The mechanics of how Washington works

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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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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Auto Industry Crosses The Line on 5.9 GHz By Using Dead Pedestrians To Justify Spectrum Squatting.

For the last 3 years, the auto industry and the Department of Transportation (DoT) have been at war with the open spectrum community of 75 MHz of spectrum up at 5.9 GHz. I will save the longer history for an upcoming “Insanely Long Field Guide To the 5.9 GHz Proceeding” post.  For now, it is enough to know that, as we enter the last few months of the Obama Administration, the auto industry and DoT have been doing everything they can to run out the clock and wait for this FCC to go away, hoping the next FCC will not be as interested in opening spectrum for sharing. You can read the history of 3 years of bad faith and bait and switch in this filing here. You can read the auto industries most recent insistence on testing that will take us well past the end of the Obama Administration here.

 

So far so normal. This is how spectrum politics works. Incumbents pay lip service to the idea of spectrum sharing, stress the awful terrible things that will happen if the FCC allows the new entrant to operate and cause interference, and insists on an endless series of tests while dragging their feet on anything that would make testing possible. The new entrant, meanwhile, complains bitterly about how the other side are stalling, the interference claims are baseless, and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic benefits are lost as the delay continues.  With the final months ticking down, both sides are now ratcheting up their efforts. Last week, PK, a number of our other spectrum public interest allies (OTI, PK, SHLB) and industry folks (Intel, MS, NCTA, WISPA) sent a letter to the President asking the White House to weigh in at DoT and tell them to stop helping the auto industry stall testing so we can open the spectrum to more unlicensed goodness. Yesterday, the auto industry sent its response.

 

And yesterday, the auto industry finally crossed a line on common decency that just pisses me off.

 

It is one thing to claim that your technology saves lives and that if the FCC doesn’t do what you want, people will die. It is another thing to knowingly and deliberately invoke actual, real dead pedestrians and dead cyclists you know damned well your proposed technology could not conceivably save  in an effort to support your own spectrum squatting. It is even worse when the technology you are pushing, “dedicated short-range communication” (DSRC), would replace the actual existing collision avoidance system you are deploying today that would save cyclists and pedestrians — car radar and sensing systems that use unlicensed spectrum and LIDAR.

 

 

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Cable Set-Top Box Arguments: Nothing But Reruns

It is inevitable that right before a major filing on an issue that the cable guys HATE!!! with all the passion of an injured monopolist, the we see a flurry of distracting nonsense designed to fuzzle the FCC, generate bad trade press, stoke the wholly-owned subsidiaries in Congress, and provide more material for the chanting cheerleader chorus. You may remember this from 2014’s: “Net Neutrality — The FCC Is Totally Gonna Lose On Banning Paid Prioritization,” and its 2015 Sequel: “No Wait, We Were Totally Lying Last Time, Banning Paid Prioritization is Cool But The FCC Is Totally Gonna Lose on Title II.”

 

Meanwhile, Comcast steps up with some “deal” that supposedly totally solves the problem they say doesn’t exist anyway so now there is no reason to do anything. In net neutrality, that was “look, we cut a deal with Netflix so you don’t need that silly old net neutrality.”

 

So it is no surprise that in 2016 we see another rerun. With comments on the FCC’s wildly popular (outside the Beltway) #unlockthebox rulemaking going on, aka the “Expanding Consumer’s Video Navigation Choices” proceeding due tomorrow, the cable industry has run true to form. Yesterday, Comcast announced it would make an ap available to Roku to let consumers stream Comcast content (under Comcast’s licensing terms, subject to Comcast control, and only to those Comcast finds sufficiently non-threatening). The fact that Comcast was messing around with the HBO Go ap on Playstation just last year  has not stopped the usual chorus of useful idiots from chanting hosannah’s of praise and declaring the problem solved. (Hopefully I will get to deal with everything wrong with the ap approach in a future post. But the short version is: “swapping one thing Comcast controls for something else Comcast controls is not “solving the problem.”)

 

But perhaps more importantly, we now come to the inevitable second act of this  well worn cable rerun. The press call headed by NCTA CEO Michael Powell with a panel of high power corporate lawyers who will trot out the same arguments they always do on why the FCC is totally gonna lose. I am eternally mystified why anyone takes this seriously because Duh, what else do you expect the cable guys to say? “Oh yeah, we don’t have a legal leg to stand on and the FCC is totally going to win. Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have drunk that bottle labeled Veritaserum!”

Nevertheless, for some reason, pronouncements by lawyers paid to make such pronouncements seem to have some mind clouding effect which not only makes people forget all the previous times these people have made exactly the same prediction, but forget the actual FCC detailed refutation of these arguments in the notice of proposed rulemaking. So once again, we here at Tales of the Sausage Factory will play the part of the annoying little dog exposing the man behind the curtain while everyone else trembles at the Great and Powerful Oz — played here by NCTA CEO Michael Powell.

 

Curtain pulled back bellow . . .

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If McConnell Trusted His Own Party, He’d Follow the “Bork Precedent” and Hold A Vote.

There are a lot of interesting questions about the possibility that the President will appoint Judge Sri Srinivasan to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. For example, what happens if the D.C. Circuit has not yet voted out the net neutrality case? If Srinivasan is nominated and confirmed, would he be able to participate in an appeal of the net neutrality case? I, however, do not propose to answer either of those questions here.

 

No, I’m going to take a moment to urge Republicans to do the right thing and follow the Bork precedent of which they make so much — have a vote and reject a nominee you don’t like. That’s what the Constitution says ought to happen, and it’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do.  The meaning of “with advice and consent of the Senate” has changed a bunch over the years, but it is clearly intended as a restraint and means of forcing cooperation between the Senate and Executive, as discussed by Hamilton in Federalist No. 76.  (Hamilton thought the power to reject appointments would be little used. Unfortunately, George Washington was right about the corrupting influence of party factionalism.)

 

So why have Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, refusing to hold even a hearing on the as-yet-unnamed Obama Appointee? Fear. They cannot trust their own party to toe the line, especially the 8 Republican Senators facing difficult re-election fights in swing states.

 

While the check on the President is the need for advice and consent of the Senate, the check on the Senate is that they do their work openly, with each member accountable to their state. If Republicans really believe that “the people deserve to decide,” they would vote to reject the nominee and let “the people decide” if they approve of how their Senator voted. But of course, that would mean letting the people actually talk to their Senators while considering the vote, and potentially voting against those Republican Senators who disappointed their independent and swing-Democratic voters.

 

So the GOP elite leadership have conspired once again to take matters out of the hands of the people. Not by following the Bork precedent, which got a floor vote. Not even by filibustering the nominee, as the combined Republican/Dixicrat alliance did for Abe Fortas. No, the GOP leadership have such little trust for their own party, and the voters, that they will not even let the matter come to the floor.

 

More below . . .

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What You Need To Know To Understand The FCC National Broadband Report.

The FCC is required by Congress to do lots of reports. Of these, the one that gets the most attention is the annual Report on broadband deployment under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (47 C.F.R. 1302). Sure enough, with the latest report announced as up for a vote at the FCC’s January open meeting, we can see the usual suspects gathering to complain that the FCC has “rigged the game” or “moved the goal post” or whatever sports metaphor comes to mind to accuse the FCC of diddling the numbers for the express purpose of coming up with a negative finding, i.e. That “advanced telecommunications capability” (generally defined as wicked fast broadband) is not being deployed in a timely fashion to all Americans.

 

As usual, to really understand what the FCC is doing, and whether or not they are actually doing the job Congress directed, it helps to have some background on the now 20 year old story of “Section 706,” and what the heck this report is supposed to do, and why we are here. At a minimum, it helps to read the bloody statute before accusing the FCC of a put up job.

 

The short version of this is that, because between 1998 and 2008 the FCC left the definition of “broadband” untouched at 200 kbps, Congress directed the FCC in the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008 (BDIA) (signed by President Bush, btw) to actually do some work, raise the numbers to reflect changing needs, and take into account international comparisons so as to keep us competitive with the world and stuff. This is why, contrary to what some folks seem to think, it is much more relevant that the EU has set a goal of 100% subscription of 30 mbps down or better by 2020 than what is the minimum speed to get Netflix.

 

Also, the idea that the FCC needs a negative finding to regulate broadband flies in the face of reality. Under the Verizon v. FCC decision finding that Section 706 is an independent source of FCC authority to regulate broadband, the FCC gets to regulate under Section 706(a) (general duty to encourage broadband deployment) without making a negative finding under Section 706(b) (requirement to do annual report on whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a “reasonable and timely manner”).

 

So why does the FCC do this report every year if they already have regulatory authority over broadband. Because Congress told them to do a real report every year. This is what I mean about reading the actual statute first before making ridiculous claims about FCC motivation. Happily, for those who don’t have several years of law school and are ld enough to have actually lived through this professionally, you have this delightful blog to give you the Thug Notes version.

 

 

More below . . . .

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