Thursday, November 29, 2007

Who's Behind That Blog?

An assignment in a Media and Democracy course I teach at Penn State invites students to select a telecommunications advocacy web site for analysis. I want my students to decode the message and attempt to identify whether a bias exists and who financially supports the site. The exercise typically fails miserably.

Too many students accept at face value a web site's pledge or representation of independent analysis. Most students cannot infer that a site that advertises books by Ann Coulter trends to the right and one that talks about social justice trends to the left.

However, I cannot blame my students entirely. How are they to know that a noble sounding site seeking truth, justice and the American way is an "astroturf" (fake grass roots) organization fronting for a particular set of stakeholders? As a researcher in the network neutrality debate I risk personal attack, misrepresentation of my work, and assorted snarky debating tactics befitting a food fight. It would be an understatement to say it chills my desire to engage in the dialogue. Indeed it's not always a dialogue, or debate as the conference session or blog discussion gets nasty.

I should reiterate that I receive no funding from stakeholders in the network neutrality debate and that my view expressed in this blog are entirely my own.

No wonder telecommunications and information policy accrues suboptimal results in the United States. The process has become so partisan, political and doctrinal. There may come a time--not too distant--where people will recognize that the U.S. lost its best practices leadership in telecommunications infrastruture, because the stakeholders spent more time funding web sites and blogs as well as foolish litigation in lieu of doing what's needed to install and operate next generation networks.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

FCC Chairman Martin A Tireless Consumer Advocate--Who Knew?

In a counter-intuitive move for a Republican free marketeer, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has sought to impose substantial additional regulations on cable television. Chairman Martin ostensibly can retain his credentials by claiming that a 1984 law requires the FCC to act when cable television systems serve 70% or more of the U.S. population and 70% who can subscribe do so.

A dispute about whether the cable has reached the so-called 70/70 benchmark temporarily has preempted the Chairman's campaign. However the notion of adding regulation to help the consumer intrigues me, particularly in light of countless instances where Chairman Martin all too willingly relies on assumptions about the market and/or questionable statistics to refrain from regulation.

So what is it about cable television that triggers the Chairman's regulatory urges? If cable has such a lock on markets where was the FCC all these many years, particularly now that true facilities-based competition from satellites and telephone companies will help solve the problems belated regulation is supposed to remedy?

I also wonder why Chairman Martin has no interest in regulating other instances where market power and pricing control appears more clearcut, e.g., special access wireline services outside of central business districts and residential broadband Internet access. There is no applicable 70/70 rule and neither service comes close to 70% penetration. Still the regulatory urge does not exist for wireline telecommunications.

Maybe it's "I want my MTV" and I want it cheaper!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why Thwart Network Usage When the Meter's On?

One of the many disconnects in the network neutrality debate---at least the wireless one-lies in the simple fact that carriers make money primarily when subscribers use the network. Of course ISPs do not want subscribers to use too much of the network, despite having encouraged consumption with so called, but not actual "All You Can Eat" pricing.

So with that in mind why on earth would an ISP drop packets, misrepresent their subscribers or engage in tactics that create disincentives for subscribers to consume? Well it may be a little like the mutual fund that wants to ration customer service representative access as a function of how much a particular customer has invested in the fund. The million dollar investor could have access to a special telephone number that gets answered by a real--and qualified--person while others are left to navigate through a gauntlet designed to migrate them to automated responses. But at least one mutual fund told particularly heavy calling customers with small financial stakes to take their business elsewhere. In practice ISPs are saying the same thing to heavy users and ones that may contribute to network congestion and the possible need for the carrier to upgrade facilities.

Nevertheless ISPs do not want too many subscribers to get frustrated or infer that they ought to take their business elsewhere. Perhaps that explains the announcement by Verizon that it seemingly embraces network neutrality; see Verizon Wireless To Introduce ‘Any Apps, Any Device’ Option For Customers In 2008 New Open Development Initiative Will Accelerate Innovation and Growth, available at:http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/11-27-2007/0004711790&EDATE=

So never mind about all the righteous indignation about how network neutrality would stifle investment, innovation, competition and freedom.

Regardless of the motivation, I am truly pleased to read that a major wireless carrier wants my business.