The Wavelength: “Underdog” AT&T Tells FCC That Eliminating Competitors Will Increase Competition

 


by Eric K. Arnold, Media Consortium blogger

The proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger continues to dominate media policy headlines, but the wireless merger isn’t the only game in town. AOL’s recent buyout of the Huffington Post has raised intellectual property issues, rural communities still lack speedy broadband access, and a proposed Verizon antenna in Oakland has come under fire by neighborhood activists.

AT&T an Underdog?

Telecommunications giant AT&T is many things, and an underdog in need of federal assistance isn’t one of them. Yet Colorlines.com’s Jamilah King says that’s exactly how the company is portraying itself in its proposed $39 billion dollar takeover of T-Mobile.

In its official filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), King reports, “AT&T spends nearly 90 pages describing T-Mobile’s weaknesses, while detailing the roadblocks it says it’ll face if federal regulators don’t green light the deal.” If federal regulators block the deal, AT&T argues, its customers “would face a greater number of blocked and dropped calls as well as less reliable and slower data connections. And in some markets, AT&T’s customers would be left without access to more advanced technologies.”

It’s hard to feel sorry for AT&T, though, since the deal has raised concerns that consumers ultimately will pay more for cell phone service, which could adversely impact low-income, minority, and immigrant users who rely on the low-cost plans currently offered by T-Mobile. If the merger passes federal muster, King writes, “it’ll likely mean the unheralded return to prominence of the former Ma Bell monopoly that ruled American telecommunications for most of the twentieth century.”

Competition without Competitors

As Nancy Scola writes in The American Prospect, AT&T’s 381-page FCC filing essentially comes down to this: “you can have the benefits of competition without actual competitors.”

Scola traces the history of the telecommunications industry, touching on the 1982 antitrust case which resulted in the break-up of Ma Bell (aka AT&T) into seven Baby Bells, as well as analyzing current media policy in Washington:

As a powerful company that just announced $31 billion in revenues last quarter AT&T retains great sway. The FCC often defers to the company’s role as the founders of American telecommunications. And Congress, a recipient of large sums of AT&T cash, often seems dazzled by the company’s bright lobbyists who talk in confusing but exciting ways about ‘spectrum synergies’ and ‘LTE deployment.’

The takeaway? Congress and federal regulators need to put consumers’ needs ahead of the telecoms:

In 21st-century America, mobile phones are simply far too important a technology for Washington to give them the usual treatment. With a breathtaking nine out of 10 Americans now owning a cell phone, the wireless market is one that has to work for consumers.

HuffPo Lawsuit, Boycott Highlight IP Issues in New Media Era

The AT&T/T-Mobile merger has garnered a lot of media attention, but it’s not the only merger worth scrutinizing. Truthout’s Nadia Prupis takes a closer look at reactions to the class-action lawsuit recently filed on behalf of Huffington Post’s unpaid bloggers. HuffPo was recently sold to AOL for $315 million. As Prupis reports, “the class-action suit, filed by freelance journalist Jonathan Tasini, alleges that the posts created by unpaid writers were worth an estimated $105 million, and that the profit should have been used as compensation.”

HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington is quoted as saying, “The vast majority of our bloggers are thrilled to contribute – and we’re thrilled to have them.”

Yet the merger—and the lawsuit—highlight one of the biggest issues facing contemporary journalism: The devaluation of intellectual property. For that reason, a number of former bloggers have instituted a boycott of HuffPo. As Prupis notes, “The Newspaper Guild of America, the National Writers Union and the AFL-CIO have all endorsed the boycott, with many of their members refusing to contribute to the web site until Huffington agrees to talk with the unions about how best to approach the changing landscape of online journalism.”

Rural Broadband Access Still Slow

Mark Scheerer of Public News Service tackles the issue of broadband access in rural communities – an important topic in a down economy, since faster connectivity could result in economic stimulus for small businesses, such as livestock farmers.

A new report (PDF at link) issued by the Center for Rural Strategies concludes that “communities without broadband service could be hobbled economically, losing the race to those with faster connections.”

Farmers in places like Stamping Ground, Kentucky, Scheerer says, are paying for high-speed broadband, yet receiving dial-up download speeds, which hinders efforts to “streamline and economize their livestock sales.”

The report essentially mirrors the FCC’s 2010 findings: “broadband providers are not expanding their services in a timely and satisfactory fashion.”

Activists Push Back Against Verizon Antenna

As Oakland Local’s Dennis Rowcliffe reports, a proposal by Verizon to install a powerful cellular antenna close to two schools and several residential units has been met with opposition by community groups.

“The residents, school parents and teachers express concerns about the potential health effects of sustained nearby exposure to increased levels of the electromagnetic frequency, or EMF, radiation emitted by the antennas,” Rowcliffe writes, adding that a group called East Bay Residents for Responsible Antenna Placement (EBR-RAP) has suggested several alternate sites, all of which were rejected by Verizon.

Verizon executive John Johnson is quoted as saying, “Please note that we intend to retain our rights to the city-approved location and to use it as the project site if we are unable to identify a viable alternative after further review.”

However, EBR-RAP members say they intend to keep up the pressure on Verizon until an alternate site is found.

This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets. This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. To read more of the Wavelength, click here. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets, and is produced with the support of the Media Democracy Fund.

 

The Wavelength: The Battle Over Net Neutrality Rages On

 

By Eric K. Arnold, Media Consortium blogger

Four months after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) supposedly settled the issue, the battle over Net Neutrality is still raging. If anything, it’s just beginning to heat up.  On April 8, the Republican-controlled Congress resolved to repeal the FCC’s recent legislation surrounding Internet protections, and conservative activists are fighting tooth and nail to push back any apparent gains before they are realized. At the same time, media reform advocates say that the FCC’s December ruling on broadband policy did not go far enough in establishing consumer-friendly regulatory guidelines across both Internet and mobile platforms.

Meanwhile, the impact of the announced merger between AT&T and T-Mobile is still up for debate, and federal officials are raising anti-trust concerns against Google.

Genachowski comes to Oakland

Last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski met with mayors from the Bay Area in Oakland to tout a mobile apps contest (a partnership with the Knight Foundation) as a way to reduce the digital divide, which has left one-third of Americans without broadband access. Genachowski remarked that those facing digital exclusion were primarily immigrants, minorities, disabled people, and other underserved communities. However, as I reported for Oakland Local, the visit was perhaps more notable for what Genachowski didn’t say.

At the press conference I attended, Genachowski didn’t take any questions, so asking him about the omission of Net Neutrality provisions for wireless carriers wasn’t possible. Nor could I ask him about the upcoming threat posed to low-power TV stations by mobile TV, which could hit 20 U.S. markets this year. Mobile TV could deprive low-power stations of critical bandwidth. Many of these stations reach diverse demographics that are underserved by network and mainstream cable television.

FCC Commissioner at NCMR: System ‘Out of Control’

The lack of a two-way discussion between the nation’s most powerful telecommunications official was disappointing, especially since numerous concerns remain over how the FCC will enforce media policy moving forward. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps recently said at the National Conference for Media Reform, held April 8-10 in Boston: “just give us some sign that the FCC is putting the brakes on a system that is spinning dangerously out of control.”

Copps’ fiery speech was only one of many highlights at the NCMR, which was attended by thousands of people that are passionately interested in changing media. Some of the most inspiring moments included panels on music journalism and localism; comics as journalism’s future; race as a media issue; and how old-school journos are adapting to today’s new media world; and performance artist Sarah Jones inhabiting a range of different characters at the opening plenary.

Truthout’s Susie Cagle has an illustrated recap of NCMR here, and an archive of GRITtv’s segments from the conference is available here.

House Disapproves of Net Neutrality

In a follow-up to an earlier story, Truthout’s Nadia Prupis writes about an April 8 resolution by Congress to repeal the FCC’s Net Neutrality regulations. The vote, which passed 240-179, was largely partisan, with only six Democrats crossing party lines to support it. Republicans characterized the FCC’s regulation of the Internet as a “power grab,” questioning the agency’s authority to establish guidelines for cyberspace.

But Democrats countered that the resolution “disables a free and open Internet” and is an attempt to stifle innovation in the tech sector, a charge which is disputed by right-wing nonprofits like FreedomWorks. As Prupis reports, however, that group has received funding from both Verizon and AT&T, and the telecommunications companies “stand to benefit if the law is overturned.”

Despite the partisan rhetoric, the vote was largely symbolic, as the Democratic-controlled Senate is not expected to endorse the resolution.

Tea Party: Net Neutrality = ‘Media Marxism’

As Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer reports, Net Neutrality has also come under fire from the Tea Party. Mencimer points out the irony of such a stance, noting that while an open Internet allows “even the smallest, poorest tea party group… the potential to reach a large audience,” the right-wing activists “inexplicably equate net neutrality with Marxism.”

Tea Party spokesman and Virginia Senate candidate James Radtke is quoted as saying “Net neutrality is an innocuous sounding term for what is really media Marxism.” He goes on to call it “an ideological attempt by those on the left to control the greatest means for the distribution of information ever devised.”

Yet Mencimer points out that much of the netroots activism practiced by the Tea Party has relied on an open Internet, unrestricted by ideological content, which Net Neutrality is intended to protect.

“The tea party’s position on net neutrality,” she writes, “has seemed counterintuitive, given just how badly conservative activists could be screwed by the big cable and phone companies should net neutrality rules be repealed. The whole movement has been organized online, making the Internet’s level playing field a crucial element to its success.”

Wireless Mega-Mergers and Ethnic Communities

New York Community Media Alliance’s Jehangir Khattak details how the AT&T/T-Mobile mega-merger could impact ethnic communities. The skinny: Ethnic populations “could be confronted by reduced service access and higher costs,” Khattak writes.

Khattak outlines the basic provisions of the merger and AT&T’s spin; according to the company, the deal could bring 4G LTE technology to 95 percent of the U.S. population. He also speaks with several members of the ethnic press, who voice concerns that the deal might allow the telecommunications giant to “control the quality of services, such as by dictating the available applications, software or the amount of data they’d allow to be transferred.”

Another concern: the “arcane”, “jargon-ridden” tech-speak of media policy is difficult for immigrant populations to decipher.

Khattak also notes that Genachowski’s compromise on Net Neutrality suggests the FCC Chairman is “unlikely to take the hard line, pro-regulatory stance…  expected of him” by ethnic media advocates.

Google Under Federal Scrutiny—Again

Also in Truthout, Nadia Prupis reports that Google has come under scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice, which are considering launching an antitrust probe against the popular search engine.

As Prupis writes, “The DOJ recently approved Google’s $700 million deal with travel company ITA Software, but antitrust regulators are concerned that the acquisition may threaten competition in the travel information industry; specifically, the FTC is worried that Google could use the software to direct users to its own sites, depriving similar web sites such as Orbitz, Kayak and TripAdvisor of fair competition.”

The FTC’s interest in the case comes on the heels of DOJ’s antitrust division filing a civil lawsuit to block Google’s acquisition of ITA, citing concerns that airfare websites should have access to ITA’s software to keep competition “robust.” Though Google reportedly agreed to license that software to competitors, the FTC’s concern indicates that serious questions remain about Google’s potential to unfairly dominate the market, should the deal go through.

This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets. This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. To read more of the Wavelength, click here. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Mulch, and The DiasporaThis is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets, and is produced with the support of the Media Democracy Fund.

 

The Wavelength: Original Reporting—What’s it Worth? Plus: Tracking the AT&T/T-Mobile Merger

 

By Eric Arnold, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the New York Times debuted a long-awaited paywall, and stats blogger Nate Silver used the launch as an opportunity to explore the value of a news organization based on the amount of original reporting it produces. While Silver’s rankings could be a valuable tool for news organizations, Mother Jones‘ Nick Baumannfinds Silver’s methodology wanting.

“The results, as you might expect, made theTimes [paywall] look like a pretty good value,” Baumann writes. But the real problems are in how Silver ranks “original reporting”– namely that online citations don’t always identify the outlet, and that larger, established news organizations sometimes get credit for breaking stories when smaller orgs actually had the scoop first. That’s not to say that rankings like this don’t have incredible value for media, but that they need to be explored in a deeper manner. Baumann writes:

It’d be nice to see a foundation interested in journalism—the Knight Foundation, say, or Google.org—invest some time and money to expand and rework the rankings. It would be great to see media outlets competing to produce more and better original reporting.

Ultimately, Baumann believes rankings like this, if done right, could be a valuable barometer for measuring quality in journalism. Let’s hope someone takes up his call to arms.

AT&T/T-Mobile Merger still a very bad idea

Free Press’s Tim Karr weighs in on the mega-merger with five reasons why it’s not so great for consumers. According to Karr, “consolidation of the scale being proposed by AT&T resembles the old railroad and oil trusts of the 19th century.”

Karr also notes that the merger would erode competition, result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers, eliminate perhaps tens of thousands of jobs, stifle innovation in the tech sector, and threaten free speech.

How will the merger affect POC users?

The disappearance of T-Mobile, whose low-cost plans offering unlimited data appealed to low-income wireless users, could have a huge impact on communities of color who rely on unrestricted text and web plans, especially those who don’t own computers.

At Colorlines.com, Jamilah King notes that “Mobile broadband is fast becoming the future of the Internet, and it’s already an important way in which communities of color are helping to close the digital divide. ” Blacks and Latinos, she says, are among the biggest users of mobile technology, “and in many cases, it’s the primary way that they surf the Web.”

If unlimited data plans end, and prices for wireless service rise for current T-Mobile users if and when a merger is completed, the digital divide separating under served communities from customers who can afford higher fees will almost certainly widen. This could have a devastating ripple effect on everything from people who use phones for business to people who use phones for social networking — and may affect African Americans, Latinos, and immigrant populations disproportionately.

Impact of merger on Net Neutrality

How will the potential mega merger affect Net Neutrality? Truthout’s Nadia Prupis recently interviewed Free Press political adviser Joel Kelsey, who says the FCC’s December decision not to regulate wireless carriers now seems shortsighted. “[The FCC’s] justification was that you’re less likely to see some of the same types of anti-competitive actions for fear that a carrier would lose a large number of customers … looking at it through the lens of this merger, I think that justification has kind of gone out the window.”

Did ISPs buy anti-Net Neutrality votes?

Speaking of Net Neutrality, Crunchgear had an eye-opening article outlining the amount of money donated by ISPs over the last four election cycles to the 15 members of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology who opposed Net Neutrality. The article’s findings perhaps aren’t that surprising, but are revelatory: “Looking at the 15 congressmen who voted against Net Neutrality, the top three ISPs gave their campaigns some $868,024 over the past four election cycles. You can interpret that as, well, they were able to knock down Net Neutrality for less than $1 million, which is pretty much a drop in the bucket for these companies.”

Oh, Canada – Why Can’t America Be More Like You?

The AT&T merger is dominating the media policy news cycle, but we shouldn’t let it distract us from an interesting ruling for media made by our neighbors to the north. As Yes! Magazine’s Dave Saldanareports, a Canadian law which prohibits broadcast news from knowingly spreading disinformation—an anti-lying law—was recently upheld by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Saldana writes: “With little fanfare, the CRTC last month scrapped a proposal to revoke or relax a rule on ‘prohibited programming content’ that includes ‘broadcasting false or misleading news.’ The CRTC withdrew the plan when a legislative committee determined that the rule does not run afoul of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which like the U.S. Constitution, guarantees press freedoms.”

He goes on to raise the obvious question: If Canada can do this, why can’t the United States? After all, there have been cases where journalists have been pressured into knowingly inserting false statements into stories under orders from executives, in order to protect big business interests engaged in harmful practices.

Unfortunately, the media’s legal right to lie is protected by the First Amendment. But if Canada can ban false reporting without violating freedom of the press, why can’t we choose truth over truthiness?

New Study Details Women in Media Globally

Inter Press Service’s Andrea Lunt reports on a recently completed a study of women in news media covering more than 170,000 people in 500 companies across 60 countries. The study was produced by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).

Lunt says the study shows that gender inequality in the media sphere has been institutionalized. The good news is that the gap appears to be closing, especially at the executive level, where women have more than doubled their presence in the past fifteen years. A 1995 study showed women 12% of the top management positions in 239 nations, yet the IWMF report shows women now hold 26% of the governing and 27% of the top management jobs.

Progress? Certainly. But there’s still a long way to go.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. To read more of the Wavelength, click here. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

The Wavelength: What does proposed AT&T and T-Mobile Merger Mean?

By Eric K. Arnold, Media Consortium Blogger

Welcome to the Wavelength, your bi-weekly field guide to the world of media policy. Over the next four months, we’ll be compiling great content, connecting the dots, building context, and reporting how media policy impacts the lives of everyday people. From the ongoing battle over Net Neutrality to the wild world of Internet regulation, from partisan crusades to media accountability, the Wavelength is here to keep you in the know.

This week, we're focusing on major mergers, holding telecom giants accountable, and the revolving door at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

So, without further ado, let’s take a spin through the media zone.

AT&T to Absorb T-Mobile?

On Sunday, AT&T announced it had reached an agreement with T-Mobile to buy the mobile phone service provider for $39 billion. As reported in the New York Times, the deal would “create the largest wireless carrier in the nation and promised to reshape the industry.”

The immediate upshot is that the number of nationwide wireless carriers would drop from four to three, with Sprint Nextel running a distant third behind AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon. Another impact could be higher rates for current T-Mobile customers. Advocates of the deal suggest it could improve AT&T’s oft-criticized service, resulting in fewer dropped calls. However, critics note that the roughly $3 billion in projected annual cost savings will likely come at the expense of workers at the hundreds of retail outlets expected to close, if the deal goes through.

Both the Justice Department and the FCC have to sign off on the merger before it can be approved, a process that could take up to a year.

House adds insult to NPR’s injury

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Republican-controlled House voted 228-192 to end federal funding for NPR. The move came on the heels of a secretly recorded video from conservative activist James O’Keefe that purportedly showed NPR fundraiser Ronald Schiller expressing support for Islamic fundamentalism and disavowing the Tea Party as “racist” — leading Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) to resign. The video was later revealed to be excerpted and heavily edited from a longer video which places Schiller’s remarks in context.

At TAPPED, Lindsay Beyerstein watched the entire two hour video, and notes that:

O'Keefe's provocateurs didn't get what they were looking for. They were ostensibly offering $5 million to NPR. Their goal is clearly to get Schiller and his colleague Betsy Liley to agree to slant coverage for cash. Again and again, they refuse, saying that NPR just wants to report the facts and be a nonpartisan voice of reason.

As reported in the Washington Times, the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass the bill, making NPR’s federal funding safe—for now. However, the timing of the vote suggests that House Republicans are essentially endorsing O’Keefe’s questionable tactics, showing that their dislike of the so-called liberal media is of greater concern.

Telecoms add ramming to their list of illegal practices

A recent AlterNet story by David Rosen and Bruce Kushnick details sneaky, unethical, and possibly illegal telecom tactics, the most recent of which is "ramming."

“Ramming” happens “when a phone company‘s customer is put on a service plan or package s/he did not need or want or cannot even use.” According to the article, “An estimated 80 percent of phone company customers have been overcharged or are on plans they did not need or even order. These and other scams can cost residential customers $20 or more a month extra and small business customers up to thousands of dollars a month.”

These practices are insidious because modern telephone bills are so cryptic that it’s not easy for even the most astute customer to figure out they’ve been duped.

Powell’s next move

Last Tuesday, former FCC chair Michael Powell announced that he has taken over as president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Leading media advocacy organization Free Press snarkily congratulated Powell via a statement from Managing Director Craig Aaron:

If you wonder why common sense, public interest policies never see the light of day in Washington, look no further than the furiously spinning revolving door between industry and the FCC.

Former Chairman Michael Powell is the natural choice to lead the nation's most powerful cable lobby, having looked out for the interests of companies like Comcast and Time Warner during his tenure at the Commission and having already served as a figurehead for the industry front group Broadband for America.

AT&T imposes monthly usage caps

Finally, we’ve got more bad news for those unlucky enough to have AT&T as their Internet and cable service provider. As Truthout’s Nadia Prupis recently reported, AT&T customers who use the company's U-Verse cable TV service and DSL hi-speed Internet services in the United States can expect a bump in their monthly bills if they exceed a new usage cap – 50GB for DSL customers and 250 GB for U-Verse users. Those who exceed the storage fee will be charged $10 extra for every 50GB over the limit.

Surprisingly, the telecom behemoth continues to insist their price-gouging moves are in the consumer’s best interests. According to an AT&T press release: “Our new plan addresses another concern: customers strongly believe that only those who use the most bandwidth should pay more than those who don't use as much."

Personally, I don’t spend too much time thinking about how much bandwidth other people are using, as long as I’m getting the download speeds I’m paying for.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint and repost. To read more of The Wavelength, click here. For the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

IBEW: Taxing Health-Care Benefits is Still a Bad Idea (and Buy America is back)

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers head Ed Hill has joined forces with the Communications Workers of America and the CEOs of the two top major telecommunications firms to oppose the provision in the Senate's health-care reform bill that would levy a tax on existing health-care plans.

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