Where one big economy leads the Internet, others must follow

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A flood of odd looking messages are swelling email boxes in the U.S., telling recipients that they have to take action – click a button, enter an email address, log on to an account – because of something called GDPR. That’s not something that was dreamed up by a Nigerian prince to funnel millions of dollars your way (but be careful – it is a golden opportunity for fraudsters to exploit complacency). It’s a new European Union online privacy rule that’s about to effect – the general data protection regulation, as it’s formally known.

The new regulation imposes strict data privacy requirements, including plain language notices and opt-in permission, on companies anywhere in the world…

The GDPR not only applies to organisations located within the E.U. but it will also apply to organisations located outside of the E.U. if they offer goods or services to, or monitor the behaviour of, E.U. data subjects. It applies to all companies processing and holding the personal data of data subjects residing in the European Union, regardless of the company’s location.

The GDPR applies to ‘personal data’ meaning any information relating to an identifiable person who can be directly or indirectly identified in particular by reference to an identifier. This definition provides for a wide range of personal identifiers to constitute personal data, including name, identification number, location data or online identifier, reflecting changes in technology and the way organisations collect information about people.

A U.S. company with only U.S. customers can ignore it, but since on the Internet, no one knows if you’re a dog or a European, the safe route is to accept the E.U. rule as the lowest common denominator and apply the required safeguards across the board.

That’s how the online world works. Legal borders exist, but you never know when you’re going to cross one. The U.S. congress can debate privacy rules all it wants, but the E.U. has effectively preempted it. Unless U.S. lawmakers want to raise the stakes and implement even tougher safeguards.

It’s a principle that’s worth keeping in mind as the California legislature considers enacting its own network neutrality laws. If the E.U. – counted as one, the world’s second largest economy – can write default rules for the Internet, then maybe California, the fifth largest economy, can too.

Santa Cruz gets more fiber, more gigabit service

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AT&T’s recent fiber to the home (FTTH) upgrades in Santa Cruz mean that Cruzio isn’t the only Internet service provider bringing gigabit class infrastructure into town (unless you have a sneaking suspicion that it’s a competitive response – in that case you can thank Cruzio for it too). U.C. Santa Cruz’s Jim Warner tracked it down…

AT&T has been working on an FTTH deployment in parts of west Santa Cruz. The work has progressed to the point where some addresses are showing availability of gigabit service in AT&T’s on-line service availability tool. When you enter a “good” address – one where gigabit service is already available – you see, among other things, a web offer for “fiber” service at 100 Mbps and 1,000 Mbps download and upload speeds (subject to the usual disclaimer: “actual customer speeds may vary and are not guaranteed”).

The 100 Mbps packages is capped at 1 terabyte a month; the gigabit package offers “unlimited data”.

An example of what FTTH looks like “on the pole” is in the picture above. The thin curved lines that appear to loop back into the new tap are not fibers. They are simply plastic retainers to keep the protective caps from falling to the ground. To be ready to serve any address, one of the taps needs to be placed on almost every pole.

It is harder to see what’s going on underground. We need to wait for details about the project to know if areas where utilities are underground (rather than on poles) will be included.

The quality of AT&T’s craftsmanship is highly variable and not all of it looks as clean as in the picture presented. So far, I’ve seen FTTH work in the area bounded by Walnut Ave., California St., Almar Ave. and King St. This is a poor way to gauge the scope of their project, though. I visited the AT&T retail store but discovered staff get no special advance information about what the company is working on.

Wireline carriers, such as AT&T and Comcast, each get one foot of vertical space on each pole for their service. AT&T has attached their new fiber network to their legacy copper network to avoid needing to completely rearrange the pole or pay for another foot of pole space.

Dozens of ISPs qualify to bid on FCC broadband subsidies, hundreds more in line

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Almost three hundred companies could be bidding for broadband service subsidies when the Federal Communications Commission begins auctioning off unserved rural territory across the United States. The FCC received 277 applications from companies that want to participate in the Connect America Fund program’s reverse auction, which is scheduled for late July.

Only 47 are good to go, though. The other 230 companies – including Frontier Communications – didn’t fully complete their applications, in the eyes of the FCC. They’ll have until 5 June 2018 to fix whatever problems they have.

AT&T and Verizon are in. Expanding wireline broadband service doesn’t seem to be top of mind for AT&T, though. It joined the auction via its “New Cingular Wireless” subsidiary – its mobile arm, in other words. That’s consistent with AT&T often stated intention of replacing rural broadband networks with wireless service. Verizon, on the other hand, left the door open for both its mobile or wireline companies to take part.

Comcast is represented, sorta. It owns half of Midcontinent Communications, a regional cable company based in South Dakota which submitted a complete application for the auction. Given that Midcontinent serves mostly rural and small market communities, it probably has a genuine – and limited – interest in some of the available territories.

Only one unambiguously Californian Internet service provider is on the complete list, Geolinks, a Ventura County based wireless ISP.

The auction has a lot of moving pieces. The FCC published a maximum subsidy for every remaining eligible area – i.e. where broadband service at 10 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speeds aren’t available. Companies will, presumably, bid each other down until the lowest price wins. But, they’ll also get extra points if they propose higher speeds or better quality of service metrics. Then, all the winning bids for all the areas have to be ranked – the FCC only has about $2 billion available, versus a total reserve price of $6 billion.

The odds of every unserved community making the cut are extremely low.

Republicans jump ship to vote yes, but net neutrality is still sinking

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The U.S. senate is formally opposed to the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of Obama era network neutrality rules, voting 52 to 49 yesterday to endorse a resolution of disapproval. The vote is important politically, but not practically. The next stop is the house of representatives, where the measure is expected to die a quiet death. Unless a federal court intervenes, that means the FCC’s repeal will take effect on 11 June 2018.

Three republicans joined all 49 U.S. senate democrats and voted for the resolution. Susan Collins (R – Maine) got on board early and, because John McCain (R – Arizona) is on medical leave, ensured that yes votes would have a winning majority. She was joined at the last minute by John Kennedy (R – Louisiana) and Lisa Murkowski (R – Alaska).

The usual speechifying preceded the vote. John Thune (R – South Dakota), who chairs a key committee and is often the republican’s point man on telecoms issues in the U.S. senate, claimed to be speaking in favor of net neutrality, but called for new bipartisan legislation instead of playing ping pong with FCC decisions, or trying to shoe horn 21st century broadband into 20th century telephone regulations. That’s a fine idea, but Thune is free to pursue it regardless of yesterday’s vote, and he’s in a leadership position that gives him the clout to do so if he’s genuinely interested. So far, he hasn’t.

Genuine or not, the high words of praise republicans had for net neutrality principles indicates that they know it’s a hot issue for voters, and they don’t want to be on the wrong side of it. Perversely, that might clear the way for the FCC’s complete repeal of net neutrality rules to stay in effect indefinitely. Republicans have a one vote majority in the U.S. senate, which gives democrats the ability to block most legislation. They want to use net neutrality as a flagship issue in November, so they can’t allow republicans to solve the problem.

With net neutrality a national campaign issue, California lawmakers must carry the flag

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The effects of a U.S. senate vote on reinstating network neutrality rules will reverberate in the California legislature this year, even if – as expected – the resolution of disapproval dies along the way.

However it goes, the vote will draw a partisan line in the sand for democrats. As a result, you can expect them to make net neutrality a signature issue in California’s June primary and November general election, when they’ll try to capture the few remaining republican house seats here. That’ll make it difficult, if not impossible, for fellow democrats in Sacramento to duck the issue.

There are two bills pending in the legislature – senate bills 460 and 822 – which would use consumer protection law and the state’s buying power to reinstate net neutrality rules in California. SB 822, carried by Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco), is the more aggressive and better written of the two, but even it has been progressively trimmed back by California senators following objections from lobbyists representing incumbent cable and telephone companies.

Those lobbyists have a lot of clout, because their companies pay millions of dollars to California legislators, on both sides of the aisle. Senators and assembly members on key committees have been particularly helpful to their patrons, and under normal circumstances might be expected to quietly kill any net neutrality legislation, as they did with an Internet privacy law last year. California lawmakers can get away with kowtowing to the likes of AT&T, Comcast, Charter and Frontier because few people – the Gentle Readers of this blog excepted, of course – pay attention to arcane debates about upload speeds, opt-in rules or pole attachments.

But net neutrality has struck a chord with the general public, which is why democrats are pushing hard to bring it back. Network neutrality is a high profile campaign issue at the national level and in local races for U.S. house and senate seats. With near absolute control of the legislature, Californian democrats will have no excuse – and a lot of uncomfortable explaining to do – if they let this opportunity pass.

Life and death alerts are low tech/no tech, California firestorm study shows

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Social media and other online services were not the way people received lifesaving warnings when a firestorm tore through three northern California counties last year. Nearly all were alerted to evacuate via phone or personal contact, or by their own eyes, ears and noses.

That’s a top line read of the data from a study just published by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium. They ran an online survey and 3,700 people responded, nearly all of them from the hardest hit counties of Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma. The number is significant as it stands, even if it wasn’t a scientifically selected sample.

Given that some people had “literally seconds” to leave their homes in the face of a wall of fire that moved at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, the most important question is “how did you receive warning/notice to evacuate?” About a quarter got no warning at all – they figured it out themselves – and about a third were alerted by phone calls of various kinds. Nearly a quarter got a boots-on-the-ground warning – someone banged on their door or shouted out to them. Most of the rest checked other, and closer inspection shows nearly all of those responses are also variations on phone, physical or smell-the-smoke alerts.

The Internet accounted for very few of the time-critical messages. Of the more than 1,600 evacuees who responded, only 11 credited online sources for the warning: five people mentioned Facebook, four said Nextdoor and two saw notices on public agency websites. Even in those cases, most already knew something was going on. Radio and TV – ancient compared to the Internet, but newer tech than phones or feet – were almost as insignificant.

Across those three counties, 78% of respondents said they lost “some to all” of their cellular voice and data service, while 66% reported the same for wireline phones. Just looking at Internet connectivity, of whatever sort, 69% said they lost “some to all” of it.

There’s no mystery about the cause. The fires burned countless utility poles (some argue blazes were started by electric lines mounted on those poles) and more than “340 cell sites were completely destroyed or damaged”. When infrastructure goes up in smoke, service disappears too.

The report is largely quantitative and doesn’t point any particular fingers of blame, noting “the severity of the 2017 wildfires was unpredictable”.

North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017, released 10 May 2018.
Report Appendices, released 10 May 2018.
More information from the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

Helpfully, the FCC posts a guide to nasty network management

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When the Federal Communications Commission published a notice on Friday, declaring that network neutrality rules would end on 11 June 2018, it also wrote a permission slip for Internet service providers to go ahead and do pretty much anything they want. It’s not stated that way, but that’s the effect.

In Friday’s notice, the FCC listed the network management practices and service terms that ISPs have to disclose to consumers. It’s okay if they engage in those practices, so long as details are posted somewhere on their websites. The list includes blocking and throttling subscriber traffic, and giving paid traffic priority over everything else – “affiliated prioritisation” and “paid prioritisation”, as the notice puts it. The only difference between the two is whether the content that’s prioritised belongs to the ISP or to an outside company.

ISPs are also allowed to shape traffic on the basis of consumer applications or devices so long as they hide it in small print on their website tell consumers what they’re doing. In particular…

  • Application-Specific Behavior. Whether and why the ISP blocks or rate- controls specific protocols or protocol ports, modifies protocol fields in ways not prescribed by the protocol standard, or otherwise inhibits or favors certain applications or classes of applications.
  • Device Attachment Rules. Any restrictions on the types of devices and any approval procedures for devices to connect to the network.

“Congestion management” measures are also allowed, including “usage limits” – i.e. data caps. A service description must also be posted, “including the service technology, expected and actual access speed and latency, and the suitability of the service for real-time applications”. If an ISP uses the bandwidth you’re buying to transmit other, non-broadband access related data – cable television channels, for example – it has to be disclosed too.

The FCC’s republican majority claims that the new rules simply return Internet governance to the way it was three years ago. That’s not exactly true. Before, there was considerable uncertainty about how aggressively an ISP could manipulate subscriber traffic to suit its own business model. Now, that uncertainty is gone: an ISP can do any of the things on the FCC’s exhaustive list of no-longer-banned practices as aggressively as it wants.

ZTE shutdown could lead to a mobile OS startup

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A major Chinese smart phone and telecoms infrastructure manufacturer was stopped cold by U.S. trade sanctions, after it 1. did business with Iran contrary to U.S. rules and 2. didn’t adequately punish the executives responsible for the violation. ZTE announced last week that “the major operating activities of the company have ceased”. It’s number two smart phone maker in China, behind Huawei, but has a low profile among U.S. consumers.

The U.S. commerce department issued an order that bans U.S. companies from doing business with ZTE. Since technology developed in the U.S. – much of it here in California – is critical to high technology products, ZTE had no choice but to shut down. It might be temporary, though, according to an article by Roger Cheng on CNET

The company had to shut down its operations to comply with the order, but it continues to talk with US government officials about a potential stay or reconsideration of the denial order, according to a person familiar with the situation.

“Ceasing operations does not mean we’re going away,” the person said, noting that ZTE has a cash reserve and could eventually tap into financing to stay alive.

The company is also pegging its hopes on broader discussions between US and Chinese officials in their bilateral trade talks – ZTE is expected to be a topic of conversation brought up on the Chinese side, the person said.

One critical piece of technology that ZTE can’t have is Google’s Android operating system, or at least the bells and whistles that go along with it. Android’s core is open source, but linked elements, like the Google Play store and many of the apps in it, are proprietary and now off limits.

ZTE won’t just roll over die. The commerce department’s order might even serve to weaken the Apple/Google mobile operating system duopoly. Of the two ZTE smart phones I’ve owned, one was based on the Firefox mobile OS. It didn’t go anywhere in the market and was eventually shelved, but it shows that ZTE knows its options.

If you don’t stop it, fix it, justice department tells AT&T-Time Warner trial judge

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It’s up to a federal judge to decide whether or not AT&T can buy Time Warner, and all the content and video channels that come along with it. The federal justice department tried to make the case that the deal would be anti-competitive and should be blocked. AT&T, naturally enough, claimed it wasn’t.

Some experts who followed the trial closely thought AT&T made the better case. The justice department has to prove that a vertical merger – when a company buys its supplier – would have the same destructive effect on competition as a horizontal one, when a company buys a competitor. That’s a tough sell, and it seems that justice department lawyers aren’t counting on total victory. In its closing brief, the justice department offered Plan B: a “targeted divestiture” – either allow AT&T to buy some of Time Warner’s content assets (HBO and Warner Brothers, but not Turner channels) or force it to give up ownership of DirecTv.

Usefully, the justice department argued strongly for a “structural”, rather than a “behavioral” remedy. The difference is that a structural solution involves a permanent change – divesting DirecTv or not acquiring Turner, for example – while a behavioral change only involves a promise not to do bad things in the future…

While structural relief eliminates the risk of harm, behavioral relief assumes regulatory conditions can effectively constrain a business’s natural incentives to maximize profits…Behavioral relief is also less effective at protecting competition than structural market-oriented remedies because it “can hardly be detailed enough to cover in advance all the many fashions in which improper influence [over the acquired company] might manifest itself.”

Just so. Behavioral remedies require ongoing oversight by regulators with little experience or interest in the business at hand, and lead to perpetual evasion by corporate execs and lawyers with all the incentive and resources in the world.

A decision is expected by mid-June.

The net neutrality doomsday clock is running again

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Update: the FCC’s notice is here.

June 11th is the day that federal network neutrality rules will end. Probably. The Federal Communications Commission announced yesterday that it will publish the final, required notice today, with an effective date one month from now.

Two long shot attempts to block the FCC are underway.

Democrats (and at least one republican) in the U.S. senate want to enact a resolution of disapproval that would veto the FCC’s republican majority decision late last year to scrap the net neutrality rules it approved three years ago, when it had a democratic majority. The resolution has a plausible chance of making it through the U.S. senate, but it will die in the house of representatives, where republicans have a comfortable majority. Republicans were correct when they called it a piece of political theater, but since that’s what Washington, D.C. runs on, it’s a victory for democrats on the national political stage. Republicans don’t object to the drama, they’re upset because the democrats stole the spotlight.

The best chance of keeping net neutrality alive past 11 June 2018 is a lawsuit that’s sitting in a federal appeals court in D.C. Several challenges to the FCC’s decision – including filings from the California Public Utilities Commission and the County of Santa Clara – have been rolled into a consolidated case. It’ll be years before federal courts reach a final decision, but judges have the authority to put the FCC’s decision on hold while the case is pending.

Federal judges declined to do that in 2015, when net neutrality rules were imposed, because, among other reasons, the big Internet service providers, like AT&T and Comcast, claimed they were following them anyway. This time around, those same companies are loudly arguing for the right to charge extra for Internet fast lanes. The circumstances of the FCC’s decision are different this time too – there’s a better chance of making the case that it was “arbitrary and capricious”.

Even so, direct judicial intervention would be unusual. The way to bet is on net neutrality rules ending on 11 June.