FCC Fork Tongues on Net Neutrality

Little Rock   It wasn’t so long ago that we don’t remember, but in a fierce fight that logged more citizen comments that ever before recorded on a Federal Communications Commission matter, the FCC essentially declared the internet equivalent to a public utility assuring net neutrality, meaning that all providers have equal access to users. Everyone from consumers and citizens to Silicon Valley were happy to have won this one. The telecommunications monopolies sued and are still in court, but in a disappointment to them and the politicians they fund with their huge contributions, they have most recently lost their efforts to overturn the Obama FCC order, and are appealing to the Supreme Court.

In the wave of the Trump Administration rollbacks of Obama era regulations and initiatives, the new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has immediately sought to unravel the internet’s classification as a utility, assure net neutrality, and pretty much have the FCC play any role in regulating any of this. Chairman Pai is a slick one. He claims he is totally committed to what he calls an “open” internet. He swears he is a big “streamer” himself and that he’s a bannerman for “Game of Thrones” as a binge watcher.

Listening to an interview with him on the radio was a very scary thing, because not only is he a fast and smooth talker, but he’s duplicitous and evasive on the issues. He had two key talking points in trying to muddy the waters.

First, he harps on the fact that the regulation defining public utilities goes back to 1934 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He made that points several times in different ways in order to try and embed the notion that this is antiquated and out of date and the internet is modern, so how could one possibly be adequate for the other. He slightly slips up by mentioning that the 1934 regulations were dealing with monopolistic tendencies of AT&T, forgetting for a minute that it might be worth still looking at what’s up with AT&T and its buddies now, since it’s a longway from small potatoes.

Secondly, he tried a curve ball, trying to argue that he was trying to take the FCC back to what he called the Clinton era regulatory philosophy which prevailed from what he claimed was 1990 to 2015, meaning until the Obama FCC majority put the internet under protective custody, so to speak. No question, President Clinton was a deregulator supreme, but what Pai was trying to plant here in unsuspecting minds was the idea that he is mainstream and that Obama and his FCC majority were outliers.

The game was up when the interviewer pressed him for how he thought under his proposal that telecoms speeding up their own content and slowing up their competitors would be handled. This was a forked-tongue masterpiece. He answered quickly saying that if they did that and it hurt consumers then the Federal Trade Commission could investigate and so could the Justice Department, along with state agencies around the country. Huh? Yes, he was careful to push any and all responsibility for telecom miscreants to everyone and anyone other than the FCC. Under his watch, they are clearly planning to wash their hands of any supervision or regulation. Essentially, he was saying, hey, if you have a problem, catch them if you can, and good luck with that.

In these days this passive, reactive approach to anything involving the internet and consumers just doesn’t work, and he knows it though he doesn’t want to upset his patrons and paymaster. Case in point, we have Uber creating software in order to deliberately trick states and cities where it was committed to avoiding and breaking regulations barring or limiting its participation. Another case in point, we also have is the huge scandal where Volkswagen created software to trick regulators on how many miles per gallon its diesel engines were getting.

The internet and software both giveth and taketh away. It’s not easy finding the tricksters, because this is wildly sophisticated lawbreaking. The FCC wants to go back to 1934 and snooze their way through the Trump-era, but citizens and consumers depend on the internet, and the FCC needs to do their jobs of protecting us and it, and not just spin their way around their duty.


Why is it so Hard for Policy Makers to Separate Access from Affordability?

981207_10156731174555570_8112977795619686083_oNew Orleans    Life, work, and the world are full of mysteries, but after years of hitting my head against various walls, I’m finally connecting the dots in trying to understand the peculiar responses we sometimes get in trying to change public policies and private pricing strategies.

Remittances are a prime example. Talking last week to a professor who teaches a course at a local university on personal finances, she was excited when I told her about ACORN’s Remittance Justice Campaign, because she wanted her students to understand the complicated world of money transfer systems. When she understood the topline demand of our campaign was to cap the pricing at 5% to stop remittance costs from being so predatory, her face almost deflated. Of course she supported our position, don’t get me wrong, but affordability had not occurred to her as an issue in the way that it is of course paramount to immigrant families and migrant workers trying to send money home to relatives and communities in their home countries.

ACORN Canada members are testifying this week before the CRTC (Canadian Radio & Television Commission) about the high price of internet in Canada. Quoting from an early copy of their prepared testimony:

…the organization released a report summarizing 400 testimonials from low-income Canadians about how vital yet unaffordable home internet is.

A recent CRTC survey suggests that many Canadians think home internet is essential, but too pricey. Half of the survey’s 29,000 respondents are dissatisfied with the price of their internet service. ACORN Canada members view affordable access to the internet as essential to improving low-income Canadians’ ability to succeed in the digital economy.

“How can low-income families get out of poverty if they can’t apply for jobs, or access government services? Our kids can’t even do their homework,” says ACORN Canada President Marva Burnett. “Access to the internet is a right, and going to the library or coffee shops are not practical solutions.”

The same dilemma was faced by the FCC in the United States and, as we recently discussed, and the FCC duck walked around the issue by subsidizing the cost of internet ostensibly for lower income families by around $10 per month, rather than tackling head on the fact that affordability is the barrier to access, rather than availability of the internet.

This is an old saw. In the housing collapse from 2007, the supposed “reform” was trying to force lenders, many of whom were overtly predatory in the subprime mortgage field, to have to assure the loan was affordable to the family before issuing the money. When they were just churning loans, there was more than enough access to mortgage lending capital, but whether it was affordable within an honest reckoning of family income was a diminished factor in pumping air into the bubble.

Why do policy makers refuse to routinely address the issue of affordability when dealing with the question of access of services and implementation of programs? This is where the divide of experience between the one-percenters and big whoops from the rest of us and especially from low-and-middle income families becomes so pronounced and creates such tragic results. They just don’t get it, and too often these days, seem unwilling to do the “homework” and listening to understand the issues from any other point of view, especially from the perspective of our people.

Simple suggestion: consider affordability first, and access later down the list. Make stuff work by understanding that pricing pushes people as a primary concern.



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.

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!