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News Archive: February 2008

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2/15/08 - Broadband in America: Freedom of Choice? [link to this story]

About a year ago, I dumped my AT&T DSL connection in favor of our local cable broadband provider, Insight Communications. I did so because AT&T failed to follow through on one of its promises made when it bought BellSouth - that customers could receive discounted, DSL-only service (without the need to have phone service bundled in). Needless to say, I was very happy to leave the orbit of the Death Star, and even happier to have a locally-accessible alternative.

You can imagine my dismay when I read last spring that Comcast declared its intent to buy out Insight, and recently I received a letter in the mail informing me that I would officially become a Comcast customer in short order.

Although AT&T may be bureaucratically and technically inept, Comcast is the most aggressively arrogant of the broadband-trust bunch. For example, the company's instituted mysterious "bandwidth caps" on users who use "too much" of their connections, and has now been conclusively indicted in the court of public opinion for interfering with and/or cutting off the connections of customers who use applications Comcast doesn't like, such as peer-to-peer and video-streaming software - even business-friendly applications like Lotus Notes.

So, upon formal notice that I was now, for all intents and purposes, another one of Comcast's bitches, I called the company's customer support system (1-800-COMCAST) to ask three simple questions:

1. What is the "mystery bandwidth cap" which I must not exceed to lose my service?

2. Can I use peer-to-peer software on my Comcast connection if I am using it for legitimate purposes, such as sharing music I made myself that has no copyright?

3. Will Comcast's terms of service prohibit me from publicly disparaging the company at the risk of losing my Internet connection, as AT&T has previously tried to do?

My first call to Comcast got me transferred to six different departments, none of whom could answer my questions. Upon the sixth transfer, I was put into Comcast's "circular hold" file, where I waited for ~30 minutes before hanging up.

I called again. This time I was only transferred twice, to someone in "Internet tech support," who informed me that, indeed, the use of peer-to-peer and other software is prohibited on Comcast's network. My specific question was, "If I use peer-to-peer software to share information that is NOT copyrighted, can you put a notation on my account or something to stop your network security people from resetting or otherwise interfering with my connection?" The Comcast representative's answer was, "No." So I followed up: "Does this explicitly mean that the use of such software is prohibited on your network?" The answer: "Yes."

This is new: in the past, Comcast has publicly reserved the right to "shape" or "throttle" network traffic in order to reduce "network congestion," but this is the first I've heard of a Comcast rep telling a customer NOT to use peer-to-peer software AT ALL.

I then asked (again) about Comcast's mystery bandwidth cap. And again, I was transferred several times, eventually to a woman who told me there WAS a cap, but she didn't know what it was, especially since I was a newly-assimilated Comcast customer. This leads me to believe that Comcast's bandwidth cap is variable, depending on which portion/region of Comcast's network you're connected to, and whether or not that portion of their network is robust enough to handle heavy traffic.

Finally, I asked the woman if she could answer a terms-of-service question. She told me to hold again - and then hung up on me.

Comcast and AT&T are not alone in shredding Internet freedom so blatantly now: Time-Warner is trial-testing metered bandwidth usage, and Verizon and Qwest aren't exactly friendly to the principle of network neutrality, either. At a time in our nation's history when "freedom of choice" has been conflated to something akin to a Constitutional right, the country's broadband environment belies the hype.

2/10/08 - Interesting Notes of Miscellany [link to this story]

Sporadic news-updates will continue for the next month and a half, as I tackle my last preliminary exam. But the rest of the site is current (save for a batch-check of the links library for broken stuff). So, in the meantime here are some updates on a few of my favorite things:

HD Radio: Industry skepticism of and resistance to the technology is growing. Oppositional broadcast engineers, who used to be considered on the "fringes" are now getting at least a semblance of respect in the trades dialogue. Much of this has to do with the real-world impact of HD-related interference, most notable now on the AM band but soon coming to an FM dial near you, especially when stations are given permission to boost the power of their digital sidebands (at the expense of analog signal quality). Results of an HD signal-related interference analysis commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting - the first of its kind to really go into detail about FM-HD-related interference - should have been released by now, but hasn't yet.

Meanwhile, market adoption of HD technology is worse than flat, the marketing strategy for getting consumers aware and excited about the technology continues to flounder, and the FCC continues to cast a blind eye on it all. In a what some see as a desperate move to save the technology, the National Association of Broadcasters says it will drop its opposition to the XM/Sirius satellite radio merger so long as HD compatibility is built into all radio receivers following the deal - a clever regulatory end-run to access the dashboard, something XM/Sirius actually invested in accomplishing but the HD Radio Alliance has not.

AM Stations' Grab for FM Translators: The ball is now in the FCC's court on this one; the formal comment and reply-comment periods on its proposed rulemaking are now closed. Paul the Mediageek and I parsed this issue in a much more energetic fashion on the latest edition of his radioshow. In a nutshell, it sounds like this proposal is pretty much a done deal; the only saving grace may be to delay its implementation until other potential FM spectrum-users (like new LPFM stations) get first crack at what is quickly becoming a dwindling spectral resource.

If you look though the record of comments filed in this proceeding, it's pretty depressing. The NAB is essentially advancing this proposal behind an avalanche of comments from individually-distressed, mostly-rural and suburban, independent AM broadcasters. These folks would most likely benefit from supplementary FM broadcasting (if we take the NAB's proposal at face value), but when push comes to shove it will be the Clear Channels of the industry that will take the lion's share of the frequencies. (Clear Channel begs to differ.)

The only bona-fide opposition to this train wreck in the works, minus myself, comes from a somewhat unlikely coalition: CBS Radio, National Public Radio, and the Prometheus Radio Project. Only Prometheus came outright and called this translator-grab for what it is: "a blatant tactical artifice designed to divert the Commission’s attention and resources from existing policy objectives" - giving incumbent broadcasters one last crack at the crumbs left on the FM dial before the spectrum is officially declared "full." Even so, over the course of time, Prometheus has softened its commentary tone, preferring to emphasize making LFPM stations primary relative to translators, and emphasizing the FCC's guarantee that new LPFM stations will be allocated before AM stations execute their own spectrum-grab.

For its part, NPR is looking to protect the noncommercial-educational portion of the spectrum (88.1-91.9 MHz) from commercial encroachment. CBS and I, surprisingly enough, agree on one common-sense point: giving FM spectrum to AM stations does nothing to address the increasing reception-degradation of the AM band itself. It's interesting hearing this from a company such as CBS, which owns "clear channel" AM stations (50-kilowatt, 24/7 operations) in nearly every major market in the U.S. - and, as such, might be considered most-responsible for the increasing AM-HD hash heard on the dial.