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"A plague on both your houses": Regulators in the US and the UK get Shakespearian over telco broadband failures

rural-bb

via Flickr © btphotosbduk (CC BY 2.0)

  • Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic say telcos must do better on the broadband access front
  • Not providing broadband in "a reasonable and timely fashion"
  • Divide between urban and rural broadband availability is still far too wide and neither sector getting the services they deserve
  • But telcos complain that goalposts have been moved - often without consultation

Telcos on both sides of ‘The Pond’ are yet again being criticised for failing to meet regulatory requirements apropos the availability and quality of broadband Internet access in both urban and rural environments. The relevant authorities say network operators and ISPs are doing too little, too slowly to provide mandated advanced telecoms capabilities.

In the UK, the incumbent telco is yet again the subject of more fierce and serious criticism, this time from a new study endorsed by 121 influential cross-party Members of Parliament which shows that BT's broadband subscribers are getting a raw deal and suffering “dire” internet connections both at home and at work.

Apparently a some 5.7 million Brits just don't get the minimum broadband download speeds as stipulated by Ofcom, the UK regulator while some BT customers "get no service at all", a situation the report calls "untenable." The operator is facing increasing pressure to spin-off its de facto monopoly wholesale division Openreach and it is expected that BT's CEO, Gavin Patterson, will soon be called before a parliamentary committee to face a hostile grilling.

Meanwhile, over in snow-bound Washington DC, the US regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), will this week (weather permitting) vote on the latest iteration of the annual report about the state of high-speed Internet deployment in the US. According to a leaked draft of the document, the FCC finds that US telcos and ISPs, like their complacent cousin on the other side of the Atlantic, are failing to to deploy broadband and advanced telecoms capabilities "in a reasonable and timely fashion."

According to the regulator, 34 million Americans still do not have access to wired internet service that meets the regulator's definition of "broadband download speed" which it has set at 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. According to the FCC, the provision of “advanced telecommunications capability” means that US subscribers, whether urban or rural, must be able to access both wired and wireless broadband internet services - and that's making telcos and ISPs spit bullets.

The FCC is particularly critical of the fact that even today the broadband divide between urban and rural Americans remains enormously wide and the situation seems to be getting no better as 39 per cent of people living in rural rural still have no access to wired broadband.

The FFC chairman, Tom Wheeler, commented, “To maximize the benefits of broadband for the American people, we not only need to facilitate innovation in areas like public safety and civic engagement, but also to make sure all Americans have advanced communications capabilities. The Commission has a statutory mandate to assess and report annually on whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The FCC has the power to impose a better broadband access solution on US telcos and ISPs and the fact that it might soon use it is greatly exercising vested interests within the industry and the many (mostly Republican) critics who are already lambasting the report even though it hasn't been published yet. They are saying that the report is nothing more a blatant play to further expand it's already overweening authority and impose arbitrary standards and responsibilities on telcos and ISPs.

Critics are resorting to the classic technique of getting their retaliation in early because they are still angry about what happened last year when the regulator unilaterally imposed its benchmark broadband access speeds to their current levels and required Internet access providers to rejig their offerings and service bundles in light of the changes. US telcos and ISPs are still smarting from that and are determined to kick up a big fuss this time around.

For example, Jim Cicconi, the senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs at AT&T says, “It's bad enough the FCC keeps moving the goal posts on their definition of broadband, apparently so they can continue to justify intervening in obviously competitive markets. It's beginning to look like the FCC will define broadband whichever way maximizes its power under whichever section of the law they want to apply.”

And the vested interests have some big support in the US Congress from where a loose affiliation of Republican senators are closely watching developments - and late last year a Republican Commissioner of the FCC itself, Michael O'Reilly, said, “the idea that we should tie our section 706 report finding to the belief that consumers must have both [fixed and wireless broadband] is flawed and strains credibility".

This is because, apparently, mobile broadband speeds 'could' increase exponentially in the coming years and negate the need for rural areas to have fixed line Internet access at all, leaving vested interests to make money hand-over-fist in their rich city mouse strongholds without being required to shell-out money to connect country mice to the Internet at all.

Controversial new 'surveillance' Cybersecurity Act passed in the US.

Meanwhile the US Congress has just passed into law the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 which is subtly but notably different from it's predecessor, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA). The new legislation has been controversial since the day it was first mooted with one side of the argument opining that it is prudent and right that private companies should share traffic and subscriber data with government agencies, by legal compulsion if necessary, to help prevent cyber and other terrorist attacks.

The other side, comprising in the main of big technology companies and a coterie of academics say the new legislation is a step too far down the road to totalitarianism as it "represents an indefensible legitimization of state surveillance and an erosion of privacy rights." Opponents argue that telcos, ISPs and network operators have been sharing between themselves information relating to potential threats for a long time now, not least because more than 90 per cent of cyber crimes take advantage of weaknesses inherent to various networks.

Indeed, the "2015 Data Breach Investigations Report" from Verizon concluded that, “Many existing vulnerabilities remain open, primarily because security patches that have long been available were never implemented. In fact, many of the vulnerabilities are traced to 2007 — a gap of eight years.”

An investigation by the influential Washington Post newspaper, showed that the likes of  Apple, Dropbox, Yelp, Reddit, Twitter, and the Wikimedia Foundation “have all said that they oppose the new Act." It is also known that Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others have registered their concerns about the legislation via the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA). The CCIA's position is that the new law's "prescribed mechanism for sharing of cyber threat information does not sufficiently protect users’ privacy or appropriately limit the permissible uses of information shared with the government.”

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden one of 21 senators who voted against the introduction of the revised law, said that the opposition voiced by the nation's biggest technology companies tech companies was entirely legitimate and reasoned and added, “Sharing information about cybersecurity threats is a worthy goal but if you share more information without strong privacy protections, millions of Americans will say, ‘That's not a cybersecurity law, it's a surveillance law.'“

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