Montana telecom group unhappy with FCC over rural call completion

When I reported a while back about rural landlines and a letter from Sen. Jon Tester and others to the FCC, I knew I wasn’t finished with the subject.

Last week, Geoff Feiss, executive director of the Montana Telecommunications Association, sent a letter to the media outlining the organization’s views on what it deems the pitiful state of call completion in rural parts of Montana.

Feiss writes that it isn’t local telecoms’ fault that calls are not completed. He says the calls “never even arrive on the rural telecom’s network.”

The problem instead lies with the larger telecom companies that route calls – or don’t route them as he implies. Feiss never names names, but I think he means the big companies – ones that start with V’s and Q’s.

He has no love for the response the MTA has interpreted from the FCC either:

If you ask the FCC why it’s fiddling while the integrity of the national telecommunications network burns, they’ll say they’re doing all sorts of stuff. But first, they shift the blame. The “root cause” of the problem, says the FCC, is not the negligent or criminal behavior of unscrupulous companies, but rather a regulatory pricing structure that makes terminating calls to rural areas more expensive than calls to urban areas. They may have identified a financial motive for “upstream” providers’ unethical or illegal behavior; but instead of tracking down the culprits, incredibly they blame the victim—the rural telecom provider that never receives the calls that are being blocked upstream.

You can read the full letter in the document viewer below.

I emailed Feiss tonight to ask for a phone interview to discuss the issue and to see if I can dig up a story on this. If you have any resources on rural landlines or rural call quality you’d like to share – specific to Montana if possible, please let me know in the comments or drop me a line at [email protected]

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Montana senators want answers for degrading rural landline quality

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 21:  Federal Communicat...
Julius Genachowski

Noticed problems with your landline lately? You’re not alone. According to Phillip Dampier at StopTheCap.com, the FCC saw a 2,000 percent increase in the number of complaints over rural landline service between April 2010 and March 2011.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced today that he and others in the Seneate have signed a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, demanding that his agency do something to address the adverse effect unreliable phone service is having on businesses, residents and public safety in rural areas. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also signed the letter.

The problem is so bad that the FCC has formed a special task force to look into the problem. The Rural Call Completion Task Force, announced in September, will investigate the growing number of dropped, delayed and incomplete calls on rural landlines. (A nearly 3-hour video of the task force’s October workshop is on YouTube here.) The letter signed by Tester and Baucus urged Genachowski to give a report on this committee’s progress.

A special report from StopTheCap.com in November pointed out that many Americans in rural areas have no choice but to live with deteriorating phone networks that companies no longer want to maintain.

AT&T, the report says, told investors in October that it had no further interest in expanding the wired networks it owns. Replacing all that copper was too expensive when the number of landline subscribers was falling. At the same time, wired networks are failing, and in some places where AT&T says it wil never upgrade its service:

AT&T has been content asking lawmakers to ease up on the phone company, urging that minimum service standards and oversight be abolished, along with the power of regulators to fine the company for repeated transgressions.
For its part, Verizon started selling off older, wired networks years ago. Some of those local telcoms left to run the aging networks have since gone out of business, the StopTheGap report states. Instead of repairing its copper networks, Verizon focused on its fiber-to-the-home systems until the economy forced the company to put that expensive program on hold.

As the report says:

At the same time, Verizon is loathe to maintain investment in its antiquated copper wire landline network, which in some areas was supposed to be retired in favor of FiOS. (This is not just a rural problem.)
So, the gist of it is that Verizon and AT&T — and presumably other telcoms — see landlines as a losing proposition and would rather get rural customers switched over to wireless solutions, which are cheaper to deploy. Also, the companies charge more for the wireless access, and people must pay for the equipment needed to access them, whether it’s a computer, cell phone, antenna or router.

What has been your experience with landlines in rural areas?

Billings tea party leader calls for a boycott of all media

Fair & Balanced graphic used in 2005
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t recall ever writing about the tea party on this blog before, but then again, the tea party has never done anything particularly interesting from a technology or media industry point of view.

Until now, that is.

The Montana Cowgirl Blog, a left-leaning Montana politics blog, reported a few days ago that an email newsletter sent from Montana Shrugged, a Billings tea party group, called news media “complicit in the destruction of America.”

In the email, which is posted in its entirety to the Cowgirl blog, Montana Shrugged leader Eric Olsen writes:

I have challenged all news agencies in Billings as well as others across the State to report fair and balanced news.  They refuse. They show their ignorance and their political bent by supporting the likes of Occupy Wallstreet and their totally misguided mission statements.  They ignore the one and only grassroots movement that has come along in the past 100 years that supports Constitutional and fiscally sound issues.  Issues that are so critical to our survival as the greatest country on earth.  What are they thinking?  Oh, they are not.  I forgot that they too are completely controlled by the liberal elitists such as George Soros.

Obama is playing his fiddle while America burns and they pull the wool over their reader’s eyes.  They are complicit in the destruction of America.  We should cancel our subscriptions.  We should not purchase from their advertisers.  We should do a mass email campaign against all of them.  We have the power to make real change happen. Unified, as one of the largest tea party groups in America, we can make that change start right here in Yellowstone County, Montana.

Olsen goes on to say that his group’s news show, “The Patriot Chronicles,” is “fair and balanced. We report you decide, just like Fox News but without their political bias”(episodes available on YouTube from this user).

The Cowgirl blogger points out that this “fair and balanced” paragraph is followed in the newsletter by a notice about a Republican fundraiser in Billings this March. It’s hard to say, seeing only the email pasted into a blog post, but it looks as if that part about the fundraiser was an advertisement added to the bottom of the newsletter.

At any rate, that’s enough politics for me for one day. I’m going to go back to wait for my daily phone calls from George Soros and the Obama administration.

Megaupload.com workers indicted for piracy

Update: It would seem that some online weren’t happy with the Department of Justice’s actions. News sites are reporting now that the group Anonymous attacked the DOJ site, as well as the websites of Universal Music, RIAA and MPAA.

The Associated Press reports today that workers at the file sharing site Megaupload.com have been indicted by federal prosecutors in Virginia. Its founders and other employees are accused of costing media companies more than $500 million in lost revenue from pirated movies and other content.

“This action is among the largest criminal copyright cases ever brought by the United States and directly targets the misuse of a public content storage and distribution site to commit and facilitate intellectual property crime,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a written statement.

According to the indictment, Kim Dotcom, Megaupload Limited, Vestor Limited, Finn Batato, Julius Bencko, Sven Echternach, Mathias Ortmann, Andrus Nomm and Bram van der Kolk are charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, copyright infringement and money laundering, as well as computer-based criminal copyright infringement and aiding and abetting copyright infringement. (The last two are not the exact names of the charges, but they are long and you can read them for yourselves at the link.)

Dotcom, Batato, Ortmann and van der Kolk were arrested today in New Zealand at the request of the United States, according to the DOJ. The others remain at large.

The document says that the defendants were members of the “Mega Conspiracy,” which it calls “a worldwide criminal organization whose members engaged in criminal copyright infringement and money laundering on a massive scale.” The conspiracy’s reported income was more than $175 million.

Megauploads.com was at one point the 13th most popular site on the Internet, has more than 180 million registered users and accounts for approximately 4 percent of the Internet’s total traffic.

All this comes on the day after numerous websites either shut down or added messages for their readers protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Acts moving through Congress — an online protest that included Megauploads.com.

According to the AP, the Hong Kong-based file sharing site had the support of numerous artists and content-producers. Its CEO, musician Swizz Beatz, is married to Alicia Keys.

Holding something back

Ken Tingley, editor of the Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y., explained in a column on Jan. 14 his newspaper’s policy for posting content online. Each and every day, the Post-Star keeps two stories offline and runs them only in the print edition.

Tingley wrote that this is intended to send a message to online-only readers: Give us money if you want everything we offer. (I’m paraphrasing here.)

He writes:

For years, the sentiment was online readers would not pay for news online. That seems to be changing. Readers appear willing to subscribe to certain services that they value. The iPad has shown readers will open their wallets for apps and subscriptions.

We have no plans to charge for use of our website right now, but I see the day in the near future when that will happen.

I believe we produce a great product both in print and online and we shouldn’t give it away. I think anyone in business would agree with that.

I point this out because the Chronicle does the same thing, more or less. Our parent company wants us to only post a percentage of the overall content of our newspaper online for free. We comply with this, in part, by not posting all content on the day it appears in print. For some of our popular content, we wait three days before it appears online.

These sections are delayed:

  • Opinions (letters, columns, guest columns and editorials)
  • Police Reports
  • Features (Sunday page, Lifestyles, Economy, Out There)
  • Niche publications (Business to Business, At Home, etc.)
The Niche publications are actually delayed longer than three days, but part of that is due to technical difficulties getting those products online rather than an intentional delay.

Additionally, the same Associated Press and wire content that is put on the printed page does not necessarily make it onto our website. We do have Associated Press news feeds on our site, but they may or may not have the same stories as we have in print, and they only reside on our site for a short time.

The one thing we haven’t done is hold stories offline entirely (at least not intentionally). I have always argued that this pokes holes in our digital archive, which is the legacy we’ll leave for the future.

Tingley also mentions some of the paywall options that news sites are looking at — ways to get people to pay for their news online. Just like Tingley’s corporate bosses, ours too are studying paywall systems, and some Pioneer papers are experimenting with them already. I’m confident some sort of paid option is in our future, but the details are still vague.

All that prologue leads me to this question, which I pose to the readers. What do you think of the idea of holding stories offline entirely to emphasize the printed paper? Does a swiss-cheese archive online concern you, as it concerns me?

Ultimately, the question for readers is this: Would you pay for news online from your local newspaper?

To my mind, you need to add that bit at the end “from your local newspaper.” We already know that people will pay for news online from sources like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, but they have big budgets and turn out unique content that has a global audience. They are not the majority of American papers.

These are big questions. I don’t expect answers to come from my mundane blog post on my small, local blog. I do hope that readers out there have an opinion, though. Let me know in the comments.

Wikipedia joins blackout to protest SOPA

The Washington Post reports today that Wikipedia will black out English versions its site out on Wednesday to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act.

The encyclopedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, announced the “community decision” on Twitter:

Wikipedia joins Reddit and the Cheezburger network in Wednesday’s blackout. The announcement comes after the White House has came out against the anti-piracy bills marching through Congress (as they are now written). Mashable writer Alex Fitzpatrick is skeptical of the Obama administration’s position, wondering just what the administration will support then in the fight against international online piracy..

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Why we allow anonymous comments

A reader recently wrote in asking why the Chronicle allows anonymous or pseudonymous comments on its website while requiring that letter writers verify their names and addresses before their letters are printed.

It was a hard question for me to answer, if only because it seemed obvious that we should be offering anonymous comments — despite the headaches they give me on an almost daily basis. Yet when I sat down to write back to this reader, “obvious” did not translate into “easy to explain.”

I knew we should offer anonymous comments. We always have. Yet, why was that? Did someone make a measured decision at some point in the Chronicle’s online past? I know we didn’t question continuing the practice when we upgraded to a new website in 2010.

So I started reading back through my links and finding new ones. (The bookmark trail is here.) I found what Mathew Ingram had to say at GigaOm particularly useful in putting together my answer. Also useful was “No Comment” by Rem Rieder at the American Journalism Review.

At any rate, this is the response I sent to the reader. Let me know how you think I did in the comments.

Sorry to be long in replying, but your question is a really solid one. There are so many arguments back and forth out there in the world of journalism that it was hard for me to find a way to encapsulate that for you.

Yes, we require verified names for letters to the editor. No, we don’t do any verification for online comments — all you need is a working email address to open an account on our website.

Is that a discrepancy? Not in my view. Online comments are not letters to the editor. They are two different ways for our readers to submit comments, and they are both the product of the mediums they were created for. They come from different worlds; we cannot hold one to the standard of the other.

I agree that the state of discourse in the comment section is awful. The commenters are often vicious, mean, bigoted and spiteful, but requiring real names online would box out some of the commenters who rely on anonymity to express themselves without fear of repercussion or punishment.

Besides, experience has shown that a vile environment in the online comments section is less a product of anonymity or pseudonymity than it is a lack of staff engagement with readers. If our reporters more often took part in the online discussion, answering reader comments and questions, the tenor of the discussion there would improve. Commenters would begin to see that a human being reads and reacts to comments, rather than the website being a forum for shouting into the void.

More staff engagement is something I would like to see in the future. Unfortunately, our reporters have their hands full just covering their beats and writing their stories. Asking them at this point to moderate the comments beneath their stories would be too burdensome.

Another major reason for not requiring real names online is that it would be nearly impossible to verify them without requiring people to submit Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or some other identification, which the Chronicle would then have to process. This would guarantee real names are used online, but it would be laborious and expensive for the Chronicle. It would exclude readers who lack the proper identification—as well as people who need anonymity or a screen name to comment on controversial topics.

A few newspapers in the country have experimented with verification systems. Some have switched to Facebook comments for this purpose because that site has a reputation for requiring real names (though it does not verify identities either). The newspapers that have experimented with these systems have seen the number of comments posted to their sites drop dramatically, and they have generally not seen an improvement in commenters’ online behavior.

I am not interested at this time in stifling the comments of those who cannot verify their identities with a credit card number. Neither am I interested in losing a lot of our commenters. These people are regular readers who spend lots of time talking — yes, quite often rudely — about the news and the issues surrounding it. Comments are an outlet for them.

We do moderate comments. Readers have the ability to flag comments as inappropriate, and I and others at the paper look through the comments we receive daily. Those that are clearly against policy are removed. Sometimes commenters are contacted via email to discuss a comment and its deletion. Sometimes, off-color comments remain because, while impolite, they may add to a discussion. There is no accounting for taste, as they say.

As to the accuracy of commenters’ statements, I can make no warranty. People get things wrong, and they lie. It’s the way people are. I cannot fact check the hundreds of comments we receive each day. It’s up to other commenters to continue the debate, showing the errant commenter why he is wrong and citing evidence to show it.

There are financial reasons for wanting a large number of commenters as well. I won’t get into that because it’s not really a factor in the philosophy I’ve laid out here.

In summary, the Web is not the newspaper. People interact with the two mediums in different ways, and users of both the print edition and the website have different expectations for what each product will offer. Online, one expectation is the ability to comment on articles pseudonymously.

I think that feature allows readers freer expression than would binding them to their real names, and while individual comments may be awful to read, I think the entire enterprise is worthwhile.

Reddit going black to protest SOPA, Wikipedia may join

Image representing Reddit as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

The popular blog Reddit will be blacked out for 12 hours on Jan. 18 to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act that is wending its way through the House of Representatives, according to a posting on the site.

The admins of the site write:

Instead of the normal glorious, user-curated chaos of reddit, we will be displaying a simple message about how the PIPA/SOPA legislation would shut down sites like reddit, link to resources to learn more, and suggest ways to take action.
Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales said he would also like to see the online encyclopedia join Reddit’s blackout, the Washington Post reported.

The protest coincides with a House Oversight Committee meeting looking at the proposed legislation. A number of legislators opposed to SOPA have posted their viewpoints on a site called keepthewebopen.com, including California Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the committee.

I wrote more about a potential large-scale Web blackout to protest SOPA here.

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Montana insurance commissioner launches online complaint system

Following on the heels of a similar announcement from the secretary of state’s office, Montana Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Monica Lindeen announced today the creation of an online form for residents to report problems with their insurance.

The new form comes after a $1 million year-to-year increase in the amount of illegitimate premiums and unpaid claims Lindeen’s office returned to Montanans in 2011, according to a written statement.

In that year, her office returned $4.7 million to consumers who had claims wrongfully denied by their insurers.

The online system replaces a paper-based system that relied on mailing, faxing or sending a scanned copy of forms to the state. Last year, Lindeen’s office created an online reporting option for the insurance industry to streamline agent licensing and the collection of premium taxes, the statement said.

For more information on the new complaint form, visit the link above or call 800-332-6148.

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A note about the police reports on Facebook

The jig is up.

Some of the fans of the Chronicle Police Reports page on Facebook have noticed that the blotter items posted there are not posted on the same day they appear in the paper or online. In fact, some of them appear on Facebook several weeks after they first appeared in print.

There is a reason for that, and it involves a little math, so bear with me.

We post five times a day to the Chronicle Police Reports page, at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. We chose five time slots so that we aren’t overwhelming our followers’ walls/timelines with amusing glimpses of small-city crime.

These are automatic posts — we use a service called Hootsuite to schedule them ahead of time. You’ll have to forgive me for automating part of the process, but it makes life a lot easier to schedule a month’s worth at a time rather than counting on me to remember to post them five times a day.*

Figure that on a typical day when our reporters turn in the police reports, there are between 10 and 20 items listed there. Some of them will be mundane, and we try not to post the mundane ones on Facebook, so you can shave a few reports off that total.

Now, with just five posting slots per day and 10 to 20 new items each day, you can see how we quickly fall behind the print edition’s publishing schedule.

That is why you see some of the reports weeks after you may have read them in the paper or online.

I understand this can lead to some confusion on certain blotter items, but I figure that the entertainment value of the police reports transcends the dates of the incidents involved.

If you’d like to discuss this, feel free to add comments below or to email me at [email protected] or call me at 406-582-2657.

*If you are devastated or otherwise offended to learn that we automate the postings here, I offer this insider tip by way of apology: I try to schedule what I deem to be the funniest reports for the 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. time slots. Enjoy!