Posts Tagged ‘fcc’

FCC: making a rulebook out of metaphors

Monday, August 4th, 2008

Regulators and network operators across the world will be watching events unfold in Washington DC with some astonishment today, as the US telecoms industry becomes embroiled in a bureaucratic farce.

Late last week, the US regulator the Federal Communications Commission issued a landmark assertion of authority over how American operators should manage their networks – and announced a new policy framework. We won’t know what this policy framework will be for days or perhaps weeks – and the statements issued so far don’t help.

What we got on Friday was a self-contradictory press release which simultaneously both encourages and prohibits prioritizing internet traffic by application type.

Er, say what?

Well, it gets even stranger. Accompanying the commission’s release, all five commissioners issued their own individual personal statements – the FCC is split down the middle on the issue – with the two dissenting Commissioners, McDowell and Tate, complaining they weren’t given the text of the release until the last moment.

“Commissioner Tate and I received the current version of the order at 7pm last night, with about half of its content added or modified. As a result, even after my office reviewed this new draft into the wee hours of the morning, I can only render a partial analysis,” wrote Commissioner Robert McDowell.

Well-placed sources also suggested that having voted, they then realised it was immediately unworkable – so the statement was redrafted after the vote. Maybe that’s in keeping with an exercise in “Policy-based Evidence-making”: Take a vote and then try and figure out what you’ve voted on.

Before getting into specifics, let’s look at the problem – and the main problem with making laws out of net neutrality has been painfully obvious from the start. As a descriptive generalisation about what “the internet” looks like, or should look like, it’s impossible to disagree with. You won’t get any dissent about the evils of content discrimination from The Register, because unlike most of the neutrality activists, our livelihoods depend on networks delivering pages like this without favour. But a description is not the same thing as a working principle. Any law or regulation needs to be understood by the engineers working at the business end of keeping the networks running.

Take, for example, a statement such as “driving fast is bad”. This can be implemented and then enforced (as a speeding law). However an observation or generalisation such as “highways are better when people are nice” can lend itself to a metaphor, for example “Friendly Roads”, and made into a policy principle – “drivers should be considerate to each other”. But it’s one that is much harder to turn into a workable, prescriptive regulation.

The problem is that when it comes to implementation, “neutrality” only works as a metaphor. Not only has the internet never been “neutral”, it’s misleading to think of one internet, rather than many interconnecting networks. (The clue’s in the name).

The FCC has now taken upon itself on the task of turning a metaphor into law, and the difficulties are evident from the press release, and chief commissioner Martin’s statement.
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How Free Press breaks the citizens' network

Monday, May 19th, 2008

In 2003 the journalist Ron Suskind captured one of the quotes of the decade when he cited an unnamed Bush administration official as saying:

“When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”

On the web today, “political activism” has become a virtual reality game that anyone can play, whoever you are. To succeed, a campaign need not be reality-based at all: it can generate its own fictional cause, complete with symbolic heroes and villains. Eventually the “campaigners” bump into physics, or economics, or real electors – who may have different, more urgent priorities – and the “campaign” vanishes as quickly as it appeared.

But what’s interesting is the real world consequences of the virtual campaign can be the complete opposite of the campaigner’s stated goals.

For example, have a look at this exchange with Ben Scott. Ben is a policy director at Free Press. The outfit describes itself as a “national, nonpartisan organisation working to reform the media”. A goal is a media more responsive to citizens, and more accurate too.
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We sneer at your global standards, and your economies of scale…

Friday, September 7th, 2007

More dismal news for the US consumer. After the simultaneous failure of Municipal Wi-Fi projects in three major US cities – something we predicted four years ago – faster, cheaper mobile data looks further away than ever.

So why are Google lobbyists advocating for the next wave of collapsing wireless initiatives – rather than helping things?
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Smart radios are still pretty dumb

Monday, August 13th, 2007

More than three years ago, your reporter got a good taste of how miserable technology utopians can be. It was at Intel’s Developer Forum in San Francisco, and the debate was about liberating analog TV spectrum for exciting new digital uses. The analog switchover is slated for February 2009.

On behalf of Microsoft, Google, and Intel, the technology evangelists argued that smart radios were here, but the evil regulator the FCC wouldn’t permit them to deploy the technologies. Broadcasters countered that these experimental new technologies caused interference with their signals. [See Abolish Free TV – Intel).

In the hallways afterwards, one delegate and deregulation evangelist couldn’t understand why the FCC couldn’t just confiscate the spectrum from the TV broadcasters and be done with it?

“Why do the broadcasters need any spectrum at all?” she asked.

Because free TV is one of the few pleasures some Americans can afford, perhaps. A slightly less arrogant and more technically adept argument was advanced instead, which claimed that the space between allocated TV channels was “beachfront property”. Instead, the regulator copped it – it was all the fault of the FCC’s “command and control” outlook.

(The deregulation fanatics want a spectrum free-for-all and dream of the FCC being scrapped. The FCC is permitting fixed WSDs (white space devices) from 2009, but the industry wants mobile handheld WSDs to be permitted too.)

Now, agile radio has been tested and found to be not quite so agile as its proponents touted. At the end of July, the FCC’s engineering office published two sets of results from a four month trial of agile radio equipment submitted by the “White Space Coalition”, which includes Microsoft, Google, Intel, Dell, and HP.

“Depending on the effectiveness of shielding of a TV receiver’s tuner, emissions within a broadcast white space (i.e., within an unused broadcast channel) could potentially cause co-channel interference to a TV receiver tuned to a digital cable channel that overlaps the spectrum of the white-space device emission,” the FCC noted.

The lab found that the spectrum sensing of the equipment it tested couldn’t detect the white space with sufficient accuracy.

For one prototype sensor, the FCC noted:

“the results of the bench test for determining the baseline minimum detection sensitivity demonstrates that the device will not meet the manufacturer-specified threshold of -114 dBm (or the IEEE 802.22 proposed threshold of -116 dBm for fixed devices) and in fact, fails to meet both of the thresholds by about 20 dB. The results of the field tests also demonstrate inconsistent performance”

The manufacturer may have misread the spec, it suggests. The sensor also failed to detect the presence of a wireless microphone at all.

A second prototype sensor performed to the 114 dBM but got confused when a second DTV channel was turned on – the manufacturer asked it be excluded from more real-world tests. This prototype also failed to pick up a wireless mic, except on the two lowest channels. Both were also severely hampered by the microphones themselves.

Tests of a prototype transmitter also demonstrated interference, and generated some skepticism from engineers whether the filtering required to avoid knocking out TV signals can be implemented in a real product.

So smart radios have a long way to go, and this white space looks less like a “beachfront property” and more like a Cambodian minefield.

Microsoft told the Washington Post today that it had given the FCC a successful demonstration last week – and insisted it will all work out in the end.

As soon as it’s got the pesky physics sorted out.

FCC opens door to ISP wipe-out

Saturday, August 6th, 2005

Re-monopolizing the phone service 

US telecoms regulator the FCC has signaled the end of the independent ISP, a move which will leave DSL provision concentrated in the hands of just a few large providers. The move, which turns local DSL provision from a regulated monopoly into an unregulated monopoly, also has repercussions for rural telephony providers, who will lose a chunk of subsidy, and has potentially chilling consequences for free speech.

Unless state regulators step into the void just vacated by the Federal regulator, however, every independent DSL provider will find itself at the mercy of the Baby Bells when its contract expires – and the Baby Bells have no compulsion to renew those competitors’ contracts. (more…)