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Trump FCC Chairman Ajit Pai -- a former Verizon exec -- says that we can count on ISPs to voluntarily refrain from abusing their natural monopolies to degrade service to their customers in order to maximize their profits.
But Pai's FCC also wants to be sure that companies like Verizon face no competition when they provide internet access, banning cities from creating municipal networks, even in places where no ISP is willing to provide internet access. In this regard, Pai's FCC is carrying on the work of the GW Bush years, which killed the pro-competitive practice of requiring incumbent phone companies to lease their equipment to new entrants to the market, who could discipline these old companies by offering competition.
The result of years of Republican opposition of telcoms competition means that most Americans only have one or two options for broadband. What's more, lax anti-competition enforcement opened the door to those ISPs merging and abusing their power, repeatedly breaching net neutrality rules and degrading their customers' connections to the internet in order to solicit bribes from internet companies to be "protected" from this discriminatory treatment.
A new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reveals the full scale of the problem: of the 129,000,000 Americans served by a single ISP, 50,000,000 have to rely on monopolist providers that have been convicted of breaching Net Neutrality. Another 50,000,000 Americans are served by only two ISPs, and all of those duopolists have also been convicted of breaching net neutrality. For our analysis, we focused on the two biggest cable and telephone monopolies: AT&T, Verizon, Charter, and Comcast. These firms have multiple violations of both the letter and spirit of the rules around network neutrality and have spent millions to prevent the FCC from enforcing the rules.
Free Press compiled a list of violations and here is some additional evidence: AT&T exempted DirecTV from its data caps; AT&T and Verizon on data cap exemptions; Verizon throttling Netflix; Verizon Lawyer tells federal court it wants paid prioritization; Comcast removes pledge against paid prioritization; Charter messes with inter-connection points to create fast lanes. There is more - such as Comcast's throttling BitTorrent while lying to subscribers about it
Repealing Net Neutrality Puts 177 Million Americans at Risk [Institute for Local Self-Reliance]
More than 100 Million Americans Can Only Get Internet Service from Companies That Have Violated Net Neutrality [Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard]
With all the recent chatter about Ajit Pai’s aggressive attempt to roll back net neutrality standards, it’s easy for other parts of the Federal Communications Commission’s winding docket to get lost.
But there are things that the FCC is doing beyond ruining your internet that are worth discussing. One of those things is the recent passage of a measure to allow the voluntary rollout of ATSC 3.0, a television transmission standard that could bring both higher-resolution broadcasts and more interactivity to the boob tube.
The vote to allow the standard to move forward on a voluntary basis, which passed last month on a 3-2 vote, was nearly as controversial as the net neutrality rollback. Broadcast groups like the National Association of Broadcasters cheered it on; competing groups like the American Cable Association strongly criticized it.
No matter the case, it highlights the strongly partisan split facing telecom issues these days. The measure got a fairly muted response outside the realm of the telecom sphere, however. People aren't discussing it in quite the same way as net neutrality. But should we?
Let’s talk about it, and put it in context with the last time the federal government pushed us to upgrade our TVs.
It might just be the future of TV broadcasting.
Why we’re seeing a push for a new broadcasting standard now
In the last piece I wrote about digital television, I noted that there were pockets of people who felt that the replacement ultimately wasn’t as good an option as the system that we lost—i.e., the staticky one that worked well with nearly every television set produced over a 60-year period.
Of course, those cries of disappointment were in vain. By that point, the broadcast industry and the US government (along with their international counterparts) had put so much time, money, and energy into creating a more modern iteration of over-the-air television that there was no turning back even if they wanted to.
In 2009, the broadcast industry had invested nearly two decades of work into that standard, with the Advanced Television Systems Committee, or ATSC, which was formed in 1983, taking the lead on creating the standard the US and a number of other countries ultimately used.
(Standards are important for television; the FCC created the National Television System Committee, or NTSC, in 1941 to nail down the broadcast standard used during the latter half of the 20th century. In 1950, a second iteration of NTSC made color TV possible and standards-friendly.)
At this point, ATSC 3.0 isn’t nearly at the no-turning-back point. But it is knee-deep in its experimental stages, something that the committee has been working on since at least 2011, with a clear desire to build with an eye toward the next generation of televisions. ATSC 1.0, or HDTV, was built a quarter-century ago; they’re future-proofing for the next quarter-century, which is why they appear to have blown past ATSC 2.0.
As a result, compared to the prior standard, ATSC 3.0 is way more detailed and complex. Internally, the committee describes the initiative as “a suite of voluntary technical standards and recommended practices,” one that represents far more sophistication than previous television standards.
Or another way to put it: If done right, it’ll make you never miss your crummy CRT ever again.
Five of the many features of the ATSC 3.0 standard
Super-duper high resolution. Current ATSC standards, which support 1080i resolutions of 1920 by 1080 pixels, haven’t kept up with the resolutions of current TV sets, which now support 4k resolution, also called ultra-high-definition television (UHDTV). “Note that it is the intention for the ATSC 3.0 system to support delivery to fixed devices of content with video resolutions up to Ultra High Definition 3840 by 2160 at 60fps, or such higher frame rates and/or resolutions as may be determined to be desirable and practical,” the organization explains in its overview of the standard. The standard will also include greatly improved audio and will support high-end video and audio codecs that make the most of the over-the-air bandwidth. Mobile television capabilities. One of the weak points of the current digital television standards used in most parts of the world is that they’re not designed to be used in mobile contexts—which makes sense, as the standards were largely built before mobile phones had taken over the world. ATSC 3.0 attempts to fill this gap, however, by allowing mobile playback on phones at 1080i resolutions. Built-in channel guides. Like the annoying cable boxes of the present, the ATSC system includes a standard for service messaging which is intended to make it easier for people to find something to watch or even load up video on demand functionality. Hopefully this means you need a little less hardware in the long run. Watermarking. The system will also be a boon for copyright-holders, as it will include built-in standards for audio and video watermarking, which could help with the pesky piracy problems common with television shows. “Service usage reporting,” AKA tracking. Famously, Nielsen has always had a hard time trying to figure out who’s watching what, leading to issues where shows that were widely appreciated by audiences got low ratings because Nielsen’s samples were off. ATSC 3.0 includes tracking capabilities built right in, which advertisers are going to love, but also has benefits for consumers—if the system knows you live in a certain area during a time of emergency, it might be able to potentially warn you. Of course, this cuts both ways, because people already hate being tracked on the Internet.
The killer feature of ATSC 3.0 could change the way we use the internet
These features are all well and good, but they pale in comparison to the most dramatic feature that the standard could enable: The ability for the internet and broadcast television to work together.
Fred Baumgartner, the man who is currently heading up the transition efforts for the local-TV conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting, wrote a detailed piece for TV Technology last year (while he was working for a different company, Nautel) that explains the key issue the platform is trying to solve: The internet protocol, or IP, distribution capabilities used by over-the-top (OTT) services like Netflix or Hulu take up a lot of the internet’s bandwidth, which isn’t optimized for broadcasting video quite like your antenna is. In other words, ATSC 3.0 could potentially take some the pressure off of the internet in distributing interactive content by using broadcast protocols.
From his piece:
"While the bulk of all Internet traffic is video by a wide margin, it is still a very small amount of the total video consumed. Video-on-demand from OTT sources like Netflix, Youtube and Hulu, as well as the broadcast networks, is being consumed on devices that can be used nearly anywhere—including a lot of places [over-the-air] TV doesn’t reach. Internet access and capacity is growing, consuming more RF “wireless” spectrum and reaching farther into the corners of the world. This is the gap ATSC 3.0 fills."
"Only a sliver of TV viewing is delivered via IP, and the IP networks are a long way from having the capacity to deliver all of the TV consumers watch with the quality they expect. Right now, IPTV is a bit of a miracle; it’s a bundle of buffers, sparingly supported multicast protocols, switches, edge servers, and best effort adaptive streaming techniques. It is well understood that watching an Internet video may or may not be a good experience. Reflect on how the far rarer “rain fades” on direct-to-home satellite are considered by many viewers as an “insufferable” impairment."
This combining of broadband internet protocol with the broadcast airwaves, would taking advantage of the advantages of each communications channel. Could this turn buffering into a thing of the past for streaming video? That’s the idea, to put it simply.
So what will ATSC 3.0 mean for your television experience?
Well, at the moment, not much. It’s voluntary for now—you’re not going to be required to do anything to upgrade your TV to view broadcast signals, like you did in 2009. (Your phone might need an upgrade someday, though it might be tough with the lack of ATSC support on smartphones at the moment.)
If you want 4K signals over broadcast, this is your path, but ultimately not a lot of people are clamoring for that right this second. For now, you’re not going to find many options on the market that support the new technology, let alone stations that can make the technology work. (Head to South Korea if you don’t want to wait.)
However, it could become a much bigger deal down the road, for one reason: ATSC 3.0 is not backwards compatible with your current digital television.
The hardest part of the 2009 digital television switchover for consumers, if you’ll remember, was the purchase of upgrade equipment that was cheaply made and pushed along by vouchers handed out by the federal government—something mandated by a 2005 law.
Notably, the current FCC rulemaking makes no attempt to make allocations for such upgrade equipment, as it’s not considered necessary for now.
Of course, all of this has the potential to leave out a whole lot of have-nots if it’s not eventually remedied. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has emerged as the highest-profile critic of Ajit Pai, suggested in her comments against approving the new broadcast technology that the transition period between ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 will create a period in which “consumers could find their bills going up because they will be stuck paying for two signals—even though their current television set can only receive one.”
And after that? “It’s a tax on every household with a television,” she says.
(Completely random side note: Rosenworcel's brother, Brian, is the drummer for the rock band Guster. Don't say I never offered you any random trivia.)
On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that the pain isn’t expected to be as dramatic as it was in 2009. In his 2016 article discussing the technical elements of a switchover, Sinclair’s Fred Baumgartner makes the case that a forced upgrade, if it ever happens, likely won’t be as dramatic because we already did the hard part by upgrading to digital in the first place.
“In this case, the digital transition is history, we have flat screens and devices … and all that is missing is a means to connect broadcast TV to them,” he writes, adding that dongles that hook up to HDMI ports will likely be the way many people upgrade their sets.
That said, dongles and set-top boxes won’t be the only upgrade path. At last year’s National Association of Broadcasters convention, the TV-maker LG showed off a unique kind of antenna that redistributes broadcast signals through a wireless router, which could help maximize the signal through devices that don’t already have an existing way to parse an ATSC signal. The approach would make it so that smartphones, tablets, and television sets would be able to use the antenna without dedicated internals, removing a major pain point of past antenna technology.
There is some good here; there is some bad. But it’s possible that in just a few years, cutting the cord might mean something different than it does now.
Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of ATSC 3.0, I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that from a technological standpoint, this is an interesting time.
Currently, there are experimental television stations running the new signals, including in Cleveland, where an experimental license from the FCC has allowed industry officials to work out the kinks of the technology. Currently, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Technology Association plan to staff a test station in the city in coming years to ensure everything’s working swimmingly. (The first to broadcast ATSC 3.0, however, was North Carolina's WRAL, shown above.)
And some companies, like the aforementioned Sinclair Broadcasting, are jumping to go.
“We are ‘off the plateau’ and ready to climb the next mountain along with our broadcast brethren, manufacturers, programmers and new business partners, looking down on wondrous new opportunities,” said the company’s executive chairman, David Smith. “There should only be upside for all concerned—including most importantly, the Public!”
There’s a reason Sinclair is more excited than most about this upgrade. It’s the company thinking in the boldest terms about what it could mean for television.
See, Sinclair, along with Nexstar Media Group and a few other companies, has discussed the idea of using the new standard for datacasting, which would allow for downstream data delivery through broadcast signals.
To put this in layman’s terms, ATSC 3.0 could enable companies to speed up the download of heavily used content—say, Netflix—by letting users stream it from servers at their local TV station, rather than over the internet.
And since the ATSC 3.0 protocol is designed to allow internet connections to communicate with broadcast signals, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we might someday see the possibility that Hulu or Netflix would be available as an over-the-air broadcast channel, weird as that sounds.
This approach, as laid out, could open up a can of worms, however, effectively creating “fast lanes” for companies that can afford dedicated pipes offered by broadcasters, so it will be interesting to see where Sinclair and technology take that basic idea.
But in this context, Sinclair’s high-profile attempt to purchase Tribune and get the FCC rules changed in its favor takes on a completely different tenor. Suddenly, buying Tribune seems less about owning the stations and more about potentially reshaping the way people use the internet.
I don’t mean this to sound conspiratorial or even over-the-top. Rather, I just want to point out that this is a dramatic reframing of what we’ve come to expect from our TV sets. In many ways, this is as big a deal as net neutrality, because the shift is so dramatic—in many ways for good, in other ways that we should discuss before we buy in.
Let’s get the static out of the way now.
Piracy has never been more accessible than today, in which consumers simply have to boot up a “fully loaded Kodi box” to access content that would otherwise be restricted. Given its technical nature, this spawned a craze of tutorial content on how to achieve this from the software, which is particularly accessible with YouTube as a platform.
Often, these videos are deemed as inconsequential in comparison to the developers making the wave of addons and applications, but Brazilian television group ‘Associação Brasileira de Televisões por Assinatura,’ or Brazilian Association of Television By Signature / ABTA as it would be in English, has had enough of the practice.
Concerned over the rising influence that the YouTube star has, ABTA sought to set an example by targeting YouTube channel Café Tecnológico, ran by Marcelo Otto Nascimento.
While the channel started off innocent enough, living up to the “Café” part of its name, it eventually embraced the “Tecnológico” side by tackling news and reviews of the latest set top box devices. Considering Nascimento has over 64,500 subscribers on his channel and a few thousand across social media profiles, it’s easier to see why ABTA would consider him a growing concern.
ABTA has stated that the legal action it is taking against Nascimento is regarding his posting of ‘tutorials’ which “encourage the use of equipment and applications designed to allow access to services and content.” In turn, the group is seeking an apology and, of course, damages.
Nascimento argued that his videos were simply comments on IPTV systems and that they do not breach copyright laws or cause any losses to television companies. Unfortunately for him, Judge Fernando Henrique de Oliveira Biolcati sees things differently, deeming his intent as solely to help people infringe copyright.
“[T]he plain intention of the defendant was to guide users in order for them to obtain access to the restricted content of the applicant’s associates….while gaining advantages for this, especially via remuneration from the providers of the mentioned applications (YouTube and Facebook), proportional to the volumes of visitors,” ruled the Judge. “This is not a question of mere disinterested comments, in the exercise of freedom of expression.”
The result is that Nascimento has to remove any and all content from Café Tecnológico that is deemed as instructional for pirates, as well as a restriction put in place to ensure no content of the same nature is uploaded again. On top of this, Nascimento has to pay $7,600 for “moral damages” alongside legal fees.
It seems that ABTA isn’t stopping there, with plans to apply the same force if it catches anyone from its continued monitoring efforts. Nascimento has gone on to slate these efforts, stating that he would have simply removed the content if he was asked to and that he plans to appeal the decision.
Repeal Of Net Neutrality
The idea behind net neutrality is that internet users pay for internet packages from ISPs in order to get equal access to all websites. Every bit on the internet is treated as equal and neutral.
Another way to see it is that under proper net neutrality rules there wouldn’t be discrimination from ISPs against certain types of content. For instance, the ISPs wouldn’t be able to say that certain news sites should get priority access on their networks, while other news sites wouldn’t. CNN wouldn't arrive faster to a user's device than The New York Times or the ISPs wouldn't deliver CNN data for free to the user, for example, while asking the user to pay for data when visiting the NYT.
Other examples could include ISPs charging financial services websites more money because those types of business are more profitable and "they can afford it," and because it’s more “valuable” for those websites to reach their customers, than it is for other websites. In a market where there is little to no competition, and no net neutrality rules, this could be a possibility.
Even before the current net neutrality rules passed in 2015, the ISPs were starting to ask video content companies for money in order to serve their content even at normal internet speeds. Services such as Netflix initially opposed that, and we started seeing Netflix video being throttled on some ISP networks.
In other words, it didn't matter if the ISP customers paid for 20Mbps, 50Mbps, or 100Mbps connections. Netflix would still play poorly, even if it only needed 3Mbps to play the video at SD quality. This is what it means to allow the ISPs to discriminate against web services, become gatekeepers, and charge both customers and website services. This is what prompted Netflix to create its own internet speed test to show people that some ISPs aren’t giving them the speeds they are promising in their contracts. Verizon was caught capping Netflix speeds even recently, which is likely due to knowing that even if the rules are in place, the current FCC wouldn't enforce them.
If ISPs start charging for access to their networks as well as to specific sites, then peer-to-peer connections may be seen as a pure money-losing operation to them. The ISPs may then start throttling P2P content such as torrents, cryptocurrencies, or even person-to-person file-sharing.
Perhaps the most successful protest in the history of the internet against a law was the 2012 protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which promised to allow content makers to censor websites at will with a simple accusation of copyright infringement.
The internet community—including individuals as well as large organizations such as Google and Wikipedia—joined in protest of the bill. Eventually most of SOPA's supporters (and its Senate equivalent, PIPA) in Congress changed sides and voted against the bill, signifying a win for the internet community.
How To Join The Protest
The “Battle For The Net” alliance, which was started by organizations such as Fight For The Future, Demand Progress, and Free Press, played a major role in getting the former FCC leadership to pass the net neutrality rules in the first place.
The alliance, which has already been joined by dozens of websites, is now asking website owners and operators to join the new protest against the repeal of those net neutrality rules. It has also made it easy for websites to join the protest by developing ready-to-use alert prompts for their visitors. The code can be found on Battle For The Net’s website.
Regular internet users can also participate in the protest by changing their profile pics to images recommended by the alliance on social media websites, by spreading the word about the repeal, as well via the many other creative ways to draw attention to the issue, all of which can be found on the alliance’s website.
Some internet users may feel slightly inconvenienced by the protest, but that's the point—to show internet users that this is how their internet could become on a daily basis if the FCC is successful in repealing the net neutrality rules.
If the protest does fail, and the FCC repeals the rules on December 14, then it will be up to Congress to restore them through law. Arguably, net neutrality laws should have been a law in the first place, rather than some executive-level rules that could be changed at will from one administration to another.
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The potentially game-changing news comes via a recent Sports Business Journal report, which says the social media giant is currently interviewing candidates for a role centred around negotiating global sport streaming rights.
The article claims that the successful candidate will be given “a few billion dollars” to develop Facebook’s sport streaming ambitions, adding that the company previously bid $600 million (~£450 million) to try and secure Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket streaming rights, but was outbid.
It’s the latest development in the intriguing world of modern media consumption, which sees mainstream TV networks fighting an uphill struggle against upstart streaming platforms like Kodi.
As we’ve said before, Kodi is a perfectly legal piece of software, but its open-source nature mean it’s possible to augment it with piracy-enabling addons offering easy access to illegal sport, TV, and movie streams.
We’ve also previously argued that the only way for traditional TV titans to truly ‘crackdown’ on Kodi is to offer an alternative that’s both affordable and far-reaching. In other words, to provide a stronger breadth of content at a fairer price point than what’s currently available from the likes of BT and Sky, whose offerings – especially when it comes to sport – are increasingly fragmented.
Facebook would be a fascinating entry into this space and one with the resources to potentially disrupt how we consume big ticket sporting events. However, based on previous examples of Silicon Valley giants experimenting with sport streaming, we can’t say it would be the all-encompassing solution most fans crave – at least not at first.
Twitter and Amazon, for example, have both flirted with sport streaming in the past couple of years, but their overtures have been decidedly limited, with both streaming Thursday night American football (NFL) games in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
As baby steps go, it’s not to be sniffed at, but the fact remains that millions of sport fans all around the world are determined to watch their teams play each and every week – and that where viable legal streaming options aren’t available, they’re liable to stray into the ‘grey area’.
That remains the problem. Is Facebook currently readying the solution?