Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Obama's economic stimulus would include rural broadband expansion and probably "net neutrality" strings attached


Internet service provides and telecommunications companies are brainstorming as to how to respond to president-elect Barack Obama’s challenge to bring broadband Internet access to everyone, even in most remote rural areas, as a basic utility. This fits into Obama’s plans for economic stimulus that upgrades national infrastructure.

The Washington Post has a story on p D1, Business, Wednesday Dec. 17, 2008, “For the Web, Change that All Sides Can Believe In,” link here.

The Communications Workers of America union has been vocal, with testimony by Larry Cohen to the United States Senate, committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation, Hearing on “Why Broadband Matters”, Sept. 16, 2007, link here.

Telecom carriers want to use some of the current phone tax to expand rural broadband. Some members of Congress want to predicate aid for broadband in an economic stimulus package on network neutrality legislation, with controls on blocking or monitoring of consumer access or content, even with the goal of preventing individual customer hogging of shared lines.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

ACLU warns about "triggerfish technology" -- even corporate good intentions may not be enough!


Maybe this posting ought to be on the main blog, where I have a lot about “privacy” but I guess it has a bearing on how telecommunications companies behave. Or actually, shall we say, the government behaves.

The ACLU has a blog posting from Daily Kos by Richard Meyers, “With Technology Like This, Who Needs the Law?” link here. It’s about “triggerfish” technology, “a cell site simulator that forces cell phones in the area to register its phone number, serial number and location”. The government then can track cell phone users (and presumably Internet activity on them or similar devices like Blackberries, even profile or blog activity), to follow an individual without court supervision whenever there is some kind of suspicion. It seems that the government can do this without the telecommunications company involvement or permission. It also sounds that the companies would have an incentive to go along with government tracking in order to be treated more favorably.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

FCC wants to auction airwaves, with requirement to offer free Internet


Kim Dixon, of Reuters, reports today that the Federal Communications Commission is considering a plan to auction airwaves, but with a stipulation that winning bidders offer some free Internet service. The link for the story is here.

Some companies, like cell phone companies, object, saying that this does not comport with a viable business model for many smaller wireless companies. The scheme is said to be too dependent on advertising, which may not work well in a cellular environment or during economic downturn.

Many larger Internet companies have actually supported largely Democratic proposals to build infrastructure to bring broadband and secure wireless to all areas, including lower income people, maintaining that broadband should be seen as like other infrastructure utilities, such as electricity. During periods of economic downturn, companies tend to look to government leadership in supporting new infrastructure, as happened in the 1930s. Companies believe that they will get new customers while not bearing all the risk of service extension themselves.

I recall that during the past downturn (2001 and 2002), cable companies still sought to hire door-to-door salesmen to sell cable in new exurban residential developments.

A number of the nation's telecommunications providers have published a PDF document called "A Call to Action for a National Broadband Strategy," link here.

Picture: on a reservation in South Dakota (taken by me in 2002)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cato Institute has paper by Tim Lee "The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality Without Regulation"


Timothy B. Lee, University of Minnesota graduate and now an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, has authored a major paper “The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality Without Regulation,” dated Nov. 12, 2008. The PDF link is here.

Mr. Lee had spoken at the Cato Institute’s forum “Copyright Controversies: Freedom, Property, Content Creation, and the DMCA” on April 26, 2006, link here.

Mr. Lee traces the history of today’s user environment all the way back to the 1960s with ARAPNET and then TCP/IP. He points out that early attempts to guarantee perfect service to a more limited set of users (familiar to programmers in the mainframe world) affects flexibility and cost. He then builds a broad, heaving footnoted narrative about the way the Internet today tends to police itself without the need for much regulation. The main natural antidote to ISP or telecommunications company manipulation is the availability of so much other content and other providers, and the capability of developers or publishers to work around problems on their own.

He builds his discussion around some core concepts, starting with “The End-to-End Principle.” Later (in a section called “Is the Internet neutral now?”) he answers the concerns that practices such as backbone peering, website safety blocking and spam filtering would defeat the spirit of network neutrality.

He gives some interesting anecdotes about the practical pressures on companies not to interfere with user behavior or self-published content. For example, Digg had an interesting controversy when someone published DVD decryption codes in a report. Digg apparently bowed to legal pressure to remove the codes, and then was flooded with stories about the incident, overwhelming the site. Nevertheless, the incident was a test case for the unique way that Digg packages content, making it valuable to users in a way that distinguishes it from larger companies like Yahoo!, AOL, CNN, etc.

Actually, that is what I have tried to do with my own sites and blogs: group the material in such a way that it has an "impartial" political impact even when discovered by a relatively small volume of visitors.

He also discusses some technical issues around the controversies of monitoring overuse of broadband services, involving BitTorrent, and the voluntary negotiations to solve such issues. He also notes that previous business models based on “walled gardens” or proprietary content (like early AOL and Prodigy in the 1990s) have tended to fail eventually because of competition.

The network neutrality debate does not generally encompass the “social problems,” like reputation defense and liability concerns, that could cause others to want to regulate how individuals can access and publish on the Internet further.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Getting residential broadband into distant rural areas is becoming a challenge


Peter Svensson has an important AP story “Location and broadband,” describing how broadband has gone from a luxury to practical necessity for many people, especially those who have any intention of running a small business from home. Land broadband may be essential to some work-from-home jobs (like customer service agents). The AP link is here. It is becoming more difficult to offer land-wired broadband in all rural areas.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has an important report (PDF) “Home Broadband Adoption 2008: Adoption stalls for low-income Americans even as many users opt for premium service that give them more speed.” Pew maintains that about 55% if Americans have broadband at home now.

Wireless is an option in some areas, and satellite broadband is available in most areas, but these services tend to have lower usage limits and are sometimes less stable.

The Washington Times also offers the AP story today (Nov. 10) on the “Your Tech” column on p B3, with a diagram of how fiber-optic works.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

ATT, Comcast, Time Warner all experiment with or implement home broadband usage caps


Telecommunications companies are starting to become more specific about bandwidth limits or bandwidth-variable pricing for home broadband use.

According to Dan Costa at PC Magazine, Comcast has limited most home users (numbering 12.9 million) to 250 gigabytes a month, officially since Oct. 3, 2008, but covertly since 2005. Apparently this observation explains the infrequent occurrences where Comcast has terminated a few broadband customers. Costa’s story, also from Oct 3, is titled “Comcast’s broadband usage cap won’t hurt my mom,” here. Costa does agree that, even with “Democrat” (and probably Obama) supported Net Neutrality arguments accepted, heavy users should pay more. Indeed, a fair pricings structure is essential to providing service to lower income people, seniors, or people in rural areas—an objective that the new administration will want to enhance.

Time Warner is testing a much more restrictive cap in Beaumont, Texas, where the cheapest plans cap at 30 gig, and where over 40 gig you pay a buck a gig. That could add up for very heavy users. But that it is the point: it is a few super users who cause the slowdowns and stalls (and perhaps signal/noise problems) that can affect all users.

Today (Nov 5) Chloe Albanesius reported in PC Magazine (story) that AT&T will implement a system that would limit most home customers to 150 gigabytes a month. New AT&T customers in Reno, NV would be allowed 20 to 150 gig, depending on “speed tier.” AT&T will also charge $1 per gig for overage and notify customers 60 days in advance. AT&T also says it will provide customers with a bandwidth measuring tool and notify when customers exceed 80% of their limits.

Shared web hosting plans often have limits, which expanded considerably around 2006 and may have contracted slightly. A $30 a month plan is likely to allow 10 gig of disk space and 500 gig of bandwidth.

By way of comparison, a Verizon wireless national broadband plan would allow 5 gig for about $60 a month.

A very heavy user of video, high definition and Bit Torrent can apparently go through a few gig in one evening. Most home users and even “ordinary” bloggers probably would not approach 1 gig a day, it seems, although some of the plans (like Beaumont) sound like they have limits that could be approached. The Comcast limit of 250 gig sounds pretty generous for almost any reasonable use, at least now.

I can see problems down the road. Say you’re an independent film maker, do your own editing with Premiere or Final Cut Pro and want to share your own work (legally, when its yours) with P2P. That could use a lot of capacity.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Credit crisis affects smaller telecoms, threatening competition, broadband in more remote areas


While large cable companies raise prices and seem to be doing all right during the credit crisis, smaller competitors may be floundering. Cecilia Kang has an important story on p D1 Business in The Washington Post on Monday Nov. 3, “For Telecoms: Some Signals of Distress: Credit Crisis Squeezes Smaller Firms”, link here.

Some of the smaller companies mentioned are Ciena, Cogent, and XO Communications. On page D4, the Business Section of Monday’s paper gives separate stories about Ciena, Cogent, XO, and Sprint Nextel.

Both presidential candidates have mentioned the need to improve broadband and other communications services in remote and lower population density areas throughout the country.

Update: Nov. 10

Reuters has a story by Caroline Humer and Anupreeta Das about small technology companies that were over-leveraged before the financial crisis, "Tech sector may be next in restructuring wave," link here.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Cable companies raise rates around the country; but is competition actually increasing?


The PR Newswire reports on Oct. 22 that competition in cable services in Maryland is starting to pick up even though rates in several Maryland counties around Washington DC and Baltimore recently went up by an average of 6.4% (some changes effective Nov. 1). In one county, a special telecommunications tax was imposed to help out schools. The story is here.

The same news service produce a story Oct. 20 about Illinois, here.

A similar story, worded in a similar way, appears for Virginia rates in “The Street Insider” Oct. 22, link here.

Does this story apply to most states?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Recast the "network neutrality" debate as "common carriage"


Filmmaker Magazine, a publication of IFP (the Independent Film Project) in the Summer 2008 issue, has an interesting discussion on p 82 by David Rosen, “The Next Telecom War.” This article looks at network neutrality more from the video and independent film distribution angle.

He starts with a discussion of the generous definition in the US as to what constitutes broadband compared to other countries, which explains why access is relatively slow in many areas even if 47% of US residences now have broadband access – increasingly becoming a “necessity” in the utilities area. There is concern that conventional broadband will run out of capacity, but there is the “dark matter” or unlit capacity issue. An important aspect of the debate is the development of IPTV, or Internet Protocol Television. The picture is becoming so complicated that carriers argue that they need some reasonable way of allocating usage in different application environments (especially bitTorrent).

Rosen says that conventional network neutrality legislation might provide “neutrality” at the application and IP of system level, but not at the level where fiber pipes and routers work. Telecommunications companies will push IPTV as a way to control pricing.

Rosen argues that we should go back to the 1934 Communications Act and regard all Internet and IPTV services as part of “common carriage” He notes that in the US Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 3, a common carrier must provide service to the public without discrimination for the “public convenience and necessity.” The concept also applies in the transportation world (railroads and airlines).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Verzion, AT&T agree not to track users; NAI has more flexible position


Internet users should be aware of the political and “moral” positions taken by the Network Advertising Initiative, or NAI, A particular sentence on its home page summarizes its postion: “What makes Internet advertising effective is the use of technologies that allow advertising networks to make inferences about consumer tastes and provide relevant content.”

NAI also has a byline “helping you protect your privacy online” and a link that explains its positions on consumer rights and on the correct use of cookies and web beacons. It also has a red link for “Consumer opt-out” of targeted advertising
delivered by NAI member ad networks. However NAI’s best practices do not include a requirement for “opt-in” style consumer consent.

The concept is important because of a story in the Friday Sept. 26 Washington Post, “AT&T, Verizon To Refrain From Tracking Users Online: Firms pledge to get consent before targeting ads to consumers,” by Peter Whoriskey, Business page D2, link here. Other companies are taking a “wait and see” approach, and maintain they need to see a consistent and quasi-mandatory industry practice on consumer notification or consent

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Government can't track locations of cell communications without warrants


A federal judge has limited the right of the government to require cell phone and telecommunications companies to reveal the location of use of a cell phone (and probably of an Internet connection on a cell phone or wireless laptop). The government must get a warrant from a judge showing probable cause.

The government maintains that this hinders criminal investigations in comparison to pre-Internet situations in the real world.

Cell phone users generally like the idea or naïve belief that others do not know where they are when they respond to cell phone calls, although that is not always true.

The ruling came from Terrence V. McVerry in western Pennsylvania and also involved the locations of cell telephone towers.

The Washington Post story appeared Feb 12, is authored by Ellen Nakashima, on p A2, and the link is here.

Conceivably, the government could want to sample the location of wireless communications in monitoring net neutrality was well.

Curious, the new Dreamworks film "Eagle Eye" builds on the assumption that the government tracks people geographically by cell phone all the time.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

ISP's becoming reluctant to deliver ads based on subscriber surfing


CNN reports that ISP’s are slowing down or deferring their business plans for “ISP-based” advertising that would be based on sniffing the surfing patterns of users.

The whole situation is a mixed bag for consumers. On the one hand, ad revenue to ISP’s could mean lower broadband or wireless rates for consumers, and possibly less temptation to interfere with content along the lines of violating “net neutrality” concepts.

On the other hand, consumers fear the possibility of personal information, or the remote possibility that they could be misidentified by law enforcement, particularly if hackers somehow got involved.

A company called NebuAd was to facilitate the tracking. NebuAd would be able to profile a consumer based on surfing patterns, and provide subject-matter-specific ads on almost any topic (golf, cooking, gardening, movies, etc.) A similar company in Britain is called Phorm. Both companies claim that they have sophisticated security mechanisms to to the sampling safely.

The CNN story, dated September 1, is here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

FCC Chairman calls for much more competition in cable television industry


Today, Aug. 20, 2008, The Washington Times ran an Exclusive “Newsmaker Interview” with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin, appointed by President Bush and a Republican. The article is by Kara Rowland, and the link is here. The title is “FCC Chief Slams Cable Rates: Martin Sees Ineffective Competition.”

Martin believes that cable companies have tended to overbundle cable services, offering relatively few choices of packages, and requiring the purchase of many channels, some of them objectionable, to get the educational channels desired by many families. He cites lack of effective competition in the industry, which also relates to somewhat less than robust customer service, often done by contractors. He also cites the lack of effective competition from satellite companies, partly because many apartment buildings and complexes don’t allow satellite. He says that more competition is needed to make cable affordable to lower income people.

FIOS fiber-optic cable from Verizon and other companies may start to increase competition in many areas.

Rowland seems to believe that presidential and legislative candidates for office should make increasing competition among service providers a high political priority, rather than over-regulation.

Picture: a sculpture at the University of the District of Columbia campus, but it looks inspired by the magic beads (enabling instantaneous teleportation) in Clive Barker's 1991 fantasy novel "Imajica". Barker's "In ovo" is the ultimate alien "Internet", although not exactly neutral.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

AOL: Will Dial-Up Internet access go bye-bye?


AOL may shed the dial-up business that, in the mid 1990s became the core of its operation, in the “good old days” when AOL, like Prodigy, offered proprietary content, lively message boards, and dial-up (even at lower speeds like 2400 baud) as the portal to the Internet. Later in the 90s, it turned to ordinary http protocol content, and advertising became more critical. Eventually, a couple years ago, if started to offer free email through existing Internet connections. Now it might abandon or at least sell the dial-up operation.

In the 90s, AOL’s own operation was still effective in delivering news. I found out about the Oklahoma City attack when I came from work with an AOL headline. One year it played an April Fool’s joke claiming that life on Jupiter had been found. The service was expensive, with usage-based charges, one time running up to $67 for me, before taking on fixed rates. Today, it still charges for the separate dial-up and mass storage capabilities, a practical backup to access through existing Internet service in case of cable disruption.

In some areas that still do not have cable or broadband service, or where it is unreliable, and where secure wireless is also unreliable, residents might still depend on dialup at 56K to get Internet access.

In fact, I often used the 56K dialup as late as 2005. In practice, a lot of content (other than video) worked. In those days, I did most of my own website updates with WS-FTP and generally files of up to 500K would transfer with acceptable efficiency at that speed. However, massive security updates from Microsoft and anit-virus upgrades from McCaffee sometimes take way too long at these speeds. In Minneapolis, in a high rise apartment, I used a second phone line for most access, and did not start to use broadband until 2002, because until then it was not as reliable.

The news story appears in the Business Section of the August 5 Washington Post, by Zachary A. Goldfarb and Frank Ahrens, is titled “AOL Is Moving Closer To Jettisoning Dial-Up”, link here.

The story emphasizes the need of making reliable and secure broadband and wireless available everywhere. For example, there is a recent dispute over wireless access on the Navajo reservation. On August, 2, Holly Watt had reported on p A2 of The Washington Post, “FCC Tries to Avert Threatened Satellite Cutoff”, link here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

EFF offers "Switzerland" to check network for ISP interference


Electronic Frontier Foundation announced Aug. 1 that had released a product called “Switzerland” to enable users to check “the integrity of their Internet communications”. The testing package is intended to detect interference with your Internet traffic. The EFF Press Release is here.

The actual product is on a site called Sourceforge and the link for the download is here.

This package, the link says, was developed by or for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, and is not an external product already previously developed for some other purpose. But it is likely that it would become a general tool and that the product or similar products will eventually be offered by other companies, probably including those in the computer security industry. The general concept of a product like this seems to be the use of software monitoring tools from private sources to simulate “network neutrality” or to force ISP’s to adhere to neutrality principles with private tools and market principles rather than just government regulation. EFF maintains that the FCC is by itself unable to monitor ISPs for neutrality even in accordance with its own policies. Is this a libertarian example of “government doesn’t work”?

Friday, August 01, 2008

FCC issues ruling against Comcast for blocking large file transfers


The Federal Communications Commission has, in a divided 3-2 administrative law voted, ruled against Comcast and ruled that Comcast violated FCC policy when it blocked some large file transfers for some customers, apparently using BitTorrent and P2P. The FCC was critical of Comcast’s unwillingness to disclose to consumers how it manages its traffic.

The FCC did not assess a fine.

Comcast says that it believes that the FCC is violating its due process rights. Comcast seems to be saying that the FCC’s network neutrality principles are too vague to be enforceable after the fact.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is said to favor network neutrality legislation.

The Washington Post ran (online) the AP story by John Dunbar at noon Aug 1. The original link is here.

The preliminary ruling was discussed on this blog July 11, 2008 with link to the PDF for the FCC policy given there.

August 2

The New York Times has a story in the Business Section by Saul Hansell, "F.C.C. Vote Sets Precedent on Unfettered Web Usage," link here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Comcast is criticized for customer service levels


The Washington Post has a major story today (July 23, 2008) in the Business Section, p D1, about the customer service complaints against Comcast. The story is called “Call the Cable Guy, Again: As Comcast Grows, Service Problems Dog Customers,” by Cecilia Kang, link here.

The general problem is that as Comcast has added customers in areas, it has not always maintained the infrastructure and staff necessary to support increased demand that often goes with building new condos or “McMansions” in neighborhoods. In a few cases, customers have had to wait a week or more and endure repeated visits and sometimes technicians fail to notice that neighborbood nodes need to be upgraded or replaced. The problem may be especially serious in the District of Columbia, as around Dupont Circle.

Often, cable installers are hired as independent contractors rather than as employees.

I got Comcast in 2003, high speed Internet and cable. I started having some periods of slow response or dropouts in 2005 or 2006. The problems would be intermittent. The problems improved finally after a technician replaced several splitters. I am told that splitters, exposed to the elements outside, do degrade and that sometimes only certain ranges of channels are affected, or that Internet connections can stall and restart depending on temperature or humidity in the splitter.

There have also been problems when specific users downloading or transferring huge video files, which many complain Comcast interferes with and slows down, to protect the access of other customers when capacity is finite. A solution could be to bill for excess use.


I’ve discovered, in working with ISPs and telecommunications providers, that often individual employees are not well trained and do not respond consistently to the same problem. I worked in supporting a customer service workbench for an insurance company in 2000 and 2001, and found that it is necessary, as a call center employee, to have very elaborate scripts and cookbook rules as to steps to try to resolve a problem. Call center work is not easy. If I went back to work out of retirement, I believe I could help a company like this improve service with better methods of organizing responses to problems.

Back in the 1990s, we had “Media General Cable” in Fairfax County, VA, and occasionally there would be cable outages for twelve hours or more. In Minnesota, I had Time Warner Cable, which had the irritating habit of going down for a while on Sunday afternoons!

Friday, July 11, 2008

FCC to recommend penalties against Comcast for certain blocking practices related to P2P


In the past, on this blog I’ve reported news stories criticizing Comcast and perhaps other telecommunications providers for shutting off customers with wildly “excessive” use. Now, the head of the Federal Communications Commission has indicated that he will suggest that Comcast be fined for blocking users who excessively use certain kinds of P2P software. There are reports that Comcast has blocked certain kinds of traffic (probably related to BitTorrent) regardless of volume. This violates the “spirit” of network neutrality. A Comcast spokesperson stated that Comcast only regulates customer traffic to an extent necessary to prevent one customer or a small number of customers from interfering with the usage of everyone else.

The FCC had issued a policy statement for broadband providers in September 2005, PDF link here. It says that broadband networks must be “widely deployed, open, affordable and accessible to all consumers.”

The AP story dated July 11 is by John Dunbar, link here. It was reprinted on p D2 (Business) of the July 11 Washington Post.

The story suggests that Comcast has not been penalizing users for watching movies from legitimate movie download websites, subscription or free, like Netflix or Logoonline (which offers many shorts for free, legally, paid for by feeder ads). I found it cumbersone, but recently watched “Escape from Suburbia” after Netflix forced an upgrade of my Windows Media Player. However, in a few markets, several telecommunications companies are testing metering for use over certain maximums.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Study examines broadband availability, price, and consumer choices


The AP ran a story July 3 by Anick Jesdanun, indicating that many consumers do not choose broadband Internet access when available. The link is here. The story appears on p A9, Business and Economy, of the Friday July 4 Washington Times.

The study was conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The report appears to be by John Horrigan and may be navigated from here.

14% of those polled said that they could not get broadband in their neighborboods. But 35% said that broadband prices are too high (despite the introductory rates) and many live in areas with only one provider, where the lack of competition raises prices.

In general, effective use of the Internet, including any kind of self-publishing or small business, tends to require broadband to get all the security updates easily. Anti-virus and security upgrade files are often large and take a long time to download at 56K. Also many software packages are sold mainly by download, often with large files. It is true that many individual websites don’t require broadband for effective viewing. Files with text only, or even text and one or two images, are usually viewed easily at 56K with dialup. WS-FTP works reasonably well at dialup speeds for files up to about 500K. But it is difficult to watch video (YouTube) at this speed. Furthermore, many ISP’s seem to be withdrawing from dialup and require an existing Internet connection.

Some people need to consider broadband availability, price and stability in areas when they move. Apartment guides often list it, but not always accurately.

Wireless connections may work for many people, but are less secure unless a high quality subscription plan with many hotspots is purchased from a relatively large and stable company.

FIOS in many areas may improve broadband quality, but will take time to reach many areas.

Broadband in many communities will (like electric power itself) be subject the hazards of frequent severe storms, as in much of the Midwest or in many coastal areas. Wireless subscriptions (for laptops) may keep people exposed to these hazards connected.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

AT&T will let customers roam without a contract, for a stiff price; hardly "neutral"


AT&T announced on July 1 that it would offer smartphones to people who want to use a different carrier, but at a steep price, for either 8 or 16 gigs. For people willing to commit to an AT&T contract, the price is something like a third ($199 to $299 for two year contracts.

A year ago, recall, some geeks, even in the teen world, had figured out how to reverse engineer some of these devices. Companies are catching on, but trying to induce customers to commit themselves to long contracts.

The iPhone 3G (to be available July 11) is supposed to offer higher speed web connections and access to new applications enabling customers to receive marketing information (like about concerts of events) from promoters in a geographical area. Much of the wireless additions to the XML language were developed some years ago to facilitate these kinds of applications.

As for net neutrality, it seems that telecommunications companies will go along way to keep customers tethered in the wireless world.

The Washington Post story appears on p D2 of the Business Section, “New iPhone Can Decouple from AT&T, for a Price,” by Mike Muscrove, link here.

Update: July 4


The July 3 Business Section, p D1 of The Washington Post, has a story by Rob Pegoraro, "It Only Looks Like an iPhone," about Sprint Nextet's Samsung Instinct, including a picture, link here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Controversy over whether home digital movie downloads could trigger Internet metering charges


Some home computer users could find themselves pushed into the ranges of “Internet metering” in the future by media companies, as movie studios and particularly movie rental companies like Blockbuster and Netflix offer more feature films to be watched online. Other specialty companies, like Logoonline (for the LGBT market) offer a large number of shorts online (and encourage users to submit them) for free (that is, advertiser-motivated) viewing, and these include films of some substance with major corporate indie distributors. Furthermore, the quality and resolution of films improves with time, and more of them are full wide screen, with more information to transmit. A typical feature can use up about five gigabytes. Use of services like Skype and Vonage to transmit Internet phone calls also can push up usage for heavy cell users. (I have to say this: I wonder how people can carry on cell conversations for so long on disco floors on Saturday nights.)

Companies like Time Warner say that excess use metering will not affect ordinary home or small business users. Comcast slows down excess peer-peer traffic and AT&T admits that some sort of excess per-byte charge is inevitable. ISPs usually have bandwidth limits for shared hosting websites (with steep overage charges), but in practice the limits are quite generous for ordinary self-publishers. One potential problem is that overage detection only runs at discrete times in the day, and could suddenly happen and accumulate for a few hours without a subscriber’s knowledge.

The news story appeared Sunday June 15 in The New York Times, front page, as “Charging by the Byte to Curb Internet Traffic,” by Brian Stelter, here.

Previously, this blog has reported "beta test" experiments in Internet metering in a few communities around the country.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Broadband providers to test limits on excessive use by residential customers


Comcast and Time Warner have agreed to test a new strategy to equalize broadband access use by holding up traffic of heaviest Internet users without zeroing in on specific applications or environments, such as P2P computing or BitTorrent. Initially the tests will take place around Chambersburg PA and Warrenton, VA. The companies may also experiment with charging very heavy users more for excess use.

Critics have complained that the companies are penalizing certain customers rather than investing in more infrastructure to meet rising use as service expands and newer neighborhoods, especially in exurbs, are built. In a few cases, customers have been cut off because of really excessive use, which reportedly would have required watching several feature-length movies on line a day.

I have tried watching Netflix online and find that it stalls after a while. So I usually settled for ordering and renting the bricks-and-mortar DVD’s.

The news story appears in print on p B1 (“Business”) of The Washington Post today (June 4), is by Ceclia Kang, and is titled “Heavy Internet users targeted; Providers to test charges, delays.” The link is here.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

FCC to expand probe on Internet cancellation difficulties


Although it has been long known that cellphone companies charge for prematurely ending service contracts, the difficulty of canceling cable and broadband Internet services has more recently attracted attention. Apparently, according to a story by Cecilia Kang in the May 31 Washington Post, the Federal Communications Commission is soon going to pay more attention to these problems. The story is called “Scrutiny of Phone Fees May Broaden to TV, Internet; FCC Hearning to Target Cancellation Charges”, link here. Hopefully, this investigation would scope in the repeated phone calls and time consumers have to make (and uncooperative customer service agents, who get paid to keep customers) .

There is, at least indirectly, a “neutrality” issue here. Some companies, especially Verizon, have become aggressive in offering combo plans for wireless (secured) Internet, fiber-optic cable (FIOS) Internet and phone, and both wireless and landline phone. Although it may be attractive and economical to switch to such a plan, coordination to cancel with piecemeal services from other companies may be cumbersome and may not happen at one time, enabling a smooth transition without disruption.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Spanish entrepreneur develops new wireless paradigm with his company, FON


There has been a lot of talk about the lumpiness of Wi-Fi service, about security problems and reliability. An entrepreneur from Argentina and now living an modern splendor in Madrid, Spain, Martin Varsavsky, has started a company in Spain called FON (or Foneros), which, on the surface, echoes a concept known from P2P computing and Bit-Torrent. The concept is that consumers share and trade wireless access capacity with others under some sort of automatically monitored but voluntary contract agreement, a totally “libertarian” concept. Varsavsjy says that the concept combines the best of both worlds, WiMax and L.T.E. (or “Long Term Evolution”) Varsavsky says that he offers a bottom up development that adds generativity and neutrality to the growth of the Internet, issues raised in a recent book by Jeffrey Zittrain (discussed on my books blog in April 2008).

The hope is that such a development would add security, stability and availability for wireless access to personal and business travelers and to people who live in less populated areas. It might make some companies more willing to allow home workers to depend on wireless access in the future, a capability that is resisted now because of security and stability concerns.

The story is by John Markoff, “Global Dreams for a Wireless World,” from Menorca, Spain, in The New York Times Business section today, link here.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Sprint, Clearwire, others would develop national wireless "hot spot" for "ordinary" consumers


On Wednesday. May 7, USA Today has a big banner headline, “Wireless plan: Make entire USA a ‘hot spot’. The story in the Money Section (B) is “Deal shakes up wireless world: Sprint, Clearwire join forces to build “Wimax” network,” in a story by Leslie Cauley, link here. Backers would include Intel, Comcast, Time Warner, and Google.

Over 50% of the country would be included by 2010. It is not clear yet what the cost would be for consumers.

Generally, wireless companies offer plans to consumers that offer secured hot spot service in restaurants, shopping malls, airports, hotels, and some public areas around the country. It is safer to use a subscription service than a “free one” offered by many hotels (which now may be starting to charge fees anyway to increase bottom lines given recession and economic problems). Moderate income apartment residents don’t always have reliable cable, especially in lower cost areas, but lower income people and baby boomer retirees are starting to expect high speed service and need it. This plan could offer a big improvement in generativity and neutral customer access. One major reason that expanded wireless would be important will also be that dialup connections may be too slow to do the enormous automatic security downloads (from Microsoft and anti-virus companies) required by modern home computing.

There is more on this on my Internet safety blog (see my profile).

Update: May 8

The Washington Post today provides much more detailed coverage a story by Kim Hart and Cecilia King:

"Clearwire, Sprint Nextel Set Course for WiMax: $12 Billion Partnership to Focus on Speed and Distance," link here. The print version in Business Section D01 has a diagram that explains some of the practical difficulties.

Kim Hart also writes "FCC to Test Transition to Digital TV in N.C.: Wilmington's Rollout to Begin Sept. 8," link here, p D03 in print.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

ACLU blog presents testimony on Network Neutrality


The ACLU “Free Speech” blog available on its COPA weblink has a large entry dated April 23, 2008 “No Corporate Gatekeepers for the Net”, link here. There is a PDF file of notes on a Hearing on “Net Neutrality and Free Speech on the Net,” before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Task Force on Competition Policy and Antitrust Laws, testimony by Caroline Frederickson, Director, Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union. The link is here.
She also refers to an FCC Policy Statement from 2005 “New Principles Preserve and Promote the Open and Interconnected Nature of the Public Internet (link here); with later versions of adobe Acrobat, it is possible to follow embedded hyperlinks directly). Toward the end, Frederickson remarks that “Internet discrimination by ISPs is on the rise, and will only increase as Americans rely on the broadband services that they provide.”

The April ACLU blog entry refers to an earlier report of Comcast’s “behavior” as an example of what can happen in a world without legislated Net Neutrality, here.

The blog mentions an interesting incident in San Francisco of apparent government discrimination against protestors representing the interests of Tibetan independence, in this podcast, MP3 link here.

What does all this mean? Jonathan Zittrain, as I noted in the previous post, is more concerned about the loss of generativity in the mechanics of delivery of content than with discrimination concerning the content itself. A lot of this has to do with the way broadband and wireless services are made available in new areas, and with ways they can be secured for safe use by ordinary citizens in apartments, motels when traveling on business, shopping malls, and the like, an issue that I just took up on my Internet safety blog (see Blogger Profile). The more competition there is, the less the need for direct regulation, or, perhaps that is to say, some of the regulation would have to do with mergers and buyouts that could eliminate competition. The other issue may be social and even harder to encapsulate: society is starting to become unnerved by some speech by individuals, as in blogs and social networking sites, when it made without any sense of accountability to others.

The ACLU blog materials and references seem compelling -- but how balanced are they?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Zittrain offers nuanced discussion on net neutrality


British communications law professor Jonathan Zittrain provides a somewhat equivocal discussion of network neutrality in Chapter 8 “Strategies for a Generative Future” of his new book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It,” (review link) in a section called “Network Neutrality and Generativity” starting on p. 178.

“Generativity” is a term that he defines in his book, but it is somewhat like modular interchangeability, and fits the spirit of neutrality. The debates over network neutrality have focused in large part on fears that ISPs and telecommunications companies (and especially cable or Internet television programming services perhaps) would discriminate among different forms of content, hurting small content-suppliers and countering the “democratizing” aspect of the Web. The rise of social networking sites and their wide open nature (and their facile “reputational” abuse by customers at times) perhaps would counter those fears. Zittrain is more concerned that companies will interfere with various other forms of connectivity among various communities of users – the teenage home-tinkering kind, perhaps. (I’m reminded by his discussion of a friend who set up a web server in 1993 on a 386 machine just to prove to himself that he knew how to do it.) Generally, he believes that the need for legislative oversight is minimal if there is enough market competition, and his overall personal preference does seem to be toward the libertarian, less regulated approach. But he admits that there can be anomalies. For example, ISPs could want to charge search engine companies for giving their subscribers access, but then would they pass the implied saving on to subscribers? He also discusses possible anomalies with “appliance-like” APIs or applications, such as games (related to XBOX) and even Google maps, where, in some cases, it is not practical to expect the industry to support a large number of service suppliers and a lot of competition.

Friday, April 04, 2008

ISPs track surfers to develop targeted ads and improve "bottom lines"


The surfing of over 100,000 home users is being monitored by ISPs under contract with advertising companies, in order to determine whether ads could be targeting not only by the content of the web pages that they appear on, but also by the surfing habits of the visitor.

The news story is by Peter Whoriskey, The Washington Post, Business, p D01, Friday April 4, 2008, “Every click you make: Internet providers quietly test expanded tracking of web use to target advertising,” link here.

It seems as though the subjects are chosen randomly and do not know they are being monitored.

One criticism is that this sound like a telephone company's random eavesdropping on calls in the pre-Internet age. Remember the days of party lines? (I do, on summer trips to Ohio.)

Ad companies would be trying new technologies to increase revenue because of the downturn expected with the Subprime mortgage crisis.

Friday, March 28, 2008

BitTorrent and Comcast agree to collaborate in developing fair capacity management


Comcast and BitTorrent have agreed to work together on the issue of fair capacity planning and management, given the changing nature of Internet traffic with the increased use of video, including user-generated content, and (legal) downloading of feature films from services like Netflix, as well as an increase in legal (copyright approved) file-sharing P2P services. The buzzword is a "protocol agnostic" technique.

The BitTorrent press release is titled: "Comcast and BitTorrent Form Collaboration to Address Network Management, Network Architecture and Content Distribution," and the link is here.

Yahoo! also has a story and Press Release here.

It could supposed that this collaboration is intended to ward off regulatory attempts in Congress, even as these seem well-intention and moderate now to most people.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Verizon says cable companies make switch to FIOS disruptive and cumbersome


Verizon, which has been aggressively promoting fiber optic cable, Internet and phone in many neighborhoods, is claiming that existing cable companies often cause roadblocks, causing cumbersome cancellation procedures that can leave potential subscribers with no service at all for some number of days until they can get reconnected. This obviously would not be acceptable to many people contemplating a change. Verizon wants the right to disconnect existing cable service at the request of the customer at the time it connects its own. It has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to perform these kinds of disconnection.

The story by Cecilia Kang is “Verizon asks FCC to help ease switches from cable,” page D02 in the Business Section, The Washington Post, March 27, 2008, link here.
Obviously, this is a customer service issue that can have a major effect both on consumers and on small home-based businesses that would use a broadband service

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Besides network neutrality, think about customer service


Last night (March 25) ABC Nightline had a short segment on “consumer vigilantes” (link is here; you have to pick the video out of a list), including one elderly Virginia woman who got arrested when she went into a Comcast office and vandalized it in front of employees to complain about customer service. (Yes, the police came.)

One of the big concerns about the mergers and quasi-monopoly (or monopolistic competition) among the big telecommunications companies, driven by fiduciary concerns from Wall Street for the bottom line, is the reduction in customer service. Much more of it is “self-help,” there are delays in getting repairs, and sometimes customer service agents in call centers don’t give advice specific to a problem. This is true in ISP’s, too, where often call center respondents don’t know enough of the specifics about how a set of servers interrelate to understand a problem; they have to “escalate” and the consumer waits. Efficient customer service can be, in practice, as important a consideration as the actual broadband policy as it affects different classes of customers in some “anti-neutrality” algorithm.

With cable TV, one problem is intermittent drop-outs. Often, call center agents do not have reports on these and will ask the homeowner to try various experiments, when the problem really is area wide (like a signal-noise problem). It is true, that sometimes when a high speed internet connection intermittently fails, unplugging the cable modem, waiting one minute (for the smart circuit to time out) and replugging and rebooting it fixes it or make it more stable. Sometimes this works, and sometimes splitters even inside homes deteriorate and have to be replaced.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

ISPs having trouble keeping low-cost wireless available; checking broadband services before household moves


Hopes for providing free or low-cost wireless Internet service in low-income areas seem to be receding as some ISP’s have pulled out, finding it not profitable to stay in. Ian Urbina has a story in the March 22, 2008 New York Times, “Hopes for wireless cities fade as Internet providers pull out,” p A1, link here.

The story relates problems with Earthlink in Philadelphia. Some rural areas may not be able to get coverage. On the other hand, some cities like Minneapolis have innovative solutions to this problem, offering ISPs a threshold amount of business with city offices.

In my own circumstances, my laptop tells me that a wireless connection is available, from Verizon Customer ID. However, this particular service requires an ID and a subscription fee, which varies with the amount of geographical area covered.

In airports, my laptop has varying results. The Columbus, Ohio airport has great coverage, but Baltimore BWI did not the last time I was there. On the road with a car, results vary from one location to the next. Many motels have wireless, which sometimes is not working.

The Real Estate section of the March 22 Washington Post has an article by Gabe Goldberg, “Moving in a Wired World: Tips to get connected quickly in your new home.” The link is here.
The article suggests checking Broadbandreports before moving (a household), or even before agreeing on the purchase of a home / condo or signing a lease to make sure of what will be available. Most apartment buildings and condos have arrangements with existing providers that may preclude other land-wired providers. Wireless may or may not work well in a particular building, or may work in a neighborhood care nearby. The site has a “find service” link by zip code with details as to local ISPs. I've noticed in free apartment digests (common at health spas and in shopping centers) that not all buildings list cable-ready availability. Most larger ISPs have websites from which people can continue receiving email even if they no longer use that ISP as the telecommunications providers, but if one’s email provider does not do this, it is a consideration.

Up to about 2000 or 2001, having broadband was not as critical. In fact, for the first couple of years that it was offered, it was often unreliable, with long outages. Most applications, emails, and even personal publishing facilities worked satisfactorily on 56K modems with dialups on a land phone line (often a second line on the same jack, which was then a popular arrangement). I found I could publish text with WS-FTP or FrontPage satisfactorily by 56K. However, since 2003 or 2004, broadband has become essential because most computers need regular large security updates (from Microsoft, starting with Service Pack 2, and from anti-virus providers like McAfee), in order to remain safe (with firewalls) when connected to the Internet. Furthermore, bandwidth requirements for publishing video and images (as is common on social networking sites and sophisticated blogs) are greater than they were a few years ago when personal publishing was less “social” in nature. ISPs have generally greatly increased bandwidth availability for a given price, but the economics of this now could deteriorate in a declining dollar market and due to other recent market forces, unless there is serious attention to telecommunications policy, which is why “network neutrality” is such a hotly debated and elusive issue.

Still another issue is satellite Internet and DirectTV, which may not work reliably everywhere, and may not be allowed (as on balconies) in some buildings. However, in many locations, DirectTV ("The Dish") offers more channels and shows (like NBC's previous soap "Passions") than do some conventional cable services in many areas. Keeping it working, as during storms, may challenge the handiness of some homeowners.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Verizon to offer device interchangeability by June


Crayton Harrison has an important story on p D3 Business of the March 20, 2008 Washington Post, "Verizon Works to Let Other Devices on Network," link here. Verizon will allow any company's phones to access its network as long as the products meet certain reasonable guidelines. Products will be certified by June 2008.

AT&T also allows "alien" phones on its network, but Sprint, Nextel and Alltel have not yet imitated.

About 80% of the US population now has cell phones.

Device interchangeability will help achieve some of the practical goals of network neutrality.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cloud computing; fear of Internet traffic jams soon


A couple more wrinkles run along the track with the net neutrality debate.

One of them is a concept called "cloud computing" where data is arranged in huge centers and networked in various relationships, and then accessed from any kind of device, with mobile devices becoming more important. Blogger has been promoting mobile blogging. An acquisition of a small company called Pi started the debate. One is reminded of the little indie black-and-white movie Pi (1998) from Darren Aronofsky. The New York Times story by Steve Lohr from Feb. 25 is here.

But a more urgent story appeared today (March 13) "Video Road Hogs Stir Fear of Internet Traffic Jam," on the front page of The New York Times, by Steve Lohr, link here.
The article notes that YouTube used as much bandwidth last year as the entire Internet in 2000, and that Internet efficiency varies widely from country to country and area to area because There is talk of a bandwidth squeeze by 2011. But it will occur gradually, not with a sudden breakdown.

One of the questions underlying the "net neutrality" debate is the way companies in the Internet "ecosystem" have to fine tune their investment in various kinds of instrumentalities, given the unpredictability of consumer tastes. Mobile videoconferencing and conversation with video from business may take up much of the bandwidth.

Cable and high speed Internet companies have to deal with the growth in consumer demand to watch movies and larger videos over the Internet, which has sometimes led to a few customers being cut off for excessive use. Clear pricing policies will be needed, and the possibility of future regulation complicates them, although the bills before Congress now appear somewhat reasonable.

Friday, March 07, 2008

NY State, FCC look down harder on ISPs' management of broadband usage


The New York State Attorney General has subpoenaed Comcast to provide information on how it manages incidental customer overuse on its high speed broadband Internet services. Comcast has said that some management is necessary to prevent degradation of service and response time to customers with more ordinary data transfer volumes. The story is on AP Feb 27, 2008 "NY AG Subpoenas Comcast on Broadband," here.

Other companies often encourage home users to download lots of material. Netflix now offers subscribers some movies for direct play, and when I tried to use it last summer, it stalled after a half hour. Software companies use downloads; it takes over an hour to download Microsoft Visual Studio Express on a broadband connection.

Also, on Feb. 25, the FCC said that it would regulate ISP's who are overzealous in manipulating various streams of data traffic. The story by Mark Jewell is "FCC Ready to Curb ISP Traffic Management," link here.

Of course, BitTorrent provides the source of a lot of political tension over this whole issue.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

H.R. 5353 "network neutrality" bill introduced in House, viewed as veiled call for regulation of carriers by government


On Feb. 12, 2008, the house, with a bipartisan introduction from Ed Markey (D-MA) and Charles Pickering (R-MS) listed a new Network Neutrality bill for the 110th Congress. The short title is the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008.” The tracking number is H.R. 5353. The bill establishes United States public policy goals for network neutrality in terms of consumer and speaker freedom from unreasonable interference from telecommunications providers.

I have more detailed links on my wordpress blog; please look on Feb. 20, 2008.

On Feb. 20, the DC Examiner carried, on p 16, a short commentary from the Free State Foundation (refers to Maryland). The link for the commentary is here. The opinion criticizes the bill’s surface vagueness and equivocation, and then says that it essentially a call for regulation as if telecomm companies were “public utility common carriers.” One can read an address (PDF file) by Sen. Jim De Mint (SC) from December 2007, here where he discusses Net Neutrality at the end.

See the posting on this blog Jan. 26 for a related bill S. 215.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Comcast, perhaps others, may be involved in manipulating P2P streams to prevent customer "abuse", said to violate net neutrality


ABC affiliate WJLA in Arlington VA today reported that Comcast did acknowledge tinkering with extremely large file sharing transmissions in order, it says, to avoid excessive bandwidth use and inconvenience or disruption to other customers who are staying within the parameters of more normal usage. Some consumer groups of law professors have complained that Comcast is violating "network neutrality."

It's possible for an ISP or telecommunications provider to programmatically insert packets into a P2P file-sharing data stream to appear to come from the user when they actually come from the ISP. These techniques may have been known for over a decade, as a textbook by James Martin on telecommunications written in the early 1990s explains how these techniques can work.

The WJLA story is called "Comcast Defends Internet Practices" and the link is here.

Comcast high speed Internet service sometimes seems to slow down during the middle of business weekdays (at least from my experience). The practice reported by WJLA could be going on to improve ordinary customer service during these times of heavier use. Cable companies like Comcast and Cox have experienced large residential growth and bandwidth use increase in recent years. More an more media companies (like Netflix and Logo) offer movies for viewing online, but this activity doesn't require P2P or BitTorrent, which is what seems to worry ISPs the most.

Electronic Frontier Foundation had published papers on Comcast and other ISP's, as noted on this blog last December (link).

Earlier on this blog (Jan. 26), I discussed the most recent Network Neutrality proposal, S215, link here. It would not appear that S215 would prohibit good-faith efforts from ISP's to prevent very usually high traffic from a small percentage of users.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

BlackBerry -- too monolithic?


Well, I don’t have a blackberry, because I’m not mobile enough to need it all the time. When I was substitute teaching, one kid with handwriting problems was allowed to use it for assignments, from which he printed his reports. Businesses and governments claim that they have become dependent on their being always on, so an outage is a bit like cutting the transatlantic cable a century ago, or cutting a telegraph line in Jesse James ‘s era, or even the recent Internet outage around the Indian Ocean.

The outage Monday Feb 11 is said to have lasted about three hours, with no content lost, and with voice and text messaging services undisturbed. News report indicate that it took much longer for users to restore service.

The Canadian company Research in Motion has not yet provided much explanation for what happened. There was a similar incident in April 2007.

But the incident does underscore the need for competition in all phases of Internet service delivery.

The AP story February 12 is by Jordan Robertson, “BlackBerry Outage Frustrates Users Again.” Link is here. Right now, users don’t seem to have much choice. Later information indicates that the BlackBerry outage was caused by an upgrade (or "promotion" or "elevation", the terminology used in I.T. shops) that broke something. These changes can be very difficult to test.

I have to admit, when I’m out on foot, it would be nice for it to be easier to check my own email and domains. I usually wait until I get home or near a Kinkos (or maybe the Pop Stop in DC). It’s not practical to carry a laptop all the time, or to bother with them in airports. Motel business centers are not that safe or reliable. Not too efficient.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Stories about AT&T, Intelius


There is a major report on Switched.com by Tim Stevens, "AT&T Suffering Intermittent Outages," link here.

Comments by visitors on AOL where the story appeared generally reflect negatively onm AT&T service and prefer other vendors.

In 2006, after a localized freak winter thunderstorm, I lost local phone service for three days. I had AT&T although the lines belonged to Verizon. It took three days for someone to show up to reconnect a downed line, when there was not any widespread damage in the area. The cable service (Comcast) did not fail in the incident.

In the summer of 2003, I worked as a debt collector on the AT&T account. That was interesting.

All this news story seems to represent is the need to support competition.



Update: Feb 5

There is another intriguing story on Switched.com by Terrence O'Brien, where Intelius is shutting down a national cell phone directory over privacy concerns. The story title is "Controversial Cell Phone Number Directory Closes Up Shop" and the link is here.
I had discussed Intelius last week in connection with data mining and privacy, here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Phone carriers raise unbundled service fees


Leslie Cauley of USA Today has an important story "Phone giants' rising rates questioned" in USA Today on Jan. 29, 2008, link here. The story was also offered to AOL subscribers this morning, and AOL offered a survey.

AT&T and Verizon have been raising prices for specific services like caller-id and anonymous call rejection, as well as local toll calls (common in larger metro areas like Los Angeles). On the other hand, bundled telephone services are remaining competitive with what is offered by cable and Internet companies and may be falling in price.

There are concerns, as always, that the un-tech-savvy and low income or fixed income people are the most vulnerable.

In my own case, I have found (in Arlington VA) that Comcast, while raising fees slightly on Jan. 1, has added some additional channels in the 100-199 range (including Logo) without additional charges. In Fairfax County and Falls Church, Cox offers services essentially the same as Comcast. I still remember when I lived in Annandale in the mid 1990s that the company then was "Media General Cable" and the erection of cell phone towers in the area spurred controversy!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act (S215) -- an important advance in net neutrality?


Early in 2007, at the outset of the 110th Congress, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and ten cosponsors introduced the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act” as S. 215. The bill is shorter and simpler than its predecessors (discussed in earlier postings on this blog) that have died at the end of the session. Internet debates on network neutrality sometimes refer to bills that have already expired, but similar bills get introduced in similar sessions with new numbers. Typically, as with partisanship in Congress, provisions get the cosmological “big rip” and then get re-bundled in new legislation, so debate must hit a moving target.

I have some details and links on my new Wordpress blog on “technology and law confluence,” here.

The bill does, upon detailed reading, appear to require telecommunications companies to make good faith efforts to make their services available to everyone reasonably, but does allow some stratification in pricing, based on bandwidth use. Perhaps this is “have your cake and eat it too.” Physicists do that all the time.

What really seems needed is more public understanding of how all of the ISPs, cable and phone companies, search engine companies and social networking companies make their profits. There has already been a lot of debate – continuous on these blogs -- on the exposure that the new technology creates for minors, as well as all of the security implications for businesses and individuals, and the nation as a whole. But, whatever the legal status of network neutrality to date, some observations some clear. Companies already have some stratification in the way they offer services. ISPs, for example, often offer both shared and dedicated web hosting, with dedicated more expensive. Does dedicated offer faster access? Probably. Is it “fair” to the public? Yes, partly because for small businesses and individuals, shared hosting works relatively well even in an unregulated environment. Shared hosting does offer economies of scale in some critical areas, like network security and backup and even disaster recovery. No one could reasonably say that this practice should not continue, as long as offered in good faith.

Companies have, over time, been offer to offer much larger amounts of disk space and bandwidth even to individuals with no real revenue from “operations.” There are potential exposures, to be sure. Despite the advances, it’s not feasible for me to post a two-hour high definition movie on my site for unlimited viewing. Some “image style” PDF documents, not searchable and taking much more space and sometimes preferred by lawyers for posting during ongoing litigation, can still present space issues. (My master’s thesis is in that format and takes 6 meg, and would only take about 500K as a converted word document.) In rare cases, a website that had antagonized some community might attract a DOS attack or repeated page loads of some big file, running up bandwidth charges until caught by the ISPs periodic account resource usage monitoring.

Other questions about telecommunications policy can arise when people do their own hosting and run their own web servers in rack space but work with telecommuncations providers, and this includes people who want to do hosting for others (I had my own work hosted by someone doing that until 2001, after 9/11). This may not be as common today as it was ten years ago because larger ISPs do have such economies of scale.

I wonder about the expansion of bandwidth, disk space, and search engine capacity as blogs and profiles proliferate, apparently exponentially, many of them even on free space. So far, the mathematics of supply (to some extend based on a programming “interview question” concept as simple as the binary search) has kept up with user-generated-content demand, and may well be driving it. Advertising, miraculously, seems to pay for it just as it has with network television (and that amazed people in the 1950s).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Immunity for telecommunications companies is a related issue


I wanted to mention a website that encourages the public to contact Congress to stop illegal or unsupervised spying on Americans domestically, and particularly (and this is why it is a telecommunications issue for this blog), measures that would provide immunity to telecommunications carriers when they engage in illegal spying activities.

The site is Stopthespying.

Cindy Cohn has an article posted on Electronic Frontier Foundation today "Bloggers and Others Push Presidential Candidates on Immunity," here.

In 2005, there was an important independent film from Screen Media Films and Red Envelope, "This Revolution," directed by Stephen Marshall, where Nathan Crooker plays a journalist who, when covering the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City, discovers that his big media corporate employer has been paid off by the government to turn over his videotapes to Homeland Security. This is essentially a film rendition of the telecommunications "immunity" problem. The film had a limited theatrical release in "arthouses" in 2006.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Time Warner will test charging for excess Internet use, in a Texas city


In 2007 there were media stories of people getting cut off from cable Internet service for too much broadband use (usually several movies a day); this can become a bigger problem as high definition increases. There were also stories of people getting cut off for calling customer service excessively.

Time Warner Cable will start a trial in Beaumont, Texas (on the Gulf Coast, about 100 miles east of Houston) where high speed Internet customers are billed by use, in certain tiers, after the exceed certain thresholds. The practice will start in the Second Quarter of 2008. The story on USA Today is called "Time Warner tests billing by Web use," and the link is here. Stratification of customer use apparently showed that about 5% of the customers in that area accounted for 50% of the capacity.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Consumers Union: strong network neutrality legislation is a must (2006)


The Consumers Union (which publishes the magazine Consumer Reports) published a major white paper supporting Network Neutrality back in 2006. The link (a PDF file) is here. The authors of “Network Neutrality: Fact vs. Fiction” are Ben Scott, Free Press; Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation of America; Jeannine Kenney, Consumers Union.

The rather detailed piece does deserve a careful reading. Many interesting points are made in the “Fact v. Fiction” dot points. For example, network neutrality legislation has always existed. Telephone companies have received billions in public subsidies. Telecommunications. Executives tend to see the pricing system as a “zero sum game” unless the legal climate encourages them to offer more broadband resources to the average consumer. (That point could be debated). The Consumers Union is quite critical of what it sees as the inadequacy of HR 5252 and Senate ATOR S 2686, and writes:
“If Congress passes the House bill, or the Senate bill as it was reported out of Conference Committee, there will be no laws guaranteeing consumers’ right to the online content of their choice for the first time in the history of the Internet.” The paper maintains that Network Neutrality is a balanced, bi-partisan concept that supports free market competition, and is not the product of a left-wing “cabal.”

Up until now, technological capacity has grown so fast and economies of scale among giant telecommunications companies, search engine companies, and ISPs have been so effective that they have been able to offer speakers capacities to reach the entire planet that would have sounded unbelievable fifteen years ago. Indeed, the capability of the individual acting alone with no capital and no financial or other accountability is one of the factors that has generated the “reputation defense” crisis that I have discussed recently on other blogs. Even so, many outages that consumers experience are related to capacity and temporary overload issues.

One cannot be complacent that companies will always be able to offer consumers and speakers almost unlimited access to global technology. The falling value of the dollar and various global infrastructure and political issues could make this more problematic in the future. Companies could eventually require more measures of accountability for speakers, probably measured in the ability to "compete" (individually or by manipulating others) and generate revenue.

Soon, I’ll track down these laws, see where they stand and see how well these points, made in May 2006, stack up against the “facts” today in early 2008.

Update: Jan 25, 2008

HR 5252 never became law. Govtrack reference.

S2686 never became law. Govtrack reference.

The most important current legislation in the 110th Congress appears to be S 215, "The Internet Freedom Preservation Act", here on Govtrack. There will be more details on this blog in the near future.

See June 2006 on this blog for the "original" net neutrality legislation, that also died.