Hidden fees that raise price of broadband would be banned by proposed law

Advertised telco prices would have to include all fees if Democrat’s bill passes.

Enlarge / Bill shock. (credit: Getty Images | Biddiboo)

US Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) today introduced legislation that would require telecom companies to include all charges in their advertised prices, potentially ending the practice of advertising low prices and then socking customers with loads of extra fees.

The bill would also force telecom companies to justify price increases that occur during a contract term, and it would let consumers opt out of contracts without paying termination fees when prices are increased. The bill would also prohibit providers from requiring arbitration in the case of billing errors, thus preserving consumers' rights to sue the providers over price disputes.

Eshoo's TRUE Fees Act (Truth-In-Billing, Remedies, and User Empowerment over Fees) would apply to phone, TV, and home or mobile Internet providers. The bill isn't likely to get much support from Republicans in Congress, who have generally protected Internet providers from new requirements.

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Comcast outbids Fox in $40B battle for Sky

Comcast has outbid Twenty-First Cenutry Fox for the UK’s Sky, a final step in what’s been a years-long takeover battle between the two media conglomerates. Comcast’s final offer gives Sky a roughly $40 billion price tag. Both companies upped their offers for Sky at the settlement auction Saturday, with Comcast offering £17.28 per Sky ordinary […]

Comcast has outbid Twenty-First Cenutry Fox for the UK’s Sky, a final step in what’s been a years-long takeover battle between the two media conglomerates.

Comcast’s final offer gives Sky a roughly $40 billion price tag.

Both companies upped their offers for Sky at the settlement auction Saturday, with Comcast offering £17.28 per Sky ordinary share and Fox offering £15.67 per share. Comcast initially offered £14.75. Fox’s original offer was £14.

Both companies will reveal their revised bids on Monday. Sky’s board will make it’s official recommendation by October 11.

UK media giants call for independent oversight of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter

The UK’s leading broadcasters and ISPs have called for the government to introduce independent regulatory oversight of social media content. The group of media and broadband operators in the tightly regulated industries spans both the state-funded and commercial sector — with the letter to the Sunday Telegraph being inked with signatures from the leaders of the BBC, […]

The UK’s leading broadcasters and ISPs have called for the government to introduce independent regulatory oversight of social media content.

The group of media and broadband operators in the tightly regulated industries spans both the state-funded and commercial sector — with the letter to the Sunday Telegraph being inked with signatures from the leaders of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky, BT and TalkTalk.

They argue there’s an “urgent” need for independent oversight of social media, and counter suggestions that such a move would amount to censorship by pointing out that tech companies are already making choices about what to allow (or not) on their platforms.

They are argue independent oversight is necessary to ensure “accountability and transparency” over those decisions, writing: “There is an urgent need for independent scrutiny of the decisions taken, and greater transparency. This is not about censoring the internet, it is about making the most popular internet platforms safer, by ensuring there is accountability and transparency over the decisions these private companies are already taking.”

“We do not think it is realistic or appropriate to expect internet and social media companies to make all the judgment calls about what content is and is not acceptable, without any independent oversight,” they add.

Calls for regulation of social media platforms have been growing from multiple quarters and countries, and politicians clearly feel there is political capital to spend here. (Indeed, Trump’s latest online punchbag is Google.)

Yet policymakers the world over face the challenge of how to regulate platforms that have become so popular and therefore so powerful. (Germany legislated to regulate social media firms over hate speech takedowns last year but it’s in the vanguard of government action.)

The UK government has made a series of proposals around Internet safety in recent years, and the media & telco group argues this is a “golden opportunity” to act against what they describe as “all potential online harms” — further suggesting that “many of which are exacerbated by social media”.

The government is working on a white paper on Internet safety, and the Telegraph says potential interventions currently under private debate include the creation of a body along the lines of the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (which reports to Ofcom), which it says could oversee Facebook, Google and Twitter to decide whether to remove material in response to complaints from users.

The newspaper adds that it is envisaged by proponents of this idea that such a regime would be voluntary but backed with the threat of a legislative crackdown if the online environment does not improve. (The EU has been taking this approach with hate speech takedowns.)

Commenting on the group’s letter, a government spokesperson told the Telegraph: “We have been clear that more needs to be done to tackle online harms. We are committed to further legislation.”

For their part, tech platforms claim they are platforms not publishers.

Yet their algorithms indisputably create hierarchies of information — which they also distribute at vast scale. At the same time they operate their own systems of community standards and content rules, which they enforce (typically imperfectly and inconsistently), via after-the-fact moderation.

The cracks in this facade are very evident — whether it’s a high profile failure such as the Kremlin-backed mass manipulation of Facebook’s platform or this smaller scale but no less telling individual moderation failure. There are very clearly severe limitations to the self-regulation the companies typically enjoy.

Meanwhile, the impacts of bad content decisions and moderation failures are increasingly visible — as a consequence of the the vast scale of (especially) Facebook and Google’s YouTube.

In the UK, a parliamentary committee which has been probing the impact of social media amplified disinformation on democracy recently recommended a third category be created to regulate tech giants that’s not necessarily either a platform or a publisher but which tightens their liabilities.

The committee’s first report, following a long and drama-packed enquiry this year (thanks to the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data misuse scandal), also called for social media firms to be taxed to pay for major investment in the UK’s data protection watchdog so it is better resourced to be able to police data-related malfeasance.

The committee also suggested there should be an education levy also raised off social media firms to pay for the digital literacy skills necessary for citizens to navigate all the stuff being amplified by their platforms.

In their letter to the Sunday Telegraph the group emphasizes their own investment in the UK, whether in the form of tax payments, original content creation or high-speed broadband infrastructure.

Whereas U.S. tech giants stand accused of making lower contributions to national coffers as a result of how they structure their businesses.

The typical tech firm response to tax-related critiques is to say they always pay the tax that is due. But technical compliance with the intricacies of tax law will do nothing to alleviate the reputational damage they could suffer if their businesses become widely perceived as leaching off (rather than contributing to) the nation state.

And that’s the political lever the media firms and ISPs look to be seeking to pull here.

We’ve reached out to Facebook, Twitter and Google for comment.

Speedier broadband standards? Pai’s FCC says 25Mbps is fast enough

FCC kicks off annual analysis of nationwide broadband deployment.

Enlarge (credit: Jan Fabre)

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing to maintain the US broadband standard at the current level of 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream.

That's the speed standard the FCC uses each year to determine whether advanced telecommunications capabilities are "being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion."

The FCC raised the standard from 4Mbps/1Mbps to 25Mbps/3Mbps in January 2015 under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. Ajit Pai, who was then a commissioner in the FCC's Republican minority, voted against raising the speed standard.

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Facebook follows SpaceX and OneWeb into high-speed satellite broadband

Facebook to launch satellite in 2019 in first test of possible broadband network.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | NurPhoto )

Facebook has confirmed plans to launch a low-Earth orbit (LEO) broadband satellite early next year in what could be the first step toward a constellation of satellites, according to Wired.

A May 2018 report from IEEE Spectrum provided evidence that a satellite company called PointView Tech LLC is a subsidiary created by Facebook to pursue broadband plans under the code name "Athena."

"When contacted by Wired, Facebook confirmed that Athena is their project," Wired wrote on Friday.

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UK sets out plan to spend billions on fiber and 5G broadband for all

The UK government has set out a package of measures it’s hoping will futureproof domestic networks and boost international competitiveness by supporting a nationwide rollout of full fiber broadband and 5G mobile technology. The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, published today, follows the announcement of a market review last year as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy […]

The UK government has set out a package of measures it’s hoping will futureproof domestic networks and boost international competitiveness by supporting a nationwide rollout of full fiber broadband and 5G mobile technology.

The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, published today, follows the announcement of a market review last year as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy as it seeks to chart a technology-enabled course for growth and competitiveness.

Yet, at the same time, the UK seriously lags several European competitors on the fiber broadband front — so the strategy is also intended to try to reboot current poor performance.

The government says its telecoms plan emphasizes greater consumer choice and initiatives to promote quicker rollout — and an eventual full switch over — from copper to fiber.

It wants full fibre broadband to reach 15 million premises (up from the ’10M over the next decade’ set out in the Conservative party manifesto) by 2025, and also 5G mobile network coverage to reach the majority of the population.

By 2033, it wants full fiber broadband coverage to reach across all of the UK.

Currently the UK only has 4% full fiber connections, which compares dismally to 71% in Spain and 89% in Portugal. While France has around 28% — which the government notes is “increasing quickly”.

Included in the government’s strategy is public investment in full fiber for rural areas; and new legislation to guarantee full fiber connections in new build developments; as well as a series of regulatory reforms intended to drive investment and competition — which it says will be tailored to different local market conditions.

It’s also planning for an industry-led switch over from copper to full fiber — to avoid businesses being saddled with the expense and burden of running copper and fiber networks in parallel.

There’s no fixed timing for this, as the government says it will depend on the pace of fiber rollouts and take-up, but it suggests it’s “realistic to assume that switchover could happen in the majority of the country by 2030”.

To boost competition to drive commercial fiber rollouts, the government is proposing regulatory reform to allow for “unrestricted access” to BT Openreach ducts and poles — i.e. the company’s own physical infrastructure where fiber can be laid — for both residential and business broadband use, including for essential mobile infrastructure.

It also wants to open up other avenues for laying broadband fiber, saying other existing infrastructure (including pipes and sewers) owned by other utilities such as power, gas and water, should be “easy to access, and available for both fixed and mobile use”. 

And it says it will shortly publish consultations on the proposed legislative changes to streamline wayleaves and mandate fiber connections in new builds.

Another key recommendation in the review, given that the expense of digs to lay fiber remains one of the biggest barriers to broadband upgrades, is for a new nationwide framework aimed at reducing the costs, time and disruption caused by street-works by standardising the approach across the country.

With its planned regulatory tweaks, the government reckons that market competition will be able to deliver full fiber networks across the majority of the UK (~80%) — leaving around ~20% which it’s expecting will require “bespoke solutions to ensure rollout of networks”. And for around half of that fifth it also expects taxpayer funding will be needed to deliver a fiber/5G upgrade.

It estimates that nationwide availability of ‘full fiber’ is likely to require additional (public) funding of around £3BN to £5BN to support commercial investment in the final ~10% of areas that would otherwise be overlooked — stressing that these “often rural areas must not be forced to wait until the rest of the country has connectivity before they can access gigabit-capable networks”.

So it’s planning to pursue an “outside-in” strategy, allowing network competition to serves commercially viable areas while laying down government support investment in parallel on what it describes as “the most difficult to reach areas”.

“We have already identified around £200M within the existing Superfast broadband programme that can further the delivery of full fibre networks immediately,” it notes on that.

Although it’s not clear at this stage how the government intends to fund the full proposals for a taxpayer-funded broadband bill running to multiple billions.

On the mobile connectivity front, it’s proposing increased access to spectrum for “innovative 5G services”, and says it will allow mobile network operators to make far greater use of government buildings to boost coverage across the UK.

“We should consider whether more flexible, shared spectrum models can maintain network competition between MNOs while also increasing access to spectrum to support new investment models, spurring innovation in industrial internet of things, wireless automation and robotics, and improving rural coverage,” it writes on that.

Over the longer term it says is expecting to see a more converged telecoms sector — so it’s leaving itself some ‘last mile’ wiggle room on the ‘full fiber’ push, for example by pointing out that: “Fixed fibre networks and 5G are complementary technologies, and 5G will require dense fibre networks. In some places, 5G may provide a more cost-effective way of providing ultra-fast connectivity to homes and businesses.”

“We want everyone in the UK to benefit from world-class connectivity no matter where they live, work or travel,” said the new Secretary of State for digital, culture, media and sport, Jeremy Wright, commenting on the review in a statement, and dubbing it a “radical new blueprint for the future of telecommunications in this country”.

“[The strategy] will increase competition and investment in full fiber broadband, create more commercial opportunities and make it easier and cheaper to roll out infrastructure for 5G,” he added.

The UK’s incumbent telco, BT, which owns and operates the country’s largest broadband network, has long pursued the opposite strategy to the one the government is here pursuing: i.e. by seeking to eke out its own ex-monopoly copper infrastructure, such as by applying technologies that speed up fiber to the cabinet technology, instead of making the major financial commitment to invest in substantially expanding full fiber to the home coverage (and thereby futureproof national network infrastructure).

For years competitors (and, indeed, frustrated consumers) have also accused the company of foot-dragging on providing access to its network — thereby undermining other commercial players’ ability to fund and build out next-gen network coverage.

Last year BT agreed with telecoms watchdog Ofcom to legally separate its network division Openreach — around a decade after a functional separation has been imposed by the regulator. Albeit, it’s still not the full structural separation some have called for.

“It is too early to determine whether legal separation will be sufficient to deliver positive changes on investment in full fibre infrastructure,” writes the government in its review, adding that it will “closely monitor legal separation, including Ofcom’s reports on the effectiveness of the new arrangements”.

“The Government will consider all additional measures if BT Group fails to deliver its commitments and regulatory obligations, and if Openreach does not deliver on its purpose of investing in ways that respond to the needs of its downstream customers,” it adds.

One aspect of the strategy the government is not trumpeting quite so loudly in its PR around the announcement is an intent to promote what it describes as “stable and long-term regulation” as part of its strategy to drive increased competition and unlock business investments.

On this it writes that the overarching strategic priority to “promote efficient competition and investment in world-class digital networks” should be “prioritised over interventions to further reduce retail prices in the near term, recognising these longer-term benefits”.

In the review it suggests moving to longer, five year review periods, for instance — saying this “could provide greater regulatory stability and promote investment”. It also writes that it wants Ofcom to publish guidance that “clearly sets out the approach and information it will use in determining a ‘fair bet’ return”.

It’s therefore possible that UK consumers could end up paying twice over to help fund national fiber broadband infrastructure upgrades; i.e. not just via direct subsidies to fund rural rollouts but also, potentially, via higher broadband prices too. Albeit, the government says that in its view “the interests of consumers are safeguarded as fiber markets become more competitive”.

Though in less commercially attractive areas, where there could be a greater risk of price inflation, the government’s small print does include the recognition that regulatory interventions — such as price controls — may indeed be required. Though of course any such controls would only come in after consumers had been being stung…

“For areas where there is actual or prospective effective competition between networks, Government would not anticipate the need for regulation,” it writes. “For other areas, we would expect the regulatory model for to evolve over time as networks are established. If market power emerges, regulated access (including price controls) may be needed to address competition concerns. These detailed regulatory decisions will be for Ofcom to take.”

Alaska’s last two Blockbusters are shutting down, leaving one in US

Remaining stores were still pulling a profit until their last gasp.

On Thursday, Blockbuster Alaska announced that the rental chain's last two Alaskan stores will shut down on Monday, with liquidation sales to follow. The news means that only one Blockbuster store will remain in the United States, in Bend, Oregon.

"We hope to see you at our stores during the closing, even if it’s just to say 'Hello,'" the final two shops' managers posted in a Facebook announcement on Thursday. "What a great time to build your media library and share some Blockbuster memories with us."

In its report, the Anchorage Daily News confirmed with Border Entertainment, a Texas-based holding company that operated all of Alaska's Blockbuster stores, that closure plans had been in the works since before the end of 2017. At that time, Border decided to stop renewing any Blockbuster store leases, resulting in a series of closures across the state over the past nine months.

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