The mechanics of how Washington works

Will Pai “Pull A Putin” And Hack the FCC Process? Or Will He Get Over Himself and Start Acting Like The Chairman?

In my 20+ years of doing telecom policy, I have never seen a Chairman so badly botch a proceeding as Chairman Ajit Pai has managed to do with his efforts to repeal Net Neutrality. For all the fun that I am sure Pai is having (and believe me, I understand the fun of getting all snarky on policy), Pai’s failure to protect the integrity of the process runs the serious risk of undermining public confidence in the Federal Communications Commission’s basic processes, and by extension contributing to the general “hacking of our democracy” by undermining faith in our most basic institutions of self-governance.

 

Yeah, I know, that sounds over the top. I wish I didn’t have to write that. I also wish we didn’t have a President who calls press critical of him “the enemy of the American people,” triggering massive harassment of reporters by his followers. What both Trump and Pai seem to fail to understand is that when you are in charge, what you say and do matters much more than what you said and did before you were in charge. You either grow up and step into the challenge or you end up doing serious harm not only to your own agenda, but to the institution as a whole. Worse, in a time when the President and his team actually welcomed Russia’s “hacking” of our election, and remain under suspicion for coordinating with Russia for support, Pai’s conduct creates concern and distrust that he will also “pull a Putin” by welcoming (or worse, collaborating with) efforts to de-legitimize the FCC’s public comment system and hack the public debate around net neutrality generally.

 

Fortunately, as I told former Democratic FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski when he was in danger of making the FCC’s process a laughingstock in the public eye, Pai can still recover and rescue himself and the FCC from his self-destructive conduct. Instead of calling his critics enemies of capitalism and free speech, instead of obsessing about his own hurt feelings while displaying a troubling indifference to identity stealing bots filing comments that support his own proposal and failing to follow up on his own claims that the FCC comment system suffered a critical cyber-attack – Pai needs to follow in the footsteps of Michael Powell, Kevin Martin and Tom Wheeler when they faced similar insults (and in Powell’s case, racial slurs). Welcome robust public debate and criticism, condemn the actually illegal hacking used by his supporters, and stop whining about his own hurt feelings. Michael Powell managed to take being called a War Criminal and son of a war criminal for supposedly allowing the press to sell us on the Iraq War, as well as the same kind of racist bullshit that Pai or any other prominent person of color sadly has to endure in an America where racists feel increasingly emboldened. Pai can chose to step up in the same way his Republican and Democratic predecessors did, or continue to contribute to the overall erosion of trust in our institutions of self-governance generally and his handling of the FCC specifically.

 

I unpack all this below . . .

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Trump Keeps Us All Guessing On Telecom.

Usually in January, especially with a new Congress of new term, I like to try to do a “this year in telecom” preview. Hell, who doesn’t? (I mean, who in Telecom Policyland doesn’t. The answer for normal people is: “no one.”) But this year I can’t.

 

Oh, I can list all the issues we’ve been arguing over the last few years and guarantee we’re going to re-litigate them. We’ve already seen most of the ISP industry (joined by the Ad industry) push back on the privacy rules adopted last October.  We’ve seen a bunch of the industry submit their wish list for deregulation as part of the bienniel telecom regulatory review. And with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) now Chair of the Telecom Subcommittee, we can expect lots of action on the Hill side on everything from FCC process reform to Telecom Act re-write. But the Trump Administration itself — its priorities, its possible pick for FCC Chair, and its general direction on telecom policy — remain as much a mystery as when I wrote about it last month.

 

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Is Net Neutrality (And Everything Else) Not Dead Yet or Pining For the Fjords? Contemplating Trump’s Telecom Policy.

The election of Donald Trump has prompted great speculation over the direction of telecom policy in the near future. Not surprisingly, everyone assumes that the primary Republican goal will be to completely roll back net neutrality and just about every other rule or policy adopted by the Wheeler FCC — perhaps even eliminating the FCC altogether or scaling back it’s authority to virtual non-existence. Why not? In addition to controlling the White House, Republicans have majorities in the Senate and the House.  Jeff Eisenach, the head of Trump’s FCC transition team (now called “Landing Teams”), has been one of the harshest critics of the FCC under both Wheeler and Genachowski. So it is unsurprising to see a spate of articles and blog posts on the upcoming death of net neutrality, broadband privacy, and unlicensed spectrum.

 

As it happens, I have now been through two transitions where the party with the White House has controlled Congress. In neither case have things worked out as expected. Oh, I’m not going to pretend that everything will be hunky-dory in the land of telecom (at least not from my perspective). But having won things during the Bush years (expanding unlicensed spectrum, for example), and lost things in the Obama years (net neutrality 2010), I am not prepared to lay down and die, either.

 

Telecom policy — and particularly net neutrality, Title II and privacy — now exists in an unusual, quantum state that can best be defined with reference to Monty Python. On the one hand, I will assert that net neutrality is not dead yet. On the other hand, it may be that I am simply fooling myself that net neutrality is simply pining for the fjords when, in fact, it is deceased, passed on, has run up the curtain and joined the choir invisible.

 

I give my reasons for coming down on the “not dead yet” side — although we will need to work our butts off to keep from getting clopped on the head and thrown into the dead cart. I expect the usual folks will call me delusional. However, as I have said a great deal over the years: “If I am delusional, I find it a very functional delusion.”

 

More below . . . .

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Can Obama Stop The Stalling On Clinton Appointees. Or: “It’s Raining Progressives, Hallelujah!”

As we end 2016, we have an unusually large number of vacancies in both the executive branch and the judiciary.  As anyone not living under a rock knows, that’s no accident. Getting Obama appointments approved by the Senate was always a hard slog, and became virtually impossible after the Republicans took over the Senate in 2015.  This doesn’t merely impact the waning days of the Obama Administration. If Clinton wins the White House, it means that the Administration will start with a large number of important holes. Even if the Democrats also retake the Senate, it will take months to bring the Executive branch up to functioning, never mind the judiciary. If Clinton wins and Republicans keep the Senate, we are looking at continuing gridlock and dysfunction until at least 2018 and possibly beyond.

 

In my own little neck of the policy woods, this plays out over the confirmation of Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D). Rosenworcel’s term expired in 2015. Under 47 U.S.C. 154(c), Rosenworcel can serve until the end of this session of Congress. That ends no later than Noon, January 3, 2017, according to the 20th Amendment (whether it ends before that, when Congress adjourns its legislative session but remains in pro forma session is something we’ll debate later). Assuming Rosenworcel does not get a reconfirmation vote (although I remind everyone that Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was in a similar situation in 2004 and he got confirmed in a lame duck session), that would drop the Commission down to 2-2 until such time as the President (whoever he or she will be) manages to get a replacement nominated and confirmed by the Senate. Given the current Commission, this would make it extremely difficult to get anything done — potentially for months following the election. It would also force Chairman Tom Wheeler to remain on the Commission (whether he wants to or not) for some time.

 

From the Republican perspective, however, this has advantages. If Clinton wins, it means that the FCC is stuck in neutral for weeks, possibly months. Since Republicans generally do not like Wheeler’s policies, that’s just fine. By contrast, if Trump wins, Republicans will have an immediate majority if Wheeler follows the usual custom and steps down at Noon January 20. So even though Republicans promised to confirm Rosenworcel back in 2014 when the Ds allowed Commissioner Mike O’Reilly (R) to get his reconfirmation vote, they have plenty of reasons to break their promise and hold Rosenworcel up anyway. Not that Senate Republicans have anything against Rosenworcel, mind you. It’s just (dysfunctional) business.

 

Again, it’s important to remind everyone who obsesses about communications that this is not unique to Rosenworcel. From Merrick Garland (remember him?) on down, we have tons of vacancies just sitting there without even the virtue of a bad excuse beyond “well, we’d rather the government not function if someone on the other side is running it.” While I keep hoping this will change, I don’t expect either political party to have a change of heart around this following the next election.

 

Fortunately, I have a plan so cunning you can stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.  On the plus side, if I can get the President to go along with it, it will not only keep things working between January 3, Noon, and January 20, Noon. It will also give the Republicans incredible incentive to move Clinton’s nominations as quickly as possible. On the downside, it’s not entirely clear this is Constitutional. I think it is, based on the scanty available case law (mostly Nat’l Labor Relations Bd v. Canning). But, as with test cases generally, I can’t guarantee it. Still, like the idea of preventing a U.S. default on its debt with a trillion dollar platinum coin, it can’t hurt to think about it.

 

For the details of what I call “Operation Midnight At Noon” (throwback to the Midnight Judges), see below . . .

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Farewell To AT&T’s Jim Cicconi.

It may seem odd for me to say, and meaning no offense to his replacement Bob Quinn, but I am sorry to see Jim Cicconi retire from AT&T at the end of this month. For those who don’t play in this pond, Cicconi has been AT&T’s Lobbyist in Chief here in D.C. since 2005. It may therefore seem odd that I am sorry to see him go, particularly since Cicconi was so damned good at his job. But, as I have said many times before, I’m not here because companies are evil, nor do I believe the people working for them necessarily delight in crushing consumers, strangling puppies and tossing destitute widows and orphans on the street in rags in the dead of winter. (At least not in telecom, the copyright folks, on the other hand, were ready to screw over the blind a few years back just for giggles. But I digress . . .).

 

 

More below . . .

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Update on Muni Broadband Decision. The Fate of Pinetop, N.C.

Last week, I wrote about the 6th Circuit’s decision in the muni broadband caseTN v. FCC. I mentioned in passing that the opinion pretty much keeps the status quo. Then I found from a reader about Pinetop, N.C.

 

As reported here and here, Greenlight, the muni provider of Wilson, N.C., took advantage of the FCC’s 2015 Order and began offering gigabit broadband in Pinetop, population 1400. Pinetop lies in Edgecomb County, next door to Wilson County. Under the 2010 N.C. anti-muni law, Greenlight could serve anyone in Wilson County but not go outside Wilson County to neighboring Edgecomb  County. But Wilson decided to take a shot and honor Pintetop’s request to provide service (Greenlight already provides electric service in Pinetop as a muni electric provider, so it wasn’t much of a leap).

 

The legal situation on this is now somewhat complicated. The 6th Cir. had not stayed the FCC’s preemption order in 2015, so it was totally legal for Greenlight to offer service. What is unclear now is how to read NC law now that it is “un-preempted” by the Sixth Circuit overturning the FCC. I admit I have no idea how to even begin to answer this question.

 

But it’s not an abstract legal question. The availability of broadband in Pinetop matters a great deal to the people of Pinetop.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

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FCC Loses It’s Muni Broadband Test Case. What Comes Next?

Sometimes the law is clear. Sometimes it isn’t.

 

While that seems obvious, we often miss it in policy debates. But it is rather important to keep in mind when reading Tennessee v. FCCIn a case released August 10, the Sixth Circuit reversed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 2015 Order preempting restrictions the state of Tennessee and the state of North Carolina imposed on their municipalities with regard to providing broadband service. While Commissioners Pai and O’Reilly are certainly entitled to their victory laps, it is equally important to applaud Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Rosenworcel and Clyburn for doing what they believed was both the right policy and the right call under the law. The petitions from the City of Wilson, NC and from the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, TN raised novel questions of law. The FCC’s Order was a test case. On a very narrow and murky legal question, the FCC majority bet wrong — at least according to the 6th Circuit.

 

For myself, not surprisingly, I thought the FCC majority had the better argument. But I can’t say the Sixth Circuit was utterly wrong in holding the contrary. The limits of the Tenth Amendment and preemption power are generally unclear. The interpretation of Section 706 (47 U.S.C. 1302) as providing authority to the FCC remains relatively undefined. Based on the language in the dissent in Verizon v. FCC, which inspired munibroadband proponents to bring the petition and support the case, it looked like a good shot. Similarly, the facts of the case — already existing munibroadband providers, clear demand for them to expand their services, a willingness to expand service but for the relevant state laws restricting service — made this a favorable fact pattern.

 

Unfortunately, sometimes the best bet in the world doesn’t pay off. But that is why people bring test cases — to try to resolve questions in the law that move policy in the direction those bringing the case favor. It is neither an overreach nor illegal for Petitioners to bring test cases, to have an agency resolve them, and for the agency and those who brought the petition to the agency to defend them in court. To the contrary, this is how the rule of law works under the principles of the common law.

 

I stress this point because whether you bring conservative test cases to challenge laws and test limits or progressive cases to challenge laws and test limits — or cases that don’t easily fit in the conservative/progressive paradigm — we want agencies to actually address these cases in a timely fashion. As I remarked many years ago, when the FCC’s efforts to encourage competition in the 700 MHz auction resulted in a mixed result, we need  agencies to be willing to actually address novel circumstances and try new things because otherwise the law will ossify and we lose one of the most important elements of administrative law, the ability of an agency to respond to changing circumstances and provide a suitable record for Congressional action where necessary.

 

Bellow, I give a brief recap of the case and a forecast on what comes next for the muni broadband movement . . .

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Also posted in How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Series of Tubes, Tales of the Sausage Factory | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

NCTA Shocked — SHOCKED! — to Discover Ex Parte Process At FCC.

Every now and then, I am reminded that the cable news networks such as Fox and MSNBC are members of NCTA. But seeing this recent blog post reminded me. While faux outrage and hypocrisy are hardly rare in Policyland, you rarely find this level of self-righteous sanctimony outside of cable news.

 

As some folks may recall, I recently opined that AT&T choosing to sulk like Achilles in his tent rather than engage meaningfully in the ongoing rulemaking process. NCTA — which also opposes the BDS proceeding and has adopted the same strategy of acting like a disappointed 6 year old — chooses to deliberately misconstrue this as something other than the FCC’s standard, open ex parte process. What magnifies this almost to the level of self-parody is that NCTA is engaged in exactly this behavior on set-top boxes (STBs), where it has popped out with a sudden alternative #ditchthebox to the FCC’s #unlockthebox proposal.

 

In all cases, of course, NCTA paradoxically insists that any refusal to negotiate around their proposals is somehow a sign that the FCC has impermissibly pre-decided. But if the FCC considers anyone else’s response to their proposals, or engages with stakeholders outside of the comment and/or reply comment period, it is a “smoke filled room.”

 

Mind you, hypocrisy and faux outrage are pretty standard stock in trade for NCTA, as I’ve noted before. But for those who don’t follow how the Sausage Gets Made here in Telecomland, I provide a review of the relevant process below. For the tl;dr version. Let me just quote NCTA’s own blog post:

 

“First, it’s jaw-droppingly hard to conceive that an advocate who has consistently complained about the “ILEC monopoly” in the BDS market for more than a decade would suggest that the biggest ILEC should join the second biggest ILEC in negotiating a regulatory regime that raises obstacles to emerging competitors.”

 

I couldn’t have said it better myself. It is rather jaw droppingly hard to conceive that I have suddenly abandoned all principles and advocacy of the last 15 years to behave as NCTA suggests. That ought to suggest to folk genuinely interested that NCTA has chosen to knowingly and willfully utterly misinterpreted what I said. Likewise, it is rather “jaw-droppingly” obvious that NCTA has no more interest in promoting transparency than it does in letting go of its monopoly control over set-top boxes.

 

A bit more about how FCC processes actually work, and what I meant (and continue to mean) when I call on stakeholders and the public to continue to actively engage, below . . . .

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The FCC Sets the Ground Rules For Shutting Down The Phone System — And Sets the Stage For Universal Broadband.

Here’s the funny thing about the world. The two Orders the FCC will vote on tomorrow (Thursday, July 14) probably have more impact on the future of our communications infrastructure than the Title II reclassification of broadband. But like most momentous things in technology, no one notices because they are technical and everyone’s eyes glaze over.

 

In particular, no one notices the sleep inducing and incredibly vaguely named item “Technology Transitions,” we are talking about the conclusion of a 4 year proceeding on how to shut down the legacy phone system and move all our national communications platforms to a mix of digital platforms. That does not mean we’re getting rid of copper and going to all fiber (a common misconception). In fact, in many communities, the old copper lines might get pulled out and replaced with wireless technologies (what we call wire-to-wireless transition). Those who still remember when Verizon tried this after Super Storm Sandy on Fire Island will understand why so many of us wanted to make sure we have an organized transition with quality control and federal oversight.

 

But most people don’t remember this anymore. And, if you are not one of the 60 million or so people (mostly rural, poor or elderly) who still depends on the traditional copper line telephone, you may wonder what this has to do with your life. The short answer is: the old phone system still provides the backbone of our communications system of shiny digital thingies we take for granted. The old copper line phone system is also the workhorse of most ATMs, retail cash registers, and thousands of other things we take for granted every day. Why? Because the old copper line network has been around forever. It’s an open system everyone can – by law – plug into and no one ever imagined would go away.

 

But even more important for the future of our communications infrastructure – the Federal Communications Commission made this a values driven transition. In a bipartisan unanimous 5-0 vote back in January 2014, the FCC rejected the idea of making the Tech Transition a “get out of regulation free zone” and adopted four basic principles to guide the transition: Universal Access, Competition, Consumer Protection and Public Safety.

 

As a result, for once, for once, we actually have a chance to prevent the inequality before it happens. It took 100 years, but if there is one thing Americans took for granted, it was that we all had the same phone system and could all communicate with each other on equal terms. The rules the FCC adopts will make it possible to preserve this principle of universal access. Because this network forms the backbone of the broadband network, if we work together and don’t blow it, we can achieve the same success with broadband that we achieved with basic telephone service.

 

I dig into this below . . .

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AT&T’s BDS Hissy Fit Is Bad Strategy.

Hell hath no fury like an ILEC scorned. So it is perhaps no surprise that AT&T has decided to heap much scorn on Verizon for playing smart and flipping sides on the debate on how to improve regulation of the Business Data Serve (BDS), nee special access. While perhaps understandable from an emotional perspective, this response is — to use a techncial legal phrase — silly. Worse, taken to its logical extreme, it has the same corrosive effect on rulemaking as the accusation of “flip flopping” has on politics. We keep saying we want people to actually negotiate and look for compromises that reflect the changing reality. But when someone actually says “OK, you know what, lets recognize that reality isn’t so black and white as people make it out and we should look for a workable compromise,” then everyone is like “Flip Flopper! How can we possibly take you seriously now that you will no longer fight to the death!”

 

As I explain below, AT&T (and other ILECs) would gain much more by joining Verizon in negotiating for a transition away from the ILEC monopoly on the high capacity data circuit to a more competitive market structure. Rather than throwing a hissy fit, AT&T should embrace its usual path of shrewd negotiation . . .

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