Saturday, May 26, 2007

Internet Revolution is in the Air

I’m guessing that few people are aware that the future of communications in our country rests on a seemingly arcane decision on how we sell off soon-to-be vacated TV airwaves.

Al Gore

The Public Airwaves for the Public Good

These airwaves have the capacity to deliver high-speed Internet signals almost everywhere in the country. In the next couple of weeks, the Federal Communications Commission will decide how this air is to be auctioned off.

The government hopes that revenues from the sale of this "spectrum" (anticipated to be as high as $30 billion) will help pay down the national deficit, especially high since we went to war in Iraq

Yesterday, many members of the Coalition came forward with a proposal: Let's use these airwaves to make the Internet more neutral, open and affordable for everyone.

Most people haven't heard about this, or know that such valuable airwaves are up for grabs. But it is important stuff.

Here's where things stand:

This broad slice of spectrum once beamed the Brady Bunch, The Cosby’s, Charlie’s Angels and the A-Team into tens of millions of homes. The inevitable switch from analog to digital TV means that this precious air is now available for other uses.

The Federal Communications Commission is now deciding how to structure its sale (actually lease) to wireless vendors. The federal agency has the power to attach conditions to the use of our air; As it's public domain, we have the right to demand that it serve the public interest.

If used right, this new spectrum could revolutionize the ways we connect to one another -- and to laptops, cell phones, PDAs, music players and other mobile Internet devices.

It can also deliver a wireless Internet into your house without the need for a telephone wire or cable modem. Its signal passes through concrete buildings and over mountains; and can connect tens of million of Americans that are now ignored by wire-line Internet "incumbents" such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

Here's the rub. Phone and cable lobbyists from these same companies are pressuring the FCC to hand over our airwaves to their bosses. They plan to horde spectrum and stifle competitive and cheaper alternatives to their legacy networks.

This would be a disaster. After years of phone and cable company control over our Internet marketplace, the United States has fallen to 15th in the world in high-speed Internet rankings, with few choices and some of the highest prices for the slowest speeds in the world. We will continue to fall as long as we let phone and cable execs dictate Internet access for more than 96 percent of American users.

It's really important that we spread the word and get more people involved in telling the FCC how our spectrum should be used.

We don't want more of the same. These airwaves should be employed for the public good. They should be used to develop a wireless alternative to the telephone-cable market duopoly.

Yesterday, some member groups -- including Consumer Federation of America, Free Press, Media Access Project, Public Knowledge and US PIRG -- urged the FCC "to ensure that new spectrum is offered on an open and nondiscriminatory basis." (You can read their full filing by clicking here.)

With open networks, the rest of the world has rapidly adopted high-speed, Internet platforms for education, economic innovation, creativity and civic participation. Countries like South Korea, Japan, France, Canada have leapfrogged the United States and now offer faster Internet connections at far lower prices.

It's time we caught up.

>> To learn more about the upcoming auction, read these recent articles in Wired Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes Magazine and MyDD.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Gore: Neutrality the Key to Internet Democracy

Former Vice President Al Gore extols the virtues of Net Neutrality in his newly released book "The Assault on Reason," writing "neutrality should be the central tenet that will set us on a path toward an open, democratic Internet where free speech and free markets are encouraged."

Gore applauds the grassroots efforts of the Coalition, whose many supporters used the Internet to save the Internet: "When the first skirmishes over net neutrality were fought in 2006, many in the Internet community who agree with the point of view I share mobilized and used the tools they had available on the Internet to defend its independence."

Al Gore

Fighting on Our Side for a Neutral Web

At that time, supporters were posting dozens of homemade videos on YouTube. College students created Facebook communities that grew to include tens of thousands of people while others crafted fliers and handed them out at their student unions. The movement had taken a life of its own – one that was limited only by the creativity of our online supporters.

Robin "Roblimo" Miller made one such video in his Florida back yard where he sums it up well: "The whole point of Net Neutrality is not Google. It's not Yahoo. It's about me and my little video here and you and any video that you might shoot getting out in an easy and fast and efficient manner."

Gore calls on Congress to lead the charge in protecting neutrality:
"More than one and a half million citizens contacted Congress and more than eight hundred organizations joined the SavetheInternet Coalition, organized by the upstart media reform organization Free Press, using innovative online mobilization tactics ... The public is finally involved in the debate about the future of the Internet and many are organizing to shape that debate."
Gore concludes in the final pages of his book that the key to redeeming our democracy is to ensure that we all are "well and fully connected" to an open, neutral and robust public Internet forum.

"I truly believe the most important factor is the preservation of the Internet's potential for becoming the new neutral marketplace of ideas that is so needed for the revitalization of American democracy," he writes. "People are not only fighting for free speech online, but they are also working to keep the Internet a decentralized, ownerless medium of mass communication and commerce."

As Gore's book climbs the best seller list, we can only hope that more Americans join this call for a more neutral, democratic and accessible Internet.

What's Wrong in Illinois

We were stunned earlier this week to see a group of Illinois lawmakers break rank with the public interest to side with a powerful media conglomerate that is fighting rules that ban it from owning newspapers and television stations in the same town .

In a May 18 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, more than a dozen members of Illinois' congressional delegation urged him to give his "personal attention" to a Tribune Company request for waivers from rules that protect diversity of news in local markets.

Durbin a Turncoat?

Durbin: Against Big Media Until He Was For It

What's particularly surprising is that some who signed this letter for Big Media last week were the same members that spoke out against it back in 2003.

The waivers are a linchpin in Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell's effort to take over the Tribune. The deal rests on transferring several contested broadcast licenses from Tribune Company to the new owner. Of particular concern are broadcast licenses in Los Angeles, Hartford, New York and Miami where the company owns both a local daily newspaper and at least one local television station. While the law forbids such "cross-ownership," Chairman Martin has a history of making special exemptions for friends in consolidated media.

It's disappointing to see others in Congress following Martin's lead and putting political expediency before their constituents needs for more diverse and competitive media.

Among those signing the letter was Illinois' senior Senator Dick Durbin, Chicago-based Representative Bobby Rush, both Democrats, and District 11 Representative Jerry Weller, a Republican.

These three are the same members who in 2003 voted for a Joint Resolution to reprimand Michael Powell's F.C.C. for loosening the last limits to runaway media consolidation; Durbin actually co-sponsored the 2003 resolution.

So what caused the sudden change of heart?

These elected representatives apparently buckled to pressure from a powerful Illinois lobby -- which also happens to own the state's most influential newspaper and television stations - and sold out earlier commitments to a more democratic and diverse media system.

Members of Congress can no longer pay lip service to media reform and then turn around to grant special favors to Big Media.

One positive note: Illinois' other senator, Barack Obama, is conspicuous by his absence in the letter. Earlier this year Obama joined Senator Kerry of Massachusetts to call on the FCC to address the lack of minority, women and small business owners in the U.S. media system before taking any action that would allow Big Media to get even bigger.

"The goals of promoting minority, women, and small business ownership in the communications industry are set forth in the Communications Act of 1934," they wrote. "Ensuring that such directives are accomplished is important to achieving a diverse media, particularly in an era of increased media concentration."

It's good to see that some members of Congress are sticking to their principles.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Mr. YouTube Goes to Washington

Chad Hurley, chief executive and co-founder of YouTube, went to Washington this week to testify on behalf of an open Internet. Hurley told members of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet that a non-discriminatory Internet was the key to the success of YouTube and other Web innovations.

>> Watch our video blog featuring Hurley and others

Mr. YouTube Goes To Washington:
Watch the Video

Because of an open Internet YouTube was able to solve people's problems with creating and sharing online video, he said.

"We were able to develop a service that was able to compete with [others] in the market. And because of that we have been able to provide a service that has been helpful for people and able to spur innovation in the video market online."

Neutrality Sparks Innovation

Hurley was joined at the witness table by Blake Krikorian, chairman and CEO of Sling Media. Krikorian told the subcommittee that the success of his businesses was contingent upon the open and neutral architecture of the Internet. "Because of the open Internet ... we were able to develop a service that could compete with [much larger] competitors in the market," Hurley said.

If he had gone to venture capitalists with a plan that said he needed to first gain approval from network providers like AT&T, "we would have just been kicked in the pants out the door," Krikorian said, adding:
"Things are being created every day that none of us ever thought about before. Without having that open flexibility there's just no way in heck this stuff could ever come to life."

Making the Next YouTube Possible

"I think the future of video will depend ... on how we resolve" the issue of Net Neutrality, Rep. Anna Eshoo of California told the witnesses. "Consumers must be able to access that content in the manner in which they choose."

After the hearing, Hurley told subcommittee chairman Ed Markey that an open Internet allowed YouTube to start its business. "We were on the same playing field as everyone else on the Internet, starting out of our garage working on this project," he said, adding:
"Because of that we were able to compete. At the same time consumers had the same ability to upload content on our site, to view content on our site without anyone discriminating."

Hurley and Krikorian's comments echo those made before them by World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners Lee.

Net Neutrality has allowed the Internet to become a true competitive marketplace with low barriers to entry, equal opportunity and consumer choice.

This open architecture will allow the next Googles, YouTubes and eBays of the world to emerge out of dorm rooms or garages or anywhere else where creative ideas are born.

If you remove Net Neutrality from the Internet you remove this economic creativity. The market tilts in favor the networks gatekeepers and against real innovation.

Next week subcommittee chair Markey plans to convene a panel of witnesses to discuss ways to better map Broadband penetration in America to find better ways to get open and broadband to more people. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

'Consumer' Group Fails Smell Test

A shadowy "consumer" group emerged from obscurity today to bleat about the dangers of Net Neutrality. And no sooner had their press release hit the PR Newswire than a chorus of industry apologists began waving it around as proof positive that Net Neutrality is a cancer on the Internet.

That the shills have circled alone should be evidence that something here doesn't quite smell right. That this group is little known to the established consumer groups that form the Coalition should set off every olfactory alarm.

Sock Puppet Alert

Sock Puppet Alert:
Stephen Pociask drops a load on PR Newswire

And so it has. Bob Williams who blogs for the Consumers Union was the first to cry foul.

"We had no idea that Net Neutrality -- the concept of preventing Internet providers from speeding up or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination -- would be so devastating to consumers," Williams writes in a sincerity-laced response to the American Consumer Institute's report against Net Neutrality.

"Like nearly every other major consumer group, we here at Consumers Union have been under the impression that Net Neutrality would actually benefit consumers."

The ACI report claims that protecting Net Neutrality would "force millions of Americans to drop their broadband subscriptions." It says that this would amount to $69 billion (Not $68 billion. Not $70 billion. $69 billion!) in lost benefits to consumers.

It was the name of the report's author that caused Williams' nose to twitch:
The contact name on the American Consumer Institute press release was Stephen Pociask. The name rang a bell with us, but we weren't sure why. But a quick Google search jogged our memory. Pociask is a telecommunications industry consultant and a former chief economist for Bell Atlantic, which these days is known as Verizon.
I went to the ACI site to confirm. Pociask's bio was posted by ACI, but surpisingly they failed to mention his work as a telco's chief economist.

How can that be? The American Consumer Institute claims that they do not accept any financial support from corporations. "We only accept assistance from individual consumers and consumer groups," they claim. "The Institute depends on volunteers, particularly those with significant public policy expertise."

I'm curious. Who might these contributing "consumer groups" be? And do THEY accept money from corporations. Also, if ACI isn't paying their "volunteers," who is?

A quick online check reveals that the ACI's Web site is actually registered to the same Stephen Pociask, who still works in the telecom industry as a paid consultant.

ACI describes itself as "an independent consumer organization dedicated to improving the lives of American consumers." But its list of experts includes people with deep ties to the telecommunications industry.

Broadband Reports dug a little further and concluded that reports like ACI's "are ultimately gobbled up by lazy journalists for injection into the broader discourse as objective fact."