Company / division: FCC
Alphabet’s Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to deploy internet connectivity to areas underserved by more traditional methods, has received rapid FCC approval to deploy its technology in Puerto Rico, where cellular service continues to be widely disrupted after the recent hurricane. Project Loon has relatively few real-world deployments out there despite testing for years, but this seems like a fantastic application for the technology if it can work out some of the kinks, and if it can deploy much more quickly than it has elsewhere. Interestingly, Facebook’s connectivity group has also worked on some airborne technologies for deployment in disaster zones, including a “Tether-tenna” it described at F8 earlier this year. Given that neither company’s connectivity efforts has had a massive impact yet, perhaps it’s best deployed in these scenarios, where the flexibility it offers is arguably a better fit than land-based approaches typically used by traditional cellular carriers in these situations.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai has called for Apple to “activate the FM chip” built into at least some iPhones as a way to help with disaster relief in places hit by recent natural disasters. Others have also made similar calls over the last couple of years, including industry groups with obvious interests in Apple doing so, such as the National Association of Broadcasters. But of course to suggests that this is as simple a matter as activating a chip in a device is to ignore the fact that without some kind of app to tune the radio, it would be useless. So in fact Apple would need to create an SDK for developers to use to create apps, it would need to release an iOS version that incorporated the new functionality and turned on the FM radio functionality, app developers would need to create apps using the SDK, and then Apple would need to approve those apps to be distributed through the App Store. So this is a far from simple process, and not one that could be implemented overnight. It’s also unclear whether FM radios are actually in all iPhones, given that Apple recently switched some of its modems to Intel. The idea that FM radios in existing devices should simply be switched on is obviously an appealing one, especially in a place like Puerto Rico where communication infrastructure is currently in poor shape following the hurricane, but the practicalities of trying to force such a solution in the short term seem unfeasible. The broader issue of whether Apple should enable such uses in general rather than in response to a particular current situation is rather different – Apple has never said why it won’t do so, and I’ve never heard a good reason why it shouldn’t, but that is very different from suggesting there’s some sort of immediate fix to the current problem.
Also worth reading: this piece from PC Mag’s Sascha Segan, which talks about one potential hurdle, which is that FM radio functions in phones typically require wired headphones, something Apple is moving away from in its newer iPhones.
Update: Apple has now issued a formal comment, which among other things says that its newer iPhones (the 7 and 8 models) don’t even have FM radios to turn on, making much of this moot.
In a somewhat bizarre (and brazen) move, AT&T is “joining” the day of action due to take place tomorrow in protest at the FCC’s proposed changes to net neutrality rules, even though AT&T is entirely supportive of the FCC’s policy. AT&T’s argument for doing so is that, if the protest is about preserving an open internet, it’s all for that, but just sees what that means and the ways to achieve that goal differently. But it’s predictably spurred a backlash from the organizers of the events and others who see AT&T not as an ally but as the enemy in this cause. As I’ve argued from the beginning, and as an earlier piece from Tony Romm makes fairly clear, the odds of the protest succeeding in changing anything are very slim indeed, and the organizers seem to concede that – they’re talking more in terms of “not going down without a fight” than in terms of not going down at all. And that’s realistic because FCC Chair Ajit Pai has the votes he needs to push this through and he’s been a consistent opponent of the rules from the time they were voted in over his objections, in stark contrast to his predecessor Tom Wheeler, who seemed taken aback by the opposition to his first proposals on net neutrality. We’ll see what actually happens tomorrow when the protest takes place, but I suspect AT&T would have been better off quietly sitting this one out rather than pulling this stunt, which seems far likelier to get it lots of negative publicity than to do itself any good. There are certainly reasonable arguments to be made that the net neutrality rules go too far, or that it should be regulated differently, but a move like this does little to advance the argument.
A little while ago, I covered the news that Jessica Rosenworcel had been nominated to fill the vacant Democratic slot at the FCC, and posited that a Republican nomination must be coming soon so as to preserve the Republican advantage on the Commission. It now seems as though Brendan Carr, currently acting as general counsel at the FCC and a key ally to Chairman Ajit Pai, will take that last slot. Given the controversy around net neutrality, that majority is critical to making the changes Pai has proposed, and on the basis that both these nominees are likely to be pushed through together, things should work out fine for the Trump administration. As I said while commenting on the Rosenworcel nomination, telecoms policy is one of the few areas where the Trump administration has been able to move quickly without either Congressional or legal barriers, so it will be keen to keep the agenda moving forward quickly. Update: the nomination was confirmed later in the day.
More Fraudulent Comments Submitted to FCC on Net Neutrality (May 29, 2017)
I had an earlier comment on a report that many fraudulent comments had been submitted to the FCC over its proposed net neutrality action, though the vast majority of those were against the policy proposals. Now, it’s emerged that there have also been some number of identical comments submitted in support of the proposals, at least some of which are being submitted in the names of individuals who have publicly opposed them. Those individuals have quite reasonably asked that those fraudulent comments be removed from the site, and also that the FCC investigate the fraud (something which, as far as I am aware, the FCC isn’t planning to do with the earlier comments either). There’s also an accusation – completely unsubstantiated as far as I can tell – that Comcast is somehow behind these comments. This FCC process has been dogged from the start by “astroturfing” – the process of either faking or at least dramatically magnifying apparent public comments on a controversial topic, through a combination of legitimate streamlining methods like form letters and online submission forms and illegitimate ones like these fake comments. That, in turn, seriously muddies the water in terms of what real people actually believe about all this – the only survey I’ve seen on this was sponsored by the industry and predictably showed that people broadly oppose regulation on the Internet but without being very specific about net neutrality. As I’ve said from the start, though, this FCC doesn’t seem particularly likely to bend even in the fact of significant (real) public opposition.
via Ars Technica
This has been in the offing for weeks, with lots of reporting since Ajit Pai took over as FCC Chair about his intentions to dismantle net neutrality regulations, but today it finally become official with a speech by Pai outlining his proposed approach. For now, all that will happen is that the FCC will tomorrow publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking outlining plans to reclassify broadband services as Title I, and inviting public comment. The significance of that is that the 2015 reclassification of broadband as Title II was what enabled the agency to pass net neutrality rules which stood up in court, so reversing that decision would also remove the net neutrality regulations. What Pai didn’t do in his speech today was outline how net neutrality rules, which he says he broadly supports, would be enforced going forward, though reporting has suggested he favors handing enforcement to the FTC with providers drawing up voluntary codes of conduct. The providers themselves, meanwhile, have been piping up in praise of the proposal while reiterating their commitment to a version of net neutrality they can live with: not blocking or degrading competing traffic. Once again, how you feel about all this depends on what you think net neutrality should mean: if you agree with that basic definition from the providers, things should be fine, but if you think it should also mean no paid prioritization, no zero rating, and so on, then you’ll have a problem with how this plays out. Pai’s fundamental argument here is that the providers were largely self-regulating before the rules, and that they will be again. The counterargument is that the threat of rules was enough to keep the carriers in line without them, and with rules eliminated and no immediate prospect of their reintroduction, carriers would be emboldened to push the limits in a way they weren’t in 2015. Also, as I argued a few weeks back, though the proposal released tomorrow will be up for public comment, I wouldn’t expect it to change much in the face of even very strong negative feedback.
The FCC recently held an auction of spectrum to be freed up by broadcasters and made available for wireless services, in the 600MHz band, which is well suited to long-distance and in-building coverage. T-Mobile was the only wireless carrier among the big winners, with the two largest carriers having cleaned up in the previous auction, and a cash-constrained Sprint sitting this one out too (AT&T did win licenses worth $900 million, but T-Mobile spent $8 billion). The other big bidders were DISH, which spent nearly as much as T-Mobile ($6.2 billion), and Comcast, which recently announced its wireless service based on Verizon’s network but could eventually launch its own network. Though T-Mobile has always crowed about how much spectrum it has per customer, that was always more of a reflection of its smaller number of customers rather than a massive spectrum trove, and it lacked low-band spectrum. It has now made big strides in solving that problem, and plans to put at least some of that spectrum to work right away (though much of it will be unavailable for several years while the broadcasters go through the process of vacating it, with much of that unavailable spectrum covering the densest markets). It’s also worth noting that no phones in the US today support the 600MHz band – that support is likely to come early next year with a new Qualcomm modem, so even if T-Mobile does put a third or so of its new spectrum to work this year, it won’t do anyone any good until then. So, if you’re a US wireless customer today, none of this makes any difference for now, and it’ll only make much of a difference a year or several down the line if you’re a T-Mobile customer (or in limited cases an AT&T customer). Or as and when Comcast and DISH decide to put that spectrum to use.
Silicon Valley is (quietly) beginning to fight the Trump administration’s net neutrality plan (but probably won’t succeed) (Apr 12, 2017)
This was somewhat inevitable given the earlier fight about net neutrality, but it appears tech companies are starting to make their views known on FCC chair Ajit Pai’s plans to roll back net neutrality regulations and hand oversight to the FTC instead. So far, though, none of them are saying anything publicly, and I’m skeptical that we’ll see the same vocal fight over this as we did last time around on the part of the big companies. More to the point, I suspect even if we do it won’t make much difference. When Tom Wheeler came to the FCC many doubted that he would be tough on the ISPs he had previously represented as head of a cable lobbying group, and so he was particularly sensitive to criticisms of his policy along those lines. He also, of course, represented a Democratic administration which favored net neutrality rules. Pai, on the other hand, is a familiar figure with well-known views on net neutrality, who was in turn appointed by a president who backs his agenda. As such, even though Wheeler strengthened his stance on net neutrality as a result of public pressure, I can’t see Pai caving in the same way. We might see a slight moderation of the approach, and perhaps a slowdown in the transition to ensure the FTC is ready to pick up the gavel, but I can’t see any substantive change to the plan occurring because of opposition from big tech companies. Meanwhile, of course, this sets up yet another potential fight between the tech industry and the Trump administration, which may be another reason they choose to stay fairly quiet, given all the fronts on which they’re fighting.
Consistent with the FCC’s position on internet privacy rules, it appears it wants to shift enforcement of net neutrality principles to the FTC as well, which also suggests Ajit Pai isn’t opposed to net neutrality rules in some form, though perhaps a watered down one. Importantly, though, the FTC doesn’t have prescriptive rule making power in these areas, typically only acting after the fact to punish breaches of rules or regulations, which is a subtle but important shift in how net neutrality has been regulated so far. And as with internet privacy, it’s entirely possible that we’ll see a similar break between when the FCC ditches rules and the FTC picks them back up again, which will no doubt lead to a similar outcry to the one we’ve just seen over those privacy rules.
FCC and FTC Heads Outline Policy on Internet Privacy (Apr 5, 2017)
In an op-ed in the Post this morning, the chair of the FCC and acting chair of the FTC write up their views on the internet privacy debate that’s been roaring in online tech publications over the last few weeks. As I’ve said previously (and discussed in depth in last week’s News Roundup podcast), the reaction on this topic has been overblown, and understanding poor, though the major players on the other side haven’t really helped themselves. The major ISPs only began communicating on the topic after the congressional vote was over, and only now are the FCC and FTC chairs communicating clearly about the issue. But the reality is that this issue of internet privacy can only really be resolved by new regulation from the FTC, which will end up once again having responsibility for online privacy as it did until 2015.
T-Mobile Continues to Boost Capacity for Customers with LTE-U Launching in Spring 2017 – T-Mobile (Feb 22, 2017)
T-Mobile has been touting LTE-U as a potential extension of its current LTE capabilities for several years now, but needed FCC permission to begin actually deploying the technology, which operates in some of the same bands as WiFi. It now has that permission and will apparently begin rolling out the technology to customers in the Spring, though none of the devices currently in T-Mobile customers’ hands actually support LTE-U – those will start arriving later this year, CTO Neville Ray told me. The technical marketing lead for Qualcomm’s LTE and 5G modems tells me that devices carrying the new Snapdragon 835 chip and X16 LTE modem will support it. So until there’s widespread adoption of new devices capable of supporting the technology, and widespread support in the network, this isn’t going to have much consumer impact. In the meantime, there’s good marketing fodder here about being first (as with Verizon’s 5G announcement earlier).
This kind of overblown rhetoric is what we’ve all got used to around net neutrality, but it’s still shocking. Though reasonable people can disagree on what should and shouldn’t be included in the definition of net neutrality, and how strongly it should be regulated, there’s no reasonable case to be made that the dystopian outcomes outlined in this piece are at all realistic. This isn’t helpful to the debate, because it’s so easily dismissed as hyperbole. For what it’s worth, my own take on the topic is here.