CenturyLink gets extortionate pricing bonus from Level 3 deal

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Level 3 is engaging in “extortionate pricing” for the middle mile fiber connections it leases to broadband companies, and the problem will only get worse if CenturyLink is allowed to buy it. That’s the claim made by Windstream, a relatively small incumbent telephone company, based in Arkansas, that also offers data networking and other telecommunications services to businesses outside of its primary coverage area.

Windstream filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission, as it decides whether CenturyLink’s proposed purchase of Level 3 will go forward. As did Frontier Communications, which got a big amen from Windstream…

Like Frontier, Windstream is concerned that the combined entity will use its augmented scale and market power to engage increasingly in these and other practices that are contrary to the public interest and fair and reasonable competition, and are detrimental to Windstream’s continued effort to invest in its network to provide robust and affordable broadband service, particularly in rural and high-cost areas. As Frontier notes, “[a]bsent conditions aimed at remedying these practices, the Commission should conclude that the proposed transaction will substantially frustrate or impair the Commission’s implementation or enforcement of [federal telecoms law], which requires carriers to engage in just and reasonable practices.

There’s not much the FCC can do about Level 3’s current pricing policies, even it it wanted to do so. Former chairman Tom Wheeler folded his hand on regulation of middle mile services shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency, and it’s a safe bet that the FCC as currently comprised won’t take it up again. The real question is whether the FCC will allow CenturyLink to buy Level 3, significantly reduce what little competition exists in the middle mile fiber market and kick its predatory pricing practices into overdrive.

Meanwhile, here in California, there’s no word on whether the California Public Utilities Commission will weigh in on the deal. No formal proceeding has been opened, which indicates that CenturyLink and Level 3 hope to slide their hook up through on a simple, administrative basis. Given the CPUC’s clear declaration that middle mile competition matters, allowing such a lawyerly slight of hand would be a travesty.

Competitive pole access, urban streetscapes considered by CPUC

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The California Public Utilities Commission will decide whether wireline telephone companies and other licensed telecommunications companies can attach wireless equipment to utility poles on the same terms as mobile carriers. Responding to a request from the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), a lobbying group for companies that build and own cell towers and similar facilities, CPUC president Michael Picker is proposing to start the process that could eventually grant that permission.

But the questions he wants to ask go beyond the simple technical and legal considerations that go along with the current pole attachment rules, and touch on broader questions of competitive barriers and how much infrastructure is too much, particularly in urban areas…

Although the scope of this proceeding is limited to [licensed telecoms companies’] wireless pole attachments, we will take comment on (1) whether there is sufficient space and load-bearing capacity on the stock of existing utility poles to support additional telecommunications attachments, including wireless pole attachments, that may be necessary to provide ubiquitous, competitive, and affordable telecommunications services; (2) whether the cost of replacing existing poles to support additional telecommunications attachments poses a barrier to entry; and (3) whether urban streetscapes can accommodate more pole attachments, the replacement of existing poles with larger poles, and possibly an increase in the number of poles. We will also take comment on the range of pole attachments and services contemplated by WIA.

It’s not clear what he plans to do with the information about the type of wireless services that might be offered, but that sort of regulation is primarily a federal matter and CPUC has very limited, and decreasing, scope in that regard. But if it’s just about getting more information into the record and in the hands of policy makers, it’s a very positive step.

Picker’s willingness to consider WIA’s petition stands in contrast to his decision – ratified by the commission as a whole – to deny cable companies the same privileges. As a practical matter, though, most cable companies have licensed telecom subsidiaries, as their lobbyists have pointed out.

The commission will vote on Picker’s plan to take a deeper look at competitive access, or lack thereof, to utility poles, but it would be very unusual for permission to be denied – that would, in effect, decide the issue – so expect to hear more about it in the coming months.

IBM cons patent office about email feature then backs down

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Sounds good to me.

If you’ve ever set your email account to send out an I’m on vacation and you’re not auto-response, you might have just dodged a bullet. The U.S. patent office granted IBM a patent on an “out-of-office electronic mail messaging system” that is indistinguishable from the vacation auto-responder that’s been baked into every email platform on the planet for the past 20 years.

But in a gesture of corporate magnanimity – after being roundly and justifiably ripped by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the trade press – IBM has released the patent into the public domain. According to a story by Joe Mullin in Ars Technica

Asked about EFF’s criticisms of the patent, an IBM spokesperson said that “IBM has decided to dedicate the patent to the public.” The company notified USPTO today that it will forego its rights to the patent.

In an EFF blog post, Daniel Nazer gives a run down of the ways that the patent office screwed up while reviewing the patent application. First, patents are not supposed to be issued for obvious uses of existing technology or, particularly, for so-called innovations that are actually commonplace practices for which no one had bothered to file an application. That’s simply a major fail on the part of the patent office employees responsible for the bogus decision.

Second, granting the patent directly contradicts a U.S. supreme court ruling – the Alice decision – that says that abstract ideas that can be implemented on any generic computer aren’t eligible for patents. The patent examiner on the case was aware of that, but, as Nazer writes

At one point, the examiner did reject some of the application’s claims under Section 101 of the Patent Act (which is the statute the Alice decision applies). But IBM overcame the rejection simply by arguing that the patent’s method was implemented in computer hardware. In January 2013, IBM noted that “it was agreed [between IBM and the patent examiner] that the rejection … under 35 U.S.C. § 101 could be overcome by reciting that a hardware storage device stores computer readable instructions or program code”.

This fiasco ended well because IBM is a big company with a reputation that’s worth far, far more than a undefendable patent. But if, instead, patent office employees had granted it to a typical patent troll – companies that exist only to extort settlements from small businesses that can’t afford to defend themselves – the effect could have been devastating.

FCC preps a bipartisan bigfoot for cities and counties

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But only the bad actors. Honest.

Local governments will have even less to say about how and where broadband infrastructure will be built. That was the clear and bipartisan message from two members of the Federal Communications Commission when they testified in front of a U.S. senate committee on Wednesday. Michael O’Rielly, who reliably takes conventional republican positions, went straight for the jugular

Standing in the way of greater Internet access nationwide are barriers imposed by state, local, and tribal entities. These range from maintaining difficult permitting and approval processes, attempts to extract enormous sums for tower siting and access to rights-of-ways, and efforts to establish government sponsored networks accompanied by favorable land, tax, and approval procedures. While the vast number of communities see the benefit of broadband deployment and welcome providers seeking to serve their citizens, there are bad actors that will likely require preemptive measures by the Commission. This problem will become even more acute as providers seek to deploy the next generation, or 5G wireless services, that will bring greater capacity, higher speeds and lower latency, but will also require many more wireless tower and antenna siting approvals. I realize that preempting local community decisions is a difficult topic to contemplate, but it has become necessary and appropriate for the Commission to exercise authority provided by Congress to address this situation.

Mignon Clyburn, who stands firmly in the democratic mainstream, was more diplomatic, but just as clear

We recognized the need for efficient and streamlined processing of siting applications as well as localities’ interests in preserving the aesthetics of their communities and ensuring the safety of their citizens. Indeed, as I have said before, approving applications to site antennas and other infrastructure are difficult policy challenges for local governments…

I believe the Commission has a unique role to play in facilitating discussions and dialogue between industry and local communities about the benefits and challenges of small cell deployment.

There’s no practical difference, though, between exercising “authority provided by Congress” and “facilitating discussions and dialogue”. Either way it means the FCC will be step in once again and preempt state and local broadband policy.

Wikileaks shows there’s no such thing as a top secret hack

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Not the latest version.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s guide to cracking is getting bad reviews from the tech community. Published earlier this week on Wikileaks, the thousands of files of internal documentation maintained by the CIA’s engineering development group are mostly openly available cook books and mundane advice on how not to get caught.

A story by Sean Gallagher at Ars Technica steps through some of it and concludes it amounts to an outdated “Malware 101” textbook…

It’s not clear how closely tool developers at the CIA followed the tradecraft advice in the leaked document—in part because they realized how dated some of the advice was. Back in 2013, two users of the system said so in the comments area: “A lot of the basic tradecraft suggestions on that page seem flawed,” wrote one. Another followed, “Honestly, that stuff is probably already dated…”

Four years later, some of the recommendations have become even more stale. That’s largely because of the advances made in malware detection and security tools, including those built into many operating systems. But it’s also because the tradecraft used by everyday malware authors without the benefit of state sponsorship have surpassed these sorts of tradecraft suggestions.

One of the takeaways from the Wikileaks dump should come as no surprise: the CIA is an avid collector of zero day exploits, which are bugs in applications, operating systems and hardware that the rightful owners don’t know about yet. But plenty of others will. Apparently, the CIA buys at least some of these backdoors from the grey and black marketeers that openly sell them. Even a flaw discovered by the CIA’s team isn’t exactly a secret – it’s there for the taking by anyone else with the necessary, and far from rare, skills.

Spying is the CIA’s job. But the reason for doing it is to protect the U.S. Feeding the market for malware and hoarding it instead of fixing it makes us all less secure.

AT&T’s national 911 wireless fail is business as usual

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Consider this your notification.

No one knows yet why AT&T’s mobile phone customers couldn’t connect with 911 centers on Wednesday night. AT&T refuses to explain and the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t know either, saying only that its “public safety professionals are on the case”. The extent of the outage is unknown as well, with reports varying from “nationwide” to “likely thousands. Maybe millions”.

It appears that AT&T let a few public safety agencies know about the outage, but not all and probably not most. And the notifications were cryptic. One simply referred to “a service outage that is impacting the ability to deliver AT&T Mobility wireless 911 calls in your area”.

The outage came as California lawmakers are considering senate bill 566 which would require companies that provide telephone service – cable and VoIP companies as well as telcos – notify the state office of emergency services when 911 connectivity goes down in rural areas. AT&T’s Wednesday night silence in most cases, and dismissive responses in others, is Exhibit A in support of why that bill is necessary.

The outage should also cause concern for any policy maker – California legislators, the California Public Utilities Commission, the FCC, and the list goes on – that has to weigh AT&T’s pious claims of technological prowess and reliability against its headlong rush to rip out wireline networks and replace them with wireless systems that are built on the same platforms that crashed on Wednesday.

Technology fails. At times. That’s been true since the first caveman hit control-alt-delete and rebooted a frozen stone axe. What’s changed is that a shrinking number of companies have increasingly greater monopoly control over telecoms networks that are 1. paid for with taxpayer subsidies and 2. vital to the health and safety of those taxpayers.

AT&T’s deceit is not unique, but few of its peers match its arrogant disdain for customers and its cynical manipulation of the political process.

FCC is still the privacy police, even without common carrier rules

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Ajit Pai steered away from discussing the plans, or at least the intent, he has to roll back the Federal Communications Commission’s classification of broadband as a common carrier service during his first congressional appearance as chairman yesterday. But he did indicate that the FCC might not be washing its hands of all responsibility for regulating what Internet service providers do with private customer information.

His appearance in front of the U.S. senate’s commerce, science, and transportation committee came two days after he met with Donald Trump and a day after the news broke that the president had re-appointed him to another five year term on the commission. Pai’s first term expires in June, although he could have kept his seat for another year and a half, or until someone else was appointed to take it. Trump can name someone else to the chair’s job anytime he pleases, but right now the way to bet is that Pai will keep it for the next four years.

According to reporting by Amir Nasr in Morning Consult, Pai told the committee that the FCC’s responsibility to oversee ISP privacy practices comes directly from federal law and does not depend on the FCC’s 2015 common carrier – aka network neutrality – decision…

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.)…today asked Pai what would happen if the FCC’s rules “suddenly went away,” and if the FCC would still be “obligated to police broadband privacy practices under Section 222 of the Communications Act?”

“That’s correct, carriers would still have their obligations under Section 222 in addition to other federal and state privacy data security and breach notification requirements,” Pai responded.

In the prepared statement that kicked off his testimony, Pai rehashed the talking points he’s been pushing in recent speeches to industry groups – more broadband deployment, fewer nitpicking rules for telecoms companies to follow and greater transparency in the FCC’s decision making process.

Monterey Bay broadband expert group offers conduit design advice

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It’s one thing to say that empty telecoms conduit – shadow conduit – should be installed anytime a street is repaved or a utility trench is dug, but that begs a question: what kind of conduit, and how should it be designed?

To answer that question, the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership and the Central Coast Broadband Consortium convened a technical expert group that included senior public works engineers, Internet service providers, underground construction contractors and manufacturers. An intense discussion at an afternoon meeting at U.C. Santa Cruz produced a draft set of shadow conduit specifications and guidance, which then circulated through several rounds of revisions.

Consensus was reached on a number of key items, including appropriate conduit size…

  1. 2-inch conduit is sufficient for multiple high capacity fiber cables using current technology (432 strands or more), and can be subdivided using inner-duct that would allow multiple service providers to share a single conduit.
  2. 4-inch conduit has even more capacity but, due to its larger size, can present design problems, for example when connecting to vaults. This size of conduit was standard when telecommunications systems depended on thick bundles of copper cables, but is not necessary for most modern fiber applications. However, 4-inch conduit should be considered for installation on bridges, railroad crossings and in other circumstances where future changes would be particularly difficult or impossible.
  3. Smaller conduit, e.g. 1.25-inch, is useful when it is not possible to install 2-inch conduit or when many, separate conduits are installed. It may be preferred when conduits are expected to be used by a single service provider, rather than shared among many over time, or when it meets the needs of an anticipated project or service provider.

Other specs included vault and hand hole placement, conduit system design considerations and preferred installation locations.

The document is intended to guide shadow conduit design decisions, not dictate them. It represents the broad consensus of the expert group members, but actual designs will ultimately depend on the specific circumstances of any given project or jurisdiction.

The next subject that the MBEP/CCBC expert group plans to tackle is microtrenching. It’s a fiber installation technique that, on the one hand, reduces project costs, but on the other hand can impact street service life and maintenance costs.

MBEP/CCBC Shadow Conduit Specifications version 1.0

Love or hate his agenda, but Pai makes good on transparency pledge

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Less than six weeks into his term as chairman, Ajit Pai is making significant, and welcome, reforms to the way the Federal Communications Commission does business. There’s plenty of room to take issue with the substance of some of the decisions that the new republican FCC majority has made, or plans to make, but the way it’s going about doing it is far more transparent than past practices were, including particularly those of recently departed chairman Tom Wheeler.

In the past, draft FCC decisions were kept secret, at least from the public. Well-heeled lobbyists always seemed to know what was in the works, and sometimes knew more than commissioners themselves. When democrats had control, Pai complained bitterly about Wheeler’s secrecy, and now he’s resisted the temptation to claim that power for himself.

For the first time in my memory, we know the details of all six of the major decisions that the FCC will be considering at its next meeting on 23 March 2017. Along with the tentative agenda, the FCC published the drafts last week. The language could change over the next three weeks and, unlike the California Public Utilities Commission, the FCC can still make and vote on major changes without disclosing them ahead of time, but at least we have a good idea of what those decisions will be.

Pai hasn’t been 100% squeaky clean and transparent. He was rightly ripped by democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn for a Friday news dump, when he scrapped several orders and actions taken in the waning days of the Obama administration, including an enquiry into mobile carriers’ zero rating practices and a white paper that laid out a broadband development road map. But on the whole he’s keeping his promise to shine more light onto the murky deliberations and dealings at the FCC and he deserves credit for it.

California bill tells telephone, cable companies to take rural 911 seriously

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Press 1 to pay your bill. If you’re having a heart attack, stay on the line and a representative will be with you shortly.

When broadband or phone service goes down in rural California, the last people to know are often the dispatchers at emergency 911 centers. When they do figure it out, there’s not much they can do about it except hope for the best. Such notification requirements that exist have thresholds that are set with urban areas in mind – hundreds of thousands of households, for example – and can leave rural communities in a telecoms black hole for hours or days on end.

A proposed law pending in Sacramento would address part of that problem. As currently drafted, senate bill 566, authored by senator Mike McGuire (D – Healdsburg) would do two important things. It would require companies that provide 911 dial-in access – telcos as well as cable and VoIP companies – to notify the state office emergency services within an hour when rural lines go down, and provide direct contact with real humans while repairs are underway. OES would then be responsible for keeping local public safety agencies and 911 centers informed.

Under current practices, cable and telephone companies can send emergency operators into the same toll free, customer service hell as everyone else. You can guess how well that works, but if you want the gory details, you can take a look at the results of last year’s investigation into rural call completion issues by the California Public Utilities Commission. The end result of that proceeding was new requirements that go some way toward fixing the problem, but only so far. Even that, though, was too much for telecoms companies, who have launched an all out legal challenge to the new standards.

McGuire’s bill simplifies those rules – when service goes down, call 911 and stay on the case, period – and, more importantly, bakes them into law, rather than leave the details up to a CPUC that is, at times, happy to let telcos do as they please. SB 566 has a long way to go until – or if – it’s passed and signed by the governor. It’s currently awaiting its first hearing, in front of the state senate energy, utilities and communications committee.