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'Internet Freedom'? AT&T's Verbal Jujitsu to Close Down Telecommunications in America

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You got to hand it to AT&T. The phone company either wrote the Republican's 'Internet Freedom' platform or the Republicans just lifted the hype. Either way, AT&T has created this verbal jujitsu and has been able to confuse America to the point that night is day, opaque is transparent or, in this case, the term "Internet freedom" is really about making people believe it's about "freedom" when it is really about the destruction of America's entire telecommunications ecosystem.

I'll come back to how the Republican platform is using this 'Internet freedom' jujitsu in a moment.

AT&T has reached new heights of hubris with the letter they submitted to the FCC on August 30, 2012. AT&T's plan is to remove all regulations and obligations and they are doing this with a trick; the Internet is an 'information service' which does not have the obligations of a 'telecommunications' service -- and they are proposing to make everything regulated as the Internet. This means that almost all of the remaining wires, networks or even the obligation to offer services over those wires and networks are all removed -- as much of this infrastructure is classified as "telecommunications". The Public Switched Telephone Networks, the utility, would suddenly be reclassified as an information service. Sayonara any telco rules, regulations and oh yes, your rights. Your service breaks... tough. Prices go up and there's no direct competition -- too bad. Networks weren't upgraded -- so what. Net Neutrality? Neutered.

As we've discussed, AT&T and Verizon, working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have been able to use this ploy to remove regulations in multiple states -- claiming that VOIP, (also known as 'digital voice') -- which uses Internet protocols (IP) shouldn't be regulated. Thus, when AT&T makes their entire network Internet-friendly, voila -- regulations like 'carrier of last resort' -- the requirement to give a customer phone service in your territory (AT&T is the major incumbent phone company in 22 states) -- or any examination of the price of service -- are gone.

Internet Freedom, then, is freedom for AT&T and the other phone companies, not freedom for those who actually use telecommunications or even Internet services. And as we wrote previously, the wires matter as wireless simply can't compete with wired broadband or as cable competition. In fact, almost all wireless calls end up at a cell site that is attached to a wire connection to the networks.

The Devil's in the Details.

The basic elements outlined in the letter are worth going through as they display just how warped AT&T's position is -- and remember, it is all about 'Internet freedom", right?

The letter is in 'FCC wonk-speak'. AT&T doesn't even bother to use the words "public Switched Telephone Networks" (PSTN), or "utility", but now calls the networks "TDM services". The goal: 'sunset' -- meaning shut down anyone with phone service on a future 'specified' date.

AT&T writes: "Establish a date certain for an official TDM-services sunset, after which no carrier would be required to establish and maintain TDM-based services/networks, and purchasers of such services (including circuit-switched and dedicated transmission services) would have to switch to IP or other packet-based services."

But it gets worse. Here are just some of the basics:

1) "Eliminate regulatory underbrush/superstructure that accompanies TDM-based services." The plan is to remove any requirements of "record keeping, accounting... data collection" on phone services in the U.S. This would include any requirements to tell the public anything about how well the state is being served by the wired monopoly.

2) "Eliminate any obligation to offer such services on a common carriage basis to be eligible for such support." Phone service has basic obligations commonly known as "common carriage", that AT&T wants eliminated.

Eli Noam of Columbia University's CITI program wrote in 1994: "For centuries, common carriage principles have played an important role in the infrastructure services of transportation and communications. They intended to guarantee that no customer seeking service upon reasonable demand, willing and able to pay the established price, however set, would be denied lawful use of the service or would otherwise be discriminated against."

Common carriage has also come to mean that that the phone company can not degrade your service, block your calls, monitor your calls, or interfere with the service.

With the Internet, the Net Neutrality rules are an attempt to supply common carriage principles to the Internet. Yet, Verizon is already in court to eliminate Net Neutrality regulations.

AT&T writes: "Complete action in the IP-enabled services proceeding, and classify such services as information services, subject to minimal regulation only at the federal level."

This is a euphemism for Net Neutrality is dead.

3) Shut down those who still want phone service -- Screw Aunt Ethel. AT&T calls for shutting off customers who don't want to stop getting phone service. "Establish a process for identifying a default service provider if a customer fails to migrate, and/or permit service providers to notify customers that they will be dropped from service as of a date certain if they have not migrated to an alternative service/service provider."

We note that AT&T would be that 'default provider' as they would be the only one who controls the wires that any wired service would travel over.

4) Stop any state actions to keep the "Carrier of Last Resort" -- This would remove any obligations to make sure that the utility provide services. "Make clear that the states are bound by these reforms, and cannot maintain inconsistent state policies/rules (such as COLR "Carrier of Last Resort" requirements that could force carriers to continue to maintain TDM networks and services)".

5) Destroy all remaining competition. AT&T calls this "Reform Interconnection". AT&T writes "After the official date for the TDM sunset, no carrier or other provider of TDM based services should be entitled to require others to interconnect in TDM." It also goes on to say that the Commission must "forbear" meaning that the law will not be enforced on any requirements left over that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had created.

AT&T continues that the entire wholesale pricing to competitors would be eliminated. "Reform wholesale obligations under section 251/271 to eliminate unbundling, resale, collocation and other requirements that could require (ILEC) AT&T and Verizon to maintain TDM networks and services"

The Republican Platform and AT&T's Freedom

Let's get back to the Republican platform with the caveat that if you are a Republican and don't like what AT&T has proposed, you might want to bring this up with leadership.

The Republican platform is the political corollary to AT&T's letter, just expressed in political-speak. It is titled "A Vision for the Twenty-First Century: Technology, Telecommunications and the Internet" and their vision is "replace the (Obama) administration's Luddite approach to technological progress with a regulatory partnership that will keep this country the world leader in technology and telecommunications."

Let's not dwell on the fact that America is 15th in the world in broadband today.

It goes on to say that the Republicans are about removing regulations and allowing the 'private sector' to be in control -- which will give the U.S. Internet freedom.

"Protecting Internet Freedom We will remove regulatory barriers that protect outdated technologies and business plans from innovation and competition, while preventing legacy regulation from interfering with new and disruptive technologies such as mobile delivery of voice, video, data as they become crucial components of the Internet ecosystem... the only way to safeguard or improve these systems is through the private sector."

However, the platform goes to specific examples, which I doubt anyone but us telecom wonks understand.

"Today's technology and telecommunications industries are overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, established in 1934 and given the jurisdiction over telecommunications formerly assigned to the Interstate Commerce Commission, which had been created in 1887 to regulate the railroads. This is not a good fit. Indeed, the development of telecommunications advances so rapidly that even the Telecom Act of 1996 is woefully out of date."

The Telecom Act of 1934 guaranteed that everyone got phone service on a 'common carriage' basis and it was created, in part, because of the abuses of the AT&T monopoly on customers. The Republican-controlled Congress, in fact, updated this with the Telecom Act of 1996 because the 'last mile', the connection to the home, was a bottleneck to local competition. It opened the networks to all forms of competition. However, it was a horse-trade as the local phone companies could go into the long distance markets.

During the Republican control of the FCC from 2000-2008, the local phone companies were able to not only cover the long distance markets, but they also got the FCC to help close down most competition on the wires by having the FCC combine "broadband", then a telecommunications service, with "Internet service" -- an information service. Thus, the companies no longer had to give the competitors access to the broadband networks.

And note, in telecom-speak, an "information service" is part of the Telecom Act as "Title I", a "telecommunications service" is "Title II".

And Net Neutrality was only created as an issue when the networks were closed to competition. If there were other companies fighting for your business, if the company harmed your service in any way, you just leave them for some other Internet or broadband provider with different business practices.

What AT&T has been proposing, then, is to finish the job on all services and the Republican Party's claims to close down the Telecom Acts of 1934 and 1996 is to remove common carriage, to remove any obligations to supply phone service. And to do this, they are calling for reclassifying everything as an Internet service -- and let the private sector be in control, screw the public interest.

Oh, but there's kickers... removing telecommunications also removes the right to take the companies to court. Everyone gets overcharged -- too bad, you're beholden to the phone company-written contracts. Or, need a repair -- don't bother, closing the PSTN helps to close down the unions, like the Communications Workers of America (CWA), so no one will be there to even fix the line or the billing problems the computers created.

But before I leave, I sit here reading the Democratic platform. It also proclaims "Internet freedom" and that America "must preserve our leadership in the Internet economy." While it's clear that the Republican's position is to let companies abuse customers by carpet-bombing regulations, when I close my eyes it is hard to tell the difference of the parties, as the end result is the same.

Compare: Besides sentence structure, the platforms even use the exact same phrase "multi-stakeholder approach of Internet governance".

  • Republicans: We will resist any effort to shift control away from the successful multi-stakeholder approach of Internet governance and toward governance by international or other intergovernmental organizations.
  • Democrats: We successfully negotiated international Internet policymaking principles, support the current multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance, and oppose the extension of intergovernmental controls over the Internet.

Where is any Republican or even Democrat dealing with the real issues -- AT&T's failure to upgrade 22 states' utilities with fiber optics, such as California, or Verizon and AT&T's stoppage of deployments of broadband to more than 50 percent of their customers, even though customers paid billions per state? Where are any calls for reopening the networks to competition so that there's cable competition? Where are any calls to investigate the massive rate increases in almost every state over the last 5 years, such as California?

While one can admire AT&T's skills of taking common words and replacing them with their own deceptive meanings, fooling a large swath of the country, it may be time for some 'public interest' Kung Fu to counter this jujitsu.

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