Tales of the Sausage Factory

AT&T to FCC: “I double dare you to show you’re serious about wireless competition.”

Rarely do you see companies double-dare the FCC to back up their brave talk about promoting competition. That is, however, what AT&T has just decided to do – with a little help from Verizon. After gobbling a ton of spectrum last year in a series of small transactions, AT&T announced earlier this week it would buy up ATNI, which holds the last shreds of the old Alltel Spectrum. To top this off, Verizon just announced it has selected the purchaser for the 700 MHz spectrum it promised to sell off to get permission to buy the SpectrumCo spectrum. And guess what? The purchaser of the bulk of Verizon’s 700 MHz licenses, which Verizon promised to divest to promote competition – is AT&T!

 

In the last few months, we have seen billions of dollars in new investment as a result of the FCC’s decision to deny AT&T/T-Mo, force Verizon to divest in VZ/SpectrumCo, and otherwise draw some lines in the sand against further consolidation and to promote competition. For reasons I explain below, this transaction crosses just about every single red line the FCC (and Department of Justice (DoJ)) have ever indicated they had about wireless spectrum concentration. The question is — will the FCC (or DoJ) actually do anything about it?

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Eliminating Handset Exclusivity Drops the Price of Cell Phones; or “How Is A BlackBerry Like A Pill?”

Back in February, I bought a Samsung Omnia and regretted it almost immediately thereafter. So when my touch screen finally died, I resolved to get a BlackBerry Curve 8330, as my wife has one and recommended it. Yes, she is on Sprint and I am on Verizon, but you can get the same model on both networks.

I was totally unprepared for the sticker shock. $450. Why? Because I was not eligible to buy new equipment. Did I want a replacement Omnia? No, I decided I really did hate my Omnia $450 worth. Out of curiosity, I asked how much it would cost if I were getting a new contract. Answer: $150, plus a $100 rebate.

Verizon claims here in policy land that this represents a subsidy, which they can only do if they have handset exclusivity. Mind you, this model is not actually exclusive, but let that go. Could it really be that Verizon subsidizes my phone $400? That seems an awful lot. So I decided I would look on Best Buy, assuming that it would represent the actual unsubsidized retail price. So I went to bestbuy.com and plugged in Blackberry Curve 8330. Sure enough, the price for the Verizon phone was $499, close enough to $450 to make Verizon’s subsidy claim feasible.

Then I noticed something odd. The same model phone, but for Alltel, cost $680, for Sprint, $750, and for MetroPCS, $400. Why should the same model phone, purchased at the same place, have such a wild swing in price? Remember, these are the prices without the subsidies for buying a new contract, so it can’t be the difference in what the companies chose to provide. The Best Buy price should reflect the unsubsidized retail price. The only difference, in theory, is the plan, (unless we are pretending to make the same model available to every provider and really aren’t). How could the wireless plan make such a difference?

Then it occurred to me where else I’ve seen this dynamic. Go to the drug store and you can see three people getting exactly the same prescription. But one pays $10, another pays $120, and the third pays $500. How is that possible?

Before elaborating below, I will first make it clear that I am rather short on critical data because most of the critical data is proprietary. So what I’ve got is a tentative hypothesis based on observed facts rather than something I can say with certainty. But it is enough for me to say: “Hey! FCC! Go and use your regulatory powers to get the providers to fork over the necessary data to see if I’m right.”

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Commission Meeting Happens! Begins With Gifts To Verizon and AT&T . . . .

O.K., we finally started at 3:50 p.m. Three items left, VZ/Alltel, New Clearwire, and White Spaces. I’ll split tdo my happy dance on his in two, so I can gripe about the suckiness of the mergers while doing my happy dance on white spaces unsullied by this market consolidation.

Details of merger suckiness below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

2:30 P.M., Still No Meeting . . . .

O.K., I hope tonight’s election results go better. Rumor is the hold up is on roaming conditions in the VZ/Alltel merger. Still, after the DOJ approved the merger with a few divestitures, there was no doubt that the FCC will roll over. The only question is whether Tate or McDowell will side with the Ds to exact some additional conditions for the benefit of the rural carriers or competitors. Hence the speculation that this involves roaming. But I still expect a vote today. You can almost hear the Verizon charatcer in the Alltel ads whispering “Soon Chad . . . .soon you will share your circle for the last time . . . . you ding dong.”

While we wait, here are some preliminary thoughts about the items.

Here’s the original agenda. The FCC dropped item 1, Universal Service/Intercarrier Compensation (USF/ICC), and voted the item on distributed television systems (DTS) and closed captioning on circulation.

Of these, the voted items were fairly non-controversial. DTS is designed to address the fact that DTV signals don’t work the same way as analog, and will allow broadcasters to maintain their audience after the conversion. The only possible pitfall was whether it would allow broadcasters to expand their footprint which would (a) eat into the available white spaces, and (b) give them yet more free spectrum goodies for no good reason. My info is that the order will emphasize that the intent is to maintain the status quo ante transition. I have no idea on the closed captioning item.

That leaves USF/ICC. USF/ICC is a huge mess of biblical proportions that causes even a hardened policy wonk like me to quail and flee the room screaming. It is famously broken, everyone hates it, but no one can agree on how to fix it. There is absolutely no right answer, and any piece of it impacts all the other pieces.

What is interesting is that this created another 4-1 revolt by the other offices against Martin. While I give Martin credit for trying to get hideously controversial stuff done, you are clearly doing something wrong if you have managed to uniformly piss off all four Commissioners to the point where they are making pointed public statements that boil down to “Kevin, you ain’t the boss of me.” It is always hard for a Chairman to get stuff done in the last months of an administration, but unless Martin and the other offices figure out a way to get along, it is going to be a very viscious and unproductive couple of months until January 21.

The delay on this meeting, which caught Martin totally by surprise, is not exactly an auspicious omen.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Live Blogging the FCC Vote — What If They Called A Vote and Nobody Came?

So here I am, waiting for the white spaces vote, votes on the merger items, and a few other things. The FCC adopted two orders on circulation already — an item on closed captioning and an item on distributed television systems, a technology that will allow digital television broadcasters to keep their current viewers after the transition (I will explain this later). Given that Martin pulled the USF/Intercarrier comp itemyesterday at the insistence of the other Commissioners, that leaves (a) The Verizon/Alltel deal, (b) the New Clearwire deal, (c) the white spaces item, and (d) Google’s pending petition to have the FCC put some teeth into the C block conditions before granting the licenses to Verizon.

The meeting was scheduled for 11 a.m. It’s now after 12:30 p.m. Martin was down here for about an hour before heading back upstairs again. He appeared surprised at the delay.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Worsht Ex Parte Ever: I Gloat Over Latest D.C. Cir. Case on a Procedural Point

One of the constant irritants for me and others trying to follow what happens at the FCC is the problem of “the too brief ex parte.” Under the Commission’s rules (47 C.F.R. 1.1200, et seq), when a party meets with FCC staff on an open proceeding, the party is supposed to submit into the record a written statement providing a summary of the conversation. This is called a “notice of oral ex parte presentation” in FCC-speak, but we usually shorten this to just ex parte. By rule, the ex parte should provide a reasonable explanation of what took place so that a reader can get a sense of the argument made (although you can refer back to a previous filing to avoid repetition). In practice, however, you usually get nonsense like this piece of garbage from Alltel which wins the Comic Book Guy Award for “Worsht Ex Parte Ever.”

So it was with a considerable amount of schadenfreude that I saw the D.C. Circuit whomp Sprint/Nextel for producing crappy ex parte‘s that failed to provide a record of their no doubt numerous detailed conversations with Commission staff. This failure to leave a record resulted in dismissal of Sprint’s case and may cost it many billions of dollars.

More gloating below . . . .

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Econoklastic

700 MHz: Breaking the C Block Package

I apologise for the hiatus between this and my last 700 MHz Auction update, but with 36,419 bids over 261 rounds, analysing the data set is taking a bit of time.

Among the several controversies arising the from now-completed auction has been ATT’s claim that bidders were deterred from bidding on C Block because of the open access rules imposed on the block. I can say with confidence that this is a bald-faced lie.

Twenty-six companies bid on C Block spectrum: Alltel Corporation, AST Telecom, LLC, AT&T Mobility Spectrum, LLC, Bluewater Wireless, L.P., Cellco Partnership d/b/a Verizon Wireless, Cellular South Licenses, Inc., CHEVRON USA INC., Choice Phone LLC, Club 42 CM Limited Partnership, Copper Valley Wireless, Inc., Cox Wireless, Inc., Cricket Licensee 2007, LLC, Google Airwaves Inc., King Street Wireless, L.P., Thomas K. Kurian, MetroPCS 700 MHz, LLC, NatTel, LLC, PTI Pacifica, Inc., Pulse Mobile LLC, QUALCOMM Incorporated, SAL Spectrum, LLC, SeaBytes, L.L.C., Small Ventures USA, L.P., Triad 700, LLC, Vulcan Spectrum LLC, and Xanadoo 700 MHz DE, LLC.

Note that the lying buggers at ATT bid on REAGs 2 and 4. They were deterred, but only by Verizon’s deeper pockets.

The interesting dynamic in C Block is the effect of combinatorial bidding on the outcome. Under the combinatorial bidding rules three packages of REAGs were available (the 50 state package, the Atlantic package, and the Pacific package) as well as the individual REAGs. The rules provided that so long as the bid on a package exceeded the total amount of the bids on all the individual REAGs in that package, the package bidder would win (assuming that the package bid reached the reserve price). If the total amount bid on the individual REAGs exceeded the package bid in a round, then the package was “broken” and the package bidder wouldn’t be required to take any REAGs if it couldn’t have the whole package (this was to prevent a bidder who wanted a national footprint from getting stuck with less if another bidder outbid on one or two crucial components of the package).

Echostar was a strong proponent of combinatorial bidding, insisting that they wouldn’t show up and bid if the C Block did have a combinatorial bidding rule. Oddly enough, they got the rule and then their bidding entity, Frontier Wireless, didn’t even show in C Block bidding (they bid mainly in E Block without combinatorial bidding). But what they inadvertently did was screw at least one major bidder with the combinatorial bidding rules they insisted on.

More below…

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

We Interrupt This CES Convention For A Breaking 700 MHz News Item

I’m out here at the Consumer electronic Show with actual blogger credentials (primarily so I can get the free back pack and use the blogger lounge). So, of course, we get major 700 MHz Auction news today before I can even start to do CES blogging.

As reported by my fellow PISC-ER Gregory Rose and elsewhere, Frontline Wireless has dropped out of the bidding. That’s kind of a surprise, given how Frontline fought to get a designated entity credit and still pursue wholesale as a real business model. It’s also impossible to say (at the moment at least) why Frontline self-destructed at the last minute.

Leaving aside the Frontline specifics, the big question is “how will this impact the auction” and “will we see wholesale emerge at all as a model.” Unsurprisingly, most analysts are going conventional and saying (a) D block (which Frontline had targeted) may not attract bids to meet the reserve price, and (c) This makes it even less likely we will see a new entrant, let alone a wholesale new entrant.

Also as usual, I will play the contrarian here. D Block is still very attractive to the conventional carriers looking to get national footprint or others looking for national footprint and willing to work with public safety. If AT&T and Verizon are both serious about this auction (and indications are that they are), both may push hard for D Block — especially if C Block is competitive.

On the new entrant side, it still remains to be seen what Vulcan and Google will do. Even if — as I suspect — Google wants to win the network but not build out, it may find D Block attractive. As holder of D Block, Google could still negotiate with third pary carriers (such as Alltel, US Cellular or even Sprint or T-Mobile) to build the network on its terms and to the satisfaction of public safety. The much lower price of D Block would offset the the aggravation of working with public safety and ensuring that their needs come first.

Finally, there’s Towerstream and the other wild cards like Qualcom. Who knows what they intend, especially given the likely competitiveness for C Block.

So while I’m sorry to see Frontline go, I don’t think it hurts the odds for a very competitive auction or a new entrant. It does potentially make a wholesale network more of a stretch, because Frontline was really the only bidder gung-ho on the model (Google being traditionally in favor of wholesale but making no promises at this point beyond “open”). That’s a shame, but not devestating or fatal to a new entrant.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

Part IIa — Who's Who in 700 MHz: the New Entrants

Let’s start with a profile of the new entrants to the 700 MHz auction. Part IIb will profile the potential bidders who were active in the two Lower 700 MHz auctions and the AWS-1 auction.

The Big Guys

I sound a little crazy calling AT&T Mobility Spectrum, LLC, a new entrant, but this AT&T subsidiary technically didn’t exist during previous auctions, although it is essentially Cingular beefed up with AT&T’s Aloha Partners acquisitions from the Lower 700 MHz auctions. It comes to the table holding the most spectrum of any 700 MHz bidder. More detail on possible ATT plans in Part III, but it could range from support of rural telcos with whom it has existing roaming agreements in the A and B Blocks to major challenges for the C Block REAGs or the D Block nationwide license.

Alltel Corporation, the major U.S. cellular company, did extremely well in the PCS auctions, but sat out the AWS-1 and Lower 700 MHz auctions. It’s also a little odd to call Alltel a new entrant, but it’s been a while since it has participated in an auction and it qualifies under the definition of not participating in the run-up auctions to 700 MHz. Look for Alltel to have interests at play in A, B, C, and E Blocks, and I would not rule out the possibility of a try for the D Block nationwide license, although I consider this unlikely.

Licenseco, LLC, is the name under which Frontline is bidding. This is a major D block competitor.

Backline is the name under which Fortress Investments Group is bidding. It brings substantial financial clout to the table and may be a significant C Block actor, although it is unlikely to be a D Block competitor because of an agreement with Frontline.

Chevron USA Inc., the major energy company, automatically becomes a serious competitor because of its financial resources, but I think it will concentrate on Gulf of Mexico CMAs and EAs or the Gulf REAG to support its fields there, much in the way PetroCom License Corporation did in the AWS-1 auction.

Google Airwaves Inc., Google’s bidding entity, singlehandedly changed the nature of the 700 MHz auction by pushing for wireless Carterfone and open, nondiscriminatory wholesale network access conditions. They got the wireless Carterfone condition from the FCC and they insist that they will use an open, nondiscriminatory wholesale network business plan to put together a third broadband pipe. They will definitely be going for the C Block REAGs and possibly some complementary A, B, and E Block spectrum with deep pockets.

More below…

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The 700 MHz Auction as the Next Front In the Cable/Telco War.

There are many ways to parse the fights in the 700 MHz auction: incumbents v. new entrants, rural v. large incumbents, public safety v. commercial use, and the occassional suggestion by us in the public interest community. But, as I recently indicated elsewhere, an analysis of the band plan fight about large licenses v. small licenses reveals another interesting battle: Telcos v. Cable, with new entrants lining up with Telcos for large licenses and non-vertically integrated wireless carriers like T-Mobile aligning themselves with the cable-dominated consortium SpectrumCo.

What makes me believe license size in 700 MHz auction has become a new front in the fight between telcos and cable cable cos? Why has this new battleground emerged? And what are its implications?

See below . . . .

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