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News Archive: March 2010

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3/28/10 - Behind The Hoolpa of The National Broadband Plan [link to this story]

The promulgation of the FCC's National Broadband Plan caused near-orgasmic pleasure among policy wonks in D.C. and elsewhere - if only for the reason that it showed that the FCC appears to care about bringing our country's true communicative potential into the 21st century.

But now that everybody's had a chance to look under the hood, so to speak, of the 376-page proposal, and I got to sniff the air in D.C. myself, it's clear that the honeymoon - if there really was one - is over.

Free Press' Media Reform Daily and the Benton Foundation have been very good at chronicling the critical analyses of the plan and its actual functionality (it's a shame the MRD is not archived online, because it has circulated some of the best stuff).

But I really realized I wasn't just pissing into the wind on this issue when half of my dissertation committee, Christian Sandvig and Dan Schiller, published their own take to the Huffington Post. Sandvig and Schiller are veritable geniuses in the field of communications research (and I say that not just because they tolerate me).

Christian Sandvig is an award-winning, ambitious scholar who specializes in actually measuring the effects of broadband network penetration in the real world, and works especially hard in the areas most affected by our nation's digital divide.

Dan Schiller, the son of Herbert Schiller ((1919-2000); himself considered a foundational thinker in the critical study of communications), is an internationally-renowned scholar in the history and political of economy of the telecommunications industry. Two of his books, Digital Capitalism (2000) and How to Think About Information (2006), are required reading for anyone who really wants to understand where the power of our 21st century communications infrastructure lies.

The money-quote from their HuffPo piece, for me, is this: "The worldview at the FCC is so skewed that if a rule would displease the companies that the FCC is supposed to be regulating, apparently the staffers declare it to be off the table."

With that in mind, I submit it's the only article you really need to read in order to understand the fundamental, potentially lethal weaknesses of the National Broadband Plan. It would indeed appear that the unabashed enthusiasm was wholly premature.

3/18/10 - FCC's Broadband Plan: Show Me Action, Not Words [link to this story]

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission released its long-awaited National Broadband Plan, which has become shorthand for a comprehensive set of new policies the agency plans to promote. The plan encompasses everything from digitizing medical records to telework, distance education, a nationwide emergency-responders communications network and, perhaps most importantly, a drive to spur competition in the broadband ISP sector, increase access and median data-transfer speeds nationwide, and lower prices in the process (making us, one day, perhaps on par with more advanced European and Asian countries). For a very superficial overview of the plan's high points, check here.

The telecom pundits are all a-twitter about this plan, and its relative wonderfulness. But it behooves breaking down some of the basics:

1. The main fulcrum to actuate change in broadband penetration and access is the proposal to reform the Universal Service Fund (originally set up to stimulate the expansion of telephony to rural areas) to cover broadband internet access. Telcos (both wired and wireless, including cable companies) will watch this warily, and may resist upping the USF fee (already a part of your bill) and, in the end, will likely pass along any increase to you, the consumer.

2. The FCC would like to "reclaim" some 120 megahertz of spectrum currently allocated to television to auction for the provision of wireless broadband. Other spectrum is being eyed as well. You can bet the broadcast lobby will fight this tooth and nail, as they live under the false assumption that they own the public airwaves. This part of the plan is going to spill blood.

3. Notice many of the target-dates for the completion of many of the plan's points take time beyond a first Obama administration. Remember when cars were supposed to be getting 50 miles per gallon by 2010? Or our carbon emissions cut in half by 2020? Priorities change as administrations do. Which leads to...

4. The most controversial elements of the plan (USF reform and spectrum reclamation) will certainly require legislative involvement and possible backlash. Right now the rhetoric is mostly positive, but these things change with time. As with something like LPFM, when corporate citizens do not get their way they simply outnumber us overwhelmingly, lobbying our representatives to quash a regulatory agency's big ideas. Thus, the FCC's release of this plan is more of a milestone in rhetorical intent than it is of policy momentum. Even the FCC Commissioners don't see eye-to-eye on all parts of this plan.

Why am I so cynical? Because, more than three years ago, I wrote an award-winning paper (as a second-year doctoral student) laying out the fundamental premise that the FCC is finally getting around to recognizing: broadband must be treated as a utility, not a commodity. None of this is f*cking brain surgery, people - except for the politics involved in making it happen.

Unfortunately, given the plan's bobs and weaves, the FCC may try to split the difference. I'll believe change is upon us when I have more choices than the oligopoly I have now, and I'm not holding my breath.

3/15/10 - ACTA Update: European Parliament Spanks U.S. [link to this story]

On the heels of simmering discontent, the European Parliament not only overwhelmingly voted last week to condemn the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), but threatened legal action if the treaty somehow made it into the realm of law.

It joins a trade organization representing more than 1,700 European ISPs who've already gone on record against the proposed treaty.

Meanwhile, President Obama praised ACTA in a speech last week - right after Europe essentially told him to stuff it. This is "change we can believe in"?

3/7/10 - ACTA Bits Leak; Resistance is Fertile [link to this story]

The veil of secrecy over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is slowly beginning to lift. Starting with a leak late last year over proposed restrictions on digital interoperability (ostensibly making it more difficult for devices/programs to work together without "permission" from the device/program creators), more has come to light since then.

Questions of transparency - not just of ACTA, but of the entire negotiating process itself - are now being asked more pointedly. Especially now that ACTA's "Internet Chapter" has leaked; in a nutshell, it would impose the U.S.' draconian Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to all ACTA signatories.

The most egregious provisions are the potential of mandatory traffic-filtering, the potential of a "three strikes" provision (i.e., get caught sharing copyrighted information three times and your Internet access is revoked), and the "encouragement" that any Internet service provider (ISP) informed that it may be involved (even by proxy) of the exchange of "prohibited" information be required to operate with authorities to stop the "problem."

Fortunately, the more the bits of ACTA come to light, the more opposition it finds. No surprise that most of the document's incremental leaks have come from Europe, where more than a thousand ISPs have already gone on record opposing what little they already know of the proposed treaty. More than 40 countries are involved in ACTA negotiations; so far, Belgium, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, and South Korea have already expressed reservations with the treaty, either in public or during the negotiations themselves.

Although in January it was reported that ACTA-style provisions are already being implemented at U.S. customs-entry points, perhaps those provisions will end at our borders. In other contexts, global trade is not quite as fashionable (at least under the hyper-capitalist model we espouse here) as was, say, 15 years ago.