Want to Keep America Home? Give Everyone Free Basic Broadband.

This originally appeared in substantially similar form on the blog of my employer Public Knowledge.

 

Medical experts agree that the most important thing we can do to support the efforts against the COVID-19 outbreak is a medical protocol known by the acronym STHH, or “Stay the Heck Home.” (Yes, I know how it’s usually written.) To keep Americans home, we need everyone to have broadband. It’s really that simple. Without telework, the economy would shut down completely. We would lose half a school year without distance education. But the value of everyone having a residential broadband connection goes well beyond that in the current crisis. Want to keep people off the streets to flatten the curve? Make it possible for them to shop online? Want them to access forms to receive government aid during this economic crisis? Cut down on physical doctor appointments to avoid infecting others? Fill out the 2020 Census so we don’t need armies of Census Takers going door-to-door? That all takes broadband.

 

But most importantly, human beings are social creatures. If you want to make it as easy as possible for human beings to stay in their homes, you need to make it possible for them to visit each other virtually. Always make it as easy as possible for people to do what you want them to do, and the STHH protocol requires lots and lots of people to do something entirely unnatural to human beings — stay socially isolated for an indefinite period of time that may last months. Virtual visits may not be as good as the real thing, but a video call with parents or grandchildren can do a great deal to relieve stress when you are stuck inside.

 

Unfortunately, as most folks know, the U.S. has some of the most expensive broadband in the developed world. Even with broadband providers signing the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” to not disconnect anyone or charge late fees for the next 60 days, we will still see millions of unemployed Americans potentially accumulating significant past-due bills for a connection they desperately need in order to avoid getting sick. Nor does this help the estimated 18 million Americans who live in areas with broadband available but remain offline because they can’t afford a connection. Finally, the uncomfortable elephant in the room is that this may last much longer than the 60 days covered by the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Even if we expect internet service providers to keep this promise during the entire pandemic, these are also businesses with employees. We want to support them during this economic crisis so they can pay their own employees.

 

So here is a very simple idea to persuade Americans to stay home, keep our virtual society running, and stimulate the economy. As part of the coronavirus stimulus package, the United States government should cover everyone’s broadband bill for a basic connection capable of supporting two-way video (ideally 25/25 Mbps, but we may have to settle for the Federal Communications Commission official definition of broadband of 25/3 Mbps).

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I get to deflate the 5G Hype Bubble a Bit at an Unusually Good Senate Hearing.

Official Washington is generally consumed with all things impeachment — especially the Senate. Nevertheless, other business does go on. So while it surprised many, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss) and Ranking Member Mariah Cantwell (D-WA) scheduled a hearing this morning (Wed. 1/22) on “The 5G Workforce and Other Obstacles to Broadband Deployment.” (Warning! The video of the hearing doesn’t actually begin until about 15 minutes have passed after you hit “play.” Hopefully this will be corrected in the future.) And, in what will no doubt be to the surprise of many, it was actually a pretty good hearing.

 

It was a fairly good hearing. Sparsely attended (members, including Wicker, joked about holding a morning hearing after impeachment proceedings ran until 2 a.m.), but the members who were there were actually trying to find out facts rather than just score some points. Because it was sparsely attended, members had lots of opportunity to ask their questions and get thoughtful responses. It was cordial and substantive. You know, the kind of thing everyone claims they want to see and laments we never have but is actually reasonably common on technical stuff and when it does happen everyone zones out because, lets face it, actual substance on important issues bores the pants off nearly everyone.
 
I was there primarily to address the “barriers to deployment” piece (although I had some things to say about workforce training, which is critically important and a fantastic opportunity to promote digital equity in urban and rural America — hopefully I will be able to write that up in a separate blog post). In particular, I focused on ‘why we should stop stomping on local governments just because carriers repeat over and over that if we don’t give them what they want then China will win the “race to 5G” — whatever the Hell that means.’ (No surprise, but I also put in a plug for opening up the 5.9 GHz band and 6 GHz band for unlicensed use on a non-interfering basis as quickly as possible.)
In addition to everything else, I must add a personal note. In these times, I feel enormously grateful for the opportunity to wear my kippah when testifying before Congress. I am not there as a Jew, or to testify about Israel or some other issue people think is particularly a “Jew thing.” I am there as an American. Proud of my religion and ethnicity, but fully integrated into the world of policy and national affairs. I don’t dress like either of the two Jewish stereotypes you see on television: a Hassid or a Woody Allen clone. I’m a real person. So are all the other Orthodox Jews I know.
Anyway, t get back to the subject at hand, you can read my testimony here. I am reprinting my opening oral statement below.
Stay tuned . . . .

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A Tax on Silicon Valley Is A Dumb Way to Solve Digital Divide, But Might Be A Smart Way To Protect Privacy.

Everyone talks about the need to provide affordable broadband to all Americans. This includes not only finding ways to get networks deployed in rural areas on par with those in urban areas. As a recent study showed, more urban folks are locked out of home broadband by factors such as price than do without broadband because of the lack of a local access network. The simplest answer would be to simply include broadband (both residential and commercial) in the existing Universal Service Fund. Indeed, Rep. Doris Matsui has been trying to do this for about a decade. But, of course, no one wants to impose a (gasp!) tax on broadband, so this goes nowhere.

 

Following the Washington maxim “don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree,” lots of people come up with ideas of how to tax folks they hate or compete against. This usually includes streaming services such as Netflix, but these days is more likely to include social media — particularly Facebook. The theory being that “we want to tax our competitors, “or “we hates Facebook precious!” Um, I mean “these services consume more bandwidth or otherwise disproportionately benefit from the Internet.” While this particular idea is both highly ridiculous (we all benefit from the Internet, and things like cloud storage take up more bandwidth than streaming services like Netflix) and somewhat difficult —  if not impossible — to implement in any way related to network usage (which is the justification), it did get me thinking about what sort of a tax on Silicon Valley (and others) might make sense from a social policy perspective.

 

What about a tax on the sale of personal information, including the use of personal information for ad placement? To be clear, I’m not talking about a tax on collecting information or on using the information collected. I’m talking a tax on two-types of commercial transactions; selling information about individuals to third parties, or indirectly selling information to third parties via targeted advertising. It would be sort of a carbon tax for privacy pollution. We could even give “credits” for companies that reduce the amount of personal information that they collect (although I’m not sure we want to allow firms to trade them). We could have additional fines for data breaches the way we do for other toxic waste spills that require clean up.

 

Update: I’m apparently not the first person to think of something like this, although I’ve expanded it a bit to address privacy generally and not just targeted advertising. As Tim Karr pointed out in the comments, Free Press got here ahead of me back in February — although with a more limited proposed tax on targeted advertising. Also, Paul Roemer wrote an op ed on this in the NYT last May. I have some real problem with the Roemer piece, since he seems to think that an even more limited tax on targeted advertising is enough to address all the social problems and we should forget about either regulation or antitrust. Sorry, but just as no one serious about global climate change thinks a carbon tax alone will do the trick, no one serious about consumer protection and competition should imagine that a privacy pollution tax alone is going to force these companies to change their business models. This is a push in the right direction, not the silver bullet.

 

I elaborate below. . . .

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Net Neutrality Oral Argument Highlights Problem For Pai: You Can’t Hide The Policy Implications Of Your Actions From Judges.

Friday, February 1, we had approximately 4.5 hours of oral argument before Judge Millett, Judge Wilkins, and Senior Judge Williams. You can listen to a recording of the oral argument here. As everyone who does this for a living will tell you, you can’t judge the outcome by what happens at oral argument. Because that’s the biggest set of tea leaves we have that can tell us anything about the black box of the court making its decision, however, we all speculate shamelessly. Unsurprisingly, Williams seemed most favorable to the FCC. He dissented in USTA v. FCC, and generally prefers deregulatory policy choices. Millett, as expected, pushed both sides hard. But ultimately both she and Wilkins seemed to come down against the FCC on several issues, including a lengthy discussion of the Section 257 argument I highlighted last week.

 

My colleague John Bergmayer has this summary of the substance of the argument. I want to just highlight one theme, the refusal of the FCC to be honest about the expected policy consequences of its actions. I highlight this for several reasons. First, people need to understand that while the agency can always change its mind, it has to follow the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which includes addressing the factual record, acknowledging the change in policy from the previous FCC, and explaining why it makes a different decision this time around. As I have noted for the last couple of years, there is a lot of confusion around this point. On the one hand, it doesn’t mean you have to show that the old agency decision was wrong. But on the other hand, it doesn’t mean you get to pretend like the old opinion and its old factual record don’t exist. Nor do you get to ignore the factual record established in this case.

 

It was on these points that Millett and Wilkins kept hammering the FCC, and where they are likely in the biggest trouble in terms of the Order. Because FCC Chair Ajit Pai has pretty much made it his signature style to ignore contrary arguments and make ridiculous claims about his orders, this problem has already chomped the FCC on the rear end pretty hard (ironically, in an opinion released on Friday), and will likely continue to do so.

 

More below . . .

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Fun Arguments To Watch At Net Neutrality Oral Argument, or Did Marsha Blackburn Accidentally Save Net Neutrality?

At last, the contest everyone has been waiting for is finally here! Get ready tomorrow (Friday February 1) for the oral argument in Mozilla v. FCC, the challenge to the 2017 repeal of net neutrality and re-reclassification of broadband as a Title I “information service.” (aka the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” or “RIFO”).  Obviously, as one of the counsel’s in the case, I am utterly confident that we will totally prevail, so I am not going to try to rehash why I think we win. Besides, you can get horse race coverage and results anywhere. ToTSF is where you go for the geeky and get your policy wonk on!

 

So in preparation for the Superb Owl of the the 2018 telecom season, I thought I would point out some of the more fun arguments that may come up. As always, keep in mind that oral argument is a perilous guide to the final order, and the judges on the panel have a reputation for peppering both sides with tough questions. Also, there is a lot of legal ground to cover, and many important issues raised in the briefs may not get discussed at all because of time limitations. With all that in mind, here are some things to look for if you are lucky enough to be in the courtroom tomorrow, or listen to the full audio when it’s released.

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Hurricane Michael A Wake Up Call On Why Total Dereg of Telecom A Very Bad Idea.

Readers of Harry Potter should be familiar with Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic who refuses to believe Voldemort will return because believing that would require taking precautions and generally upsetting lots of powerful and important people. Instead of preparing for Voldemort’s return, Fudge runs a smear campaign to discredit Potter and Dumbledore, delaying the Wizarding World from preparing to resist Voldemort until too late.

 

I was reminded of this when I read Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai’s statement of frustration with the slow pace of restoring communications in the Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael. Pai explicitly echoes similar sentiments of Florida Governor Rick Scott, that carriers are not moving quickly enough to restore vital communications services. Pai is calling on carriers not to charge customers for October and to allow customers to switch to rival carriers without early termination fees.

 

What neither Pai nor Scott mention is their own roll in creating this sorry state of affairs. Their radical deregulation of the telephone industry, despite the lessons of previous natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, guaranteed that providers would chose to cut costs and increase profits rather than invest in hardening networks or emergency preparedness. That is how markets actually work in the real world (as opposed to in the delightful dereg fantasy land dreamed up by hired economists). But rather than take precautions that might annoy or upset powerful special interests, they chose to mock the warnings as the panic of “Chicken Little, Ducky Lucky and Loosey Goosey proclaiming that the sky was falling.”

 

Now, however, the Chicken Littles come home to roost and, as predicted, private market incentives have not prompted carriers to prepare adequately for a massive natural disaster. This result was not only predictable, it was predicted — and mocked. So now, like Cornelius Fudge, Chairman Pai and Governor Scott find themselves confronted with the disaster scenario they stubbornly refused to believe in or safeguard against. And while I do not expect this to change Pai’s mind, this ought to be a wake up call to the 37 states that have eliminated direct regulatory oversight of their communications industry that they might want to reconsider.

 

Still, as Public Knowledge is both suing the FCC to reverse its November 2017 deregulation Order, and has Petitioned the FCC to reconsider its June 2018 further deregulation Order, perhaps the FCC will take this opportunity to rethink the certainty with which it proclaimed that carrier’s have so much incentive to keep their customers that they would never cut corners and risk service going down. Or perhaps Congress will now pay attention and decide that their constituents need enforceable rights and real protections rather than promises and platitudes.

 

I provide a lot more detail below.

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Verizon California Throttling Mistake Shows How Radical Pai’s Repeal Order Really Was.

Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to ensure we would have working communications infrastructure for, among other things, handling public safety. It says so right up front in Section 1 of the Communications Act. This critical authority has allowed the FCC to do things like impose 911 obligations on VOIP providers before Congress got around to it, and even set up the original High Cost and Lifeline Programs before Congress got around to it. So you would think that when Verizon throttled the Santa Clara Fire Department’s mobile broadband connection for coordinating response to the Mendocino Complex Fire — the largest wildfire in California history — that the FCC would naturally be all over it.

 

The vast and mighty silence you hear is the utter lack of response by the FCC — for the simple reason that last December the FCC utterly, completely and totally divested itself of all authority over broadband. This was, as I and others pointed out at the time, utterly, completely and totally unprecedented. Regardless of classification, every single FCC chairman prior to Ajit Pai asserted authority over broadband to prevent exactly this kind of disaster. Under Michael Powell and Kevin Martin it would be under Title I ancillary authority. Under Julius Genachowski and Tom Wheeler (prior to reclassifying broadband as Title II in February 2015), it would have been under Section 706. Under Ajit Pai — bupkis.

 

Which leaves us with a major problem. How the heck do we stop this (and other potential failures of our broadband infrastructure) from happening again when the agency Congress actually directed to handle this has decided to abdicate its responsibility entirely? I have been preaching for nearly 10 years now that Title II authority over broadband is absolutely necessary to protect and manage our critical communications infrastructure. As I keep saying, this goes way beyond net neutrality. As broadband becomes integrated into everything in our lives – including public safety – there needs to be someone other than a group of unaccountable private companies looking out for the public interest. Because, as this event demonstrates, we are not just talking about ‘Netflix and cat videos’ or about ‘innovation’ or any of the other industry deflections. We are talking about stuff that literally impacts people’s lives. According to this report from NPR, the Verizon incident occurred just at the moment firefighters were deploying to stop the Mendocino Complex Fire. It’s impossible to determine just how much this screwed things up and whether the fire could have been better contained at the outset if throttling hadn’t knocked out their entire command-and-control for hours at the outset. But it is certainly safe to say that the first few hours of organizing to contain a wildfire are critical, and having your ISP throttle your command center broadband connection down to effectively useless is like trying to organize a parade while wearing a blindfold, earplugs and a gag over your mouth.

 

Happily, we have an easy answer to the question of “how do we make sure someone is responsible from preventing these kinds of screw ups going forward.” Congress needs to vote the CRA and force the FCC to take back authority for broadband. Or, if you’re California and don’t like seeing your state literally go up in flames while on hold with customer support, then you need to pass SB 822 — the California net neutrality bill. Anything else is literally fiddling around while California burns.

 

Lots more below . . .

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I Take the #CallYourRep4TheNet Challenge, and You Can Too!

My buddies at Free Press are running a challenge to get people to call their Member of Congress to support the Congressional Resolution Act of Disapproval (CRA) to repeal the FCC Order eliminating net neutrality rules (more info here). You can find out more about #CallYourRep4TheNet Karaoke Challenge here.

I was tagged by Free Press’ Candace Clement. So here is my contribution. I’m posting the lyrics below the fold. If you can’t think of your own lyrics for the #CallYourRep4TheNet Challenge, feel free to steal use these. Creative Commons attribution license on the lyrics. Music is copyright to Disney. Given Disney’s traditional opposition to net neutrality, I believe this is transformative social commentary/fair use — and I’m hoping they have a sense of humor (but if I get a takedown notice I will let you know).

 

Even if you don’t make your own entry, you can call your Congressional Representative by using this tool from my employer Public Knowledge. And reminder, you don’t need to call your Senators because we already won that vote! Booyah!

 

 

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UPDATE: Why Tech Freedom Are Totally Wrong About The CRA.

Last week, I wrote this blog post addressing the argument that the Markey resolution under the Congressional Review Act would not actually restore the 2015 net neutrality rules. Since then, my opposite numbers at Tech Freedom have put together this 8-page letter saying otherwise. To save myself the trouble of repeating myself, I will update my previous blog post to explain why Tech Freedom specifically is utterly and completely wrong.

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Yes, the 2017 Net Neutrality Repeal Is A “Rule” Under the CRA.

I have a rule of thumb that when I hear a stupid argument three times or more, I will blog about it so I don’t have to keep repeating myself. In this case, the argument that the CRA would not undo the FCC’s 2017 Net Neutrality Repeal Order/Declaratory Ruling because it is not a “rule,” and the CRA only applies to “rules.” See 5 U.S.C. 801.

 

This argument falls into the stupid category because the CRA defines what it means by “rule.” See 5 U.S.C. 804. In typical legal fashion, Section 804 refers you to 5 U.S.C. 551. Section 551(4)(a) defines “rule” as follows:

 

rule” means the whole or a part of an agency statement of general or particular applicability and future effect designed to implement, interpret, or prescribe law or policy or describing the organization, procedure, or practice requirements of an agency and includes the approval or prescription for the future of rates, wages, corporate or financial structures or reorganizations thereof, prices, facilities, appliances, services or allowances therefor or of valuations, costs, or accounting, or practices bearing on any of the foregoing.

 

Section 804 excludes rules relating to agency organization (which clearly does not apply to the 2017 Net Neutrality Repeal Order), or decisions applicable to a specific individual or group of individuals (such as merger decisions) (again, clearly does not apply here), or specific tariff/rate making/wage setting proceedings (again, clearly not applicable here). It clearly is a “statement of general or particular applicability and future effect designed to implement, interpret or prescribe law or policy.”

 

Put another way, did the agency action require notice and comment? Is it governed by the Administrative Procedure Act? Congratulations! You have a “rule” for purposes of the CRA.

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