Cleland's “Common Sense.”

“You keep saying that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
–Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I suppose it’s just overkill for me to pounce on Cleland’s over-the-top (even for him) blog post purporting to make the “common sense case” against our complaint against Comcast and Petition for Declaratory Ruling. After all, Dave Isenberg and others have already taken this on. But (a) it helps to restate the facts and focus on the issues, and (b) it gives me a chance to quote Angels by Within Temptation, and I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THAT SONG (In fact, if y’all haven’t done so, scurry to your favorite place to buy music online and download this and their other stuff. I’ll wait . . . .)

Cleland’s claims can be divided into two: whether Comcast’s behavior was “reasonable network management” and whether the FCC Policy statement is enforceable. I shall address each (and get to the music quote) below . . . .

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Time Warner May Pilot Metered Pricing With Easy Consumer Monitoring Tools. Good for now, but bad for ecommerce in the long run.

As reported by Broadband Reports and now confirmed elsewhere, a Time Warner internal memo indicates Time Warner will pilot a program where it has an explicit bandwidth cap, and users that exceed the cap will pay additional explicit fees — rather like what happens now with your standard cell phone package where you buy a bundle of minutes and then pay for any overages. The pilot will include a website to allow customers to track their usage, moderate their behavior, or buy additional capacity if they wish.

I agree with Dave Isenberg that this is the best way for Time Warner to handle its network capacity constraints and address the supposed 5% of users gobbling 50% of the bandwidth. We can expect some heavy users to move to other networks without caps, but also expect that users that use much less capacity and frustrated by congestion caused by heavy use by others to prefer plans like Time Warner’s because it should produce a less congested pipe overall.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that I was just musing about this the other day, giving me a chance to do another Stephen Colbert I CALLED IT!!! dance.

O.K., shameless gloating over. Analysis below . . . .

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Dave Sez: AT&T Are [Bleep!]

My friend “Dave” recently moved from San Francisco to Sacramento. Being of the modern mobile generation that has “cut the cord” and lives by the cell phone, Dave wanted to get “naked DSL.” i.e., DSL (or other broadband) without any kind of telephone or video contract (Dave also refuses to pay for cable TV, on the grounds that 99% of the programming “sucks”). To his surprise and disappointment, Dave couldn’t find any naked broadband available in his neighborhood. So he wrote to me, as the known expert on all things broadband. “Isn’t there any way I can just get broadband without a telephone contract?” Dave wrote me in an email.

So I thought about it, and I said: “Is Sacramento AT&T territory?”

“Yeah.”

“Well AT&T has to offer $20 naked DSL, as a merger condition from when they bought BellSouth. Why don’t you try for that.”

So Dave dug around until he found the offer for AT&T DSL until he found the AT&T Yahoo! High Speed Internet Package With No Voice Contract:

Basic 768 kbps $19.95
Express 1.5 mbps $23.99
Pro 3.0 mbps $28.99

We talked, and I recommended the “Express” package as probably the best suited to his needs. Dave went to order it. His reactions below (warning, contains frank language and highly suggestive ASCII)….

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Martin Gets the Ball Rolling On “Blocking” Investigation: What Does It Mean And What Happens Next?

As always, I am impressed with the ability of so many people to hate whatever Kevin Martin does, and for so many different reasons! At CES, Martin announced that the FCC would investigate allegations of blocking content and determine whether they violated the FCC’s four broadband principles. Comcast pledged to cooperate in any investigation (although, unsurprisingly, Comcast representatives — along with supposed object of Martin’s affection AT&T and other big telcos and cablecos — said at CES they would restructure or eliminate FCC altogether).

As I said in my PK blog post, while details remain unclear, I am “cautiously optimistic” that this will be a good thing. But it did not take long for the folks in the “Martin is a bastard 24/7 crwd” to express themselves. DSL reports doubted this would go anywhere, while the “why ya gotta hate on cable” crowd at Techdirt opined that Martin would never investigate if it were a telco rather than a cable co.

So we flash forward to yesterday, when new developments began to percolate out of the FCC. Of significance:

1) The FCC issued a public notice asking for comment on our Petition for Declaratory Ruling that Comcast’s “network management practice” of messing with BitTorrent uploads violated the FCC’s “Broadband Policy Statement,” which includes a principle that network operators may not block or degrade content or applications. In a separate public notice (but as part of the same proceeding), the FCC also seeks comment on the Vuze Petition for Rulemaking on how broadband access providers handle and shape IP traffic generally. (Copy of Vuze Petition here, copy of our Petition here).

2) Separately, the FCC issued a separate public notice seeking comment on a Petition filed by Public Knowledge and the usual suspects asking the FCC to declare that wireless carriers cannot deny short codes or block text messaging. This goes after Verizon’s high profile “oopsie” of denying a request by NARAL for a short code. Although, as we pointed out in the Petition, the more likely and pernicious problem is with plain old anticompetitive blocking, such as denying a short code to VOIP provider Rebtel.com and denying applications to major banks offering competing services.

3) Comcast confirmed that the FCC has lanched a formal inquiry into whether it violated the FCC’s broadband policy statement. Comcast reiterated that it will fully cooperate with the FCC, and expects any investigation to show that Comcast did not block content and has engaged in legitimate network management practices.

Not bad for a commitment made a week ago. But what does it mean and where will it go from here? Analysis below . . . .

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Can users shape traffic better than ISPs? Some Lessons From The Electric Industry.

A dialog between David Weinberg and Seth Finkelstein on David’s blog raises an interesting question. Dave W argues (as do I) that a network provider is the last person who should engage in such practices, because of the inherent potentials for mischief and the possible conflicts of interest. Seth Finkelstein argues that, as a practical matter in the real world, only the ISP can effectively make a determination on traffic shaping that maximizes the use of the network for everyone, protects time sensitive applications, and prevents a “tragedy of the commons” from a handful of users absorbing all the bandwidth.

David Isenberg (in the comments and in this blog entry) makes the case that we don’t need traffic shaping, just more capacity or, in the alternative, neutral means to reduce packet flow such as throttling all traffic equally or going to metered pricing. Others (including myself) have argued that the problems of “bandwidth hogs” are exaggerated, or that users dissatisfied with the “best efforts” environment of the internet should stick with the network optimized for voice (the phone network) or the network optimized for video (cable, broadcast television) rather than “break” the internet to better accommodate these applications. Neither of these answers, however, is popular in regulatory circles. Further, it is a legitimate argument that we should allow ISPs to choose what product to offer customers. If an ISP wants to offer services optimized for VOIP by retaining the power to shape traffic, why shouldn’t it bring that service to market? This inevitably leads to a debate on market power, availability of choice, switching costs, captive customers etc., etc.

So lets shake things up with something new. I will — for the sake of argument here — accept the proposition that we “need” traffic shaping (like I “need” “scare quotes” so that people will not “quote” me out of context or argue on trivialities). But accepting the need for traffic shaping does not mean ceding all power to the broadband access provider. To the contrary, I argue that we will achieve far better results by giving subscribers the ability to shape their own traffic.

Madness you say? “Tragedy Of The Commons” and all that. Maybe, but the electric industry tells a somewhat different tale. As described in this NYT story, a fair number of folks are taking advantage of pilot projects that allow people to shape their power usage in the same way I propose allowing them to shape their Internet use. Such programs may save $70 Billion in the next few years. Why not see if they can have serious impact on the supposed exaflood of internet traffic that supposedly justifies traffic shaping? Especially when contrasted with the pur privatization model, that gave us the Enron scandal and the California black outs in 2001?

More below . . .

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Why Teens Are Smarter Than Regulators — The Difference between Ubiquity and Substitutibility

Greetings gentle reader! Welcome to another chapter in my occasional series “What All Policy Wonks Need to Understand About Economics So They Can Spot The Industry Baloney” aka “The Econ 101 Gut Check.”

In today’s lesson, we look at two concepts often confused with one another. UBIQUITY, which means how widely available something is; and SUBSTITUTIBALITY, which means whether people regard one thing as a substitute for their first choice. Most arguments for deregulation of the media and the internet rest on confusing these related but very different concepts. For example, the argument that the availability of video clips on YouTube or other types of content creation confuses ubiquity and substitubality, as does the argument that cellphones compete with DSL and cable for broadband access.

But according to this USA Today article (reporting on this study by the PEW Internet and American life project), teenagers who actually use this stuff on a regular basis understand the differences perfectly. And if regulators, policy types, or even just folks who care about getting it right for its own sake want to get our national media and broadband polices right, then we better learn from these teenagers and get the difference between ubiquity and substitutibility straight.

Class begins below . . . .

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Verizon's “Sitefinder-lite,” Cox Traffic Shaping (Without Lying), And The Shape of Things To Come

Jim Harper at Technology Liberation Front pinged me (sort of) to comment on reports that anyone who subscribes to Verizon’s FIOS broadband service who mistypes a domain name will now land on a Verizon search page. So, for example, trying to get to i-want-sprint-cell-phones.com will land you on a a page like this (my thanks to ace domain name practitioner John Berryhill for capturing this in a screen shot and putting it up on his web page). Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Cox cable is also interfering with BitTorrent uploads, although at least Cox has the intelligence to admit from the start that it actively manages traffic, rather than go through several rounds of idiotic denials like Comcast (which is probably why the Cox issue is getting a lot less notice).

Briefly:

1) I ain’t that excited about the Verizon DNS redirection in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it breaks end-to-end, and I’m not happy about it. But unlike traffic shaping, this development was foreseen and approved of by the FCC and the Supreme Court in the Brand X case when both pegged DNS as the thing that made broadband access an “information service” and therefore free from pesky regulation. At least Verizon’s redirection doesn’t actually hurt the average user.

2) OTOH, it does raise serious privacy issues and highlights the general problems of letting the ISPs control all of this. There was, after all, a reason we regulated telcos and cable cos to keep user information private. It also starts to raise a very troubling question — what happens when network operators and application developers learn to distrust all the basic protocols under which the ‘net operates? It works fine for the first few guys. But what holds this together is everyone agreeing on a set of basic protocols. Eliminate the trust in those protocols, and things start to break down.

3) Some folks that gave a great big yawn to Comcast’s traffic shaping have gone ballistic over messing with DNS lookup. But both are natural consequences of turning this stuff over to ISPs. Folks who hate the thought of even limited government regulation of network management but also hate the thought ISPs messing with DNS and other protocols have some tough choices ahead.

Thoughts below . . . .

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Put Up Or Shut Up At the FCC on Net Neutrality “Principles”

When the FCC deregulated broadband by declaring it an “information service,” it also adopted four principles that purported to give broadband subscribers a right to “access lawful content of their choice,” “run applications and services of their choice,” “connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network,” and enjoy “competition among network providers, application and service providers.” All subject to “reasonable network management,” of course. So when a bunch of us in 2006 pressed Congress to pass a network neutrality law, a lot of folks claimed we didn’t need one because the FCC already had the authority to deal with any problems that might arise. And, when questioned on this very subject at his confirmation hearing for a second term, FCC Chairman Martin said the FCC had ample authority to deal with any violations of the four principles that might arise.

Thanks to Comcast and their decision to “manage” their network load by degrading BitTorrent,it’s put up or shut up time at the FCC. My employer, Media Access Project, along with Free Press and Public Knowledge, just filed a formal complaint against Comcast and a general Petition for Declaratory Ruling asking that the FCC hold that deliberately messing with a customer’s application while refusing to admit doing it when asked pint blank violates the FCC’s “four principles” and does not constitute a “reasonable network management practice.” This will also press the FCC to find out exactly what the heck Comcast is actually doing (since some folk remain uncertain). Given that Comcast initially denied the very idea as “internet gossip,”, instructed their line staff to lie to customers about it, and are still maintaining that nothing of interest is going on, it looks like the only way will actually find out what the heck is going on and why is to have the FCC pry it out of them.

Hey, maybe they are telling the truth. But the FCC is in a much better position to know whether Comcast is deliberately lying to its customers and, if so, why. Because while my friend and opposite number Jim Harper at Technology Liberation Front may be content to see if the market punishes Comcast for its “lack of transparency”, I see a lot of bad consequences in letting Comcast throttle traffic as a network management tool and then lie (or, at best, mislead) about it when asked about it point-blank by their customers.

At any rate, whether folks think we should regulate this kind of behavior or not (and I recognize that a number of smart folks not employed by cable operators feel we shouldn’t regulate this even if everything bad said about Comcast is true), we deserve to know whether the FCC has the authority to regulate this behavior, and the willingness to do so on an enforcement basis. Because if the cable and telco companies that swore up and down that we didn’t need new rules now come in and say the FCC has no authority to take complaints about their behavior after the fact or no authority to order any remedies, then we should know that. And if the FCC is going to leave us high and dry when broadband providers start degrading applications, then we should know that. Because while some folks may think that lying to your customers is an acceptable network management technique, or even an acceptable technique for managing elected members of Congress, I think most Americans would disagree. And I certainly want to know that by November ’08.

Stay tuned . . . .

Look! My Solution Found A Problem! Comcast Degrades BitTorrent Traffic Without Telling Users.

O.K., free speech issues are always sexier. Nothing gets the public (or me) wound up like blocking NARAL or censoring Pearl Jam. But, as Ecclesiastes tells us: “Money answers all.” (10:19) At the very least, it tends to rivet people’s attention without the distraction of whether or not you like the speaker or the message.

So I was quite pleased to see the Associated Press run this story on how Comcast degrades BitTorrent traffic in the name of quality of service (QoS), especially after Comcast had denied such rumors as vicious lies last August. (Where is Mona “the Hammer” Shaw when we need her?) While my friend Greg Rose on Econoclastic gives his (to my mind quite plausible) theory as to why Comcast would engage in such blocking on a large enough scale to be worth getting caught, I would like to play out the public policy implications of Comcast’s actions.

As I discuss below, this recent episode underscores several of the critical points I have made in the past about the economics of access, but without all the sexy free speech stuff clouding things up. In particular, I hope all those idjit content producers like Viacom that oppose Net Neutrality they think it will help police content for infringement and give them an advantage over rivals who can’t afford to pay the “fast lane fees.” Because, as Comcast’s little tepid step toward “How to Monetize Monopsony Power and Make the World Your Bee-Yatch” shows, making a deal with the broadband access devil to police your content guarantees that broadband access providers will end up owning you the way Microsoft ended up owning IBM and everyone else who thought that they could leverage another parties control of a bottleneck facility to its own advantage.

Given the amazing track record the IP mafia has for making bad decision in this regard, I’m not exactly holding my breath they will see reason. But I can at least secure myself the bitter pleasure of saying “toldja so” after it’s too late.

More below….

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Whiny Techies or Dishonest Salesmen?

I cannot help but add a coda onto my latest article. Steven Pearlstein, econ columnist for the Washington Post, has written this piece on the recent complaints wrt to Comcast. To quote Mr. Pearlstein:

The latest rallying cry is “network neutrality.” This campaign started out with the legitimate goal of making sure that consumers could continue to access whichever services or content they want, rather than having to take those offered by the cable and phone company duopolists. But lately the campaign seems to have morphed into a broader demand that all consumers should be able to pay the same monthly fee for using the Internet, no matter how much bandwidth they use or how much their movie downloads and video chats are slowing service to everyone else in the neighborhood.

Perhaps this is the kind of economic illiteracy we should expect from people who get their information from “The Daily Show” and the Daily Kos. But isn’t it time for the rest of us to move on and acknowledge that the days of the online free lunch are over?

As you may imagine from my recent post, my complaint is not with charging more for more bandwidth, but for dishonestly promising me an “always on all you can eat” connection, then cutting me off when I use it all the time for all I can eat. I sent Mr. Pearlstein the following reply, reproduced below….

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