Reclaiming the Public Airwaves

I had an interesting meeting on the Hill yesterday.  When I started blogging, I felt like I was just kind of pushing against a large blob, but as I've lived in DC over the last year and a half I've sort of stumbled into a network of smart and experienced people who tell me things.  It turns out we have a lot of allies in Congress who want to do the right thing, but don't believe it's possible because they are always being visited by telecom lobbyists and never by the 'people'.  Bridging the divide between these progressive experts and activists is something we really need to work on.

Anyway, here's what I learned.  There is a low-cost open and neutral wireless broadband network available to all Americans starting in February of 2009.  All the FCC needs to do is make it available.  In a month or so, FCC Chair Kevin Martin is going to set rules for an auction of extremely valuable public spectrum.  This spectrum is available because broadcasters are switching over to digital TV, leaving some spectrum unoccupied.  According to the Congressional Research Service, "The 700 MHz spectrum that is to be relinquished bybroadcasters is widely considered to be especially desirable for advanced wireless services."

That means that the oligopolistic behavior by cell phone and broadband companies, which can be traced to a lack of competition, can be challenged.  An entirely new entrant, like Google, Yahoo, Apple, or Echostar, could come in and build a real national broadband and wireless network.  Currently, the situation is bleak.  We are way behind the rest of the world in both the phones that are available and the quality of cell phone service.  I mean, Verizon advertises itself with 'Can you hear me now', various wireless carriers brag that they have fewer dropped calls, and Apple's iphone is only available to AT&T customers.

Telecom expert Tim Wu found the wireless carriers:

aggressively [control] product design and innovation in the equipment and application markets, to the detriment of consumers. Their policies, in the wired world, would be considered outrageous, in some cases illegal, and in some cases simply misguided.

This spectrum offers a way around all of this.  If the FCC sets rules that the spectrum must be auctioned off to a national player that will ensure openness in the network, then the telecom infrastructure of this country looks completely different.

Now, of course, the politics aren't that simple, because of companies like Verizon that deliver poor customer and quality of service and spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to steal from the public.  And Kevin Martin constantly tries to help large companies like Verizon.  But Telecom subcommittee chair Ed Markey and Energy and Commerce Chair John Dingell can make a lot of noise and make Martin's life very unpleasant, and if there is a public outcry there is leverage to make the rules work for the public (for a change).  In addition, FCC Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein can be fierce populists and extremely effective.

Ultimately, the public airwaves belong to the public, and we're going to fight and win on that principle.  This is the next stage of the net neutrality fight, and in 2008, we need to ask questions of our nominees on what kind of FCC they are going to appoint.  Right now, telecoms are trying to steal our public airwaves, but we should remember that the public airwaves belong to the public.

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They Know What's Good for You

From the amazingly persistent Jeff Chester, we get a look at the stupid decisions the FCC and top-down politicians are trying to make on our behalf.

An upcoming FCC report recommending steps that Congress can take to regulate television violence has sharply divided the agency's five members....

Shortly after the FCC report's release, Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., plans to reintroduce legislation that would expand the FCC's "indecency" regulations to pay TV and allow the agency to restrict violent fare on broadcast, cable and satellite.

Rockefeller is expected to ask Senate Commerce Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, for a hearing and a vote on his bill. Rockefeller is a senior member of the Commerce panel.

Inouye's office declined to comment, but several sources characterized the Hawaiian as "moderate" on the issues.

A television industry source predicted that, even if the FCC approves the report 3-2, Rockefeller's bill would easily pass the chamber because "no one's going to oppose violence [legislation]."

I oppose legislation restricting free speech, and so do most bloggers.  It's why we do our work on the internets, because the architecture of broadcast lends itself to this kind of nonsense.  Top-downers like Rockefeller and the Senate majority that will pass bills restricting speech through cable and satellite just do this instinctively.  Of course, broadcasters are just as bad, they just think that private top-downers should have the right to censor content on broadcast instead of government-appointed regulators.

As the mass media system declines of its own stupidity, more Americans are going to do their cultural and political work online.  For many of us, there's just no reason to use the old architecture to communicate.  It's very powerful and very rich, but it's run by morons and regulated by crotchety conservatives who pander to the right's manipulation of American status anxiety.

I bet Howard Stern isn't happy.

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Maine State Senator introduces net neutrality bill

Cross-posted at DailyKos and TurnMaineBlue

Senator Ethan Strimling, representing the Portland area here in Maine, has introduced legislation to preserve net neutrality. Although the bill currently does not have a Legislative Document (LD) number, and the text isn't yet available, it's still important that we shine some light on this.

The telecom companies summoned have their lobbyists up to Augusta to start pressuring legislators to kill the bill. According to someone up in Augusta today, the State House was swarming with lobbyists, and the lobbyists are even trying to get Ethan Strimling himself to withdrawl the bill. The telecoms do not want to see this legislation get passed, and they've launched a full assault on Augusta to make sure that happens.

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AT&T/Cingular, Sprint, Qwest Blocking Telephone Numbers

Earlier this year, Tim Wu wrote an important paper on wireless net neutrality.  If you have a normal landline, your phone company can't block you from using any phone you want or calling any number you want.  This is not the case for wireless companies.  I received word earlier today that AT&T/Cingular, Qwest, and Sprint are blocking customers from calling free conference calling services.

As of Friday, March 9, it's come to our attention that Cingular Wireless has begun blocking all conference calls made from Cingular handsets to selected conference numbers. If you call our service, you receive a recording that says, "This call is not allowed from this number. Please dial 611 for customer service".

I called up Cingular spokesman Mark Siegel today, and he explained why they did this. The dispute at hand is basically a complicated intra-carrier fight that really isn't all that interesting (it looks something like this, suffice to say that these free conference call companies are not saints).

The gist is that AT&T/Cingular doesn't like these Free Conference call services because they cost the company money.  Siegel said that customers that have a lot of free minutes spend too much time on them, and that if the number of users on them increase it will pose a financial problem for the company.  I asked him how much it cost, and he wouldn't tell me, though he did give me this delightful quote:

"If we were not to keep a phenomenon like this in check, we wouldn't be able to offer great service and competitive rates to our 61 million customers."

I asked him how many of his customers use the conference call services, and he wouldn't tell me except to say that it's a very very small number (which kind of makes it hard to believe that it's costing AT&T/Cingular very much money).

There's a pricing problem with cell phones in that these companies offers customers free minutes they don't want used in specific ways.  But rather than address the pricing issue, the telcos resort to their big brotherish legal rights.  Here's how Siegal justified blocking the calls:

Wireless services are intended to be used by one person to call another person, not to call a conference call line where there are potentially hundreds of people on it.  That's in our terms of service.  We also have in our terms of service the right to block calls to certain kinds of numbers and we have used this right in this case.

Get that?  If you have a cell phone, they can block your calls if you use your phone in ways they don't like.  And they will, if it costs them money.  Or rather, if they say it costs them money, a claim for which Siegel produced no proof.  Apparently it's a very very small number of customers that are using these Free Conference call services but it's enough of a revenue threat that it's threatening their customer service?

Please.  That's just false.  And these people are in charge de facto of who you can and can't call.  Incidentally, Sprint and Qwest blocked Free Conference call services last week, which leads me to think that there's not so much competition here as there is coordinated monopolistic behavior.

I think we could use some wireless net neutrality about now.  This is very dangerous. And these are the same telecom elites that are asking for control over the internet itself.

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Heading to Annapolis to Testify for Net Neutrality Tomorrow

Well, we won our first net neutrality resolution - the Michigan State Democratic Party incorporated net neutrality and language arguing for a free and open internet into their party platform on Saturday, beating AT&T lobbyists and CWA.  There's more coming - Mark Leno is fighting in California for net neutrality legislation, and other state legislators will work on introducing bills on this as well.  Interestingly, the California Democratic Party, which has seen a silent revolution of activists who have been taking over the party, may have net neutrality incorporated into the CDP platform.  I'm hoping that by 2008, net neutrality and a free and open internet will become part of the national Democratic Party platform.

Tomorrow, I'm going to Annapolis, MD to testify before the Economic Matters Committee at 1pm on behalf of Delegate Herman Miller's House Bill 1069.  The bill requires that broadband providers give accurate statistics on deployment of broadband services. As Art Brodsky notes:

That way, policymakers can see whether parts of the state, whether the rural Eastern Shore or western mountains, or rural parts of Baltimore or other cities, are being put at a competitive disadvantage while the affluent suburbs are being served.

It also has language supporting net neutrality, the same language used by AT&T in its recent merger agreement.  Maryland politicians have been getting pounded by lobbyists, including some very heavy hitters in the telecom world.  But there has also been grassroots support for the bill.  There's a real shot to get this one through.

It's interesting, because Maryland is the home of Al Wynn, who first came to the notice of the blogs through his work helping to move anti-net neutrality legislation.  He later faced a stiff primary challenge from progressive Donna Edwards.  The challenge wasn't directly related to net neutrality, but net neutrality is pretty good shorthand for whether you are on the side of the public or the side of the lobbyists.  People love their internet, and they don't love their cable and telephone companies.

Anyway, we'll see how it goes.  Progressive legislators and activists are revving up on this all over the place, from state houses to party platforms to Congress.  So let's just say that telecom lobbyists need not worry about their job prospects anytime soon.

UPDATE: Argh, well I won't be able to make it to Maryland today. Alas.

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