Don’t be surprised when Broadband the FCC Cat pops up on your screen.

The Commission has long bemoaned the fact that the Great Unwashed are “woefully ignorant” of the nitty-gritty details of their Internet access. Not for long. That bell you just heard was signaling the start of classes at the University of FCC, Online Division. Attendance is required. Prepare to get schooled.

In a surprising move – made all the more surprising by the low-key way in which it was disclosed – the Commission is taking aggressive steps to correct the rampant problem of high tech know-nothingism.

Meet NOITALS – the Nationwide Online Information Tracking and Logistics System. (Apparent pronunciation: “KNOW-IT-ALLS”.) In a public notice announcing, among other things, an expansion of the 2012 Measuring Broadband America Performance Study of Residential Broadband Service in the U.S., the Commission mentions NOITALS, pretty much in passing, without any fanfare at all. The Commission plans to use NOITALS to measure everybody’s Internet access speed, along with other parameters of Internet performance).

How’s it going to do that?

It seems that NOITALS enables the Commission to see what’s going on in each individual computer, nationwide, without the intervention of the computer’s user.

Details are scarce, but from what the FCC says, NOITALS gives the Commission real-time access to all activities of any Internet-connected computer (or mobile device) when its Internet connection is operational, including (but not necessarily limited to) all details relevant to its access to the Internet. Think websites visited, searches conducted, emails sent, etc.

According to the public notice, NOITALS is a system developed by the Commission “with other Federal agencies with which the FCC has partnered”. Those other “Federal agencies” aren’t identified, but we’re willing to guess that they include the Central Intelligence and National Security, for two, and probably Federal Emergency Management, for a third. It turns out that the NOITALS software was downloaded into every computer in the U.S. last November, when the FCC and FEMA jointly conducted the Nationwide EAS Test. (That would be the “test” during which the government took control of all broadcast stations and cable systems nationwide for a couple of minutes.) The data generated by the software are then transmitted back to the Commission through 6,000+ “wireless routers”. (Those would be the “wireless routers” the FCC has been distributing nationwide for a couple of years that, as the Commission’s website acknowledges, are neither wireless nor routers.)

So the FCC can apparently see everything that’s going on on your computer. For sure that will get it the comprehensive data on Internet speeds that it’s been craving. But the Commission also sees this new capability as an opportunity to educate.

To that end, every time NOITALS pulls down Internet performance information from your computer, the FCC will let you know by displaying on your monitor – in full-screen mode, thank you very much – an image of Broadband the FCC Cat asking you to guess your Internet speed. (See the graphic above for an example; the FCC’s public notice includes a larger, more legible version.) Don’t worry – it’s a multiple choice question, so you’ve got a one-in-five chance of getting it right the first time. Plus, you get to keep guessing until you get the right answer. You’ll be motivated to keep trying, because until you get the right answer, you won’t regain control of your computer.

What fun!!!

Broadband the FCC Cat suggests that, once you get the right answer, you jot it down and memorize it for future reference. Since we can apparently expect NOITALS visits to our computers as often as monthly, that’s probably not a bad idea.

The initial question posed by the FCC relates to a speed measure called UDP Latency – the FCC’s apparently aiming for low-hanging fruit in the initial rounds. Later the Commission plans to mix things up by asking for other, more arcane measures. Eventually, we can expect the scope of the question posed to expand dramatically to “include other information of which greater public awareness would, in the FCC’s view, be in the public interest.”

The public notice does not indicate when this new system will be effective. Ordinarily, of course, “information collections” are supposed to be run past the Office of Management and Budget (pursuant to the Paperwork Reduction Act) before they can be implemented. In this case, however, the Commission may be figuring that no information is being “collected” from consumers, since NOITALS is obtaining the Internet speed information without any consumer involvement. Thus, so the thinking may go, the multi-choice quiz isn’t so much an “information collection” as an “information dispensation” by which the FCC dispenses information to the consumer. Whatever. Just don’t be surprised when Broadband the FCC Cat pops up on your screen.


                        HAPPY APRIL FOOL’S DAY!!!