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The Future of Our Communications Networks: Strong Enough to Weather Us through the Storm?

10:53 am in Uncategorized by Meredith Whipple

121030-F-AL508-159 Aerial views during an Army search and rescue mission show damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, Oct. 30, 2012

Damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey Coast

A year ago this week, Superstorm Sandy wrought unprecedented damage up and down the East Coast. The rest of the nation watched as residents in the line of the storm documented destruction in real time online, and reached out to emergency services and loved ones, demonstrating the vital necessity of a resilient communications infrastructure.

One year later, do these residents have what they need to prepare for the next storm? Judging by how Verizon rebuilt phone service in the storm-ravaged communities of the Northeast, the outlook is grim.

In Fire Island, NY, Verizon, the monopoly provider of the community, informed residents that it was too expensive to replace the traditional copper-line phone network that had been destroyed. Instead, the telecom giant said they would replace these networks with Voice Link, claiming this to be the wireless technology of the future.

Voice Link failed in Fire Island. Residents complained about Voice Link’s spotty reception and unreliable connections. Small businesses pointed out it didn’t work with security systems and many credit card machines. DSL Internet was no longer available. After a public outcry, Verizon decided not to use Fire Islanders as guinea pigs and offered them Verizon’s high quality fiber optic wired network FiOS instead.

But this hasn’t stopped Verizon from forcing the technology downgrade upon other communities. As the New York Times reported this month, New Jersey is suffering the same abuse at the hands of Voice Link. And these are just “test communities” that are part of a broader technological shift happening in the United States known as the “IP transition“.

Voice Link’s lackluster performance raises concerns that similar wireless services will be unreliable—especially in a storm, when reliability matters most. And this isn’t the only problem critics have with the transition. Traditional phone networks come with strong consumer protections. For example, most states require phone service to be offered to all homes, and enforce quality standards for this service. There are also policies regulating privacy, billing, competition, and connectivity between networks. New wireless services like Voice Link are largely unregulated, making them very appealing for telecom companies like Verizon, and very problematic for consumers.

These regulations were put in place specifically for the traditional copper phone system. If this system needs to be modernized in light of technological advancement, as the industry contends and many public interest advocates agree, consumer protections need to adjust accordingly. If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t proactively address this change, consumers will at best be inconvenienced, and at worst be in danger, without communication when it is needed most.

This week, congruent with the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss concerns related to the IP transition. Harold Feld, senior VP of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, listed five fundamentals of a nationwide phone network that must remain in place; service to all Americans, interconnection and competition, consumer protection, reliability, and public safety. Feld wrote in his testimony:

“We have enjoyed the benefits of a ubiquitous, reliable, affordable telephone network for so long that we take it for granted. We have forgotten that these things did not happen by accident. The telephone system we rely on today works the way it does because we made policy choices based on our fundamental values. The features of the phone system we depend on: service to all Americans, interconnection and competition, consumer protection, reliability and public safety could disappear tomorrow if we decide these values no longer matter.”

As Feld pointed out, Americans have an expectation that their phones will work reliably, so they can call loved ones across networks, operate their small business, or contact emergency services. Industry leaders, Congress, and consumer advocates have all asked the FCC to manage this inevitable technological advancement, already in progress, and the FCC has taken some initial steps. But there is much work to be done. Let’s hope it will not take another natural disaster to prompt the FCC to ensure the safety and consumer protections of our communications networks.

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The Ted Cruz Shutdown: Internet Freedom Edition

12:41 pm in Uncategorized by Meredith Whipple

The Internet as you know it is under attack. But not by the NSA this time. Instead, by a threat to our old friend, net neutrality.

Ted Cruz on campaign.

Ted Cruz: Still blocking government.

It’s been awhile since “net neutrality” has been in the news. After all, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted net neutrality rules back in 2010 (called the Open Internet Order). These rules prevented Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking consumer access to the websites and applications of their choice. The roar of outrage on the Internet faded to a whisper. It seemed like the debate was closed.

But since that time, Big Telecom has been fighting to kill these rules and win the right to charge consumers even more to access the Internet. Most recently, in 2011, Verizon filed a lawsuit claiming that the FCC exceeded its authority by enacting these rules. And last month, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from Verizon and the FCC.

Net neutrality rules prevent ISPs like Verizon and Comcast from blocking or discriminating against certain websites. Without net neutrality, these companies can charge for faster, more reliable access to websites—either by charging the websites, who will pass that cost onto consumers, or by charging the consumer directly – like on your monthly cable bill.

But there’s even more than innovation and consumer protection at stake – eliminating net neutrality threatens democracy. Today’s voters educate themselves on blogs, and activists organize over social media. So allowing ISPs to block or slow down access to websites that they do not like is tantamount to closing the public square.

Whether Verizon wins or loses in court, the FCC desperately needs a progressive champion to protect Internet users and advocate for consumer rights. Big Telecom is waging warfare in every direction, and the FCC has a lot of work to do to keep this under control.

But there’s one man that stands in the way of all this; Senator Ted Cruz, up to his old tricks again.

President Obama’s nominee for FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, hasn’t inspired boundless confidence, but he also hasn’t been able to prove himself. Senator Cruz is blocking the Senate from voting on Wheeler’s nomination, placing a parliamentary hold on the Chairman selection.

The reason that the Republican senator from Texas is holding Internet democracy hostage? He is worried that as Chairman, Wheeler will pursue funding disclosures for political ads from corporations, super PACs, unions, and other outside groups—something the FCC has the authority to do. Senator Cruz is afraid that his political funders will no longer be able to hide their spending behind a shadowy veil.

The telecom policy community has expressed their readiness for Wheeler. Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, a DC-based public interest group, told TIME:

We have a lot of questions about what kind of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is going to be. But he has been nominated by the president and won the approval of the vast majority of the Senate. So it’s time for Senator Cruz to stop holding the process hostage, and let Wheeler do his job. If Cruz doesn’t like Wheeler, he should just vote against him. But it’s time to put the full FCC back to work.

The FCC has a lot of catching up to do after the 16-day government shutdown, and if confirmed, Wheeler will have a significant backlog of consumer protection issues to address, including net neutrality. But Senator Cruz is waiting for an explicit promise from Wheeler that he won’t give voters the political transparency they are entitled to. Wheeler hasn’t taken a stance on the issue yet, and the Senate Commerce Committee has already voted to send the nomination to the floor for a final vote. But since Senator Cruz isn’t getting his way, he is, yet again, forcing government to a grinding halt.

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