Tag Archives: public policy

Your ISP now owns your information.

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Congress opened your kimono.

Privacy rules for Internet service providers are heading straight from limbo into oblivion. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules that put strict limits on what ISPs can do with the data that customers transmit on their networks, significantly stricter than the restrictions on what most online businesses can do with consumer data.

Earlier this month, a much different FCC voted to put those rules on hold. Now, the U.S. congress has voted to scrap the rules altogether. In a party line vote, the house of representatives concurred with a U.S. senate resolution, and sent it on the president. In a blog post, the Washington Post’s Brian Fung summarises what it means for consumers…

If Trump signs the legislation as expected, providers will be able to monitor their customers’ behavior online and, without their permission, use their personal and financial information to sell highly targeted ads — making them rivals to Google and Facebook in the $83 billion online advertising market.

The providers could also sell their users’ information directly to marketers, financial firms and other companies that mine personal data — all of whom could use the data without consumers’ consent. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission, which initially drafted the protections, will be forbidden from issuing similar rules in the future.

FCC chair Ajit Pai praised the action while, ironically, criticising last year’s decision for being done on a party line vote. He characterised it as benefitting “one group of favored companies over another group of disfavored companies”. The rationale is that ISPs should live by the same privacy rules set by the Federal Trade Commission as do web companies, like Apple, Amazon or Google.

What that argument ignores is that consumers have a choice as to whether or not they do business with those companies, which compete against each other and against a long list of challengers. The broadband access industry, though, runs largely on a monopoly/duopoly model, and you don’t have a choice as to what information you do and do not give to your ISP. It sees everything you do and, shortly, will own your information.

Californian broadband subsidies create rural competition, of a sort

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The Digital 299 middle mile fiber project approved by the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday is a big step toward levelling the competitive playing field for broadband in the Klamath Mountains. It’s a rugged and sparsely populated region, with very little wireline or mobile broadband access, and fixed wireless service that seems to rely on expansive coverage claims backed up by lawyerly disclaimers rather than recognised and verifiable technical standards.

That’s why the region qualified for a $47 million broadband infrastructure grant from the California Advanced Services Fund. That money will mostly go toward building a 300 mile long fiber network, generally along State Route 299, but $1.5 million will be spent on last mile, gigabit service for the town of Lewiston in Trinity County and $3.1 million will pay for up to 15 wireless towers along the line. The result will be three big, competitive kicks…

  1. Cheap (relatively) Internet bandwidth. Assuming the system is run on an open access basis with reasonably transparent pricing – likely, at least at first, but not guaranteed by the CPUC – any ISP will be able to bring in gigabits of capacity at prices that match or beat what’s available to mainstream communities in the Sacramento Valley.
  2. Ready made towers, with backhaul included. If the price is right, mobile carriers will come, as Frontier Communications, the only wireline company along the route, seems to know. It vociferously objected to this common sense add-on to the project. Given that it has no qualms about accepting federal subsidies for service that fails to meet Californian standards, it’s a safe bet that Frontier’s motivation isn’t concern for taxpayer dollars.
  3. A shining testament that a better world awaits. People living in the 300 homes in Lewiston – a town that makes Boron look like an LA suburb – will get a symmetrical gigabit for $60 a month. Their neighbors along SR 299, and particularly in the communities that the CPUC unjustly chopped from the project), will know what’s possible and will not have to accept poor mouthing from incumbent providers.

Don’t get too carried away by the competitive prospects. Internet access along the Digital 299 route will be greatly improved and core broadband infrastructure will be much better than similarly remote areas of California, but the economics of broadband along the Digital 299 route will, absent additional subsidies, keep service levels low and/or prices high by urban standards.

Push back on public funding will only increase. Attempts to put more money in the CASF kitty are stalled in Sacramento and CPUC president Michael Picker, who echoed incumbent talking points before voting *no* on the Digital 299 grant, is embracing the monopoly first model of FCC chair Ajit Pai.

But even if it’s not a free market paradise the Klamath region has a fighting chance, where before it had none. That’s a win.

More low income homes are smartphone-only as homework gap grows

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Barely more than half of U.S. households with incomes less than $30,000 a year have bona fide broadband service, and disproportionately rely exclusively on smart phones for Internet access. A report published by the Pew Research Center shows a growing gap between the quality and quantity of broadband access they have to rely on, and that enjoyed by higher income households, those with $100,000 or more in annual earnings. This disparity impacts their ability to find jobs and get an education…

In 2016, one-fifth of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year were “smartphone-only” internet users – meaning they owned a smartphone but did not have broadband internet at home. This represents an increase from 12% in 2013. In contrast, only 4% of those living in households earning $100,000 or more fell into this category in either year…

This reliance on smartphones also means that the less affluent are more likely to use them for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens. For example, lower-income smartphone owners were especially likely to use their mobile device when seeking out and applying for jobs, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report.

The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap,” or the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. Some 5 million school-age children do not have a broadband internet connection at home, with low-income households accounting for a disproportionate share.

It’s worth keeping in mind as incumbent telcos that are also mobile carriers – here in California, that would be AT&T – dispatch lobbyists to talk up wireless plans while scheming to yank out wireline service in rural and inner city communities. The same communities where lower income Californians can be disproportionately found.

Wikileaks’ CIA dump plugs massive Cisco security hole

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If you look into the core of the Internet or just in a typical corporate or institutional data center, you’ll see rack after rack loaded with switches, routers and other gear made by Cisco. A vulnerability in even one of their products can leave a lot of networks and data open to attack. So you might come to the conclusion that spotting that kind of flaw and fixing it as quickly as possible is matter of national security.

You’d be wrong.

It turns out that more than three hundred Cisco devices can be breached via a cracking technique used by the Central Intelligence Agency and revealed in a massive document dump by Wikileaks. Company researchers have concluded that

  • Malware exists that seems to target different types and families of Cisco devices, including multiple router and switches families.
  • The malware, once installed on a Cisco device, seem to provide a range of capabilities: data collection, data exfiltration, command execution with administrative privileges (and without any logging of such commands ever been executed), HTML traffic redirection, manipulation and modification (insertion of HTML code on web pages), DNS poisoning, covert tunneling and others.
  • The authors have spent a significant amount of time making sure the tools, once installed, attempt to remain hidden from detection and forensic analysis on the device itself.
  • It would also seem the malware author spends a significant amount of resources on quality assurance testing – in order, it seems, to make sure that once installed the malware will not cause the device to crash or misbehave.

There’s a quick way to block it – disable telnet, an ancient and insecure communications protocol – but a permanent fix has yet to be released.

Generally, there are two ways the CIA could have obtained this exploit: either it was developed internally or it was purchased on the black market. If the former, it could have been duplicated by anyone with sufficient skill. If the latter, it means the CIA knew that broad swathes of the world’s IT infrastructure was exposed to anyone with deep enough pockets. In either case, its first duty should have been to plug the hole, and not sit on it until its own firewall was breached.

Middle mile fiber link to California’s north coast gets $47 million

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The Digital 299 middle mile fiber project will receive a $47 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund. The line begins in Shasta County, just south of Redding where it will connect to long haul fiber on the I-5 corridor, and runs along State Route 299 through Trinity County, ending on the coast in Humboldt County at Eureka, with laterals to a potential submarine cable landing site on Arcata Bay and Humboldt State’s marine lab in Trinidad. It also includes a spur up to Hoopa tribal lands along State Route 96. It’ll be built and operated by Inyo Networks/Praxis Associates, the commonly owned companies responsible for the similar Digital 395 project in eastern California.

The California Public Utilities Commission voted 4 to 1 to approve the grant yesterday, with president Michael Picker voting no. It pays for 70% of middle mile construction costs – $45 million of $65 million total – and 60% of a small last mile build for 300 homes in the Trinity County community of Lewiston, $1.5 million of $2.4 million total. People living in Lewiston will be able to get symmetrical gigabit Internet service for $60 per month.

Originally, Inyo Networks proposed offering this fast and cheap package to a total of 1,000 homes, in Douglas City, Hayfork and Burnt Ranch as well as Lewiston, but it had to slash 700 homes from the last mile component of the project. That was because Frontier Communications protested, promising instead to upgrade broadband speeds to 1,200 homes in the area to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds. That’s something Frontier has to do anyway, to meet requirements attached to federal broadband subsidies it’s accepted. It’s also below the CPUC’s minimum 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload standard, but Frontier dodged around that requirement by telling the CPUC that it “estimates that approximately 70 percent of these households will receive speeds greater than the minimum speed (12 mbps down and 2 mbps up, or higher)”.

The project budget also includes construction of up to 15 towers that would be attached to the network and provide a platform for mobile carriers, public safety radio systems and other wireless services: potential middle mile fiber customers, in other words.

CPUC approves Digital 299 fiber project, Webpass transfer, pole access enquiry

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In a 4 to 1 vote, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to spend $47 million on the Digital 299 middle mile fiber project this morning. It’s a 300 mile network connecting Trinity and Humboldt counties to long haul routes in Shasta County. The no vote came from president Michael Picker.

The CPUC also unanimously approved Google’s purchase of Webpass, a mostly wireless broadband provider that is also licensed as a wireline telephone company – hence the need for commission review – and granted a request to begin consideration of new access rules that would allow licensed telephone companies to hang wireless equipment on utility poles.

FCC chair needs to upgrade his competitive thinking

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For a smart guy, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai can be awfully obtuse at times. Particularly where telecommunications competition is concerned.

On the one hand he extolls its virtues, saying to a Pittsburgh audience last week that “a competitive free market is crucial to unleashing private-sector ingenuity”. Just so. But in that same speech, he endorsed giving government subsidies to incumbent telephone companies, called for less regulation of those monopolies and ripped the idea that spending money on building competitive infrastructure or supporting new competitors has any value.

You can’t have it both ways. To get from the current model of broadband service – monopolies with deteriorating infrastructure in rural areas and equally predatory duopolies in cities and suburbs – to a free market, competitors have to be nurtured. Otherwise, the only way to ensure access to modern service at affordable and economically justifiable rates in a failed market is via the poor substitute of regulation.

Pai is correct in favoring “light-touch” regulation over the heavier kind, and he seems to prefer no regulation at all. That’s fine too. If there’s sufficient competition to make a free market function.

You can find competition in the mobile broadband industry. The recent return of unlimited data plans is a good example of competitive forces at work. But four national mobile carriers compete for your business.

If there was only one mobile carrier with a national footprint plus one with urban/suburban coverage, you’d have a choice between an mid-speed, mid to high cost plan and a fast, expensive one, as you do with wireline telephone and cable company offerings, respectively. Unless you lived in a rural area where you’d either have nothing at all or slow and expensive service, depending on how the monopoly carrier’s profit maximisation calculations came out.

Rural monopolies and urban/suburban duopolies are the product of more than 100 years of public policy that delivered subsidies, including money and privileged access to public right of ways, to select, regulated cable and telephone companies. The regulation largely ended, but the rents – cash and in kind – continue, and U.S. broadband customers continue to pay the price of monopoly.

Pai needs to understand that if you subsidise something, you get more of it. If he continues to subsidise monopolies and dismiss bona fide competition, costs will continue to rise, and the gaps between the have and have not communities, and between the U.S. and other developed nations, will widen.

All or nothing for Digital 299 tomorrow

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Update, 23 March 2017: the CPUC voted 4 to 1 to approve the Digital 299 grant this morning.

The Digital 299 middle mile fiber system will either get all of the $47 million that its backers are requesting from the California Advanced Services Fund, or it won’t be subsidised at all. The California Public Utilities Commission will make that choice tomorrow, assuming the current schedule holds, when it considers whether or not to fund a 300-mile fiber route that would begin near Redding, where it would connect to existing fiber lines along the I-5 corridor, and run through Trinity County and terminate on the Humboldt County coast, at Eureka and Trinidad.

When it was proposed in August 2015, the applicant – Inyo Networks – asked for a $51 million grant, based on the assessment that the project area was unserved, in other words, there was no broadband service available at all. That would have made the project eligible for 70% funding from CASF. However, after it had been under review for a year and a half – despite the fact that commission rules call for that work to be completed in three and a half months – that figure was trimmed back to $41 million. CPUC staff rated most of the territory as underserved – eligible for only 60% funding – and accepted late objections from Frontier Communications and Charter Communications which resulted in the majority of the included last mile service area being taken out and a reduction in the middle mile subsidy, respectively.

When the Commission first considered the project last month, Inyo Networks and supporters from the Humboldt area asked for $6 million more for the project, as well as easier completion bond requirements. At the time, commissioner Carla Peterman said she’d draft an alternate resolution that would do that. Instead, the original resolution was rewritten – it was published last week, but I missed it – to raise the grant amount and relax bonding specs. That means that there will only be one resolution on the table – the lower cost option is gone, absent a move by commissioners to revive it.

The big question now is whether it can muster three votes. At last month’s meeting, president Michael Picker said he’s “likely to vote against this under any circumstances”, and rookie commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves expressed similar skepticism. That means fellow rookie Clifford Rechtschaffen, Liane Randolph and Peterman will all have to vote yes. Otherwise, Digital 299 dies.

Broadband subsidies should be spent on California’s future

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There’s more than $100 million left for broadband infrastructure subsidies in the California Advanced Services Fund and the California Public Utilities Commission is considering whether to set its own, statewide priorities for spending it. The first draft of a staff white paper that looks at objective methods of determining those priorities is open for comment, and I submitted three recommendations on behalf of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium on Friday…

  1. Be forward looking in assessing broadband development needs. Adopting the 10 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload speed standard, as the draft white paper in effect does, is a step backward for California, rather than a sorely needed leap forward. The technology and infrastructure required to deliver service at that level is inferior to that required to meet the CPUC’s current minimum service level of 6 Mbps download/1.5 Mbps upload speeds. Likewise, eliminating areas from consideration that are partly served by fixed wireless service will leave hundreds of thousands of Californians with either no broadband access at all or service that has no standards of reliability, affordability or public safety to meet.

    Instead, the commission should base its needs assessment on the availability of service that meets the federal 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload standard for advanced services and complies with the same kind of quality, reliability and integrity requirements that the commission mandates for other telecommunications service providers.

  2. Assess social impact as well as economic feasibility. When the CCBC conducted its priority-setting exercise in 2014, we evaluated both the social impact and the economic feasibility of pursuing broadband infrastructure projects in the areas we assessed. The draft white paper properly and cogently assesses economic feasibility, but does not consider social impact.

    We recommend running, as we did, a separate social impact analysis based on population (as opposed to number of housing units or households), number of community anchor institutions, the proportion of the community that would be reached by CASF-funded projects, and median household income. The result would be two analytical tools that could be applied by policy makers, and that could be rolled up, as we did, into a single, unified ranking.

  3. Apply the results of the analysis on a prospective basis. As of today, seven CASF broadband infrastructure grant proposals are pending and have been under review for an average of 435 days, 330 days past the deadline established by Decision 12-02-015 and reaffirmed by Resolution T-17443. Two major projects, Digital 299 and Gigafy Phelan, have been awaiting action for 586 days. These seven projects required hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours to prepare, and were submitted in reliance on good faith and the published criteria for such grants, as established by the commission.

    The delays and inconsistencies in the review and approval of CASF infrastructure projects has made it very difficult to find capable, reputable and financially able private sector partners. If the commission breaks faith with applicants and applies any new project criteria or priorities retroactively, it will make such recruitment impossible.

The first hint as to what commissioners will do with the remaining CASF money and, perhaps, what they think of the draft methodology should come on Thursday, when they consider a $41 million grant proposal for Digital 299, a northern California middle mile project.

CPUC considers pole access, Google and fiber

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Update, 23 March 2017: the CPUC voted 4 to 1 to approve the Digital 299 grant this morning, and unanimously approved Google’s purchase of Webpass and the enquiry into expanded utility pole access.

Three important decisions are in front of the California Public Utilities Commission this week: a $41 million (or perhaps $47 million) grant for a northern California middle mile fiber project, formally considering whether telephone companies can attach wireless gear to utility poles and what the aesthetic impacts might be, and allowing Google to buy Webpass, a mostly wireless Internet provider that’s also licensed to offer wireline service.

Although the pole access decision is routine – it would not establish new rules, just begin the process – the scope of the commission’s enquiry will be broad. But apparently that’s okay with utility companies, since none filed any objections. You can safely bet, though, that anyone with a stake in wireless services or utility poles will be watching it like a hawk.

The Webpass purchase is also uncomplicated on the face of it. Since Webpass has a CPUC-granted license to operate as a telephone company – a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) – Google needs permission to take it over. The transaction attracted the attention of a chronic protester, who was ultimately convinced to go away, and it has big implications for both current Webpass customers and Google’s plans (or lack thereof) to be a broadband service provider. Once it owns Webpass and its CPCN, Google can claim all the privileges of a phone company, including potentially the right to hang wireless equipment on utility poles.

Digital 299 is also on the agenda for this week’s CPUC meeting. It’s a proposed 300 mile fiber line linking existing routes that run through the Sacramento Valley along the I-5 corridor to the Humboldt County coast and points in between. There’s a draft decision on the table that would approve a $41 million subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund, and commissioner Carla Peterman has promised to offer an alternate version that would add another $6 million.

The pole access item and the Webpass transfer are likely to be approved without comment – so far, there’s no indication otherwise – but the Digital 299 project faces an uncertain future. Two commissioners – Martha Guzman Aceves and president Michael Picker – have already expressed opposition. If just one of the three others join them, it’s dead.