Tales of the Sausage Factory

Comcast and BitTorrent, or "Honestly Charlie Brown, The Market Dictates I Let You Kick The Football THIS Time.”

[First, a rather important point to Richard Bennett and anyone who may be confused. This blog is my own. It is not a “Media Access” blog, and it does not represent MAP policy. I very deliberately do not show this stuff to anyone at MAP for prior approval before I write it. This is me personally sounding off. Got it? This is in addition to my day job. (Although my wrath at this mischaracterization is tempered by his describing this blog as “popular.”)]

There must be something in the air that has turned Comcast from a fighter to a lover. Apparently, Comcast and BitTorrent have kissed and made up, Brian Roberts has stood barefoot in the snow beneath Kevin Martin’s window at Canossa, and all is now supposed to be well in the world. Nothing to see here, move along, these aren’t the droids we’re looking for, and once again the magic of the market solves everything.

I would have written earlier, but I was having a flashback to when AOL Time Warner committed to creating an interoperable instant messenger. Then I was flashing on when AT&T Broadband and Earthlink “solved” the original open access problem by negotiating a contract and thus proving that “the market” would guarantee that independent ISPs would be able to resell cable modem service just like they were reselling DSL. Then I woke up vomiting. I always have a bad reaction to whatever folks smoke to conclude “the free market solves everything” especially when (a) this was the result of a regulatory two-by-four applied directly to Comcast’s scalp, repeatedly; and (b) nothing actually happened except for a real and sincere comitment to yack about stuff — at least until the regulators go away. Still, like Lucy and Charlie Brown, there are some folks for whom this just never gets old.

So while I’m glad to see Comcast forced to play the penitent, confess wrongdoing, and appear to give a full surrender, and while I generally like the idea of industry folks and ISPs getting together to actually do positive stuff on internet architecture issues, I think wild celebrations from the anti-regulators and the expectation that we can declare “Mission Accomplished” and go home is a shade premature. Indeed, the only people who believe this announcement actually solves anything are — by and large — those who didn’t believe there was a problem in the first place. I believe the technical term for such folks is “useful idiots.”

My further thoughts below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

A Fatal Exception Has Occured In Your White Spaces Sensing Device

It would be funny were it not so easy for NAB to exploit.

The Microsoft prototype shut itself down last week and would not restart. Users familiar with MS products that are scheduled for release, never mind pre-beta versions, will find this so unremarkable as to wonder at the sensation. It goes up there with “Apple denies latest i-rumor.”

Unsurprisingly however, the folks opposed to the use of white spaces (primarily the broadcasters and the wireless microphone folks, with a dash of the cable folks thrown in for good measure), will spin this as the entire technology for sensing if a channel is occupied as “failing.” This ignores the other prototypes of course (Phillips and Google), and ignores the fact that the failure had nothing to do with the sensing (the thing being tested). Finally, of course, it ignores the fact that this is a proof of concept prototype.

The fact is, that the FCC testing shows that “sensing” as a technology works at levels that easily detect operating television channels and even wireless microphones. In fact, it is too bloody sensitive. In a foolish effort to appease the unappeasable, the companies submitting prototypes keep pushing the level of sensitivity to the point where the biggest problem in recent rounds appears to be “false positives.” i.e., it is treating adjacent channels as “occupied.”

As a proof of concept, that should be a success. The testing demonstrates that you can detect signals well below the threshold needed to protect existing licensees. Logically, the next step would be to determine the appropriate level of sensitivity to accurately protect services, set rules, and move on to actual device certification based on a description of a real device.

But that is not how it works in NAB-spin land. Instead, NAB keeps moving the bar and inventing all sorts of new tests for the devices to “fail.” For example, the initial Public Notice called for prototypes for “laboratory testing.” MS and Phillips submitted prototypes that performed 100% in the lab. But then, the MS people did something very foolish, but very typical — they decided their laboratory device was good enough for field testing. No surprise, it did not work as well in the field as in the lab. As this was a laboratory prototype, the failure to perform flawlessly in the field should have been a shrug — it would have been astounding beyond belief if a prototype designed for the lab had worked perfectly the first time in the field. But the fact that the prototype did not work in the field was widely declared a “failure” by NAB, which unsurprisingly gave itself lots of free advertising time to spin the results this way.

So the FCC went to round two, and again the NAB and white spaces opponents have managed to move the bar so they can again declare a “failure.” Back in 2004, when the FCC first proposed opening the white spaces to unlicensed use, it concluded that operation of white spaces devices would not interfere with licensed wireless microphone users. The FCC has never reversed that determination. Unsurprisingly, businesses developing prototypes according to the FCC’s proposed rules have not taken particular care to address wireless microphones. Because the FCC explicitly said “don’t worry about them.”

But suddenly, if the devices can’t accurately sense and detect wireless microphones, they will be “failures.” It doesn’t matter that the devices have proven they can protect wireless microphones. It doesn’t matter that Google has proposed additional ways of protecting wireless microphones besides sensing. As long as NAB can frame what defines “failure” (rest assured, there will never be any successes of NAB gets to call the tune), and can keep changing that definition at will, the political environment will ensure that the actual engineering is irrelevant.

Which is why the companies need to stop trying to placate the NAB by agreeing to an endless series of tests with ever-shifting criteria. And OET needs to write up a report that does what the initial notices promised to do, use the data collected from prototypes to determine if the concept works and, if so, to set appropriate technical standards. The prototypes have proven they can detect signals with a sensitivity better than an actual digital television set or wireless microphone receiver, so the “proof of concept” aspect stands proven. Rather than buy NAB spin, the next step should be to determine what level of sensitivity to set as the standard.

Hopefully, the Office of Engineering and Technology, which is conducting the tests, will not suffer the fate of the Microsoft prototype and shut down under pressure.

Stay tuned . . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

Everybody Knows the Story! Everybody Feels Real Sorry!

Just found out that the greatest rockaroll band in this or any possible universe, although defunct since 1982 or so, has its own myspace page. With several cool tunes, and also several cool videos. Now, I’m going to charge y’all to hie thee thither and feast your eyes and ears. But before you listen to “Andy Fell”, make sure you read up on Bishop Pike, for only if you know Pike’s story can you appreciate the poingnant creepy compassionate humor of that song. Be sure to watch the video of the band playing the song live and marvel at how the four singers were able to present their delicate harmonies against the sonic mayhem pounding out behind them. No wonder they upstaged every act they opened for.

Although I missed the goup in its heyday, I did see the two reunion shows they did in 1988 and 1989, and all I can say is, I have been to the mountaintop.

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Inventing the Future

The Treachery of Images

< %image(20080327-Howarde_Avatar.jpg|230|201|Ceci n'est pas Howard)%>There’s a photo of me in the current Information Week. Only it isn’t a “photo,” and it isn’t “me.”

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

“The Spring Spectrum Shotgun Wedding Fling” or “Sprint WiMax, the Wily Temptress!”

Was it really only last August that Sprint threw over its cable allies by filing for a messy divorce with Spectrm Co. and ran off giggling with Clearwire and Google for a happy WiMax menage? Ah, what a tempestuous summer of spectrum love was 2007! So full of bright promises and prospects for a wireless third pipe that could genuinely compete with cable or DSL speeds. But with the autumn frost, passions cooled. Like Fantine from Les Miserables, Sprint soon found itself abandoned by its spectrum partners and out on the street on its own — desperately trying to make its way in the cold and uncaring world while posting a loss of $30 Billion, and reduced to chanting the old Israeli spectrum folksong Xhom golly, golly, golly, Xhom golly, golly.

But a possible happy ending for Sprint awaits below . . . .

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General Exception

Tell Me About The Rabbits, George

Tell me again about how we’re going to have place of our own some day, and be happy keeping rabbits. And we’ll chase these cats terrists away!

(photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Brief Update On $16 Billion Termites

SO it turns out in 2003, the FCC amended the rules — but only with regard to higher power services governed by Subpart F. These higher power services were explicitly made secondary to any new entrants following the digital transition. (See 47 CFR 74.602(h)(3)). But the lower power wireless microphones governed by Part H (47 CFR 74.800 et seq) were not so designated.

I suppose an argument can (and will) be made that the FCC’s 2003 BAS Order designated all BAS services as secondary to new entrants in Channels 52-69. But it should be reflected in the rules, and failure to modify 47 CFR 74.802 creates legal headaches at the very least. And, even if the argument is accepted, it doesn’t solve the problem of all the legacy equipment in the hands of tens of thousands of users who will potentially be screwing up the new licensed wireless systems.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Verizon, AT&T & the $16 Billion Termites.

Imagine you just spent a fortune on some excellent beachfront property, only to discover some termites in the basement. Now imagine that the only way to get rid of the termites involves some toxic chemicals that may arouse the ire of the environmentally conscious locals. What do you do? Learn to live with the termites, or spray and tell your green neighbors to deal?

Oddly, Verizon and AT&T now find themselves in a similar mess — if we substitute “wireless microphones” for “termites.” Verizon and AT&T (As well as a bunch of other folks) just spent a boatload of cash on licenses in the reclaimed analog television spectrum. The FCC has rules in place to migrate the broadcasters — both full power and low power. But — as far as I can tell — no one has plans to migrate the wireless microphone folks, who operate on vacant channels in the band. While in theory wireless microphones are a secondary licensed service and notifying the licensees that channels 52-69 are off limits after the digital conversion, the situation is a little more complicated. As comments filed in white spaces proceeding confirm, wireless microphones are bloody everywhere — with huge numbers of users buying and operating them without licenses.

The NAB and the FCC have turned a blind eye to proliferation of unlicensed wireless microphone use (despite the NAB’s usually firm stand against unauthorized use of “their” spectrum), both because the wireless microphones don’t actually cause any interference with television and because the “unauthorized wireless microphone user community” (which sounds so much better than “pirates”) includes megachurches, Broadway groups, and other warm cuddly folks able to gather political support. Indeed, so great is the political protectzia for the unauthorized wireless microphone user community that the FCC is, apparently, requiring that unlicensed devices in the white spaces have the ability to sense and protect these illegal wireless microphone users. (Hence Google’s recent extension of an olive branch which NAB promptly grabbed and started thwaking Google over the head. D’oh!)

AT&T, Verizon, and the rest of the 700 MHZ auction winners therefore face a bit of a dilemma. They just dropped a bundle on the 700 MHZ, and damned if they want to set precedent by allowing a bunch of illegal squatters to use “their” spectrum. Heck, if they’d thought of it earlier, they’d probably have initiated a rulemaking to migrate the legal users.

In fact, under a fair reading of the rules, if the FCC does nothing, licensed wireless microphone systems may enjoy equal or superior rights to 700 MHz Auction winners. OTOH, no one involved is stupid about the politics, giving an incentive to maintain a low profile. If you don’t mind telling shareholders that the NFL may have superior rights in the spectrum you just paid $16 Billion for.

Meanwhile, for those of us happy to see the NAB and the wireless microphone folks get their comeuppance, while not weeping overmuch for the incumbent wireless winners, one word: SCHWEET.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Google Makes A White Spaces Concession.

In yet another chapter of “Why Citizens Movements Are Citizen Driven,” I think Google has conceded too much too soon in its letter today to the FCC. Briefly, in an effort to try to head off the persistent claims that the white spaces prototypes have “failed” and to move out of the wireless microphone trap that opponents of white spaces have used so effectively, Google proposes a combination of “beaconing” (give users of wireless microphones a low power gadget that mimics a dtv signal, thus denying use of the vacant channel to any white spaces device (WSD) in the immediate vicinity, as the WSD will interpret the channel as “active”) combined with setting aside channels 36-38 for wireless microphones, and requiring geolocation and a “permission to activate” signal from higher power stationary devices.

For reasons discussed below, I am not happy . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Assessing A Rather Complicated Result — But Not A Disaster As Some Maintain.

The intervention of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is celebrated by getting drunk until you cannot tell the difference between Verizon winning the C Block and Google winning the C Block, kept me from posting sooner. I would have held off until I could give more details, but there are so many people rushing to call it a disaster that a few words need to be said here.

O.K., Google didn’t win, but Echostar did, giving me a .500 batting average in prophecy against the conventional wisdom. I’m not covinced that Echostar winning gives us a third pipe (Martin’s suggestions about combining this with other spectrum assets to the contrary). But even if not, it is important for keeping Echostar competitive with cable and with DIRECTV (which will have an advantage in programming assests). I shall try to do a more detailed analysis of Echostar and what the E Block does for them in a future post.

It is also interesting to note that some non-incumbents like Cavtel picked up licenses, although I am not as enthusaistic about this for competition as Martin was at the press release.

That said, I do not see how the rules could have been structured any better without barring Verizon and AT&T from playing. While we might have done better for new entrants after all with smalled licenses rather than REAGs, as demonstrted by Echostar doing an end run to assemble a near national footprint after they begged and pleaded to have the FCC offer a national license, I can’t say for sure (I’ll have a longer discussion on this later, and I expect Greg Rose will have some things to say on his blog once he has crunched the numbers). My preliminary conclusion is that Verizon (and to a lesser degree AT&T) was simply determined to get the spectrum it wanted and did not let anything stand in its why. The fact that Verizon paid $9 MHz/Pop for a B block license for Chicago, and that Verizon and AT&T spent over $16 billion of the approximately $19 billion raised should tell anyone who cares about the reality all they need to know. Verizon and AT&T were not “bargain hunting.” They were at each other’s throats and cutting out anyone who dared to get in their way. The only way to stop them was to keep them out entirely, and there was not a heck of a lot of support for that from the Hill or at the FCC beyond the Dems.

I think Commissioner Adelstein gives a fair assesment when he says we won on revenue and openness and lost on diversity and competition. But again, the only way we could have done any better was by adopting auction rules that banned Verizon and AT&T from playing and by using aggressive means to address minority and women ownership (as MAP requested as early as March 2006). Perhaps now Congressional Democrats will add their voices to those of Commissioners Adelstein and Copps on restoring the minority bidding credit and supporting incumbent exclusions or — at a minimum — restoring the spectrum cap.

As it was, thanks to anonymous bidding, Echostar was able to do an end run and acquire a national footprint — something previously denied to it in the AWS Auction in 2006. And, while AT&T and Verizon got most of the licenses, they had to pay through the nose to get them — rather than sopping them up dirt cheap as happened in the AWS auction (where licenses equivalent to the A & B block licenses went for 45 cents MHZ/pop not $9 MHZ/pop). This auction attracted more new bidders and more minority bidders than previous auctions, so the field was ripe for a success on these fronts. But they were simply outspent by Verizon and AT&T.

To conclude, unlike the utter failure of the AWS auction (which everyone else hailed as a success — despite the incumbents winning more licenses for less money), this auction produced some very positive results. But it also shows us the limit of what purely competitive auctions will do. Neither this auction nor freeing more spectrum for future auctions, on their own, will provide us with a third pipe or introduce new competitiors in wireless. The advanatges enjoyed by incumbents in a relatively mature industry (as opposed to back in the early/mid-1990s when the first auctions were conducted) are simply too great to overcome just by “leveling the playing field.”

Finally, one last question remains: Why didn’t Qualcom drop their bid on D Block? Why did they tie up all that eligibility, instead of using it to go after more E Block licenses? For us spectrum geeks, this is the equivalent of asking Why did the Minbari surrender at the Battle of the Line (best answer from a friend of mine: “turns out Echostar bidders have Qualcom souls”). Did Qualcom hope they could keep the D Block for such a low price? Did they wish to avoid a penalty for dropped bids by the time they realized no one would bid on D Block? Hopefully, we will find out.

Stay tuned . . . .

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