Oh AT&T…

THIS is scary.

What happened to common carriage? I would really like to see the document AT&T should have that lists the positives outweighing the negatives of this decision.

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Legislation To Improve FCC Data Collection

There are changes afoot to address the notoriously insufficient data on broadband deployment in this country. Congressman Edward J. Markey’s (D-MA) bill, the Broadband Census of America Act, passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee on October 30th. The legislation will provide better, more comprehensive data on broadband deployment. “…Current data collection methods used by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are highly flawed,” Markey said. The bill would also implement a searchable database that would allow people to locate broadband services available in their community.

The bill marks a significant advancement for proponents of broadband access as many advocates lament the poor statistics courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission. A number of reports on the subject of broadband deployment have raised concern for the deficiencies of the FCC’s data and collection process. From the Brookings Institution, The Effects of Broadband Deployment on Output and Employment: A Cross-sectional Analysis of U.S. Data by Robert W. Crandall, William Lehr, and Robert E. Litan on behalf of Verizon Communications, noting the broadness of the FCC’s definition of broadband, which includes speeds as low as 200 Kbps–to Kenneth Flamm and Anindya Chaudhuri, authors of An Analysis of the Determinants of Broadband Access, who explain why this classification is problematic since it does not account for the great variations in speed within different broadband technologies. Derek Turner’s 2006 report Broadband Reality Check II further elaborates that this low standard for “high-speed” (200 Kbps) connections is hardly capable of transmitting low-quality streaming video, “standards that do not meet the congressional mandate contained in the 1996 [Telecommunications] Act.”

It’s not just the FCC’s definition of broadband that’s inadequate, though. Flamm and Chaudhuri discuss problems with the FCC’s actual data and representation, which suffered from being under-counted. The results represented some broadband subscribers as living in counties where that service was not officially available. Derek Turner even urged government policy to “require the FCC to improve its broadband data collection and analysis.”

This new bill addresses just those issues, directing the FCC to decide whether the current standard for broadband should be revised. It would also require the FCC to revise its broadband reporting form and its broadband reporting obligations so that providers report the actual numbers of broadband connections within a census tract, 9-digit postal zip code, or 5-digit postal zip code. This would replace the current system that equates a single broadband subscriber in a zip code with the whole community having broadband access. The bill would also make the FCC’s inquiries into the deployment of advanced telecommunications services on an annual basis instead of periodically.

There is also an allocation of a 5-year, $40 million per year fund that would provide matching grants to state non-profit, public-private partnerships in support of efforts to more accurately identify barriers to broadband adoption throughout the state. It is the first proposed media reform measure that includes a specific funding allocation since Bush came into office.

Separate from FCC based directives, the bill would also have the Census Bureau include a question in its American Community Survey to assess levels of residential computer use and determine levels of dial-up versus broadband Internet subscribership. This data would be beneficial to broadband deployment initiatives to determine the ways in which certain communities are or are not able to use the Internet. There is also a directive for the Government Accountability Office to develop broadband measurements that may be used to provide consumers with broadband connection cost and capability information and improve the process of comparing the deployment and penetration of broadband in the United States with other countries. The bill addresses more than just individual access, including a measure for the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy to conduct a study evaluating the impact of broadband speed and price on small businesses, something that is imperative for addressing small business and community economic growth.

There are also other measures being taken to improve our national broadband data collection system. Right now a lawsuit wages in Washington D.C. between the FCC and the non-profit organization Center for Public Integrity. The latter organization is insisting the FCC release a more accurate map of broadband Internet deployment in the United States and to make it a publicly accessible database providing details of companies that offer broadband in every zip code. The FCC does release a semi-annual report on how many broadband providers operate in each zip code, but leaves them nameless. The opposition from the FCC maintains that the private records “contain commercially sensitive, competitive information and that release would cause harm to the entities that submitted the requested information.” Drew Clark, senior fellow at CPI insists that the availability of the information would greatly benefit those trying to improve broadband policy allowing them “to start making correlations with demographic data—income, education, and so forth.”

The improvement in data collection resultant from the bill, including the added question in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, as well as the efforts of CPI, would provide many programs that promote broadband deployment with an excellent supplement to their own statistical analysis and research. The funding provision would also significantly bolster organizations abilities to conduct this important research. For the Digital Expansion Initiative, the efforts will lower the barriers for the kind of research the program is conducting. Likewise, the DEI’s comprehensive research methods would build on the statistical foundation provided by these bills by addressing the uneven distribution of the Internet through community organizing, participant-led research, and media production.

The senate companion bill to the Broadband Census Bill, sponsored by Daniel Inouye (D-HI), has already passed the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in a unanimous vote on July 19. “It is among the first ever things we have been able to do that is not defense up to this point with GOP congress,” said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, an organization that has been doing media reform since 2003, “it has been all about blocking the bad stuff.” As Sen. Inouye said in a press statement, “The first step in an improved broadband policy is ensuring that we have better data on which to build our efforts.”

State Assembly Hearing: 10/17

Last Wednesday a state assembly hearing was held on the topic of net neutrality. It was pretty intense for a government process. I attribute this to the recent Verizon-NARAL scandal which prompted both parties to testify at last week’s hearing.

The legislators were particularly tough on the Verizon representatives and especially infuriated with how the content-based decision was made. Likewise, they were rightfully dubious to the assumption that the public should just “trust Verizon” to not discriminate based on content in the future, rather than concede to a regulation against it. What Verizon had to say for itself was disapointing, but not surprising. Of course, Verizon evaded most questions with indirect and off-topic answers (Q: Who made the decision to reject NARAL’s text messaging application? Was it subjective? A: We reversed the decision already! It won’t happen again, trust us!) The critical questioning, which continued through the testimony of a local cable representative, was a good sign that net neutrality issues were important to the legislators. The written testimony of Josh Breitbart being used in the questioning of that cable representative was another good sign that the government is taking notice and considering suggestions on the other way the state can influence policy to help ensure net neutrality.

Broadcasting Is A Privilege

To the frustration of neighborhood residents, the Deutsche Bank fire a few weeks ago illustrated NYC’s continued lack of preparedness for neighborhood emergencies. One might assume that would have significantly improved since September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, the telecommunications industry (cell phone companies included) are impeding the city’s efforts to install emergency notification systems. On WNYC’s “All Things Considered” yesterday, host Amy Eddings speaks with the station’s own Bob Hennelly on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s handling of the way it dismantles the contaminated former Deutsche Bank building. Near the end Hennelly addresses telecommunication companies’ failure to improve the quality of emergency communication strategy. He credits the Bloomberg administration for implementing email notifications to Lower Manhattan, a move that won’t be of much help to those without computers or Internet access. Surprisingly, Hennelly, as a broadcaster himself, calls broadcasting a “privilege” granted to them by the people and that the government needs to step in when these companies fail to adequately provide this public service. That exchange is transcribed below:

Bob Hennelly: Well, to give this administration credit, they have online, they’re in the process now of trying to come up with some things like, they’re going to have email notification for—by the middle of October, for Lower Manhattan people of what goes on. [They’re] also looking at reverse-911. But the irony is that post-9/11, in our industry-friendly country, the telecommunication companies haven’t had to ante-up in terms of spending the money and making the investments so that cell phones don’t collapse whenever we really need them.

Amy Eddings: And I understand the Bloomberg administration is lobbying the FCC to make the telecom industry…

Bob Hennelly: Flex their muscles! It is a public service. And after all they are licensed and it’s a privilege, so they should have to provide their part of what’s required.

Listen to the entire segment.

Another Report on NYC’s Broadband Gap

The Center for an Urban Future is a public policy organization focused on improving the overall health of New York City by targeting problems facing low-income neighborhood throughout the five boroughs. It is no surprise then that their 2004 report “New York’s Broadband Gap” maintains a specific focus on the business communities with little or no access.

In the report the Center outlines reasons for this lack of access: cost, poor infrastructure or lack thereof, and the general lack of competition and thus consumer choice. Along with citing the reluctance of landlords to cooperate with the wiring of their buildings the report also implicates these issues in contributing to the telecommunication industry’s resistance in providing service to underserved areas, perpetuating a problematic cycle. However, similar to the EDC’s suggestion to continue to let the telecommunications industry self-regulate with modest support from the government, the Center’s report advocates that the government help to stimulate the market by offering incentives to companies who extend service to underserved areas.

Another similarity to the EDC report is the recommendations to educate businesses—mainly through industry associations and local business groups—about the benefits of broadband as a way to increase demand, thus stimulating the market. The Center also references the EDC’s programs “Plug ‘n Go” and “Digital NYC” (which used city tax breaks to create pre-wired, Internet ready buildings in lower Manhattan to attract high-tech companies) as a successful approach, although with a caveat that future programs should not be so limited in their focus on technology companies and instead broaden their targets.

However, the Center’s report starts to fall in line with some of the City Council suggestions on their report on the broadband gap. For instance, the Center recommends aggregating telecommunications spending in the city to make it more cost-effective, thus summoning a great deal of purchasing power as a unit when negotiating with companies about service improvements throughout the boroughs. It also urges the city to work with developers and industry leaders to create multi-tenant cluster buildings which would allow many companies using the same building to share expenses when it comes to telecommunications services, like investing in a T1 line. While new infrastructure is being built, the Center advocates for wireless networking as a way to “fill in the gaps,” specifically, it mentions the DoITT’s agreement to lease city lampposts to cell phone companies to increase service, lamenting that the same incentives were not allocated for wireless broadband coverage.

The Center also advocate for more government involvement than the EDC report felt necessary, advising officials to amend the 1996 Telecom Act in order to give the local government authority regarding the requirement of universal service. Additionally, in dealing with the telecom monopoly, the report insists that the government step in to let Verizon know that now they need to actively start building out to underserved communities since the FCC has ruled in Verizon’s favor and they are no longer required to hand over infrastructure use to possible competitors.

You can read the full report here.

Network NYC: Building the Broadband City

This report, unlike the EDCs, seriously advocates for a very involved City government in the telecommunication market. Instead of being so concerned with the market forces correcting issues of deployment and access, this report clearly advocates for government based initiatives to address those problems.

Cost reduction is a major goal of this City Council report and the main recommendation to tackle the issue is some type of City ownership of infrastructure. Coordinating the efforts of various organizations procurement of fiber would prevent duplication as well as make a better case for a multi-million dollar investment of capital to build a citywide MAN (Metropolitan Area Network). That plan would stabilize bandwidth cost despite increasing need, thus saving the city money. The report examines two different options for City fiber use, one modeled after Chicago and the other after NYSERNET, but ultimately relents that a gradual hybrid model may prove most practical for New York.

Collaboration with the MTA to assist developing the subways as fiber conduit and also leasing the dark fiber the MTA already owns is another suggestion where the City can combine its efforts at being more cost effective and efficient in the realm of telecommunications infrastructure.

The report specifically outlines actions that the City should take as well as actions that the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications should carry out. For the DoITT the report tasks an analysis of all of the City’s telecommunications needs and to issue a five year plan every three years. Along with that they should also create a panel of non-vendor associated academics, technologists, and community members to develop a comprehensive feasibility study for a redesigned municipal network (unlike the members that comprised the EDCs panel). But most importantly the report urges the DoITT to exercise centralized control over all telecom procurement and planning just as it does, to a greater degree, over technology. That way instead of multiple interests investing in their own fiber thus spending more for more than is needed, the infrastructure can be consolidated for more efficient use.

For the City itself, the report allocates conducting a multi-agency study to analyze the potential security benefits or risks of a fiber/wireless MAN. Also the City should establish a formal coordinating committee with the State so fiber deployments are mutually beneficial and cost-effective and negotiate with the MTA in order to obtain favorable rental rates for a municipal fiber MAN. To supplement wired infrastructure the report suggests that the City explore including free WiFi zones on the list of public amenities and aggressively engage public and private institutions in an effort to provide
free wireless access in New York City parks.

As far as funding for the proposed MAN initiative the Economic Development Administration (EDA) has recently announced that it has $228.12 million available for grants to support state, regional and community efforts to create wealth and minimize poverty.

The main principles in “Building the Broadband City” for implementing this network are that the City’s procurement of telecom services should be fully open to rigorous competition with substantial community involvement. Any excess fiber capacity built as a consequence of City funding should be open to third parties at competitive wholesale rates and preferential rates for municipal rooftops and fiber access should be set for community networking initiatives.

You can read the full report here.

The EDC’s Broadband “Plan of Action”

The NYC Economic Development Corporation released a report in 2005 detailing its recommendation for broadband expansion throughout New York City. In an attempt to promote New York City’s image and status as a global financial center it would therefore attract “sophisticated” people and businesses to the city. “Telecommunications and Economic Development in New York City: A Plan for Action,” a report to the office of Mayor Bloomberg, is clear in its ideology concerning broadband deployment and expansion, but is fairly unspecific in detailing actual measures for improving access, especially in underserved areas.

Armed with representatives from the big telecommunications conglomerates like Time Warner and Verizon and even from the non-profit “trickle down Internet” advocates One Economy on their Telecommunications Policy Advisory Group, it is no surprise that the report seeks to ensure that the City government’s role is relegated to a strictly supportive one. According to the EDC, the City does not encourage entrepreneurs to stimulate competition.

Of the three critical issues the report chooses to focus on, 1) network reliability, 2) infrastructure, and 3) technological innovation and entrepreneurship, the solutions simply seeks to enhance what the “haves” already have. For instance, with regard to improving network reliability, the EDC proposes that the Utility Restoration and Infrastructure Rebuilding program (a program designed to provide assistance to investor-owned utility service providers that suffered losses as a result of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center) finance redundant fiber connections for important facilities in Lower Manhattan. The report also advocates wireless backup for businesses in Lower Manhattan and the installation of carrier neutral lateral conduit. Even though the report acknowledges that there are significant problems facing small to mid-size businesses outside Manhattan and outside prominent business centers, all it says is “Unfortunately, small businesses and organizations generally pay higher prices than the City’s residential customers for the same services.” The report mentions obstacles such as demand and cost as preventative in persuading service providers to address the lack of adequate infrastructure. Yet, there is no recommendation to address that issue. The report mildly suggests working “with current providers of broadband infrastructure and services to identify opportunities for extending their services into commercial and industrial areas that do not now have access – or only have very limited access – to broadband” but does not actually use this report to propose specific solutions.

The report does talk about possibly expanding the NYSERNET New York City Dark Fiber Network to bring service to properties housing non-profit organizations in “high priority development areas” but it is unclear if these “high priority development areas” include those underserved areas outside Manhattan. Of course the EDC also encourages the City to utilize public property to develop network infrastructure by enlisting the help of public property owners like the MTA, Port Authority and the Department of Transportation. It also places a lot of emphasis on City initiatives to educate businesses, particularly ones in areas with little or no access, in the benefits of broadband as a way to increase demand in those areas, thus stimulating the market without intervening in the process. All this is categorized in the “supportive” role of the government by the EDC and there is little concern about that cost the City incurs in telecommunications spending and little desire to decrease it.

Lastly they remain adamant about promoting NYC as an innovative place through a media campaign to attract “entrepreneurial talent and start-up companies.” That would theoretically, I guess, spur telecom companies to improve and expand the services they offer—something echoed in the reports recommendations to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. Unsurprisingly they also write-off New Yorkers as having a history of being “sophisticated users” not necessarily “producers,” although since the report delegates the innovation and entrepreneurship to the private sector, they are not too concerned about that fact.

You can read the full report here.

Net Neutrality: AT&T censor Pearl Jam

You may have already heard this lovely little story. During a live webcast of Pearl Jam’s performance of their song “Daughter” from this year’s Lollapalooza music festival, AT&T decided some of the song lyrics were not fit to be broadcast to the internet audience. They panned away from the band following this lyric: “George Bush, leave this world alone.” After that the major telecommunication company cut off all sound, effectively censoring the performance. As blogged about on the band’s official website, “AT&T’s actions strike at the heart of the public’s concerns over the power that corporations have when it comes to determining what the public sees and hears through communications media.” (http://pearljam.com/news/index.php?what=News)

On the positive side, I think AT&T gave us a concrete example in which to contextualize issues of net neutrality and what it means in the framework of access. After all, if AT&T has no problem censoring a high profile rock band as it performs during one of the major music events of the year, think about all the voices from our various communities that could be blocked for whatever reason and at whatever time. Through the Internet we have great potential to maximize the distribution of and the access to information, and we need to fight to reach it.

Blog Post: Number the First

From the Wakeup Call archives, I present to you the latest installment of the weekly segment I produce that keeps track of the latest goings-on from the NYC Council:

Cell Phone Service Underground?

Most people carry cell phones to keep them connected, especially in case of emergency. But once underground, these handy communication devices are rendered useless. Now some legislators are insisting that the MTA make cell phone service in the subway a priority.

Host: Deepa Fernandes

Guest: John Liu, New York City Council member