An insider’s view of the media hegemony

What the Heck Is The “Duplex Gap” And Why Has It Blown Up The July FCC Meeting?

Difficult as it is to believe, there are times in policy when issues do not break down simply by partisan interest or into neat categories like incumbents v. competitors or broadcasters v. wireless carriers. Sometimes — and I know people are not gonna believe me on this – issues break down on pure substance and require lots of really hard choices. Of course, because these issues are highly technical and complicated, most people like to ignore them. But these kinds of issues are also usually the hardest and most intractable for people who actually care about what the world looks like and how this policy decisions will actually work in reality.

 

So it is with the question of whether to put broadcasters in the duplex gap as part of the repacking plan in the incentive auction. Did your eyes glaze over yet? Heck, for most people, it’s gonna take a paragraph or two of explanation just to understand what that sentence means. But even if you don’t know what it means, you can understand enough for this basic summary:

 

  1. Just about every stakeholder in the auction — wireless carriers, broadcasters, wireless microphone users, tech company supporters of using unlicensed spectrum in the broadcast bands, public interest groups — all told the FCC not to put broadcasters in the duplex gap.

 

  1. Nevertheless, the Auction Team proposed putting broadcasters in the duplex gap, based on a set of simulation that suggested that the FCC would only get back 50-60 MHz of spectrum to auction if they protected the duplex gap. The Chairman circulated a draft order adopting the Auction Team’s proposal.

 

  1. Everybody freaked out. The Chairman found he did not have 3 votes, or possibly not even 2 votes, to adopt his proposal on duplex gap. The freak out is so intense and so bad that the FCC actually waived the Sunshine Period for this itemso that interested parties can continue to talk to FCC staff and commissioners until the night before the meeting. The FCC also released additional data showing the impact would be limited to a relatively small number of cities.

 

  1. That helped some, but not enough. Despite progress on negotiations, the FCC clearly did not have time to get to the right solution in the 5 days between the release of the new data and the actual vote. Also, a bunch of people were pissed that the Auction Team hadn’t released the data sooner, and hadn’t provided more explanation of the underlying model and the assumptions behind it. On Tuesday, the Republican Chairs of the House Energy & Commerce Committee & the Telecom Subcommittee wrote Wheeler a letter chastising him for having a bad process and calling on Wheeler to pull the item from the agenda entirely. On Wed., the day before the vote, Wheeler wrote back defending the process but agreeing to pull the item (and the associated item on whether or not to change the spectrum reserve) until the August Meeting three weeks from now.

 

In Policyland, this passes for high drama. It is, to say the least, highly unusual. Enough so that even folks who find technical issues like this complicated and boring to the point of insanity are asking: “what the heck just happened there? Who lost and who won?” The equally complicated answer: “no one lost or won, we’ve got a serious debate about a technical problem which has consequences no matter how you resolve it” is not nearly as satisfying as “the carriers” or “the tech companies” or whatever.

 

I explain and unpack all of this below, as well as consider possible impacts and ways to resolve this. But again, I want to stress this is a super hard problem. This is about competing goals and the difficulty of predicting the future with any certainty. It’s also about trust and stuff, which is hard to come by in Washington even at the best of times. This is not subject to simplistic plotlines like “Oh, the Auction Team are out of control” or “The broadcasters and unlicensed supporters are just being stubborn.” (Wait, the NAB and the unlicensed guys and the wireless microphone guys are on the same side? And they agree with Verizon? WTF?) This stuff is hard.

 

More below . . .

 

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The First Net Neutrality Complaint Under The 2015 Rules Is Likely To Lose, And That’s A Good Thing.

As reported by Brian Fung at Washpo and others, a company called Commercial Network Services (CNS) has filed the first network neutrality complaint under the FCC’s new rules — which went into effect June 12 after the D.C. Circuit denied a stay request. You can read the complaint here. While I probably should not prejudge things, I expect the FCC to deny the complaint for the excellent reason that — accepting all the facts alleged as true — Time Warner Cable did absolutely nothing wrong.

 

I elaborate on what CNS gets wrong, why this differs from other high-profile disputes like Cogent and Level 3, and why such an illustration is good for the FCC’s rules as a whole, below . . .

 

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Broadband Access As Public Utility — My Speech at Personal Democracy Forum.

On June 4, I gave a speech at Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) on Broadband Access As Public Utility (the official Title was The Internet As Public Utility, but my original title and my conception still is about broadband access specifically because “the Internet” has become a very vague term). For those unfamiliar with PDF, it is a truly awesome conference organized by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej that brings together folks from all over the tech world to discuss how tech can make a better world and be an expression of our values. This year’s focus was on how tech can facilitate civic engagement. This year was my first time to PDF, but I am definitely going to do my damndest to come back next year.

 

I’m pleased to say my speech was well received.  I’ve included the video below. (You can find videos of the other speakers in the PDF15 Archive.)  My speech turned out to be about 15 minutes long, which means it was 3 minutes over. Even so, there are some significant differences between what I wrote in advance and as actually delivered (which happens to me often), which is why I reprint my original “as prepared” remarks below the fold.

 

A few basic points I want to make as take aways. As I keep stressing, the term “utility” and “public utility” does not imply any particular mode of regulation or requirement for natural monopoly or market power. The term goes back to the concept first elaborated in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on the purpose of government, including: “the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit would never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.” The Federalist Papers further expands on this idea, justifying the Constitution as necessary to create a government sufficiently “vigorous” to meet the needs of the people.

 

The innovation of the post-Civil War era was to identify services which, although provided in many cases by the private sector, were too important and too central to society to be left wholly to the dictates of the market and private companies. It is in this sense that Franklin Delano Roosevelt meant “utility” in his letter to Congress calling on creation of the Federal Communications Commission, which begins: “I have long felt that for the sake of clarity and effectiveness the relationship of the Federal Government to certain services known as utilities should be divided into three fields: Transportation, power, and communications.” To use the older statutory language, these services are “affected with the public interest,” and therefore government has a responsibility to ensure their fair, affordable ubiquitous availability.

 

I argue that broadband, in the tradition of all our previous communications services, now falls into this category of services so essential that they are public utilities. I do this knowing full well that those opposed to any form of government oversight of essential service or opposed to the public provision of critical infrastructure will deliberately misconstrue this to mean traditional rate-of-return regulation. To this I can only say *shrug*. The first step in ensuring proper broadband policies lies in reclaiming the term public utility for what it really means — a service so essential that the government has a responsibility to ensure that, one way or another, everyone has fair and affordable access. We must embrace that fundamental value as firmly as we should reject a return to rate regulated private monopoly provision — or the worse alternative of entirely unregulated private monopoly provision.

 

Enjoy.

 


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Net Neutrality Litigation: Round 1 Goes To the FCC.

Good news! The D.C. Circuit denied the request by the carriers suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prevent the FCC’s net neutrality rules and reclassification of broadband as a Title II telecom service. As of today, the Net Neutrality rules are in effect, and broadband access is once again a Title II telecommunications service — pending the final outcome of the lawsuit challenging the the FCC’s actions.

 

Reactions from net neutrality opponents have ranged from defiance to “no biggie” with a side of trying to claim a partial win for getting expedited briefing (I’ll explain below why this is a tad disingenuous). On Twitter, I did see a few of my opposite numbers wailing and gnashing their teeth, at the prospect that their beloved Broadband Equestria ruled by the wise Queen Comcast Celestia and Princess Verizon Twilight Sparkle is now going to be converted into a Hellscape overrun with Tyrannosaurus Tariffs that will devour helpless ISPs like tourists dumb enough to go to Jurassic World. Needless to say, supporters of net neutrality and Title II, like my employer Public Knowledge, have been somewhat more upbeat.

 

So what does all this mean for the litigation and the ongoing machinations in Congress around net neutrality? Short version — the court was not impressed with the arguments of the carriers that the FCC was so whacky crazy power-usurping unlawful that this case is the slam-dunk reversal the carriers and their cheerleaders keep saying it is. Mind you, that doesn’t mean the FCC will win. But it does mean that opponents of net neutrality and Title II might want to ratchet back the TOTAL CONFIDENCE OF VICTORY they have exuded until now just a wee bit. It also provides a psychological lift to the pro-net neutrality side that the FCC can win this even in the D.C. Circuit.

 

On the political side, Republicans had hoped that a stay would push Democrats to the bargaining table to avoid the litigation risk. Because the FCC’s odds improve with the denial of the stay, this may have the opposite effect, with Democrats more likely to wait for a court decision rather than try to strike a deal. This could either prompt Republicans to sweeten their offer, or double down on efforts for total repeal.

 

I provide the longer version below . . .

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The Summer Blockbuster Return/Reboot You Are All Waiting For Teaser Trailer Release!!!

Some of you may recall that many years ago I would occasionally show up on a video from my employer called “5 Minutes With Harold Feld.” I would use my clever wit and style to produce informative videos on pressing telecom issues with amazing low budget special effects. Like Troy McClure, you may remember me from such classics as “ACTA Recommendation: Ditch the Crazy Stuff” and “Special Access — Too Special To Be Competitive?

For those who have missed a low-budget YouTube show about incredibly mindnumbingly boring things that I try to make slightly less boring because THIS STUFF IS IMPORTANT, I have great news! We are rebooting 5 Minutes With Harold Feld! And, I will now wear a bow-tie, because bow-ties are cool.

Why? Because it is summer time, and time for the remakes and the reboots to roll! Also, we got a cool new camera at PK. Which bring me too —

THE MOST AWESOME AMAZING TEASER TRAILER FOR A 5 MINUTE POLICY YOUTUBE SHOW EVAR!!!

Wasn’t that totally awesome? I could totally hear the folks doing the Star Wars trailer gnashing their teeth in jealousy.

The Mandatory Social Media Tie In To Make This Feel All Interactive and Stuff! #ASKFELD

Like all manufactured marketing campaigns attempting to go viral, we have a hashtag for you so you can ask your own telecom and tech policy questions which I will answer at the end of the episode. And yes, my faithful Trolls, I will try to answer some of your ridiculous troll questions too, in the spirit they are given. Because y’all know I love my little catnip troll toys. So go to the Public Knowledge Facebook page, or Tweet your question with the #ASKFELD hashtag, and I just might actually answer it.

Remember #ASKFELD

Stay tuned . . .

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Verizon Strikes A Blow For Competition And Consumer Choice.

Probably not a headline anyone thought to see here at Tales of the Sausage Factory, but the fact is that Verizon’s decision to offer “skinny bundles,” and to (at least so far) defend that decision against the inevitable programmer lawsuits, confronts one of the biggest problems in pay TV. For many years now, I’ve talked about the interrelation between large cable operators exercising control over programmers and programmers responding by consolidating so they can exercise market power over cable operators. The result, as laid out in this 2013 paper by S.Derek Turner at Free Press, big cable and big content have become locked in a death spiral driven by ever-increasing prices to the point where even Americans in love with television increasingly look at “cutting the cord” and dropping their pay TV subscriptions altogether.

 

Now before anyone jumps on me, I am fully aware that Verizon is a profit maximizing firm that is doing this for the best of all possible reasons — to keep existing customers and hopefully attract new ones. I’m also aware of the limitations of the offer — they sell it with the lower speed FIOS package because they are going after the cost sensitive cord cutter not the higher end customer who either is not cost sensitive or has already cut the cord and now wants super broadband speed. So what? Public policy is not about getting companies (or anyone else) to do the right thing for the “right reason,” it is about getting companies to do the right thing for their own reason. Verizon sees that good policy (giving consumers more choices) is also potentially good business. Hoorah!

 

Mind you, as with all market dynamics, there is always an interplay between the invisible hand of the market and the very visible hand of government. It is, I would maintain, no coincidence that we are seeing a ferment in pay-tv and online video at a time when the DoJ antitrust division, the FCC and even folks in Congress signal that they will not take kindly to companies exercising market power to get in the way of innovation online. Also, as with the “false dawn” of online video in 2009-10, we can expect the dominant players (including Comcast, now no longer constrained to play nice to try to get its acquisition of Time Warner Cable approved) to fight back. We should by no means declare “mission accomplished” when it comes to breaking up the existing business model/incipient market failure/death spiral. We have a lot of work to do, and companies like Verizon might well settle in court the way DISH and Disney did on the Hopper.

 

Nevertheless, credit where credit is due. Likewise, huge applause to Cablevision for offering an even more revolutionary “cord cutting package” consisting of a digital antenna for free over-the-air-TV and the option to add HBO Go to the package (pay us a small fee and we’ll authenticate the ap for you). While Cablevision is more revolutionary, it does not require it to withstand lawsuits from ESPN and other disgruntled programmers, and maintains the dichotomy of the industry between all or nothing on cable channels which is why I give Verizon a bit more shout out cred here.

 

Now if I can only get Verizon to follow the suggestion I made back in 2008 that they sell high-speed FIOS broadband at dirt cheap prices to get people addicted to speed.

 

I unpack a bit what’s going on and why, and what additional policy steps need to happen to support pro-consumer changes in the industry, below . . .

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Comcast/TWC/Charter — OK, NOW It’s Time To Pop The Champagne, And Thank Staff For Doing Their Job.

Yesterday I wrote that it was too soon to start celebrating and that we could expect Comcast to muster its vast army of lobbyists and effectively bottomless treasury to keep trying to push its merger through. I even gently chided Tim Wu for declaring the Comcast deal “dead.”

 

Well, I am incredibly happy to eat crow on this one. To my surprise, Comcast decided to pack it in rather than push like Hell for the next few weeks. But on reflection, Comcast’s decision makes sense for several reasons. I will break these out in a separate post. But first, before the wonky stuff, I want to pause and reflect on the last 16 months.

 

At the start of 2014, things looked grim. First, the D.C. Circuit threw out the old Net Neutrality rules. Then Comcast announced it would buy Time Warner Cable. People believed that in corrupt Washington, no one could stop the well-connected Comcast whose CEO plays golf with Obama from getting what it wanted, and assumed the “former cable lobbyist” Tom “dingo” Wheeler would simply hand the Internet over to his cable buddies.

 

In February 2015, the FCC reclassified broadband as Title II. Today, Comcast will announce that it is abandoning its effort to acquire Time Warner Cable in response to resistance at every level of government. And Tom Wheeler appears on track to put a real pro-consumer, pro-competition agenda in place.

 

I know it is typical at this point for me to remind everyone that we have proven once again that Citizen’s movements are citizen driven!   And it is indeed the case that without the massive and coordinated efforts by the grassroots at every level — like my friend Hannah Jane Sassaman and the Media Mobilizing Project taking it to Comcast HQ in Phildelphia (and who continues to organize efforts to reform Comcast’s practices via the city’s refranchising process), the folks at TURN and Greenlining who opposed Comcast at the California Public Utility Commission, and everyone who wrote to the FCC or called their member of congress — we could not have won these battles and the battles yet to come.

 

But we also need to actually appreciate the hardworking folks at the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission who actually did their jobs and looked at the facts and recommended the right thing — despite all the pressure some of the most powerful corporations in America could bring to bear. The staff who took the time to pick apart all the carefully prepared expert statements and the professionally prepared and packaged “evidence” submitted by Comcast and sift through the millions of pages of documents submitted into the record, patiently building the legal and factual case against the merger that could survive not only judicial scrutiny, but the anticipated counter-attack by the army of coin-operated think tanks and shills.

 

Yeah, those guys. The despised “bureaucrats” and the FCC and DoJ bosses who had their backs and gave them room to do the right thing. Them. They did their jobs. They worked hard at it. They came to the right result.

 

Next time you want to score cheap points or enjoy the pleasures of easy cynicism, remember that. I’m not saying they’re perfect, or all good and pure and noble. Heck, I spend a good deal of my time trying to swim upstream and push staff in directions they may not want to go, and am not afraid to call out the bad calls, the politically based decisions, and the stuff that’s just plain wrong — often in rather snarky and unflattering terms. I’ve got a job to do as well, and that means making sure that those in charge don’t get a free pass when they side with special interest against the public interest.

 

But I am saying that there are a lot of people at the FCC — and in federal service generally — trying to do their job and get it right. Sometimes they even succeed, if the process lets them. When that happens, it would not kill you to say “thanks.”

 

Stay tuned . . . .

 

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Comcast/TWC/Charter — Looking Good But Too Early To Pop The Champagne.

We’ve seen a bunch of news reports recently that the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division (DOJ) staff and the staff at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appear ready to recommend that the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable does not pass statutory muster and their respective agencies should take appropriate action. You can review what that means in these two lengthier blog posts I wrote about how DoJ merger review works and how FCC merger review works.

 

Critically, however, as this CNN piece notes, we only have rumors and speculation. Obviously, as an opponent of the deal, I would not be surprised of staff at DoJ and the FCC, after reviewing the record, concluded that this deal caused serious anti-competitive harm and offered no offsetting benefits. But, as someone who has played regulatory poker with Comcast for 15 years now, I can say from personal experience that no one counts Comcast out until the game is well and truly over. Even if the rumors are true (and I have no way of knowing), these would only be staff recommendations. Comcast still has plenty of opportunities to plead, cajole and bully DoJ and FCC into submission.

 

Which is why it’s important to remember my advice from last February with regard to Title II reclassification: DON’T BE THE SEA HAWKS! We need to continue to keep the pressure on to get this over the goal line. You can start at my employer, Public Knowledge, which has this action page up over here.

 

At the same time, while not getting ahead of ourselves, it is important to understand how this deal went from “sure thing, no antitrust issues, these aren’t the drioids you’re looking for, move along, move along” to “on the ropes and sinking fast.” While I’m not going to fall into the trap of thinking we have already won, we have a lot of good reasons to believe that this fight is winnable. I elaborate a bit below . . . .

 

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First Round of Lawsuits Filed In Net Neutrality Case. Now What?

Yesterday, the U.S. Telecom Association (USTA), the trade association for incumbent telecoms like Verizon and AT&T, and a Texas WISP called Alamo Broadband, filed separate appeals from the FCC’s Order reclassifying broadband as Title II and applying net neutrality rules. (This Ars piece links to both Petitions). USTA filed in the D.C. Circuit, while Alamo filed in the 5th Circuit (which is generally considered one of the more hostile to the FCC).

 

I dig into this a bit, and try to explain what happens next, below . . .

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Today is FCC Net Neutrality Order Day! What Happens Now?

Word is today the FCC will release its network neutrality order reclassifying broadband as Title II. I’ll update with a link when that happens.

UPDATE: Here is the Order in all it’s yummy geeky goodness.

UPDATE #2: I goofed on the length of time parties have to file petitions for review with the federal appeals courts. I cited 47 U.S.C. 402(c). But as a kind reader emailed me, the mandatory time limit in 402(c) only applies in the limited number of instances listed in 47 U.S.C. 402(b) — cases with exclusive jurisdiction in the D.C. Circuit. In most cases, including here, petitions are filed under 402(a), which directs the filer to the procedural rules under the time allowed under 28 U.S.C. 2344. That gives parties 60 days to file a Petition for Review, not the 30 days specified in 47 U.S.C. 402(c). This error is now corrected below.

My only excuse is I was dashing this off quickly in the morning and forgot about this distinction between 402(a) and 402(b). It was annoyingly sloppy on my part. My thanks to the reader who chose to correct me very gently by email rather than mocking me disdainfully on Twitter or in the comments section.

Below is a (relatively) short FAQ on what happens now.

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