Category Archives: FCC

Rebooting the FCC: When gov’t needs your help

When the Federal Communications Commission was founded way back in 1934 as a replacement for an earlier government radio panel, no one thought 75 years later it might spend half a billion dollars annually regulating airwaves that bring consumers radio, TV signals, computer and mobile wireless data. Alas, in 2010 the proliferation of media makes governing the electromagnetic spectrum a billion times more difficult than solving, say, how to expand healthcare to Americans.

So now the FCC has basically said screw it. Rather that impose specific suggestions, it has launched a “Rebooting the FCC” web site asking you, dear Americans, to write in with your own answers. So go ahead!

1. Should Internet providers be charged with “network neutrality” and give everyone equal access to the Internet (feels good, right?), or make heavy users like the brat next door downloading movies on your shared cable tether sucking up bandwidth pay more (um, that feels good, too…)?

2. Should big companies be allowed to continue closed standards to maintain market share (sure), or does that stop free-market competition (um, no, that sounds better)?

3. Should the FCC step in to help save ailing mainstream media (yes!), to keep dying journalists from passing away leaving us nothing but blogs, or would that be government putting its thumb on history’s scale of content evolution (um, big government)?

On one hand we admire the FCC’s openness in seeking feedback. On the other, it feels a bit like seeking help from a counselor who says only, “sorry you’re upset, it’s OK to feel that way.” To ask a populous that fights over fictional death panels to make decisions about complex wireless technological enablers leading to game-theory conflicts in business seems a stretch. The FCC’s site proclaims: “The starting point for this effort, of course, is the First Amendment.” Great, FCC. Can’t wait to hear the solutions.

Equal rights don’t exist on the internet, do they?

You’d think our government would take a stand on internet access, but guess what? They punt. Yesterday the FCC launched a fuzzy new blog that talks out of both sides of its mouth. It’s all about the issue of network neutrality, which seems simple at first: the internet should be free and open — no variable pricing, no limits on access, no one blocking your content. Sounds good, right?

Before we explain the FCC’s double standard, let’s dig deeper to see the flip side of unshackled internet use — the painfully slow email downloads in your home office thanks to the teen next door downloading fat movie files, the fact that the United States trails Sweden and Korea in bandwidth speeds. If you’ve ever waited for downloads, you realize the web has costs. The words you’re reading now, on this blog, aren’t free at all, but rather the lucky result of over-building during the 1990s internet bubble. You can watch videos at Hulu today because silly companies got silly stock options back in 1997, and investors jacked up the network infrastructure. And guess what? Your prepaid pipes are getting full.

So the internet issue has two sides — keep all access equal, or allow providers more control to raise money for the strapped global network. As with any scarce resource, the network neutrality concept has fierce advocates (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) and opponents (your cable company), and no wonder — the companies who profit by sending stuff free over pipes want it kept that way, and the firms that pay for those pipes want to be able to charge more to keep them working. In perhaps the strongest argument against network neutrality, telecoms argue that if they could charge heavy web users more for access, they’d be able to fund future advances in internet technology. That is no more unfair that Apple charging $599 for its first iPhone to fund the production build-out that now allows you, two years later, to pick one up for 99 bucks. Early adopters, like heavy internet users, had the most need, and they were willing to pay more — a wealth transfer that ended up supporting the rest of the population. So why not?

Who’s right? The FCC says everybody.

So back to the Federal Communications Commission. The new FCC blog sounds, in name and tone, like it’s promoting network neutrality. Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks with phrases such as “the fifth principle is one of non-discrimination — stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular internet content or applications.” But wait — Genachowski quickly adds caveats. “This principle will not prevent broadband providers from reasonably managing their networks. During periods of network congestion, for example, it may be appropriate for providers to ensure that very heavy users do not crowd out everyone else.” Um, what?

Genachowski concludes the FCC will make decisions “on a case-by-case basis.” So … cable companies and telecoms should not discriminate against any internet users … unless they need to. They shouldn’t charge more for usage … unless required to reasonably manage their network. The FCC will enforce this … with ad hoc decisions.

If you’re confused, so are we.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask that a government bureaucracy take a clear stand on internet access in an age where suggesting we expand health coverage gets seniors, now on government-funded Medicare, screaming about government socialism. The only clarity we found on the FCC’s site was a link to a Digg-style ranking of user suggestions. Here, the public’s wishes rise to the top. Bring U.S. broadband pricing in line with the rest of the world. Promote telecommuting. End unreal claims of internet speeds. Heck, catch up with Korea’s pipe speeds, where people stream TV shows on cell phones.

The public wants bandwidth, and they want it fast. The FCC says it’s listening and it wants “freedom”. But as with any public good, we suspect eventually someone will have to pay for it.

The obscenity of Eva Mendes’ breast

Ever wonder why some TV commercials get banned?

Calvin Klein’s new spot shows actress Eva Mendes fuzzy in a black-and-white composition, rather artsy until for a split second her arm moves revealing the tip of her breast. U.S. TV networks banned the ad and refused to accept even a recut version.

The real deal is poor ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox (as well as mid-tier cable networks) are caught between FCC broadcast rules representing the moral safety of the American public and what Americans really want. Consumers are fleeing broadcast in droves to watch racy videos on YouTube and online nudity, yet TV broadcasters face huge fines if they cross the line.

(Complaints to the FCC are up. Back in 2001, there were only 346 complaints all year; in the first half of 2006, U.S. consumers shrieked 327,198 times.)

The irony is the FCC rules do, by definition, allow naked flesh. From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. — hours when children might watch — nudity, profanity, and obscenity are banned. But after 10, TV broadcasters have a safe harbor period in which they could conceivably broadcast full frontal nudity or the F-bomb.

But there is a catch. The FCC provides no safe harbor for “obscenity,” and that is defined as any material that an average American might find has a tendency to excite lustful thoughts. So you see, America, it’s not the nudity that keeps Eva off your television. It’s the naughty way your mind might react.

Via Steve Hall.

The open market niche: Profiting from environmentalism

Here’s a feel-good idea for the New Year: What if you could make money by saving the planet?

Recycling gadgets will get more attention in 2008, as 70 million TV sets go obsolete. By February 2009, the FCC will force all TV broadcasters to convert to digital signals, turning millions of old cathode ray tube sets into pretty black glass boxes. Many of these old TVs have 4 to 8 pounds of lead in the screen. You better believe recycling gadgets will hit the major news wires by next fall.

Consider the 500 million used cell phones in the United States, with a combined total of 312,000 pounds of lead. Dump them all in local landfills, and that lead heads for groundwater … and we were worried about Chinese toys? Cell phone batteries also contain cadmium, a human carcinogen that causes lung or liver damage.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if a company had the foresight to profit in advance of an environmental concern? What if a Sony or Apple or AT&T repositioned themselves as a national resource for gathering old gadgets, beyond their own products? We bet they’d make a boatload of money in new gadget sales.

Until then, we offer four ways to clean out the junk drawer for the New Year.

1. Drop off old cell phones at a cell phone store. Most carriers will recycle them, or even donate the old phones to victims of domestic violence. Verizon, for example, has a HopeLine recycling program that has kept 200 tons of electronic waste and batteries out of landfills.

2. If your old gadget seems to still work, punch it in to This web site will give you a quote to actually buy your old technology, and if you accept, it will send a free shipping label for you to drop it in the mail.

3. One of the best things you can do is find out where to take old batteries. About 3 billion batteries are sold in the U.S. each year. Call to Recycle offers locations for battery recycling nationally.

4. For general information on recycling, the web site Earth911 lists local resources that will accept batteries and all forms of electronics.