Neoliberal FCC Half-Step to Low Income Access to the Internet

blue-wire-knot-364-364x223New Orleans       It would be nice to read the report of a proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and embrace it with open arms and a wide smile.  After all even a small step forward in bridging the digital divide is important, but this will be a half-step at that, and it’s easy to see the headwinds forming already in the murkiness that accompanies any understanding of the program or the problem.

Briefly, Wheeler is talking about expanding the Universal Service Fund to allow lower income families to access high-speed internet by choosing either phone service or internet or in some undefined way picking both services.    Since President Reagan’s Administration, the Universal Service Fund provides “lifeline” telephone service, which increasingly means mobile phones virtually for free.  The Fund is financed not by public dollars and taxpayers but by assessing telecommunications companies an adjustable fee every quarter on the telecom’s interstate end-user revenues. The first quarter of 2015 the rate was around 17% and the fund collects and distributes billions annually, about $9 billion in 2013 for example.   If you read your telephone bill line-by-line, you can see the charge, and if you think about it for a minute, you can also start to see the problem.

The FCC is merely the facilitator and distributor.  The funds come from companies and therefore consumers, rather than being equally shared by all citizens as a public good.   It may have been good enough for Reagan, but despite all of the genuflecting in his direction, the new gang is not the old gang, and this crowd has been attacking the Fund because there was some occasional double-dipping in households having more than one cellphone.  Oh, horrors!

The Fund provides a subsidy of close to $10 per month.  The Times’ report is already, erroneously, setting the table for the fight when it reports that “debate over just how far a $9.25 credit can go in covering the cost of broadband is sure to arise.”  Well, it shouldn’t, except that this is the world of neoliberalism now and not entitlement, so corporations whine, and citizens’ wail.  The FCC and all experts were clear in the Comcast/NBC Universal order creating a $10 access program for internet, which the company flaunted, that even at that rate, the company would make money.  Not great, heaping wheelbarrow loads of cash like they are all used to making, but, yes, still make money, so let’s put a stake in the heart of that argument from the start.

Then there is the question of speed.   After ACORN worked with Rogers, the huge Canadian telecom, to put in a $10 program in Toronto, we had a fight to get them to provide enough speed so that users could stream or use the internet for job applications and the like.  Since broadband companies are trying to market different price points for higher speed, you can already envision the fight to make sure lower income access isn’t degraded.   Finally, the poverty standard of 135% also just isn’t enough to bridge the digital divide either.   This proposal already feels like the poor trying to squeeze into internet heaven through the eye of a needle, not the other way around.   And, this is all when the proposal is still pristine, long before the rest of the political fight begins in earnest and Congress starts mucking about.

So why can’t we spend a small slice of $10 or $20 billion and directly subsidize as an entitlement the access to internet for all families at 300% of poverty guideline, and, heck, throw in some of the Universal Service Fund as part of the funding stream with a hit on ISP providers as well, since this is internet.

There is a limit to what companies and consumers can carry.  That’s why we have a government and taxes, so we can all equally share on programs that advance the common good for everyone.  Until we get to that point, the digital divide will just keep getting wider and wider, leaving more and more, lower income and working families behind.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Lousy Customer Service Brought Them Down, Too

comcast-sucks-2Austin       The failure of Comcast’s monopoly-merger mania would almost be Biblical in the “pride cometh before a fall” sense if it were not so predictable, and if, we, and thankfully a whole lot of other people in a whole lot of other places, had not repeatedly tried to tell them so and warn them repeatedly.  But, it’s really not Biblical, it’s more a P.T. Barnum problem of their thinking that because they could fool the people once, they could fool them all the time.

And, speaking of pride, I swelled up a bit reading the lead paragraphs in the New York Times analyzing their mega-fail and starting with the fake digital divide effort Comcast pretended to make on their so-called “internet essentials” program where the FCC had ordered that they provide a low-cost access to lower income families in order to gobble up NBC/Universal, and as we have frequently outlined they spend more on wining and dining local politicians and making so-called contributions to groups they wanted to have stand up for them before the FCC than they ever spent on actually doing the outreach or following through on the program.  Though they claim that only paid a fine on one condition of the order, they gloss over the fact that they had to pay $750,000 and add a year for their huge failure and fake effort on helping to bridge the digital divide.

This Comcast scam is too egregious and finally its comeuppance is too delicious not to quote in full:

“Critics, however, call Internet Essentials, a public relations stunt that failed to deliver on its promise, with restrictive qualifications, limited reach and poor service.  Comcast committed to making the program available to 2.5 million low-income households.  The company announced in March that the program had connected 450,000 families – or about 17 percent of eligible households….’Regulators were sold a bill of goods,’ said John Bergmayer…at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that has criticized the effectiveness of Internet Essentials…’I’d be curious whether they spent more time marketing in D.C. to policy makers than to people who qualify for the program.’”

That’s not a curiosity, that’s a statement of fact, and not just in DC but in any city hall and governmental jurisdiction where they operated.

In the same piece the report says, “Comcast officials say that the population is difficult to reach and that getting people to sign up for the service has been harder than they thought.”  Balderdash!  We told David Cohen, the chief flak, repeatedly and to his face that handing out leaflets to beleaguered school teachers was NOT an outreach program.  WE told him to his face, in writing, and repeatedly up and down the Comcast chain in Congressmen’s offices and with his governmental relations folks that the program was too complex, there was no follow through, you couldn’t sign up, they tried to upsell people, the computers didn’t work, etc, etc, and they accused us of “shaking them down.”  Look who is busted now.

Turns out now that the deal has collapse, that they also couldn’t get over the fact as well that their customers, many of whom are also voters, don’t like high priced, crummy cable and internet coupled with rude and non-existent customer service.  Really?  Is that a surprise to anyone but Comcast?  And, did Brian Roberts, the Comcast chief, really think promising the FCC’s Tom Wheeler that they would deliver “first in class service” had any credibility whatsoever.  Justice was sure there were antitrust problems and the FCC was sure not only that the deal was not in the public interest, but also that there was no way that they could hold Comcast accountable.  Comcast proved that to them on NBC Universal.

It’s not over.

They may call Philadelphia their corporate headquarters and they may be waving around the fact they are building a second high rise, but they are now facing a franchise renewal hearing.  What goes around, comes around and our campaign partner, Action United in Pennsylvania will undoubtedly be at the hearing to remind Comcast how lame their internet essentials program has been, how terrible their service is, and what they demand Comcast is going to have to do to get right with the people in the City of Brotherly Love, as opposed to Wall Street and Washington.

Time to Stop Comcast Monopoly is Now!

5170558150_19c732636f_zNew Orleans       After almost a year and a half of trying to pull the wool over federal regulators and the consumer public, the effort by Comcast to create a predatory monopoly over broadband internet and cable with its proposed merger with Times-Warner seems to finally be coming to a head.   Reportedly, the FCC is now entertaining both parties for the first time in fourteen months on whether it will schedule a public hearing on the merger.  Experts talking to the Wall Street Journal say that if Comcast is not able to stop a hearing, the FCC only schedules one as the kiss of death, which gives us all something to hope for now.

There is encouraging news.  The feds seem to have seen through the Comcast flimflam argument that, “hey, fellas, this is just a simple cable deal,” realizing that the real issue is not cable, which all us techno-peasants know could be an outdated technology on its way to the dustbins of history like home telephones and desktop radio sets.  The FCC realized that the merger would give the monopoly almost 60% of the market for broadband internet.  Furthermore, there is nothing in Comcast’s history or recent record that indicates that they would play nice with a monopoly.   No way, no how.

More good news has emerged from the Justice Department indicating they may be coming late to the game, but finally seem to be looking at the antitrust ramifications of this proposed merger.   In recent weeks, reports have emerged that indicate that there is no determination, but the folks at Justice are not liking what they are seeing so far.

Reading the tea leaves, I would say that they are floating trial balloons to help stiffen the back of the FCC, just as the President had to do on the net neutrality issue.  The FCC is charged with determining whether a merger like this is in the public interest, while Justice looks at antitrust.  Sending a message through the newspapers across the wide Washington, DC boulevards that Justice is skeptical on the merger might be the last push towards the right decision by the FCC.

Supposedly, the FCC is also looking at whether or not the Comcast record on their merger with NBC/Universal indicates they can be trusted on this deal.  The Journal says a deal with Hulu is an issue.  I don’t know Hulu from Hawaii, but I do know their commitment to the FCC order about delivering low cost, accessible service to lower income families with children has been a travesty dressed in hypocrisy.   We have already forced the company to pay fines and extend the years required to deliver on their commitment, and they are nowhere close to doing right.  Giving an outfit like this majority control of broadband internet would guarantee that the digital divide for lower income families would be permanent and unbridgeable.  Too much of the future is tied into the internet to allow a company like Comcast to made inequity a permanent condition dividing everyone forever.

If you haven’t already let the FCC know that this Comcast monopoly has to be stopped, then now is the time to do so.

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Phil Ochs Power and the glory

Getting a Low Power FM Radio License in New Orleans

on-air-sign-ccOttawa     Over the years with an army of volunteers from supporters to DJs to radio engineers with gentle spirits, hard heads, and generous souls, working with AM/FM, the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement, we’ve put big radio stations on the air first in Tampa (WMNF), then revived and put one back on the air in Dallas (KNON, formerly KCHU), and finally in Little Rock with the 100,000 watt KABF at 88.3 FM broadcasting throughout a huge doughnut hole of almost all of Arkansas.  These stations have been big operations with big ambitions and loud voices, so why are we so excited when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sent us an email announcing that AM/FM has won a license for a Low Power FM station at 90.3 on the dial in New Orleans at a baby 100 watts?

Well, on one hand it was a relief to have a resting point after a long journey.  When the FCC opened up the application process for frequencies several decades ago, AM/FM, working with ACORN and local communities, helped file almost one-hundred applications around the country to broaden access to the airwaves for low-and-moderate income families.  At the end of that process we emerged with a handful of situations with competing approvals where the FCC essentially said, “good luck if you can work it out.”  This meant time sharing agreements, which at best are kiss-your-cousin kind of situations that never really work well, are economically unsustainable, and wildly confuse the listeners, since invariably these are sharing arrangements with religious broadcasters.  It was also a case where whoever had the deepest pockets would win, and that was never our team, so the end result has been a drought of almost thirty years since we had the opportunity to put another “voice of the people” station on the air.

This time the FCC moved quickly and affirmatively to allow the awards to be made on the low power frequencies, and though they are small, they have one signal advantage, which is that they create the opportunity of being truly “community” radio stations.  A 100-watt signal is bigger than you might imagine, especially in a pancake flat area like New Orleans where we are celebrating being a new licensee.  Our engineering indicates that we will be able to broadcast throughout the entire city limits with a strong signal, and likely the metro area, heard by perhaps one-million people or more.  With a 100,000 watt station your community is Little Rock or Dallas but it is also hundreds of neighborhoods, small towns, and other cities as different as Fort Worth and Pine Bluff.  It’s a good message, but a diverse one that speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of “block” programming on noncommercial radio where there’s something for everyone, but you need to find the time slot where you can be happy.  With low power we can have tremendous diversity, access, and many voices, but they can all have a New Orleans accent, vibe and sensibility speaking the language of small and larger communities within the city.

And, then there is just the fact that having a studio and broadcast ability right at hand provides a huge resource.  We have been dying to try some experiments in broadcasting through live streaming on the internet in the midnight hours with the languages and content of where ACORN International organizes in Hindi, Spanish, French, and whatever.  Trying to triangulate the overnight signal from foreign lands to Little Rock to wheel it around is hard.  Walking down the hall is easier.  Add all this to the fact that the studio will be in the mezzanine of our building in New Orleans on St. Claude and Elysian Fields at the intersection of Marigny, the Bywater, St. Roch, Treme, and the French Quarter, and that April 1stwe open the second location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude, so that we can fuel this operation 24/7, 365 days a year into a community and global hotspot of fair trade, great music, and intense commentary, and it all just seems not only important, but just plain fun and exciting to be part of it.

The license is only the key that opens this door, so there’s time and hard work, as we well know, in taking it from here to cars, phones, and homes, but the first step is a giant one!

Set the Cities Free to Provide Broadband Internet!

internet-openNew Orleans     The FCC, thankfully, is moving forward on a new rule that many believe will preempt the fact that a patchwork quilt of legislation has emerged in twenty different states to block the efforts of cities to create their own broadband networks.  We’ll watch closely how this developed.  Susan Crawford, the Harvard professor, who I have often cited as an expert on internet access and the monopoly efforts of the big companies, has long argued that municipal systems may be the only way to really provide equitable and affordable, high quality internet, so this could be a breakthrough.

The map of the 20 states that currently effectively ban it, and the creative ways they do so, is an interesting look at the geography of monopoly power as it is exercised by Comcast, AT&T, Times-Warner, and their junior partners.   Thanks to the work of Ars Technica we have a list, and here’s a quick summary of the twists and turns they have put in the way of cities wanting to break their stranglehold.

 

  •          Arkansas allows only cities which own their own municipal utilities.
  •          California blocks the financial tools to finance construction
  •          Colorado requires a referendum by the voters.
  •          Florida requires a special tax.
  •          Louisiana requires a local referendum.
  •          Michigan cities can do so only if they bid out the service and receive fewer than three bids.
  •          Minnesota requires approval by 65% of local voters.
  •          Nebraska says you can do it but you can’t sell at retail and compete.
  •          North Carolina blocks municipal financing.
  •          Pennsylvania, the home of Comcast, bans cities “if a local telephone company” already provides broadband even if it charges outrageous prices and offers poor quality service.
  •          Tennessee allows cities to build broadband only in “historically unserved areas” and if it is done in joint ventures with a private company.
  •          Utah’s law builds in procedural and accounting requirements that make it impossible.
  •          Virginia says you can build it but you can’t charge lower than private sector providers.
  •          Washington says public utilities can’t offer direct service to customers
  •          Wisconsin requires a public hearing, blocks subsidies, and prescribes minimum prices

And then let’s don’t forget Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas that essentially have just outlawed the ability of cities to do so without any bells and whistles or pretense that there’s an eye of the needle that the poor Joe might crawl through to get to internet heaven.  To me this all reads like a snapshot of democracy perverted by money, the lobbyists who push it, and the monopoly companies that dole it out for their sole self-interest.  This is a Hall of Shame list, where only money talks and low and moderate income people are forced on the other side of the equity and internet divide in service to profits and the politicians who hide behind the complexities with their hands out to the companies and their backs to the people.

On Internet Fight, Follow the Money to Keep the Scorecard

comcast-money-640x365Edinburgh     The problem of transactional versus transformational organizing is nowhere clearer than in the lines being drawn around the issues of net neutrality and the internet as a public utility between old line civil rights groups and reformers. Some are trying to make much of seeing groups like the NAACP, LULAC, PUSH, and old lions like Rev. Jesse Jackson trek into the offices of the FCC and its chair, Tom Wheeler, to ask the commission to let the companies do whatever they can to whomever they can to make their money.

It’s a sad and embarrassing commentary on the state of the institutional apparatus of reform. It is also a display of the real grease that smooths the engines of our movement rather than the direction we all know we need to travel on the highway.

Comcast, AT&T, Times-Warner and others have paid the pipers. For years they have underwritten conventions, conferences, partnerships, projects, ad books, awards, and scholarships for the old-line outfits. The big companies maintain relationship specialists with various names whose job description is in fact managing these relationships, providing the grease, pressing the flesh, solving little problems, and showing up at big events. This is soft power that tries to avoid the direct expression that a quid pro quo is involved; even when everyone involved realizes that there will come a time when the chits are called in. Most smoothly expressed, these big companies, and most others like banks for example, would maintain that at the most they are getting access and have the right rolodex to be able to present their best cases to the decision makers in these organizations.

I’m not saying that the organizations shouldn’t take the money. Times are hard for organizations. At the same time they have to be able to walk away and maintain their credibility or it’s all over. Look at the tragic farce that has become Andrew Young’s legacy from civil rights to politics and diplomacy, and now as corporate shill from Walmart to whoever makes the next contribution and pays the next plane fare. These are cautionary case studies. We saw this over and over when ACORN was in fights with the banks and other lenders for example. I’ve often told the story of the settlement with HSBC, where we insisted ACORN’s share for remediation had to be double the annual level of what they had paid an old line, Beltway civil rights organization to saddle up to defend them. In fact we saw it with Comcast when they refused to listen to our demands for outreach to our communities on internet access, and instead wanted to accuse us of a shakedown. They thought, and still think, it’s all transactional. In the arrogance of corporate power, many of these big whoops start to believe that everyone can be bought, even when they must know only some are really for sale.

There’s a reason that politicians and others are left scratching in the face of modern protests and turmoil around police brutality and racial discrimination. They don’t have anyone to call on their speed dials that has credibility on the streets and in communities. They are calling the old lions, but they are a long way from the action because in fact they are in the lobby waiting to come up the elevator for a chat now.

Reportedly Rev. Jackson argued to the FCC’s Wheeler that he needed to protect the big company’s monopolies so that they would make investments in minority communities. Given the tragedy of sorry access and utilization in our communities from these companies as well as the exorbitant pricing which creates the divide and maintains their millions, it is just a matter of time before everyone asks Rev. Jackson and others, “What investment?” And, that is a question to be feared, if the answer is only an investment in some this and that with these organizations, rather than in the communities that are so desperately demanding change.

Transactions are invariably temporary. Transformation is always permanent. When change is coming, and it is coming, it’s best to be on the right side of the line.