Thursday, May 29, 2014

A casual survey of the current state of municipal broadband

The debate over high speed internet has morphed into a race to the top with many cities across the country finding ways to build their own networks, now known as municipal broadband, or muniband for short. In many cities that have found their access to the internet squelched by the political muscle of duopolies between telco and cable, muniband is the answer.

Muniband also addresses the problem of net neutrality in a very big way. No longer is priority determined by a Wall Street bean counter or CEO. Rather, priority is determined by the local muniband access provider. As a public utility, muniband operators care not where the bits come from, but rather, how to make sure there is enough capacity for all.

We know that capacity is the issue because the lack of enthusiasm by the incumbents to upgrade their equipment to keep up with demand has been well documented. This, despite better technology coming along every year. The behavior of the incumbents has resembled something more like selfish monopolist than a benevolent service provider.

As people become more and more aware of the impact of internet access (or lack of it) on their lives, more and more data is becoming available to quantify it. Communities across the nation are no longer satisfied with watching somebody else get better, faster service while businesses leave for that better, faster service, with the jobs.

Witness the happenings in Princeton Massachusetts: 91% of the voters approved a measure for municipal broadband. Why? Very poor service provided by incumbents Charter and Comcast, and both are simply not interested in working with the town. There is simply not enough revenue to justify the costs of network upgrades for the incumbents. You know, those Wall Street bean counters were right, weren't they?

Around Princeton, entrepreneurs are relocating to nearby towns for better access. Real estate professionals groan about falling property values and the difficulty of selling in Princeton due to subpar internet access. The townspeople have a genuine sense of urgency about it and have now taken matters into their own hands since the incumbents don't seem to care.

But things are not all that bad. Seems that not so long ago, Democrats and Republicans got very interested in freeing up municipal access to the internet in Tennessee. There is a bipartisan effort to undo the damage done to municipal broadband efforts of years past. What had happened is that in the past, cable companies wanted to carry on with their indifferent attitudes to the consumer. So they lobbied the state legislature to put a clamp on muniband competition. Now that the natural experiment of gigabit access in Chattanooga has proven to be a wild success, both Dems and Reps are working on 4 different pieces of legislation to clear the field for cities that want to set up their own networks.

In Centerville, Utah, they are already running comparisons of costs between the proposed Macquarie partnership with Utopia against the local incumbents. The picture is not pretty for the incumbents who have become fat and happy with their monopoly/duopoly.

The Utah state legislature is even starting to turn after watching what has happened after passing model legislation from ALEC designed to prohibit municipal broadband. For those of you who don't know, ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council - a nice neutral name for a corporate mouthpiece, isn't it? Well, the incumbent carriers got together with ALEC to do as much damage as possible to the muniband movement and they were largely successful. Utah was the first to pass that legislation and incumbents here rubbed their hands together with glee upon passage.

First, the incumbents wanted to squelch any more "unfair competition" in jurisdictions like Spanish Fork. In Spanish Fork, they built their own network since they just could not get the service they wanted from the incumbents, and now offer very reasonable rates for internet and TV access. The same legislation was also intended to squash Utopia, a consortium of 11 cities that wanted to pool their resources to build a better network.

But even that effort is starting to turn around now that many people around the state are starting to complain, loudly. A recent attempt to further limit municipal broadband in the state was rejected to allow the market to decide if they want to go with disinterested incumbents or let the cities build their own networks.

Nobody likes the smell of a private monopoly.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The joys of Netflix on Linux and how to set it up

Many people use Windows to watch Netflix. They may take it for granted that it just works, yet enjoy it just the same. Part of the reason for this success is that Microsoft and Netflix entered into a partnership to provide the security demanded by the content creators and the convenience demanded by the consumers they serve. Unfortunately, that partnership did not consider the casual Linux user.

On Friday, going into a nice 3-day weekend for the Memorial Day holiday, I had the misfortune to find that Netflix stopped working on my Linux machine at home. I did hours of research again on how to install it properly, how to test it, only to find that no matter what I did, I could not get it to work.

On Linux, we use a very nice utility called Pipelight, a play on the name of Silverlight, the Microsoft product that Netflix uses to stream video to its customers. Silverlight requires Windows to run, which means that it requires a Windows application programming interface to work. To run Silverlight on Linux, we use another application called Wine - a compatibility layer that allows a Linux machine to run Windows programs. All of that runs within a browser like Chrome or Firefox.

As you can see, there are layers of software needed to get Netflix to work properly on Linux. Wine provides the interface, or compatibility layer. Piplelight is the software used to play videos from Netflix and your browser of choice is at the top of the stack, providing you with the means to connect to the Netflix website to watch the movies on Netflix.

I had avoided using this stack of software for quite some time out of security concerns. But after doing some digging, I learned that most if not all of the Windows viruses go after bugs and flaws in the Windows kernel, the software that manages the hardware. Since the Windows kernel does not exist on a Linux machine, there is nothing beyond the Wine application layer for a virus to grab hold of. Further compounding the problems for Windows virus is that the version of Wine that I use is customized just for running Netflix. All that is not needed in Wine to run Netflix is removed. All that remains is tuned to make Netflix run well, and believe me, it runs very well.

So after discovering that Netflix stopped working on my machine, I did some research and tried re-installing the components to get it working again. Eventually, I decided to try a clean install. I removed all of the components required to run Netflix and then started from scratch. Along the way, I was able to compile a list of commands used to install Pipleight and all its dependencies:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:pipelight/stable
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install --install-recommends pipelight-multi
sudo pipelight-plugin --update
sudo pipelight-plugin --enable silverlight

The first command adds a repository, a place where Linux can find the software. One thing I like about Linux is the use of repositories like this one. That means I'm not going to to some website to download the software I want. Instead, Linux uses repositories to keep software up to date. The repositories make it easier to gather software from trusted sources.

The next command updates the list of available software with the new repository directive in place. The following command with apt-get install, will install Pipelight and all of its dependencies.

The last two commands update the Pipelight plugin that is used in the browser and enable the plugin. After the last command, you will be prompted to accept a license agreement in order to use Sliverlight, the Microsoft product used to display Netflix.

You can test the Silverlight plugin here and you can verify that the Silverlight plugin is enabled:

sudo pipelight-plugin --list-enabled

There is one more thing to do. Netflix will check to see if you are running Windows, so you will need to install an add-on for your browser. The add-on will fool the Netflix servers into thinking you're running Windows. For Chrome there is UserAgent Switcher and UserAgent Spoofer. For Firefox, there is UserAgent Overrider. All of them work well for their respective browsers.

I did all of this and still it would not work. While researching the problem, I found that Google had released a new version of Chrome. That new version of Chrome breaks Piplelight. So I tried Firefox and that worked. Problem solved. I was able to get on with Star Trek: Into Darkness. I must say, JJ Abrams did a great job with this one and I highly recommend it to the Star Trek fans out there.

I hope you find this information helpful.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Why the ISPs fight against community broadband

Scratch a conservative, and he will tell you over and over that in every respect, private enterprise will outperform government. There are a few exceptions like police, fire, and armed forces that a typical conservative will yield to. It is hard to find a conservative that can readily accept the reality that in the arena of internet access, publicly owned networks are not only outperforming private ISPs, they are teeming with happy customers.

ISPs are now the most hated companies in America. Comcast and Time-Warner, two of the biggest ISPs are the lowest ranked companies in the country in terms of customer satisfaction. They are the companies everyone loves to hate. I believe that they are where they are due to their government granted monopolies.

The telcos and the cable companies (we'll call them "incumbents") both get local monopolies from the communities they serve. They then have zero competition for phone and cable TV service in each city they serve. This arrangement is called a "franchise". In return for this, cities receive handsome sums of money that can be used for city expenditures, such as operating expenses or important projects.

The incumbents are well aware of a national trend that they helped to start. They are aware that when communities cannot get the service they want for internet access, that those same communities will try to build their own networks with public money to do it. They have known about it for a long time and have been working hard to prevent communities from building their own networks. We call those networks, "community broadband".

Community broadband has been implemented with varying levels of success. Lately, I've been watching the news to learn that places like Chattanooga, Tennessee have built and implemented a network to give their residents gigabit access to the internet. To put this in perspective, the average internet connection speed is about 9 megabits per second (mbs). Gigabit access is roughly 100 times faster than that.

As the internet has increased in speed, so have the capabilities of the applications that can run over the internet. I remember the early days of the web. The World Wide Web was once known as the World Wide Wait. But technology improved over time. I got my first cable connection at 1.5 mbs in 2001. Speeds doubled sometime later to 3mbs per second and then I thought that was fast. Now I have a 50 mbs connection and that still doesn't hold a candle to what can be had in Chattanooga. And I don't have any choices for that speed. Comcast is all I have since Centurylink conceded the territory to Comcast with their meek offering of 5mbs.

The incumbents have been fighting back to keep the internet from becoming a public utility. They seriously want to offer slower speeds at higher prices against the will of the people.

In my community we have Utopia, a public agency devoted to building and providing reasonably priced internet access to the residents they serve. Comcast and Centurylink, the local incumbents, both sued to keep that from happening, but they were too late and many residents in the Wassatch Front have had a taste of the higher speeds at lower prices. An example is Sumo Network's offering of 100mbs for $45 a month. Yeah, that's pretty incredible when you consider that at Comcast, you'd pay $200 a month for that kind of speed. The incumbents don't want us to have that kind of speed for cheap. I would have Utopia too, but the incumbents have been running interference, halting the rollout a block and a half from my home.

The incumbents are not just fighting off competition for their precious monopolies. They are fighting off higher property values. If gigabit access were provided in my neighborhood as a well regulated utility, I am certain that property values would go up. It's like connecting electricity to the home. A home without electricity or water wouldn't hold as much value as a home with utilities. The internet has become a utility, whether the incumbents like it or not.

The incumbents are fighting off economic development. We have seen an explosive growth in the capabilities of the applications we can use on a fast internet connection. Netflix is the big one, but there is YouTube, Pandora, massive multiplayer games, video conferencing, and so on. We are just beginning to see what can be done at gigabit speeds in the cities that have gigabit like Chattanooga, Kansas City and Provo. Those cities are seeing improving economies and are becoming attractions for businesses to create jobs. The incumbents need to be called out for fighting against jobs when they resist providing higher speeds at a reasonable price.

20 states, including the state of Utah, have passed model legislation designed to hobble or outlaw community broadband. Why? The incumbents have met the community broadband movement with deep pockets at the state level to curtail the trend. The incumbents want to keep their monopolies so that they can continue to finance the posh lifestyles of the C-class executives. Who wouldn't want a second home on the coast of Spain?

The incumbents are fighting against a more competitive America. By restraining speed and creating scarcity in the market through monopolies and abuse of political power, the incumbents are allowing the world to pass us by. America was #1 in internet access service and pricing in 2001. Now we're ranked 31st against the world. This country cannot remain competitive in world markets with slow internet access. We must keep up with the speeds if we want to remain competitive.

Comes now a raging debate over net neutrality. Netflix has had to sign expensive deals with Comcast and Verizon to ensure adequate access to their customers. Netflix would not have to do this with real competition in the market. The deals mean that Comcast and Verizon are holding out on upgrades until they can get paid more money. Netflix will pass those costs on to their customers. Comcast and Verizon will use the new money to build their own content to sell.

What is interesting about those deals is that the major ISPs in America are not keeping up with speeds at Level3 and Cogent, the biggest backbone providers on our network. Yet, worldwide, everyone else is adding more capacity. This is because the incumbents want to suck at the teat of government granted monopoly rather than actually compete with others. We're just not dealing with adults here.

So what is the solution? I have two suggestions:

  1. Reclassify anyone who owns the pipes as common carriers. Comcast owns a vast network in every city in which they operate. It's really expensive to build another one. It makes sense to classify them as common carriers and require that they resell service to competitors at wholesale so that customers get a choice in service providers.
  2. Use the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to pre-empt state laws that prohibit or restrict community broadband. Acknowledge that if cities can grant a franchise to the incumbents, then they can build their own networks with public funds when the incumbents fail miserably at their end of the bargain.

I believe that this two-pronged approach can restore balance in the market by offering the proper incentives for the carriers, the incumbents and the cities, to meet the needs of the people they serve. Once we have restored that balance in the market, we can move on to bigger and better things. We can remove the internet divide.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Americans hold their nose to the smell of private monopolies

Once again, we see that the most hated companies in America are the ISPs and the cable companies. Familiar names like Comcast, Time-Warner and AT&T have hit new lows. Surprisingly, the cell phone companies are doing better than the ISPs and subscription TV companies are doing.

I'd venture to guess that the reason for this is competition or the lack thereof. The cell phone industry has much more competition than the subscription TV or ISP business. Cell phone companies don't get exclusive territories like cable TV or the land line phone companies do.

If you have competition, you have to be nicer to your customers. Cable TV companies like Comcast are also internet service providers, but they don't have any competition in the areas they serve. Each city grants an exclusive franchise to the cable company that serves them. In return, the cities get a nice stream of cash they can use for operating expenses. This kind of relationship is much too close for comfort.

Worse, since the incumbent providers have no real competition other than the phone company also serving in the area, profits are fat. See, Comcast has no other cable companies to compete with in the area they serve due to the franchise they receive from the city. Same with the phone company, like Centurylink. Yes, the phone companies get franchises, too.

So they compete against each other. Or do they? I have Comcast so that I can have a 50mbs connection to the internet. Centurylink? They're still trying to find their butt in this neighborhood with an offering of only 5mbs. It's like Centurylink conceded this territory to Comcast on very friendly terms.

The cell phone service providers don't have the luxury of a franchise. They have to fight tooth and nail to get customers and keep them. So they have to be nice to their customers. That explains the higher customer satisfaction ratings for the cell phone companies.

But if you want to change the scene with the incumbent internet service providers, you might consider being an activist for community broadband. Or you can ask the FCC to reclassify the ISPs as Title II Common Carriers.

Either of those two would help to humble the incumbent ISPs in your neighborhood.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How to make the FCC play fair with the Internet

I've had this idea, a sort of wild fantasy, on my mind now for several days. It all got started while reading about how Antonin Scalia totally gets net neutrality. That article cites the Brand X case in which the Supreme Court ruled that when the law is vague, courts must defer to the agency in charge of enforcing the law to interpret the law. That much is given.

But here is the interesting part about the Brand X. Scalia, a noted conservative, was joined by two other liberal justices in his dissent. To me, that's really cool. But the best part is that Scalia observed that the cable companies provide physical access to the internet, making them telecommunications companies. To cap that off, he says that the FCC acted outside of its authority by classifying cable companies as information service providers rather than telecommunications providers.

In other words, if you own the pipes, you're a telecommunications provider, and are subject to regulation as a common carrier under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934. If I read Scalia's dissenting opinion correctly, the FCC is prohibited from classifying anyone who owns the pipes as anything but Title II common carriers.

I have a friend of 20 odd years who was way more into the law than I am. He's observed that often, dissenting opinions tend to take hold over time. I believe that we can speed things up a bit on that.

Consider: we have a Supreme Court filled with 5 conservatives who claim to believe in a free market. Scalia is one of them and gave the FCC the green light more than 10 years ago to reclassify the ISPs that own the pipes as Title II common carriers. Why is this important?

As common carriers, the ISPs who own the pipes must share access to their networks to competitors and resell access at wholesale rates. You know, like they do in Japan. In Japan they have thousands of ISPs competing for business. We want that kind of competition, too. Then gigabit access for $40 a month is no longer a fantasy here, in America.

Here's the part that is my fantasy:

We start a project on Indiegogo or Kickstarter to fund litigation to sue the FCC in federal court to compel the FCC to reclassify every last mile ISP as a common carrier, a telecommunications service. We're talking about Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time-Warner, Cox Communications, everyone that connects the home to the internet gets nailed. Except for community broadband providers. They already get it that they're common carriers. They're some of the good guys.

The FCC would fight, most likely, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Why? Because they're captured regulators who serve the industry before they serve the People. But to win that fight, that would take real money to do it. A crowd-sourced project to do it would show national initiative and popular support for such work to be done.

I believe that the Supreme Court would agree with the premise of the lawsuit: if you own the pipes, you're a common carrier. I believe that the People would prevail in such a lawsuit. I believe that there are thousands if not millions of people willing to fund that project.

What do you think?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Linux kernel downgraded upon Ubuntu upgrade to 14.04 and how to fix it

Several weeks ago, I upgrade Ubuntu 13.10 to 14.04. During the upgrade, everything seemed to go fine. No obvious errors, no worries, right?

But during the upgrade I noticed something odd. I was at the time running Linux kernel 3.11.x, but the upgrade was downgrading me to 3.08. I didn't think anything of it other than that maybe that is intentional. I was fine with this until I tried to run Virtualbox, my virtual machine software. I love Virtualbox because it allows me to test Linux without actually working on physical machines.

So when I tried to run a virtual machine, Virtualbox would return an error and would not run. The downgrade from Linux kernel 3.11.x broke Virtualbox. I resolved to fix the problem once I noticed that 3.13 was the latest kernel and that it was running on my other machines.

So I did a little bit of research on how to upgrade the kernel. If you're going to upgrade the kernel, you need to be careful as things can break, as I discovered. On my first reboot after upgrading the kernel, the mouse, keyboard and network were broken. What follows is what I learned from the experience of fixing the problem. If you find errors or omissions, please comment so that I can make corrections.

First, I needed to figure out where I was at. To determine what version of Linux you're running, enter the command as follows:

$ lsb_release -a
Distributor ID: Ubuntu
Description: Ubuntu 14.04 LTS
Release: 14.04
Codename: trusty

Then you need to determine which kernel you're running:

$ uname -a

Linux scott-XPS-8700 3.13.0-24-generic #47-Ubuntu SMP Fri May 2 23:30:00 UTC 2014 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux

What you see there above is that I'm running the latest version of Ubuntu with the latest Linux kernel. Believe me, it wasn't very easy to get there, but I got there. I had to reboot my computer quite a few times to get the problems fixed as I will explain below.

Once you know where you are, then you can decide where to go:

$ apt-cache search linux-image
alsa-base - ALSA driver configuration files
linux-image-3.13.0-24-generic - Linux kernel image for version 3.13.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP
linux-image-3.13.0-24-lowlatency - Linux kernel image for version 3.13.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP
linux-image-extra-3.13.0-24-generic - Linux kernel extra modules for version 3.13.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP
linux-image-extra-virtual - Transitional package.
linux-image-generic - Generic Linux kernel image
linux-image-generic-lts-quantal - Generic Linux kernel image
linux-image-generic-lts-raring - Generic Linux kernel image
linux-image-generic-lts-saucy - Generic Linux kernel image
linux-image-generic-lts-trusty - Generic Linux kernel image
linux-image-lowlatency - lowlatency Linux kernel image
linux-image-server - Transitional package.
linux-image-virtual - This package will always depend on the latest minimal generic kernel image.
linux-virtual - Minimal Generic Linux kernel and headers
linux-image-generic-pae - Transitional package
linux-image-lowlatency-pae - Transitional package
linux-image-3.4.0-3-goldfish - Linux kernel image for version 3.4.0 on Android touch emulation
linux-image-goldfish - Linux kernel image for the goldfish kernel.
linux-image-3.8.0-32-generic - Linux kernel image for version 3.8.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP
linux-image-extra-3.8.0-32-generic - Linux kernel image for version 3.8.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP

As you can see above, there are quite a few options to choose from. Let's narrow them down:

$ apt-cache search linux-image | grep 3
linux-image-3.13.0-24-generic - Linux kernel image for version 3.13.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP
linux-image-3.13.0-24-lowlatency - Linux kernel image for version 3.13.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP
linux-image-extra-3.13.0-24-generic - Linux kernel extra modules for version 3.13.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP
linux-image-3.4.0-3-goldfish - Linux kernel image for version 3.4.0 on Android touch emulation
linux-image-3.8.0-32-generic - Linux kernel image for version 3.8.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP
linux-image-extra-3.8.0-32-generic - Linux kernel image for version 3.8.0 on 64 bit x86 SMP

When I started this adventure, I was at 3.8.0-32 after upgrading to Ubuntu 14.04. Previous to the upgade, I was on 3.11.x, so I don't know what prompted the downgrade in the kernel. What I do know is that I didn't start to notice the kernel version until after I found that Virtualbox was broken.

To save you some time, I've reduced the steps as follows:

$ sudo apt-get install linux-image-3.13.0-24-generic
$ sudo apt-get install linux-generic linux-headers-generic linux-image-generic
$ sudo reboot

The first line installs the kernel that I want. The second line installs other software to make the kernel work right with the hardware on this machine. I can't explain it all since it is mostly over my head. But I can say that after running the above commands and rebooting the computer, everything worked. That includes Virtualbox, which was broken right after upgrading to 14.04. 

So you now have another reason why I wrote this blog article. I wanted to help myself by documenting the steps and to help others so that they wouldn't have to do what I did.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Justice Scalia told us cable ISPs are common carriers 10 years ago

Someone has noticed that Justice Antonin Scalia "totally gets net neutrality", 10 years ago. In an article appearing in The Atlantic, the author notes Scalia's dissenting opinion in National Cable & Telecommunications Association et al. v. Brand X Internet Services et al., 545 U.S. 967 (2005),. The majority opinion turned on the question of the authority of an agency to interpret the law when the law is vague. The court ruled that courts must yield to the agency's interpretation of the law when the law is vauge.

But buried below that decision is the following observation by Scalia concerning the FCC's determination that cable service is an information service rather than a telecommunications service in his dissenting opinion:

   The Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) has once again attempted to concoct "a whole new regime of regulation (or of free-market competition)" under the guise of statutory construction. MCI Telecommunications Corp. v. American Telephone & Telegraph Co., 512 U. S. 218, 234 (1994). Actually, in these cases, it might be more accurate to say the Commission has attempted to establish a whole new regime of non-regulation, which will make for more or less free-market competition, depending upon whose experts are believed. The important fact, however, is that the Commission has chosen to achieve this through an implausible reading of the statute, and has thus exceeded the authority given it by Congress. (emphasis mine)

 Scalia's opinion notes that the cable ISPs are providing the same telecommunications service that the phone companies offer, just using different hardware, while offering "information services". The cable companies offered free email addresses and websites to show that they are "information services", too. The FCC took this to mean that since they are offering information services, they must be classified as an information service rather than a telecommunications service. Scalia's point is that even if the cable companies offer "information services", they are still providing "telecommunications services" and are thus Title II Common Carriers.

In a nutshell, the FCC ignored the telecommunications service aspect of the bundle of services provided by Comcast, while classifying and regulating that company. Scalia's dissent demonstrates that if the FCC wants to reclassify cable ISPs as Title II Common Carriers, it not only has every right to do so, it is prohibited from doing otherwise.

Scalia's observation has been buried and ignored for more than ten years because the majority in that opinion deferred to the agency on the interpretation of the law, rather than classification of the services offered by cable companies based on the physical attributes of the service.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and the commission have recently been pondering the idea of reclassification in a very public way. But the reading of Justice Scalia's dissent suggests that if the commission does elect to reclassify cable ISPs, there will be a very friendly Supreme Court ready to affirm their decision to do so. So what are they waiting for? The green light was given 10 years ago.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Keep the Internet Free

The FCC has invited the public to send comments regarding the reclassification of Internet Service Providers as Title II Common Carriers. Why is this important?

In 2002, the FCC re-classified a subset of the last mile internet providers, the cable companies, as "information services" providers under Title III of the Communications Act of 1934. At the same time, they left the phone companies as Title II Common Carriers. This condition is such that cable companies could discriminate against traffic and did not have to share their networks with competitors while the phone companies were still common carriers and had to share their networks.

The difference in classification is the reason why the cable companies are now dominant in terms of speed and pricing for access to their networks. In the following years, Congress offered the phone companies an opportunity to escape the common carrier classification by building out fiber and other high speed networks. As a result, phone companies are abandoning the public switched networks they built decades ago in favor of IP or network based voice communication so that they too, could call themselves an "information services" provider.

The results are really starting to show as in recent months, Netflix, one of the biggest users of the available bandwidth today, has signed agreements with Comcast and Verizon to provide a 'fast lane" for access to the same services. Comcast and Verizon are now in the untenable position of being able to charge their customers twice: once for the service they are already paying for, and once again for Netflix to get priority over their network. This is the start of a trend that will make the internet very expensive for everyone.

Regular readers will note that I have many posts on this subject, but this post has something new: something you can do about this situation. In the past several days, I've seen several headlines indicating that the FCC is actively considering re-classifying the ISPs as common carriers. They are now inviting comments on the subject. You can do one of the following:

  1. Call them.
    1. Dial 1-888-225-5322.
    2. Select the following menu options in order: 1, 4, 0.
    3. A person will answer. Be polite.
    4. Say, "I'm calling to ask the FCC to reclassify Internet Service Providers as Title Two Common Carriers."
    5. They'll ask if there is anything else you would like to add.
    6. Say, "No, thank you for your time."
    7. They will enter your comments in a database.
    8. Hang up. You're done.
  2. Write them.
    1. Send an email to with your comments.
I've been studying this issue in-depth for years and have noticed that state legislatures have been working with help from ALEC to disable or prohibit community broadband, too. So I sent the following email:

I am adding my thoughts to the discussion as follows:
Please reclassify internet service providers such as Comcast, Time-Warner and Centurylink as Title II common carriers. My reasoning for reclassification can be found in the link that follows and is incorporated in this comment as if fully set forth: . Summary: if you own the pipes, you're a common carrier and should be regulated as such. Note that this includes open access regulation of common carriers to increase the competition for my business.
Please pre-empt all state laws that prohibit or impair the authority of municipalities such as cities and counties to build and maintain public broadband networks. These networks are known as "municipal broadband" or "community broadband" and are treated as the utility that internet access has become. If cities can grant local franchises (monopolies) to phone and cable companies, then the same cities and counties have the right to build municipal networks when the incumbent service providers fail to meet the needs of the communities they are supposed to serve.
Thank you.
You may receive or find templates to use to send in your own comments. Understand that you are sending information to a database. Use your own language or paraphrase someone else's comments or template. Adding differentiation makes your comments unique and improves the quality of the message that we send to the government when we are not satisfied with the service we are getting.

The fact that the FCC is even listening to comments about reclassification of the ISPs is astonishing to say the least. So at least you will be heard. They are already getting an earful and the torrent is increasing in size and scope as this news is recognized over the internet. 

This is our hour. We can do better than accessing the internet through a private monopoly that uses scarcity and collusion to maintain fat profit margins over a network that should have been converted to a strictly regulated public utility years ago.

We can ask for a change for the better. Let the FCC know how you think and feel about a 21st century service that works for everyone. Today.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Religion and politics don't mix and never will

In recent years, I've seen a rapid increase in the promotion of moral values by Christian religious institutions in political discourse. It has become popular in some circles, to promote the idea of a religious government - just so long as it is a Christian government. As we saw in a recent Supreme Court ruling, it's now OK to hold prayer before the start of civic proceedings in local government. This despite the fact that the Constitution allows no establishment of religion by the government.

So if the town is mostly Christian, you're out of luck most of the time. If you're Muslim, good luck getting a chance to give prayer in your town. Christians will happily protest a Muslim prayer. It is worth noting that all 5 majority justices are Catholic, so they would have no qualm if a Christian prayer is allowed.

Christians seem to think they are uniquely qualified to determine what is right and what is wrong with religion in politics today. But they get awfully upset if you question their motives for introducing religion in civic gatherings.

I find this quote by Justice Kennedy revealing:
"By inviting ministers to serve as chaplain for the month, and welcoming them to the front of the room alongside civic leaders, the town is acknowledging the central place that religion, and religious institutions, hold in the lives of those present," he said. "Indeed, some congregations are not simply spiritual homes for town residents but also the provider of social services for citizens regardless of their beliefs."
Kennedy believes that just because religion holds a central place in the lives of citizens, prayer before civic proceedings is justified. Who's religion? Who gets to decide?

The civic leaders get to decide. That is what amounts to an establishment of religion that is prohibited by the Constitution. But that matters not to the majority justices. Many Christians engaged in political discourse seem to be in an awful hurry to declare the United States a Christian nation. Never mind that the Founding Fathers left Britain due to a distaste for a religion established by government.

I have no problem with churches, synagogues, mosques and other establishments that provide a place of worship. I welcome the pluralism that we enjoy in America. I do have a problem when religious organizations stray from their original purpose and get involved in politics.

Be careful what you wish for, my fellow Christian Americans. A government dominated by Christian interests may be quite happy to turn this place into a Christian mirror of Iran or Afghanistan. Even if that wasn't your intention.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What is all this business about common carriers?

Cable and telephone companies would have us believe that there is a vibrant and competitive market for internet access. They would like us to believe that they are innovators and that if given the room and the time to do so, they will build a better network for us, their customers.

First, lets look at the innovation that cable and telcos want us to believe they have provided. The incumbent providers want us to believe that they're innovators, that they did this or that first. How long have you been waiting for fiber to your home? If you think fiber is new, guess again. We've been waiting since at least 1996 for the telcos to build out fiber to the home. The incumbent carriers were granted enormous subsidies to the tune of $200 billion to get this built out.

What did they do with all that money? Why, they granted bonuses and C-level salary increases so they could run off with the money instead of building out the network as they promised they would do. Prices went up, service went south relative to the rest of the civilized world.

Comes now Google, with Google Fiber. First in Oklahoma City, then in Austin, Texas with more to follow in places like Provo and Salt Lake City. In those same cities, incumbent carriers dropped prices and increased speeds. They were very upset to see real, meaningful competition, but you won't hear that from Time magazine or any major media outlet.

How innovative is that? Google is just the tip of the iceberg. Communities fed up with waiting for the incumbents to build out fiber have taken matters into their own hands to build their own networks with fiber to the home, business, schools and libraries. Many communities have either built or plan to build community broadband as a utility.

Community broadband is seen as a viable threat to the incumbent cash flow. Incumbent carriers mobilized their forces in the state legislatures to make it much, much harder for cities and small towns to light up their own fiber networks. Why? The incumbents don't like competition.

Incumbent carriers didn't just work with legislation. They sued in court to prevent communities from building their own networks with tax dollars to compete against private carriers.

So, how did the incumbents get here, you know, with their monopolies? I say monopolies and mean it because at my address, in my neighborhood, I can get 50mbs and above with Comcast. With Centurylink, I can't get squat. Well, I can get 5mbs, but only 80% of that is guaranteed. It's like Centurylink surrendered the territory to Comcast. Maybe they have some kind of deal going on. But both of them sued Utopia to stop a community broadband network from being built out.

Yeah, that's innovation, right?

The incumbents want their franchise monopolies without competition from other carriers public or private. This way, they can keep the C-level suits happy in their second homes on the coast of Spain.

Oh, yes. They don't want to be reclassified as a common carrier, either. That means regulation. But they seem to forget what the Supreme Court said in a famous case back in 1877:
"Whenever any person pursues a public calling, and sustains such relations to the public that the people must of necessity deal with him, and are under a moral duress to submit to his terms if he is unrestrained by law, then, in order to prevent extortion and an abuse of his position, the price he may charge for his services may be regulated by law." -- Munn v. Illinois (1876)
The incumbents are engaged in a public calling. They mix data together from whatever source and deliver the data to their customers. They have a franchise or some other legal device which allows them to operate without competition from others because, let me tell you, laying cable of any kind is really expensive and it's hard to do it again for another provider.

The incumbents certainly act like common carriers, but they don't want that designation because that would open their network to competitors. That would force them to sell access to their network at wholesale to other people. You know, like ISPs. That's the deepest fear of the incumbents, the potential for competition like we've not see in more than 20 years.

If there were real competition, we wouldn't be having this discussion about net neutrality at all. With scores or even hundreds of competing ISPs vying for our business, they would all try to offer the best speeds at the best prices. But that's not what we're getting from the incumbent carriers. Netflix wouldn't be signing deals with anyone except their own customers.

No, what we're getting is screwed. Screwed by the last mile carriers and the sycophants who regulate them while pining away for a cushy job with lofty pay, working for the people they regulate.

This why the incumbent carriers need to be reclassified as common carriers. There is no competition at the last mile.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Have your kids ever asked you to stop smoking?

I have neighbors with kids, and the adults in the house smoke. I saw one of them sitting on a chair out back, smoking in the cool 40+ temps, alone. I wondered to myself, is life really that bad that you have to smoke?

Smoking is one of the slowest forms of suicide that I have ever seen. Smoking increases the probability for a multitude of diseases: heart disease, lung cancer, obesity, etc. Smoking creates more stress on the body than the stress smokers think they're relieving. Unfortunately, smoking is one of the very hardest addictions to kick. Numerous studies dotting the internet have shown that smoking is harder to kick than heroin.

Smoking has to be the most perverse response to stress that I have ever seen. Smoking makes absolutely no sense in response to stress. Oh, yes, you'll get your oral gratification if you're still looking for the nipple. But as far as I know, humans are the only animal on the planet that will draw air loaded with carbon monoxide, and a host of other carcinogens through a small burning straw and call it...relaxing.

As we get into the summer months here, we start to leave the bathroom windows open for some fresh air and to keep the house cool. When someone is smoking in back of our neighbor's house, I can smell it. I don't know how the smoke manages to get into my house through tiny little windows unless they're puffing up a storm. That has been a source of irritation for me as I want the fresh air, but don't need the smell of their smoke filling my hallway.

I also see some of the guys at work smoking. Some of them take frequent smoking breaks during the day to step outside to smoke, even when it's 28 degrees outside and snowing. I have never seen such determination to do something as I do with smokers. They will brave the elements just to stand outside and smoke.

But the house next door, the kids. I think of the kids. They are powerless to stop their parents from smoking. I've wanted to ask the parents, "Have your kids ever asked you to stop smoking?", as if that would make the light in their heads turn on. But that determination to smoke is so strong, that I'm almost certain that the question would seem offensive. No, this question needs to go on a billboard on a busy street.

It is sad for me to see kids having to deal with parents who smoke. They have no recourse, no escape, they simply have to put up with a really big kid who pays all the bills, who might punish them for asking that innocent request, "Please stop smoking". What kind of a world does a smoker live in where subjecting kids to cigarette smoke is OK?

A world where it is KOOL to smoke. A world where a Marlboro Man smokes to prove that he is a man. A world where women believe that they have to smoke to keep the weight off. A world where compassion for children is the last consideration of the smoker while he is looking for his lighter and cigarettes.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The flip side of net neutrality

We love the internet, don't we? We can go where we want, find what we want, download what we want, anywhere, anytime, no matter what. It's a free net out there.

New proposed FCC rules would allow everyone to charge everyone else what the market will bear to carry traffic. Google could charge Comcast to carry it's traffic. Comcast could charge back. Imagine an infinite loop of carriage contracts and bandwidth limiting games between commercial interests.

This new set of rules has been proposed by none other than the chairman of the FCC himself, Tom Wheeler. There is a really good reason for this. Wheeler was nominated and installed there by the cable and telco industries. Now that there are huge monopolies locking up the market, they want to make more money with help from the government. Why, with their monopolies, they could really put the screws to everyone else with these new rules, now couldn't they?

Just imagine a world where no matter where you go on the internet, you'll have to pay money each time, or, you'll have to pay a subscription fee. Yes, the new, much more expensive internet will mean that only the well to do will be able to afford just browsing the internet and getting the content that they want. Censorship has a new name: paywalled.

It is truly amazing how CEOs can't get a grip on how the internet works. The internet was built as an open platform that everyone can use and share. By keeping the network as a common ground, everyone has a chance to fail or succeed. Everyone has a chance to see what is out there.

But if the cable and telcos have their way, the internet will become a walled garden. Comcast users will only be able to see what Comcast wants you to see. Centurylink users will only be able to see what Centurylink wants you to see. If you want to see more, you will have to pay your ISP for access and you will have to pay the destination for access. In a sense, everyone will be paying tolls to each other. The biggest losers in this game are the consumers.

But the telecom CEOs will laugh all the way to the bank on this one if it passes.

To get a sense of how bad this proposal is, check out how more than 100 of the biggest companies are making themselves heard. Google and Microsoft are together on this one. That's how bad it is. All of the really big names are against it.

But you have a chance to weigh in on the rules, right here. More than 100,000 have spoken against the proceeding, 14-28, Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet. You can have a voice here, too.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Some thoughts about how to foster critical thinking in kids

I'm a dad. I have a delightful 17-month old daughter named Emily and I learn something new every day with her. I cherish every moment with her.

I'm a late bloomer and I have been applying what I've learned over the years from my reading, support groups and even therapy to my life with Emily. I come from a family with alcoholism going back several generations and with me, my intention is to stop that pattern of behavior. Today I'd like to share with you what I've learned about parenting so far.

I can recall the days with my dad when I would ask him a question and instead of answering the question, he'd say, "Go look it up". Despite his alcoholism, he still had the presence of mind to teach me to think for myself. He presented me with many challenges in critical thinking, sometimes without knowing it.

But he had a temper and he was really scary at times. He was demanding and I had to act without thinking. I had to have an answer when he asked a question. He was not always rational or predictable, so it was hard for me to adapt, but I found a way to adapt. Unfortunately, how I adapted then doesn't work too well as an adult.

So I've adopted some simple rules of thumb for how I comport myself with Emily, and pretty much anyone, including kids, but for today, this is about kids. They are the next generation and I want to make this world a better place to be. So when you see the word "Emily" that could be any kid, not just Emily. Emily is my daughter so I say these words with love.

First and foremost: I accept my daughter exactly the way she is right now. She doesn't have to change for me. Change is automatic as she grows up and learns to adapt to the world.

What will she adapt to? Will she need to adapt to someone who barks orders at her, asks her questions in a sharp tone of voice that she cannot answer, someone who gives bellicose glares when she does something wrong? Or will she need to adapt to someone who talks with her and works with her when she makes a mistake or breaks a rule that she didn't know about or didn't understand? Either way, children will learn their behavior from the adults around them.

When Emily cries, I accept her crying because that is the best she can do right now. I hold her until she stops crying. I comfort her until she stops crying. I stay in the room with her to let her know that crying is acceptable. We can only cry for so long and then we have to do something else.

When Emily does something "wrong" I pull her away from danger, from breaking expensive things and say "no". I keep doing that until she understands because she doesn't have a vocabulary.

Children can't learn when they're in fear. If you want to raise someone who responds to your demands without thinking, get them into fear. Fear drives the mind to instinct to look for an answer. The success of man is that man does not rely upon instinct for every response to the environment. Instinct is coded by genes and genes respond slowly to the environment compared to what the nervous system can do now. Man has a brain big enough to critically assess the situation and think of a solution. So does Emily.

Emily is not a threat. I'm bigger, faster, stronger and have much more experience than she does. There is nothing that this one-year-old could do to threaten me, and she doesn't know the concept of threatening someone. I assume ignorance before malice because she is completely dependent upon me for her safety when I'm with her. Therefore, I don't respond to her as if she were a threat by responding with sharp tones, heavy glares and questions she cannot answer. I'm her father.

My job as a father is to have a good time with Emily, show her how to live a happy life as well as I can and guide her away from danger. Discipline comes with choices, not harsh words, sharp questions or heavy glares. That's what you could do to someone who is a threat, not someone you love. I know that Emily will encounter plenty of pain and disappointment at her own hands. My job is also to show her the skills needed to learn from those experiences.

When I look back on this article, I find that these ideas apply to everyone, not just children. If you want a society that doesn't think, that responds to commands, get them into fear. You know, like the Visigoths. If you want a society that is open and flourishes with ideas, inventions, families and friends, err on the side of peace. Every time.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Netflix and consumers alike have an alternative to Comcast and Verizon

A few months ago, we were aghast to see that Netflix has signed a deal with Comcast to gain better access to Comcast subscribers. This is an insult to consumers all over. Comcast gets to charge twice for the same level of service: once for the consumer, once for the information provider. The consumer will pay more in the long run.

But wait, there's more. Word is out that Netflix has signed another deal with Verizon. Now Verizon executives can laugh all the way to bank with their government sanctioned monopoly and charge consumers twice, once for access to the internet and again for access to Netflix. Ahhhh. Must be great to be a telecom exec with a private monopoly.

This is wrong on so many levels, it is hard to imagine that this is even sustainable. It would seem that in the eyes of the incumbent telcos and cable companies, the end game is the end of Netflix.

In the net neutrality debate, few are willing to raise the point that Verizon and Comcast get their traffic from true common carriers like Level 3 Communications. Few are willing to admit that Comcast and Verizon are connected to the public network and that they are common carriers. The incumbent carriers also get bargain basement prices for easements across private and public property to run their networks.

That we are so dependent on a few carriers in the first place makes it all the more clear that they should be designated as common carriers and be subject to open access rules. But if they refuse or resist such regulation, with their legions of lawyers and lobbyists, then we need an alternative. Something we can build ourselves.

We call it "community broadband". It's happening here and there across our country, with greater and greater frequency as the small towns are continually being passed up for faster service. They find a way to get it financed and build fiber networks that will bring faster speeds. Google Fiber has also brought higher speeds into the mainstream debate. No longer can cable and telco restrain our communities to 3 megabits per second and still call it broadband.

The incumbent carriers have been working hard to keep community broadband at bay on two fronts: litigation to bleed community organizations to the point where they have no money left to build their networks and legislation to restrain local municipalities from building networks that would compete with the incumbents using public funds.

Netflix needs community broadband because community broadband has every reason to act as the common carrier in the community. Like the local trolley or subway, it is how we get around town, the nation and the world. Community broadband treats internet access like the utility that it has become - essential to life in the 21st century.

The chairman of the FCC has said that he wants to use his power to preempt state laws that restrain community broadband. He has pointed out that if a city can grant a franchise to a cable company, the same city can build their own network when the cable company fails to meet the needs of the people it serves.

This is where Netflix can take the fight. We ought to encourage Netflix to take notice of community broadband and to use their power to nurture local networks built by the people, for the people.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Incumbent ISPs don't like municipal competition

We have all heard that cable companies have a "franchise" that allows them to operate in the city in which we live. Cable companies pay an annual franchise fee to the cities in which they operate in return for the easements that allow use of the utility poles and underground conduits. This fee is often a large sum of money that cities enjoy, but ultimately comes at the expense of consumers.

This arrangement can create perverse incentives that allow the cable company to run without any meaningful competition. I know this from personal experience. When I moved into my home, there was no cable option. I had only Centurylink offering a measly 5mbs connection, and of that, only 3mbs was guaranteed. Uptime was a serious problem with them. But since Comcast wasn't available at my address, I was stuck. About a year and half later, I managed to get Comcast at my house with 12mbs, but there was still no better option.

Cable companies have been aggressively using their lobbying power to curtail any kind of competition. Their franchise allows them to run almost completely unopposed because the terms of the franchise exclude competitors. This is a fact frequently omitted in discussions of net neutrality.

In Utah, some of the largest cities spent years begging for better and faster service from Comcast and Centurylink to no avail. So fed up, the cities created Utopia, a municipal broadband service that would meet the needs of the cities and help them grow into the 21st century.

I could have had Utopia with a 100mbs connection for about $45 a month, but they had run out of money to build out and stopped about one and half blocks from my home. Worse, even after setting up with Comcast, Centurylink only offers 5mbs to this day. Centurylink seems to be acting as if they have ceded this territory to Comcast.

The advent of Utopia was not welcomed by the incumbents, Comcast and Centurylink. Centurylink sued Utopia over access to the utility poles and during the proceedings, moved for discovery on 29,000 utility poles, one at a time. Centurylink was willing to play dirty in court and created very expensive delays for Utopia, which never fully recovered from that.

Litigation is only one front. Several investigations have shown that cable companies have also been working with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to write model legislation that prevents the building and adoption of municipal broadband. Utah happens to be the first state to pass such legislation, but only after Utopia got started. So there will be no other Utopia-styled networks in Utah. Cities will not be able to create their own networks to compete with Comcast and Centurylink, even if the incumbents refuse to provide better service. The incumbents just don't quit, either, as they have new legislation in the works to turn the screws on the cities against municipal broadband in Utah.

The legislation created by ALEC has been passed in more than 20 states and more are sure to follow with their gerrymandered GOP majorities in place, ready to do the bidding of big business. I note with interest that the membership list of ALEC could not be found on their website, and judging by the tone of their rhetoric, ordinary citizens like you and I are not included within the term "private sector". No, no. ALEC membership is reserved for large commercial interests.

There is a recent development that actually came as a surprise. Tom Wheeler, the poster child of the cable industry now chairman of the FCC, has stated that he has the power to preempt state laws that make it more difficult for municipalities to build their own networks. Wheeler has made an interesting point: if cities can grant franchises to telecoms, why can't they build their own networks to compete with them?

I believe that Wheeler can preempt state laws on the municipal broadband restrictions under the Commerce Clause. The Commerce Clause of the constitution grants Congress exclusive jurisdiction over interstate matters. If he really means what he says, he can easily apply his power to the 20 state laws he is contemplating by showing that they are incursions upon the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. I would sure like to see him try it.

Maybe then, we can all see gigabit internet access as a utility rather than an entertainment service as the cable companies would have us believe.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The ideal of public service has been lost

Slashdot has an interesting headline about how the British security agency, Government Communications Headquarters, aka, the "GCHQ", had been begging the NSA for access to NSA data pools. "Begging"? One security agency is begging for access to another's data? Someone at the GCHQ would like to go hunting for a terrorist so he can claim a prize, and get a reward.

This sounds a lot like ego to me. At both agencies, the cries for greater access to private data and suspension of 4th Amendment rights is more about finding and laying claim to having found and stopped a terrorist plot than about being of service to the public. Why can't they be happy with what they have now? Why always more, more, more?

There was a time when doing public service meant just that. Being of service, with no expectation of reward at the end of the service should be enough. Isn't it enough to know that you have helped someone and seen them smile? I know this from my own work. I know what it's like to help someone and get a reply or a smile when they're satisfied. Sometimes I'm good for a week when I've done that.

But to listen to these guys at the security agencies talk, I think that its more about ego than being of service. For years, we've been told that all this surveillance is going to keep us secure. But I can't recall an instance where the plot was foiled because of all this security theater. I guess the details are secret and it can't be told how many times the NSA was actually doing it's job instead of checking up on their ex-spouse, looking at pornographic selfies or fetching commercial intelligence for a paying competitor.

The ego thing isn't limited to our security agencies. Pretty much every agency is "owned" by the industry they service or regulate. For decades there has been talk of the revolving door where industry wonks do "public service" learning how the government works so that they can go back to work for the same company and "help" that company compete against others. Why, public service has become an opportunity for employees to work for government and get a raise when they leave.

Monsanto is a great example of this. The Obama Administration has many people who used to work for Monsanto, working in the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies that can help the ailing company get its genetically modified foods accepted. Sure, they take a pay cut when they work for the government, but when they leave the government, a nice, high paying job is waiting for them. In that new job, they can use their government experience to help further the commercial goals of Monsanto. Public service? Never heard of it.

Somewhere, long ago, the idea of doing public service was lost. I don't know where or when, maybe it never was. I can remember a time when working for government, any government, was a target of derision. Now it's a step in the corporate ladder to fantastic riches.

We started with a government of the People, for the People, by the People. But now that corporations are people, and money is speech, we have something that works for corporations first and people second.