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FCC looks to slap down China Mobile’s attempt to join US telecom system

Posted by on Apr 17, 2019 in ajit pai, China Mobile, FCC, Government, Mobile | 0 comments

The FCC has proposed to deny an application from China Mobile, a state-owned telecom, to provide interconnect and mobile services here in the U.S., citing security concerns. It’s another setback to the country’s attempts to take part in key portions of American telecommunications.

China Mobile was essentially asking to put call and data interconnection infrastructure here in the U.S.; It would have come into play when U.S. providers needed to connect to Chinese ones. Right now the infrastructure is generally in China, an FCC spokesperson explained on a press call.

In a draft order that will be made public tomorrow and voted on in May, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai moves to deny the application, which has been pending since 2011. Such applications by foreign-owned entities to build and maintain critical infrastructure like this in the U.S. have to pass through the Executive, which only last year issued word that it advised against the deal.

In the last few months, the teams at the FCC have reviewed the record and came to the conclusion that, as Chairman Ajit Pai put it:

It is clear that China Mobile’s application to provide telecommunications services in our country raises substantial and serious national security and law enforcement risks. Therefore, I do not believe that approving it would be in the public interest.

National security issues are of course inevitable whenever a foreign-owned company wants to be involved with major infrastructure work in the U.S., and often this can be taken care of with a mitigation agreement. This would be something like an official understanding between the relevant parties that, for instance, law enforcement in the U.S. would have access to data handled by the, say, German-owned equipment, and German authorities would alert U.S. about stuff it finds, that sort of thing.

But that presupposes a level of basic trust that’s absent in the case of a company owned (indirectly but fully) by the Chinese government, the FCC representative explained. It’s a similar objection to that leveled at Huawei, which given its close ties to the Chinese government, the feds have indicated they won’t be contracting with the company for infrastructure work going forward.

The denial of China Mobile’s application on these grounds is apparently without precedent, Pai wrote in a separate note: “Notably, this is the first time the Executive Branch has ever recommended that the FCC deny an application due to national security concerns.”

It’s likely to further strain relations between our two countries, though the news likely comes as no surprise to China Mobile, which probably gave up hope some time around the third or fourth year its application was stuck in a bureaucratic black hole.

The draft order will be published tomorrow, and will contain the evidence and reasoning behind the proposal. It will be voted on at the FCC open meeting on May 9.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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FCC ‘looking into’ reported error throwing broadband deployment numbers off by millions

Posted by on Mar 7, 2019 in ajit pai, bias probiders, broadband, broadband providers, FCC, Government, isps, Policy | 0 comments

It’s the FCC’s official duty to promote connectivity throughout the U.S., and as part of that it issues a yearly report on improvements to broadband deployment. The latest report, however, seems to contain an error large enough to throw its numbers completely off what Chairman Ajit Pai has already claimed. His office says that they are “looking into the matter.”

The information comes from advocacy organization Free Press, already a thorn in this administration’s side for having pointed out the highly questionable nature of economic claims used to justify the Commission’s new, weaker net neutrality rules.

In a comment (PDF) filed in the upcoming 2018 Broadband Deployment Report’s docket, the organization points out a single huge outlier that vastly, and incorrectly, inflates the numbers of new broadband connections in the country.

These official FCC documents are based on “Form 477” paperwork self-reporting broadband availability, submitted by internet providers abiding more or less by the honor system — which critics already point out is completely a inadequate one on which to base policy.

In the last batch of 477s was one from a company called BarrierFree, an ISP based in the Northeast that was submitting its data for the first time ever. Unfortunately there is a slight discrepancy between the numbers on its form and the numbers in reality.

As Free Press summarizes (very slightly modified for clarity; emphasis theirs):

[BarrierFree] claimed deployment of fiber-to-the-home (“FTTH”) and fixed wireless services (each at downstream/upstream speeds of 940 Mbps/880 Mbps) to Census blocks containing nearly 62 million persons. This claimed level of deployment would make BarrierFree the fourth largest U.S. ISP in terms of population coverage.

We further examined the underlying Form 477 data and discovered that BarrierFree appears to have simply submitted as its coverage area a list of every single Census block in each of eight states in which it claimed service: CT, DC, MD, NJ, NY, PA, RI, and VA.

Further investigation strongly suggests BarrierFree grossly misreported its deployment. BarrierFree claims to offer speed tiers topping out at 940 Mbps/880 Mbps in all of its blocks, using both fiber-to-the-home and fixed wireless services. This speed combination is unique to Verizon’s FiOS FTTH service, and Verizon is the only other 477 filer to claim such a speed tier. But according to BarrierFree’s own website, it does not market fiber-to-the-home service at any speed. Furthermore, the maximum advertised speed for its residential fixed wireless service is 25 Mbps symmetrical.

In other words the company claimed to have gigabit speeds going to 62 million people when really, it has 25 megabit speeds at best going to a few thousand. These enormous discrepancies seem to have heavily shifted national averages in the report.

In a statement to Ars Technica, which has followed the broadband report drama closely (including some good analysis last month), BarrierFree COO Jim Gerbig admitted that “There is indeed an error in the Form 477 filings for BarrierFree, and it doesn’t reflect our current level of broadband deployment. A portion of the submission was parsed incorrectly in the upload process.” He claims the government shutdown prevented correction of this issue.

Unfortunately, Chairman Pai, understandably excited to share good news on broadband, already bruited some statistics from the draft report that, if this massively erroneous form were excluded, would be totally incorrect — and incorrect in an unflattering way to the current administration.

Without BarrierFree’s phantom customers, nearly two million more people than reported lack access to fixed broadband – 21.3 versus 19.4 million in Pai’s press release. This is still well below the 26 million from the previous report, but it’s still a major correction. Of 5.6 million newly served rural broadband customers Pai highlights, 2 million were supposedly on BarrierFree.

And a huge reported increase to people on a sub-gigabit but high speed tier (250/50 Mbps) would have been largely attributable to these non-existent connections — tens of millions of them.

While there is surely good news to share from this report, it seems that the good news the Chairman chose to present may in fact not be nearly as good as he claimed.

Activists and government officials alike have questioned the accuracy of previous reports and warned that the incoming one was likely as untrustworthy as those that came before. But this massive single outlier seems like a new and much more avoidable form of inaccuracy.

It seems that in collating and analyzing the forms submitted by ISPs, it would ring a few alarm bells that an ISP with no presence in 2016 would suddenly be serving more than 60 million people with speeds only offered by decades-old competitors. The error is BarrierFree’s to begin with, of course, although I am suspicious of the “parsing” issue blamed by the COO. But surely spotting an error of that magnitude is the FCC’s responsibility.

When contacted for comment, a representative for Chairman Pai’s office said “we are looking into the matter.”

Others were more verbose.

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks was more verbose:

“Free Press’s allegations are troubling,” he said in a statement. “The FCC’s maps are frequently criticized for being inaccurate and overstating broadband coverage. The maps and deployment data are becoming a repeat offender.”

“Without getting to the bottom of this, the FCC should not proceed with its current draft broadband report. It is the FCC’s job to have accurate data and to make available maps based on it. Without performing that basic function, we are woefully unprepared to make a number of critical policy decisions that will impact the future of our communications infrastructure.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has spoken out on the broadband report issue recently and been an outspoken critic of the FCC’s policies of late, also called for closer scrutiny:

“The FCC’s draft report concludes that broadband deployment is reasonable and timely across the country. This is hard to believe when millions of Americans have no high-speed service at home. Now there are allegations that the FCC’s numbers in this report may be based on faulty data,” she said in a statement. “This is not good. It absolutely deserves a closer look.”

While the publication of this report was hitherto expected daily, this issue seems likely to push it out by a few weeks at least — and, though it may be too much to hope — could cause the agency to question the basis on which it is built in the first place.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Senate confirms new FCC Commissioners Carr and Starks

Posted by on Jan 3, 2019 in FCC, Government | 0 comments

The Senate has officially confirmed the incoming FCC commissioners, Brendan Carr and Geoffrey Starks have been officially confirmed by the Senate for their five-year terms. This completes the five-seat commission, which is required to be balanced between the two parties — today’s additions bring it to three Republicans and two Democrats.

Carr, nominated and previously confirmed in August of 2017 (though only just now for his full term), was an advisor to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai during his time as a Commissioner, and before that worked at a law firm that works with telecoms. He’s the Republican of the two.

Starks was nominated this last June and has worked in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau (think fines and legal threats) and the Justice Department.

A tweet from the Senate Cloakroom account, operated by Republican staff on the floor there, shows a note that seems to have erroneously confused the two: according to the note, Carr’s term starts in 2018 and Starks’s in 2017, despite the fact that the latter wasn’t even nominated at that time, and 2017 is certainly when Carr actually began his duties. I’ve asked the FCC about this discrepancy and will update the post if I hear back.

Chairman Pai issued a statement welcoming both Commissioners to their positions:

I congratulate Geoffrey on his Senate confirmation.  He brings a wealth of experience and expertise, including having served most recently as Assistant Chief in the Enforcement Bureau.  During his confirmation hearing, I was excited to hear him highlight the need to expand rural broadband and the power of telemedicine.  I look forward to working with him and having a fellow Kansan on the Commission.

I also congratulate Brendan on his confirmation to a full term.  Brendan has done tremendous work on a number of issues, including his leadership on wireless infrastructure modernization.  He has also been a staunch advocate for rural broadband deployment, particularly for precision agriculture and advancements in telemedicine.

Commissioners Carr, O’Rielly, and Rosenworcel all tweeted out welcomes as well:

A full Commission means more work gets done, since these people and their staffs have to come up with and enforce all the rules on the books. It maybe politically expedient to have a 2:1 Republican majority on the Commission when taking controversial measures like rolling back net neutrality rules, but ultimately the job to be done needs five.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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FCC Chairman Pai celebrates Congress failing to bring back net neutrality

Posted by on Jan 2, 2019 in ajit pai, FCC, Government, net neutrality | 0 comments

As one Congress ends and another begins, many are looking forward to a rebalancing of power — especially in the House of Representatives, which Democrats handily retook in November. But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is more pleased with what the House failed to do — namely, roll back his repeal of net neutrality rules.

To be fair, he does have reason to celebrate; no one likes to see their work undone. But a statement issued today tells a very selective message about congressional opposition to his master plan.

“I’m pleased that a strong bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives declined to reinstate heavy-handed Internet regulation,” Pai said. The “heavy-handed” remark is the usual boilerplate in reference to 2015’s rules, which used what the current FCC calls “depression-era” regulations to exert control over internet providers. That aspersion doesn’t really make sense, as I’ve noted before.

And the “strong bipartisan majority” bears a bit of explanation as well. Indeed, the Democrats fell about 30 short of the votes they needed to put the Congressional Review Act into effect and undo the FCC’s order. But that was only after the Senate, by a similar “strong bipartisan majority,” as Pai would no doubt put it, voted for the rollback. No mention of that in his statement.

In fact the CRA was a long shot from the beginning, but as Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) told me shortly after the repeal, “it’s very important to try, and it’s important to get everybody in Congress on the record. We want every member of Congress to have to go on the record and say whether or not they agree with what the commission just did.”

Although there was no actual change to the rule, the forced votes of the CRA did succeed in exposing the stances of Senators and Representatives who had hitherto avoided the issue.

Pai followed this questionable bit of crowing with a litany of vague reasons the new rules should be kept. The internet, he points out, “has remained free and open. Broadband speeds are up… Internet access is also expanding, and the digital divide is closing.”

The former claim is, as always, being tested by internet providers, who continue to inject ads, block or throttle services, and otherwise interfere until customers and watchdogs call them out.

But the latter claim in particular would be disputed by many, especially since the FCC’s own numbers tracking broadband deployment in the U.S. have been widely mocked as inaccurate and sourced uncritically from an industry with a vested interest in overstating its own accomplishments.

Furthermore, it’s entirely unclear whether Pai’s new rules have had any positive influence at all. Broadband investment has in fact not been affected, despite a $2 billion tax break given to cable companies and a number of other sweetheart deals. The most likely explanation for any positive effects is investment planned or made years ago, perhaps as far back as the Obama administration and the previous rules.

On top of that, the new rules are under such close scrutiny and face several legal challenges that the industry would be foolish to let them affect their policies in anything but short-term matters. As happened with the 2015 rules, these could be gone in a year or two, or — with the Senate bullish on real net neutrality rules and a flipped House — replaced with actual legislation.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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FCC fines Swarm Technologies $900K over unauthorized satellite launch

Posted by on Dec 20, 2018 in FCC, Gadgets, Government, Hardware, Satellites, Space, swarm technologies | 0 comments

Back in March came the surprising news that a satellite communications company still more or less in stealth mode had launched several tiny craft into orbit — against the explicit instructions of the FCC. The company, Swarm Technologies, now faces a $900,000 penalty from the agency, as well as extra oversight of its continuing operations.

Swarm’s SpaceBEEs are the beginning of a planned constellation of small satellites with which the company intends to provide low-cost global connectivity.

Unfortunately, the units are so small — about a quarter the size of a standard cubesat, which is already quite tiny — that the FCC felt they would be too difficult to track, and did not approve the launch.

SpaceBEEs are small, as you can see. Credit: Swarm Technologies

Swarm, perhaps thinking it better to ask forgiveness than file the paperwork for permission, launched anyway in January aboard India’s PSLV-C40, which carried more than a dozen other passengers to space as well. (I asked Swarm and the launch provider, Spaceflight, at the time for comment but never heard back.)

The FCC obviously didn’t like this, and began an investigation shortly afterwards. According to an FCC press release:

The investigation found that Swarm had launched the four BEEs using an unaffiliated launch company in India and had unlawfully transmitted signals between earth stations in Georgia and the satellites for over a week. In addition, during the course of its investigation, the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests and other unauthorized equipment tests prior to the small satellites launch. All these activities require FCC authorization and the company had not received such authorization before the activities occurred.

Not good! As penance, Swarm Technologies will have to pay the aforementioned $900,000, and now has to submit pre-launch reports to the FCC within five days of signing an agreement to launch, and at least 45 days before takeoff.

The company hasn’t been sitting on its hands this whole time. The unauthorized launch was a mistake to be sure, but it has continued its pursuit of a global constellation and launched three more SpaceBEEs into orbit just a few weeks ago aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Swarm has worked to put the concerns about tracking to bed; in fact, the company claims its devices are more trackable than ordinary cubesats, with a larger radar cross section and extra reflectivity thanks to a Van Atta array (ask them). SpaceBEE-1 is about to pass over Italy as I write this — you can check its location live here.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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FCC accused of ‘dereliction of duty’ in failing to dispel cyberattack ‘myth’

Posted by on Aug 14, 2018 in FCC, Government, net neutrality | 0 comments

Following the issuance of a report from the FCC’s Inspector General essentially saying the reports of cyberattacks on the agency were made up out of whole cloth, several lawmakers are demanding answers from Chairman Ajit Pai.

The report, published last week, reveals that the narrative of an attack against the FCC’s comment system — a narrative the agency has propped up for over a year — had no evidence to support it. The comment system, the record indicates, was simply overwhelmed by people hammering it after becoming aware of net neutrality issues and how they could make their voice heard.

Part of this long-lived mistake was, necessarily, making false statements to the public and Congress, since the latter repeatedly requested more information on the purported attacks. Although federal prosecutors declined to pursue this infraction, the members of Congress to whom Pai repeatedly told untruths have indicated they are not likely to forgive and forget.

Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Mike Doyle (D-PA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI) sent a letter (PDF) to Ajit Pai today admonishing him and his office for their failure. Pallone and Doyle particularly have been nipping at the chairman’s heels almost constantly since he took the job, so they have extra cause to be angered by his actions.

Given the significant media, public, and Congressional attention this alleged cyberattack received for over a year, it is hard to believe that the release of the IG’s Report was the first time that you and your staff realized that no cyberattack occurred. Such ignorance would signify a dereliction of your duty as the head of the FCC, particularly due to the severity of the allegations and the blatant lack of evidence.

It is troubling that you allowed the public myth created by the FCC to persist and your misrepresentations to remain uncorrected for over a year… To the extent that you were aware of the misrepresentations prior to the release of the Report and failed to correct them, such actions constitute a wanton disregard for Congress and the American public.

Chairman Pai does have a legitimate excuse to a certain extent in that the FCC’s Office of the Inspector General had requested that the agency keep quiet about its investigation while it was ongoing. So we may fairly say that Pai and his office may have in some ways had their hands tied.

But clearly I am not the only one who finds that inadequate justification for the FCC’s behavior. To cling to an explanation, with no evidence, provided by a person (the former chief information officer) apparently distrusted by Pai as a partisan and who left in October 2017 — to cling to it so completely and give no word at all that there was perhaps another explanation? It doesn’t make sense.

As the members of Congress write, it’s inconceivable that Pai and his office were unaware of the doubts regarding and material deficiencies of the cyberattack story. That would be a major failure of one kind. And if they were aware and didn’t say so under direct congressional inquiry, that’s a failure of another kind.

The letter asks for Pai to explain:

  • When his office first became aware that the events of last May were possibly not an attack
  • Why the FCC’s previous statements to the public and Congress have not been publicly amended
  • What exactly the Inspector General told Pai not to discuss or disclose during the investigation

The FCC is given two weeks (until August 28) to respond to these and other questions.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Net neutrality activists, not hackers, crashed the FCC’s comment system

Posted by on Aug 7, 2018 in FCC, Government, john oliver, net neutrality, Security, TC | 0 comments

An unprecedented flood of citizens concerned about net neutrality is what took down the FCC’s comment system last May, not a coordinated attack, a report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General concluded. The report unambiguously describes the “voluminous viral traffic” resulting from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight segment on the topic, along with some poor site design, as the cause of the system’s collapse.

Here’s the critical part:

The May 7-8, 2016 degradation of the FCC’s ECFS was not, as reported to the public and to Congress, the result of a DDoS attack. At best, the published reports were the result of a rush to judgment and the failure to conduct analyses needed to identify the true cause of the disruption to system availability. Rather than engaging in a concerted effort to understand better the systematic reasons for the incident, certain managers and staff at the Commission mischaracterized the event to the Office of the Chairman as resulting from a criminal act, rather than apparent shortcomings in the system.

Although FCC leadership preemptively responded to the report yesterday, the report itself was not published until today. The OIG sent it to TechCrunch this morning, and you can find the full document here.

The approximately 25 pages of analysis (and 75 more of related documents, some of which are already public) relate specifically to the “Event” of May 7-8 last year and its characterization by the office of the Chief Information Officer, at the time David Bray. The investigation was started on June 21, 2017. The subsequent handling of the event under public and Congressional inquiry is not included in the scope of this investigation.

As the report notes, Bray shortly after the event issued a press release describing the system’s failure as “multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks.” A variation on this was the line going forward, even well after Bray left in October 2017.

However, internal email conversations and analysis of the traffic logs reveal that this characterization of the event was severely mistaken.

Here it ought to be said that in the chaos of the moment and with incomplete time and information, an accurate diagnosis of a major systematic failure is generally going to be an educated guess at first — so we mustn’t judge Bray and his office too harshly for its mistake, at least in the immediate aftermath.

But what becomes clear from the OIG’s investigation is that the DDoS narrative first advanced by Bray is not backed up by the evidence. Their own analysis of the logs clearly shows that the spikes in traffic correlate directly with activity from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, which that evening and the following morning posted tweets and videos that garnered an immense amount of traffic and directed it at the FCC’s comment system.

Chart showing traffic spikes correlating with John Oliver (JO) related events.

“These spikes in traffic are singular rather than sustained, that is, the unique IP addresses that visited the FCC domain and ECFS did not do so over a sustained period of time, at regular intervals (as would be expected during a DDoS),” the report explains in the caption for the graph above.

“The traffic observed during the incident was a combination of “flash crowd” activity and increased traffic volume resulting from [redacted] site design issues,” reads the report. I’ve asked for more detail on these design issues and how they contributed to the system’s failure.

Interestingly, it appears some at the FCC were aware that Oliver was planning a segment on net neutrality for that time period, but no one thought to brace for it. According to a colleague interviewed for the report, “Bray was furious that he had not been informed about the John Oliver episode.”

Email excerpts from the time of the event, collected by the FCC’s OIG.

In fact, however, even confronted with the fact that Oliver’s segment was likely directly driving traffic, Bray suggested that “trolls” and 4chan were the more likely culprit.

We’re 99.9% confident this was external folks deliberately trying to tie-up the server to prevent others from commenting and/or create a spectacle.

Jon Oliver invited the “trolls” – to include 4Chan (which is a group affiliated with Anonymous and the hacking community).

His video triggered the trolls. Normal folks cannot manually file a comment in less than a millisecond over and over and over again, so this was definitely high traffic targeting ECFS to make it appear unresponsive to others.

All this, and the description put in the press release and some subsequent communications, is “not accurate,” as the OIG put it.

As a result, “we determined the FCC, relying on Bray’s explanation of the events, misrepresented facts and provided misleading responses to Congressional inquiries related to this incident.”

It’s worth noting that this has already been looked at by federal prosecutors:

Because of the possible criminal ramifications associated with false statements to Congress, FCC OIG formally referred this matter to the Fraud and Public Corruption Section of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia…On June 7, 2018, after reviewing additional information and interviews, USAO-DC declined prosecution.”

In a way, as Chairman Ajit Pai wrote yesterday, this does somewhat exonerate his office for its year-long campaign of stalling, half-truths, and outright refusals to answer questions. If they took Bray’s characterization as gospel, they had to stick to that analysis. Furthermore, with an investigation ongoing, what they could and couldn’t say was likely limited at the request of the OIG.

But that’s only a partial pardon. In the year and change since the event there has been ample time for reflection and revisiting of the data. Bray left in October; why did the new CIO not use the occasion to take a fresh look at a report that was plainly doubted by many in the agency?

The CIO’s office, as the report notes, never actually issued a substantive report showing that its DDoS narrative was true. And shortly after the event, it was, as one staffer put it, “common knowledge” that the analysis was flawed. This knowledge was arrived at through “further research” after the fact — but then it turned out no “further research” was conducted.

What kind of operation is this? Why was FCC leadership not foaming at the mouth asking for better information? The Chairman was under fire from all sides — no one bought the story he was selling — why not walk over to the CIO’s office, now rid of its Obama administration–tainted head (Pai mentioned this association twice in his statement yesterday), and demand answers?

Pai denies that he or his office was aware of these shortcomings and opted not to rectify them because they were advantageous to his plan to reverse 2015’s net neutrality rules. But how could such a demonstrably shoddy and undocumented analysis persist for so long, under such close scrutiny? This wasn’t a minor technical glitch unworthy of leadership’s attention. It was national news.

The optics of a confusing and incomplete DDoS report aren’t good. But the report, if it was wrong, as everyone seemed to consider it even day-of, could always be disavowed and its author blamed on Obama.

What’s worse are the optics of a wave of public opposition to a controversial proposal, so strong that it literally took down the system created — and recently upgraded! — to handle that kind of feedback. This narrative, of a flood of pro-net-neutrality commenters so large that not only did it break the system, but many of their comments were arguably unable to be posted and (notionally) included in the FCC’s analysis — that, my friends, is a bad look.

Although this investigation has concluded, another by the Government Accountability Office is ongoing and may have a wider scope. If not, however, it seems unthinkable that the FCC and its current leadership can walk away from this unscathed. Ultimately this entire debacle took place under Ajit Pai’s watch, and his handling of it is at best dubious. Citizens and no doubt elected officials are almost certain to ask hard questions — and this time, the Chairman might actually have to answer them.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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New York kicks Charter out of the state after failure to honor conditions of Time-Warner merger

Posted by on Jul 27, 2018 in Charter, FCC, Government, New York, Time Warner Cable | 0 comments

Broadband providers! They love to make noise about how dedicated they are to improving your service, rolling out new features and generally adhering to both the law and their own code of ethics. So how can it be that Charter has so badly failed the terms imposed on its purchase of Time-Warner Cable in 2016 that the state of New York is showing them (specifically their subsidiary Spectrum) the door? Could all these promises be only so many words? Say it ain’t so!

Yes, to the surprise of no one but to the continued detriment of New York’s broadband customers, Charter has failed to meet various obligations, lied about compliance and performance and apparently has even been operating unsafely out in the field.

New York’s Public Service Commission approved the merger at the state level in 2016 on condition that the company expand broadband offerings in both quality and quantity; at a national level the FCC set its own conditions.

Unfortunately, Charter has failed repeatedly and publicly to meet the NY PSC’s requirements. The latter wrote in a press release (PDF):

Charter, doing business as Spectrum, has — through word and deed — made clear that it has no intention of providing the public benefits upon which the Commission’s earlier approval was conditioned.

These recurring failures led the Commission to the broader conclusion that the company was not interested in being a good corporate citizen and that the Commission could no longer in good faith and conscience allow it to operate in New York.

Charter is the largest cable provider in the state, serving some 2 million people in a variety of urban communities, so this isn’t a matter of swapping out a couple of neighborhoods. The company has 60 days to provide a plan for “an orderly transition to a successor provider(s).” Difficulty level: “Charter must ensure no interruption in service is experienced by customers.”

The PSC has clearly had it with the company and gladly recounts its sins:

By its own admission, Charter has failed to meet its commitment to expand its service network that was specifically called for as part of the Commission’s decision to approve the merger between Charter and Time Warner Cable. Its failure to meet its June 18, 2018 target by more than 40 percent is only the most recent example. Rather than accept responsibility Charter has tried to pass the blame for its failure on other companies, such as utility pole owners, which have processed tens of thousands of pole applications submitted by Charter.

Despite missing every network expansion target since the merger was approved in 2016, Charter has falsely claimed in advertisements it is exceeding its commitments to the State and is on track to deliver its network expansion. This led to the Commission’s general counsel referring a false advertising claim to the Attorney General’s office for enforcement.

Not only has Charter’s performance been wholly deficient and its behavior before the Commission contrary to the laws of New York State and regulations of the Commission, but it has also repeatedly claimed not to be bound by the terms of the Commission’s approval. Such egregious conduct cannot be condoned and the only reasonable remedy that remains is for the Commission to revoke the 2016 merger approval…

…and its subsequent removal from the state. It has also been ordered to pay $3 million in fines.

The company would not be able to operate in New York, but it could continue to do business in other states. That said, a string of failures this prominent is sure to draw federal attention; the FCC requirements included some broadband deployment ones, and Charter’s negligence in such a major market will not go unnoticed.

Charter told Ars Technica that it will fight the PSC’s order, and in a statement said that election season had caused the “rhetoric” to become “politically charged,” and that it had expanded to 86,000 new homes since 2016.

(Disclosure: Verizon, another ISP that serves New York, owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch. This doesn’t affect our coverage.)


Source: The Tech Crunch

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‘Serious concerns’ at FCC threaten to halt Sinclair-Tribune merger

Posted by on Jul 16, 2018 in FCC, Government, M&A, Media, sinclair broadcasting, TC | 0 comments

The FCC has been under serious scrutiny by citizens, advocates and politicians alike due to its laissez-faire attitude toward, in particular, the proposed Sinclair Broadcasting merger with Tribune. But the agency is showing some backbone today with a no-nonsense declaration that the merger can’t go through unless a few “serious concerns” are addressed. It’s not the outright disapproval many have recommended, but it’s better than an unconditional green light.

In a short memo posted to the agency’s site, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai explained that even under his notoriously (or blessedly, depending on your politics) deregulatory regime, the proposed deal is not acceptable as is. Here it is in full:

Based on a thorough review of the record, I have serious concerns about the Sinclair/Tribune transaction. The evidence we’ve received suggests that certain station divestitures that have been proposed to the FCC would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law. When the FCC confronts disputed issues like these, the Communications Act does not allow it to approve a transaction. Instead, the law requires the FCC to designate the transaction for a hearing in order to get to the bottom of those disputed issues. For these reasons, I have shared with my colleagues a draft order that would designate issues involving certain proposed divestitures for a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.

The issue is that the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger would result in a company that controls a huge amount of TV stations — far more than is healthy for a single company. This was demonstrated effectively by a viral video demonstrated earlier this year showing news anchors at Sinclair stations reading the exact same script without acknowledging that it was under the direction of their owner. (Ironically, the script was regarding ethics and accountability in the media.)

In order to make the deal more palatable, Sinclair offered to divest itself of a number of stations. But these promises appear to have been “less than candid,” as former FCC counsel Gigi Sohn put it; “This transaction would place far too many free over-the-air broadcast stations and far too much power in the hands of one company,” she concluded.

Chairman Pai, surprisingly, appears to have come to the same conclusion. Perhaps Sinclair’s plans to puppeteer these stations were transparent, or perhaps there are too many eyes on the commission right now to let something like this slide, but whatever the case, the merger can’t go forward without FCC approval — and now FCC approval won’t go forward without this hearing and revised divestiture plans.

This is a pleasant surprise for critics of the FCC who have repeatedly argued that the agency isn’t just soft on broadcasters and other big cable and internet businesses, but may be effectively in bed with them.

“As I have noted before, too many of this agency’s media policies have been custom built to support the business plans of Sinclair Broadcasting,” said Commissioner Rosenworcel in a statement accompanying and applauding the chairman’s. “With this hearing designation order, the agency will finally take a hard look at its proposed merger with Tribune. This is overdue and favoritism like this needs to end.”

The FCC’s multi-part “modernization” of rules governing media companies has contributed powerfully to the feeding frenzy of consolidation we’ve seen over the last couple of years, and the Sinclair-Tribune merger is just one of many deals that watchdogs have warned about. But it seems that this one at least will get some consumer-positive checks in the near future.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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FCC looks to revamp children’s media rules, but advocates cry foul

Posted by on Jul 12, 2018 in FCC, Government, Media, Policy, TC | 0 comments

One of the FCC’s many jobs as a media regulator is to make sure there is adequate time being dedicated by broadcasters to educational content for kids. As the media landscape changes, however, so too should the regulations — and the FCC is looking to update its “Kid Vid” rules for the 21st century. But the agency’s proposal is half-baked, warn some advocates.

This latest move, one of several in the FCC’s so-called “modernizing media regulation” efforts, got its start back in January, when Commissioner Michael O’Rielly wrote a blog post explaining why he felt it was high time children’s television regulations were revisited.

The chief reason for this was essentially that with the plethora of different avenues by which kids can reach educational media these days, it doesn’t make sense to have regulations requiring broadcasters to have 30-minute shows making up at least 3 hours of content per week. Why not shorter format stuff? Why not let programs on Netflix and Hulu count? Why not allow sub-channels to carry that content instead of main channels? They’re good questions.

Following this post, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asked O’Rielly to head up a review of the rules and propose changes. And today the FCC votes on whether that proposal should be made official. (To be clear, it would then have to be formalized, opened for comment and voted on again later to take effect.)

Does it seem like they skipped a step? Perhaps the step where they answer those questions listed above? You’re not the only one who thinks so.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or NPRM, raises all kinds of questions:

  • Are kids really consuming more content on other platforms? How much, and who? Are some populations left out of this new economy? If so, how will they be affected by the new regulations?
  • Absent regulation requiring 30-minute-long shows, will anyone bother to make them? Who makes them now, and would they continue to? Is the 30-minute show length useful or detrimental? Do parents like it? Do kids like it?
  • Among underserved households that only receive basic broadcast or cable, and/or have inadequate broadband, or lack multiple screens, how is kids’ media consumed? How will those households be affected? What do parents in that position think would be helpful?
  • If programs are not listed on a channel’s schedule, how will kids and parents find them? How will programming meeting the “educational” threshold be designated or searchable on other platforms?

Some of these questions are in the NPRM itself, such as when it asks whether there are any studies on engagement with short versus full-length shows. Others are the natural result of a little thought on the topic.

The problem is not that the answers to these questions are all negative or troubling — it’s that there are no answers at all. The NPRM makes many “tentative” conclusions based on little or no evidence, and when there is evidence it seems to have been provided by broadcasters.

Critics proposed an easy solution to this: instead of proposing new rules based on scant data, change this NPRM into an NOI — a “Notice of Inquiry.” An NOI is the appropriate official item for when you have more questions than answers; you get lots of answers, then you use that information to create a more informed NPRM.

A coalition of advocates for children’s welfare writes the following in a letter to the FCC:

We agree that major changes have taken place in the video marketplace and that it is appropriate for the FCC to take a fresh look at its rules in light of these changes. But the draft NPRM appears to be a wish-list for broadcasters, which does nothing to serve the needs of children. It makes numerous ‘tentative conclusions’ based on no evidence. Finalizing these ‘tentative conclusions’ would effectively eliminate the existing rules, and as a result, many children would lose access to educational programming designed to serve their needs. Children of color and those whose families are of limited means will especially be harmed by adopting these tentative conclusions, because they are less able to afford cable, satellite, or broadband (even if available), tend to watch more television, and may have fewer opportunities to learn in other ways. Changing the draft to a NOI would allow the Commission to obtain the necessary evidence and to craft proposals in light of that evidence.

And Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), joined by several colleagues, writes:

In the absence of key information about how American children access educational programming on television and how significant changes to the ‘Kid Vid’ rules would affect this access, the Commission’s proposed rulemaking is premature. Given the critical importance of these rules and our concern that several proposals in the Commission’s NPRM have the potential to undermine the rules’ effectiveness, we respectfully request that the FCC revise its item on children’s programming rules as an NOI and go through a rigorous fact finding process. The Commission should not act in haste to revise rules that can negatively impact children in our country.

Unfortunately the majority was not interested in this line of action, which would of course have had the effect of delaying the whole operation. The Commission voted 3-1 (on party lines, naturally) to approve the item.

Commissioner Rosenworcel, in her remarks on the item, lamented the lack of due diligence:

I regret my colleagues refused to convert this effort to a notice of inquiry so that we could include the evidence we need to proceed fairly. I am disappointed that this rulemaking all but announces where we are headed—a future with less quality children’s programming that is also harder for families to locate and watch. Moreover, I regret that dozens of times the text before us cites the need to ease industry of the “burdens” of serving our children with educational programming under the law. It never once cites children, parents, families—or mothers. So take it from this one: This is not the effort our children deserve.

Concerned parents and experts in the field should still feel free to comment; this probably won’t be the melee that net neutrality was. That it is an NPRM and not an NOI just means it’s critical to make those comments sooner and more forcefully, as the next time we see this item it will be when it is being proposed as an official order. You can file a comment into the system here.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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