Broadband Interference

Jon Brodkin of ArsTechnica published an amusing story about how the DSL went out of service in a 400-resident village in Wales each morning at 7:00 am. It turns out that one of the residents turned on an ancient television that interfered with the DSL signal to the extent that the network collapsed. The ISP finally figured this out by looking around the village in the morning with a spectrum analyzer until they found the source of the interference.

It’s easy to think that the story points out another weakness of old DSL technology, but interference can be a problem for a lot of other technologies.

This same problem is common on cable company hybrid-fiber coaxial networks. The easiest way to understand this is to think back to the old days when we all watched analog TV. Anybody who watched programming on channels 2 through 5 remembers times when the channels got fuzzy or even became unwatchable. It turns out that there are a lot of different devices that interfere with the frequencies used for these channels including things like microwave ovens, certain motors like power tools and lawnmowers, and other devices like blenders. It was a common household occurrence for one of these channels to go fuzzy when somebody in the house, or even in a neighboring home used one of these devices.

This same interference carries forward into cable TV networks. Cable companies originally used the same frequencies for TV channels inside the coaxial wires that were used over the air and the low TV channels sat between the 5 MHz and 42 MHz frequency. It turns out that long stretches of coaxial wires on poles act as a great antenna, so cable systems pick up the same kinds of interference that happens in homes. It was pretty routine for channels 2 and 3, in particular, to be fuzzy in an analog cable network.

You’d think that this interference might have gone away when cable companies converted TV signals to digital. The TV transmissions for channels 2 through 5 got crystal clear because cable companies relocated the digital version of these channels to better frequency. When broadband was added to cable systems the cable companies continue to use the low frequencies. CableLabs elected to use these frequencies for the upload portion of broadband. There is still plenty of interference in cable networks today – probably even more than years ago as coaxial networks have aged and have more points for interference to seep into the wires. Until the pandemic, we didn’t care much about upload bandwidth, but it turns out that one of the major reasons that cable companies struggle to deliver reliable upload speeds is that they are using the noisiest spectrum for the upload function.

The DSL in the village suffered from the same issue since the telephone copper wires also act as a big outdoor antenna. In this village, the frequency emanating from the old TV exactly matched the frequencies used for DSL.

Another common kind of interference is seen in fixed wireless networks in a situation where there are multiple ISPs using the same frequencies in a given rural footprint. I know of counties where there are as many as five or six different wireless ISPs, and most use the same frequencies since most WISPs rely on a handful of channels in the traditional WiFi bandwidth at 2.4 MHz and 5 MHz. I’ve heard of situations where WiFi is so crowded that the performance of all WISPs suffer.

WiFi also suffers from local interference in the home. The WiFi standard says that all devices have an equal chance of using the frequencies. This means that a home WiFi router will cycle through all the signals from all devices trying to make a WiFi connection. When a WiFi router connects with an authorized device inside the home it allows for a burst of data, but then the router disconnects that signal and tries the next signal – cycling through all of the possible sources of WiFi.

This is the same issue that is seen by people using WiFi in a high-rise apartment building or a hotel where many users are trying to connect to WiFi at the same time. Luckily this problem ought to improve. The FCC has authorized the use of 6 GHz spectrum for home broadband which opens up numerous new channels. Interference will only occur between devices trying to share a channel, but that will be far fewer cases of interference than today.

The technology that has no such interference is fiber. Nothing interferes with the light signal between a fiber hub and a customer. However, once customers connect the broadband signal to their home WiFi network, the same interference issues arise. I looked recently and can see over twenty other home WiFi networks from my office – a setup ripe for interference. Before making too much fun of the folks in the Welsh village, there is a good chance that you are subject to significant interference in your home broadband today.

FCC Ignoring Consumer Broadband Complaints

One of the best aspects of broadband regulation was that a consumer was always able to file a complaint against an ISP with the FCC, and the complaint process generally resolved disputes between customers and carriers. If customers had legitimate complaints about billing or service, a complaint sent to the FCC generally solved the issue; if the carrier was in the right, the FCC sided with the carrier and asked them to explain the applicable laws or rules to the customer involved. This complaint process was the ultimate backstop for people who had tried every other avenue for resolving a dispute.

But starting with the Restoring Internet Freedom order where the FCC voted to kill net neutrality and to kill Title II regulation of broadband this all changed. After that order, the FCC stopped intervening in broadband complaints from customers. They now forward complaints to carriers but don’t insist that problems are resolved.

Jon Brodkin wrote an article about this last November where he documented a case where Frontier was billing $10 per month to a customer who had purchased a FiOS router before Frontier purchased the property there. The company insisted that the customer pay the fee for a router that the customer clearly owns. Even after a complaint was filed at the FCC on the issue, Frontier wouldn’t change its position. The FCC did nothing about the complaint – the agency forwarded the complaint to Frontier and considered the issue settled.

In the past, the FCC would have looked at the facts, which in this case any person off the street would have resolved in favor of the customer. If the FCC got too many complaints on the same issue, they would pressure an ISP to change their practices.

It’s conceivable that the FCC no longer has the power to resolve complaints and just doesn’t want to publicly say so. When the agency voided their ability to regulate broadband, it’s likely they also voided their ability to intervene on any topic related to broadband – the agency effectively gelded themselves.

As Brodkin points out, the FCC isn’t being truthful about the complaint process. They told US Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) that they forward complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, but it turns out they only forward complaints that the FTC asks about – not most complaints.

The FCC has informed some consumers that they have an option to file a formal complaint. This is a process that costs $235 and that ensures that the agency will at least look at the issue. This is the process normally used to resolve pole attachment complaints and similar disputes between carriers. A formal complaint initiates a formal process that the average person probably would find difficult to comply with – a formal complaint initiates the equivalent of a legal proceeding, and there are specific procedural rules and a legal process of filing documents and pleadings on a pre-determined schedule. A formal complaint that doesn’t follow the processes and protocols would likely be tossed as being non-responsive.

Unfortunately, paying this fee for a formal complaint still might not do any good since the FCC no longer has jurisdiction over a broadband billing dispute or other broadband issues. The resolution of a formal complaint might result in nothing more than an FCC ruling that the customer should have gone to the FTC instead of the FCC.

There are other ramifications of the Restoring Internet Freedom order. When the FCC killed its ability to regulate broadband it also theoretically voided the State’s ability to regulate broadband as well. State regulatory commissions have always had a complaint process similar to the FCC’s, but since the law of the land is that broadband is no longer regulated, consumers can’t take these complaints to a state commission. The only current recourse for a consumer is to go to the FTC. Unfortunately, the FTC regulates bad behavior by all corporations, and so the agency only opens an investigation when there are numerous complaints against a specific ISP on a specific topic. The FTC does not intervene in or try to resolve individual consumer complaints.

I don’t think it has registered with the general public that broadband is unregulated. This means that consumers are on their own when ISPs harm them and no government agency can intervene on their behalf. There is no better example than the one that Brodkin had highlighted – Frontier feels safe in mistreating a customer even when under the eye of regulators, and even when they are blatantly wrong. To Frontier, keeping the erroneous $10 in monthly billing is obviously more important than doing the right thing by a customer – and there seems to be nothing a customer can do than perhaps finding somebody in the press to highlight their story.

Reconsidering Brand X

Jon Brodkin recently wrote in Ars Technical that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has reconsidered and regrets his original position on the Brand X decision in 2005. The Brand X decision supported the FCC’s decision in the early 2000s to classify broadband as an information service.

There was a government push during the Bush administration to protect the newly burgeoning broadband industry. The FCC, and federal politicians all thought correctly that broadband was going to become a huge economic driver of the economy. This story was pushed by the lobbyists of both the cable companies and the big telcos, because at that time the broadband from both telcos and cable companies was functionally equivalent with similar speeds. At that time, the US was in front of the rest of the world in broadband adoption and the unified story out of Washington DC was that overregulation might squelch the new broadband industry.

The primary fear in Washington DC (and among lobbyists) was that states were going to regulate broadband. At the time there were already investigations by many state regulatory commissions about regulating broadband in the same manner that telephone service was already regulated. Since broadband was regulated under FCC Title II, state regulators felt they had the full authority to also regulate broadband prices and the actions of ISPs.

The Brand X decision was the culmination of early FCC rulings and ensuing court cases. In 2000 the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had ruled in AT&T Corp versus the City of Portland that broadband services are subject to Title II common carrier regulation, including tariff, interconnection and wholesale access obligations. The FCC reacted to the City of Portland ruling by declaring that cable modem service is an ‘information service’ exempt from Title II regulation. The Ninth Circuit reversed the FCC’s ruling based upon the City of Portland Ruling, thus leading to the appeal to the Supreme Court that resulted in Brand X.

Brand X was an interesting decision. The Supreme Court said that the FCC was free to classify broadband as either an information service or as a telecommunications service that would be regulated under Title II. The FCC only had to provide a rationale for any decision they reached.

Brand X has been the source of the mess that we’ve had at the FCC since then. Each subsequent FCC can invent a new rationale and reclassify broadband. The Wheeler FCC used Brand X to reclassify broadband under Title II and the Pai FCC used Brand X to go in the opposite direction.

What Justice Thomas realized is that the ruling gives federal agencies regulatory powers separate from Congress. An agency like the FCC needs to only concoct a good story and can then ignore laws passed by Congress. In the case of broadband, Congress has clearly conveyed that they want the FCC to monitor and regulate broadband, and yet Brand X gave the agency cover to do otherwise. Brand X is now being cited by other federal agencies defending decisions they make and is now the law of the land.

As Brodkin points out in his article, Brand X also ties the hands of courts, giving even more power to federal agencies to do whatever they want. The courts upheld the appeal of the FCC’s decision to kill net neutrality. In that decision Circuit Judge Patricia Millett said that the FCC’s rationale for killing Title II regulation was “unhinged from the realities of modern broadband service”, and yet she felt unable to rule against the FCC due to Brand X.

Justice Thomas’s change of heart doesn’t change anything for now. At best it means that if another case hits the Supreme Court testing the ability of a federal agency to hide behind Brand X that he might be ready to vote against it.

The other message that comes from the misuse of Brand X is that Congress has a responsibility to provide its intentions to agencies like the FCC. It’s somewhat unbelievable that Congress hasn’t taken any action concerning broadband since the days when we all were using dial-up. We’re long overdue for an update the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and Congress could reset the meter on many of the decisions the FCC is making. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look to be coming any time soon.