cap through other Internet uses, they won't be able to watch any more video that month.

"T-Mobile’s advertising misleads customers and likely violates the FCC’s transparency rule," she concludes.

T-Mobile's "Binge On" promotion has perhaps been popular with consumers but, as we reported in November, critics are increasingly expressing doubts about i...

YouTube has a beef with T-Mobile over its video streaming policy

Google-owned company complains it is excluded from "Binge On" program

T-Mobile customers have been able to stream music from major sources without having to worry about exceeding their data caps, and this year, have been able to view virtually unlimited video as well.

The carrier's “Binge-On” program last month began to include Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go as sources of binging. Noticeably absent is YouTube.

The Google-owned video content provider has aired its complaint to The Wall Street Journal. In a statement to the newspaper, the company says consumers are benefiting from reduced data charges but “that doesn't justify throttling all video services, especially without explicit user consent."

No HD YouTube viewing

According to the statement, YouTube is particularly irked that T-Mobile customers on the Binge On plan aren't able to watch HD versions of YouTube videos. Instead, they get a 480p version.

YouTube cites two issues – T-Mobile customers get poor quality YouTube videos and the data counts toward their bandwidth limits. Second, it claims T-Mobile enrolls its customers in Binge On without asking them first.

This is actually an area under study by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has adopted a net neutrality policy, meaning a network can't favor one provider's content over another.

Net Neutrality

In February, the FCC adopted a Net Neutrality Rule, specifically prohibiting service providers from creating “fast lanes” and charging content providers extra to use them. In taking the action, the Commission declared that broadband Internet service should be classified as a public utility, like telephone service, bringing it under tighter regulation.

Earlier this month, the FCC asked T-Mobile, as well as other networks that offer special rates on streaming, to provide more information about how those services work.

T-Mobile customers have been able to stream music from major sources without having to worry about exceeding their data caps, and this year, have been able...

New York AG asks consumers for help in investigating broadband providers

Volunteers can follow these steps to submit a report and fill in vital information for the state

At the end of October, we reported that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was going to be investigating three of his state’s largest broadband providers to see if consumers were getting what they paid for when it came to Internet speeds. The investigation is ongoing, but now the state is asking consumers for help.

In order to see whether or not promised Internet speeds are up to par, the state is asking consumers to test their connections and send in their results. This will allow the state to gather vital missing data that will allow their investigation to move forward.

Filling in the gaps

Schneiderman and his office are asking volunteers for help because the available FCC test information that his team has received may not tell the whole story. In the FCC report, connections are measured only by how quickly data moves across a user’s ISP network – a distance referred to as the “last mile.”

This is problematic because it leaves out information about how the speed is measured across other interconnected networks. Some have asserted that Internet speeds suffer during this process depending on whether or not broadband providers have connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers.

By having volunteers send in their reports, Schneiderman and his office hope that the information that they’re missing can be filled in so that they can move forward.

Submitting information safely

In order to test their connections and send in a report, consumers can visit a third-party website called InternetHealthTest.org. All a visitor of the site needs to do is press “Start Test” to begin generating a report.

After a report has been generated, consumers can visit this site to take a screen shot of their results. The site provides a step-by-step process on how to submit a report, including information on how to take a screen shot and what to do if you have a Mac versus a PC.

The advantage of collecting information this way is that it protects the privacy of those who are submitting information. The site does not require any personal information, such as browser history or an IP address – though the attached form does ask for a name and zip code.

Schneiderman is hopeful that these tests will help New Yorkers get the Internet speeds they deserve. “New Yorkers should get the Internet speeds they pay for. Too many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another. . . By conducting these tests, consumers can uncover whether they are receiving the Internet speeds they have paid for,” he said. 

At the end of October, we reported that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was going to be investigating three of his state’s largest broadband pr...

New York AG launches probe to investigate top Internet providers

Consumers may be getting charged for faster broadband speeds that they simply aren't getting

The need to stay connected is more important than ever these days – just ask any teenager who doesn't have access to their phone or computer for a few hours. This is why it can be completely infuriating when your connection to the Internet isn't working properly.

But it could be even more infuriating if you find out that your Internet provider is not giving you the broadband connection you paid for. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman is setting out to determine if that is the case in his state. He will be probing to see if three major Internet providers are duping consumers by charging them for faster broadband speeds that they are failing to deliver on.

“New Yorkers deserve the Internet speeds they pay for. But, it turns out, many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another,” said Schneiderman.

Concerns about Internet speed

In order to determine if this claim holds water, letters have been sent to three top Internet providers in New York: Verizon Communications Inc., Cablevision Systems Corp., and Time Warner Cable Inc. The letters ask each company to provide copies of the disclosures that they have given to customers, as well as copies of any tests that have been performed on their Internet speeds.

Concerns over Internet speeds began after a 2014 study was conducted by Measurement Lab Consortium, or M-Lab. Researchers found that the Internet service for many consumers tended to suffer when broadband providers (i.e. the companies listed above) connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers.

“Internet service provider interconnection has a substantial impact on consumer Internet performance – sometimes a severely negative impact,” concluded the researchers. They added that business relationships tended to be a major influencer for when problems would occur, rather than any technical issues.

Taking cues from the study and consumer complaints about their Internet service, the attorney general's office launched their investigation. They are particularly interested in Internet speeds for “the last mile” from Time Warner Cable and Cablevision. “The last mile” refers specifically to the point where the telecommunication chain reaches a consumer's device.

Confident and cooperative

Each company has responded to the probe with confidence over the service that they provide. “We're confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the AG to resolve this matter,” said Bobby Amirshahi, spokesman for Time Warner Cable.

Charlie Schueler, spokesman for Cablevision, added that his company's Optimum Online service “consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds, including in FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and internal tests.” Verizon's spokesman echoes these sentiments about their own service and has expressed that the AG's office will have their full cooperation.  

The need to stay connected is more important than ever these days – just ask any teenager who doesn't have access to their phone or computer for a few hour...

Net neutrality rules in effect today

A federal appeals court panel rejected carriers' objections to new FCC rules

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has cleared the way for implementation of new net neutrality rules, allowing the rules to go into effect today.

"The Internet is the most dynamic platform for free speech ever 
invented and our Internet economy is the envy of the world. Sustaining this platform, which keeps us innovative, fierce, and creative, should not be a choice – it should be an obligation," said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Federal Communications Commission member.

The new rules basically treat the Internet like a public utility and prohibit carriers from blocking or delaying traffic. The rules had been challenged by the United States Telecom Association, which represents AT&T, Verizon and other carriers.

The FCC voted 3-2 in February to enact the new rules which are intended to prevent carriers from favoring some content providers over others. Previous attempts by the FCC to enshrine the net neutrality principle were overturned by the courts and today's ruling by a three-judge appeals court panel is not likely to end the dispute.

The telecom association has already asked the court to speed up the proceedings and further hearings are a certainty.

The carriers are arguing that the FCC's rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. Consumer groups, however, contend that smaller content providers and future start-ups could be squished by onerous fees that might be imposed by the carriers at some future date. 

“The news today from the D.C. Circuit Court is clear: the Internet is open for business for everyone. I applaud the court for its decision to deny industry’s requested stay of the FCC’s Open Internet order," said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass). "Consumers, innovators, activists and entrepreneurs – anyone who counts on the Internet to connect with the world around them – will fully benefit from these essential net neutrality protections."

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has cleared the way for implementation of new net neutrality rules, allowing the rules to go into effect today...

Charter acquires Time Warner Cable, pending regulatory approval

"Little" Charter defeats Public Enemy No. 1 is the spin we're hearing today

It was just a few weeks ago that Comcast bowed to opposition from consumer activists and skepticism from regulators and withdrew its offer for Time Warner Cable.

Now Charter is buying Time Warner for about $55 billion and predicts the deal will be approved because a combined Charter/Time Warner would be a stronger competitor for Comcast.

Consumers rate Charter Communications

Comcast, with 22 million subscribers, is the biggest cable and Internet provider in the country and has a knack for making enemies. Charter, by comparison, is a mere pup with about 6 million subscribers. Bright House, owned by the Newhouse interests, which would also be acquired by Charter, has about 2.5 million. The three companies combined would have about 20 million subscribers.

Charter is seen by the people who make their livings generating spin about deals like this as more consumer-friendly, perhaps because it's smaller. It's not that small, though. Its largest shareholder is billionaire John Malone who has enjoyed a lengthy career building gigantic media enterprises.

Back to the future

There is a certain method to this apparent madness. If you look back a few years to 2013, you'll find that Charter was then trying to acquire -- yes -- Time Warner. Time Warner said no and Charter's bid escalated into an attempted hostile takeover.

Time Warner rebuffed Charter by leaping into the waiting arms of Comcast and the invisible hand of public opinion manipulation went to work stoking up opposition to the Comcast deal.

The argument went something like this: Comcast will be oh so big that it will squash such small competitors as Netflix in the fast-congealing gob of cable and streaming video.

Activist groups like Public Knowledge and Consumers Union took to the barricades, warning that the sky would fall if Comcast's evil empire grew any larger. Charter's slightly smaller evil empire? No problem.

“It appears much less of an antitrust concern than the Comcast deal,” said Public Knowledge president Gene Kimmelman in a Washington Post report.

Squash newcomers

It seems to escape everyone's attention that Malone, 74, has spent the past several years preaching the gospel of cable consolidation as a weapon against the emerging threat that streaming video represents to cable interests. Cable operators must join forces to stamp out the newcomers, in other words. 

A combined Charter/Time Warner may have only a size 11 boot but that will likely be just about as effective as the size 12 boot Comcast/Time Warner would have brought to the party. 

Meanwhile, the largest cable provider is about to be none of the above. The AT&T/DirecTV merger appears to be smoothly moving towards completion. Anyone who thinks AT&T will deal gently with intruders on its turf should do a little research into the history of the telecommunications business.

It was just a few weeks ago that Comcast bowed to opposition from consumer activists and skepticism from regulators and withdrew i...

The cable TV industry hopes you'll forget its connections to the cable TV industry

FCC chairman turned Chief Cable Lobbyist doesn't like the word “cable”

Deservedly or not, cable TV companies have a bad reputation these days. Multiple bad reputations, in fact: one bad reputation for high prices, another alleging poor-to-nonexistent customer service, a reputation for limited or inflexible program offerings, and others.

It's bad enough that the cable industry is trying to distance itself from the very word “cable” and rebrand itself as something else.

Last week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) held its annual trade show in Chicago, a trade show formerly known as “The Cable Show.” But this year, as Bloomberg initially noted, The Cable Show was renamed “The Internet & Television Expo.”

Michael Powell, the former Federal Communications Commission head who now serves as president of the NCTA, said he “hates” the world “cable” because it's so outdated: “It doesn’t fairly capture what they do.”

Resist the temptation, here, to make snide commentary regarding just which terms would “fairly capture” what the cable companies do. According to Powell, the term “cable company” has “a proud history, but it needs to be retired,” in order to focus on “its future as it's associated with the Internet.”

Uphill climb

Consumers rate Time Warner

And yet, as TechDirt pointed out: “when your entire business revolves around using coaxial cable to deliver Internet and television service, deciding to drop the word in the hopes of forcing a brand refresh might be an uphill climb.”

Yet even if Powell succeeds in his effort to make people completely and utterly forget the word “cable” in this particular context, that doesn't mean they'll forget the complaints that gave the word such a bad reputation in the first place.

For example: last month, after a Minnesota man lost his home after a vicious wind-driven fire destroyed it (plus a couple other homes in his neighborhood), it took a full week plus media attention before Comcast would let the man cancel his Comcast account. As of press time, that story has 12 reader comments posted on it, every one critical of Comcast. One commenter asked:

Is it Comcast or Time Warner that has the worst customer service record in the entire business industry?? If not one, than the other is, and the other is in second place. Soon there will be an alternative to cable, and hopefully this company will go out of business.

Another one said: “Customer service is dead. A moment of silence. Comcast is a constant nose bleed.”

Taken at face value, it's pretty obvious neither of those commenters (nor any other on that story) have any problems with the word “cable,” nor with any of the individual syllables comprising the word; their complaints involve customer service, or the lack thereof.

Or take a gander at any of the 1,268 complaints ConsumerAffairs has collected about Time Warner cable.

On April 25, for example, Reynaldo from San Antonio, Texas had this to say about the company's tech support: “...I had to beg for someone to come out to look at my PC and TV. Finally someone came out and replaced the modem. Service sucks. I would not recommend Time Warner and am considering changing service.”

That same day, Reynaldo's fellow Texan Thomas, from Cedar Park, wrote in with a detailed complaint about Time Warner, ending with: “This is the worst customer service I have ever dealt with. They took my money which I still have not received back, lied to me about 3 scheduled appointments, and have completely wasted my time. I will never even consider doing business with them again....”

“Service sucks.” “Worst customer service.” Memo to Michael Powell and other upstanding members of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association: your bad reputation derives from what you do, not what you call yourself.

Deservedly or not, cable TV companies have a bad reputation these days. Multiple bad reputations, in fact: one bad reputation for high prices, another alle...

FCC frees up $1.7 billion for rural broadband

Universal Service funding being transitioned to broadband expansion

A long, long time ago, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission recognized that everybody needed a telephone. So it (and Congress) created something called the Universal Service Fund (USF), which took a little bite from each phone bill and applied it to wiring up remote areas.

Well, the USF still exists and just about every living being has at least one phone by now. But lots of people who live in rural areas are still pretty much locked out of enjoying broadband communications -- no Netflix, really slow Web speeds and other privations.

In fact, according to the FCC’s latest report, nearly 1 in 3 rural Americans lack access to broadband, compared to only 1 in 100 urban Americans. "Broadband" is defined as 10 megabits per second (Mbps) down/1 Mbps up.

8.5 million  

So, trying to catch up with the times, the FCC is offering the largest telecom providers $1.7 billion in subsidies to expand broadband to over 8.5 million rural Americans.

“Today’s offer of $1.675 billion for rural broadband deployment will connect millions of rural Americans who lack access to modern high-speed Internet service,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “The Connect America Fund is tackling the rural digital divide so that all Americans can have access to the jobs, education and opportunities provided by broadband, no matter where they live.”

Carriers -- meaning telephone companies -- have 120 days to decide to apply for the funding. In areas where the funding is declined, it will be available to competitive carriers like cable operators.

The funding will be available in areas (actually census blocks) "(a) where the cost of providing service according to our cost model exceeds $52.50 a month, and (b) that are not served by unsubsidized competitors offering service at speeds of at least 4 Mpbs downloads/1 Mbps uploads."

A long, long time ago, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission recognized that everybody needed a telephone. So it (and Congress) created something call...

FCC votes in favor of net neutrality; makes broadband Internet a public utility

Proposal would also apply to mobile devices

The Federal Communications Commission has voted 3-2 to require “net neutrality” rather than allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to create and charge extra for “fast lanes.”

Specifically, the FCC voted that broadband Internet service should henceforth be classified as a public utility, similar to telephone lines, with ISPs becoming utilities, as “the phone company” has been for generations. The FCC's proposal would cover not just home Internet connections, but mobile devices as well.

Discord on the Commission

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who supports net neutrality, said the policy would ensure that “no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet.” It would also ban ISPs from “blocking, ban throttling, and ban paid-prioritization fast lanes.”

But FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who cast one of the two votes against the proposal, said the FCC was “turning its back on Internet freedom” by leaving the Internet vulnerable to more government regulation.

Pai and Michael O'Reilly, who cast the other dissenting vote, also complained that the complete policy (which is over 300 pages long) was not publicly released or debated beforehand.

What's it all about?

Net neutrality, as the label suggests, is basically the idea that all websites should be treated equally (or viewed neutrally) by ISPs: You can reach all websites at the same speed, whether those websites belong to big rich companies, or small-time bloggers and mom-and-pop startups. This also means the ISPs must carry all content equally, rather than make distinctions (or charge different prices) based on content.

Proponents of net neutrality feared that without it, the Internet would be divided into haves and have-nots -- easily accessible websites for companies rich enough to pay for fast-lane service; slow and clunky websites for everyone else.

Last May, the FCC rather confusingly spoke in favor of “net neutrality” while simultaneously arguing in favor of a “fast lane” proposal that would allow ISPs to charge content providers, such as Netflix, YouTube (or any other website), extra money in order to ensure that ordinary Internet customers could reach their sites in a timely fashion.

While ISPs supported the fast lane proposals, the American public overwhelmingly did not; last November, when President Barack Obama publicly spoke against the FCC's proposed fast lanes, he cited “almost 4 million public comments” made to the FCC against fast lanes and in favor of net neutrality.

ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have long been opposed to net neutrality proposals, and are expected to sue in hope of overturning the FCC's decision.

The Federal Communications Commission has voted 3-2 to require “net neutrality” rather than allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to create and charge ex...

FCC changes broadband regulations to require almost 6X faster speeds

Minimum downloading speed raised from 4 to 25 Mbps

The number of Americans with access to “broadband Internet” took a massive plunge on Thursday, after the Federal Communications Commission voted to raise the minimum speed required for a connection to qualify as “broadband.”

The new standard is a download speed of 25 Mbps (megabytes per second) and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. The old standard had been a minimum downloading speed of 4 Mbps , and 1 Mbps to upload. By way of comparison, Netflix recommends a minimum speed of 5 Mbps to stream a video in HD, or 3 Mbps for SD.

As of last August, when the FCC first started considering a raise in broadband speed, almost one-fifth of all Americans lived in areas where 5-1 broadband was not available.

And as of today, the number of Americans who lack broadband access is vastly greater: 53 percent of rural Americans and 8 percent of urban Americans currently lack access to 25-3 Internet speeds, according to an FCC report.

If you currently have a home “broadband” connection with, for example, a downloading speed of 10 Mbps, the new FCC ruling does not mean that your home Internet connection will now become 2.5 times faster. Most likely, this means that, at least for the immediate future, you'll have the same Internet connection as before, only your ISP won't be able to call it “broadband” anymore.

Hopefully, though, your ISP will invest in network upgrades so that it can once again call itself “broadband,” since everybody knows that in Internet terms, “non-broadband” is basically synonymous with “slow.”

The number of Americans with access to “broadband Internet” took a massive plunge on Thursday, after the Federal Communications Commission voted to raise t...

Class-action suit claims Comcast forces residential customers to pay for its public wi-fi hotspots

Lawsuit alleges higher electricity costs, slower connections and greater risks for home router users

A federal class action suit filed in San Francisco last week accuses Comcast of forcing its residential customersto bear the costs of building and maintaining Comcast's for-profit network of public wi-fi hotspots.

It's no secret that Comcast's plan for public wi-fi entails piggybacking on residential routers (as opposed to costlier-for-them options, such as building a network of transmission towers). In other words: your home router becomes a public wi-fi spot, although in this context, “public” does not mean “free,” merely that anybody with the right subscription credentials can access it.

Last March, we told you how Comcast's then-newest Xfinity routers automatically set up a second wi-fi network -- wide open and available for anyone within range. But Comcast said at the time that your residential network would not be in any way affected by the public network going through your router, and Comcast executive Tom Nagel told the Chicago Tribune that “They'll look like two separate networks and they'll act like two separate networks …. Any use on the public side doesn't impact the private side.”

Not true, suit claims

The class-action suit filed against Comcast last week basically alleges that such reassuring claims aren't true. Courthouse News reports that on Dec. 4, lead plaintiff Toyer Grear sued Comcast on the grounds that it “has externalized the costs of its national wi-fi network onto its customers,” according to the lawsuit. These costs allegedly include electricity: Grear's lawsuit says the public-hotspot routers use considerably more electricity than the old private-only routers, resulting in electric bills up to 30 or 40 percent higher than before, which the lawsuit calls “a cost borne by the unwitting customer.”

The complaint also says that tests of the actual routers and their total energy consumption suggests that “Comcast will be pushing tens of millions of dollars per month of the electricity bills needed to run their nationwide public wi-fi network onto consumers,” according to court documents. The lawsuit also alleges that home wi-fi customers whose routers also power public hotspots suffer slower home connections and increased security and privacy risks, due to the countless strangers who are using their home routers.

Comcast has not commented on the suit, which seeks a declaratory judgment, an injunction, restitution and damages for violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act and California's Unfair Competition Law.

A federal class action suit filed in San Francisco last week accuses Comcast of forcing its residential customers to bear the costs of building and maintai...

Obama urges FCC to adopt strict net neutrality rules

He calls for no fast lane, no throttling, no blocking

As the Federal Communications Commission begins considering rules to ensure free and equal access to the Internet, President Obama is weighing in with his suggestions.

"An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life," Obama said in a statement. "By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known."

Obama suggests the FCC "should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online." He listed these priorities:

  • No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
  • No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
  • No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

Obama noted that more than 4 million consumers have submitted public comments urging the adoption of net neutrality rules but conceded that a federal court had struck down the FCC's previous attempt to impose new regulations "not because it disagreed with the need to protect net neutrality, but because it believed the FCC had taken the wrong legal approach."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that he does not expect to have a final draft of proposed new rules before early next year.

As the Federal Communications Commission begins considering rules to ensure free and equal access to the Internet, President Obama is weighing in with his ...

Net neutrality outpulls "Nipplegate" as advocates flood the FCC with comments

Advocates of a "free and open Internet" seem to think regulation is the key

Net neutrality is even bigger than "nipplegate." The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports receiving a record 1,477,301 public comments about the issue since July.

The previous record of 1.4 million comments was set back in 2004 when a supposed “wardrobe malfunction” during the halftime show at the Super Bowl led to portions of Janice Jackson’s anatomy being displayed to an estimated audience of 111 million.

Many Internet heavyweights -- and not a few lightweights -- have been hounding their users, customers and fans to contact the FCC and Congress to express support for the principle that all users should have equal and unfettered access to the Internet.

Discussions around the issue had been rather academic until video streaming caught on and companies like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon began burning up vast swaths of bandwidth sending TV shows and movies to their subscribers.

This caused ISPs like Verizon to begin putting pressure on Netflix et al to pay more.

Awesomeness at stake

Corporate behemoths on the content side of the battle -- Twitter, Netflix, Reddit, Google and so forth -- managed to spin the issue so that civil libertarians and many consumers saw it as a free speech battle and took to the barricades.

Google, never shy about selling preferred placement on its search pages, issued a statement warning that the very awesomeness of the Internet was at stake. 

"If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies’ content over others, that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome," the search giant wrote in a message to Internet activists Wednesday. "No Internet access provider should block or degrade Internet traffic, nor should they sell ‘fast lanes’ that prioritize particular Internet services over others."

Unnoticed in all the hubbub were previous court rulings that had blocked the FCC's attempts to impose net neutrality principles on the Internet. Current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed a compromise often called "net neutality with a fast lane" but it has failed to pass the sniff test with neutrality advocates, who apparently would prefer to pass on the cost of upgrading the network to consumers.

Some technophiles have gone so far as to demand that the FCC declare the Internet a public utility and regulate it in much the same manner as telephone companies were regulated back in the Dark Ages (i.e., before the Internet came along). 

This would undoubtedly help alleviate the nation's unemployment problem by providing jobs for untold numbers of bureaucrats but how that stimulates innovation isn't always all that apparent.

A godsend for K Street

Truth is, Congressional action will most likely be needed to get around the legal roadblocks to enshrining net neutrality principles.

Compared to simply imposing the utility solution, throwing the matter into the arms of Congress may not immediately create a new army of regulators but it will certainly solve any shortfall in lobbying contracts on K Street, setting up a feeding frenzy that will sustain influence-peddlers for years, putting throngs of offspring through expensive colleges while financing beachfront homes and upgraded primary dwellings in McLean and Bethesda.

The downtown luncheon business will also enjoy quite a spurt.

Turning to Congress may, in fact, well set off the biggest lobbying battle since the titanic decade-long struggle that resulted in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which brought a hungry populace such wonders as 976 numbers, the ability to create your own bogus Caller IDs and, perhaps best of all, the requirement that telephone companies pass along third-party bills for such services as daily horoscopes and porn updates.

In other words, be careful what you wish for, net neutralitarans.

---

(Disclosure: The author was a public affairs executive who represented telecommunications clients during the 1990s). 

Net neutrality is even bigger than "nipplegate." The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports receiving a record 1,477,301 public comments about the...

FCC and states, Democrats and Republicans, butt heads over municipal broadband regulations

Can states ban municipal networks, or can the FCC override state bans?

Earlier this month, the FCC suggested changing its current broadband standards: if the proposed changes go through, the minimum downloading speed required for an Internet connection to call itself “broadband” would rise to 10 Mbps (megabytes per second), more than double the current minimum broadband standard of only 4 Mbps. Even at the current low standard, almost 20 percent of Americans live in places without access to broadband.

But minimum speed is not the only broadband issue the FCC's currently considering. The question of whether or not to allow municipal broadband networks in states that have banned them is also raising heated partisan debates among national lawmakers.

Chairman Tom Wheeler has long said that the FCC has, or should have, the authority to override any state law banning municipalities from establishing public broadband networks (20 states already have such laws, thanks to legislation supported by cable companies and the ISP lobby in general).

So on August 19, two Democratic lawmakers – Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania – published an open letter/press release urging Wheeler to do just that.

The press release on Markey's website says, in part:

The June 27 Doyle-Markey letter – which was also signed by Senators Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, and Corey A. Booker, along with Representatives Henry A. Waxman and Anna G. Eshoo – urged the FCC to use all of its authority to promote affordable, high quality broadband service in communities across the country:


“We are pleased by your recent comments about community broadband, particularly your assertion that municipal governments should not be inhibited if they wish to pursue the creation of their own networks…. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.” 

A number of municipalities across the country have undertaken efforts to address their residents’ unmet broadband needs through a number of means, including creation of their own broadband networks. In recent years, however, a number of state governments have enacted laws prohibiting municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure. As a result, many communities across the country still don’t have adequate access to fast, reliable, and affordable broadband networks.

Republicans, by contrast, think states should have the right to ban municipal broadband networks, and the FCC should not have authority to override those states.

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to FCC Republican Ajit Pai, gave an Aug. 20 speech before the National Conference of State Legislatures in which he said that states should have the right to ban public municipal broadband, and also warned the current Democratic-led Congress and FCC against imposing partisan policies likely to be overturned by future Republican-led ones (or, depending on how you'd interpret it, a warning for one party not to use power in ways it wouldn't like once the other party gets into power):

So those who are potential supporters of the current FCC interpreting Section 706 to give the Commission the authority to preempt state laws about municipal broadband should think long and hard about what a future FCC might do with that power.

“Section 706” refers to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – indeed, you could say this entire argument stems from disagreement over exactly what it means.

That section starts out by saying that:

(a) IN GENERAL-The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms) by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.

In other words ...

So here's the debate: the FCC is supposed to encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans, and in today's Internet-dependent world, that definitely includes improving America's dismal broadband infrastructure. The current global average broadband speed is 17.9 Mbps, whereas America's current minimum broadband speed is only 4 Mbps, and almost 20 percent of Americans don't even have access to that.

What is the best way to make fast and reliable broadband service available to all Americans -- public, tax-funded municipal networks, or privately owned networks such as those run by Cox, Comcast, Time-Warner and other ISPs? If cities do develop public broadband networks, will that discourage private investment in those cities?

In general, it appears that the current batch of Democratic lawmakers and FCC members believe public municipal broadband is a good way to bring fast connections to areas where they doesn't exist, whereas the Republican lawmakers and FCC members support states' rights to ban public networks on the grounds that private ISPs can better provide broadband service without facing unfair tax-funded competition.

The question of whether or not to allow municipal broadband networks in states that have banned them is raising heated partisan debates among national...

FCC considers raising broadband speed standards

American Internet connection speeds much lower than global average

How fast must an Internet connection be, to qualify as broadband? According to current FCC standards, “broadband” status requires a minimum downloading speed of 4 Mbps (megabytes per second), and 1 Mbps to upload.

But this week the FCC started seeking public comment on a proposal to raise that standard, and require broadband download speeds of at least 10 Mbps.

By way of comparison, Netflix currently recommends a minimum speed of 5 Mbps to stream a video in HD (compared to 3 Mbps for SD).

Under current 4 Mbps FCC standards, almost one-fifth of the current U.S., population lacks access to a reliable broadband connection. If the higher 10 Mbps standard is adopted, that percentage is certain to grow.

No comparison

How do American broadband speeds compare to the rest of the world? Not well; our Internet connections are slower and clunkier than what most advanced nations enjoy.

In February 2012, the average global broadband speed was already slightly higher than 10 Mbps. That was two and a half years ago, a long time by computer or Internet technological-evolution standards.

By April 2014, the global average was up to 17.9 Mbps and at least 12 places on Earth had average connection speeds significantly higher than the United States.

Hong Kong had the fasest average connection speed in the world: 65.4 Mbps for downloading. American Internet speeds also lag considerably behind those of such countries as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Israel, Romania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Of course, where Internet speeds are concerned, those countries and cities all share an advantage over the United States: they have much higher population densities packed into much smaller landmasses.

There's only 31 square miles in all of Hong Kong, compared to almost 3 million square miles of land in the continental U.S., and wiring 31 square miles for super-fast Internet speeds is obviously easier than wiring 3 million miles (even if you ignore the wilderness areas). But even if we can't be as well-wired as Hong Kong, we still have plenty of room for improvement.

The FCC will seek public comment for 45 days.

...

Proposed bicameral bill would ban Internet "fast lanes"

The legislative battle over net neutrality continues

On June 17, Democrats in Congress and the Senate have put forward a proposed piece of legislation which, if successful, would ban so-called “fast lanes” on the Internet.

In May, the FCC issued a rather confusing report claiming to support net neutrality, the idea that Internet providers must treat all content equally, so that viewers can see all websites at the same speed, rather than enjoy quick access to the websites of wealthy companies willing to pay fast lane fees while suffering slow, clunky service everywhere else.

Yet the FCC confusingly -- at least to some -- spoke in favor of net neutrality while simultaneously allowing ISP to offer “fast lanes” to companies willing to pay extra.

In response, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Representative Doris Matsui of California proposed the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act which, if passed, would ban ISPs from offering paid fast-lane services.

The Washington Post, which reported on the proposal Tuesday morning before it was actually introduced, noted:

Leahy and Matsui's proposed ban on fast lanes would apply only to the connections between consumers and their ISPs — the part of the Internet governed by the FCC's proposed net neutrality rules. The FCC's current proposal tacitly allows for the creation of a tiered Internet for content companies, though the commission has asked the public whether it should ban the practice as "commercially unreasonable."

Whether a bill proposed by two Democrats will get enough Republican and Democratic votes to actually pass into law remains to be seen.

On June 17, Democrats in Congress and the Senate put forward a proposed piece of legislation which, if successful, would ban so-called “fast lanes&rd...

Other shoe drops: Comcast planning data caps, report says

The feds have opened the door to carriers gouging customers on both ends of their pipes

If you're looking to be relieved of your worldly goods, you can hang out in a casino, buy a batch of Lotto tickets daily and give big piles of money to everyone you meet.

Or you can just sign up for cable, telephone and Internet service.

The ink is not even dry on the Federal Communications Commission's new policy that lets companies like Comcast charge companies like Netflix higher rates to ensure that their streaming video moves smoothly and quickly and now the perhaps over-confident carriers are beginning to move towards their longtime dream -- getting more money on both ends.

A Comcast executive is being quoted today as saying he expects the company will roll out "usage-based billing" — what most people call "data caps" — to all of its customers within five years.

"I would predict that in five years Comcast at least would have a usage-based billing model rolled out across its footprint," Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said, according to ThomsonReuters (transcript).

Forked tongue

But hey, put yourself in Comcast's shoes. Currently consumers pay you $100 or so per month for Internet access and other "bundled services." If they want faster Internet connections, they pay a few bucks more.

Netflix and other big content companies pay for their local connection to the Internet but until recently, they haven't paid a premium to the Comcasts of the world even though they use more than half the available broadband capacity most days.

So now that they have their hands in the pockets of the content providers, Comcast and the other carriers are just doing what big monopolies do -- sharpening their plans to shake more money out of consumers. 

Come on, did you really expect anything else?

If you're looking to be relieved of your worldly goods, you can hang out in a casino, buy a batch of Lotto tickets daily and give big piles of money to eve...

FCC promotes "net neutrality" with a "fast lane"

All websites will be treated equally; some more equally than others

It's hard not to feel confused — or at least suspect that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler might be confused — when you read today's news reports that the FCC has voted for “net neutrality,” and hear Wheeler praise “net neutrality” and a free and open internet even though the actual FCC rules seem to run counter to what “net neutrality” is supposed to be.

Net neutrality, as the label suggests, is basically the idea that all websites should be treated equally (or viewed neutrally) by Internet service providers: you can reach all websites at the same speed, whether websites belonging to big rich companies or little blogs and mom-and-pop startups.

But what the “net neutrality” the FCC passed today also allows for an Internet “fast lane” granting certain companies faster connection speeds provided they pay for the privilege.

Earlier this year, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast to ensure Comcast subscribers could get faster connections to the Netflix site; Netflix later signed a similar deal with Verizon. The new FCC rules basically say yes, that's fine; Comcast, Verizon and other providers can indeed charge Netflix higher rates for faster service.

But is that necessarily unfair? Just yesterday, after all, came reports that streaming video services like Netflix account for more than half the broadband traffic in North America.

Good arguments?

Perhaps there are good arguments to make, then, that Netflix should pay more since it consumes more traffic. Or should Internet customers who use lots of bandwidth — the people actually streaming those Netflix videos — pay more than those who do not?

They already do, or soon will. Comcast — which now charges Netflix higher costs for faster connections — is also imposing broadband caps on its customers.

So there's a limit to how much bandwidth you can use for Netflix or other services, in addition to the extra fees Netflix and other services pay to ensure you can access them in a timely manner.

Critics of the FCC proposal fear than the Internet will basically be divided into haves and have-nots: easily accessible websites for companies rich enough to pay for fast-lane service, slow and clunky websites for everyone else.

But FCC Chairman Wheeler, while supporting Internet fast lanes, still said, “there is one Internet. Not a fast Internet, not a slow Internet, one Internet.” One Internet with a fast lane.

It's hard not to feel confused—or at least suspect that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler might be confused—when you read today's news reports that the ...

Charter to buy millions of subscribers from Comcast, Time Warner

The deal is intended to smooth the way for approval of the cable giants' merger

Comcast, working to engineer approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable, has put together a complex deal under which Charter Communications would take over 3.9 million customers.

The deal would reduce Comcast's post-merger market share to less than 30% nationwide while making Charter the second-largest U.S. cable operator. 

Consumers rate Charter Communications

Charter would take over systems in Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana and Alabama, while divesting systems in California, New England, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, Washington and Virginia.

A new, spun-off company would take over systems that are near Charter’s existing footprint in Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin.

In the first stage of the three-part deal, Charter would buy 1.4 million Time Warner Cable customers for $7.3 billion when the Comcast-Time Warner merger is completed. 

Charter would also form a holding company that would get a one-third stake in a Comcast spin-off that would have 2.5 million customers.

Another 1.6 million Charter and Comcast customers would be swapped.

“The transactions announced today will provide Charter with greater scale, growth opportunities and improved geographical rationalization of our cable systems, which in turn will drive value for shareholders and more effective customer service,” Charter Chief Executive Officer Tom Rutledge said in a statement.

Rutledge said Charter’s new "footprint" would be easier to operate since the shuffling would put its systems closer to each other. It would also boost Charter's subscriber count to 8.2 million, nearly double its current total.

Charter Communications Inc. (CHTR) reached an agreement to take control of 3.9 million more cable-TV customers, helping Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) ease the appr...

FCC tries again to adopt "net neutrality" rules for the Internet

The courts have struck down its two earlier attempts

The latest proposed "net neutrality" rules may not be exactly neutral but Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler says they're a step in the right direction. And Wheeler says early reports about the proposed rules have been dead wrong.

"To be very direct, the proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted," he said in a blog post Thursday afternoon.

The commission is proposing new rules that would let big companies -- or any company for that matter -- pay broadband providers a fee for what amounts to premium service; if Netflix doesn't want its movies and TV shows getting jammed up behind other traffic, it could pay Cablevision, Verizon and other broadband providers for a clearer channel.

This sparks outrage in advocates of the net neutrality principle, which holds that the Internet should treat everyone equally. But with Netflix and YouTube alone gobbling up half of the available bandwidth on the Internet most days, Wheeler might argue that it's unrealistic for them to get the same treatment as Al's Garage and Body Shop.

The FCC had earlier tried to enforce a more "pure" net neutrality but the rules it drafted were struck down by a federal appeals court, just as they had been a few years earlier. Wheeler is hoping this attempt will be more successful.

Some consumer advocates fear that if Netflix or Disney has to pay more to assure glitch-free transmissions, it will eventually pass those costs on to its customers. Others counter that the streaming video market is becoming so competitive that it will be a long time before anyone dares raise rates drastically.

Besides, Wheeler says, his plan will forbid Comcast and other carriers from purposely throttling transmissions from content providers who don't pay for special handling, while at the same time allowing the carriers to offer premium services to companies willing to pay for it. He insisted in his blog post that broadband carriers -- commonly known as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) -- would not be able to take actions that would harm consumers.

To be clear, this is what the Notice will propose:

  1. That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;
  2. That no legal content may be blocked; and
  3. That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.

The proposal is being circulated at the commission today and will be voted on at its May 15 meeting. 

The latest proposed "net neutrality" rules may not be exactly neutral but Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler says they're a step ...

Public interest groups oppose Comcast/Time Warner cable merger

Open letter urges FCC and attorney general to stop it

There's about 7.5 billion people currently in the world, and one of them is bound to be of the opinion “Y'know, this proposed Comcast/Time Warner cable merger sounds like it would be genuinely awesome, and I believe this even though I neither work for nor own stock in those companies.”

Unfortunately, I was unable to track down this person and request a quotable comment before I had to file this-here article about the more than 50 public interest groups who signed an open letter opposing the planned merger, on the grounds that it would be bad for consumers, free speech advocates, free press, public broadcasting, and pretty much everybody who isn't a Comcast stockholder-type.

On April 8, FreePress released the open letter (available in .pdf form here) to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, opposing the proposed merger for numerous reasons, including: it “would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure,” and “would give Comcast control over half of the nation’s next generation broadband customers and more than half of the pay TV/Internet bundled subscribers.”

Better prices?

Might those subscribers at least hope for better prices? “In the last four years, Comcast has raised its basic cable rates in some of its markets by nearly 70%.”

Ouch. Well, maybe they needed the money for infrastructure upgrades or something. Maybe. If so, why should so many public-interest groups are opposed to this merger?

Comcast has repeatedly flexed its corporate and political muscles to get what it wants, even if that has meant harming competition, consumers and communities. Around the country Comcast has fought community efforts to bridge the digital divide with municipal broadband networks. It has lobbied statehouses and local governments to undermine public, educational and government access television. It has blocked its customers’ Internet traffic. And it was fined for failing to fulfill the commitments it made to secure approval of its merger with NBCUniversal. The Comcast Time Warner Cable merger would give Comcast unthinkable gatekeeper power over our commercial, social and civic lives. . Everyone from the biggest business to the smallest startup, from elected officials to everyday people, would have to cross through Comcast’s gates.

Oh, that's why.

Incidentally, April 8 was also the day that the Consumerist (official blog of the Consumers Union and Consumer Reports) announced the results of their annual “Worst Company in America” readers' poll for 2014; Comcast beat out Monsanto to win the uncoveted award for the second time.

There's about 7.5 billion people currently in the world, and one of them is bound to be of the opinion “Y'know, this proposed Comcast/Time Warner cab...

While no one's watching, Comcast is building a nationwide wi-fi network

A big build-out in Chicago may bring the total number of Xfinity hot spots to 1 million

Those cable companies are sneaky, all right. They're always trying to put one over on us. Take Comcast. It's not content just to buy NBC and Time Warner, now it's setting up little neighborhood wi-fi networks in places you'd never imagine.

Like your back yard.

Yep, big bad Comcast has been quietly bringing wireless broadband to neighborhoods all over America. Besides providing a private, password-protected network inside your home, the company's newest Xfinity routers automatically set up a second wi-fi network -- wide open and available for anyone within range.

Consumers rate Comcast Internet Service

The company emphasizes that these are two separate networks. What goes on on the second public network won't affect your download speeds or impinge on your privacy in any way. 

"They'll look like two separate networks and they'll act like two separate networks," said Tom Nagel, who heads the Xfinity Wi-Fi initiative for Comcast, according to The Chicago Tribune. "Any use on the public side doesn't impact the private side."

Tipping point

The program has been conducted quietly so far in test markets around the country but Comcast has gone public in Chicago, which local boosters say could be the tipping point for making Comcast the biggest national operator of neighborhood wi-fi networks.

Demand for wi-fi has been steadily growing as smartphone and tablet users look for a cheaper alternative to costly cellphone broadband networks. Deploying cheap or even free wi-fi is a way for the cable companies to put a dent in Verizon, AT&T and Sprint and building the basis for customer loyalty programs. 

The neighborhood networks are free to Xfinity subscribers. Nonsubscribers will get two free hours a month; beyond that, they can access Xfinity Wi-Fi on a per-use basis. Rates run from $2.95 per hour to $19.95 per week, according to Comcast.

Travel freely

Xfinity subscribers will be able to travel freely without having to log in and out as they move from one hot spot to another, so that in time the network may grow to rival the cellular telephone networks, which are much more expensive to build and maintain.

Comcast has said it is closing in on having 1 million hot spots nationwide. Best of all, from Comcast's standpoint, is that the build-out is virtually free. The consumer provides the electricity for the router and the circuit already exists, so the only capital expense is the router. 

Slick, no?

Those cable companies are sneaky, all right. They're always trying to put one over on us. Take Comcast. It's not content just to buy NBC and Time Warner, n...

Comcast buying Time Warner Cable, will cut 3 million customers loose

Lengthy regulatory review is likely to slow completion of the deal

Like the very hungry caterpillar, Comcast appears determined to eat everything in its path. Already the nation's largest cable operator, Comcast now says it will buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion.

This comes just a few months after it completed its purchase of television network and movie studio NBCUniversal.

Consumers rate Comcast Cable Service

What this means for consumers in general is that an already dominant company will now have an even firmer grasp on TV and cable shows and movies and the distribution networks that deliver them.

For 8 million Time Warner Cable customers, it means they're about to become Comcast-- a/k/a XFINITY -- customers. This may be a good thing, as Comcast is generally regarded as maintaining high-quality Internet and TV services while Time Warner Cable is not on anyone's list of greatest companies ever. 

Another 3 million Time Warner Cable customers will be cast adrift, landing in the welcoming arms of Cablevision, Cox or Charter, which had made its own run at Time Warner.

The 8 million new customers will bring Comcast's total customer base to about 30 million. But the company insists consumers -- and, more significantly, regulators -- shouldn't worry. It will still have less than 30 percent of the market for pay TV subscribers, it insists.

Consumers rate Time Warner

"The combination of Time Warner Cable and Comcast creates an exciting opportunity for our company, for our customers, and for our shareholders," said Brian L. Roberts, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Comcast Corporation. 

Subscribers shouldn't worry unduly just yet. The acquisition faces a lengthy regulatory review before much of anything actually happens.

Like the very hungry caterpillar, Comcast appears determined to eat everything in its path. Already the nation's largest cable operator, Comcast now says i...

Appeals Court nixes net neutrality

Court rules FCC doesn't have the authority to police Internet service providers

Net neutrality is not one of those issues that makes consumers' blood boil, although maybe it should. Basically, it's the principle that Internet service providers should treat all traffic equally -- whether it's a movie from Netflix, Google search results or streaming music from Spotify. 

Who wouldn't agree with that, right? Well, the big carriers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, among others. They would like to be able to give favored treatment to companies that pay for the bandwidth they use.

Unfortunately, among those who don't agree with the principle is a federal appeals court in Washington, which today ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to bar Internet carriers from favoring one type of traffic over another.

In a prepared statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, “I am committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment. We will consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.”

No change?

In a prepared statement, Verizon said nothing would in the ruling will change the way consumers access the Internet.

"The court's decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the Internet," the company said.

Also weighing in was Michael Beckerman, President and CEO of The Internet Association, who said the ruling could endanger the continued success of the Internet in creating jobs and new services for consumers.

"The Internet creates new jobs, new technologies, and new ways of communicating around the globe," Beckerman said. "Its innovation without permission ecosystem flows from a decentralized, open architecture that has few barriers to entry. Yet, the continued success of this amazing platform should not be taken for granted.

"The Internet Association supports enforceable rules that ensure an open Internet, free from government control or discriminatory, anticompetitive actions by gatekeepers. We look forward to studying the D.C. Circuit’s opinion and working with the FCC and policymakers on the Hill to protect Internet freedom, foster innovation and economic growth, and empower users," he said.

Net neutrality is not one of those issues that makes consumers' blood boil, although maybe it should. Basically, it's the principle that Internet service p...

More money flowing to rural broadband efforts

Telecoms getting infusion of federal cash as an incentive to provide service

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced the second release of federal funds to subsidize broadband infrastructure to serve rural areas of the U.S. Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn announced another $485 million is going to the Connect America Fund.

The tax dollars will go to private corporations in the broadband business. In exchange for receiving the money, the companies will provide fixed-line high speed broadband services in areas where it might not make economic sense otherwise. The government is kicking in some money as a way to convince the companies to make the investment.

In rural areas, consumers are few and far between, making it expensive to provide service to them. Many rural consumers get their Internet service through satellite providers or local wireless providers.

15 million still going slow

According to FCC estimates, some 15 million Americans, most of them living in rural areas, lack broadband, creating economic dislocation. Without high-speed Internet, consumers and businesses may find they lack access to jobs, education, and other opportunities.

To show you what broadband services are available at your address, the FCC created this map tool

With so much of commerce now online, businesses without broadband are cut off some significant parts of the economy. So are consumers. The Connect America Fund has the aim of making sure broadband access is available to anyone who wants it by the end of the decade.

The money isn't coming from a new tax but from a very old one. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Congress added a small tax to consumers' telephone bills, called the Universal Service Fund tax, to be used to expand telephone service to rural areas.

Since that need has long been met, the FCC is diverting that money to encourage the build-out of broadband infrastructure. CenturyLink is one of the companies getting the money in this latest phase of the program. It stands to receive $90 million.

CenturyLink subsidy

"CenturyLink and the commission share the same goal of delivering high-speed Internet services to Americans who currently don't have access to them," said Steve Davis, CenturyLink executive vice president for public policy and government relations. "We praise Chairwoman Clyburn for her dedication to communications issues that impact rural Americans and for being a strong proponent that all of the CAF I money left over from the first round be available to rural consumers. Clyburn has been a staunch advocate for consumers and a tireless champion of the economic and educational opportunities that come with broadband."

CenturyLink received $35 million from the Connect America Fund in 2012 to deploy broadband service to 45,000 homes in unserved rural areas. The company said it is also investing hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money to supplement the money from the government.

The FCC says the money for the Connect America Fund is mostly coming from the elimination of waste in the old program, funded by the Universal Service Funds. Through better management, the agency says, it is eliminating wasteful subsidies and targeting them where they are needed most.

The Connect America Fund is a rare Washington initiative that draws support from both Democrats and Republicans. One hundred members of Congress from both sides of the aisle contacted the FCC earlier this year, urging it to speed up distribution of broadband funds.

Some other telecommunications companies have yet to say if they will accept funds. By doing so they would commit themselves to spending a matching amount to carry out the construction. Not all are willing to do that, at least not yet.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced the second release of federal funds to subsidize broadband infrastructure to serve rural areas of...

Feds find broadband speeds hitting -- and exceeding -- their targets

Even satellite service is meeting its advertising speeds, FCC study finds

Think you're not getting the download speed your broadband provider promised? You might be right but a study by the Federal Communications Commission finds many providers are not only meeting but exceeding their advertised speeds.

That's a big improvement over 2011, when the first FCC survey found many providers not delivering the speeds they promised.

In the latest report, Verizon FiOS service averaged download speeds that were 118% of advertised download rates. Cablevision was at 115% and Comcast 103%.

“Faster broadband has brought untold benefits to millions of Americans - from distance learning to distance healthcare," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said. "This is good news for consumers and the economy, but we can’t be satisfied. To unleash innovation and realize broadband’s full potential, we must continue to see increases in broadband speed and capacity.”

In this year’s report, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) maintained 
their performance levels, delivering 97 percent of advertised speeds during peak periods. One provider significantly improved actual performance speeds by 13 percent from the previous report.

Did they do it by downgrading the speeds they promised, as some skeptics might suspect? No, said the FCC, the providers have actually improved their networks to improve performance.

Consumers have also doing some upgrading of their own, the report found, ordering faster speeds to satisfy their thirst for movies, music and other bandwidth-hungry applications.

The FCC found that the average speed tier subscribed to by consumers increased from 14.3 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 15.6 Mbps. Nearly half of consumers who subscribed to speeds of less than 1 Mbps six months ago have adopted higher speeds, and nearly a quarter of the users who subscribed to speeds between 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps have upgraded to faster speed tiers. 

Satellite performance

In what may come as a surprise to many consumers, the FCC also found that "significant improvements" have been made to satellite broadband technology service quality.

For the first time, the report includes results on satellite technology based on test results from ViaSat, a major satellite services provider.

"Although satellite technology has the highest overall latency, test results indicate that during peak periods, 90 percent of satellite consumers received 140 percent or better of the advertised speed of 12 Mbps," the report said, adding that there was "very little difference" between peak and non-peak performance.

ViaSat and HughesNet have both launched new satellites, which they say should provide vastly better service than their earlier models, a claim that's supported by the FCC's findings.

The "latency" that the FCC report referred to is the time it takes a signal to travel from earth to the satellite and back again. This creates a noticeable lag that often causes consumers to see the service as "slow" when in fact the data transfer rate is usually on par with advertised speeds, as the FCC report confirmed. 

Until someone figures out how to increase the speed of light, the satellite lag is here to stay and is not the fault of the service provider. 

To read the complete February 2013 "Measuring Broadband America" report, see www.fcc.gov/measuring-broadband-america.

The Federal Communications Commission today released the results of its ongoing, nationwide performance study of residential broadband service in its ...

Putting Satellite Broadband Service to the Test

Exede's broadband service stands out in a field of limited rural options

HughesNet recently launched a next generation satellite to provide high-speed Internet service to rural America, matching a step taken in January by its rival Exede, which is owned by ViaSat. Both companies say their new services are nothing like the old satellite-delivered broadband.

I admit I was a skeptic. Having lived in rural Northumberland County, Va., for the last ten years, I have tried just about everything to keep pace with the Internet as it has required more and more speed.

In the early- to mid-2000s I tried both HughesNet and Wild Blue, also owned by ViaSat, and found them totally inadequate. For the last few years I have relied on Verizon Wireless' old Mobile Broadband service (now HotSpot) for Internet service at home.

Just getting by

There were many challenges. First, it's a measured plan with only 5 GB of data per month. That meant careful monitoring on my usage. Watching a movie was out of the question, but not just because of the data it would consume. The 3G speed just wasn't conducive to watching streaming video.

I was also three and a half miles from the nearest Verizon tower so my signal was marginal. With a booster antenna installed in the attic I could usually get close to 1 mps download.

But then smartphones came along and suddenly the demands on the network rapidly increased. On a good day my download speed was .6 mps and the congestion on the network meant pages would often time out before they loaded.

While my urban colleagues long ago upgraded their DSL connections to FiOS, to me DSL was only a dream. Half of Northumberland County is served by Verizon switching stations still using analog equipment. Despite repeated appeals from county officials, Verizon has declined to upgrade its system.

New generation

So last month, when I interviewed Lisa Scalpone, VP Marketing for ViaSat, I was intrigued when she said the new satellite system was nothing like the old ones. Because Exede was the same price I was paying for Verizon Wireless, and I would get 10 GB of data per month instead of 5, I decided to give it a try.

The system was installed on October 20. The installer appeared knowledgeable and competent, properly siting the dish, setting up the system and making sure each computer in the house was connected.

After using the system for a few weeks, I have to say I am impressed, with a couple of caveats. The advertised download speed is 12 mps. Scalpone said I could expect it to actually be slightly higher. In fact, it's something less. Not enough to notice, but less than advertised.

When measured by the Speakeasy.net speed test, the download speed was 10.21 mps with an upload rate of 2.09 mps. When measured using SpeedTest.net, the download speed was only 6.79 with an upload rate of 2.94 mps. The “ping rate,” the response time from my computer to the server, is 724. A normal DSL connection has a ping rate of about 40. The higher the number, the longer the delay.

Latency

And that gets to the real meat of the argument against satellite broadband, the “latency,” or lag between the time you click on a link and the time the page begins to load on your computer. On the old systems latency was seen as a huge problem. But Scalpone says latency was not responsible for consumers' frustrating delays; congestion on the satellite was. That has been rectified, she says, with a bigger, faster satellite.

Latency is still there, of course, because you really can't do anything about the distance between your dish and the satellite in earth orbit. Scalpone said the delay should only be a half-second. We have found it to be more like three to four seconds. While that's slightly annoying, it's easily overlooked because, once the page begins to load, it's extremely fast. Video plays with no buffering.

The system also seems very stable. In the short time we have had Exede there have been no outages or dropouts. The service was even rock solid during Hurricane Sandy.

The satellite providers will tell you that the service might not be right for everyone. The latency issue makes online gaming problematic and Skype or other Internet phone service is a no-go. If you are an extremely heavy user, you might need to pay more for a larger data package. But for the average user, 10 GB should be ample.

I have an office in nearby Richmond, Va., where I have access to DSL Internet. As I have used the two systems over the last couple of weeks, I have been able to compare them.

Compares favorably to DSL

The DSL system provides a consistent 5 mps download speed. Because of its low latency, it seems a little bit faster. It also provides for unlimited data and is about $10 a month cheaper.

For those reasons, if I had access to DSL, I would probably choose that. The fact is, however, I don't have that choice at my rural digs and the new generation of satellite-delivered Internet gives me -- and the rest of rural America -- an option to catch up with our urban peers. And a pretty good option, at that, and it's available right now, not in a few years.

For policymakers trying to find ways to expand broadband service to rural America, the new satellite systems are something that deserve close attention. Satellite broadband requires no infrastructure investment, beyond a dish, and could be a reasonable alternative to huge taxpayer subsidies to major telecommunications companies.

HughesNet recently launched a next generation satellite to provide high-speed Internet service to rural America, matching a step taken in January by its ri...

Satellite Internet Providers Hope to Get a Second Look

Companies say next-generation satellites make huge difference

As policymakers continue to debate how best to bring more broadband service to unserved rural areas of America, satellite providers say they deserve another look.

ViaSat Communications' Exede Internet service, which took over satellite provider WildBlue, launched a new satellite in January. HughesNet, its competitor, followed suit last month. Both companies now offer a service they say is far superior to what was offered in the past.

Explosive growth

When WildBlue began marketing satellite Internet service in October 2004, the Internet was in an explosive period of growth, but no one knew how quickly that would play out.

“We started with the idea that we were going to provide the most blazing-fast 1.5mps service the world had ever seen,” said Lisa Scalpone, VP Marketing for ViaSat.”That was the state-of-the-art of DSL at the time we conceived of all of this.”

WildBlue and its competitor Directway, later acquired by Hughes, were designed for an Internet that was changing by the day.

“It was good at first but then the Internet passed us by,” Scalpone said. “The speeds of cable and DSL blew by us, and we did didn't predict what the year-over-year growth in Internet traffic would be.”

Video?

And the idea that consumers would soon be watching video online hadn't even entered the equation. So the systems faced a few problems. Subscribers used more and more bandwidth yet the capacity of the satellites remained fixed.

“The satellites didn't have the capacity to handle the explosion in Internet traffic,” she said. “The second thing was the ground systems were not optimized to handle the complexity of the Web pages.”

When a user of a satellite Internet system clicked on a page, objects on the page -- things like graphics and photos -- loaded one at a time.

“When we designed the ground system a Web page might have five objects. By a couple of years ago a page might have 60 objects,” Scalpone said.

Viasat steps in

So ViaSat, WildBlue's major supplier, acquired the service and went to work designing a new satellite system that would address these issues.

“They designed the world's largest telecommunications satellite,” Scalpone said. “They got that it was a bandwidth issue and a ground systems issue.”

ViaSat, which added Exede as an Internet provider, developed software that accelerates and optimizes the complexity of web pages and designed a much bigger, faster satellite. The bigger satellite addresses the congestion issue while the software makes highly complex Webpages load faster.

A revolution

“This is revolutionary, not evolutionary,” Scalpone said. “This is not just an incremental step”

But what about the issue of “latency,” the delay caused by the distance the Webpage has to travel from space? You might be able to write new software and build a bigger, faster satellite but you really can't do anything about the speed of light.

“On the WildBlue system it felt like it took 20 seconds to open a Webpage, Scalpone concedes. “But that wasn't really about latency, it was just congestion. Those satellites empty would have popped the pages just as well. But because it appeared as this grinding, serial downloading of objects, people associated that with latency.”

Half-second delay

The latency, or delay on the new system, she says, is a half-second. Scalpone says the service has the feel of a wired service and you don't notice the difference going from your office to your home. She says you don't notice it watching video and you can even use VoIP, something not practical with the old system.

Both Exede and Hughes offer packages starting at $50 a month for 12 mbs download and 3 mps upload. Plans are fixed -- just like cellphone data plans -- because satellite capacity is fixed. Exede has just increased its base data plan from 7.5 GB per month to 10 GB per month without increasing the price.

“We are not going to be the optimal service for the heaviest user, but for a user that is typical to slightly more, we want to target that group,” Scalpone said.

And while they certainly hope rural consumers give them another chance, Scalpone says the company is not limiting itself. With its speed and price, she thinks the company can be competitive in urban and suburban markets as well.

As policymakers continue to debate how best to bring more broadband service to unserved rural areas of America, satellite providers say they deserve anothe...

Dish Network Offers New Satellite Internet Service

New technology makes dishNET faster than previous versions, the company claims

It's mighty nice being out there all by your lonesome, if that's the kind of thing that appeals to you. Whether it's on a mountaintop, out on the lone prairie or on the rocky coast of Maine, the solitary life appeals to many.

There's one big drawback, though: no broadband Internet service. Cities and suburbs may be noisy, dirty and crowded but at least you can jump on Netflix and catch up with "Breaking Bad," right?

Well, that may finally be about to change. After decades of disappointment with satellite Internet services, rural dwellers will soon get another chance. Dish Network is launching a nationwide broadband service next Monday under the brand name dishNet -- and it swears this one will work the way consumers want it to.

dishNET still won't match the 305 Mbps you can get from FiOS but thanks to new satellite technology, Dish says it will deliver 4G-level service of about 10 Mbps; that's markedly better than the dismal 1.5 Mbps which has been about the best any of the current services have been able to achieve. 

Data limits

Ah, but here's the catch: there will be data limits. This is wireless service, after all, so dishNET will be offering tiered service, which is a fancy way of saying the more you use, the more you pay.

The cheapest service -- starting at $39.99 per month -- offers five gigabytes a month of "anytime" service and five "offpeak" gigabytes that must be used between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. Five gigabytes is roughly enough to stream three high-def movies, so you'll still have plenty of time to get out there and milk the cows, run the nets or whatever it is that lured you to the sticks in the first place.

DISH's CEO Joseph Clayton is unveiling dishNET today at the flagship Cowboy Maloney's Electric City retail store in Jackson, Miss., the historic retail launch site of digital satellite TV and satellite radio services.

"Today, we are launching a revolutionary consumer broadband service that delivers high-speed Internet available in metropolitan areas to rural markets nationwide," Clayton said. "With nearly one-in-four rural residents lacking a high-speed connection, reaching these underserved markets is vital. Our mission is to provide broadband at an outstanding value with fast speeds and large data plans."

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates there are 19 million Americans without access to high-speed Internet. It has been wringing its hands and conducting studies for decades with about as much success as you'd expect. Namely none.

Pricing plans

In rural and outlying suburban regions nationwide, dishNET satellite broadband starts at $39.99 per month (plus equipment fees) for 5 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speeds and data plans of 10 GB, when bundled with DISH's America's Top 120 or higher programming packages and with a two-year agreement.

Combining dishNET with DISH TV saves $10 per month. Most satellite customers can upgrade to a 10 Mbps /1 Mbps plan available with 20 GB of data for $49.99 per month.

Consumers rate Wild Blue Satellite Broadband

Say what you will, dishNET has to be better than WildBlue, which Dish has been selling for the last few years.

"First of all, I hate Wild Blue!" said Annie of Escondido, Calif., in a recent ConsumerAffairs posting. "Unfortunately, I must use satellite because I live and work in a rural area. San Diego county! Yes, one of the most progressive cities in the world. I live on the outskirts and have to use the awful satellite service. On my 4th year now and have always had problems with all of it."

Joy of Fort Lupton, Colo., agrees: "I had Wild Blue for almost five years and the service was horrible the entire time."

About the only consolation for WildBlue has been that customers of competing Hughes Network are even madder, or maybe there are just more of them.

"Do not get Hughes Internet, the worst internet service I have ever seen," said Jim of Washington State. "They have no connection, horrible installation crew. They literally ran out of the house so they wouldn't have to help me get my computer running. Bad, bad, bad. ... You could walk to Europe and deliver a letter faster than you could email your neighbor."

It's mighty nice being out there all by your lonesome, if that's the kind of thing that appeals to you. Whether it's on a mountaintop, out on the lone prai...

Nevada County Could Be Model For Expanding Rural Broadband

Rural county residents have easy access to high-speed Internet

While national policymakers are searching for a way to expand broadband Internet service to rural America, they might learn a thing or two by taking a close look at Churchill County, Nevada. The county of 25,000 people has plenty of Internet options.

“There's probably no one in the county that can't get high-speed Internet service,” said Bob Adams, General Manager of CC Communications, a county-owned telephone company.

CC Communications began in 1889 when Western Union announced it was discontinuing telegraph service in the county. Churchill County purchased the lines for $950 and began providing the service itself.

Full range of services

Today, CC Communications provides telephone, television, cellular, technical and security services. Adams says the company added the ISP side of the business in 1994 with dial-up but transitioned to a DSL-type broadband service in 1998.

For a while the company supplemented its wired service with wireless Internet, but spun-off the wireless division of the company and invested the money in fiber optic.

“Seventy percent of our county residents are eligible to receive fiber optic service,” Adams said.

CC Communications serves about 5,000 Internet customers. In addition, consumers can choose to receive high-speed Internet from Charter Communications, a cable TV provider in the county. It's a wealth of Internet riches most rural areas simply don't have. Many areas are limited to dial-up, mobile broadband or satellite service, all of which have distinct limitations.

Why some rural counties have few options

Adams says a big difference in the under-served rural areas is the fact that they must rely on large “price cap carriers,” like AT&T and Verizon, rather than small locally-owned providers. Whereas price cap carriers are reluctant to spend on infrastructure in sparsely-populated areas, the locally-owned providers see it as their mandate.

“We serve our county residents the best we can and we don't have to worry about a profit, where price cap companies are publicly traded and face pressures we don't,” Adams said.

Earlier this month the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Wireline Competition Bureau announced it is seeking input on how the FCC should estimate the cost of bringing broadband to underserved areas in territories serviced by AT&T, Verizon and the nation's other large price cap carriers.

While national policymakers are searching for a way to expand broadband Internet service to rural America, they might learn a thing or two by taking a clos...

Rural Internet Options Still Fairly Limited

DSL and cable are usually not available

If you live in even a small city you likely have plenty of options for connecting to the Internet. But if you live in a rural area, your choices can be extremely limited. Not only that, each of the choices has its drawbacks.

As a basic option, there is dial-up service. Your computer connects to the Internet through a built-in modem and a telephone line. The connection speed is extremely slow, meaning all but the simplest web pages will take forever to load.

And good luck finding simple web pages. These days the Internet is designed for broadband access, with most pages containing large amounts of data. Forget about playing rich media like video.

The choices

So if you've decided you need a broadband connection, your choices are limited to satellite, mobile broadband through your cellphone provider, or a local wireless network, if one exists in your area.

Very few homes in rural areas have cable TV access because few cable providers find it profitable to go to the expense to install digital-capable cable to serve them. At the same time some telephone companies serving rural counties do not have digital equipment in these locations that can provide DSL service. At some point they may upgrade their equipment but they won't until they deem it to be profitable. And who knows when that might be.

Satellite Internet service is provided by HughesNet, WildBlue, StarBand and SkyWay. One of the biggest problems with satellite Internet service is latency. Latency is the delay between requesting data and the receipt of a response. This is no one's fault, it's simply physics. It takes time for the signal to travel from your computer to the satellite, which is way out there in space. Even when actual data download speeds are fast, the latency issue makes satellite Internet feel very sluggish. 

Variable speeds

Consumers rate Hughes

But latency isn't the only drawback to satellite services. 

“We were thinking if we paid $70 a month, we should be able to use all we want; that is not the way it works with HughesNet,” Susan, of Luthersville, Ga., wrote in a ConsumeAffairs post. “I would like to get a smart TV, but I don't have Internet service smart enough to let me use it. I could never use streaming Netflix with HughesNet. Netflix is cheap enough, but HughesNet would cost me a fortune.”

Gertrude, of Newport, Tenn., is a WildBlue customer who says the service isn't fast enough to play a game.

“Also they said that you have to monitor your usage or they will slow down your Internet,” Gertrude wrote. “I am a student and I need to download some large files for school. But when I called them today, they told me that I was not able to download them because I have used the Internet too much.”

Government subsidies

As part of the federal government's stimulus program, millions of dollars were allocated to subsidize development of rural broadband services. But much of the money was spent for satellite services, not for building out wired services.

For rural consumers who have good reception to a cellphone tower, mobile broadband can provide an alternative. The service is basically the same that consumers use to access the Internet with their smartphones. While 3G speed is about the same as the very lowest DSL speeds, 4G speed, which will eventually cover rural areas, is much faster.

But consumers using mobile broadband for everyday Internet access must carefully monitor their usage. No carrier offers unlimited data service. They are all measured, meaning consumers must stay within their usage plan each month or pay an overage fee.

If you live in even a small city you likely have plenty of options for connecting to the Internet. But if you live in a rural area, your choices can be ext...

Feds Deep Six LightSquared Broadband Network

Proposed network could interfere with GPS devices

A start-up called LightSquared has been promising to build a nationwide wireless network that would bring high-speed broadband to areas that are not now adequately served.

But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has bowed to objections from the military and other government agencies which argued that LightSquare posed an unacceptable risk to Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, which use adjacent frequencies.

LightSquared has blamed GPS receivers, saying they're too sensitive.

“LightSquared’s proposal to provide ground-based mobile service offered the potential to unleash new spectrum for mobile broadband and enhance competition. [But] the Commission clearly stated from the outset that harmful interference to GPS would not be permitted," said FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun.

“NTIA, the federal agency that coordinates spectrum uses for the military and other federal government entities, has now concluded that there is no practical way to mitigate potential interference at this time. Consequently, the Commission will not lift the prohibition on LightSquared," she said.

LightSquared said it "profoundly disagrees" with the conclusion, saying the decision disregards "more than a decade of regulatory orders, and in doing so, jeopardize[s] private enterprise, jobs and investment in America's future," the company said in a statement.

Backed by hedge-fund manager Philip Falcone, LightSquared has promised to "unleash the boundless opportunity of wireless broadband connectivity for all."

"We believe that it is time to transform the broadband industry to one that truly fosters innovation, creativity, and freedom of choice—with limitless and unimaginable possibilities," the company said in a statement on its Website.

But the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) said in a letter to the FCC yesterday that there was "no practical way to mitigate the potential interference at this time." The FCC issued its statement this morning.

A start-up called LightSquared has been promising to build a nationwide wireless network that would bring high-speed broadband to areas that are not now ad...

Feds May Divert Subsidies To Pay For Rural Broadband

Universal Service Fund could be used to build broadband facilities

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken the first steps to fund an expansion of broadband Internet service to rural America, proposing an overhaul of the Universal Service Fund, set up decades ago to expand rural telephone service.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski outlined the proposal in a speech in Washington, suggesting that the $8 billion subsidy be directed to making broadband Internet as common as landline telephone service.

“Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society,” Genachowski said. “If we want the United States to be the world's leading market” for innovation, “we need to embrace the essential goal of universal broadband, and reform outdated programs.”

New objectives

Prior to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Universal Service Fund operated as a mechanism by which interstate long distance carriers were assessed to subsidize telephone service to low-income households and high-cost areas. The Communications Act of 1934 stated that all people in the United States shall have access to “rapid, efficient, nationwide … communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 expanded the traditional definition of universal service - affordable, nationwide telephone service – to include among other things rural health care providers and eligible schools and libraries.

The revamped Universal Service Fund would be renamed the Connect America Fund. It would pay for expanded broadband infrastructure in under-served areas and improve wireless coverage.

Rural options are limited

Currently, rural areas are served by two principal satellite Internet providers – HughesNet and Wild Blue – both of which have issues with latency. Some consumers also use the mobile broadband services offered by Verizon Wireless and AT&T. However, these services are at 3G speed in most areas and the more affordable plans are limited to 5 gigabytes of data per month.

"If adopted by the Commission, the plan will spur broadband build-out to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses beginning in 2012,” Genachowski said. “It will help cut the number of Americans bypassed by broadband by up to one half over the following five years, and it will put us on the path to universal broadband by the end of the decade. By connecting millions of unserved Americans who are being left out of the broadband revolution, this plan will bring enormous benefits to individual consumers, our national economy, and our global competitiveness."

The FCC proposes using subsidy funds to expand rural broadband services...

Activist Group Challenges New Net Neutrality Rules

Objects to leeway granted wireless networks to control traffic

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) new rules maintaining Net neutrality have been challenged from an unlikely source.

Though major telecommunications firms don't like the concept, they have yet to express their objections in court. Instead, the activist group Free Press has been the first to file a legal challenge, a week after the Federal Register published the new rules.

The group filed the action in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, asking for a review of the FCC's December 2010 Open Internet order. Free Press is challenging what it called “the arbitrary nature” of rule provisions that provide less protection for mobile wireless Internet access than they do for wired connections.

"When the FCC first proposed the Open Internet rules, they came with the understanding that there is only one Internet, no matter how people choose to reach it,” said Matt Wood, Policy Director of Free Press. “The final rules provide some basic protections for consumers, but do not deliver on the promise to preserve openness for mobile Internet access. They fail to protect wireless users from discrimination, and they let mobile providers block innovative applications with impunity.”

No discrimination

Under the FCC's Net neutrality rules, networks are not allowed to discriminate against content, charging one provider more than another because of the nature of the content. But because telecommunications companies argued wireless networks, by their nature, have limits on their bandwidth, the rules provide more leeway for managing wireless networks. Wood says the distinction isn't real.

"Our challenge will show that there is no evidence in the record to justify this arbitrary distinction between wired and wireless Internet access,” he said. “The disparity that the FCC's rules create is unjust and unjustified. And it's especially problematic because of the increasing popularity of wireless, along with its increasing importance for younger demographics and diverse populations who rely on mobile devices as their primary means for getting online.”

The FCC proposed the rules last December. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowsk said they were based on more than 100,000 comments collected from all types of interested parties.

Major network providers have been staunchly opposed to most Net neutrality provisions. Broadband providers pushed to include language in the policy that would not encumber them when it comes to managing their networks or charging different prices for different levels of service. Wireless network providers objected to being lumped in with wired networks under any Net neutrality rules.  

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) new rules maintaining Net neutrality have been challenged from an unlikely source.Though major telecommunic...

Feds Find Broadband Services Approaching Advertised Speeds

FCC studied residential Internet service delivered to consumers in March

Julius Genachowski

It may not seem like it when you're waiting for a big file to load but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says broadband providers are generally living up to their promised speeds.

The agency studied residential Internet service offered by 13 large broadband providers – including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner – to subscribers during March. It found that Internet connections were generally within 80 to 90 percent of advertised maximum speeds.

The FCC set up an online speed test where consumers can check their Internet speed. Results of the tests were incorporated into the performance audit released today.

All three popular wired broadband delivery methods – fiber-optic cable, cable modems and DSL – do a good job of delivering promised speeds, even during peak periods, the study found.

But, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted, while existing broadband customers are generally well-served, nearly a third of Americans do not have service.

“That's nearly 100 million Americans who are being bypassed by the benefits of broadband. This is the broadband adoption gap,” Genachowski said.

Flying blind

While about 20 million Americans live in areas not served by broadband, many of those who are not yet connected lack the information they need to pick the service that's right for them, he said.

“While there's a flood of information to help consumers pick the right computer or gadget, when it comes to picking the service that brings those devices to life, consumers are largely flying blind,” Genachowski said. “80% of consumers don't know what speed they subscribe to. If you check your monthly broadband bill for specifics about the speed of your service, there's a good chance you won't find that information there. And if you did, it might not be in a language you can understand.

“How many people know what a megabit is?” he asked.

Genachowski, who spoke at a Best Buy store in downtown Washington, D.C., said the study released today was part of the agency's attempt to demystify the process and provide consumers with reliable information about the level of service available in their community.

It may not seem like it when you're waiting for a YouTube selection to load but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says broadband providers are ge...

Sen. Franken Says Corporations Gunning For Internet

Urges artists, consumers, to speak up

Sen. Al Frankin (D-MN) is, by trade, a comedian, but he's been very serious as a lawmaker. Before an artists' group in Austin, Tex., Frankin warned that corporations are out to destroy the Internet, and it's no laughing matter.

"I came here today to warn you that the party may almost be over," Franken told artists attending the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. "There is nothing more motivated than a corporation that thinks it's leaving money on the table. They are coming after the Internet, hoping to destroy the very thing that makes it such an important tool for independent artists and entrepreneurs -- its freedom and openness."

Franken recounted for his audience the ways in which the Internet has opened up opportunities for artists and benefited consumers. He said "Net neutrality" laws protecting equal access to the Internet are vital to protecting and maintaining those opportunities.

Equality

"Net neutrality means that content -- a web page, an email, a download -- moves over the Internet freely, and it moves at the same speed no matter what it is or who owns it," Franken said. "So an email from President Obama and an email from your Tea Partier uncle come in at the same speed."

Franken pointed out that Net neutrality is actually the status quo, and he wants to keep it that way. But he warns that major players in the industry have a vested interest in changing things, since they own the physical infrastructure that makes the Internet work.

"Now, let me say something about big corporations. They're not inherently evil," Franken said. "But corporations have a contractual duty -- a legal obligation to their shareholders-to make as much money as they can. And the big telecom companies make lots and lots of money off their ownership of the Internet -- but they've figured out a way to make more."

Paid prioritization

Franken said the industry wants to move toward something called "paid prioritization." There would be, in effect, a high-speed lane for corporations that can pay for it. That, he says, would make these corporations gatekeepers of the Internet, with the power to decide what content can get to its intended audience in the high-speed lane and what content gets stuck in traffic, depending on what makes the most money for their shareholders.

"For American consumers, this would of course be bad news," Franken said. "We'll have a lot fewer viewpoints represented online -- not just creative viewpoints, but maybe even ideological viewpoints. Do you think Comcast would refrain from making it harder for people to watch this speech online if they could do so legally?"

Franken says there are other issues at stake with Net neutrality. He pointed to the number of recent start-ups like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter that have created wealth and jobs. With the economy just beginning to recover from recession, he says, this job creation could be at risk. And that, he says, may provide the leverage necessary to preserve Net neutrality.

Speak up

"I haven't been in Washington that long, but I've heard enough from both parties to know that people there are desperate to hear from successful entrepreneurs like you," Franken said. "Job creators get their phone calls returned. Do not underestimate how much political power you have."

Just as the Internet has proven to be the last, best independent distribution system, he says artists and consumers might be the last, best hope for saving it.

"But we don't have much time," Franken concluded. "Net neutrality is in trouble."

Sen. Al Franken warns corporations will soon take over the Internet....

Got Speed? National Broadband Map Tells You

Federal effort to promote broadband Internet growth

How fast is your Internet connection? Really? Now you can find out, thanks to something called the National Broadband Map, a creation of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the Commerce Department, says the National Broadband Map is the first public, searchable nationwide map of broadband Internet availability.

The idea behind the map is to highlight areas that need to expand broadband access and adoption.

"A state-of-the-art communications infrastructure is essential to America's competitiveness in the global digital economy," said Acting Commerce Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank. "But as Congress recognized, we need better data on America's broadband Internet capabilities in order to improve them. The National Broadband Map, along with today's broadband Internet usage study, will inform efforts to enhance broadband Internet access and adoption -- spurring greater innovation, economic opportunities, and advancements in health care, education, and public safety."

Searchable records

The website includes more than 25 million searchable records showing where broadband Internet service is available, the technology used to provide the service, the maximum advertised speeds of the service, and the names of the service providers.

Users can search by address to find the broadband providers and services available in the corresponding census block or road segment, view the data on a map, or use other interactive tools to compare broadband across various geographies, such as states, counties or congressional districts. The map also allows visitors to enter information about their current Internet provider.

"The release of the National Broadband Map, the first of its kind in the nation, is a significant milestone," said Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski. "This cutting-edge tool will continue to evolve with the help of new data and user feedback. It will provide consumers, companies and policymakers with a wealth of information about broadband availability, speeds, competition and technology, and help Americans make better informed choices about their broadband services."

Underserved

The map shows that between 5 - 10 percent of Americans lack access to broadband at speeds that support a basic set of applications, including downloading Web pages, photos and video, and using simple video conferencing. The FCC last July set a benchmark of 4 Mbps actual speed downstream and 1 Mbps upstream to support these applications.

NTIA collected data in ranges between 3 - 6 Mbps and 6 - 10 Mbps maximum advertised download speeds, which are the closest measurements to the speed benchmark for broadband that the FCC set.

The data show that community anchor institutions are largely underserved. For example, based on studies by state education technology directors, most schools need a connection of 50 to 100 Mbps per 1,000 students. The data show that two-thirds of surveyed schools subscribe to speeds lower than 25 Mbps, however. In addition, only four percent of libraries reported subscribing to speeds greater than 25 Mbps.

Approximately 36 percent of Americans have access to wireless (fixed, mobile, licensed, and unlicensed) Internet service at maximum advertised download speeds of 6 Mbps or greater, which some consider the minimum speed associated with "4G" wireless broadband service. Ninety-five percent of Americans have access to wireless Internet service speeds of at least 768 kbps, which corresponds roughly to "3G" wireless service.

Reason for the map

Why create the map? NTIA says the map will serve a variety of uses. For example, Federal, state, and local policymakers can compare broadband availability among geographic areas and across demographic groups, which can inform policies to support private sector investments in deploying broadband.

The data can assist broadband providers in assessing new business opportunities and economic developers as they work to attract businesses to, or address barriers to investment in, their communities. The map is also designed to help consumers and small businesses learn about the broadband service options in their neighborhood or where they may relocate.

The government has launched the National Broadband Map, an interactive tool to find high-speed providers....

EchoStar Buying Hughes Communictions

Satellite TV and Internet providers teaming up

EchoStar Corporation, which owns the Dish Network satellite television system, is purchasing Hughes Communications, Inc., which operates a satellite broadband Internet service, HughesNet.

The transaction is valued at approximately $2 billion, including Hughes debt expected to be refinanced in connection with the transaction. EchoStar said the deal will greatly enhance its capabilities for broadband transport of video and data.

Under the terms of the transaction, which has been approved by the Boards of Directors of both companies, Hughes' shareholders will receive $60.70 per share without interest, which represents a premium of 31 percent over Hughes' unaffected closing share price of $46.43 on January 19, 2011.

Regulatory approval required

The transaction is expected to close later this year, subject to certain closing conditions including receipt of federal regulatory approvals. Investment funds affiliated with Apollo Management IV, L.P., who own a majority of Hughes' outstanding stock, have approved the transaction by entering into a written shareholder consent.

"We are very pleased to announce this transaction as it brings together the two premier providers of satellite communications services and delivers substantial value to our shareholders," said Pradman Kaul, President and Chief Executive Officer of Hughes. "By combining Hughes' operational strength and proven record of customer satisfaction with EchoStar's expertise in cutting edge satellite video technology, customers will benefit significantly from our shared institutional excellence."

"There is a unique and compelling fit between Hughes and EchoStar," said Michael Dugan, President and Chief Executive Officer of EchoStar. "With a rich engineering culture, an extensive fleet of owned and leased satellites, and experienced personnel in communications centers around the world, the combination of EchoStar and Hughes will create a powerful leader in video and data transport."

Rural service area

HughesNet offers broadband Internet services to customers in mostly rural areas, who do not have access to traditional wired or wireless broadband. Consumers often complain about bandwidth allotments and slow speeds.

"I have run numerous speed tests that point out that I am running at six percent of my hosts average speed," Kevin, of Moran, Kan., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I call and complain and they tell me it will be fixed in two hours and to call back if the problem continues. I can't run very many speed tests because of their dismal download allowance."

Dish Network started as a mostly rural television provider but, in recent years, has begun competing in urban and suburban areas with cable TV providers.

EchoStar has announced it is buying Hughes Communications....

Comcast Settles Oregon Late-Fee Suit

Cable provider agrees to provide $16 per illegal fee

Comcast has agreed to pay $23 million to Oregon consumers who said their late fees were excessive under that state’s law.

Under the terms of the settlement, affected consumers will receive $16 per illegal late fee, up to $32. Consumers who say they were charged more than two illegal late fees must present proof, such as a receipt or a cancelled check. Consumers can also collect more than $32 if they sign a notarized oath attesting to the numerous late fees. Comcast will also donate $75,000 to the Oregon Food Bank and the United Way.

Up to 75,000 Oregon consumers may be able to collect under the agreement.

Suit covers seven-year span

The suit, which was filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, was certified as a class action last March, and proceeded on behalf of “all current and former Oregon residents who: 1) are or were Comcast cable television subscribers in Oregon after July 14, 2003 and 2) who, during the class period, paid a late fee responsive to a billing from Comcast that did not comply with [Oregon law].”

The settlement covers consumers who were charged excessive late fees between July 14, 2003 and November 22, 2010.

Economic Fairness Oregon, a consumer advocacy group based in Portland, predicted on its blog that “a large portion of this $23 million settlement will go unclaimed. Under current Oregon law, the remaining money will be returned to Comcast, despite the company’s alleged wrongdoing.”

“This case is a prime example of a company raking in huge amounts of money by unfairly charging tens of thousands of customers a relatively small amount,” the group continued. “Since many customers don’t have the time to challenge each $6 late fee, Comcast was able to overcharge millions of dollars in late fees from Oregonians over the span of the last seven years ... Thanks to class-action suits such as this, Comcast and other companies that choose not to play by the rules are held financially accountable for deceiving their customers.”

Liability denied

Comcast denied any liability in settling the suit, but “concluded that it is in the best interest of Plaintiffs and the Settlement Class ... to enter into [the] Settlement Agreement.” In a written statement, an Oregon representative of the company wrote that Comcast “denies liability and maintains that the late fees are legal.”

 Claim forms can be found at the official settlement website.

Consumer complaints

 ConsumerAffairs has heard from several Comcast customers complaining of late fees. As Marissa of Miami wrote:

"First off, I was already a Comcast customer but moved to a new location and they charged me another service of installation fee to have my service switched to the new address. Second, I set up automatic bill pay but for some reason it wasn't working. I was charged a $5 late fee for not having my payment in on time. When I spoke to Comcast they apologized and gave me a credit on my next bill. They assured me that automatic bill pay was set up properly but that sometimes it takes a couple of months to work.

"The next month the same thing happened. I had to go through the same process of calling them to credit my account. Again, they assured me it was set up properly and to just wait one more month. The same thing happened for a third time and I quit trying to use the automatic bill pay. They did credit my account but I had to spend time waiting on the phone and explaining the situation every time."

Comcast Settles Oregon Late-Fee SuitCable provider agrees to provide $16 per illegal fee...

Regulators Adopt Net Neutrality Rules

Compromise measure may please very few

As expected, the Federal Communications Commission today adopted new Net neutrality rules, providing guidelines for both wired and wireless networks.

The policy, described by some as a compromise, passed along party-line votes, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposed. The rules are likely to be challenged in court in the year ahead.

Net neutrality refers to the principle that Internet content providers should have equal access to the Internet and  should suffer no restrictions on content, sites or platforms that may be attached. Network operators have generally objected to that principle, saying they have borne the cost of building and maintaining the network and should be allowed to control the amount of traffic traveling through it.

Under the new policy, crafted by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, there will be one set of rules for traditional wired networks, like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, and another for wireless providers like Verizon Wireless. The wired networks would be prohibited from blocking access to websites and applications, but the wireless providers would be able to block access to some apps.

Sen. Al Frankin (D-MN) was critical of that aspect of the policy, pointing out that Verizon Wireless would be free to block access to Google Maps, a free feature, making Verizon Wireless subscribers use the provider's maps app, which carries a fee.

The new policy would also not prohibit "paid prioritization," in which a content provider could pay a network a fee to provide faster, or more prioritized access, to its material.

Disappointment

Digital rights groups expressed some disappointment with the new policy, saying it was too weak and watered-down. Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of the Washington-based group Public Knowledge, said the policy"fell far short" of what it could have been.

"Instead of a rule that would protect everyone, from consumers to applications developers from predatory practices of telephone and cable companies, the Commission settled for much less," Sohn said."Instead of strong, firm rules providing clear protections, the Commission created a vague and shifting landscape open to interpretation.Consumers deserved better."

But having been rebuffed in court once already over the issue of Net neutrality, Genachowski may have looked for common ground.

"These rules fulfill a promise to the future, to companies that don't yet exist, and the entrepreneurs that haven't yet started work in their dorm rooms or garages," Genachowski said.

Second attempt

He noted that, at the moment, there are no enforceable rules to protect basic Internet values. And having failed in his first attempt to implement a Net neutrality policy, Genachowski may have looked for ways to compromise.

In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC,ruled the FCC lacked the authority to impose Net neutrality regulations on Internet providers and operators of broadband networks.

The unanimous finding overturned the FCC's cease and desist order against Comcast, which had imposed measures to slow traffic to what it considered heavy users. The Court said the FCC, in issuing the order, failed to cite any specific law passed by Congress. In effect, the judges found that the federal agency could not impose restraints on Internet providers without the backing of Congress.

The Federal Communications Commission has adopted new Net neutrality guidelines that its backers say will keep the Internet free and open....

Level 3 'Clarifies' Position On Comcast Fees

Dispute between tech firms escalates

In case there was any confusion about its position on Comcast's new fees, Level 3 Communications has issued another statement on the controversy.

The issue first surfaced last week when Level 3 complained that Comcast has announced its intention to levy ongoing fees for delivering content to Comcast, such as movies, that Comcast's subscribers have requested. Level 3 is a major supplier of streaming technology for NetFlix, which delivers video content via the Internet.

Comcast has countered that Level 3 is trying to gain an unfair advantage over competitors by using Comcast's network to deliver content without paying for it.

"Comcast's characterization could not be more misleading," Level 3 said in a statement."What is truly at stake is whether consumers should have unfettered access to all the content on the Internet without regard to whether that content happens to be owned or packaged by Comcast."

Net neutrality

Supporters of the concept of Net neutrality have seized on the controversy as an illustration of why the policy is needed. They say consumers will end up paying more for some content if network providers are able to discriminate among content providers. Opponents, on the other hand, say it perfectly illustrates why Net neutrality is unfair to network operators.

Level 3 says the disagreement is not a "peering dispute," as Comcast has characterized it.

"At issue is a fundamental interconnection disagreement between Comcast, as a provider of local high speed Internet access to consumers who pay Comcast for access to content, and Level 3, which delivers content to residential broadband access providers like Comcast in response to consumer requests," the company said.

Unlike "peering" in the Internet backbone, where competition abounds and prices have been declining steadily, Level 3 said, Internet carriers that have content requested by Comcast subscribers have no choice but to exchange traffic with Comcast.

"Comcast is using this dominant position to demand payment for traffic delivered at its customers' requests. You simply cannot "route around" Comcast to provide requested content to Comcast's subscribers," Level 3 said.

Commonplace and standard?

Comcast says the fees it charges are commonplace and standard within the industry. Level 3 says that's not the case.

"No other broadband access provider in the U.S. is now charging Level 3 the type of fees that Comcast is charging," the company said. "It is Comcast that seeks to change the common approach, changing the rules of the game in an unreasonable and discriminatory manner."

The controversy began last month with NetFlix retained Level 3 to provide the bulk of the streaming services needed to send movies to subscribers. Level 3 asked Comcast and other Internet Service Providers to give it more access to their networks so they could handled the expected increase in traffic from NetFlix.

When Level 3 asked Comcast for new interconnection ports to its network, it didn't expect to pay anything for that since it said it was providing content requested by Comcast customers. Comcast, while also sells video content to its subscribers, views it as unfair competition, and says paying a fee to deliver content over its network is reasonable.

The dispute between Comcast and Level 3 Communications over access fees may be a perfect argument for - or against - Net neutrality....

Government Proposes New Net Neutrality Rules

Not an end-run around Congress, FCC Chairman says

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski says he has drawn up draft rules that would provide the framework for a Net Neutrality policy. The FCC is expected to take up the policy proposal at its meeting December 21.

Genachowski said the draft is based on more than 100,000 comments the agency received from citizens and other interested parties.

"This framework, if adopted later this month, would advance a set of core goals: It would ensure that the Internet remains a powerful platform for innovation and job creation; it would empower consumers and entrepreneurs; it would protect free expression; it would increase certainty in the marketplace, and spur investment both at the edge and in the core of our broadband networks,” Genachowski said today in a speech in Washington.  

In recent months Net neutrality has evolved into a partisan issue. Democrats generally favor it while Republicans generally oppose it, calling it bad for business. But in his remarks today, Genachowski says Net neutrality started out as a bi-partisan issue.

Republican roots

"The proposed rules of the road are rooted in ideas first articulated by Republican Chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin, and endorsed in a unanimous FCC policy statement in 2005," Genachowski said. "Similar proposals have been supported in Congress on a bipartisan basis.  And they are consistent with President Obama's commitment to 'keep the Internet as it should be -- open and free.'"

In short, Net neutrality would require major network operators - Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, to treat all content the same. It couldn't charge more for video content distribution, for example, even though video content uses more bandwidth.

It would also not favor one provider's content over another. As the name implies, Internet Service Providers would have to remain neutral.

Major network providers have been staunchly opposed to most Net neutrality provisions. Broadband providers want to include language in any policy that would not encumber them when it comes to managing their networks or charging different prices for different levels of service. Wireless network providers are insisting that they be exempt from any Net neutrality rules.

Goodbye to unlimited bandwidth?

Under Genachowski's proposal, broadband providers would be able to impose usage-based charges on consumers, so that consumers - not the content provider - would bear the cost of extra bandwidth usage. For example, Verizon Wireless now offers a mobile broadband service that gives consumers about five gigabytes of bandwidth per billing cycle for a set price. Consumers who exceed that limit pay extra.

Genachowski said his proposal, which would establish open Internet rules for the first time, has three main points:

  • First, consumers and innovators have a right to know basic information about broadband service, like how networks are being managed.  The proposed framework therefore starts with a meaningful transparency obligation, so that consumers and innovators have the information they need to make smart choices about subscribing to or using a broadband network, or how to develop the next killer app.  Sunshine can help solve problems early, reducing the number of issues that even come to the FCC. 
  • Second, consumers and innovators have a right to send and receive lawful Internet traffic -- to go where they want and say what they want online, and to use the devices of their choice.  Thus, the proposed framework would prohibit the blocking of lawful content, apps, services, and the connection of non-harmful devices to the network.
  • Third, consumers and innovators have a right to a level playing field.  No central authority, public or private, should have the power to pick which ideas or companies win or lose on the Internet; that's the role of the market and the marketplace of ideas.  And so the proposed framework includes a bar on unreasonable discrimination in transmitting lawful network traffic. 

"The animating force behind all of these efforts is a shared appreciation for the Internet's wondrous contributions to our economy and our way of life," Genachowski said.

The FCC Chairman tried to quash speculation that the FCC action is designed as an end-run around Congress, which has yet to act on a Net neutrality proposal, even with Democrats in control. Republican control of the House in the next Congress makes Congressional support for a Net neutrality policy even more unlikely.

"As always, I welcome the opportunity for the Commission to serve as a resource to Congress," Genachowski said. 

The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has unveiled a Net neutrality proposal and said the commission will take it up later this month....

Netflix Supplier Complains About Comcast Fees

Pushes issue of 'Net neutrality' to the forefront

Level 3 Communications, a major supplier for Netflix, says Comcast has begun charging an extra fee anytime one of its customers orders a movie for online streaming.

Net neutrality proponents say it's a perfect illustration of what Net neutrality is all about.

Netflix supplies movie and other video content to millions of customers. Until recently customers received the content on DVDs through the U.S. Mail. But the company has encouraged subscribers with broadband Internet connections to download their movies instead.

Not only does the customer get the movie instantly, there are no postage and handling costs. Netflix recently rolled out a new download-only service at a reduced price.

Level 3 is one of the companies Netflix uses to actually provide the streaming technology. Now, all of a sudden, Level 3 says Comcast is taking on an extra fee anytime one of its subscribers downloads a Netflix movie.

While Level 3 is crying foul, Comcast - and other major network operators - have pointed out that content that uses huge chunks of bandwidth should be subjected to a different rate structure.

But under Net neutrality, that couldn't happen. If a policy of Net neutrality were in force, Comcast and other networks could not discriminate against different kinds of content, treating an email the same as a video.

"This action by Comcast threatens the open Internet and is a clear abuse of the dominant control that Comcast exerts in broadband access," said Thomas Stortz, Level 3's chief legal officer.. "With this action, Comcast is preventing competing content from ever being delivered to Comcast's subscribers at all, unless Comcast's unilaterally determined toll is paid."

Level 3 said it intends to register its complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, which reportedly plans to consider implementing a Net neutrality policy when it meets in mid-December.

Net neutrality legislation has been introduced in Congress but has never made it to a vote. Democrats are generally in favor of Net neutrality while Republicans have generally been opposed. Industry analysts say Republican control of the House in the next Congress makes Congressional action on the issue less likely.
Level 3 Communications says Comcast has begun charging an extra fee anytime one of its customers downloads a video from Netflix....

Administration, GOP May Collide Over Net Neutrality

Republicans warn regulators not to act unilaterally

While the lame-duck Congress grapples with some unfinished business, the Federal Communications Commission may be preparing a major push to implement Net neutrality policies before the end of the year.

Various media reports late last week suggested the FCC is readying an announcement this week that it will impose rules to prevent Internet service providers from favoring one provider's content over another. The Financial Times reports that industry executives fully expect the new regulations before the new Congress is seated.

That has set off some Congressional Republicans, who are generally opposed to the Net neutrality concept. They appealed last week to the White House to wait until next year to address the issue.

Equal footing

Net neutrality refers to the principle that Internet content providers should have equal access to the Internet should suffer no restrictions on content, sites or platforms that may be attached. Network operators, such as AT&T, have objected to that principle, saying they have borne the cost of building and maintaining the network and should be allowed to control the amount of traffic traveling through it.

In April a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC ruled the FCC lacks the authority to impose Net neutrality regulations on Internet providers and operators of broadband networks.

The unanimous finding overturned the FCC's cease and desist order against Comcast, which had imposed measures to slow traffic to what it considered heavy users. The Court said the FCC, in issuing the order, failed to cite any specific law passed by Congress. In effect, the judges found that the federal agency could not impose restraints on Internet providers without the backing of Congress.

No Congressional action

With Republicans controlling the House in 2011, it may be unlikely that Congress will provide that backing. In fact, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress for nearly two years, Net neutrality legislation hasn't gotten very far. President Obama has consistently supported Net neutrality and his choice of Julius Genachowski to head the FCC was seen as an additional statement of support, since Genachowski was known to be a strong proponent of the concept.

Before the November elections changed the political landscape in Washington, lawmakers were proceeding on a Net neutrality bill authored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).That bill managed to gain the support of some of the industry's major players, but Republicans remained opposed.

Hoping to head off a unilateral move by the FCC, 18 Republican members of Congress have fired off a letter to Genachowski, asking him not to impose Net neutrality rules.

"Reigniting the network neutrality debate will only distract us from other work and further jeopardize investment, innovation, and jobs,” the letter said.
Reports that federal regulators may announce Net neutrality rules this week could set up a White House - GOP showdown....

Europeans Propose Global Internet Treaty

Agreement would uphold principle of net neutrality

The Internet Governance Forum in Lithuania is set to consider 12 principles of Internet governance that would, among other things, uphold the existing support of net neutrality.

Under the proposal, countries would agree to work across borders to secure the Internet's infrastructure and to keep it safe from cyber attacks. It would also uphold freedom of expression and association and require that all Internet traffic receive equal treatment, a cornerstone of net neutrality.

Currently, some countries do not allow free expression online, or free access to opinions not favored by particular governments.

"The fundamental functions and the core principles of the Internet must be preserved in all layers of the Internet architecture with a view to guaranteeing the interoperability of networks in terms of infrastructures, services and contents," the proposal states. "The end-to-end principle should be protected globally.

A group called the Council of Europe, made up of 47 member countries, presented the proposal as a way to advance democracy and human rights, it said. It's also viewed as an attempt to blunt various government attempts to increase control over the Web.

In the U.S. the Obama Administration has supported the concept of net neutrality. Late last year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously today to begin the process of crafting formal net neutrality rules.

"Any rules we adopt must preserve our freedom to connect, to communicate, and to create that is the wonder of the open Internet," FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said at the time. "Each and every user of the Internet must have access to an unlimited online universe of ideas and commerce."

Europeans Propose Global Internet Treaty...

Bi-Partisan Lawmakers Introduce Universal Reform Bill

Broadband would be classified as universal service

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 23, 2010
If you have long distance service, you pay into the Universal Service Fund, established by Congress in the early 20th century to expand telephone service to rural areas.

Since rural America currently enjoys telephone service, wouldn't it make more sense to use that money to expand broadband services to rural areas? Lawmakers in both parties think it might.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, and Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) have introduced the Universal Service Reform Act of 2010. They say the measure would improve and modernize the Universal Service Fund (USF) by reining in the size of the fund and promoting broadband deployment.

"The Universal Service Fund is broken," Boucher said. "Consumers currently pay more than thirteen percent of long distance revenues into the fund and have at times this year contributed over fifteen percent. Our legislation is a comprehensive and forward-looking measure, which will control the spiraling growth of the Universal Service Fund while ensuring that sufficient universal service support is available on a technology-neutral basis to the carriers which rely on it to provide service."

"The measure will expand who pays into the fund, control the growth of the fund and modernize the fund by allowing its use for the deployment of high-speed broadband service," said Terry.

Expanding broadband

The legislation declares broadband to be a universal service and requires universal service fund recipients to offer high-speed broadband services throughout the areas where they receive support. The measure recognizes that it may not be economical to serve the most remote areas with wireline technologies and permits the resale of satellite broadband to ensure broadband availability in those places.

"The current Universal Service fund has failed to keep up with the changing telecommunications landscape," said Terry. "This bill is a comprehensive approach that will ensure high speed broadband service is available to many more customers in Nebraska and across the nation, especially in rural areas."

Providers generally welcomed the bill. Verizon issued a statement congratulating Boucher and Terry for updating the Universal Fund for the broadband era.

"They recognize the universal service program was designed for a different time and that with consumers shouldering its ever-increasing costs, reform is overdue," the company said in a statement.

"We agree that universal service reform is necessary and look forward to working with Congressmen Boucher and Terry to make certain that the universal service program serves the needs of 21st century consumers, who are increasingly relying on their wireless services and products for everything from health to learning," said CITI, an association representing wireless providers.

Competitive bidding

Boucher and Terry say their bill will limit universal service support in areas where there is competition among providers of voice and broadband services and direct the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a competitive bidding process to determine which wireless carriers will receive universal service support.

The measure also directs the FCC to establish and implement performance goals for each universal service fund program and to determine the appropriate methodology for audits of universal service fund recipients.

Bi-Partisan Lawmakers Introduce Universal Reform Bill...

Appeals Court Strikes Down Net Neutrality

Agency lacked authority from Congress to act, judges rule


A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, has ruled the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to impose Net neutrality regulations on Internet providers and operators of broadband networks.

The unanimous finding overturned the FCC's cease and desist order against Comcast, which had imposed measures to slow traffic to what it considered heavy users. The Court said the FCC, in issuing the order, failed to cite any specific law passed by Congress. In effect, the judges found that the federal agency could not impose restraints on Internet providers without the backing of Congress.

The decision, at first glance, would appear to be a severe setback to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's goal of enacting a sweeping Net neutrality policy covering the entire Internet. However, if Congress passes legislation upholding the Net neutrality principle, presumably the policy would pass legal muster.

Net neutrality refers to the principle that Internet content providers should have equal access to the Internet should suffer no restrictions on content, sites or platforms that may be attached. Network operators, such as AT&T, have objected to that principle, saying they have borne the cost of building and maintaining the network and should be allowed to control the amount of traffic traveling through it.

Outlook uncertain

The outlook for Congressional action is somewhat uncertain. In 2006 Congress rejected a number of bills that would have granted the FCC more power to enforce Net neutrality policies. But at the time, Republicans controlled Congress.

Will it be any different now that the Democrats are in charge? Democrats have been in control for three years and so far, Net neutrality legislation remains stalled.

President Obama has consistently supported Net neutrality and his choice of Genachowski to head the FCC was seen as an additional statement of support, since Genachowski was known to be a strong proponent of the concept.

Before becoming Chairman of the FCC, Genachowski was a co-founder of LaunchBox Digital and Rock Creek Ventures. He worked as an executive at IAC/InterActiveCorp, with owns several major Web sites.



Appeals Court Strikes Down Net Neutrality...

FCC’s Broadband Plan: Who’s for It—and Against It

Mid-sized broadband providers may have the most to gain

By Marian Wang, ProPublica

March 18, 2010
Since the FCC formally revealed its plan to expand broadband access on Tuesday, the idea has been generally well-received. And really, what’s there to protest so far? The plan’s stated goal is to connect “100 million households to affordable 100-megabits-per-second service, building the world’s largest market of high-speed broadband users and ensuring that new jobs and businesses are created in America.” It also stresses making broadband faster and more powerful.

So far the only group consistently cited as being the “loser” in all of this is the National Association of Broadcasters, which has expressed reservations about losing its portion of the airwaves to make room for the broadband providers. But which industry players stand to win big if the plan moves forward? Here’s what the Post reported on this point:

Mid-size broadband providers, such as TW Telecom and Cbeyond, are shaping up to be the plan’s biggest beneficiaries, gaining access to more subscribers and the rights to federal funds to expand their networks. Makers of network equipment, such as Cisco, and creators of Web-based content, such as Google, could also experience significant boosts in their business. And cellphone carriers could reap big gains from a proposal to allocate a large chunk of airwaves for the next generation of smartphones and portable devices.

The Post went on to draw a distinction between midsize and major providers:

Major providers, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications, would gain broader subscriber bases, but they could be forced to share their wireless and fixed-wire networks with smaller rivals, exposing them potentially to stiffer competition.

These major providers, while they’re now giving statements of tentative support to the press—with caveats advocating less regulation—are the same ones who’ve beenpushing for this kind of proposal for years. 

A letter the providers sent to lawmakers in July 2008 details their support. In the letter (PDF), AT&T and Verizon urged Congress to enact legislation to expand broadband access. The letter’s 31 signatories included major broadband providers, but also groups as wide-ranging as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, American Association of People with Disabilities, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which was the largest lobbying group in the entertainment industry in 2009, also signed on to the letter. Comcast, also one of the biggest lobbyists in the industry, signed on too. Since the FCC announced its plan, both the cable lobbying group and Comcast executives have already written blog posts detailing how they would like the FCC to implement it. Together, the three top groups—in third, the National Association of Broadcasters, which has its concerns about the plan—spent nearly $40 million on lobbying in 2009.

And for concerned consumers, the Post points out that the plan “only sets the goal of ‘affordable’ broadband services,” but does not tackle prices through rules or caps.

© Copyright 2010 Pro Publica Inc.

FCC’s Broadband Plan: Who’s for It—and Against It...

FCC Provides Tool To Check Internet Speed

Agency plans to make sure advertised speeds are accurate


How fast is your Internet connection? Not how fast your ISP says it is, how fast is it really? The Federal Communications Commission suggests you test it and is providing a tool to do just that.

It's all part of the government agency's National Broadband Plan, allowing Internet users to check ISP speed claims and allow consumers to report areas where broadband is not available.

"Transparency empowers consumers, promotes innovation and investment, and encourages competition," said Chairman Julius Genachowski. "The FCC's new digital tools will arm users with real-time information about their broadband connection and the agency with useful data about service across the country. By informing consumers about their broadband service quality, these tools help eliminate confusion and make the market work more effectively."

The Consumer Broadband Test measures broadband quality indicators such as speed and latency, and reports that information to consumers and stores the data at the FCC. The mobile version -- the FCC's first mobile app -- is available through the Apple and Android app stores. The fixed version is available at www.broadband.gov.

Two popular broadband testing tools are used in this beta version -- the Ookla, Inc. Speed Test and the Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT) running on the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform. In the future, the FCC anticipates making additional broadband testing applications available for consumer use. The Commission does not endorse any specific testing application.

The Broadband Dead Zone Report enables consumers to submit the street address location of a broadband "Dead Zone" where broadband is unavailable for purchase. The Broadband Dead Zone Report form is available online. Consumers can also submit availability information by e-mail to fccinfo@fcc.gov. Those who lack online access can call the FCC at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-TELL-FCC), send a fax to 1-877-627-7460, or mail the information to:


Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
ATTN: Broadband Dead Zone Reporting
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20554

The FCC says the new tools help it gather data to analyze broadband performance and availability on a geographic basis across the US. Use of the tools is voluntary, the agency says, and it pledges to protect the personal privacy of consumers utilizing these tools, and will not publicly release any individual personal information gathered.

The National Broadband Plan also contains a series of recommendations aimed at helping consumers understand the gap between actual broadband speeds delivered and the maximum speed tiers advertised.

Working recommendations include a scientific third-party study on actual broadband performance, a working group to help inform standards for broadband speeds, and further proposals on disclosure needs for fixed broadband services, such as a "digital label."



FCC Provides Tool To Check Internet Speed...

Study Sees Little Hope For Rural Internet Users

Federal stimulus to expand broadband not enough, researchers say

If you happen to live in a rural area of America, chances are your Internet options are limited. While federal stimulus money has been allocated to expand broadband services to rural areas, a new study suggests rural residents shouldn't get their hopes up.

Analysis of most recent FCC data reveals that about 45 million of the more than 117 million US households have no Internet service. When "no Internet" households are added to those households using dial-up to reach the Internet, the number of non-broadband households approaches 58 million, according to a new market research study from The Insight Research Corporation.

These 58 million non-broadband households represent 49 percent of the households in the US. According to Insight Research's market analysis study projecting the FCC 2008 data to year-end 2009 and taking into account further broadband penetrations, it is estimated that 40 million households will still lack broadband access at the close of 2014.

Major providers of broadband services, such as Verizon, have hesitated to invest in some rural markets because of small customer bases spread out over large areas, which can make infrastructure investment costly. As a result, most rural residents who want broadband have only the alternative of satellite broadband from either Hughesnet or Wild Blue, both of which can be problematic.

"Living in a rural area, I unfortunately signed on (to Hughesnet)," Earl, of Warrenton, Va., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Tech support that you can't understand. Service kept dropping off, their contract serviceman on site 4 different occasions, personally observed the problem, and could not correct it. Cancelling the non-functional service cost me $300."

Joel, of Ramah, N.M, says Wild Blue isn't the answer either.

"My download speeds have progressively become slower to the point I am giving up," he told ConsumerAfffairs.com. "It now takes several minutes to download ONE song and even then it stops several times, making a download for editing impossible. They promised to take care of the problem but after 5 months nothing has happened unless becoming even slower is the promised change."

If these consumers are hoping the federal stimulus will provide an answer to their broadband problems, the study says they are in for a disappointment. Current federal Stimulus spending of $6.4 billion would allow for an investment of $164 per household to provide broadband access to the non-broadband households, the study finds.

The availability of such a small investment amount per household casts serious doubt that any significant expansion of broadband access will result from this government action, the authors say. This position is further bolstered by the argument that, at the current estimate of $1,500 per household, at least $60 billion would be needed to deploy universal broadband access.

"Certainly the current administration recognizes the direct relationship between extending broadband access to all Americans and the future health of our economy, but the current allocation of funds is just not going to get the job done," said Robert Rosenberg, President, Insight Research. "Our analysis found that a substantial portion of the 49 percent without broadband had no computers in their homes. There is a chicken and egg problem here that needs to be considered by our policy makers."



Study Sees Little Hope For Rural Internet Users...

FCC Votes To Create Net Neutrality Rules

5-0 decision opens floor for "open Internet" debate

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously today to begin the process of crafting formal rules for "net neutrality," the principle that all content on the Internet should be equally accessible to all users, and that companies cannot discriminate or block one set of content in favor of another.

The Commission agreed at its monthly open meeting to publish a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" that would solicit public comment on how best to create rules for ensuring net neutrality, while enabling Internet service providers and telecom networks to continue policing their systems for spam and illegal content.

"Any rules we adopt must preserve our freedom to connect, to communicate, and to create that is the wonder of the open Internet," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski in prepared remarks. "Each and every user of the Internet must have access to an unlimited online universe of ideas and commerce."

Under the proposed rulemaking, net neutrality rules:

• would not be allowed to prevent any of its users from sending or receiving the lawful content of the users choice over the Internet;

• would not be allowed to prevent any of its users from running the lawful applications or using the lawful services of the users choice;

• would not be allowed to prevent any of its users from connecting to and using on its network the users choice of lawful devices that do not harm the network;

• would not be allowed to deprive any of its users of the users entitlement to competition among network providers, application providers, service providers, and content providers;

• would be required to treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner; and

• would be required to disclose such information concerning network management and other practices as is reasonably required for users and content, application, and service providers to enjoy the protections specified in this rulemaking.

Not a clean sweep

Commissioner Michael Copps praised the ruling. "The Internet must never be about powerful gatekeepers and walled gardens," he said. "It must always be about the smoothest possible flow of communications among people."

Although the commission -- 3 Democrats and 2 Republicans -- voted unanimously to support it, several members offered some dissent. "Freedom is best served if we promote abundance, collaboration and competition over regulation and rationing," said Republican commissioner Robert McDowell. "No government has ever succeeded in mandating innovation and investment."

McDowell emphasized that he was voting in favor of the rulemaking process, as opposed to the overall principle, and quoted former President Bill Clinton's support of limited government intervention in the communications marketplace as support for his position..

"Before imposing new rules, we need to carefully think through all potential unintended consequences that could harm consumers by increasing prices, impeding innovation, eliminating choices, and/or reducing quality of service," said new commissioner and former National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) head Meredith Atwell-Baker.

But Baker's fellow new commissioner Mignon Clyburn used her story of running a small weekly newspaper in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina -- which eventually closed down -- to illustrate the need for net neutrality. "To me, that is what this proceeding is all about: preventing barriers to entry and ensuring that Americans have access to the best and most useful information and services," she said.

No easy victory

Supporters and opponents of net neutrality alike were already marshaling forces in advance of today's decision. Ben Scott, director of consumer advocacy group Free Press, hailed the vote as "an important step toward securing the open Internet and a victory for the public interest."

Free Press and its opponents, such as AT&T, have been dueling it out in the marketplace over whether or not net neutrality would hamper or spur innovation and investment in America's Internet industry.

AT&T recently circulated a letter among its employees urging them to write the FCC and media outlets with those claims, while Free Press fired back with a report claiming that an open Internet would encourage investment from new companies.

The rules also face a rocky road in Congress. Several Senators have introduced legislation that would codify net neutrality into law, while others are ramping up opposition to the new rules.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who opposed net neutrality regulations in his 2008 presidential bid, promptly introduced legislation in the Senate to block the FCC from making its proposed rules law. In a Washington Times editorial, McCain compared the rules to the government's bailouts of the auto and financial industries, as another "power grab" for control.

"These new rules should rightly be viewed by consumers suspiciously as another government power grab over a private service provided by private companies in a competitive marketplace. Does that sound familiar? It should," he wrote.

The Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics recently published a joint report documenting the massive amounts of money donated by telecom companies and their political lobby groups to members of Congress in order to influence their votes -- totaling $9.4 million dollars between January 2007 and June 2009.

The top recipient of donations was Senator McCain.

FCC Votes To Create Net Neutrality Rules...

House Introduces "Internet Freedom Preservation Act"

Bill would amend Communications Act to protect net neutrality

The issue of net neutrality--guaranteeing the right of Internet users to access all Web content equally--has been on the back burner in Congress recently, but with growing concern about competition in the wireless Internet market, two representatives today introduced new legislation to enshrine net neutrality into law.

Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) introduced the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" of 2009 (aka H.R. 3458), which would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to cover net neutrality to "protect the right of consumers to access lawful content, run lawful applications, and use lawful services of their choice on the Internet," according to the bill.

"A network neutrality policy based upon the principle of nondiscrimination and consistent with the history of the Internet's development is essential to ensure that Internet services remain open to al consumers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and providers of lawful content, services, and applications," the legislation said.

The bill offers provisions for "reasonable network management," the language coined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a standard for measuring whether Internet service providers are blocking content from users or favoring some offerings over others, but "only if it furthers a critically important interest."

The legislation calls for the FCC to conduct eight public broadband summits around the country, within a year of the bill's passage, in order to solicit opinions from the public and various stakeholders on the U.S.'s Internet-related policies.

"The Internet has thrived and revolutionized business and the economy precisely because it started as an open technology," Rep. Eshoo said. "This bill will ensure that the non-discriminatory framework that allows the Internet to thrive and competition on the Web to flourish is preserved at a time when our economy needs it the most."

Media activists and supporters of net neutrality cheered the introduction of the bill. "The future of the Internet as we know it depends on maintaining freedom and openness online," said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press. "This crucial legislation will help to ensure that the public -- not big phone and cable companies -- controls the fate of the Internet."

The issue of unrestricted Internet access has gained new traction on Capitol Hill in the wake of reports that Apple and AT&T are each blocking or preventing users from accessing services for the mega-popular iPhone, which is exclusive to AT&T at the moment.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski recently sent letters to Apple, AT&T, and Google asking why Google Voice, the company's popular free calling service, was rejected for use on the iPhone. Critics say the issue is related to net neutrality, as companies should not be allowed to prevent customers from utilizing legal programs of their choosing on their devices--or computers.

House Introduces ...

FCC Launches National Broadband Internet Plan

Agency will coordinate stimulus money for nationwide Web access

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today launched the first phase of its "national broadband plan" to bring affordable, high-speed Internet to all Americans. As part of the economic stimulus plan passed by Congress, the agency must complete the plan by February 17, 2010.

The FCC began the process through an open meeting this morning in Washington, D.C., where it solicited public input from interested parties on several key issues relating to broadband access, including:

• How to achieve broadband access for Americans most effectively

• Evaluating current broadband deployment programs, including grants, for success or failure

• How to best use broadband to improve the economy, health care, energy independence, job creation, public safety, and national security

"Broadband can be the great enabler that restores Americas economic well-being and opens doors of opportunity for all Americans to pass through, no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives," said acting FCC chairman Michael Copps. "It is technology that intersects with just about every great challenge confronting our nation."

Under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Congress granted $7.2 billion for investment in broadband access expansion, to be coordinated by the FCC and disbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) rural broadband initiative, and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The three agencies are holding multiple public meetings across the country to get input from citizens, businesses, local and state governments, and entrepreneurs on the best ways to invest the stimulus money.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who is resigning his position to head up the USDA's broadband disbursement efforts, said that the plan "will require unprecedented [federal] interagency coordination, which we are already seeing on a scale that dwarfs any efforts in the previous Administration."

President Barack Obama made extension of broadband access a priority plank in his electoral campaign, drawing a contrast between himself and former President Bush, who was criticized for not doing more to address the "digital divide" of lack of affordable, accessible Internet service for minority, low-income, and rural communities.

According to media watchdog group Free Press, even within America's most tech-savvy cities, including Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, many communities and neighborhood have little or no access to high-speed Internet service, and the high costs put broadband out of reach for many families.

"In Washington, where BlackBerries are everywhere, only 52 percent of homes are connected to broadband," the group said in its report,Wired Less: Disconnected in Urban America. "In total, more than 240,000 D.C. residents are not connected to the Internet at home, and nearly 160,000 have no Internet access at all."

S. Derek Turner, research director for Free Press, said that it was crucial that the broadband plan not fall victim to previous approaches which favored deregulatory, hands-off policies — leading to higher prices, lower speeds, and less competition among Internet service providers.

"If we want to see any improvement in the availability and adoption of broadband in this country, we need a strong government watchdog and a broadband plan that puts the public interest ahead of Wall Street's whims," Turner said.

FCC Launches National Broadband Internet Plan...

Net Neutrality Advocate Tapped As FCC Head

Genachowski expected to support Internet openness

President Obama has officially named Julius Genachowski to be chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a move that cheered supporters of Net neutrality.

"He will bring to the job diverse and unparalleled experience in communications and technology, with two decades of accomplishment in the private sector and public service," Obama said in making the announcement.

Genachowski is a lawyer who has spent time in politics as well as in the private sector, as an Internet executive. He was rumored to be in line for the job, since he played a key role in Obama's Internet strategies during the campaign and had been chief counsel to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.

Industry analysts predict Genachowski will advance the Democratic Party's support for more Net neutrality regulations, which are opposed by much of the telecommunications industry. To date, the FCC has come down on the side of Net neutrality, ruling last summer that Comcasts limiting of BitTorrent was illegal.

Genachowski is a co-founder of LaunchBox Digital and Rock Creek Ventures. He worked as an executive at IAC/InterActiveCorp, with owns several Web sites.

Net Neutrality Advocate Tapped As FCC Head...

Obama Promises to "Renew Information Superhighway"

Broadband expansion included as part of public works program

President-elect Barack Obama pledged to expand Americans' access to broadband Internet as part of a massive new public works program designed to generate jobs and improve the economy, he said in his weekly video/radio address.

"As we renew our schools and highways, we'll also renew our information superhighway," Obama said. "It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they'll get that chance when I'm President — because that's how we'll strengthen America's competitiveness in the world."

Obama said that broadband investment could also help modernize health care systems, through sharing and storing medical information and health records online, enabling doctors to offer care more efficiently.

"We will make sure that every doctor's office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year," Obama said.

Media action groups such as Free Press commended Obama's proposals, but said more work needed to be done to bridge "the digital divide."

"In our 21st-century society, having a connection to a fast and affordable Internet is no longer a luxury — it's a public necessity," said Free Press' executive director Josh Silver. "Obama's broadband stimulus must deliver Americans the infrastructure they need for economic growth and social opportunity."

Advocates have been pushing broadband investment not only as an economic driver in its own right, but as a means to aiding other crises. App-Rising.com's Geoff Daily urged the Obama administration to pursue an aggressive strategy of broadband investment and expansion, especially for rural communities that lack high-speed Internet access.

"If we don't step up and do something big, we may not have a rural America in 10 or 20 years," Daily said. "If we take the initiative to wire them for the 21st century infrastructure, they can not only survive, they can thrive."

Many groups have been offering policy papers and plans for how best to implement a nationwide broadband investment program. Free Press' "2009 Media & Tech Priorities" plan emphasizes reform of the government agencies tasked to handle Internet issues, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunication & Information Administration (NTIA).

Free Press also recommended reforming the Universal Service Fund to subsidize broadband access in rural areas.

The Benton Foundation offered "A Broadband Action Plan for America" on December 1. The Foundation advocates implementing plans to get every American access to "affordable, robust broadband" by 2010, through tactics such as funding or co-funding state and local initiatives, better broadband data mapping, and opening unused wireless spectrum for use by communications companies to create new paths to Internet access.

"Unless our nation quickly answers this serious challenge, America will continue to export economic growth and good-paying 'knowledge worker' jobs overseas to its better-connected, lower-wage competitors," said foundation head Charles Benton. "Our citizens will continue to be denied the benefits of broadband already being enjoyed by citizens of other nations in job creation and economic development, in health care and education, in public safety and security, energy conservation and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and more."

Obama did not specify the cost of the public works program, but various analysts' costs estimates place it from $400 to $700 billion, and possibly higher.

But broadband advocates such as Daily say plans such as his "Rural Fiber Fund" would enable expansion of broadband Internet access for a small fraction of the total cost.

"$30 billion should get the whole job done," Daily said. "But $10 billion is enough to be a game-changer and set the wheels in motion."

Obama Promises to ...

Congress Passes Broadband Data Improvement Act

Bill would improve data collection on high-speed Internet in U.S.

Amidst the battles over the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, both houses of Congress passed legislation that would improve the collection of data on broadband availability in the United States, as well as new funding for groups that support increasing high-speed Internet access.

On September 27, the Senate passed the "Broadband Data Improvement Act," introduced last year by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI). The House of Representatives passed companion legislation on Monday, and sent the bill to President Bush's desk for signature into law.

Inouye hailed the bill's passage as a stepping-stone to providing broadband access to the nation.

"The federal government has a responsibility to ensure the continued rollout of broadband access, as well as the successful deployment of the next generation of broadband technology," Inouye said. "But as I have said before, we cannot manage what we do not measure. This bill will give us the baseline statistics we need in order to eventually achieve the successful deployment of broadband access and services to all Americans."

The legislation would make several changes to how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other agencies handle their collection of data on broadband Internet, including:

• A mandate for the FCC to report to Congress annually on the state of broadband adoption in America, rather than periodically. The FCC report would have to list what kind of technologies citizens use to access the Internet, the cost per month of the services, what applications or devices they use in conjunction with their service, and how fast the connection speeds really are.

• Adding a question to the Census Bureau survey asking if the respondent uses dial-up or broadband for their Internet access.

• Tasking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to create tools to help consumers evaluate the speed and availability of broadband Internet, as well as how the United States' Internet availability compares with other countries.

• Establishing grants for nonprofit, public-private enterprises to study barriers to broadband adoption across the country.

The House and Senate bills had several differences, but were eventually whittled down, with the only remaining change being that the House version required reports to be sent to the House Commerce Committee as well as the Senate.

Media watchdog group Free Press said the legislation represented "a crucial step toward a national broadband policy."

"Our current broadband data collection system has had serious problems for years," said Free Press' policy director Ben Scott. "The absence of accurate information about the price, speed and availability of high-speed broadband has crippled our government's ability to advance innovative technology policies."

The FCC has been heavily criticized in recent years for using poor data-gathering techniques that did not accurately measure what parts of the country actually had access to broadband. Under the old system, if a single subscriber in a ZIP code had broadband Internet access, the entire region was considered covered.

The FCC in June announced major revisions to its data collection system, including setting its minimum standard for broadband from 200 kbps to 768 kbps, the average speed of a slow DSL connection.

But the agency simultaneously released a report claiming that broadband availability was on the rise for all Americans--using the old statistics.

The FCC in June announced major revisions to its data collection system, including setting its minimum standard for broadband from 200 kbps to 768 kbps....

Comcast to Cap Internet Usage for Customers

Residential users top out at 250 gigabytes per month under new policy

The era of unlimited Internet usage for a flat monthly price is one step closer to its end, as cable giant Comcast officially announced today that residential subscribers would top out at 250 gigabytes (GB) per month of data bandwith availability, beginning October 1.

The new policy, announced on Comcast's network management site, codifies the company's practice of canceling or limiting customers' access once they go over a specific amount of usage. Comcast had previously refused to disclose its caps for fear of driving customers to competitors who still offered flat-rate prices for Internet access.

"This is the same system we have in place today," Comcast said in the announcement. "The only difference is that we will now provide a limit by which a customer may be contacted. As part of our pre-existing policy, we will continue to contact the top users of our high-speed Internet service and ask them to curb their usage."

According to the company, in order to exceed a cap of 250 GB, a user would have to:

• Send 50 million emails (at 0.05 KB/email)

• Download 62,500 songs (at 4 MB/song)

• Download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 GB/movie)

• Upload 25,000 hi-resolution digital photos (at 10 MB/photo)

Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas emphasized that the policy change would be "not relevant to 99 percent of our customers...only the less than 1 percent who use an extreme amount of bandwith."

"We are calling people and letting them know when they are going over the limit, and most people voluntarily moderate their usage on the first call," Douglas said. Those who continued to exceed the cap after being warned would face suspension of their account for one year, he said, "but that hasn't really been a factor...most people change their habits after the first warning. They really just wanted to know the number [of the cap]."

Douglas also emphasized that the network policy change would be advertised on several Comcast sites, including the Comcast.net customer portal, and that mailed announcements would be sent to customers along with their next bill.

Karl Bode, editor of BroadbandReports.com, was among the first to report Comcast's plans to officially cap users' bandwith. Bode told ConsumerAffairs.com that the 250 GB cap was "more than generous for the majority of users."

"For going on half a decade Comcast customers have complained that the company employed a glass ceiling limit while marketing their service as 'unlimited.'," Bode said. "When customers crossed this limit they were told they could see their connection terminated if they didn't scale back usage, but were never told how much consumption was too much. This new approach looks to simply clarify an existing but murky monthly consumption limit, and in that sense is actually good for consumers."

Several Internet providers, such as Time Warner and Frontier Cable, have been testing or implementing "metered" broadband plans, where users would pay excess usage charges if they went over a specific caps--many of which are considerably lower than Comcast's 250 GB.

Critics of metered broadband say that the plans offer too little bandwith for too high a price. Customers will shy away from using high-speed Internet's full potential, such as uploading or streaming videos, if they are afraid of going over their limits in doing so, and that companies who are supporting metered plans do so to protect their own video channels and hamstring competitors such as YouTube.

Comcast's plan was originally rumored to include charges for exceeding the bandwith cap, but the official announcement did not do so. The company had previously announced that it would employ new network management systems to slow down Internet speeds for the heaviest users in order to prevent congestion.

"While I think caps are fair if reasonable (the 5GB or even 40GB limits being tested by Time Warner Cable are absurd), I've generally been strongly opposed to the overage fee system and metered billing, given the potential for abuse by carriers looking to protect TV revenues," Bode said. "I think there's strong pressure from the investment community to begin metered billing."

Comcast's policy changes come in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s ruling penalizing the company for its blocking access to the BitTorrent file-sharing service. Under the terms of the FCC's order, Comcast must provide detailed explanations of how it will manage its networks without denying customers access to services.

Media watchdog group Free Press, which had pushed the FCC to rule against Comcast, said that while the cap was a better solution than blocking customers' access, "[i]t remains unclear how the cap announced today helps solve Comcast's supposed congestion problems -- or how the cap will work with other usage limits Comcast has been considering."

"If the United States had genuine broadband competition, Internet providers would not be able to profit from artificial scarcity -- they would invest in their networks to keep pace with consumer demand," said Free Press' research director S. Derek Turner. "Unfortunately, Americans will continue to face the consequences of this lack of competition until policymakers get serious about policies that deliver the world-class networks consumers deserve."

Comcast to Cap Internet Usage for Customers...

Comcast Tries To Polish Its Image

Cable giant plays nice on many fronts to avoid FCC penalties

It's been a bad few months for Comcast. Ever since the cable giant was caught blocking access to the BitTorrent file-sharing engine, the cable behemoth has...

Comcast Cuts Off Heavy Internet Users

Customers complain bandwidth limits are secret

Comcast has warned broadband Internet customers across the country to curb their downloading or wind up on the curb.

The company has a bandwidth limitation that, if broken, can result in a 12-month suspension of service. The problem, according to customer complaints, is that the telecom giant refuses to reveal how much downloading is too much.

The company, which a few years ago advertised the service as unlimited has an acceptable use policy which enforces the invisible download limit.

The 23-part policy, states that it is a breach of contract to generate levels of traffic sufficient to impede others' ability to send or retrieve information. But nowhere does it detail what levels of traffic will impede others.

Michael, of Speedway, Ind., uses Comcast Internet to transfer large work files while his son uses it for school research. In 2004 he received letters threatening to disconnect his Internet if he doesn't restrict his bandwidth.

Unfortunately, neither the letter, the AUP, the Comcast websites, nor any printed Comcast materials specify what those bandwidth usage limitations are, Michael wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com. Essentially, what they are doing is drawing an invisible line, then threatening to disconnect anyone who crosses it.

"I am more than willing to curb my usage to meet any limitations set by Comcast...if only they would actually make those limitations available to their subscribers, he said.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received several complaints from onetime Comcast customers whose service was interrupted by the phantom policy. One of them is Frank Carreiro, a West Jordan, Utah computer technician who has led the charge for hundreds of consumers with his Comcast Broadband dispute blog.

Carriero received a phone call from Comcast in December 2006 warning him that if he didn't cut back on his usage, they were going to cut his service. When he contacted customer service to see what he could do, they had no idea what he was talking about and even suggested it was a prank call.

One month later, he woke up to no Internet. When he called Comcast, they informed him he would be without service for 12 months.

For the next few months, he, his wife and his six children were without Internet until DSL came into their neighborhood.

Comcast told Carreiro he was downloading 200-300 gigabytes per month. He said he and his family download a lot of data but could never have used that much. So when he got his new service, he began tracking his use using two independent data logs.

We haven't broken 50 Gigs a month yet and we tried, Carreiro wrote in an e-mail. I've even built a server for family photos to be shared and still we're not breaking 50 Gigs.

Carreiro said he has spoken to hundreds of people in 15 states in the past five months who have had their Internet privileges revoked by Comcast. But Comcast spokesperson, Charlie Douglas, said only .001 percent of Comcast's customers ever horde too much bandwidth.

Carreiro, whose neighbors have also lost their Internet, doesn't agree.

If it's so low, why do I have a couple of people right down the street who have had their Internet taken away? Carreiro asked.

Douglas said the company shuts off people's Internet if it affects the performance of their neighbors because often many people will share a connection on one data pipe.

If customers want a more dedicated stream, they can order Comcast's business account which costs roughly $1,500 per month, Douglas said.

Carrerio agreed that download restrictions for residential accounts are necessary to keep the Internet running smoothly. But he said Comcast should reveal what the restrictions are, as most other Internet providers do.

Some Internet providers charge customers based on how much they wish to download every month. Carreiro's current provider has a 100-gigabyte cap.

Douglas refused to reveal Comcast's bandwidth ceiling and would not say on the record why they keep it a secret.

Comcast Cuts Off Heavy Internet Users...

FTC Nixes Net Neutrality

Consumers Should Trust the Marketplace, Regulators Purr

The FTC found little reason to protect consumers and content providers from attempts by large telecommunications providers to charge more for faster delive...

U.S. Still Lags In Broadband Access

Lack of Competition Leaves U.S. 16th Among Industrialized Nations

The constant refrain of major telecommunications and cable companies is that there's "heavy competition" for the Internet user's dollar.

But "heavy competition" doesn't mean being able to choose only between Comcast and Verizon, and a newly published report reminds us that the United States still lags far behind the rest of the world in providing affordable broadband to its citizens.

"Broadband Reality Check II," an update to a report published last year by Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, and media policy group Free Press, found that the United States continues to promote duopolies between major telecom and cable providers as real competition, that the level of Americans' access to the Internet can be severely restricted by income level and geographic area, and that the FCC uses misleading statistics to claim that competition is healthy for consumers.

"America appears to be a land of broadband haves and have-nots, where rural and low-income citizens are left behind in the information economy," the report stated. "This situation is the result of failed policy and a lack of imagination and vision from our policymakers."

Among the report's findings:

• The United States continues to rank 16th among industrialized nations for broadband development and penetration. Not only that, but broadband customers in countries such as Japan and South Korea enjoy broadband speeds that are hundreds of times faster, and can enjoy "bundled" television, phone, and Internet services for $25-$35 dollars, roughly the same price as a standalone U.S. broadband connection.

• The U.S. broadband market is "essentially a series of regional duopolies," with the top four cable and telephone companies -- Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner -- controlling over 83 percent of the entire broadband market, while buyouts and mergers of companies like AT&T and BellSouth serve to reduce actual competitive markets even more.

• The FCC continues to use ZIP codes that register one broadband provider as proof that broadband penetration is comprehensive across the U.S. But a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the ZIP code method didn't account for the lack of more than one provider in any given region.

• The GAO also found that rural households and families with incomes of less than $30,000 were four times less likely to have broadband Internet access than urban households or those with incomes $75,000 and higher. A full third of American households are still stuck with dial-up as their only choice for Internet access.

The report comes at a time when telecommunications issues are very much on the minds of lawmakers. The massive update to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had many provisions to address broadband access, most of which favored the duopoly system, and seemed ready to pass both the House and Senate.

But consumer groups and technology companies were angered over the lack of protection for "net neutrality," the right of any Internet user or content provider to access the Interent on an equal footing with others. They launched a massive grassroots campaign that drew media attention to the cozy state of affairs for the telcos and cable companies

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), author of the Senate's version of the telecom bill, recently acknowledged that the bill was "all but dead" and would have to be partitioned into individual bills to have any chance of passing.

One portion of both the House and Senate bills addresses the concept of publicly-funded municipal wireless networks, or "Municipal Wi-Fi" for short. Although many cities and towns are developing their own wireless systems for free or low-cost use, heavy telecom lobbying has pushed 15 states to ban any sort of initiatives for Wi-Fi.

Telecom companies such as AT&T are determined to roll-out high-speed broadband networks and provide platforms for "TV over Internet" services such as MobiTV. The company favors tiered pricing models that will enable only the richest clients to pay for the best service.

Critics fear that without truly affordable broadband and equal access to content, the "digital divide" between rich and poor will continue to grow, and the middle-class users will be stuck in the "slow lane" of Internet access.

As the authors of the "Broadband Reality Check" put it, "Faith-based policy and wishful thinking will not bring broadband to rural areas, and the repeated use of misleading data will not help low-income consumers afford broadband."

U.S. Still Lags In Broadband Access...

Net Neutrality May Derail Telecom Bill

Senators uneasy about voting on the bill prior to the election

The attempts by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) to push his telecommunications law update to final passage may be stalling out, due to Congress' switching focus to the elections, and continued debate from all fronts on the issue of net neutrality.

Stevens told Roll Call that he was racing to get 60 votes in the Senate to pass the bill after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) told Stevens not to bring the bill to the floor unless he was certain he had enough votes to ensure passage.

However, many Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed unease about voting on the bill prior to the November elections. Some stated that they were receiving heavy feedback from constituents demanding that net neutrality protections be placed in the telecom update.

A rumor that Stevens was attempting to secure a majority of votes for "cloture" on the bill, in order to shut off debate and move it to an immediate vote, was met with a furious response from bloggers who have been chronicling the net neutrality issue.

Although Stevens has not expressed outright opposition to net neutrality, he voted against an amendment to the telecom bill that would have inserted basic protections for content access into the law.

Stevens' comments that the Internet was "a series of tubes" and that net neutrality interfered with his staff's ability to "send him an Internet" were roundly mocked on the Web and in mainstream media both.

In addition to the net neutrality issue, the telecom bill contains many issues that legislators might be afraid to face before elections, including the controversial "broadcast flag," a measure favored by the motion picture and recording industries that would prevent copying of certain content by users, even if only for personal use.

Frist had gone on record as saying that he would not support passage of the bill unless the "broadcast flag" option was included. Frist's former chief of staff, Mitch Bainwol, works for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the chief lobby group for record companies.

"No Free Lunch"

Meanwhile, the telecommunications industry is pushing hard to ensure that the bill passes without any language or provisions favoring net neutrality.

GigaOM's Katie Fehrenbacher reported that AT&T head Ed Whitacre reiterated his opposition to net neutrality in no uncertain terms during a recent speech to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

"No one gets a free ride," Whitacre said. The American economy doesn't work that way. . . .We are not going to build this with no chance for a return. Those that want to use this will pay."

Both AT&T and Verizon are pushing hard to roll out their new high-speed broadband and TV-over-Internet services in order to shore up losses from their dwindling telephone business. Verizon reported 440,000 new broadband subscribers during its second-quarter earnings call, 25 percent of which came from its new FiOS high-speed service.

But Verizon also reported a loss of 553,000 traditional telephone line customers, as more and more users switched to only using cellphones for communication, or to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Vonage.

The telecom and cable industries strongly oppose equal access to Internet content, in order to push "tiered pricing" models to customers, where people willing to pay more can receive faster connection speeds, better service, and so on.

Supporters of net neutrality believe that unless the principle of equal access to Internet content is enshrined into law, those who don't want to pay extra, or can't afford to, will be relegated to the "slow lane" of bandwith access.

The battle has taken over mainstream media, with telecom company lobbyists taking out full-page ads in newspapers and penning editorials claiming that net neutrality will stifle competition.

One column, written by Hands Off The Internet's Mike McCurry, claimed that "The 'neutral' proposal that companies like Google are touting will ensure that they never have to pay a dime no matter how much bandwidth they use, and consumers who may only use their computers to send e-mail and play Solitaire get to foot the bill."

McCurry was criticized for not disclosing that Google, like all Internet-based companies, already pays millions of dollars per year for the bandwidth it uses, and that his lobby group was funded by major telecom and cable companies.

Net Neutrality May Derail Telecom Bill...

GAO: Broadband Access Difficult To Measure

There's not only a lack of broadband access in rural areas of the U.S., there's a lack of information about broadband access in rural areas

There's not only a lack of broadband access in rural areas of the U.S., there's a lack of information about broadband access in rural areas, according to a new study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

All the while they've been winning favorable treatment from Congress, the major telecommunications carriers have been promising to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas. But there's little evidence that's actually happened and the foot-dragging is likely to become an issue in the upcoming off-year elections.

President Bush has made a commitment to ensuring all Americans have access to low-cost broadband service, but major telecommunications companies have been slow to roll out connections to remote areas, citing costs and a supposed lack of demand.

The GAO's report found that while broadband deployment in the United States is extensive and picking up speed, many factors make it difficult to assess gaps in rural or underpopulated areas.

Among the report's findings:

• 30 million American households utilized some form of broadband Internet access in 2005. Of those households, the type of connection was split roughly 50-50 between cable and DSL. However, the FCC's survey data was built on analyses on the level of subscriber Zip codes, not where providers have set up infrastructure. The GAO analysts believed this could create inaccurate estimates of which areas are lacking in broadband access.

• Telecom companies and associations interviewed by the GAO cited population density and terrain makeup as chief factors that make broadband deployment expensive, as well as the need for "aggregating" deployment of broadband infrastructure around an "anchor point," such as a large government agency or health care facility, to keep costs down.

• The Universal Service Fund (USF), the tax on phone and broadband services for low-cost Internet development, has been a critical resource for providing rural and low-population states funding to build their telecommunications infrastructure. But several of the telecom companies interviewed for the report opposed expanding the USF to explicitly include support for broadband development, fearing that it would induce more "program expenditures," and higher costs with them.

• Wireless technology was cited as an alternative to the costs of rolling out cable to rural areas, but difficulties in finding available spectrum and negotiating deals with municipalities hindered telecoms' entrance into providing Wi-Fi access in both urban and rural areas. Local municipalities are pursuing their own initiatives to set up wireless Internet access in regions not served by major telecom providers.

All of these issues are up for debate as the House and Senate reconcile different versions of updates to the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), includes provisions to allow municipalities to run their own Wi-Fi networks or negotiate with telecom companies to do so, without seeking permission from state authorities.

The Stevens bill also provides for increased collection for the USF, which provides funding for many services in Stevens' home state of Alaska.

Stevens was one of the requesters of the GAO report, along with his minority counterpart Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), and House Commerce and Energy chair Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX).

Barton, a longtime friend of the telephone companies, is the author of the "Communications, Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement" act, the House version of the new telecommunications legislation. The Barton bill would enable telecom providers to create local cable franchises in regions without having to undergo the same regulatory process cable companies did.

The Barton bill also precludes local municipalities from setting up public Wi-Fi networks when existing Internet providers are already available. The issue has become a sore spot for many city governments, particularly in New Orleans, where BellSouth has been lobbying to shut down the city's emergency Wi-Fi network.

Both bills have been under heavy public scrutiny due to the debate over "Net neutrality," the principle that all Internet content should be accessed equally, and users shouldn't have to pay extra money for faster service.

Supporters of Net neutrality believe that companies like Verizon and AT&T (formerly SBC) will be restricting access to Web content according to who can pay the most money, and have engaged in a massive lobbying effort to prevent that from becoming accepted practice.

The Barton bill is currently not on the House's agenda for the week, as the House Judiciary Committee has demanded it be referred to them. Judiciary Committee Chair F. James Sensenbrenner outlined "35 pages of reasons" why the bill's provisions fall under his jurisdiction, according to the National Journal.

If Sensenbrenner gets the bill referred to Judiciary, action on the House version of the legislation could be delayed for several weeks while the committee discusses it and sorts out the politics of the matter.

GAO: Broadband Access Difficult To Measure...

Congress Wrestles with Net Neutrality

Net neutrality gets a boost and a setback

Net neutrality, the principle that all content on the Internet can be accessed equally, received both a boost and a setback in Congress this week, as both the House and Senate introduced new legislation that could affect how consumers access the Web in virtually every way.

After the House Commerce Committee voted 34-22 to defeat an amendment protecting Net neutrality from being added to new telecommunications legislation, House Judiciary Committee chair F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) asked for a referral of the legislation in order to add language that provides much stronger protection for net neutrality in the law.

Whereas the current Commerce bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), would grant authority to the FCC to handle disputes involving blocked access to Web content, the Sensenbrenner-Conyers draft would transfer authority to the Justice Department's antitrust division.

Sensenbrenner achieved dubious fame last year for refusing to grant hearings on waiving the effects of the new bankruptcy laws in order to offer relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

More recently, he authored a controversial immigration bill that would have made felons out of illegal immigrants, as well as anyone who might offer them assistance.

The Sensenbrenner-Conyers draft is one of several competing bills proposed by Congressmen in order to address the Net neutrality issue. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who sponsored the defeated Net neutrality amendment to the Barton bill, introduced his own "Network Neutrality Act of 2006" on the House floor on May 2nd.

In his statement advocating the bill, Markey said that "Broadband network owners should not be able to determine who can and who cannot offer services over broadband networks or over the Internet."

"The Network Neutrality Act of 2006 offers [Congress] a clear choice," Markey said. "It is a choice between favoring the broadband designs of a small handful of very large companies, and safeguarding the dreams of thousands of inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses."

New House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said that full votes on the Barton telecom legislation will not be on the floor this week, due in part to the rising amount of public concern regarding net neutrality.

"Sweeping Changes"

Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Ted Stevens (R-AK) introduced yet another version of updates to the 1996 Telecommunications Act on May 1st.

The Senate bill, while containing sweeping and far-reaching changes to laws on everything from recording television shows to broadband taxation, has no provisions for ensuring equal access to Internet content.

Among the Stevens bill's offerings is the power for municipalities to run their own broadband networks, without having to seek permission from states to do so, and increased collection for the Universal Service Fund (USF), which provides funding for low-cost broadband services to rural American communities, including many in Alaska.

As in the House, the Senate bill faces many obstacles to passage. Stevens' own co-sponsor, Sen. Daniel Inouye, expressed "numerous, substantive objections to the bill in its current form."

Several Senators, including Olympia Snowe (R-MI) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) have introduced bills designed to codify the principles of net neutrality into law, with the expectation that they will be addressed in any update of telecom legislation.

Members of both parties have expressed increasing nervousness about making changes to laws that deal with Internet access in such close proximity to the Nov. 2006 Congressional elections. The net neutrality issue has exploded into mainstream awareness and provoked intense scrutiny as to how telecom companies intend to control Internet service.

The "Save The Internet" coalition, a broad alliance of bloggers, consumer groups, academics, and special interests across the political spectrum, has delivered 500,000 petition signatures to Congress advocating protection of equal Internet access since its launch on April 24th.

Wu, a coalition charter member, told Slate magazine that the "meritocratic" design of the Internet would be irreparably harmed by centralizing access control in the hands of a few large telecom companies.

"When who you know matters more than anything, the market is no longer meritocratic and consequently becomes less efficient," Wu said. "At the extreme, a market where centralized actors pick favorites isn't a market at all, but a planned economy."

Congress Wrestles with Net Neutrality...

Net Neutrality Loses House Vote, But Wins More Public Awareness

Supporters of "Net Neutrality," the principle that all content on the Internet should be accessed equally, were dealt another defeat this week

Supporters of "Net Neutrality," the principle that all content on the Internet should be accessed equally, were dealt another defeat this week.

As part of a vote on new telecommunications legislation, House Commerce Committee members defeated an amendment by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) to protect net neutrality, 34-22.

The vote was mostly along party lines, with 29 Republicans and five Democrats voting to kill the amendment. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) broke party ranks to vote with 21 Democrats to support Markey's amendment.

Four Democrats on the committee switched their positions to favor support of Net Neutrality, crediting the huge explosion in public interest on the issue.

Matt Stoller, blogger for the progressive Web site MyDD, called the vote a "momentum shift," given that the Subcommittee on Commerce and Energy defeated Markey's last attempt to insert language protecting Net Neutrality by a vote of 23-8.

"There's a white hot firestorm on the issue on Capitol Hill," he said in a post discussing the issue. "No one wants to see the telcos make a radical change to the Internet and screw this medium up, except, well, the telcos."

The net neutrality issue is guaranteed to come up again as the Communications Opportunity Enhancement Act (COPE), the legislation sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), now moves to the full House for a vote.

Any legislation passed by the House must be reconciled with legislation passed in the Senate before the President can sign it into law.

Though Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) has said he supports the idea of Net Neutrality in principle, he has stopped short of endorsing putting the principle into codified law.

However, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-MI), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have all introduced legislation in the Senate that would ban network providers from degrading content or creating "toll lanes" where content providers can ensure better access to their sites in exchange for paying more money.

What was originally an issue mostly discussed by telecommunications analysts, bloggers, and the tech media has erupted into a serious issue of public import. A coalition of diverse groups and organizations banded together under the name "Save The Internet," and launched their campaign in support of Net Neutrality on April 25th.

The group boasts a membership ranging from public advocacy groups such as Common Cause and the Consumer Federation of America, to the Gun Owners of America, to Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

The coalition took credit for delivering over 250,000 signatures in three days on a petition to the House committee supporting Net Neutrality.

Blogs and Web sites all across the political and social spectrum have taken up the cause of Net Neutrality as key to preserving their freedom of speech and access to content on the Internet.

Personalities as diverse as conservative blogger Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds and actress Alyssa Milano have come out in public support of keeping equal access to Internet content.

The harsh public scrutiny has also brought to light how well the major telecom players have lobbied Congress to get favorable legislation passed. Democrat Bobby Rush (D-IL), co-sponsor of COPE, was lambasted for accepting over $1 million in contributions from SBC (now AT&T) for a still-unfinished community center, while sitting on the committee handling the telecom legislation.

Although COPE will encompass many changes to how telecoms, cable companies, and municipalities deliver Internet services to customers, the blitz of opposition to a "tiered Internet" has brought mainstream public attention to an issue Matt Stoller says the telecoms wanted kept quiet.

"The telcos have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and many years lobbying for their position. We launched four days ago, and have closed a lot of ground," he said. "Over the next few months, as the public wakes up, we'll close the rest of it."

Net Neutrality Loses House Vote, But Wins More Public Awareness...

Net Neutrality Gets Short Shrift in Congress

A final draft of Congressional legislation designed to update the nation's telecommunication laws is being called a "mixed bag"

A final draft of Congressional legislation designed to update the nation's telecommunication laws is being called a "mixed bag," as it addresses issues ranging from cities developing their own Wi-Fi networks to codifying the principles of "net neutrality" into law.

Like any mixed bag, some are happy with what they're getting, while others are not.

Proponents of net neutrality, the principle of access to Internet content remaining unrestricted, were dismayed that language supporting it was deleted from the final draft.

Cable companies were taking up arms at the prospect of phone companies such as AT&T being able to more easily offer cable subscription services without having to negotiate individual contracts.

And local city and town governments were cheering the prospect of being able to set up their own broadband and wireless networks without waiting for their parent states to give them the go-ahead.

The "Communications, Promotion, and Enhancement Act" was drafted by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), in his capacity as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Barton, along with co-sponsor Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), hailed the new regulations as a necessary update to outdated laws, and a ticket to delivering high-quality broadband and video services to Americans.

"Current law no longer reflects the technological and competitive reality," Barton said in a press statement. "Congress has a responsibility to update our communications laws."

But Internet powers such as Google and Microsoft were incensed at the committee's lack of support for net neutrality. In a response letter drafted to the committee, the companies said Barton's bill would "fail to protect the Internet."

The bill is scheduled for debate by the full committee on March 30th.

Vying for Video

Phone companies such as AT&T and Verizon have been salivating over the prospect of providing cable-style television programming to customers who, until now, have been forced to make do with the likes of Comcast.

The Barton bill grants the phone companies a provisional "national franchise" status, which would enable them to start rolling out video services without having to apply for the same local franchises as cable companies.

Both sides are engaged in a high-profile publicity war. AT&T recently took issue with what it called "misleading advertisements" by the cable companies' lobby groups, such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

The NCTA fired back, claiming that it was the phone companies who were "[pressuring] Congress and statehouses for one-sided legislation that would give them privileged regulatory status in the video marketplace, [while] they continue to flood the airwaves and print media with a multitude of advertising that distorts the truth."

The "national video franchise" provision has some restrictions. The new competitor would not be allowed to turn away customers based on income.

Wi-Fi Citywide

Another provision would allow "public provider[s] of telecommunications service, information service, or cable service" to create wireless networks in their cities in towns.

If the bill becomes law, it would supersede several states' laws that prevent local communities from developing their own free Wi-Fi networks for residents to use.

The issue of municipal Wi-Fi is a hot one in New Orleans, where an emergency-authorized free Wi-Fi system has enabled residents to stay in touch with missing relatives, hunt for jobs, and provide the world with information about life after Katrina.

BellSouth has been campaigning to have the Wi-Fi service shut down, in order to prevent residents and employers from switching over full-time.

Net In Neutral

Supporters of the "net neutrality" principle were disappointed to find that the final draft of the Barton bill omitted language that specifically prevented broadband providers from blocking or impairing access to Internet content.

Instead, the current draft amends the original Communications Act of 1934 to enable the FCC to adjudicate claims that content is being blocked. The new draft claims to uphold the "four principles" of broadband, espoused by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

Powell's "four principles" included "access to the lawful Internet content of their choice," fair competition between providers, and the ability to use devices for accessing content that "did not harm the network."

Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has not explicitly supported or opposed net neutrality, saying that he "was hesitant to adopt rules that would prevent anti-competitive behavior where there hasn't been significant evidence of a problem."

Content providers and business giants alike believe there is a significant problem, enough to draft a letter of response to the Barton bill.

Google, Microsoft, eBay, Yahoo, and others stated that "[c]onsumers embraced the Internet because innovation was rapid and anyone could provide lawful content without interference or permission from those companies that control the networks."

"This bill would allow for such a fundamental change in the paradigm of the Internet that it would frustrate the reasonable expectations of the tens of millions of Americans who go online," the companies said.

Part of the problem is that Web content companies, for all their public clout and name recognition, don't have the sheer financial capital and lobbying muscle that old-school cable and telecom companies enjoy on Capitol Hill.

A CNET News study on tech firm spending in Washington found that telecom companies enjoyed a 3-to-1 spending advantage over Internet companies, with businesses such as Verizon and AT&T spending a combined total of $230 million in lobbying efforts since 1998.

Google, at least, is hurrying to get into the game. The search engine giant is hiring lobbyists and public affairs consultants all over Washington in an effort to be represented around the pork barrel.

Meanwhile, consumer groups such as Public Knowledge are expressing concern that the new bill, if it becomes law, won't explicitly prevent cable and telecom providers from subtly degrading service and access to content in order to favor their own offerings.

Public Knowledge Gigi Sohn said in a press statement that "without stronger legislation, the cable and telephone companies will have the power to change the fundamental nature of the Internet. This bill needs significant improvement before it will preserve the open Internet that consumers and service providers expect and deserve."

Net Neutrality Gets Short Shrift in Congress...

Hughes Plans Rural Internet Satellite Service

Hughes will launch a campaign to sell satellite Internet access to small businesses and consumers in rural areas

Now that it has sold its DirecTV satellite television business, Hughes Network Systems says it will launch a campaign to sell satellite Internet access to small businesses and consumers in rural areas under the HughesNet brand. It already has about 275,000 customers taking its DirecWay satellite broadband service.

Hughes, an earlier innovator in satellite communications, developed the DirecTV service in the 1980s. Hughes was taken over by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in late 2003 and Murdoch moved DirecTV to a separate company, then sold his interest in Hughes to private investors. Hughes went public a few weeks ago.

"This is the beginning of an exciting new era for Hughes," said Pradman Kaul, Chairman and CEO. "The new HughesNet brand underscores our corporate commitment to enable our customers to realize the full potential of broadband solutions and services, utilizing the best of satellite and terrestrial technologies."

Hughes' primary business today is managing satellite networks for Wal-Mart and other large corporations, linking facilities throughout the country. HughesNet is intended to expand its reach into smaller businesses and professional services firms in areas where DSL and cable Internet are not available.

In June of 2005, the editors of Fortune called Wal-Marts deployment of VSAT technology one of the top 20 decisions that "shaped the modern world of business."

But there are only so many Wal-Marts and Hughes' new focus is on the consumer market, including small and medium-sized businesses, Kaul said.

At a starting price of about $60 per month, satellite broadband may not be price-competitive with broadband and DSL, but it is seen as a good fit for businesses that would otherwise be stuck with dial-up service or dedicated broadband circuits costing more than $1,000 per month.

It's estimated thtere are at least 15 million U.S. homes without access to Internet broadband service. Most of them are in rural areas.

In 2004, when it was under the Murdoch thumb, DirecTV announced it was abandoning its plans to develop satellite broadband for the home market but its kept the DirecWay service running for existing customers.

HughesNet encompasses all broadband solutions and managed services from Hughes, bridging satellite and terrestrial technologies. Hughes has shipped more than 1 million systems to customers in over 100 countries. Its broadband satellite products are based on the IPoS (IP over Satellite) global standard, approved by the TIA, ETSI, and ITU standards organizations.

Hughes Plans Rural Internet Satellite Service...

"Net Neutrality" Battle Heats Up

Giant Telecoms Use Shock and Awe to Confound and Confuse

There's nothing virtual about the battle lines being drawn in the fast-developing Net Neutrality War. Disney, Verizon and AT&T are among the superpowers developing a shock and awe strategy intended to annihilate the rag-tag band of consumers and non-profits working to keep the Internet playing field level.

The phrase "level playing field" is a favorite of telecommunications providers trying to gerrymander the regulatory landscape to ensure that the field slants in their direction. It's being rolled out once again as the big-money players empty their armories to launch their latest scorched-earth crusade.

The once and perhaps future monopolies have all weighed in recently against legislation to enforce net neutrality, saying that "market-oriented approaches" favor the consumer, and that companies would push customers away if they tried to enact "tiered pricing" systems for faster content access.

Appearing at the TelecomNEXT convention in Las Vegas on March 20th, Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger stated, "We do not support any [Network Neutrality] legislation at this time."

Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg concurred, saying that lightly regulated markets were "a good framework" for business and government to develop a "shared vision to vault into the markets of the 21st century."

AT&T boss Ed Whitacre modified his anti-net neutrality stance at the convention. Whitacre pledged that his company would not block or degrade any customer access to applications or content on the Internet.

Whitacre had previously lit up the sky by saying content providers like Google were "nuts" for trying to use AT&T's cable and broadband networks -- "my pipes," he called them -- without paying extra for them.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, who also attended the convention, stated that the FCC does have the authority to issue judgments in cases of Internet providers favoring content, or making content providers pay extra.

But Martin shied away from supporting net neutrality outright, saying that he "favored a regulatory system where businesses can invest in their networks."

Metering the Web

Although major telecom and cable companies are claiming they support the ability of Web surfers to access content regardless of who provides it, they're simultaneously doing all they can to wring maximum profit from the usage of the broadband infrastructure in America and would clearly like to turn it into a virtual taxicab, with the meter always running.

Verizon recently won what it called "regulatory relief" from the FCC, as the commission lifted a number of rules governing Verizon's pricing structure for business broadband, as well as its obligation to pay into a fund for providing low-cost broadband services to rural regions America.

Verizon has said it will continue to voluntarily pay into the fund "for a time." AT&T, never one to pass up a government hand-out, has filed for similar treatment with the FCC in the hopes of an expedited resolution.

As part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, telecom and cable companies were mandated to expand their networks in order to provide broadband services to the whole of the country, in exchange for deregulation of their business and pricing.

Although businesses have been able to take advantage of the expanding cable infrastructure, consumers have not been as lucky.

The US ranks fifteenth in the world in rankings of broadband deployment, with only 40 percent of American households within reach of or able to afford DSL or cable Internet services.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who opposed Verizon's regulatory relief award, recently criticized the telecoms' slow pace of deploying broadband beyond cities and urban centers.

"If high-speed broadband is permitted to become a primarily urban phenomenon, the digital gap will grow wider, [resulting in] rural America being worse off," Copps said.

Spin Cycle

Verizon is also part of the U.S. Internet Industry Association (USIIA), a trade association dealing with Internet commerce and policy.

The USIIA recently launched a high-profile campaign decrying support of net neutrality as "preventing network operators from exploring ways to guarantee the reliability of advanced Internet services over a public Internet that was not designed to be reliable."

In fact, the Internet was designed by Department of Defense engineers whose primary goal was reliability. Through what is called packet switching, data moves in small "packets" that can follow different routes over the network and be reassembled on the receiving end. The Internet may not be as "secure," or private, as one would like but it is extremely reliable, telecommunications observers noted.

The USIIA paid for splashy ads telling readers to "protect bloggers from government regulation" on popular progressive Web sites and blogs such as the Daily Kos and the American Prospect.

Ironically, progressive bloggers are one of the groups that largely favors net neutrality, joining an unlikely alliance of content providers such as Google and Yahoo, consumer groups such as the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), and AARP.

The seniors' advocate group, famous for its lobbying power in Congress, joined a petition to push for Congressional support of net neutrality. AARP spokesman Mark Kitchens said that the increasing number of senior citizens active on the Internet meant that the debate directly affected their constituency.

For supporters of net neutrality, the issue isn't just content, but price as well. Consumers don't want to be held hostage to overpriced service that doesn't deliver quality broadband.

If infrastructure providers can block other companies from sharing their lines, and prioritize their own content in turn, users may be stuck with choosing between Verizon, AT&T, and not much else.

Daniel Berninger, analyst for the telecom and IT research firm Tier1, said that ending net neutrality would spell the end of the Internet as we know it.

"Network neutrality allows end users to choose winners and losers in an application meritocracy that threatens service providers long dependent on barriers to entry," he said. "The idea that Yahoo could pay Verizon to improve performance over Google means Verizon, not the end user, decides which search engine wins."

Net Neutrality Battle Heats Up...

The Battle for Net Neutrality

Consumer Groups, Telecom Companies Take Sides Over Web Content Access

If you're like most Web surfers, chances are that you never think about how you access content online. You run searches with Google, shop at Amazon, and read the news at CNN or MSNBC, no matter if you're at home, work, or elsewhere.

The universal accessibility of the Internet has made it an essential tool for accomplishing daily tasks and providing information across the globe.

But a regulatory debate is brewing in Congress that may lead to a system where companies provide "preferred access" to some Web content services over others.

Imagine not being able to access Yahoo's Web portal as quickly from your Internet service provider, because the company that owns the cable lines has cut a deal with Google to provide their services exclusively.

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a Feb. 7th hearing on "Net Neutrality," the principle that the network upon which the Internet is built should be free of commercial control and accessible by any agency. Because telecommunications companies can't force consumers to pick specific Internet providers, this has led to the proliferation of choice and diversity of content that makes the Internet what it is today.

Major telecommunications companies such as Verizon and AT&T wish to change that. Fueled by discontent over Internet content providers offering expensive, broadband-soaking services such as video streams and online roleplaying games, the telecom companies want to start charging Internet companies for the services they offer.

SBC (now AT&T) chairman Ed Whiteacre claimed that his company deserved a return on investment for letting content providers use his "pipes" free.

"[T]here's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?"

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, sees a scenario where customers will face a multi-tiered system of paying more money in order to gain better Internet access.

"Under the plans [telecom companies] are considering, all of us -- from large to small content providers to individual users -- will have to pay more when surfing online, streaming videos, or perhaps even sending and receiving email, " Chester said in a Feb. 1 essay.

"Companies are mulling the imposition of new subscription plans that will limit our online experience. There will be 'gold,' 'bronze,' and 'silver' forms of Internet access that tightly define what they call our 'level of service.' Gone will be the more open and nondiscriminatory network of today."

Pay to Play

Another effect of paying telecom companies for content services would be the stifling of innovation on the Web. Everything from file-sharing to blogging to wikis has come about from innovative users and small companies with big ideas.

The established content giants like Google, Yahoo, AOL, etc. can afford to pay telecom companies to make sure their services reach consumers, but the "little guy" may not have the raw cash necessary to compete in a "pay to play" Internet model.

A 2004 policy analysis by the Cato Institute claims to debunk the "pay to play" notion for equal access to the Internet.

According to author Adam Thierer, consumers can best benefit from letting the market decide whether or not "bundled" services favored by providers are of greater benefit than letting the user access their particular content choices, regardless of what the provider favors.

Thierer points out that many providers already have restrictions on the services users subscribe to, including downloading limits, prohibitions against spamming, and so on.

"In light of the significant risks and investments [telecom] companies undertook to extend service to millions of Americans who previously had no such luxury, it seems somewhat insulting for certain consumers or regulators to claim that they have the right to dictate the terms and conditions of service, " Thierer said.

Groups such as Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) strongly disagree. In their view, companies that bundle services in order to gain profit from advertising and reduce costs will push those services at the expense of others, even if it means denying Web users access to them.

The CFA released a 2005 survey that found 70 percent of the respondents were concerned about their Internet service provider blocking access to their particular choices of content; 75 percent were concerned about not having a choice between different providers or having to pay extra fees for Internet content services.

Web-based companies such as Google, Amazon, and Yahoo have teamed up with groups such as Consumers Union, CFA, and Common Cause to prevent the restriction of access to content over the Internet.

Net neutrality supporters believe that a "pay to play" Internet model would favor expensive business customers and corporate networks over consumers and nonprofit enterprises and struggling small publishers.

"The nonprofit and noncommercial sector could be distinguished from the for-profit sector of the online community in terms of services offered, and would suffer because they cannot compete in an environment where they have to pay for better service," according to a Common Cause publication.

The Debate

Several Internet analysts and members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have already weighed in on how net neutrality may affect FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's goal of "universal, affordable access to broadband technology."

Unfortunately, Martin has not matched his sweeping vision with policy decisions.

When asked about the possibility of telecom companies locking out consumer choice, Martin said that he "was hesitant to adopt rules that would prevent anti-competitive behavior where there hasn't been significant evidence of a problem."

Michael Powell, the former FCC chairman, had been a strong supporter of Net neutrality, evoking the policy as one of his "four rules of Internet freedom."

Martin had just succeeded Powell when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the FCC in the "Brand X" decision, which allowed cable Internet providers to prevent smaller rivals from sharing their lines and offering their own services.

The U.S. has been criticized harshly for slow development and dissemination of broadband technology throughout the country. The U.S. currently ranks fifteenth in the world in terms of market broadband penetration, and 60 percent of American households still cannot afford broadband or don't have access to it in their community.

In a letter to Congress in Nov. 2005, Google advisor and Internet guru Vinton Cerf advocated Net neutrality policies as championing innovation and free content access for all users.

"Telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call; network operators should not dictate what people can do online," Cerf said. "I am confident that we can build a broadband system that allows users to decide what websites they want to see and what applications they want to use and that also guarantees high quality service and network security."

The Battle for Net Neutrality...

U.S. Lags in Broadband Access

FCC Paints a Rosy Picture But America Ranks 16th Worldwide

Despite a rosy picture painted by the Federal Communications Commission, America's access to affordable, high-speed Internet lags far behind the rest of the digital world.

A report released by Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union shows that a recent FCC assessment of broadband Internet access is misleading and glosses over serious problems behind an ever-widening digital divide.

"Despite claims to the contrary, the digital divide in America remains large and will continue to grow unless some real changes are made," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press. "By overstating broadband availability and portraying anti-competitive policies as good for consumers, the FCC is trying to erect a faade of success. But if the president's goal of universal, affordable high-speed Internet access by 2007 is to be achieved, policymakers in Washington must change course."

A July 2005 report from the FCC hailed recent progress in improving broadband access in the United States. But upon closer scrutiny, the claims made in the report and a subsequent op-ed by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin published in the Wall Street Journal are, at best, wildly optimistic.

"Broadband Reality Check," a new report by Free Press research fellow S. Derek Turner, calls into question the FCC's conclusions. Among its findings:

• The FCC overstates broadband penetration rates. The FCC report considers a ZIP code covered by broadband service if just one person subscribes. No consideration is given to price, speed or availability of that connection throughout the area.

• The FCC misrepresents exactly how many connections are "high-speed." The FCC defines "high-speed" as 200 kilobits per second, barely enough to receive low-quality streaming video and far below what other countries consider to be a high-speed connection.

• The United States remains 16th in the world in broadband penetration per capita. The United States also ranks 16th in terms of broadband growth rates, suggesting our world ranking won't improve any time soon. On a per megabit basis, U.S. consumers pay 10 to 25 times more than broadband users in Japan.

• Despite FCC claims, digital divide persists and is growing wider. Broadband adoption is largely dependent on socio-economic status. In addition, broadband penetration in urban and suburban in areas is double that of rural areas.

• Reports of a broadband "price war" are misleading. Analysis of "low-priced" introductory offers by companies like SBC and Comcast reveal them to be little more than bait-and-switch gimmicks.

• The FCC ignores the lack of competition in the broadband market. Cable and DSL providers control almost 98 percent of the residential and small-business broadband market. Yet the FCC recently eliminated "open access" requirements for DSL companies to lease their lines, rules that fostered the only true competition in the broadband market.

"The FCC is trying to put the best face on this problem it can, but the people who can't afford or don't have access to high-speed Internet know the truth," said Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America. "Affordable high-speed Internet means stronger economic growth, more educational opportunities and exposure to diverse points of view. If the FCC continues to ignore reality, the gap between the haves and have-nots will become too wide to bridge."

The three groups call on Congress to take notice of these alarming trends and enact clear policies that will free the broadband market from domination by a handful of large cable and telecommunications companies.

Their recommendations include ensuring open access to all high-speed communications networks, removing restrictions on public entities that seek to offer broadband services to consumers, and opening up more of the broadcast spectrum for wireless Internet applications.

"Fudging the facts won't provide high-speed Internet access to those who need it most," said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union. "If the FCC is content to let cable and phone companies control the broadband market, then consumers need a third option wireless broadband that is less expensive and which doesn't depend on DSL or cable modems. It offers the best and perhaps now the only way to close the digital divide."

U.S. Lags in Broadband Access...

Up the Broadband Creek Without a Signal

Options are Slim for Those without DSL or Cable


Al Gore took a lot of heat for his slightly inflated version of his role in the Internet's beginnings but, whatever else you may say about it, the previous Administration at least appeared to be trying to jump-start the Internet. The current masters of the universe seem to think the "invisible hand of the marketplace" will cause broadband to sprout like kudzu throughout the land, without (or in spite of) needless interference from government.

The Federal Communications Commission, accordingly, stood aside as the Bell companies devoured everything in sight, pausing between gulps to say that new broadband networks would be coming soon. But while high-speed Internet use by U.S. businesses and households rose 34 percent in 2004 to 37.9 million lines, according to FCC figures released last week, the U.S. ranks 16th in broadband use among major nations.

Digital subscriber line, or DSL, service increased 45 percent last year to 13.8 million lines. Cable modem use climbed 30 percent to 21.4 million lines. Other Internet connections using wireless and satellite increased by 50 percent to 500,000 last year, the FCC said, while use of optical fiber and powerlines rose 16 percent to 700,000.

In a column published in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin vows that broadband deployment is his "highest priority."

Perhaps, but that's not of much comfort to the millions of Americans still without broadband service -- not all of them in Short Pump, Virginia, or Happy, Texas. Some are in "undesirable" big-city neighborhoods, others in affluent suburbs that for one reason or another aren't wired for DSL or cable and some are just in-between, traveling, vacationing or working outside the office.

The United States is a pretty big place, after all, and the natural inclination of any businessperson is to concentrate his service where it will reach the biggest number of potential customers with the lowest possible delivery costs. These days, that generally means that downtown areas and middle-class neighborhoods are the most likely to have broadband service from either a cable company or the local telephone company, or, as is often the case, both.

And everyone else? Well, they are mostly out of luck. There's no doubt things are changing and new services are coming. Verizon and SBC are digging up streets throughout the land to install fiber to the home so that they can compete with cable system by delivering high-definition video. Of course, almost all of this activity is in areas where cable and the telcos already provide broadband. It does nothing for those in unserved areas.

While there is no shortage of complaints about DSL and cable Internet services, the situation is much worse for those who can't get broadband at all.

"The Internet is increasingly designed to be used with a high speed connection," said Mark Huffman, a ConsumerAffairs.com contributing editor who moved to a rural area on Chesapeake Bay a few years ago. "Every site is loaded with rich media. If you are on dial-up, its very hard to use the Internet. It becomes very frustrating."

Working with Huffman, we explored various methods of getting broadband service where none now exists. Contrary to what broadband providers might think, Huffman found a great deal of interest among residents of his somewhat sleepy village.

"In my county there is no broadband available, other than satellite. I can tell you that every business owner I talked to about trying to bring in wireless was enthusiastic about the idea, and willing to pay a premium price to get it, if they could," Huffman said.

Here are a few of the services we explored:

Verizon Wireless Broadband

We found this expensive ($80 per month) service to be virtually useless, whether in the sticks or under the Capitol dome. We could not get it to work in the Washington, D.C., New York or Los Angeles metro areas. It didn't work in the St. Louis airport or at the beach in Delaware, to pick a few other examples. Where does this thing work, we wondered? Answer: we don't know. See A Test of Verizon Wireless Broadband for all the gory details. Warning: Sprint has announced it is deploying the same technology. Buyer beware.

Fixed Wireless

Unlike the Verizon wireless card, some wireless broadband providers offer what's called "fixed wireless" -- meaning it's not mobile. This involves line-of-sight microwave transmission. Translation: towers. If you are lucky enough to have such a service in your area, it may be the answer if you are in its primary coverage area and don't have trees, mountains or other obstructions blocking the signal path. It can work well, we're told. We were not able to find any services we could test but we heard from one consumer who's quite happy with her experience.

"We had satellite-based Starband, but found it slow and stupid about multiple users," said Catherine of Sparks, Nevada. "So we got wireless broadband from Amigo and we are very happy with it."

"The thing is that we essentially have a personal ISP -- the guy who runs our area for Amigo.net knows us, our tech needs and is very responsive (unlike our prior DSL experience elsewhere with Verizon). Reminds me of when we used to have our power from a rural electric coop -- a much friendlier experience!"

T-1

A T-1 is old technology but very stable. It is provided over a double pair of plain old copper telephone lines and is available literally anywhere in the U.S., if you're willing to pay for it. Line-haul charges are steep outside major urban areas. The speed is about the same as an average cable connection. Installation takes months and a long-term contract is required.

A few years ago, driven nearly mad by Cox Communications' extremely sporadic service and unable to get DSL in our neighborhood, we had a T-1 installed at our home by a D.C. telecommunications provider who asks not to be named (hey, we have enemies). The cost: $600 per month. This may sound like an extravagance but we work at home quite a bit of the time and reliability is essential.

Obviously, a T-1 is impractical for consumers and, in many cases, even for technology-dependent businesses, as we learned when we tried to price out a T-1 for Huffman.

We shopped around for a T-1 and found nothing under about $800 per month. We were dubious of that quote since every other provider wanted about $1,200. This obviously isn't a practical solution for most individuals or small businesses.

Satellite

Still trying to get Huffman up and running, we surfed over to DirecTV and found them offering a variety of consumer- and business-grade packages under their DirecWay brand. This is not the old satellite Internet that used a satellite for the downleg and a telephone connection for the upleg -- some pretty cool spread-spectrum technology handles the upleg. The business-grade package we bought delivers speeds comparable to DSL. There was a $1,000 installation charge and the monthly charge is about $99. For a business, this is cheap. Consumer-grade packages start at around $50.

Don't say we told you this but you can buy the consumer package and get a geekish friend to put up a Wi-Fi connection that your neighbors can use. Maybe you can get them to chip in on the installation and monthly tariff.

At the moment, DirecTV has the market pretty well to itself although there is a new player that hopes to make some noise later this year, we're told.

In the past, we have received some really bitter complaints from consumers who found various satellite Internet services annoying. There's no question that wireless communications will almost always be somewhat less stable than wired; it's the nature of the beast. Satellite transmissions are in the Ku band -- very high frequency and thus more prone to interference from rain and snow. Until the laws of physics are changed, you can expect service degradation during bad weather.

Then there's the little matter of the speed of light. The communications satellites are 26,000 miles out in space. A signal has to go up from your dish to the bird and the downleg signal has to come back down. That's 52,000 miles round trip. Look up the speed of light and you can do the math; it works out to a noticeable split-second delay between the time you click your mouse and the time the signal hits the router on the bird. Is this a problem? We'd say that once you understand what's happening, you can make a mental adjustment to allow for it.

We have been around satellite communications a long time and respect it greatly. It is amazingly effective and has the lowest environmental overhead you can imagine -- no wires, no digging, no towers, very slight power consumption. OK, some might find the dishes ugly but that's an aesthetics argument. Personally, we find utility poles about as ugly as anything. Dangerous, too. We spent an afternoon using the DirecWay feed and found it as good if not better than the T-1's we use at our office and at home.

Of course, not every DirecWay customer agrees, including Gary of Lincoln, Missouri. "Service is very crappy. Slow, sometimes as bad as dialup if not worse. I buy and sell on ebay so if the internet doesn't work I lose big," Gary said.

Gary's complaint is similar to those often leveled at DSL and cable providers as well. In many of these cases, the fault lies elsewhere -- slow servers, bogged-down DNS and, not infrequently, balkiness in the user's PC. Inadequate memory, spyware, viruses, file fragmentation, all can slow the display of Web pages.

Power Lines

It's a little puzzling why broadband Internet via electrical lines hasn't taken off. The copper wires that deliver electricity to homes and offices are capable of moving a lot of data at very low cost but the technology just hasn't gotten the attention it would seem to deserve.

That may be changing, though. A Maryland company that provides high-speed Internet access over electrical power lines last week received a major investment from Google Inc., the Hearst Corp. and Goldman Sachs. Current Communications Group declined to disclose financial terms of the investment though the Wall Street Journal reported that it approached $100 million.

If the FCC stays out of the picture, maybe this will go somewhere.

Dial-Up

There's no question: dial-up just doesn't get it anymore. Even if you never download audio or video files, most Web sites now have such fat pages that it's a very frustrating proposition to be stuck on a dial-up connection. The experience just isn't the same.

That being said, we would have to admit we sometimes get more done on the rare occasions when we must rely on dial-up connections. We find ourselves spending more time writing and editing, even thinking, less time reading the latest inflammatory e-mails.

Then there's the matter of cost: dial-up is cheap, assuming you don't fall for the high-priced brands like AOL, MSN and Earthlink. We seldom issue outright recommendations but here are two dial-up ISP providers we have used with great success when stuck in nowheresville: localnet.com and highstream.net. Both have plans under $10 per month that will provide dial-up access from most parts of the country. As always, you must be sure to select a dial-up number that is within your local calling area.

So?

So, what to do if you're living in an area without cable or DSL broadband? We'd say satellite is the best option, at least for now. For road warriors and those on temporary assignments, we don't have a good answer, other than an inexpensive dial-up plan, a list of hotel chains that offer free high-speed access and a willingness to hang around Internet cafes. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. At least for now.

Up the Broadband Creek Without a Signal...