AT&T’s Dubious Behavior

You may not have noticed in the crush of events, but AT&T announced a new broadband service option last week, up to 18 Mb/s DSL:

AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) today announced it will launch AT&T U-verseSM High Speed Internet Max 18 on Nov. 9, offering speeds of up to 18 Mbps downstream. Exclusively available for AT&T U-verse TV customers, Max 18 is the fastest high speed Internet package available from the nation’s leading provider of broadband services.

Apparently this is simply a pricing option for existing U-Verse TV customers that allows them to use more of their pipe for downloading when they aren’t using it for TV. The general data rate of the AT&T pipe is 25 Mb/s without pair bonding, of which 2 – 16 Mb/s is used for TV. Under the old plan, Internet downloads were capped at 12 Mb/s, which generally left enough for two HDTV streams, except when it didn’t, and under those circumstances AT&T borrowed from Internet capacity to make the TV keep looking fairly good. AT&T should be able to offer a 25 Mb/s download tier without changing any hardware, but they don’t.

Generally speaking, we’re all in favor of faster downloads whenever possible, but this announcement is troubling for one very big reason: the only way you can get this service is to buy AT&T’s TV service. This bundling sets the giant of the telcos apart from competitors Verizon, Comcast, and Qwest and raises concerns that should have the consumer groups who’ve promoted the net neutrality agenda hopping mad.

The two aspects of network operation that deserve regulatory scrutiny are disclosure and anti-competitive practices, and this behavior falls squarely in the anti-competitive nexus. The other providers of triple- and quad-play services will gladly sell all tiers of Internet service to anyone in the service areas regardless of which other services they choose to buy. They typically discount Internet service for TV and phone customers, but it’s certainly available without purchasing the other services, and for less than it would cost to buy them as well.

This mandatory bundling is unfortunately consistent with AT&T’s role as the black sheep of net neutrality. It was their CEO’s remarks, after all, that set off the current controversy back in 2005: Ed Whiteacre said Google and Vonage weren’t going to “use his pipes for free.” This got Google engaged in a regulatory program and unleashed a massive infusion of cash into the debate over the regulation of Internet access services, not to mention an army of Google-friendly advocates such as Larry Lessig and Tim Wu’s Free Press organization, the muscle behind the Save the Internet blog. And when the FCC overstepped its authority in and slapped Comcast on the wrist, AT&T insisted the cable company should accept its fate silently and take one for the team instead of challenging the unlawful order in court. Their gall is breathtaking.

The consumer advocates have been strangely silent about this clearly anti-competitive bundling. Why should I have to buy AT&T’s TV service to get the top tier of their Internet access service? For years I bought Internet access from Comcast and TV from DirecTV, and was very pleased with the result. I would probably still do that if DirecTV had not ended their relationship with TiVo and tried to force their sub-standard DVR on me. And if I choose to do so today, I can buy the highest tier Comcast offers in my neighborhood without signing up for their TV service, and at a fairly reasonable price.

So why is AT&T trying to gouge the consumer, and why is the net neutrality movement silent about it? Consumer’s Union is all up in arms about cable companies converting analog customers to digital along with the rest of the country in February, a painfully silly campaign that argues for unfair regulation. Why not address a real issue instead?

Kevin Martin’s secret regulations

As the crescendo of criticism builds against the FCC’s pending publication of its new rules for Internet access providers, the New York Times emerges as the sole source of pro-FCC coverage. They publish a bizarre Op-Ed by Free Press chairman Tim Wu equating competing carriers with OPEC and mistaking the general trend in broadband prices – sharply down – with the trend for gas prices, which goes in the opposite direction entirely:

AMERICANS today spend almost as much on bandwidth — the capacity to move information — as we do on energy. A family of four likely spends several hundred dollars a month on cellphones, cable television and Internet connections, which is about what we spend on gas and heating oil.

Here’s what’s happening to broadband prices at Comcast:

High-speed Internet revenue increased 10% to $1.8 billion in the second quarter of 2008 from $1.6 billion in 2007 reflecting a 12% increase in subscribers and a 3% decline in average monthly revenue per subscriber to $42.01, reflecting the impact of additional bundling and the recent introduction of new offers and speed tiers.

I’d love to see a 3% monthly decline in gas prices, even at the same volume level. But the Comcast figures show consumers upgrading to higher speed tiers (like Blast, which I measure at 28 Mb/s download speed) and still seeing an average decline in prices. Wu isn’t talking about life in the Real WorldTM.

Martin himself held a pow-wow with Times reporters, hoping to evoke some of that old-time populism that the nation’s elite daily is so good at. BITS blogger Saul Hansell reports on Martin’s faulty facts and shoddy analysis:

“The network operators can recoup their investment in the network and can charge for access to network services, but consumers have complete control over the devices and content that don’t have anything to do with investment in the underlying network,” he said.

I asked about reports that AT&T now bans all use of peer-to-peer networking software on its wireless data network. It also bans some video services, like the Slingbox feature that lets you watch your home television signal on your cellphone.

Mr. Martin declined to answer. His view is that the commission should not publish explicit regulations. Rather, it should address complaints that are made, as it did with the Comcast case.

“The commission is very careful in that we look at the particular facts that are in front of us. We are not judging the next case,” he said. “Hard and fast rules can actually be over- and under-inclusive, and they can also have adverse impact.”

Mr. Martin was asked whether the commission’s approach will push more Internet providers to start to impose caps on how much bandwidth consumers can use.

He said he wanted to reserve judgment on that trend. He seemed comfortable with Internet providers offering services with limits, so long as they are clearly stated.

So we have this new regime for Internet access providers where every move they make is to be judged according to a list of secret regulations. If ever there was a recipe for stalemate, this is it.

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Liveblogging FCC hearing in Pittsburgh

Here’s the video link.

(Didn’t hear Congressman Doyle, Martin, or Copps.)
Adelstein: (Misstates findings of Pew study on broadband adoption. Price is not really the issue, lack of interest is.) Complains about smackdown by the Third Circuit.
Tate: Don’t forget about piracy and the children.
McDowell: Don’t dry up the capital. Engineers solve engineering problems, not politicians and bureaucrats. Applause.

Panel 1:
Mark Cuban, Blog Maverick: Special-purpose networks better at what they do than the generic Internet. Multicast is the game-changer for IPTV, but it departs from the generic Internet model. Right.
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Free Press doesn’t want you to read this

Speaking of censorship, what are we to make of Free Press’ censorship of hostile opinions on its “Save the Internet” blog? Clearly, they have the right to remove any comment they want to remove, but it’s normal to leave behind some admission that a comment has been censored and why. Here are three comments Brett Glass left on the STI blog that were all silently erased:
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Judge Kozinski was slimed

You’ve probably heard about the judge with the on-line porn collection who had to recuse himself from a porn case and laughed about it. If so, you’re going to have to take it all back because you’ve been scammed. See: Harold Feld’s Tales of the Sausage Factory:

As documented in several posts at Patterico’s Pontifications, it would appear that Scott Glover was “played” by one Cyrus Sanai, although perhaps “played” is the wrong word. Sanai appears to have pursued a relentless vendetta against Kozinski, and found a willing ally in Glover. As Kozinski’s wife explains in this rebuttal, Glover’s descriptions of the items on the website are at best misleading and at worst outright efforts to sensationalize things circulated all over the internet (typically with the “not work safe” heading). For example, what Glover describes as “video of a half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal” turns out to be a a fairly popular Youtube video of a man who had gone to relieve himself in a pasture fending off an aroused donkey. (The San Francisco Chronicle, apparently wishing to demonstrate the further virtues of trained journalists over bloggers, characterized the video as images of bestiality.

And then see Larry Lessig:

So the wires are a twitter with the story of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s “web site” which, from reading the stories, you’d think was filled with porn (and worse), revealing a dark soul who, some experts in legal ethics suggest, shouldn’t be presiding at an obscenity trial. That, you think, is what I mean by “the Kozinski mess.”

It’s not. What I mean by “the Kozinski mess” is the total inability of the media — including we, the media, bloggers — to get the basic facts right, and keep the reality in perspective. The real story here is how easily we let such a baseless smear travel – and our need is for a better developed immunity (in the sense of immunity from a virus) from this sort of garbage.

And also see Seth Finkelstein’s blog for the lowdown on the nature of the server.

And don’t believe everything you read in the LA Times. The reputation of a good, decent, and extremely intelligent man has been damaged, and you don’t want to be a part of that. As we said last week, journalists should not base stories on blogs; they’re playing with factual fire when they do.

Wodehouse Takes London

I wonder how many Americans get this reference:

Boris Johnson last night notched up the Tories’ greatest electoral success since John Major’s surprise victory in the 1992 general election when he unseated Ken Livingstone as mayor of London.

Ecstatic Conservatives cheered at London’s City Hall, at the end of a count lasting more than 15 hours, as the man who had been dismissed as the Bertie Wooster of British politics took charge of one of the biggest political offices in Britain.

Hint: the Bertie Wooster of American politics is someone named Bush. Boris has a colorful personal and political history, and won because his incumbent opponent broke London’s transportation system with “bendy-buses” and an excessive congestion tax, and had no support from his party on account of being a Marxist and all (they call him “Red Ken”.) Boris had a snappy campaign slogan: “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.”

BBC sees him as a Gussie Fink-Nottle rather than a Bertie Wooster, but I take the Guardian’s analysis as more correct. They’re obviously referring to the Market Snodsbury Grammar School awards day speech, but that was actually out of character for the newt-fancier.

Now who says politics is boring?

WordPress 2.3.3

This is for all you bloggers who use WordPress

WordPress 2.3.3 is an urgent security release. If you have registration enabled a flaw was found in the XML-RPC implementation such that a specially crafted request would allow a user to edit posts of other users on that blog. In addition to fixing this security flaw, 2.3.3 fixes a few minor bugs. If you are interested only in the security fix, download the fixed version of xmlrpc.php and copy it over your existing xmlrpc.php. Otherwise, you can get the entire release here.

The security hole allows spammers to infect your site with their crappy ads. When doing my backup I found 40 directories full of images and spam pages in a directory called “img” in my pictures directory and in another place within by wp-content. These freeloaders are a scourge.

On the plus side, my code’s up-to-date.

UPDATE: WordPress 2.5 is now released, and it’s very pretty, but it seems to be much slower.