Big ISPs and Elections

Before you stop reading, this blog isn’t about party politics – the elections I am talking about are those where citizens vote on building a fiber optic network in their community. The incumbents don’t seem able to pass up the chance to turn an election their way when competition is put onto the ballot.

The latest example of this is the upcoming election on November 7 in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Voters in that community will be voting on whether to amend the city charter to allow the city to build and operate a fiber optic network in the city. Colorado law makes this elections mandatory, but I’ve seen other cities hold voluntary elections on the issue so that they are certain that the citizens are behind their efforts to build fiber. A positive vote in Ft. Collins would allow the city to take the next step to investigate if they want to build a fiber network in the city.

Ft. Collins is a community of 59,000 homes and Comcast and the other incumbent ISPs have spent over $200,000 so far in advertising against the ballot measure – a phenomenal amount of money spent on a local election and the most ever seen in Ft. Collins.

As is usual for fiber ballot initiatives, the incumbents are fighting against the passage of the measure by spreading lies and misinformation. For example, in Ft. Collins they are saying that voting for the measure would preclude the city from making other infrastructure upgrades for things like roads. In fact, this ballot measure just gives the city the legal authority to explore fiber and it’s likely that they would have another election to approve a bond measure if they decide to float a bond for fiber – a decision that would be some time in the future.

The misinformation being floated in Ft. Collins is tame compared to some of the other ways that incumbents have tried to stop fiber initiatives. In Lafayette Louisiana the combination of Cox and BellSouth (now AT&T) were extremely aggressive in trying to stop the fiber initiative (including filing several lawsuits to stop the effort). But prior to the election when fiber was going to be on the ballot they called every home in the community with a push poll that asked ludicrous questions about the fiber project. An alert citizen recorded the push poll and it can be found here. This takes 30 minutes to hear the whole thing, but if you are interested in the tactics the big ISPs use to fight it, this is well worth a listen. There are some amazing questions in this poll, and the gall of this push poll might have been what pushed the election to pre-fiber. In Louisiana the city needed to get more than a 65% yes on the fiber initiative, and due to a strong community effort the ballot measure passed easily.

I also remember a similar election in North St. Paul, Minnesota, a small community surrounded by the city of St. Paul. When the city put a fiber initiative on the ballot Comcast sent busloads of people to the city who went door-to-door to talk people out of voting for fiber. They deployed the usual misinformation campaign and scared a community that had a lot of elderly citizens into voting against the fiber initiative, which narrowly lost at the polls.

There was a similar lection recently in Longmont, Colorado. When the city first held a vote on the same ballot measure as Ft. Collins, the money from the big ISPs defeated the ballot measure. The ISPs won using a misinformation campaign that talked about how the fiber effort would raise taxes. But the citizens there really wanted fiber, and so they asked for a second vote and in the second election there was a massive grass-roots effort to inform the community about the facts. The fiber initiative on the second ballot won resoundingly and the city now has its fiber network.

There are several lessons to be learned from these ballot battles. First, the incumbents are willing to make a sizable investment to stop competition. But what they are spending, like the $200,000 in Ft. Collins, is a drop in the bucket compared to what they stand to lose. Second, they always attack fiber initiatives with misinformation, such as scaring people about higher taxes. They don’t fight by telling what a good job they are doing with broadband And finally, we’ve seen the ISP efforts be successful unless there is a strong grass-roots effort to battle against their lies. Cities are not allowed by law to take sides in ballot initiatives during an election cycle and must sit quietly on the sidelines. And so it’s up to citizens to take on the incumbents if they want fiber. The big ISPs will always outspend the pro-fiber side, but we’ve seen organized grass-roots efforts beat the big money almost every time.

Net Neutrality Enters the Twilight Zone

tzIn the telecom world we are not very used to our issues getting a lot of notice from the public. But it’s obvious that net neutrality has become a political issue as much as it is an industry issue. Compared to the normal way we do business as an industry the debate has entered the twilight zone. This all got started when new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that he was proposing new rules that would allow for the creation of an Internet ‘fast lane’, By that he meant that the FCC is going to allow the large ISPs to charge large content providers for premium access to their networks.

Of course, Chairman Wheeler is not himself neutral in this decision having spent years as the head lobbyist for the cable industry and opposing net neutrality. It’s somewhat ironic that he made this new announcement at the annual cable show with his cable company peers. The headlines that day made it sound like the FCC was going to take a legitimate shot at maintaining net neutrality, but within days it became understood that the fast lane idea was just the opposite and that he was handing the cable companies exactly what they wanted.

What I don’t think that Wheeler expected was that the public would jump all over his idea. And so, before the proposal was even released the Internet companies like Google and NetFlix weighed in against it. A huge number of consumer groups and many citizens weighed in against it.

And so, quite unexpectedly, the Chairman announced yesterday that he is changing the proposed rule, one that hasn’t even been released yet. He said that the revised rules would allow for ISPs to charge companies like NetFlix and Amazon for faster access to customers, but that non-paying companies would not be put into the slow lane. This makes no sense and is political double-speak. From a network engineering perspective you either give priority to bits or you don’t. If some companies get priority routing, then all other traffic gets degraded. That is the only way it can work on a network and no amount of regulatory talks can change the way that bits operate.

The idea gets even more bizarre if you think it through. What happens if 20 companies pay Comcast for priority access? Does the one who pays the most get slightly more priority than number two, and so on? The fact is that networks can’t do that. Bits are either prioritized or they are not, and so if a lot of companies pay for priority access we end up back where we are today for those companies, while the rest of the Internet would get degraded service.

One thing that pushes this into the Twilight Zone is that Rasmussen did a push poll on the topic and concluded that only 21% of Americans are in favor of net neutrality. Push polls are generally only used for hot button political topics where somebody wants to prove the opposite of what’s true. In this case, the main question of the poll was, “Should the FCC regulate the Internet like it does radio and television”. None of the questions asked had anything to do with net neutrality and instead were designed to elicit a specific negative response. Obviously there are dozens of better ways to have asked the public about net neutrality, including actually asking about it.

I have not conducted a poll, but I traveled all last week and in conversation I asked a number of people what they thought about the idea that the ISPs could give some companies priority access, which implies that others would get something less. Nobody thought that was a good idea and the general consensus was to leave things working the way they are. I believe there will be a huge amount of public discontent should the ISPs be allowed to break the Internet.

I don’t think Chairman Wheeler has any comprehension how important the Internet is to most people. He is skirting with making a huge blunder if he allows the Internet to get screwed up. He is making himself the public face of how the Internet functions, and if he breaks it people will blame him personally. He has the chance to become the next infamous political appointee to get compared to Michael Brown who was running FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. But perhaps he won’t mind being vilified since he is handing the cable companies a billion dollar opportunity to charge more to Internet companies.