Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Final Tweaks: Limited Relief for Frontline, Google Looks to Bid

So with the December 3 date for the filing of short forms to participate in the 700 MHz auction looming ever closer, we see some last minute shifting about and settling of a few lingering details. First, in the I called it category (as did my friend and fellow Wetmachiner Greg Rose, various news outlets report that Google seems increasingly likely to bid in the 700 MHz auction. Further support for the idea that Google really intends to bid comes from their filing a request for clarification from the FCC that when the FCC said “no discrimination,” they meant the usual statutory version that allows discounts for volume customers and such what (the usual statutory language prohibits “unreasonable discrimination,” which allows for things like bulk discounts provided everyone that meets the criteria gets the same deal).

Mind, it isn’t a sure thing Google will bid until it files a short form, and folks can file to bid without being willing to put up the money. But given the number of folks who said Greg and I were on crack for expecting Google to actually put up its own money to go against the likes of Verizon, we can perhaps be forgiven for patting ourselves on the back for being so far out ahead of the curve on this.

More importantly, perhaps, is the FCC’s decision last week to provide limited help to Frontline Wireless by allowing a designated entity (DE) that wins the D Block auction to wholesale its spectrum without losing its DE credit. (You can read the FCC Press release here and the full text of the Order here.) Now how does this help? And why limit it to D Block? And what the heck is a “DE” anyway?

Answers and speculations below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why I Celebrate Thanksgiving

There are a number of folks I know who, for various reasons, do not like to celebrate Thanksgiving. To each their own, and I do not say a word against them. But my younger brother has a tradition (just exercised again) of reading George Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, RI. I reproduce it below, with my own reasons for celebrating Thanksgiving.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

GOP To America: All Well In Cable-Land! Skyrocketing Rates and Lousy Customer Service All In Your Mind! Forget What We Said Last Summer About Needing COPE!

I must applaud the Republican House Commerce Committee members for their willingness to stay bought. Why else would 23 of the 26 Republicans on the House Commerce Committee send this letter celebrating the perfection of the cable industry in the United States and opening a can of whoop-ass on Kevin Martin for daring to suggest otherwise? Because if that letter came in response from hundreds of constituents complaining that their cable service costs too little and the service is too good, I’ll eat my lap top.

God knows, with the number of issues on their plate and with their party’s standing plummeting in the polls, you’d think Republicans would decline to publicly defend the cable industry. What with rates consistently rising faster than inflation (and despite increasing profits-per-subscriber until the last quarter or so), cable operators have raised rates every year – whether they need to or not. As if that were not enough, the customer service records of the major cable companies are abominable (or why would Mona “The Hammer” Shaw have attained folk-hero status?). So with us heading into an election, and the Republicans weighed down by all the baggage of the Iraq War, corruption scandals, accusations of cronyism and mismanagement, and a general anti-special interest sentiment in the electorate, you wouldn’t think the Republican party would rise up en mass to defend the cable industry from one of their own?

And yet that is precisely what 23 Republican members of the House Commerce Committee just did. Upset that Kevin Martin has proposed several items for the next FCC meeting that limit cable market power, the Commerce Committee Republicans have leaped to the defense of the cable industry. “Shame!” They have cried to Kevin Martin. “All is well in cable-land! The industry is intensely competitive, prices are low, service is wonderful, and consumers are bursting with happiness! How can you even think of regulating the cable industry?”

Mind you, these are the same Republicans who in the summer of ’06 were so gosh darn concerned about the lack of cable competition that they were all set to completely rewrite the Telecom Act to help phone companies get into video. Because God knows if we didn’t deregulate phone companies we couldn’t get any competition for cable, and Lord knows we needed competition for cable. But when you are a member of the Republican Party and you see a special interest and regular campaign contributor in need, you don’t worry about such fiddlin’ details as consistency with your past positions. Either that, or we should assume Mr. Barton, Mr. Upton, and the rest that championed the “we must deregulate the phone companies to bring competition to cable” bill in 2006 believe that the whole competition thing worked itself out, so that is now — in the words of the 23 Commerce Committee Republicans — “significant competition in the video programming marketplace.”

So now we see the delightful sight of Mr. Barton, Mr. Upton, and the rest of the Republican Cable Commerce Cheering Squad, who last summer couldn’t vote fast enough to deregulate because we needed cable competition, taking FCC Chairman Martin out to the woodshed for daring, DARING to suggest that cable has market power and that therefore the FCC should take steps to address this problem, or at least bloody recognize the reality. (Apparently, flip-flopping is not a problem if it is bought and paid for flip-flopping.)

So rest assured America, in the fight between your personal well-being and the profit margins of GOP campaign contributors, you can always count on the Republicans to stay bought and stand up for special interests.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Verizon's “Sitefinder-lite,” Cox Traffic Shaping (Without Lying), And The Shape of Things To Come

Jim Harper at Technology Liberation Front pinged me (sort of) to comment on reports that anyone who subscribes to Verizon’s FIOS broadband service who mistypes a domain name will now land on a Verizon search page. So, for example, trying to get to i-want-sprint-cell-phones.com will land you on a a page like this (my thanks to ace domain name practitioner John Berryhill for capturing this in a screen shot and putting it up on his web page). Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Cox cable is also interfering with BitTorrent uploads, although at least Cox has the intelligence to admit from the start that it actively manages traffic, rather than go through several rounds of idiotic denials like Comcast (which is probably why the Cox issue is getting a lot less notice).


1) I ain’t that excited about the Verizon DNS redirection in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it breaks end-to-end, and I’m not happy about it. But unlike traffic shaping, this development was foreseen and approved of by the FCC and the Supreme Court in the Brand X case when both pegged DNS as the thing that made broadband access an “information service” and therefore free from pesky regulation. At least Verizon’s redirection doesn’t actually hurt the average user.

2) OTOH, it does raise serious privacy issues and highlights the general problems of letting the ISPs control all of this. There was, after all, a reason we regulated telcos and cable cos to keep user information private. It also starts to raise a very troubling question — what happens when network operators and application developers learn to distrust all the basic protocols under which the ‘net operates? It works fine for the first few guys. But what holds this together is everyone agreeing on a set of basic protocols. Eliminate the trust in those protocols, and things start to break down.

3) Some folks that gave a great big yawn to Comcast’s traffic shaping have gone ballistic over messing with DNS lookup. But both are natural consequences of turning this stuff over to ISPs. Folks who hate the thought of even limited government regulation of network management but also hate the thought ISPs messing with DNS and other protocols have some tough choices ahead.

Thoughts below . . . .

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Well, Yeah, Actually, I Am Gloating…

I try not to gloat, but it’s impossible not to take a certain amount of satisfaction in the Wall Street Journal‘s confirmation on Nov. 16 that Google intends to bid in the 700 MHz auction in January, regardless of whether it has partners in a bidding consortium. This confirms my prediction back on August 2 in Econoklastic that Chairman Martin’s refusal to impose a wholesale open access condition on the C block would not prevent Google from bidding, despite naysayers in the press and on Wall Street.

The underlying reality is that Google needs a third broadband pipe to escape imposition of monopoly rents by the wireline and cable carriers, since net neutrality provisions with real enforcement teeth are nowhere to be seen on the horizon: that means do it themselves or get someone to do it for them. That reality hasn’t changed, and the guys at Google clearly recognise this fact. I am equally heartened by assurances from Google counsel Rick Whitt at a conference in NYC week before last that Google still intends to implement its full wholesale open access business plan over any spectrum it obtains in the 700 MHz auction.

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The 77% Solution, or Even with Three Different Methods You Still Get a Take Rate Greater than 70%

There has long been reason to suspect the data which the cable industry provides to various reporting services like Warren Communications News, Kagan Research, and Nielsen Media Research for U.S. cable coverage and subscribers precisely because the cable industry has considerable incentive to lie about it. Specifically they have incentive to under-report both coverage and subscribers so as to avoid a finding that the 70/70 limit – that seventy percent of American homes are passed by cable and that seventy percent of homes subscribe to cable – has been reached, thus triggering additional FCC regulation of the industry. The numbers have danced around the mid- to upper-60% range reported in these sources since 2004, only tipping over in Warren Communications News’ Television and Cable Factbook, which recently reported a 71.4% take rate to the FCC.1 When it became clear that the FCC was prepared to take action to invoke the 70/70 rule on the basis of the Warren data, the managing editor of Warren Communications News’ Television and Cable Factbook immediately called its own data into question in an interview in Communications Daily:

The figures from the Television and Cable Factbook aren’t well suited to determining whether the threshold has been met, said Managing Editor Michael Taliaferro. Taliaferro said Factbook figures understate the number of homes passed by cable systems — and the number of subscribers — because not all operators participate in its survey. “More and operators are just not giving up” those numbers, he said. “We could go with two dozen footnotes when we start to report this data.” Cable operators participating in the Factbook survey said they passed 94.2 million homes and had 67.2 million subscribers.

The FCC official who asked him for the cumulative figure didn’t say how it would be used, Taliaferro said. If he had known, he would have provided a list of caveats, he said. “It would have been a very lengthy email,” he said. Taliaferro said he did point out the shortcomings in a phone conversation with the FCC official but didn’t put it in writing because he wasn’t asked to. “I had no idea what they were doing with it.”2

More below…

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Enlisting The Power Of The Web For A Bit Of Research Help — Taking the MCDowell/Tate Challenge!

I wish my employer, Media Access Project, had sufficient funds to hire me a research assistant. But they don’t. So I’m going to turn to the collective readership for a bit of fast research to help me refute the pack of lies the cable industry is spreading.

As regular readers know, Martin has proposed a slew of much needed cable reform rules. Chief among these is the finding that cable serves 70% of homes in areas served by cable systems of 36 or more activated channels. NCTA, the cable trade association, has denounced the dea that their members serve that many customers as a vicious lie and generally denounced Martin for carrying on a vendetta against his industry (where “vendetta”=”actually enforce existing law and regulate in the public interest“).

Turns out, however, that Martin did not just pull the numbers out of his posterior. They came from the Warren Communications News Television and Cable Factbook, a neutral and respected industry reporter. According to the Warrens data, cable serves over 71.4% of the relevant market — more than enough to trigger the 70/70 threshold and give the FCC authority to reregulate cable to promote diversity.

To my considerable surprise — given how much Warrens depends on their reputation for accuracy to convince customers to pay many thousands of dollars for this research — the cable industry prevailed on the managing editor of The TV and Cable Factbook to declare their own research unreliable. In fairness, they claim the research is unreliable only when used to prove that the cable industry has passed the 70/70 threshold, so I assume all the advertisers and businesses that rely on this data will not be troubled. They also claim tat the data are unreliable due to systemic underreporting by cable which, as my friend and fellow Wetmachine blogger Greg Rose observed, means that the number of households served must be even more than the 71% Warrens initially found.

Such is the power of cable, however, that the industry reporters following this have uncritically lapped up the NCTA party line while failing the elementary school math noted above (ironically, proving the point about how media consolidation is all about serving corporate interests). Martin’s fellow Republicans on the Commission, McDowell and Tate, apparently determined to make sure that everyone knows that they would never pursue a ”vendetta“ against an industry merely because it has demonstrated market power, sent this letter to Warrens asking for more information (and apparently missing the elementary school math that if you underreport cable subscribers that means they serve more than the number reported). The letter takes a rather nasty shot at Martin, as well as inviting explanation for why the other reporters come in so much lower and looking for validation of the numbers.

Of course, as Rose pointed out in his post, the other numbers come in lower because they are estimates where the cable operators provided even less info than they did to Warrens. But it occurred to me that there is a rather simple way to make the point that even incumbent cable operators passed the 70% threshold sometime ago.

Back for the 2005 cable report, NCTA submitted numbers ranging from 62% to 68.9%. Since then, with the exception of the most recent cable quarter, the cable operators enjoyed consistent growth in their basic subscriber numbers. I would like to find out the quarterly basic subscriber statistics for the largest cable operators (Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision, Cox, and Charter). If the largest operators enjoyed significant growth after NCTA condeded 68.9% as a valid measurement, then we can have reasonable assurance that findings above 70% are accurate. Problem is, I’m a little strapped for time here.

So I’m turning to the distributed power of the web for help meet the McDowell/Tate Challenge of ensuring that the data meet the highest standards of ”trustworthiness, truthfulness, and viability” (which, I have to say, has not exactly been the case with Commission cable reports before Martin took over. Either make a donation to MAP to get me a research assistant, or send me an email with useful cable statistics.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Action Alert: Senate Judiciary Mark Up On FISA — Call To Oppose Telco Immunity

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark up the FISA reform legislation today, Thursday November 15.

The bottom line is that now is the time to call the Senate Judiciary Committee and ask them to oppose retroactive immunity for telecom companies that helped the Bush administration spy on Americans without warrant.

MYDD has this post with a call to action and announces that they will cover the cost of your phone call to the Senate Judiciary members. Follow the link to Chris Dodd’s campaign website to take action now!

[UPDATE 7:14 PM Thursday, by John]: I just got an email from Senator Dodd’s office announcing victory in the Judiciary Committee today. I’ll enter the letter in a comment below the fold.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Understatements

The cable industry is running scared in the face of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin demanding a vote certifying that the cable industry has met the 70/70 test.  This test gives the FCC greater regulatory authority once cable is available to seventy percent of American households and seventy percent of those households subscribe to cable.  This is clear from the way the cable industry has pulled out all stops to avoid the finding, even persuading Warren Communications News to discredit its own Television and Cable Factbook, claiming that there are technical reasons for regarding it as unreliable.

It’s worth quoting the remarks of the managing editor of Warren Communications News’ Television and Cable Factbook to Communications Daily (also owned by Warren) on the subject:

‘The figures from the Television and Cable Factbook aren’t well suited to determining whether the threshold has been met, said Managing Editor Michael Taliaferro.  Taliaferro said Factbook figures understate the number of homes passed by cable systems — and the number of subscribers — because not all operators  participate in its survey.  “More and operators are just not giving up” those numbers, he said.  “We could go with two dozen footnotes when we start to report this data.”  Cable operators participating in the Factbook survey said they passed 94.2 million homes and had 67.2 million subscribers.

‘The FCC official who asked him for the cumulative figure didn’t say how it would be used, Taliaferro said.  If he had known, he would have provided a list of caveats, he said.  “It would have been a very lengthy email,” he said.  Taliaferro said he did point out the shortcomings in a phone conversation with the FCC official but didn’t put it in writing because he wasn’t asked to.  “I had no idea what they were doing with it.”’

Taliaferro, who relies on cable industry data to put out the Factbook, clearly came under a lot of pressure from the industry to badmouth his own data, but even then he didn’t get the job done.  If the problem is understating number of households passed and number of subscribers because cable operators refuse to provide the data, as Taliaferro suggests, then Warren’s Television and Cable Factbook must understate the number of households passed and subscribers.  This means that the real numbers — the numbers we’d have if all the cable providers coughed up the data — have as a matter of mathematical certainty to be greater than 70% coverage and 70% subscription.  Taliaferro, attempting to please the cablecos, has in fact given evidence that the Warren figure of 71.4 percent of homes having gotten cable as of October 10, 2007 has to be an understatement of the reality.

The only way the Warren data could fail to support invoking the 70/70 rule would be if cable providers systematically over-reported the number of households covered and number of subscribers.  And they’d have to be crazy to do that, since they want to avoid regulation at all costs.  I know from personal experience that the cablecos lie to avoid regulation.  It was patent from data submitted by Comcast and Time Warner in connection with the Comcast-Time Warner-Adelphia transaction that Comcast tried to circumvent the 30% cable ownership cap by submitting year-old data for some affected DMAs while Time Warner submitted current data. (You can see where I called them out on this in my expert submission on MAP’s Petition to Deny.)

This is why Warren is so desperate to sow confusion about its own data.  The Nielsen and Kagan numbers (which are lower than the Warren numbers) are estimates.  The cablecos don’t share nearly as much proprietary data with Nielsen and Kagan as they do with Warren, which is regarded as a safe, cable-friendly trade press outlet.  When Warren shared the data with the FCC, the footnote they neglected to provide with it should have read: “Don’t use this data for regulatory purposes because it will make the people who gave it to us very cranky.”  Hence the attempt on Warren’s part to cover up the embarrassing bits like a stripper at a police raid — by misdirection.

It’s also significant that two Republican FCC Commissioners, Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell, have made a huge  deal out of this non-story by writing to Taliaferro that “We wanted to take this opportunity to ensure that at least these two Commissioners are indeed seeking the trustworthiness, truthfulness, and viability of the data in question.”  Either they don’t understand what the mathematical meaning of the understatement by cable operators is, or they’ve decided to play cableco sock-puppets.  I’m hoping for the former, but I’m betting on the latter, athough I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

In addition to voting the 70/70 finding on a 3-2 with Chairman Martin and the two Democrats forming a majority for real regulation of the cable industry, Chairman Martin should put forward a regulation requiring that the cablecos provide detailed coverage and subscription data publicly to the FCC on an annual basis, certified by the CEOs of the cablecos under penalty of perjury.  If Tate and McDowell vote for a rule like that with real teeth to keep the cablecos honest and provide the necessary data to the American people, then they really are concerned with the accuracy of data.

If they don’t, we need to ask whose hand is up the puppets’ arses.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Time For Some Hot Bi-Partisan Action on Cable: Or, Why Copps and Adelstein Need to Work With Martin Here Part I

I gotta hand it to the NCTA – they really know how to spin the press. Given the outrageous excesses of market power displayed by incumbent cable operators, you would imagine that activists would leap at the opportunity offered by Kevin Martin to reign in cable market power – regardless of whether one likes Martin personally or thinks he is a Bellhead or industry tool in other respects. But no, over the weekend, the NCTA has done an exemplary job of spinning the upcoming sledgehammer to cable market power as a bad thing.

I am talking primarily about the news that the FCC may invoke the “70/70″ provision of Section 612(g) of the Communications Act (codified at 47 U.S.C. 532(g)). For those not as obsessed with the Communications Act as yr hmbl obdnt, this provision states:

[A]t such time as cable systems with 36 or more activated channels are available to 70 percent of households within the United States and are subscribed to by 70 percent of the households to which such systems are available, the Commission may promulgate any additional rules necessary to provide diversity of information sources. Any rules promulgated by the Commission pursuant to this subsection shall not preempt authority expressly granted to franchising authorities under this subchapter.

Now you would think anyone who opposes media concentration would be jumping for joy here, wouldn’t you? At last, a clear source of authority for the FCC to regulate cable in the name of diversity, and a directive from Congress to do it (without preempting local franchise authorities). And one would certainly expect that the Democratic Commissioners, Copps and Adelstein, who have repeatedly shown themselves stalwart champions of diversity and enemies of consolidation, would rush to seize the moment. But while I hope the later is true, some normally sensible people are buying into the cable spin that this is somehow bad because (choose however many apply):

A) It’s an “archaic leftover” of another time and nowadays cable is “highly competitive.”

B) It’s not really true that the 70/70 test is met anyway so the courts will just reverse it.

C) Kevin Martin is an evil Bellhead who has it in for cable, wants to deregulate broadcast media, and shafted local franchising authorities, so you know this must somehow be evil, even though it is something media reform advocates have fought for over 20 years to achieve.

D) Somehow, this is just an effort to distract us from the fact that Kevin Martin is an evil Bellhead who eats puppies and throws kittens into trees for his amusement.

E) Martin is just slapping the cable guys around because they didn’t do family tier.

G) Somehow this helps Kevin Martin deregulate the broadcast industry.

Having spent the last several years trying to get the FCC to recognize the goddamn truth that 70/70 was met years ago, and trying to get the FCC to address leased access and carriage complaint issues, the 30% cable ownership cap, and a bunch of other reforms to address cable market power, I am just a shade peeved to see folks who should know better eating out of NCTA’s hand. Because public policy is not about whether I like or dislike the current FCC Chair or whether I would rather he focus on reigning in telcos rather than cable cos. It’s about what is the best public policy. And what Martin has put out for a vote: 70/70, reform of leased access and the carriage complaint process, and reaffirming the 30% cable ownership cap, are all things justified by the record and urgently needed.

We have already seen that when the Democrats work with Martin to protect independent programmers, good things happen. Holding the cable operators accountable under the set-top box law, letting The America Channel arbitrate its case against Comcast, these are areas where Copps and Adelstein recognized that their interest in promoting diversity and free expression converged with Martin’s interests in restricting cable market power and worked together to create well-crafted rules that promote the public interest without selling anyone out. This is that “bipartisan” thing everyone claims they want – work together where you can, oppose each other when you must, and always keep in mind the public interest rather than your partisan ends.

Below, I run through some background on what’s going on — especially with the 70/70 test. Since that will make this ridiculously long, I will save for Part II why Copps and Adelstein need to seize this opportunity before the NCTA gets a chance to work its mind-clouding magic and once again get a quorum to vote that slavery is freedom and market power is competition. And, since Martin’s motives appear to absolutely rivet everyone’s attention, I will give my best speculative guesses followed by my explanation of why Martin’s motives don’t matter. Because, as in all good politics, Martin has maneuvered it so that he will get his political pay off whether the Democrats vote for the cable items or not. So rather than waste the best chance at cracking cable market power in the last 20 years and give Martin a political victory anyway, the only sensible thing to do is vote for the items and make it clear that doing the right thing in cable over here doesn’t give Martin a pass on previous bad Orders (like preempting local franchise authority) or give a license to deregulate broadcast ownership.

More below . . . .

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