July 31, 2007

The FCC Spectrum Auction Decision: The Emperor Has No Clothes

Greetings. In the wake of the FCC's hot-off-the-griddle decision on the rules for the upcoming spectrum auction, the spin has gone hypersonic from various quarters. Let's try to apply the brakes without getting burned. The fact is that this decision is likely to do relatively little to really help consumers in the long run, and carries the significant possibility of actually making some aspects of the situation even worse than they are currently.

Keep in mind that we're talking about spectrum that would become freed by the turning off of all analog TV broadcasts in the U.S., supposedly in February 2009. That's less than two years away. Yet, surveys consistently show that most over the air television viewers -- not just those who can't afford or don't want cable or satellite, but also persons who have secondary sets that depend on air reception -- don't have a clue that this deadline is coming.

There are supposed to be government coupons to help defray the cost of digital converters for older TVs, but Congress has been expressing increasing concern about the lack of awareness at this stage. It is not impossible that the deadline will get pushed back again. But let's assume that the cutoff takes place on schedule, and that the spectrum goes to the winner(s) of the new auctions on that date. Who are those big winners likely to be, even under these new rules?

Answer: The Phone Companies -- "TPC" and their associated wireless units. I discussed the underlying philosophical aspects of the phone companies in this regard recently in:

Spectrum: Why Google is Right, and the Phone Companies are So Very Wrong.

Now today we're seeing headlines like: "FCC Hands Partial Victory to Google" or "FCC Hands Partial Victory to Phone Companies." Lobbyists are falling over themselves to try spin the decision in a positive light -- even some of the consumer group lobbyists.

To a considerable extent, this is understandable. Google doesn't want to make declared enemies of the phone companies. Google uses a hell of a lot of bandwidth, and most of that -- for now anyway -- still comes from the telcos, and there are other useful, strategic Google projects in targeted areas along the way that benefit from telco cooperation. Understood.

But the phone companies -- now, that's where the lobbying expertise really is -- more than a century's worth. The general impression is that they're kinda disappointed that the FCC ruling provides for any open access at all, but "well, golly gee whiz we can live with it I guess." You can almost see them slowly dragging the toe of one tennis shoe in the dirt while looking downward, like a kid who pretends to hesitantly agree to something while actually being thrilled.

Because the telcos are in the winning catbird seat yet again.

The "open access" provisions for one section of the new spectrum do not actually represent the kind of sea change that many people seem to expect. In fact, it is already possible to use a vast array of devices not "officially" sanctioned by the telcos on the wireless networks (particularly easily with GSM) so long as they meet the necessary frequency band and subscriber authentication requirements. Such requirements will still be present. The key factor limiting the device selection for most subscribers isn't the actual range of available devices, but the devices that the telcos have chosen to subsidize at reduced or zero cost. That list becomes the de facto set of devices to choose from for most people. That's unlikely to change much either.

But even now, you can go out and buy pretty much any compatible GSM phone and use it with, for example, Cingular/AT&T, as long as you use standard SIM identity cards. And many of the advanced devices already allow for vast ranges of third party software (both commercial and free), as does the device I use right now.

The new rules also specify that this spectrum segment will allow any compatible applications, but again, in reality that's much the way it is now in many cases. I can run virtually any TCP or UDP application on my phone, from ping to Skype (if I had any reason to run Skype, which I don't). But wait a minute, don't wireless terms of service often include a prohibition against at least some sorts of streaming applications? Sometimes they do, but these are rarely enforced, and even then only typically against users of relatively massive amounts of data. The telcos have -- and will continue to have -- other ways to control them via pricing tiers, even when it comes to so-called "unlimited" data plans -- which virtually always actually have some sort of limit that you won't find out about until you hit it.

Remember, we're not talking about "free to use" spectrum -- you're still going to have to be a subscriber of the spectrum owner to use it, and pay the going rates.

Now hold on, even if all this is true, isn't the part in the new rules where the spectrum owner promises not to slow or block competitors' services a good thing to have in writing?

Yeah, it's very pretty. But, uh, aren't we talking by and large about the same telecom firms who have spent the last couple of years saying that they don't do such dastardly things anyway, and so there's no need for network neutrality rules? Is it possible that by specifically putting such rules in place only for this new section of spectrum, that we might be handing these firms a form of carte blanche for more draconian behavior in their other spectrum blocks and non-wireless services? After all, they can easily point at the new spectrum and say that if you want to be treated equally, you can only do it over there. Wouldn't happen? It won't be an excuse to avoid sorely needed, widely applicable network neutrality legislation? Hmmm.

What would have really changed the rules of the game in a potentially great way for consumers was a key part of the Google proposal that didn't go through, that would have required wholesale reselling of spectrum chunks. That could have opened the door to true competition in terms of actual new players -- not just at Google scales but in a variety of different sizes -- who could operate their own networks, not just the shuffling of control among the established telecom conglomerates that the auction decision appears to codify.

But clearly at the FCC, real competition isn't what's it's cracked up to be, and one of the best chances for a major telecom shakeup that would have benefited consumers has been lost again. Any possible improvements for consumers in the new spectrum auction rules are very minor compared with what they might have been, and bring along new possible risks.

Overall, the FCC decision is a serious disappointment from a consumer telecommunications standpoint, and there's little to really cheer in there -- unless you're in the happy family group of the telecom giants themselves. The emperor in this case actually is wearing no clothes, or at the very most a g-string.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Posted by Lauren at 08:28 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 22, 2007

Spectrum: Why Google is Right, and the Phone Companies are So Very Wrong

Update (July 31, 2007): As was widely expected by many observers, the FCC has now voted to accept its chairman's "lip service to openness" spectrum auction plan that the phone companies decided to support, thereby rejecting the much more consumer-friendly Google plan. Not exactly a shocker, huh? Please see this blog entry for more.

"And there's another thing that's going to come as a surprise to you. There are quite a few people who actually dislike The Phone Company!"

"Arlington Hewes" -- President of "TPC"
The President's Analyst (1967)

Greetings. My first real exposure to how The Phone Company manipulates information (that is, lies) to further its own ends came when I was around twenty years old or so, at the height of "Phone Phreaking" decades ago.

I found myself in a downtown L.A. conference room of the California Public Utilities Commission, defending the operations of the extremely popular free telephone entertainment (i.e. jokes and skits) line with which I was affiliated. (For telephone historians, this was "ZZZZZZ" -- at the time the last listing in the Los Angeles telephone directories.)

Two young colleagues and I faced off a similar number of AT&T representatives, who were attempting to convince the CPUC that "Z" was an imminent danger to the formidable Bell System, by virtue of "Z" receiving so many calls that it was supposedly saturating toll and local switching equipment around the country! AT&T had prepared a beautiful report explaining their collected data (complete with colorful graphs, reminiscent of Arlo Guthrie's "twenty-seven 8x10 color glossy photos" from Alice's Restaurant) to drive home their point.

AT&T apparently assumed that they could easily steamroll a few kids. They were wrong.

It only took a quick skimming of their report for me to realize that while their numbers were not unreasonable, their underlying assumptions and arguments were totally bogus. As I politely pointed this out, the AT&T reps looked at each other in apparent confusion, and the CPUC official in attendance seemed to have a grim look on her face.

The upshot was that she told AT&T that their case was not convincing and "Z" would not be shut down. There's more to the story but that doesn't really matter here.

Fast forward some three decades. Thanks to consolidation and collapse of most effective "last mile" telecom competition, the players look much the same. AT&T morphed into ... well, "The New AT&T," in much the same way that "It's not the same old line" General Telephone eventually mutated into Verizon.

Telecom control is still the name of the game, and whatever needs to be said, whatever promises can be made that can be ignored later, are still the modus operandi of choice for the telcos, especially now that wireless operations are such crucial parts of their spheres.

There is a common thread underlying telco arguments against both Google's support of Internet Net Neutrality and Google's Spectrum Auction proposals. That thread is fear -- fear of losing control, fear of real competition -- and the fear of sliding into gradual oblivion through a tactical error, much as Western Union made when they declined the opportunity to buy the basic telephone patents in 1876 at a budget price.

No fallacy or pressure is too small -- or large -- to be deployed by the phone companies in this battle. Younger readers will not remember a time when you couldn't legally buy your own telephones or other equipment to hook up to the public phone network, and when the telephone companies actively checked phone lines to determine how many phones were attached (could this surveillance be defeated? Yes.)

Nor do most people realize today that at one time, AT&T insisted that a simple privacy device that slipped over a telephone mouthpiece would cause grave disruption to telephone operations and so must be banned -- a position the FCC at the time supported (the infamous "Hush-a-Phone" case, decided against AT&T and the FCC in 1956).

The latest technique is to either state or imply that simply because a large, powerful company like Google supports a concept like Network Neutrality or "open access" to spectrum, it must be anti-consumer in some manner. But in reality, it's the traditional telephone companies and their positions, especially when considered alongside their sordid history of failing to live up to agreements, that is the anti-consumer side.

The Google positions on these matters could of course financially benefit Google greatly. So what? Both neutrality and open networks would also be of immense benefits to consumers generally, particularly if provisions were included to guarantee reasonable access for innovative, smaller firms as well as established, larger enterprises.

But the telcos are what the telcos always have been, and their basic playbook hasn't changed since the dawn of first voice and then data communications. Unfortunately, on the big issues such as we're dealing with now, they are simply not to be trusted, and their arguments can only be viewed through the prism of their past inequities.

I'm not an apologist for Google. I simply attempt to understand and explain these issues the best that I can. But as far as I'm concerned, even though the phone companies and Google are all major commercial, profit-making enterprises, I have no difficulty at all in suggesting that from both consumer and technological reality points of view, Google has the right approach in these areas, and the phone companies are, in actuality, indeed still giving us the same old tired and distorted anti-consumer lines.


Posted by Lauren at 04:09 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 15, 2007

"I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major Googler" (With Apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)

Greetings. Let's face it. No matter how much we try, it's very difficult to really get a handle around the scope of the Google phenomenon and its impact on society and our lives. When all else seems somehow inadequate to that task these days, there's clearly only one avenue left. You guessed it -- a song!

So, dedicated to all Googlers (Google employees) everywhere, I offer this light-hearted, satirical take with:

"I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major Googler"
(with profuse apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)

MP3 Audio Performance

YouTube Performance (Audio Only)

Sing-Along Lyrics Page

Take care, all.


Posted by Lauren at 05:27 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 08, 2007

NYC's New Law Enforcement Dream: Cameras as Fetish, and Fear for Profit

Greetings. As I noted recently, it's not Google "Street View" photos we have to worry about.

Indeed, this New York Times article discusses New York City law enforcement's dream of a "Lower Manhattan Security Initiative" that would have given Stalin and his ilk a power boost comparable to that of today's popular little diamond-shaped blue pill.

Cameras everywhere. Automatic roadblocks. License plates and movements on record -- for how long? Who has access? Hey, who cares? Go around the block three times looking for a parking place? BUZZZ! Sound the alarm. Face recognition software false positives as usual? BUZZZ! Send out the riot squad. Leave your lunch on the park bench? BUZZZ! Evacuate! Evacuate! Fear Pays.

Security cameras are more powerful all the time. See that nice looking girl in the very, very short, tight dress? Zoom in. Farther. Farther! Don't laugh, this sort of abuse of law enforcement cameras has already been documented.

Divorce lawyers showing up with court orders for camera and tracking data -- to find out if Joe Blow has been naughty again? Sure, hand the data over -- if we've got the data, courts can order it used for whatever they damned well please. Data Expiration? We don't need no stinking data expiration! Disk drives are cheap! Retain is the name of the game.

And remember kiddies (here it comes, let's all say it together!): "You have no expectation of privacy once you walk out your front door!" (Many law enforcement spokesmen apparently have the "No expectation of privacy in public places" talking point tattooed on their forearms for easy reference.) Of course, that means that the government can track everywhere you go, everyone you meet, everyone you visit, every place you shop. Naturally, if they had creepy little guys in raincoats following you around individually, people might get upset. But the cameras aren't as disheveled and much more acceptable in polite society. If you don't like them? Tough.

And hey, just because these systems have proven essentially worthless in stopping terrorist attacks before they happen, that doesn't mean that we should penalize the manufacturers of these devices and their fat contracts. Something has to keep the economy grinding along and the Economics of Fear is about as good as it gets.

So sign up now for the New York City Security Ring of Steel. Get in on the ground floor and you too can make big bucks by leveraging the War on Terror for fun and profit.

This is, my friends, how it begins. Even if they never set off another bomb and never kill another person, the terrorists have -- it seems more likely every day -- already won.

Bend over, and smile for those cameras. Be seeing you.


Posted by Lauren at 08:00 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 02, 2007

Apparently Widespread AT&T EDGE Network Failures

Greetings. There have apparently been widespread failures of AT&T's EDGE phone data network today, on the first business day following the iPhone activation blitz.

At least the Central and Western U.S. areas (including here in Los Angeles) reportedly have been (and apparently are still being) affected. Some users have seen sporadic periods of operation, followed by failures. In the case of my own EDGE (not an iPhone) unit, I finally had a brief period of full data operation a few minutes ago (after being down since this morning), but have now lost the network completely again.

In some cases, users' phones are able to "login" to the network but then cannot transfer data. In other cases, the login procedure is also failing.

AT&T claimed that they "beefed up" the EDGE network in preparation for the iPhone launch -- but perhaps they used ground beef. For those of us who depend on phone data connectivity, this is not a confidence-building development.

Thank you for using the new AT&T.


Posted by Lauren at 04:04 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

July 01, 2007

Google vs. Michael Moore's "Sicko"?

Greetings. In a posting on the Google Health Advertising Blog, that can only be described as bizarre, a Google "Account Planner" has eviscerated Michael Moore's new, widely acclaimed film Sicko (see Does negative press make you Sicko?).

The "cure" suggested by this Google employee for Moore's negative -- but generally viewed as accurate -- portrayal of the U.S. Health Care Industry? Spend more money on placing Google ads!

Seriously, you have to read the posting yourself to appreciate it.

I for one am willing to give Google the Don't Be Evil benefit of the doubt on this one. I'm assuming that this episode is the result of a single, uh, "overenthusiastic" employee and not a statement of broader corporate policy.

But I do believe that it would be quite useful for Google to issue a formal clarification regarding this rather sicko situation ASAP -- or ideally even sooner!

Bulletin! A few seconds ago while I was preparing the text above, a new posting by the author of the original anti-Sicko Google blog entry has appeared. Personally, I don't think that it goes far enough toward clarifying this matter appropriately.


Posted by Lauren at 08:51 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein