Google Fiber and the Next Stage In The Evolution of T. GOOG

Back in 2007, when Google was suddenly interested in the 700 MHz auction and everyone was speculating whether or not Google planned to enter the wireless business (and if so how badly it would fail), I wrote this piece about Google’s behavior.

As I explained in the intro:

“Unless you own a cat, or have a bizarre interest in parasite-induced behavioral changes, odds are good you never heard of a critter called toxoplasma gondii (or “T. Gondii” to its friends). This little protozoa lives a complex lifestyle. In its immature phase, it can live in any mammal. But to reach the mature stage and reproduce, it must get into a cat. It does this by the expedient of reversing the usual aversion mice have to cats. A mouse infected by T. Gondii will find the odor of cat a powerful attraction and, on spotting a cat, will rush out to challenge the cat instead of hiding. As a result, the cat eats the mouse and the T. Gondii gets on with its reproductive business.

“I find myself regarding this as a very apt analogy for Google and its interest in wireless. Google has no real interest in becoming a network provider. Sure, it has dabbled a bit in broadband over power lines (BPL) and muniwireless, but nothing major. But this summer, Google got told in no uncertain terms that if it wanted access to the wireless world, the only way to get it was to win licenses and set up its own network.

“Google, of course, still doesn’t want to have to build a network. So it has adopted the strategy of our friend T. Gondii. Modify the behavior of someone else to make your life easier. I don’t regard this as “bad” or “freeloading” or “evil” anymore than I regard T. Gondii as evil. A protozoa (or a profit maximizing firm) has to do what a protozoa (or profit maximizing firm) has to do.”

And didn’t Google do just that? Without owning a network, Google is now happily embedded within the mobile world. And all the mobile companies, that swore in 2007 they would fight to the death to keep their platforms closed and that disruptive Google out, out OUT! plan a good portion of their lifecycle around Google’s Android operating system and Google mobile applications. Even its arch-rival Apple discovered it couldn’t displace Google Maps and get Google entirely off the platform.

Some years back, when Google announced their plans for a fiber network, I predicted that Google had similar intentions. Google did not intend to become a major network operator, if it could help it. But it needed to do something to get the landline mice, particularly cable, to start servicing us consumer cats better so that T. GOOG could get into our guts and alter our behavior better. Three years later, with recent announcements of Google expanding to Austin and Provo, I think it’s time to check in on how our favorite behavior-altering parasite is doing.

More below . . . .


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Is Fear of Wireless Foreclosure “Speculative?” Depends. Is this About Intent Or Effect?

Recently, the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice  (DOJ) filed these comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the proceeding on spectrum aggregation limits (aka spectrum screen v. spectrum cap). The DOJ comments have some good stuff about the economics of the wireless industry and competition (in a theoretical way), and about why it is important to make sure potential competitors have spectrum, particularly low-band spectrum. Mostly, DOJ’s argument rests on the idea of “foreclosure,” that a wireless firm will bid on licenses at auction just to keep them out of the hands of competitors.

Asked about this on a recent earnings call, VZ CFO Fran Shammo basically said that there is no evidence that Verizon is bidding on licenses just to keep them out of the hands of rivals, so DOJ’s argument is “theoretical” and the FCC should not adopt any limits.

VZ basically argues that we should not worry about possible foreclosure unless there is evidence of an actual intent to foreclose. This treats a spectrum screen (and concern about foreclosure) as a precaution against bad actors. As long as bidding on licenses at auction makes sense for reasons other than foreclosure, and there is no evidence of any intent to foreclose, then everything should be just fine even if the outcome has the same effect as a foreclosure strategy (e.g., competitors don’t have enough spectrum to offer viable competing services.)

But the Communications Act does not work this way. Specifically, Section 309(j)(3)(B). Whether Verizon (or any other carrier’s) intent is as pure as the driven snow, or black as any comic opera villain, does not matter one iota. What matters is whether we avoid a “concentration of licenses” and “disseminate licenses among a wide variety of applicants” so that we “promot[e] economic opportunity and competition and ensur[e] that new and innovative technologies are readily accessible to the American people.”

As I will discuss below, the evidence from the 700 MHz auction and subsequent transactions demonstrates that we are feeling the effects of foreclosure, regardless of whether there was an actual intent to foreclose. As a result, the DOJ concern is not “theoretical,” but very real.


More below . . .

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The Right Cell Phone Policy In Boston.

The Associated Press reported that cell phone service had been shut down in Boston in the aftermath of today’s tragic Boston Marathon bombing. Happily, this report — sourced to an anonymous official — appears to be mistaken. Verizon and Sprint report that their networks are overwhelmed by the sudden spike in volume (common after a sudden disaster) but they have not been asked to suspend service and are in fact looking to increase capacity.

It is times like this when we remember exactly how dependent we are on cell phones, and why suspending cell service in an emergency like this (as happened with the BART nearly 2 years ago) is such a phenomenally bad idea. As a legal matter, the legality of law enforcement asking for a shut down of local cell service is much stronger than in the BART case. This is, arguably, the “ticking bomb” scenario that arguably justifies a brief shut down to protect lives. But the odds against a terrorist using a cell phone to detonate a follow up device after a shut off order are fairly low (terrorists try to coordinate, the explosions fairly closely, as we saw in Boston, and generally don’t like to rely on cell phones because they are not sufficiently reliable for this purpose).

As we are seeing in action, cell phones become the best anti-panic technology deployable at times like these. Everyone is calmer when they can stay in touch with family and loved ones, or receive updates from the authorities. Every “I’m fine” texted to a frantic relative is one less person tying up the information hotline or — even worse — going out to search. Indeed, with about 35% of people now without any landline service, cutting cell service would isolate about a third of people at just the moment they need to stay in contact. And while I have no information on how people are contacting the tip line, I would imagine that many are doing so with the most convenient phone available — their mobile phone.

The event also highlights the vital contribution of open WiFi hotspots as a furthering communication. At a time like this, every single means of communication comes into play. This is what I mean when I talk about the reliability that comes from redundancy. The ability to shift among networks can cut down on congestion and facilitate communication by public safety authorities. If we deployed mobile hot spots as well as cells on wheels (COWs), we could have substantial impact on the congestion situation. Something to think about as part of overall emergency preparedness. Because, sadly, there will be a next time. And when it comes, we will need to remember that we want to enhance communication and the flow of information and avoid congestion wherever possible.

Last summer, my colleagues at Public Knowledge and a number of other public interest organizations wrote these comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on why shutting down cell phone service for any extended period would be a very bad idea and probably a violation of law. (See also my colleague Sherwin Siy’s blog post here. The tragic events in Boston demonstrate once again how critical mobile phone service have become to all of us in a disaster, and what a terrible mistake it would be if local officials actually did shut down cell service at a time like this.

(I used to watch the Marathon go by on Heartbreak Hill (Commonwealth Ave, well back from the finish line). I was one of those frantically texting and posting status updates asking if family and friends were safe. I’ve been grateful for every response.)


Stay tuned . . . .

Will Walden Wipe Out DMCA and CISPA To Take Out Net Neutrality In The Name of “Internet Freedom?”

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will begin mark up of the so-called “Internet Freedom Bill.” As explained in the Majority Briefing Memo, we’re still on about that whole “the ITU will take control of the Internet and black helicopters will come for out name servers” thing.”  Unfortunately, as keeps happening with this, it looks like some folks want to hijack what should be a show of unity to promote their own partisan domestic agenda. Specifically, does the bill as worded undercut the (by accident or design) the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to do things like Network Neutrality?


As I elaborate below, however, this is not so much a stab at net neutrality and the FCC generally as it is a murder/suicide. You can’t claim that this clips the wings of the FCC to do net neutrality by making a law that the U.S. is opposed to “government control” of the Internet without also eliminating laws that deal with cybersecurity, copyright enforcement online, privacy, and a range of other stuff that are just as much “government control” of the Internet — but that most Republicans opposed to net neutrality actually like. Plus, as I noted last week when discussing the rural call completion problem, taking the FCC out of the equation may have some unforseen nasty consequences that even Republicans might not like.


More below . . . .

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The Best 10 Ironies About The “Obama Phone”

There is so much about the “Obama Phone” nonsense that tickles my funny bone in odd places. It’s not just that everything conservatives say about it is factually wrong. It also proves that the cherished progressive belief that every policy ever adopted under Reagan and under W were universally unmitigated disasters for the poor and people of color is also wrong. (No, I’m not saying one good policy makes up for a load of bad policies – but honesty demands acknowledging that the Universal Service Fund (USF), of which Lifeline/Linkup is part, started under Reagan and got expanded to wireless by former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Kevin Martin under Bush).


As if this were not ironic enough, the “Obama phone” was approved by the FCC in part to address the massive sudden need for subsidized mobile phones for Katrina victims. In 2005-06, Tracfone distributed 30,000 phones to Katrina victims under the expanded Lifeline program, and raised awareness of the new program through the devastated Gulf Coast region, i.e, the same red state regions now bellyaching about the program. For Progressives, consider that the “Obama phone” was invented in part as a response to Katrina by the President who “didn’t care about black people.”


Even better, it’s an example of how Republicans once upon a time took action to create programs to address the needs of poor people, even when it meant raising rates on the wealthy – a thing neither conservatives or progressives appear willing to acknowledge ever happened. Then, of course, there is the irony that the people most upset about the “Obama Phone,” rural conservatives, are subsidized out of the same program at a much higher rate. For us law geeks, it’s fun to remember that USF started with the FCC exercising its “ancillary authority,” that the D.C. Circuit affirmed this massive expansion of FCC authority, and the Republican Congress would later approve, endorse, and expand this as part of the 1996 Act.


Another irony on the Republican side is that USF is exactly the kind of “teach a man to fish” program for the poor that at least some Republicans say holds the key to winning back the working class vote. Rather than just being a hand out, it puts an important tool for participating in the national economy in the hands of the poor so that they can find and keep jobs and become self-sufficient. Anyone who has applied for a job, or just about anything else these days, recognizes that having a mobile phone so your work can find you (especially if you are a day laborer or some other form of self-employed) is critical to success. Republicans should be arguing that this is exactly the kind of program that gives people tools to improve their lives rather than “creating dependencies,” etc.


Finally, as with so many of these things, legislation to end the “Obama phone” (as proposed by a number of Senators recently) would probably drive a serious spike into provision of rural wireless – and ultimately rural broadband and telephony generally.


So here are my Top Ten Ironies about the “Obama Phone.” Not that I expect actual history to matter much. But for my own amusement, and for the handful of telecom geeks like me that find this stuff entertaining, I elaborate below . . .

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Rural Call Completion and the Problem of Network Neuropathy.

I made a passing reference to the rural call completion problem in a post about 2 months ago. I’ve now written a much longer piece explaining the problem of rural call completion, and the nature of the problem, for the Daily Yonder. You can find the article, and the very nice illustrations they added, over here.

To give a very brief recap for why y’all should click through to learn the details of rural call completion — rural call completion is an unexpected side effect of the transition of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to an all-IP based network. Using IP-packets gives you greater flexibility to pick how you route calls. To avoid very expensive rural termination fees (which subsidize rural systems and keep them operating), Least Call Router systems can send calls through lots of hops, creating latency or even trapping the call in a perpetual loop. As a result, calls to some rural systems don’t go through, or quality degrades to where rural areas may not be able to have reliable phone service or reliably reach 9-1-1. The FCC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address the problem, and every Commissioner has emphasized that making sure the phone netwok remains reliable is a core mission of the FCC.

I and my Public Knowledge colleagues have emphasized both network reliability and service to all Americans as part of our “Five Fundamentals Framework” to guide the transition of the PSTN to all-IP. The rural call completion problem demonstrates precisely why we need a framework to guide us, rather than jumping right away into the “deregulation v. regulation” fight so many people want to have instead of focusing on the real issues.

It is also an example of a phenomenon I call “network neuropathy,” how problems in networks may first manifest themselves in failures of service around the extremities.

More below . . . .

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