Spectrum issues, community wireless, muni broadband

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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Those Who Love Uber Should Also Love Unlicensed Spectrum. The Paradox of “Regulatory Property.”

I’ve decided that we should have a business with a limited number of licenses to conduct the business. All the people who got their licenses for free previously will, of course, be allowed to keep them. But now they can sell them as well. When we (very rarely) make more licenses available, we will sell them at public auction because, as we all know, auctions put the scarce resource in the hands of those who will use it for its highest, best use.” Letting people simply have free access would lead to wastefulness, inefficiency and devalue the resource.

Besides, by limiting the number of licenses and auctioning them off, we the government can make a lot of money without raising taxes. True, you can argue that by artificially limiting the number of licenses to make them valuable we are essentially creating a tax on the ability to do the business — we just collect it all up front. But we don’t like that argument so we will ignore it because “auctions put the resource to its highest best use” and if it is valuable, people ought to pay for it.

No, I’m not talking about spectrum. I’m talking about taxi cabs. State and local governments license taxi cabs. This creates an artificial scarcity. As a result, as anyone who owns a Taxi medallion will tell you, they are extremely valuable. And, as one might expect, the taxi cabs that benefit from this scarcity (and the states and localities that benefit from this scarcity) are less than happy at the thought of a new competitor, like Uber or Lyft, offering a competing service. It is a windfall to these guys to allow them to offer for free what we need to acquire — either at auction or in the secondary market — for money. If they want to compete, say the taxi cabs who have medallions, let the new entrants get medallions like us. When they become available.

OK, I was talking about taxi cabs, but y’all see where this is going right?

More below . . .

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Two Years Later, The Supreme Court Still Doesn’t Want To Review Red Lion v. FCC.

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a blog post called “The Supreme Court Does Not Want To Revisit Constitutionality of Broadcast or Cable Regulation. Get OVer It and Get On With Your Lives.” I bring this up because yesterday the Supreme Court rejected without comment what some commentators saw as the most likely vehicle for such a challenge, Minority Television Project v. FCC.

 

Not only did Minority Television Project provide the opportunity to overrule Red Lion and abolish all those pesky ownership limits and public interest obligations, it framed this as an opportunity to further expand Citizens United. How could the majority possibly resist, especially given the groupthink that the Supreme Court is simply lusting to overturn Red Lion and totally deregulate the broadcast industry at the first opportunity? And yet, somehow, they resisted. The FCC’s authority to impose broadcast ownership limits (and other spectrum ownership limits for that matter) remains not only intact, but subject to the lenient “rational basis” standard of scrutiny.

 

Nevertheless the groupthink that Red Lion and Turner Broadcasting are either already dead, or very sick and going to die, remains impenetrable. It has become the classic case of the self-fulfilling prophecy. except for stuff around the edges like the non-commercial set aside at issue in this case. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, the argument that Supreme Court has overruled Red Lion (and Turner Broadcasting) and therefore we should all ignore it doesn’t need facts; it has become “factesque.”

 

I unpack this below for those who don’t live and breathe this stuff.

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My Handy Guide To The May 15 FCC Meeting: What The Heck Is An Open FCC Mtg And How Does It Work?

Even before Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on possible new net neutrality rules to replace the ones vacated by the D.C. Cir. the May 15 Open Meeting of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promised to be one of the more important meetings in recent memory.  As a result, it has become one of the more contentious in recent memory as well.

 

In addition to the net neutrality NPRM, we have an Order deciding key issues for the upcoming incentive auction (aka the 600 MHz auction, aka that really complicated thing where we pay broadcasters to get off spectrum they got for free by simultaneously selling it to wireless companies for mobile broadband). This mega item has two fairly important side pieces from my perspective: the future of unlicensed use in the TV broadcast bands (aka the TV white spaces (TVWS) aka “super wifi” aka “engineers will never be allowed to name anything ever again”) and possible limits on how much spectrum any one company can acquire (aka the “no piggies rule” aka spectrum aggregation policies aka “lawyers are not allowed to name anything ever again either”). The TVWS item has its own satellite proceeding about wireless microphones and coexistence between wireless mics and unlicensed use in an ever shrinking broadcast band.

 

So for those of you first timers, and those of you who have gone so long without a contentious FCC meeting you’ve forgotten how it’s done, I’ve prepared this helpful guide on “what is an open FCC meeting and how does it work.”

 

Mechanics of the meeting below . . .

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New Alliance of Orgs To Promote WiFi As Totally Awesome.

To calm myself from the news of the proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable by Comcast, I will return to my happy place — spectrum policy. Specifically, stuff that promotes unlicensed spectrum as totally awesome. (Sorry, I just saw the Lego Movie so now everything is awesome!)

Lost in the big news of the Comcast/TWC acquisition last week was the announcement of the launch of WiFi Forward. WiFi Forward brings a bunch of companies and organizations that use WiFi heavily — cable companies, tech companies, the American Library Association, Best Buy, and others (you can find the list here).  You can also watch this 3 minute news video by the Wall St. Journal which talks about the coalition (and the notable absence of Verizon and AT&T, despite the fact that they use WiFi fairly heavily).

Although the group is called “WiFi Forward,” it is about promoting unlicensed spectrum generally and not just WiFi or TV white spaces. However, try saying “unlicensed spectrum” to a random person and you get a blank look, whereas everyone knows about WiFi as the home of the Great Intelligence. OK, not the most positive example.

 

Totally Awesome Resources!

Of immediate relevance to advocates for more unlicensed spectrum is the Resource Page.  In particular, I recommend the report by Dr. Raul Katz on the contribution of unlicensed spectrum to the overall economy. For those unwilling to read the full report, a look at the Executive Summary or just this infographic gives the big headline — unlicensed spectrum (all of it, not just WiFi) provided $222 billion in economic value to the U.S. economy in 2013. That includes about $36 billion saved by consumers from having WiFi in their homes (and thus avoiding data overages and having access to cool stuff).

 

That’s a fairly big number. One worth keeping in mind when you see rather foolish statements about how the value of unlicensed spectrum is inherently limited. While George Ford (author of the piece) acknowledges that “both licensed and unlicensed spectrum have significant value to consumers,” the statement that “the value of spectrum commons is limited because of the poor incentives that go along with them” appears refuted by actual facts. (Part of the problem, of course, is that unlicensed spectrum is no more a “commons” than it is “property.” But explaining this unfortunate failure of metaphor and the intellectual traps that have resulted requires a much longer piece.)

 

Anyway, it would be a shame for WiFi Forward to get lost in the other news from last week.

 

Stay tuned . . .

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Globalstar’s Stellar Chutzpah: Trying To Hold Up New Free WiFi To Leverage “Licensed WiFi.”

 

A very few of us have paid much attention to something called the “Globalstar Petition.” Briefly, Globalstar would like a couple of billion dollars in free spectrum favors from the FCC to offer what it calls a “Terrestrial Low-Power Service” (TLPS) on its satellite frequencies. As Globalstar has the great good fortune to have frequencies right next to the 2.4 GHz band most popular for WiFi, Globalstar hopes to leverage existing WiFi equipment and offer a “paid, carrier grade” WiFi-like service.

 

Recently, Globalstar attracted my negative attention by trying to leverage a fairly important FCC proceeding to expand unlicensed spectrum use above 5 GHz. Globalstar has raised bogus interference issues in the 5 GHz proceeding, and rather unsubtly suggested to the FCC that it could solve the WiFi “traffic jam” by granting Globalstar’s Petition for spectrum goodies so we could have a pay for WiFi service instead of having more of that pesky free WiFi (you can find Globalstar’s extremely unsubtle quotes here on page 3 and here on page 2.

 

So it seems an opportune moment to explain:

 

  1. What’s going on with the Globalstar Petition;

 

  1. What’s going on with the UNII-1 Band in the 5 GHz proceeding;

 

  1. How Globalstar are being utterly unsubtle in their efforts to hold the 5 GHz proceeding to try to leverage their ask in their Petition; and,

 

  1. How Globalstar’s jerkwad-ittude in the UNII-1 proceeding raises serious concerns about Globalstar’s willingness to play nice with the 2.4 GHz band, which could undermine the entire “WiFi economy.”

 

More on Globalstar’s truly stellar chutzpah, and why the FCC may want to rethink granting the Globalstar Petition, below . . . .

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