Archive for at&t

Want to read my writing? Check People’s Production House

In order to simplify my life and give the company that pays me the full value of my work and energy, I will now be posting to my blog on the People’s Production House website. RSS feed coming soon.

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Two Steps Forward to an Open Internet

Note: This is my contribution to “Open Internet Week” on the Free Press Action Network. Anyone can join in and start posting on the site, so please do.

This is an auspicious week for champions of an open Internet in the United States. On Tuesday, Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chip Pickering (R-MS) introduced the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008” (HR 5353). And on Friday, Media Alliance and a strong cohort of Bay Area organizations are hosting the Oakland Digital Inclusion Summit (ODIS).

If you’re in the Bay Area and you care about the open Internet, you should absolutely come to Laney College on Friday for this summit. The event starts at 10:00am, goes to 6:00, and is free.

Sadly, for these steps forward, the Senate has taken a step back this week by passing a version of the federal eavesdropping bill that grants immunity to the telcos that broke the law to participate in the Bush administration’s illegal domestic spying. The House can still stand tall in conference committee, but time is running out.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act would require the FCC to ensure net neutrality on the Internet. If I could take a pen to it, I would revise section 3(4) of the bill, which proscribes favoritism “based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet” to include type of content. But I think that’s covered in other sections and overall it’s a wonderful and principled piece of legislation.

The bill mandates that the FCC hold at least 8 summits across the country over the course of the year to gather public input on Internet policy. The measure even specifies a 30-day advance notice for the summits so the commission can’t cheat its way around the public engagement.

As I said, the people of Oakland are not waiting for the FCC to come to them. And in contrast to an FCC hearing where the public submits testimony before the dais, tomorrow’s Oakland Summit includes a variety of formats to strengthen horizontal networks among the many local community-based digital inclusion efforts.

There are many measures that I hope will have their day in Congress in 2008. The Community Broadband Act would preempt state bans on government-funded, publicly-accessible broadband infrastructure. The Broadband Census Act, also from Rep. Markey, would greatly improve the federal government’s collection of data on Internet access (though Markey traded a specific 2 Mbps measure of broadband that was in the original draft in exchange for industry and bipartisan support, giving basic DSL service a reprieve).

I’m looking forward to 2009, when we might see the return of vital federal programs like the funding for Community Technology Centers (which Bush cut in 2002) and the Technology Opportunity Program (which Bush ended in 2004).

The potential downside to federal funding is that it could all wind up in the coffers of a single, dubious nonprofit like One Economy or Connect Kentucky that work in tandem with telco incumbents. To counter that, we need to educate lawmakers about the healthy variety of existing solutions, make the government grant process more accessible, and increase the capacity of community-based organizations to respond to requests for proposals (RFPs).

In using the “digital inclusion” framework, we are saying that we need to address the digital divide at the levels of Internet access or deployment, hardware provision, training and education, content production, and advocacy and organizing. And we are quick to demand that municipal broadband efforts facilitate or fund all of these areas. But our smaller organizations are only capable of one or two pieces of this work. And when we do collaborate, the tendency is to work within our specific discipline where we share a constituency, a culture, and funders.

We should be collaborating and interconnecting across disciplines, combining the best our community has to offer so we can offer a coherent, full-spectrum solution built on principles of efficiency, localism, and openness. We need to make the case that our locally-specific, community-based approaches are more effective than a top-down, industry-driven, cookie cutter solution.

Gatherings like the Oakland Summit are an important step towards making this happen. Such collaborations are the key to fulfilling the promises spelled out in the Internet Freedom Preservation Act and to laying the groundwork for more positive Internet policies in the coming years.

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The business of disregarding privacy

This article in yesterday’s New York Times, Wider Spying Fuels Aid Plan for Telecom Industry reminded me that I never posted a link to my last Gotham Gazette article on the current battles at the intersection of technology and policy.

The article grows out of what I wrote about here following my first GG article, the telcos push for immunity for participating in illegal spying, and the case of Warshak v US, which could for the first time apply the Fourth Amendment to remotely-stored emails and personal files.

One quick note on the topic of immunity for telco corporations that broke the law at the behest of the executive branch. I would almost be willing to accept the argument that they were just following orders and shouldn’t be liable for the government’s overreaching – if anyone in the government was being held accountable for the illegal spying. But the civil cases against the telcos are the best chance we have of bringing any of this to light, so we need to do what we can to see that they move forward.

My next article, coming out this week, will look at the various wi-fi projects underway in New York City.

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Testimony from State Assembly hearing on net neutrality

I was finally able to post my testimony from last week’s State Assembly hearing on net neutrality. I’m working on an article about the hearing and will post more thoughts on it soon.

You can read the net neutrality advocates’ press release here.

Also check out Tim Karr’s article on the hearing.

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Get Omnibus: Weighing the New York Omnibus Telecommunications Reform Act of 2007

I’m heading up to Troy, NY, this morning for a “New York State Strategy Session for the Future of Community Media & Media Justice.”

Today’s get-together at the Sanctuary for Independent Media is a precursor to a larger event tomorrow called interAct Troy!, a community driven skill share and party. It’s a great chance to check out the Sanctuary, visit friends up there, and promote the Allied Media Conference.

There will also be the second round of the strategy session with Dee Dee Halleck, George Stoney, Michael Eisenmenger, and Steve Pierce, which is a not-to-be-missed combination of folks, especially if you care about New York and the future of public access television.

The focus of today’s discussion is the “Omnibus Telecommunications Reform Act of 2007,” sponsored by State Assembly Member Richard Brodsky. The bill is a mammoth one that would have extensive impact on the lives of every single person in New York who uses the Internet, telephone, or television.

This bill represents an interesting moment in the life of state franchising for video service. Last year, as you may recall, Verizon and AT&T spent tens of millions of dollars trying to pass national franchising legislation called the COPE bill through Congress. Simultaneously, they pushed similar legislation in a number of statehouses.

The telcos’ goal was to smooth their entry into the TV market and they did not mind clear-cutting local media in the process. Many cities in Texas have already lost their public access channels as a result of the state franchising legislation there.

From what I know, the idea of proactive, public interest-based state franchising legislation was initially put forward in Pennsylvania by Beth McConnell, then of Penn PIRG (now with the media reform umbrella group the Media and Democracy Coalition). Here’s Beth’s August 2006 testimony on a Verizon-sponsored state franchising bill:

While we do not believe state-level franchise legislation is necessary, we would support streamlining the franchise negotiation process by creating a strong, pro-consumer state agreement that could serve as a fall-back in instances where a local agreement cannot be reached in a reasonable period of time.

The idea emerged from the unique circumstances in Philadelphia, where I was briefly the coordinator of the Philadelphia Grassroots Cable Coalition that included Penn PIRG and others. TV watchers in that town were suffering under a Comcast monopoly.

The cable giant is based there and basically gets to write its own franchise agreement, with little oversight from the local government. It also controls all of the local sports programming, which it has historically used to its competitive advantage. (Much to the surprise of Free The Flyers followers, Verizon was able to ink a deal late last year for Philly sports programming on its FIOS system.) Philadelphia also has no active public access channels.

So, from that perspective, Philadelphia residents had nothing to lose and maybe a little to gain from a Verizon statewide franchise. I laid this out pretty extensively back then in a post called “Is there hope for pay-tv competition in Philadelphia?

Since the local franchising process was so clearly broken in Philadelphia, it would seem to make sense to seek redress in Harrisburg (where Verizon holds greater sway).

(The idea of a ‘good’ state franchising bill also has roots in the Alliance for Community Media’s pragmatic approach to the COPE bill. Vermont has a statewide franchise and a healthy public access system, but that comes from an earlier era and the state’s size makes franchise aggregation sensible.)

The main extra-legislative force behind the NYS bill is the Communication Workers of America, especially the New York Local. They think “The NYS Telecommunications Reform Act is the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread…

The fact that CWA wants the state to require and to subsidize telecommunications deployment is no surprise. But the bill contains provisions for net neutrality, which CWA has previously opposed. Seems like the influence of the Local may have had something to do with that.

Albany being Albany, there is no way to know what will happen to this bill (A03980 for those of you keeping score at home). Spitzer might try to kill it so he can push his own plan for broadband deployment in New York. Or telco lobbyists could try to rewrite the bill.

The CWA and Brodsky, along with media reform organizations like Consumers Union, NYPIRG, Common Cause, and Free Press, will be holding a press conference to tout the bill in Albany on Tuesday, the 15th. Stay tuned here for my thoughts on that, a report on today’s meeting in Troy, and a breakdown of the bill itself.

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Tonight: Public Forum on Media Ownership and Diversity

There will be a town hall forum on “the Future of Diversity in the Nation’s Media” tonight, October 19, at 6:00 pm at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse, located at East 68th Street between Park and Lexington Avenue.

In attendance will be the two Democratic members of the FCC, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. M1 from Dead Prez is also scheduled to attend, thanks to the work of R.E.A.C.Hip-Hop, which is asking people to represent for hip hop at the forum by wearing red. And Betty Ellen Berlamino, vice president/general manager of WPIX-TV, New York, will be there.

(Does anyone else remember the Space Invaders-inspired contest WPIX used to host way back in the day where a lucky caller – usually a kid after school – made the spaceship fire by saying “pix” into the phone? Anyone who can tell me what the stakes of that contest were gets a one-year subscription to Clamor Magazine.)

I don’t know if there will actually be a chance for everyone to speak at the forum, but if you are looking for inspiration, you can browse the statements from the now-legendary 2004 FCC hearing in San Antonio.

Keep in mind that tonight’s event is a public forum, but it is not an official FCC hearing. That means, if you want your comment to count, you need to submit it to the FCC, regardless of whether you say it at the forum. StopBigMedia.com has helpful online tools for that and other actions.

The ownership debate comes in many forms. The focus of tonight’s discussion is the “ownership proceedings” in which the FCC will consider easing restrictions on cross-ownership of newspapers and raising the limits on how many broadcast outlets one entity can own in a single market.

More pressing, at least in terms of deadlines, is the proposed merger between AT&T and BellSouth, which the FCC is currently reviewing. The $78 billion deal would yield a communications behemoth that would control nearly half of all US telephones with 70 million phone customers. It would also own Cingular, the largest cell phone provider in the country, including the spectrum controlled by the wireless carrier. The new company would also be a close second to Comcast in the broadband market, with 9.1 million customers.

AT&T is trying to convince the FCC to approve the deal by promising things like $10 introductory rates for DSL service and free modems, which sound more like good marketing ploys than public interest concessions. Copps and Adelstein are pushing for more substantive conditions.

For a gripping and detailed explanation of the status of that merger, I refer you to Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of the Media Access Project and his Tales of the Sausage Factory. He includes instructions for how to comment on that deal.

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For God and the Phillies, both held hostage by Comcast

Looks like Catholic sports fans are getting it from both ends.

Last week, Comcast bumped the Catholic channel, which among other things broadcasts mass to shut-ins and the elderly, off of its basic tier and up to the more expensive digital tier. As with Comcast SportsNet, the cable giant is using must-have content to squeeze dollars out of its subscribers.

Sadly, at the end of my two-week run as the Philly Future Featured Blog, only 13 new people have signed onto Free The Flyers. Worse still, the Nationals have taken away the best reason for us all to meet up at a sports bar. But there are 263 of us, so we should do something.

Last week, I talked about the state franchising bill currently on the table in Harrisburg. Word is, the bill is stalled and might not make it through this session. The sticking point is “buildout,” with Verizon wanting to be able to choose where it builds and municipalities and consumer advocates wanting requirements to provide service to the rich and poor, urban and rural alike.

Verizon is still pushing like heck, though, so phone calls from constituents continue to be important and useful. Prometheus Radio Project, usually focused on issues of radio rather than TV, is hosting a page that explains who to call and what to say about Senate Bill 1247 / House Bill 2880.

Pondering how one might begin to compete with Comcast in Philadelphia, last week I ended a “meditation” with an imagined scenario in which News Corp purchased Earthlink.

I don’t want anyone to think I see that as any sort of fundamental solution. Choosing between a bundled wireless partnership and a monopolistic or even duopolistic triple play is not a choice that transforms our relationship to our communications infrastructure, at least not the way community ownership or even true open access does. But any competition would weaken Comcast and thereby strengthen other strategies for addressing its monopoly.

In fact, there are provisions in the contract Wireless Philadelphia negotiated with Earthlink that would give our city some protection in the event of a buyout.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, just signed a deal with a local Internet builder that needs a large up-front payment from its anchor tenant, the City itself, to afford the construction. Becca Vargo Daggett points out in her response to the contract that US Internet must seem like low hanging fruit to an AT&T just entering the wi-fi market or to the rapidly-expanding Earthlink. The contract offers no protection against a change in ownership.

Read more: Ownership Matters

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Monopolia Comcasticus

Despite a couple of phone calls, no media outlets have covered the relaunch of freetheflyers.com yet, but the Comcast monopoly has been making its own headlines.

Comcast customers pursuing antitrust charges against the cable giant won a significant victory last week in federal court. The customers claim Comcast made deals with AT&T and Adelphia to establish monopolies in cable television and Internet service in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Comcast argued that the suit should be tossed out. It pointed to the many legislators in City Councils and federal agencies like the FCC and FTC who had approved their deals.

The judge didn’t seem to care what those branches had said. The consumers have a direct interest in the matter and they make a reasonable claim to have been harmed by the higher prices that resulted from the monopolies.

Yesterday, Comcast gave us a perfect demonstration of why all of this matters. They plan to use their consolidated ownership of event venues in Philadelphia to push out TicketMaster.

Now that the TicketMaster contract has run out on the Comcast-owned venues, Comcast will start using its own ticketing service, New Era Tickets. New Era expects to double its sales from 6 million a year to 12 million a year. They’ll use that momentum to pursue contracts with other city venues as those contracts expire, squeezing out TicketMaster. (Not that I have any love for TicketMaster.)

Comcast says it does not plan to sell the tickets for any less, but it will add various perks. (This is its same explanation for raising cable rates: they keep adding new perks to your cable service so now it’s worth more.) Like Verizon trying to pocket the federal surcharge on their DSL service, this is another example of vertically integrated media corporations passing the savings right on to themselves.

Comcast will also use its local cable television monopoly as leverage against New Era Tickets competitors. Comcast will market special deals like exclusive access to advance tickets to select subscribers. In other words, if the Flyers make the playoffs or your favorite band comes to town, you’ll have to be a Comcast subscriber to see it live.
Can we get an Attorney General up in here? With all due respect to Philly toughness, Elliot Spitzer would rip the underpants off these guys if they tried that in New York. That’s why Comcast would never leave this city, even if the state didn’t pay for its headquarters. It owns us.

Free The Flyers! Release the Sixers! Let my Phillies go! That and an antitrust suit might be a start…

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The Relaunch of FreeTheFlyers.com

As you may already know, Comcast’s deal with Time Warner to take over the bankrupt Adelphia was approved by the FCC in mid-July and completed later in the month.

Having convinced about 200 of my fellow sports fans in Philadelphia to submit comments through FreeTheFlyers.com asking the FCC to use this as an opportunity to close the Comcast Loophole – also known as the terrestrial loophole that allows the cable giant to withhold sports programming from other TV providers in the city – I was keen to see what conditions would be placed on the deal.

Harold Feld has an excellent, cogent, comprehensive, and entertaining analysis of the deal. Here’s what he has to say about the Comcast Loophole and regional sports networks (RSN): They kept the Philly carve out… Eagles, Sixers, and Phillies fans — sucks to be you!

Yes, that means what you think it means. They forced Comcast and Time Warner to share their sports programming in all other cities, but made a special exception for the city of brotherly love. Not too different from the “special gift” that Jeff Gelles described on his blog. It does suck to be us.

As Jeff also reported, a provision in Senate Bill 2686 (a.k.a. the Stevens Bill; a.k.a. the Telecommunications Act of 2006) that would have closed the Comcast Loophole was removed following Comcast VP David L. Cohen’s testimony.

So I am relaunching FreeTheFlyers.com to urge Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter to oppose the bill unless that provision goes back in. As Chair of the Judiciary Committee, he should be in a position to wield considerable influence over the process.

However, given Comcast’s clout and the fact that it was already taken out, I think it is a long shot that it would go back in. So we’ll add our voices to the chorus of boos on the Stevens Bill and in the meantime let our senior senator know that we care about media issues.

S2686 is bad on a lot of fronts. It’s main impact would be to shift authority for franchising video service providers (VSP) away from local municipalities and to the federal government, making it easier for now-phone companies like Verizon and AT&T to offer television over their new fiber optic lines. This would effectively screw public access in larger cities.

The bill also fails to preserve the open internet.

Net neutrality notwithstanding, though, since Philly doesn’t have a public access station and is caught in the vicelike grip of our incumbent, hometown VSP, this bill might do more good than harm for our city in the short term, if it closes the Comcast Loophole. Without that, any potential competitor, whether Verizon or DirecTV, will remain on the margins.

Long term, a Verizon-Comcast duopoly is about as bad as a Comcast monopoly. It doesn’t change the fundamental us-them imbalance of the system, it just tweaks the them-them balance. And without an open internet, it’s all just whistling past the graveyard.

I would love to be able to articulate an amend-but-oppose strategy for Philly sports fans as Prometheus Radio did so fantastically for low-power FM proponents, but we Freers of the Flyers might be a little more single-minded than that group.

I think it would be really difficult to make the argument based on public access (again, just a dream in Philadelphia), but Ruby Legs offers a good explanation of how the Comcast-hating sports fan logic applies to net neutrality. In short, it’s all about leverage: it’s our content and we want it our way.

Keep our Phillies.com free!

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The Return of the Anti-Snark… and where’s my open access?

I’ve gotten a lot of comments, most of them off-line and in-person, about my post, “Snarky won’t save the Internet.”

Most recently, someone pointed to an editorial in today’s LA Times, “Weighing High-Tech Bills in Analog,” that seems to be inspired by the snarkfest. It takes as its starting point Congress’s ignorance when it comes to media technology, so one could imagine the “series of tubes” meme giving the editors the idea.

This editorial is actually evidence of exactly the problem I was talking about. The reason we are getting bad policy from Congress is not because Senators and Representatives are stupid are old, but because they are pushing legislation on behalf of the phone companies. (It’s like saying, as the article does, that the purpose of the 1996 Telecommunications Act was to spur competition but, shockingly, wound up leading to consolidation.)

The proper response to the problem with tech legislation isn’t a comic book explaining the Internet to members of Congress, it’s lobbying reform and grassroots pressure.

I didn’t write the original anti-snark piece because I am opposed to funny. I am in favor of humor as a weapon against a more-powerful enemy or to get someone’s attention before following up with more information. So I drew back my anti-snarkism a bit when The Daily Show followed up it’s anti-Stevens segment that misinformed people about the dangers to the open internet with one that more clearly explained the issue.

I’ll also give a big shout to Prometheus Radio Project for their “Series of Fallopian Tubes” t-shirts because they (a) put “Senator Stevens: Don’t Tie Our Tubes!” on the back so it wasn’t just an inside joke, (b) debuted them at the male-dominated HOPE conference where feminism is more radical than net neutrality, and (c) are using the shirts as a fundraiser for digital expansion.

But to the people who scoff at the stupidity of their enemies and chuckle at their own brilliance while doing nothing to actually shift the balance of power, I say bah. Pooh on you. (Maybe I should have labeled my enemy the smugfest rather than the snarkfest.)

While we’re on the subject of net neutrality, can someone tell me when we start pushing for the regulatory scheme we really want for this series of tubes?

Net neutrality is actually a retreat from “open access,” which is what we had before the Supreme Court’s Brand X decision. Open access applied to the Internet when we were using dial-up over and it was classified as a “telecommunications service” like the telephone. With the telephone, that means owners of the lines can’t prioritize their customers’ calls over those of their competitors’ (net neutrality or, as it’s known in the phone world, “common carrier”), but it also means they have to lease their lines to other phone service providers (open access). Open access is how you can have real competition without having a dozen different wires running under your street, through your backyard, and into your house.

As Internet users moved from dial-up to broadband, there was a period where this same sort of leased access seemed to apply. Brand X was an independent Internet Service Provider to whom the cable companies would not provide access to their lines, citing the FCC’s classification of their broadband Internet over cable lines as an “information service” and thus not subject to the regulations of phone lines. The Supreme Court upheld that classification.

Soon after, the phone companies petitioned the FCC to provide the same classification to their DSL broadband service, even though they were still using the same phone lines, and the FCC agreed.

As I understand it, the common carrier provisions were given a sunset of this September to allow for some period of transition before all of the independent ISPs get wiped out and all of our Internet traffic falls into the hands of the phone companies. So we are in the weird position of needing a new law to preserve the status quo.

In a Congressional climate like today’s, we’ll take net neutrality, but what we really want is open access. That would get us out from under the broadband duopoly and allow competition to address problems like bad customer service, high prices, or an internet taking five days to get to your inbox. (The other thing that could accomplish this is a community or municipal broadband infrastructure to rival the corporate infrastructure. More on this later in the week.)

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