FCC

Net Neutrality Redux

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Photograph by Mark Wilson — Getty Images

Photograph by Mark Wilson — Getty Images

 

Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on March 22, 2015

“…In theory, “Net Neutrality” sounds great. As I understand it, the idea here is that everybody, from Individual Doomers like me to big Content Distributors like Netflix are all on the same playing field, all with equal opportunity for bandwidth… to distribute your content on the net. While certainly there are a lot of issues as far as Political Spin is concerned and Da Goobermint would like to Muzzle annoying websites like the Diner, the real underlying battle here is as usual, all about the MONEY.”

–Reverse Engineer, March 4, 2015


As it is ever, and always.  Several weeks ago my friend and colleague RE  composed a Rant on net neutrality, from which the above quote is taken.  Several weeks later, the dust has begun to settle, and we have a better idea of what the FCC ruling means.  Lawsuits plus the beginning of the Telecom Lawyers Full Employment Act of 2015.

Who doesn’t like the idea of a unfettered internet? The FCC finally got assertive in protecting the open web, which we agitators feel flush with victory. The idea that the Internet should be operated like a public road carrying all traffic ,with no discrimination against and no favor towards any traveler, seems unarguable. But what truly frosts the ISPs and big telecom is the notion that the Internet is a “public good,” and thus should be regulated like other public utilities, like electricity, gas or water. That, and the notion that ISPs can’t sell faster access to businesses willing to pay, which they argue stifles “innovation and legitimate commercial activity. Should a hospital system not be able to pay a fee in order to provide top tier medical information at a distance that might save lives? Right now that data competes for space with Uncle Dirty’s hot porn downloads.

So what did the FCC ruling actually state?  Shelly Palmer is an industry analyst who publishes a daily newsletter and is a pretty keen observer of technology trends.  Here’s his assessment:

The Noble Idea

  • 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.

Cometh the promised lawsuits.  It may well be that one of the reasons that ISPs so loathe Title II regulation is an implication tied to the potential “last mile” requirements. See below.

But before that, Shelly Palmer puts on his sorting hat to declare winners and losers:

Winners

President Obama and Net Neutrality Activists.  Philosophically, this group is looking for a government regulated “free and open Internet.”  

Netflix and every other content provider – the goal of this regulation is to ensure that Comcast does not favor delivery of its own content over competitive content such as Netflix. 

Municipally Owned Broadband Systems, residents of those municipalities, specifically the good people of North Carolina and Tennessee.  As it turns out, ISPs and cable companies in these states have been using arcane regulations to prevent certain municipalities from building their own broadband networks.  While this could have been dealt with without regulating all ISPs in the US, Title II takes care of it nicely.

Amazon, Dropbox, Ebay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vonage Holdings Corp., Yahoo! Inc, and about 150 other companies that signed this letter in favor of Net Neutrality.  Less friction for consumers means better business for big tech.  

Lawyers, especially attorneys for… well, just about everybody involved.

Losers 

Big ISPs and wireless carriers such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etc.  The bigger you are, the unhappier this makes you.

Alcatel-Lucent, Broadcom, Cisco, Corning, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia Solutions and Networks, Panasonic Corporation of North America, Qualcomm and 50+ other tech companies who signed this letter against Title II.

As noted, most Telecoms have come out opposed to Title II– and it goes beyond Verizon’s “morse code” snark.

Verizon’s snarky press release

 

In case you missed it, in the wake of the FCC ruling, Verizon released a vituperative dissent. Spitting mad, Verizon dated its press release 1934 (the year the Communications Act was passed) to make the point that the FCC was taking us back in time.

Verizon was intent on making the point that Title II regs are a “net loss for innovation and consumers.”  Of course, this is the same Verizon who has fulsomely used Title II to its benefit, both as a carrier for wireline telephone and mobile voice networks, and to help build its fiber network, which carries the FiOS bundle phone, TV, and Internet service. (Which, by the way, tends to be installed only in high-value neighborhoods.) And yes indeed, the very same Verizon that in 2012 claimed that net neutrality violates its First and Fifth Amendment rights.

So pardon us if we are largely unmoved by Verizon having a big hot sad over the “trampling” of its “rights.” And pardon us if we find ourselves a wee bit suspicious that “innovation” translates to new and innovative ways to separate J6P from his hard earned FRNs, by metering favored (meaning baksheesh-paying) content and shunting alt-news blogs like your favorite Doomstead tipsheet off to digital Siberia.


The more I look into this the more complicated the issue gets, and depending upon the way you squint, in some ways it’s not the usual Manichean view of Big Telecom versus the peasants. Broadband providers have a need to parse their data streams and continue to optimize for efficiencies. As long as this doesn’t affect the end user, no problem, right?  But “net neutrality” is not likely to prove to be enough by itself. The experience of most of us with our internet provision is that it is both slow and shitty. Making it otherwise comes down to investment in “last mile” physical plant, investment which telecoms are loath to make. (See below.)

As we said, this gets complicated. Simplification or comparison by analogy does little to promote understanding of complicated underlying technical  issues. (For a good analysis, see The net neutrality debate and underlying dynamics: Research perspectives which provides a clear and unbiased view.) Verizon and other ISPs have an absolute need to do “reasonable network management” to keep data and content flowing in the most efficient way possible. It’s just good business. Tech companies like ISPs are always parsing bandwidth in the hopes of reclaiming and reusing it. Yet what the ISPs really want is

to have more control over traffic and be able to create faster Internet lanes. Some companies assert that net neutrality requirements are unconstitutional, and their elimination will create more business opportunities. Supporters of the network neutrality principle disagree.

Yet business does not enhance its case by acting as “toll takers,” in the words of Tim Berners-Lee.  Alan Murray, editor of Fortune magazine puts it thus:

But as an economic matter, I don’t see why broadband providers should be denied the pricing flexibility allowed airlines or Uber or others. While the government has fair reason to worry about the duopoly that dominates broadband service to homes, rapidly expanding wireless services—not to mention efforts like Google’s to provide broadband by hot-air balloons—suggest this is still fertile ground for innovation. Treating broadband providers as dumb pipes, of the sort contemplated by lawmakers when they regulated telecommunications more than 80 years ago, could throttle that innovation.

Our cynicism derives from the fact that so often, “innovation”  translates directly to the ability to innovate ways to separate users from cash.


Is the Internet a public good?  The Internet has become indispensable to public life, having arguably replaced  the mail man, phone company, TV tuner, record/CD player, catalog, book store, fax machine, DVD player, Maxim subscription,  et al. (We’ve already seen how the modifier “public” has roused the worst and least from their cages– more below.) The FCC Title II decision represents a defense of the very notion of a “public good” much out of character from these deregulatory times. Since the days of St. Reagan, the privatizers have been out in force seizing parts of the public infrastructure and selling them off for parts, in the absence of the ability to otherwise turn sufficient profit to slake the thirst of the sacred shareholders.  Therefore, any assertion of  “public” anything is anathema to the lickspittle servants of the 1%, who have been busy indeed.  It didn’t take long for this creature to come scuttling out from under her rock:

Republicans’ “Internet Freedom Act” would wipe out net neutrality: Internet providers need the freedom to block and throttle Internet traffic.

US Politicians are quite a bargain these days, and can be had for a song. $80,000 buys Telecom giants a bill that will allow them to decide what you can see on the internet.

US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) this week filed legislation she calls the “Internet Freedom Act” to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s new network neutrality rules.

The FCC’s neutrality rules prohibit Internet service providers from blocking or throttling Internet traffic, prohibit prioritization of traffic in exchange for payment, and require the ISPs to disclose network management practices.

Rules anathema to your ISP.

These rules “shall have no force or effect, and the Commission may not reissue such rule in substantially the same form, or issue a new rule that is substantially the same as such rule, unless the reissued or new rule is specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of the enactment of this Act,” the Internet Freedom Act states.

The legislation has 31 Republican cosponsors.

The following is one of the most dishonest statements made by any public official, at any time, in the post-Orwell period, made by one of the industry’s hired lackeys:

“Once the federal government establishes a foothold into managing how Internet service providers run their networks they will essentially be deciding which content goes first, second, third, or not at all,” Blackburn said in an announcement yesterday. “My legislation will put the brakes on this FCC overreach and protect our innovators from these job-killing regulations.”

In the latest election cycle, Blackburn received $25,000 from an AT&T political action committee (PAC), $20,000 from a Comcast PAC, $20,000 from a cable industry association PAC, and $15,000 from a Verizon PAC,according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

One marvels that she peddled herself so cheaply. But a good bargain for the industry.


Well in spite of all this back and forth, my internet is going to get better with unrestrained access guaranteed by Title II, yes?

Not so fast, Sparky.

Why your internet is so shitty?

Adam Clark Estes penned this remarkable piece which describes the plumbing of the internet in as clear and precise prose as I’ve enver seen. First he makes this statement which is probably shared by many of us:

You may have heard that the internet is winning: net neutrality was saved, broadband was redefined to encourage higher speeds, and the dreaded Comcast-Time Warner Cable megamerger potentially thwarted. But the harsh reality is that America’s internet is still fundamentally broken, and there’s no easy fix.

Estes makes the point that “in order to comprehend just how broken internet service is, you first have to understand how the physical infrastructure of the internet works,” which most of us would just as soon avoid, lest our hair burst into flames. Yet fear not, you’re in the hands of a sure-footed guide.

Former Gizmodo contributor Andrew Blum described the underlying infrastructure wonderfully his book about the physical heart of the internet, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet:

In the basest terms, the internet is made of pulses of light. Those pulses might seem miraculous, but they’re not magic. They are produced by powerful lasers contained in steel boxes housed (predominantly) in unmarked buildings. The lasers exist. The boxes exist. The internet exists…

He explains the Tier 1 and Tier 2 parts of the internet, which I will not. Enjoy his splendidly written article, which you should bookmark. Suffice it to say that the internet rides on light as your online version of Gentleman’s Bathroom Companion makes its way from Bangkok to Boston. It’s when it gets to the “last mile,” into your home and onto your tablet, that things get creaky:

Most of America’s telecommunications infrastructure relies on outdated technology, and it runs over the same copper cables invented by Alexander Graham Bell over 100 years ago. This copper infrastructure—made up of “twisted pair” and coaxial cables—was originally designed to carry telephone and video services. The internet wasn’t built to handle streaming video or audio.

When your streaming video reaches that troubled last mile of copper, those packets will slam on their brakes as they transition from fiber optic cables to copper coaxial cables. Copper can only carry so much bandwidth, far less than what the modern internet demands. Only fiber optic cables, thick twists of ultra-thin glass or plastic filaments that allow data to travel at the speed of light, can handle that bandwidth. They’re also both easier to maintain and more secure than copper.

As consumers demand more bandwidth for things like streaming HD movies, carriers must augment their networks—upgrade hardware, lay more fiber, hire more engineers, etc.—to keep traffic moving freely between them. But that costs big money—like, billions of dollars in some cases. Imagine the cost of swapping out the coaxial cables in every American home with fiber optic cables. It’s thousands of dollars per mile according to some government records.

And here’s the kicker. The last mile infrastructure is controlled by an oligarchy—three big cable companies: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. You know this well. One in three Americans only have one choice for broadband service; most of the others only have two internet providers to choose from.

And Big Telecom likes it that way. Without competition, there’s no incentive for internet providers to improve last-mile infrastructure. The obsolete and already-paid for infrastructure of Big Telecom creates a last mile bottleneck, for which your ISP can charge you exorbitant prices for sub-par service. Part of Big Telecom’s dismay at the FCC’s Title II ruling  is, perhaps, against the possibility that some future interpretation of the “public good” will oblige them to fix the shitty “last mile.” The horror… the horror. Thus they all plan to sue the FCC over Title II to defend their monopoly, and trot out hired gunsels like Blackburn and Teddy Cruz to call it, “Obamacare for the Internet.”

Look for telecom apologists to argue that the industry ought not put another dollar into anything other than maintaining than current infrastructure, and should begin design and build a new and better network with a new business model that would bypass the FCC.  Look for those quite content with having non-elected jurists create new law through Supreme Court rulings to carp that  that “Net Neutrality will Kill the Web with Government Regulation through the Non Elected Regulatory Body known as the FCC.”

With apologies to H. Rap Brown, like violence, hypocrisy is as American as cherry pie.


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective on this site, and quit barking and got off the porch long enough to be active in the Occupy movement. He shares a home in Southeastern Virginia with his new bride Contrary in a triumph of hope over experience, and is grateful that he is not yet taking a dirt nap.

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