Spectrum issues, community wireless, muni broadband

LTE-U v. Wi-Fi: The Abreviated Version

I recognize that Part I and Part II of my LTE-U/Spectrum Game of Thrones ran somewhat long and dense, even by Tales of the Sausage Factory standards. So for those of you looking for something a bit lighter, I’ve prepared an abbreviated version — this time based on a different epic saga involving the supernatural, mysterious circumstances, and . . . Scoobie snacks?

Ruh roh! Time to solve another groovy mystery below . . .

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My Insanely Long Field Guide To the LTEU Dust-Up Part II: A Storm of Spectrum Swords.

 

The Vorlons have a saying: “Understanding is a 3-edged sword.” In this case, the three edges are the Wi-Fi dependent, the LTE dependent, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

 

Last time on Spectrum Game of Thrones (hereinafter “SGoT”) I spent 6500 words discussing the first two edges of the sword. The Wi-Fi dependent side has strong reason to suspect the LTE-U crowd of either reckless indifference or actual malice toward deployment of Wi-Fi based streaming services in the newly refurbished U-NII-1 band up in 5 GHz. Even if the Wi-Fi Dependents could trust the motives of the LTE-U crowd, what happens if everyone is wrong about the ability of the two technologies to co-exist? Under the current structure, the Wi-Fi dependents would be screwed, and they could do nothing about it. So the rational Wi-Fi Dependent must fight tooth and nail against deployment of LTE-U.

 

It doesn’t help that the Wi-Fi Dependents know that this is an utterly impractical solution for the long term. Unless there is a way to answer the two questions central to the survival of Wi-Fi streaming in U-NII-1 in the face of LTE-U (what happens if something goes wrong, what happens if somebody deliberately does something bad post-deployment), rational Wi-Fi dependents have no choice but to fight deployment.

 

The LTE-U crowd, for its part, has good reason to want to deploy LTE-U and has a legitimate gripe that Wi-Fi Dependents cannot keep saying no without defining the conditions for yes. If we admit the possibility that we can deploy LTE-U consistent with reasonable use of Wi-Fi (which everyone does), then there has to be some way to actually deploy it. And while I savor the fine irony of seeing licensees in the same position I have been in countless times, it is still crappy policy. Also, unlike me and other would-be new entrants, the wireless guys and Qualcomm have enough political muscle to make the current stalemate untenable. Eventually, they will get to deploy something.

 

Which brings us to the third edge of the Vorlon sword of understanding – the FCC. As I shall explain below, government actually is the solution here. Not by imposing a standard or a rule, but by providing both sides with a process for resolving the problem. As a happy side effect, this will also help resolve the general class of problems that keeps coming up on how to manage more and more intense use of the airwaves. Just like we all learned in high school math, and most of us forgot about 30 seconds after the exam, you solve an intractable problem by trying to break it up and simplify it into solvable problems.

 

The only problem is, and I know most people are not going to believe me, the FCC actually hates asserting and clarifying its authority. Yes. Really. Which gives rise to the question of whether the FCC actually has the willingness to do what needs to be done and create a general solution, or if they will continue to try to do the minimum possible, what I call the “Snow Goons Are Bad News” approach immortalized in this classic Calvin and Hobbes strip.

 

So, as we get to SGoT 2: Storm of Spectrum Swords, we come to another dramatic turning point. Will the Wi-Fi Dependents and the LTE-U Dependents see the wisdom of allowing the FCC assert authority over the land of Spectrumos? Can the FCC be persuaded to fulfill its destiny and its duty? And will the anti-Regulatory Zombies from beyond the Wall crash the party and devour both Wi-Fi and LTE-U because of their hatred of the FCC?

 

More below . . .

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My Insanely Long Field Guide To The LTE-U Dust Up. Part I: Spectrum Game of Thrones.

I keep reading about the LTE-U/LAA dust up and deciding that, as I predicted back in January, this has become the epic Spectrum Game of Thrones. Which means it’s time for an epically long series of Insanely Long Blog Posts.

 

For those just tuning in, I can sum up this issue as follows: should we worry that wireless carriers are looking to deploy a protocol developed for the 4G licensed world (LTE, or Long-Term Evolution) over unlicensed spectrum (called “LTE-U” for LTE over unlicensed or “Licensed Assisted Access,” for reasons I explain later) will “kill” Wi-Fi — for various values of the word “kill.” You can read some stuff on this from my Public Knowledge colleagues here and here.

 

Let me give you the headline version:

 

  • Can you build a version of LTE-U that plays nicely with Wi-Fi? Yes!
  • Can you build a version of LTE-U that looks like it should play nicely but when you deploy it over hundreds of millions of devices it would stomp all over Wi-Fi and crush it flat totally by accident? Absolutely!
  • Can you make and deploy a version of LTE-U where it plays nicely unless the mobile carrier decides it doesn’t like competition from Wi-Fi first providers of rival mobile video and voice services? You bet your sweet patootie!

 

A lot of the argument you see in the press and from the LTE-U supporters has to do with whether the LTE-U Forum (more on them later) have the best interests of wireless users at heart, have gone to great lengths to make sure LTE-U will play nice with Wi-Fi, have released their specs on the LTE-U Forum website, etc. etc. But none of this addresses the points above. What happens if you put this out there and stuff goes bad, either by accident or intentionally.

 

To understand the thinking here, imagine Qualcomm and the rest of the LTE-U Forum are Iran building a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes. Google and the Cable industry (and us public interest types, for all that anyone notices) are Israel and the Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Iran/LTE-U forum maintains they are building their nuclear programs for peaceful purposes. GOOG/Cable asks how they can be certain, given that the same technology might (a) screw things up accidentally; and, (b) give the carriers the capability to screw things up intentionally, if they ever start to feel the competitive heat. Qualcomm, LTE-U Forum, et al. are shocked, hurt and offended that anyone could even suspect such a thing, despite everything Qualcomm has done in the last 3 years to turn LTE-U into a “Wi-Fi killer”, and despite some of the biggest global carriers telling 3GPP to shut out non-carriers from first generation of LTE over unlicensed. According to Qualcomm, the only reason anyone would question the peaceful intentions of LTE-U Forum is for anticompetitive reasons.

 

But here’s the complicated thing. As I’ll explain below, it’s not like LTE on unlicensed is intrinsically bad. There are lots of really good pro-competitive reasons for carriers to start using LTE on unlicensed. Heck, it may ultimately turn out that a stand alone version of LTE on unlicensed is as useful (or even more useful) than Wi-Fi is today. Who knows? That’s the beauty of the unlicensed band — innovation without permission and all that good stuff.

 

This puts the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a rather awkward position. On the one hand, the FCC recognizes the real problem of LTE-U, accidentally or intentionally, messing up Wi-Fi. Additionally, while Wi-Fi is in the unlicensed band and must therefore accept whatever interference comes its way, is only ONE of many, many protocols, etc., you don’t let companies with the obvious incentive to screw up Wi-Fi develop and deploy a potential Wi-Fi killer with no safeguards. But since the success of the unlicensed space comes from its flexibility and easy deployment, how do you not ultimately approve some version of LTE-U/LAA? Are we going to lock in Wi-Fi as the protocol for unlicensed the way LTE is the protocol for mobile wireless? That could be just as awful for the future of innovation as letting LTE-U/LAA trash the place.

 

To make sure all you Tales of the Sausage Factory Readers know what’s going on, I bring you yet another in my occasional “Insanely Long Field Guide” series. Below, I cover everything from a brief refresher on what the heck is “unlicensed spectrum” v. “licensed spectrum,” the history of what’s going on here, and why I focus on Qualcomm rather than the wireless carriers as the chief bad guys here. However, as this is too long even for me, I will need to break this up into two insanely long pieces. In Part 2, I’ll explain about the FCC, why it got involved, why this is so complicated from the FCC’s perspective, and what the FCC can do about it.

 

But first, our insanely long background briefer below . . . .

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Turns Out Our Mobile Broadband Is As Mediocre As Our Wireline Broadband.

It is time once again for folks to file comments in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) annual Notice of Inquiry on the Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Services, aka the Section 706 Report (after Section 706 of the 1996 Act) aka the data (which along with FCC Form 477) which forms the basis for the FCC’s annual “State of the Broadband” report. You can read this year’s notice here. This year’s notice is particularly good, as (befitting a more mature broadband industry than we had when we started running this in 1998), so of course all those who would prefer we set the bar low enough to give ourselves a gold star for showing up hate it. See, for example, Pai dissent here, comments of NCTA here, USTA here.

 

Which makes these two reports on the state of broadband particularly timely. According to Akami, we rank 20th in global broadband speeds. Before the broadband industry and their cheerleaders counter that we have the best mobile broadband/most extensive LTE deployment in the world, I point to this new report from OpenSignal that finds we rank 54th in global mobile network speed.

 

20th and 54th. I’m so proud. USA! USA!

 

I unpack this a little bit below . . . .

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DISH DE Debacle Part 3: What Happens Now?

In Part 1, I explained at considerable length what happened with the whole DISH DE Debacle and Why DISH owes the FCC $3.3 billion despite not having actually violated any rules. In Part 2, I explained how the FCC came to the conclusions it came to in the Order denying SNR and Northstar their DE credits but granting them their licenses.

 

Here, I will explain why (as readers have no doubt noticed) I have sympathy for DISH and why I would have done things differently – although I can’t say Wheeler was wrong. Heck, as I’ve noted many times before, I have the luxury of being neither a Commissioner nor a party with skin in the game. So take my Monday morning quarterbacking for what it’s worth.

 

More below . . .

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DISH DE Debacle Part 2: So What Did The FCC Actually Do?

In Part 1, I gave a rather lengthy explaination of the factual background why DISH now owes the FCC another $3.3 billion dollars more than the $10 billion it already owed for licenses won in the big FCC spectrum auction at the end of last year (the AWS-3 auction). Here, I give my analysis of the Order denying SNR and Northstar applications for designated entity (DE) credits. Some thoughts on broader implications, what may or may not happen next, and my personal opinion on whether the FCC was right or wrong, I save for Part 3.

 

More below . . .

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So What’s This “Designated Entity” Thing, and Why Does DISH Owe The FCC $3 bn When They Didn’t Break The Rules?

Generally, I loath the cliche “be careful what you wish for.” But I can think of no better way to describe the vast consternation in the spectrum world over the licenses won by SNR and Northstar in the AWS-3 Auction. If you don’t recognize the names off-hand, that’s because most of the time people just refer to them as the “DISH Designated Entities” or the “DISH DEs.” As detailed in many articles and petitions to deny SNR and Northstar their DE credits (totaling $3.3 billion), most people regard SNR and Northstar as “sham” or “fake” DEs, owned and controlled by DISH.

But here’s the funny thing. As far as anyone can tell from the filings, DISH, SNR and Northstar followed the precise letter of the law. And, what’s even more surprising, if you look at the results, this was the most successful auction ever for DEs. Both SNR and Northstar are minority owned (as defined by the FCC’s rules). All the “loopholes” DISH used with regard to ownership interest and bidding coordination were designed to make it easier for DE’s to get capital, win licenses, and benefit from partnering with a larger telecommunications company — which SNR and Northstar certainly did.

As a result, as noted by my usual frenemies at Phoenix Center, as measured by every traditional metric, the AWS-3 auction was the single most successful auction in awarding licenses not merely to small businesses, but to minority owned firms specifically. By every past criteria ever used, the AWS-3 auction results ought to be celebrated as a ginormous success for the DE program. Every aspect worked exactly as intended, and the result was exactly what people claimed to want. Indeed, as noted by Phoenix Center, even the $3.3 bn in bidding credits was in line with other spectrum auctions as a percentage of revenue.

Except, in classic “be careful what you wish for” fashion, when you scaled these results up to their logical outcome, no one was really happy with the result (except for DISH). Which has now prompted FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to circulate an order denying SNR and Northstar their designated entity credits. As a result, SNR and Northstar (meaning their financial backer DISH) must cough up $3.3 bn within 30 days of issuance of the Order or — unless granted a stay or extension — the licenses will revert back to the FCC. Oh yes, and the FCC might need to deduct an additional $10 bn from the auction revenue. And there might be default charges (the FCC charges a penalty for defaulting on payments so people don’t bid and hope they find the money later). Or it might get more complicated, since there has never been a clawback of this magnitude before.

 

In Part 1, I will explain what exactly happened, why DISH did not violate the rules as written and why SNR and Northstar are technically “minority owned.” Along the way, we will consider some delightful ironies about the whole business.

In Part 2, I’ll tackle why the FCC decided that it could yank the DE discount anyway, and try to figure out what happens next.

More below . . . .

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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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Welcome To The 2015 Spectrum Season!

Happy New Year faithful readers! Following in the footsteps of Congress, The Daily Show, and just about everyone else here in D.C., I’ve been on hiatus for the last month or so getting rested and rejuvenated for the exciting new year of 2015. In particular, I am extremely excited about this year’s roll out of the “Spectrum Wars” series.  To make life easier for everyone (and more entertaining for myself), I will provide some summaries of the major regulatory issues currently on the table — including what TV series they resemble. As this is primarily intended for people trying to catch up on existing proceedings, I’m not going to speculate on new things that might happen.

Enjoy below . . . .

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The Last Time The FCC Classified A Service As Title II Was 2007. Here’s How It Worked.

Predictably, as we get closer to actually adopting Title II for broadband, we see much scrambling about by folks who never seriously considered the question of how Title II would actually work because no one in the press or the opposition ever really thought it could get that far. Opponents of Title II, needless to say, describe a blasted bureaucratic Hellscape smothering broadband service with (to quote the latest missive from a bunch of House and Senate Republicans) “1000 active rules that are based on Title II, and 700 pages of the C.F.R.”

 

After 6 solid years of Republicans opting for the partisan politics of obstruction rather than engaging on substance, such ridiculous claims hardly come as a surprise. It’s also a rather silly argument given that the bulk of those rules address things that would not apply to broadband and that everyone — even Republicans — actually like: making sure  9-1-1 works reliably, fixing rural call completion problems, keeping track of phone reliability and phone outages during natural disasters, protecting the privacy of our phone calls and requiring providers to report data breaches, etc.

 

Still, even without deliberate efforts to muck things up and exaggerate things, I recognize that this whole “Title II” thing doesn’t happen every day and lots of folks have questions about what the heck does this all mean. As I (and others) have noted in the past, classification doesn’t have to be a big deal. To illustrate this, I will go back to the last time the FCC classified a service — automatic voice roaming in the wireless world — as a Title II service. As we will see, this took remarkably little effort. The FCC explicitly rejected the requirement to do rate regulation or a requirement to file tariffs with the prices and did not need to engage in any extensive forbearance. They just said “nah, we’re not gonna do that.” The final adopted rules are less than a page and a half.

 

I will also note that despite classifying automatic voice roaming as a Title II service in 2007 (and classifying mobile wireless phone service as a Title II service in 1993), the wireless industry seems to be doing OK, with more than 300 million subscribers and (as CTIA never tires of telling us) several gagillion dollars worth of capital investment.

 

The automatic voice roaming decision also provides a nice comparison with a similar service classified under NOT TITLE II some years later. In 2011, the FCC issued an Order adopting data roaming rules, but couldn’t bring itself to go the Title II route. The result was an insanely complicated “commercial reasonableness” standard which requires wireless carriers to negotiate under a bunch of vague guidelines that still allow carriers to avoid coming to an actual deal. As the D.C. Circuit pointed out in affirming this approach, the FCC needed to leave enough room for carriers to discriminate against each other to avoid triggering the “common carrier prohibition.” Recently, T-Mobile (which opposes using Title II) filed a Petition on data roaming with the FCC alleging that the existing “commercially reasonable” standard is utterly useless unless the FCC adopts a bunch of “benchmarks” and presumptions to put some teeth into the standard. Without getting into the merits of the data roaming petition (which my employer Public Knowledge supports), it is interesting to compare how the Title II automatic voice roaming worked out v. the Title III/Title I data roaming rules.

 

I do not claim that reclassifying broadband as a Title II service (which, as I have noted before, was tariffed back in the day it was Title II) is exactly comparable. Rather, I offer this as an example of the principle of the Black Swan. Just as the appearance of a single black swan falsifies the statement “all swans are white,” the hysterical ravings of the anti-net neutrality crowd that classifying something as Title II would require the FCC to impose price controls, tariffs, and the occasional human sacrifice to avert structural separation is falsified by demonstrating that the FCC has, in the past, classified services as Title II and did not impose any of these things. In fact, the Title II solution worked out much better than the NOT TITLE II alternative.

 

More detail below . . . .

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