Net Neutrality and the Digital Divide

There is an interesting idea floating around the industry that is bound to annoy fans of net neutrality. The idea comes from Roslyn Layton who does telecom research at Aalborg University in Denmark. She served on the FCC Transition team for the new administration.

She envisions zero-rating as the best way to solve the digital divide and to finally bring Internet access to everybody. She says that after decades of not finding any other solutions that this might the only reasonable path to get Internet access to people that can’t afford a monthly subscription.

The idea is simple – there are companies who will provide an advertising-driven broadband connection for free to customers, particularly on a cellphone. It’s not hard to envision big companies like Facebook or Google sponsoring cellphone connections and providing data access to customers who would be a captive audience for their ads and content.

This idea is already working elsewhere. Facebook offers this same service in other countries today under the brand name “Free Basics.’ While it certainly costs Facebook to buy the wholesale data connections they must have done the math and figured that having a new customer on their platform is worth more than the cost. Facebook’s stated goal is to serve most of the billions of people on earth and this is a good way to add a lot of customers. With Free basics customers get full use of the Facebook platform along with the basic ability to surf the web. However, the free basic service does not allow a user to freely watch streaming video or to do other data-intensive activities that are not part of the Facebook universe – it’s not an unlimited data plan. I can remember similar products in the US back in the dial-up days when several dial-up providers that gave free connections as long as the customers didn’t mind being bombarded by ads.

There are certainly upsides to this. Such a service would provide enough bandwidth for people to use the web for the basics like hunting for a job or doing school work. And users would get unlimited use of the Facebook platform for functions such as messaging or watching Facebook-sponsored video and content. There are still a substantial number of people in the US who can’t afford a broadband subscription and this would provide a basic level of broadband to anybody willing to deal with the ad-heavy environment.

But there are downsides. This idea violates net neutrality. Even if the current FCC does away with net neutrality one has to think that a future FCC will institute something similar. But even with net neutrality rules in place the FCC could make an exception for a service that tackles the digital divide.

The real downside is that this is not the same as the real internet access that others enjoy. Users would be largely trapped inside whatever platform sponsors their product. That could be Facebook or Google, but it could also be an organization with a social or political agenda. Anybody using this kind of free platform would have something less than unfettered Internet access, and they would be limited to whatever the platform sponsor allows them to see or do outside the base platform. At best this could be called curated Internet access, but realistically it’s a platform to give sponsors unlimited access to users.

But I think we have to be realistic that nobody has yet found a solution to the digital divide. The FCC’s Lifeline program barely makes a dent in it. And I’m not aware of any major ISP who has ever found any mechanism to solve the digital divide issue.

While Facebook offers this in many countries around the globe they received massive pushback when they tried to bring this to India. The Indian government did not want a class of people given a clearly inferior class of Internet connectivity. But in India the government is working hard themselves to solve the digital divide. But there is nobody in the US giving the issue any more than lip service. The issue has been with us since the dial-up days and there has been little progress in the decades since then.

I read some persuasive articles a few years ago when the net neutrality debate was being discussed about this kind of product. There were arguments made that there would be long-term negative ramifications from having a second-class kind of Internet access. The articles worried about the underlying sponsors heavily influencing people with their particular agenda.

But on the flip side, somebody who doesn’t have broadband access probably thinks this is a great idea. It’s unrealistic to think that people have adequate broadband access when they can only get it at the library or a coffee shop. For broadband to benefit somebody it needs to be available when and where they need to use it.

I lean towards thinking this as an idea worth trying. I would hope that there would be more than one or two companies willing to sponsor this, in which case any provider who is too obnoxious or restrictive would not retain customers. People who go to sites like Facebook today are already voluntarily subjected to ads, so this doesn’t seem like too steep of a price to pay to get more people connected to the Internet.

The End of Data Privacy?

Congress just passed a law that reverses the privacy rules that were ordered by the prior FCC. Those rules were recently put on hold by the current FCC and this new laws makes sure the privacy rules never go into effect. Congress did this to ensure that a future FCC cannot implement privacy rules without Congressional approval. It’s important to note that this law applies equally to both terrestrial and cellular broadband.

On paper this law doesn’t change anything since the FCC privacy rules never went into effect. However, even before the prior FCC adopted the privacy rules they had been confronting ISPs over privacy issues which kept the biggest ISPs from going too far with using customer data. Just the threat of regulation has curbed the worst abuses.

How will the big ISPs be likely to now use customer data? We don’t have to speculate too hard because some of them have already used customer data in various ways in the recent past, all of which seem to be allowable under this new law.

Selling Data to Marketers. This is the number one opportunity for big ISPs. Companies like Facebook and Google have been mining customer data, but they can only do that when somebody is inside their platforms – they have no idea what else you do outside their domains. But your ISP can know every keystroke you make, every email your write, every website you visit, and with a cellphone, every place you’ve been. With deep data mining ISPs can know everything about your on-line life.

We know some of the big ISPs have already been mining customer data. For example, last year AT&T offered to sell connections that were not monitored for a premium price. AT&T also has a product that has been selling masses of customer phone and data usage to federal and local law enforcement. Probably other ISPs have been doing this as well, but this has been a well-guarded secret.

Inserting Ads. This is another big revenue opportunity for the ISPs. The companies will be able to create detailed profiles of customers and then sell targeted advertising to reach specific customers. Today Google and a few other large advertising companies dominate the online advertising business of inserting ads into web sites. With the constraints off, the big ISPs can enter this business since they will have better customer profiles than anybody else. We know that both AT&T and Charter have already been doing this.

Hijacking Customer Searches. Back in 2011 a bunch of large ISPs like Charter, Frontier and others were caught hijacking customer DNS searches. When customers would hit buttons on web sites or on embedded links in articles the ISPs would sometimes send users to a different web site than the one they thought they were selecting. The FCC told these companies to stop the practice then, but the new law probably allows the practice again.

Inserting Supercookies. Verizon Wireless inserted Supercookies on cellphones back in 2014. AT&T started to do this as well but quickly backed off when the FCC came down hard on Verizon. These were undetectable and undeletable cookies that allowed the company to track customer behavior. The advantage of the supercookies is that they bypass most security schemes since they grab customer info before it can be encrypted or sent through a secure connection. For example, this let the company easily track customers with iPhones.

Pre-installing Tracking Software on Cellphones. And even better than supercookies is putting software on all new phones that directly snags data before it can be encrypted. AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all did this in the past – just using a different approach than supercookies. The pre-installed software would log things like every website visited and sent the data back to the cellular carriers.

Is it Too Late to Save the Web?

Advocates of net neutrality say that we need to take a stand to protect the open web, and for those that have been using the web since its early days that sounds like a noble goal. But when I look at the trends, the statistics, and the news about the web, I have to wonder if it’s too late to save the web as we’ve known it.

The web was originally going to be a repository of human knowledge and people originally took the time to post all sorts of amazing content on the web. But nobody does that very much anymore and over time those old interesting web sites are dying. Mozilla says that people no longer web search much and that 60% of all non-video web traffic goes to a small handful of giant web companies like Facebook.

The average web user today seeks out a curated web experience like Facebook or other social platforms where content is brought to them instead of them searching the web. And within those platforms people create echo chambers by narrowing their focus over time until they only see content that supports their world view. People additionally use the web to do a few additional things like watching Netflix, paying bills, shopping at Amazon and searching on Google.

I don’t point out that trend as a criticism because this is clearly what people want from the web, and they vote by giant numbers to use the big platforms. It’s hard to argue that for the hundreds of millions of people who use the web in this manner that the web is even open for them any longer. People are choosing to use a restricted subset of the web, giving even more power to a handful of giant companies.

The trends are for the web to get even more restricted and condensed. Already today there are only two cellphone platforms – Android and iOS. People on cellphones visit even fewer places on the web than with landline connections. You don’t have to look very far into the future to see an even more restricted web. We are just now starting to talk to the web through Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri. The industry expects a large percentage of web interface to soon be accomplished though voice interface. And beyond that we are moving towards a world of wearables that will replace our cellphones. At some point most people’s web experience will be completely curated and the web we know today will largely become a thing of the quaint past.

It’s not hard to understand why people lean towards curated platforms. Many of them hear the constant news of hacking and ransomware and people don’t feel safe going to unknown websites. The echo chamber has been around as long as modern civilization has been around – people tend to do things they like with people that they know and trust. The echo chamber seems magnified by current social media because it can give the perception that people are part of something larger than themselves – but unless people take actions outside the web that’s largely an illusion.

There are those who don’t want to take part in the curated web. They don’t like the data gathering and the targeted marketing from the big companies. They tend towards platforms that are encrypted end-to-end like WhatsApp. They use browsers that don’t track them. And they stick as much as possible to websites using HTTPS. They are hopeful that the new TLS 1.3 protocol (transport layer security) is going to give them more anonymity than today. But it’s hard work to stay out of the sight of the big companies, and it’s going to get even harder now that the big ISPs are free again to gather and sell data on their customers’ usage.

Even though I’ve been on the web seemingly forever, I don’t necessarily regret the changes that are going on. I hate to see the big companies with such power and I’m one of the people that avoids them as much as I can. But I fully believe that within a few decades that the web as we know it will become a memory. Artificial intelligence will be built into our interfaces with the web and we will rely on smart assistants to take care of things for us. When the web is always with you and when the interfaces are all verbal, it’s just not going to be the same web. I’m sure at some point people will come up with a new name for it, but our future interfaces with computers will have very little in common with our web experiences of today.

Content Finally is King

One of the more common memes in our industry is the phrase “content is king.” This was first said by Sumner Redstone of Viacom in 1994 but made more famous by Bill Gates in 1996. The phrase has been used since then to describe how the creators of content have the power in our industry – be that programming or web content.

John Stankey, the CEO of AT&T Entertainment, recently emphasized this same concept in talking about the company’s planned merger with Time Warner. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona he said, “We just cannot envision a future where AT&T is relevant if we don’t directly participate in some of the water flowing through our pipes.”

All of the big ISPs have decided that content is key to their survival. Comcast already owns a mountain of programming, and after the merger with Time Warner, AT&T will be a content powerhouse as well. Verizon has climbed into the game with the acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo. There are web companies with the same philosophy. Netflix has built a new industry by creating new content. Google is pushing content heavily through YouTube. Amazon has started to create unique content and recently said they are going to make that a priority. Facebook is becoming a content force through Facebook Now.

I remember having this conversation with Derrel Duplechin of CCG back in 2000. We were asked by several clients to speculate about the future of the carrier industry and we foresaw that most carriers were likely on the path to eventually become what we called “dumb pipe” providers. I remember that this was a story that many of our clients did not want to hear.

We lived in a different carrier world in 2000. Most homes still had telephones and voice was the most profitable product for most carriers. The cable TV product that many of our clients sold then also had decent margins. But we predicted that both products would eventually sink in importance and in margins and that eventually most of our clients would earn most of their profits from broadband. We thought this would happen to all carriers, small and large, and we figured that the most profitable future companies would be those that found some other line of business other than just selling data pipes to end users.

We had some clients take this to heart and some of them have made a really good living by providing extra value to customers. For example, we have several clients who thrive by bringing a suite of products to businesses other than just plain connectivity. But for the most part, the majority of the ISP industry sells dumb pipes today. They compete with the speed of those pipes and with price and with good customer service – but the primary products (and the driver of most of the profits) are now data pipes.

The big companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast looked at that future and it scared them. It’s pretty obvious that if your only product is dumb pipes that your earnings are not going to continue to grow fast enough to satisfy Wall Street. This is probably what convinced Verizon to stop expanding their FiOS network. Both AT&T and Verizon got huge earnings boosts from expanding their cellular businesses, but that industry also seems to be heading towards the same plateau as landline ISPs – cell service is becoming a commodity.

So these big companies are now pursuing content because it looks to be the last area in our industry with the potential for significant bottom line growth. It’s going to be an interesting race to watch. Content providers have succeeded or failed over the years according to their ability to find smash hits. A huge hit movie or TV series can mean huge returns to the bottom line. But content providers that don’t create what the public wants to watch suffer badly in terms of stock prices and earnings. Being a content provider is not predictable in the same way as telecom.

Interestingly. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are now direct competitors of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix. Content certainly is king, but content also brings the risk from competition. The companies that fall behind in this race are likely to be gobbled up by their more successful competitors. I find it extremely unlikely that all of these big companies will still be in existence in 10 years.

There is no real barrier to entry into the world of content creation other than having a pile of money. It’s likely that other big companies will join the content fray. But all of these companies are entering a world that is in big flux. For example, traditional video and web content might well be replaced by virtual and enhanced reality. The companies that succeed in content will have to spend a lot of money staying one step ahead of the competition, and my money is on the more nimble technology companies. Twenty years ago I would have been shocked to know that someday AT&T would have a CEO of Entertainment – and that may turn out to be the most important job in the corporation.

Who Will Win the Telecom Battle?

facebookNow that Google has pulled back with expansion of Google Fiber it’s easy to see that the cable companies and telcos think they have won the broadband war. But I think if you look a little closer this might not really be the case.

Tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are still focused on making sure that people have enough bandwidth to take advantage of the many products these giant companies offer or plan to offer in the future. And all three companies are growing in importance as content providers.

Consider first the strength of these companies as content providers. Google owns YouTube which is becoming the most important video destination for the younger generation – and those kids are growing up. We’ve seen young millennial households largely reject traditional cable TV offerings. While Amazon Prime is not nearly as big as Netflix it is a strong second and is continuing to grow. Amazon is also reported to be pouring big money into producing original content for its platform. Facebook is on a trajectory to become the preferred source of news and information. And their Facebook Live is also quickly becoming a huge content platform.

But content isn’t everything. Consider that these companies have amassed an enormous private fiber network. Google doesn’t talk about it’s network, but way back in 2013 it was reported that Google had assembled a network consisting of 100,000 miles of dark fiber. We also don’t know the size of the networks, but both Amazon and Facebook have also built large private networks. We know that Google and Facebook have partnered to build a massive undersea fiber to China and are looking at other undersea fiber routes. Amazon has built a huge network to support its cloud services business. It would not be surprising if these companies have already together amassed a larger fiber network than the telcos and cable companies. If they are not bigger yet, they are on a trajectory to get there soon. With these networks the tech companies could hurt the big ISPs where it most hurts – by taking a huge bite out of their special access and transport businesses.

These companies are also not done with the ISP business. Google Fiber has retracted from expanding FTTH networks for now, but they acquired Webpass and are looking to expand as an ISP using wireless last mile. And we saw in Huntsville that Google is not afraid to use somebody else’s fiber network – something we have never seen any of the telcos or cable companies consider. It would not be surprising to see Google make deals with other private networks to expand its ISP business to avoid spending the upfront capital. But perhaps Google’s biggest foray into providing data services is Google Fi, their service that provides unlimited cellular data using WiFi first rather than cellular. It’s been rumored that Google is looking for partnerships to expand WiFi access in many markets. And it’s been reported that Amazon is strongly considering becoming an ISP. I’ve not heard any details about how they might do this, but the company has shown the ability to succeed in everything it’s tackled – so it’s an intriguing possibility.

It’s a gigantic task to take on companies like AT&T and Comcast head on. I think Google Fiber learned this the hard way. But at the end of the day content is still king. As these companies continue to grow in influence as content providers they present a real challenge to traditional programmers. But they also are a growing threat to the big ISPs. If these tech companies decide that their best strategy is to directly deliver their content to subscribers they have a big enough marketing position to pull along a huge number of customers. It’s clear that consumers like these tech companies far more than they like the big ISPs, and in the end the accumulated animus with customers might be their undoing.

This kind of industry shift won’t happen overnight. But it’s already quietly going on behind the scenes. We may not be as far away as you might imagine when these companies provide more content than the traditional programmers and also carry more bandwidth on their own networks than the big ISPs. From my perspective that looks a lot like winning the battle.

Small ISPs and Net Neutrailty

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolLast week a small ISP asked me if they should be concerned about the potential end of net neutrality. It’s clear that the new FCC chairman is either going to reverse the net neutrality order completely or hobble it significantly. My response to the question comes in several parts.

First, net neutrality has had virtually zero impact on small ISPs. It is inconceivable to me that a small ISP could somehow find a way to violate the basic principles of net neutrality. It’s not something a small ISP can do on their own and they would have to somehow make a deal with a content providers that would give them the ability to discriminate against customers or against other carriers.

If anything, not having any real market power can be turned into a marketing advantage. Small ISPs should be advertising the fact that they are the one ISP in the market that does not spy on customers. Small ISPs generally offer bandwidth with few strings attached – customers are free to use what they buy in almost any manner.

If net neutrality goes away the real impact is going to come when the big carriers begin offering products that give them an unbeatable market advantage. We already have a hint at what such products are like by looking at the cellular carriers. It’s clear that AT&T and Verizon are each heading down a path where they can offer cellular customers free access to certain video content while charging all other data use against stingy data caps. And, with net neutrality going away, industry analysts expect them to step this up and begin offering exclusive content to their cellular customers that they can’t get elsewhere.

But that’s not the end game. The product that net neutrality is aimed to protect us from is what is called a curated web. Consider, for example, that some of the content providers join together to partner with AT&T. This could be traditional programmers like ESPN or newer content providers like Facebook or YouTube. These companies could help to subsidize customer data plans to entice people to buy a curated web product.

Such subsidies could mean cell plans that significantly less expensive than normal cellular service, but which comes with all of the web access baked-in. The content providers would encourage you to only use their portal. They would control which browser you use. They would control your search engine. And they would advertise specifically to you and collect everything they can about your preferences, buying habits, social contacts, etc. A curated cellphone product would severely curb a user’s ability to get to other content.

Such a product could become popular if it bundles in things people already like such as Facebook, YouTube and other popular web sites. The upside to the content providers is that they have exclusive control of you for purposes of data gathering and advertising – and they ought to be willing to pay for that right. And customers are going to love the savings.

You might ask, “Why worry about cellphone plans? I don’t compete against them.” Well, there is nothing to stop curated web plans from coming to landline broadband as well. Comcast might have a normal broadband product at $60, but a curated one at half that. A company like Comcast could offer multiple curated web products – perhaps one from Facebook, a sports package from ESPN, another that focuses on Star Trek and science fiction, and so on.

These curated plans don’t sound bad if somebody comes out with one that you would find of interest – and that is the danger. People are likely to want such plans if it saves money and has a lot of the content they already use.

But curated web access has several big problems. First, they give the ISP that offers them a major market advantage over any competition in the market. It’s hard for anybody else to compete against a web product that has been paid down to be under market rates by a content provider like Facebook. Second, the curated web will stifle new web content providers. It’s easy to think that companies like Facebook and Google are so large on the web that they can’t be supplanted by something else. But it has only been a few years since when the web was dominated by companies such as AOL, Yahoo and others. It’s almost in the nature of the web that people’s tastes in web content changes over time, sometimes rapidly. The next Google or Facebook is never going to get traction if a huge chunk of the web is curated by the current content giants. In that environment we might still be seeing a Facebook-curated web a century from now – and that would be an innovation killer.

But, to circle back to the original question: Small ISPs are not harmed today by net neutrality. But if it’s taken away, the big ISPs have already given us hints on what they’ll do – and it is those actions that will ultimately disadvantage small ISPs along with anybody else that wants a web which constantly innovates rather than one that would stagnate.

The Declining Search Engine?

ask-jeevesThere is a subtle battle going on for control of the web. The web as we have come to know it is built upon the search engine. Those who’ve been on the web long enough remember search engines like Archie, Excite, Aliweb, Infoseek, AltaVista and Ask Jeeves. Today Google dominates the search market along with others including Bing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo. Search engines operate by the simple premise of ‘crawling’ through publicly available web spaces and categorizing web pages by topics that can be searched.

But we might have reached the point in the life of the web where the search engine will decline in value. This is because search engines rely on public content and an ever-increasing amount of our collective information is now being created for and stored in the dark web. This term refers to networks which use the public internet but which require specific software to access.

The best example of the dark web is social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. There are huge amounts of content now created for and stored inside of these platforms. Facebook is the best example of this. There are now many businesses that no longer have a web site but which instead have a Facebook page. There are many organizations that do the same and that communicate with members only through a Facebook group. Every social media site has something similar. For instance, there are now thousands of articles that are written for and published within LinkedIn.

But the dark web includes a lot more than just social media. Corporations and trade associations now routinely keep information hidden from the general public by requiring password access to read whatever they have published. You can understand the motivation behind this – a trade association might have more luck recruiting members if membership includes access to unique content.

But corporations also hide a lot of content that used to be public. For example, cable companies like Comcast require a customer to enter a valid address before showing them current products and prices. Those prices used to be openly published, but the act of asking for an address now ‘hides’ this information from search engines. Comcast certainly wants this iformation hidden since they don’t offer the same prices everywhere.

While the information behind corporate and trade association web sites is already unavailable to search engines, for now the information behind most social media sites is still searchable. But there is nothing that requires it to stay that way. Google and Facebook are now engaged in a fierce battle to win web advertising and there is nothing to stop Facebook from flicking a switch and hiding all of its content from Google search. To do so would instantly devalue Google since businesses listed only within Facebook would disappear from the search engine results.

It almost seems inevitable that this day will come, and probably not long from now. Both Google and Facebook have requirements from stockholders to continue to grow and both businesses are fueled largely by advertising revenue. It’s hard to think at some point that Facebook won’t deliberately try to gain an edge in this battle.

But the consequences of the dark web to all of us an ever-increasing lack of information. I remember spending evenings in the early days of the web just browsing the web for interesting content. It seems like every college and high school pushed huge amounts of interesting content onto the web – because in those early days that’s what the web was all about. All of the content from textbooks and homework assignments were on the open web for anybody to read. But there is no longer any major motivation to push information to the web. And many schools and universities are now behind a dark web wall as well.

The web has shifted massively towards entertainment and content is no longer king. Most of the early content-heavy web sites have died since they’ve either been pulled down or are no longer maintained. And so every day more content is removed from the web, and every day search engines become a little less valuable to the human race.

We may already be in a world where there is more useful data on the dark web than on the open one. Facebook and a few others could push the search engines onto the road to decline. History has already shown us that search engines can come and go. Excite was one of the first web companies that sold for billions, but the company that bought it, @Home went bankrupt. There is nothing to say that the Google search engine or any other is something that we can always rely on. And in fact, they may just fade away someday due to irrelevance.

I Cut the Other Cord

facebookIt’s the day before Thanksgiving and rather than talk about anything too serious I’m going to talk about my experience in cutting the other cord – the social media cord. I recently left Facebook – and it feels great.

I’ve been on Facebook for years. I had over 200 friends that were a mix of family, people I went to schools with and various other people I’ve met over time. When I first got on Facebook many years ago it was a fun experience. I was able to catch up with old high school friends and was able to see what my family was up to. It really was a social site in the true spirit of that phrase, and my memory is that my Facebook feed in those days were mostly personal postings from my friends and very little else.

But over the years a lot new things crept into the Facebook feed and it became far less personal. I would bet that not more than 10% of my recent feeds were things directly posted by my friends. Instead my feed became a long stream of ‘news’ articles and a ton of other impersonal content.

Facebook is currently under fire for allowing too much ‘fake’ news on the platforms that critics say influenced the election. Companies like the New York Times or the Huffington Post pay to suggest content on Facebook in the hope of driving people to their own content. These sponsored posts apparently drive several billion dollars a year to Facebook. But not everybody is the New York Times and there are lots of other websites paying to post much more questionable content. Facebook says they are going to figure out how to ban the worst of these sites from adding fake news or misleading content.

But I don’t think that will put a dent in the problem. The fact is that any one of Facebook’s 1.65 billion members can link to any web site that doesn’t violate things like Facebook’s ban on nudity. And since personal posts can go viral and I can’t imagine the amount of untrue content will decrease a whit.

The fake content is not all political. A huge percentage of the things I see on almost any topic have the same problem. I would venture to say that most of the posts I see talking about nutrition, global warming, vaccinations, or almost any other current topic are also untrue or misleading. I would estimate that as much as half of the ‘content’ I saw on my feed was of questionable veracity.

I’m one of those people that hates obvious untruths and I would routinely tell my friends when they had posted something untrue. I’m guessing they will be glad to see me gone, because nobody ever thanked me for this! I’m afraid Facebook was turning me into the cranky neighbor sitting on the porch and trying to fix the world by pointing out untruths. But it is clear that I’ve been trying to swim against the tide.

My wife, as usual, gets things a little faster than me and she dropped Facebook a while back because the tone was growing so mean. Regardless of the topic the whole site now invites trolling and argumentation.

The other thing that has been bothering me about Facebook is that the company has been getting really sophisticated in collecting information about us and is either using it for advertising or selling it to others. I’ve grown more uncomfortable over time that everything I do on the site has been helping Facebook create a detailed profile on me. I sit and watch my friends take ‘quizzes’ that ask them a bunch of personal questions that they would never answer for a stranger. But companies have become good at disguising this data gathering as something fun.

I haven’t dropped some other social media sites because they serve purposes that benefit me. For example, I only use Twitter to follow people in the telecom industry or to follow my favorite sports teams. I post these blogs on Twitter but I rarely comment or read comments there. And I use LinkedIn as my online rolodex since it gives me a quick way to contact colleagues that I may have lost track of otherwise. The way I use these sites doesn’t have any negative aspects for me.

I can tell you that dropping Facebook has been a positive experience and I’m never going back. It was a time eater that could nibble away from a few minutes to hours on some days. The obviously fake, false and untrue content that has overtaken the platform was driving me crazy. And I feel glad to no longer be feeding my likes, preferences and opinions into the advertising grist mill. I heartily recommend leaving Facebook to anybody that is bothered by these same things. Facebook started as something fun, but I recommend anybody who is not having that original fun any longer to drop the site and spend your time elsewhere. I can tell you that it feels really great to let go of something so negative.

Free Broadband from Facebook

freebasics_facebook_thumbFacebook is talking to the FCC about launching a free Internet service in the US. This would provide a subset of the Internet for free to anybody with a smartphone and would provide such things as news, health information, job sites, and of course Facebook.

This would obviously benefit many people that can’t afford access to the web. Today the national broadband penetration of households that have some kind of access to the web is around 82%. Some of those without broadband live in rural places that don’t have access. Some don’t want Internet access. And the rest would like web access but can’t afford it.

Facebook has launched a similar product around the world in 53 emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America. This is offered under the name Free Basics.

But the free product ran into problems and has been banned in India due to the fact that it violates net neutrality. The Indian net neutrality laws aren’t too different than our own laws and the service is what called zero-rated, meaning that any use of this plan is not counted against a data plan from a participating ISP.

In India the biggest complaint about the product was that it was restricted only to those things that Facebook wanted customers to see and not to the wider Internet. But in Facebook’s favor, it was free.

For this to work in the US, Facebook will need to find a US cellular partner which would not count usage of the app against a data plan. I recall that Facebook was close to this a few years ago in a partnership with T-Mobile that would have provided free access to a suite of products called GoSmart.

But more importantly, Facebook needs to convince the FCC that this is not a violation of net neutrality. The FCC has not formally made any pronouncements about zero-rating of wireless content, but it has talked to the major wireless carriers about the zero-rating they are already doing today.

This is the kind of situation that is really tough for regulators. With this kind of product Facebook could be providing some sort of free access to the web for millions of people in the country that might otherwise not have it. Even if it’s a scrubbed and sanitized piece of the web, it’s hard to find anything wrong with the results of that. People could buy a smartphone with no data plan and have access to parts of the web.

But the downside to the FCC is the same one faced by the Indian regulators. Once you let Facebook do this then the genie is out of the bottle and there doesn’t seem to be any way that the FCC could stop other kinds of zero-rating.

The dilemma is that Facebook is not quite like other companies. I am sure that somehow this isn’t costing Facebook too much and they might even make a little money from the idea. But Mark Zuckerberg seems to be on an altruistic mission to bring broadband access to the whole world. He has already used this idea to bring free broadband to many millions, and his goal is to bring it to billions.

But even with the altruism, this has certainly been good for Facebook – they had 1 billion users in 2015 and are now are reported to have over 1.7 billion users. That’s a lot of people to advertise to and to gather data from, which is how Facebook makes its money.

And of course, no matter how altruistic Facebook might be, nobody would expect the same motives from other large companies like Comcast, AT&T or Verizon. One of the main fears that drove the creation of net neutrality is that we could end up with a web that is filtered by the biggest ISPs and that the openness of the web would be killed by deals like the one Facebook wants to do. The web brought to you by Comcast is not the same web that we know today – and I think it’s a web that we don’t want as a society. But if we take the first step and let a big company like Facebook filter the web, we could be headed down the path where almost all future web access is filtered.

Industry Shorts – August 2016

ATTThe following are a few topics I which found interesting but don’t require a full blog entry:

FCC to Allow Cable Black-outs. The FCC has officially decided that it is not going to intervene in the many disputes we see these days between programmers and cable operators. Only a few years ago this was a fairly rare occurrence, but you can’t read industry press without seeing some new dispute – many of which are now leading to content black-outs when the two sides can’t reach a resolution.

The FCC has always been allowed to intervene in disputes and routinely did so a decade ago. The American Cable Association which represents small and medium cable companies wants the FCC to be more active today to protect against abuses by the programmers, but the agency has decided to let the market work to resolve disputes. There have been over 600 blackouts since 2010 and the frequency seems to be accelerating.

Blogger Loses Life’s Work. Google recently hit the news when it disabled access to 14 years of blogs as well artwork, photograph, a novel and even the Gmail account that was being stored online by Dennis Cooper. The blogger claims he received no notice until his work disappeared and Google won’t tell him why he was cut off or if his content still exists. Cooper’s blog always contained controversial content and was a popular destination for fans of experimental literature and avant-garde writing.

His case highlights the intersection of first amendment rights versus the ability of private corporations like Google to allow or not allow content on their private platforms. Google has slowly been cutting back on storage services such as Google News Drives and Google Groups and Cooper’s content might not even still exist. If anything, this case highlights the importance of backing up content offline. It also raises the issue of how permanent anything is on the web.

AT&T Testing Drone Cell Sites. AT&T has been testing the use of drones as flying cell sites to use during big events. Large events always overwhelm local cellular sites and drones might be the answer to give access to many people in a concentrated area.

The company has already been using a technology that it calls COWs (Cells on Wheels) that are brought to large sporting events to provide more coverage. But the hope is that drones can be deployed more quickly and for a lower cost and provide better service. Of course, this just means more of a phenomenon I’ve seen a few times in recent years where people in the stands at a football game are watching the same game on their cellphone instead of looking at what is in front of them.

Huawei Creates 10 Gbps Cable Platform. We are in the earliest stages of deployment of gigabit broadband using DOCSIS 3.1 on cable systems and Chinese vendor Huswei claims to have already created a 10 Gbps platform using the new standard.

The company faces several hurdles to deploying the technology in the US since the company is under scrutiny by the US for doing business with North Korea and with Iran during the recent embargo. But the biggest issue with a cable company offering gigantic bandwidth over coaxial cable is freeing up enough bandwidth in a cable TV network to do so. Cable companies have to free up at least 24 empty channels to offer a gigabit over coax and it seems unlikely that are willing to try to open up a lot more channels than that for higher bandwidth. The only realistic scenario for going much larger than a gigabit is to migrate a cable network to IPTV and make the whole network into a big data pipe – but this is a very costly transition that means a new headend and new settop boxes. .

Facebook Develops Mobile Access Point. Facebooks has developed a shoebox size access point that can support wireless transmissions including 2G, LTE and WiFi. The box is hardened for the harshest conditions, is relatively low-powered and is intended as a way to expand Internet coverage around the world in poorer areas. Most of the world now connects with the Internet wirelessly and this access point can enable customers with a wide range of devices to gain access.