Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Begins Inquiry Into Arbitron Portable People Meter

Sometime back back, I noted the flap over the Arbitron Portable People Meter and the Petition by the Minority Media Telecommunications Council (MMTC) for the FCC to take action. The FCC put the Petition out on public notice last September, and has now issued a Notice of Inquiry on the matter.

As always, the questions are (a) why do we care about this? and (b) Even if we care, does the Commission have authority to do anything? In answering this last time, I observed: (a) we care because the entire economics of the radio industry are driven by ratings, and the FCC’s own rules rely on Arbitron ratings for a number of purposes, and (b) the FCC can always investigate anything related to its areas of jurisdiction. At worst, it provides a good forum for debate and an opportunity to tell Congress “Yo! this is important, somebody needs to do something about this for these reasons.” these are pretty much the conclusions the FCC comes to in its Notice. After observing in footnote 1 that it has broad powers to investigate, the Commission frames the questions as:

This NOI investigates the impact of PPM methodology on the broadcast industry as well as whether the audience ratings data is sufficiently accurate and reliable to merit the Commission’s own reliance on it in its rules, policies and procedures.

I am hopeful that we see a good, robust debate here although I don’t expect anything in the way of Earth-shattering revelations. There is an interesting problem of what information Arbitron will reveal about its processes, and whether the Commission will provide some assurances that it will keep proprietary information out of the public record. If it does, it makes it much harder for those who say the process is unfair to respond. But if it doesn’t, it’s analysis is going to be incomplete.

Mind you, it’s not at all clear what authority the FCC has over Arbitron directly. But the FCC can take certain actions if it doesn’t like what it sees, giving Arbitron incentive to play and try to resolve concerns. The FCC can declare Arbitron unreliable and no longer rely on it for regulatory determinations. That’s not exactly the kind of publicity you want if you make your living based on the accuracy of your ratings system. Alternatively, if the FCC doesn’t see anything wrong, it can always conclude that Arbitron remains acceptable for the FCC’s purposes. That will be of enormous assistance to Arbitron in removing any cloud over its rating system.

Bottom line, the NOI is a smart move by the Copps FCC on multiple levels. It doesn’t assert any authority, it doesn’t prejudge, and it services an important Democratic constituency. Hopefully, Arbitron and its critics will use the FCC as a neutral forum to develop an mutually acceptable solution.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Auction Pre-Game: Just A Bit More Unseemly (and perhaps untimely) Gloating . . . .

So last summer, as we debated the rules for the upcoming 700 MHz Auction, one of the big questions we at PISC repeatedly kept getting asked was “so who is really going to show up to bid?” Especially on controversial issues like open access (and even its wussier cousin, device open access), block size (have big blocks and combinatorial bidding, or maximize smaller blocks), and anonymous bidding, the incumbents all kept repeating over and over again how any deviation from previous rules would keep people from bidding and the auction would be a failure and everyone would hate us forever. Commissioner McDowell reiterated these criticisms (at least with regard to the open device conditions on C Block) in his dissenting statement:

Curiously, however, in an effort to favor a specific business plan, the majority has fashioned a highly-tailored garment that may fit no one. It’s not what Silicon Valley wants; it’s not what smaller players have told me they want; and it’s not what rural companies want. To date, the Commission has received no assurances that any company is actually interested in bidding on the encumbered spectrum. Not one.

Because, of course, everyone knew Google wasn’t going to bid, the DBS companies weren’t going to be real players, and if anyone new was planning to show up, there was no sign of it. Even those most eager to see new competitors emerge (and who ultimately supported the PISC proposals) had their doubts and looked for as much reassurance as possible before taking a leap of faith that we were right.

Well, the FCC just released the list of applicants to bid in the upcoming 700 MHz auction. A total of 266 potential bidders filed (the bulk of the forms are “incomplete” due to procedural defects that will be corrected, but this is pretty standard). That’s more than the 252 potential applicants that showed up at this stage for the “wildly competitive” and “highly successful” AWS auction in August ’06. The list includes Google, Frontline, Echostar, and — as I kept insisting — a number of companies that could not possibly be predicted as bidders until bidding rules were actually determined and potential bidders got to assess whether they had a chance or not.

Towerstream is an excellent example of this last type of bidder. No one could possibly predict that they would show up, and many folks still can’t believe it. But Towerstream CEO Jeff Thompson cites the FCC “embracing the open access model supported by Google” as making the spectrum a “natural fit” for his entreprenurial wireless broadband company, and credits the FCC for making the auction amenable to new bidders. Nor is Thompson alone. A host of newcommers apears to have found the rules attractive enough to make it worthwhile to ante up for a chance to play.

We must still see what happens, of course. I can recall all the pre-game prediction for the AWS auction, where the most valuable licenses ended up in the hands of the usual suspects. In many ways, this is working out like my waiting to see if the Patriots complete a perfect season or if the Red Sox would win the World Series. There is lots of room still for things to go badly. But I can’t help but feel a happy, warm contented glow (and breathe a quiet sigh of relief) that I don’t have to answer the age old question “what if we throw a party and no one shows up?”

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

Well, Yeah, Actually, I Am Gloating…

I try not to gloat, but it’s impossible not to take a certain amount of satisfaction in the Wall Street Journal‘s confirmation on Nov. 16 that Google intends to bid in the 700 MHz auction in January, regardless of whether it has partners in a bidding consortium. This confirms my prediction back on August 2 in Econoklastic that Chairman Martin’s refusal to impose a wholesale open access condition on the C block would not prevent Google from bidding, despite naysayers in the press and on Wall Street.

The underlying reality is that Google needs a third broadband pipe to escape imposition of monopoly rents by the wireline and cable carriers, since net neutrality provisions with real enforcement teeth are nowhere to be seen on the horizon: that means do it themselves or get someone to do it for them. That reality hasn’t changed, and the guys at Google clearly recognise this fact. I am equally heartened by assurances from Google counsel Rick Whitt at a conference in NYC week before last that Google still intends to implement its full wholesale open access business plan over any spectrum it obtains in the 700 MHz auction.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Endgame: Wholesale Open Access Down, But Not Quite Out.

Yesterday, the House Commerce Committee held its FCC Oversight hearing. As expected, the 700 MHz auction attracted a great deal of attention. As I wrote in previous entries, this was make or break time for wholesale open access. If Commerce Committee Chair John Dingell (D-Michigan) and Telecom Subcommittee Chair Ed Markey (D-MA) voiced strong support, that might push Martin to adopt full wholesale open access in light of Google’s commitment to bid. OTOH, if the House Dems did not back wholesale, then Martin would be unlikely to budge.

Dingel and Markey did not back wholesale open access. Indeed, Dingell backed off slightly from his previous hard-line stance on even device open access (aka, “open access-lite” aka the “Martin plan”), asking for assurances that including such a condition would not hurt auction revenue or limit bidding. Markey, while enthusiastically supporting device open access and suggesting ways to improve it and make it effective, did not mention wholesale at all.

The biggest supporter of wholesale open access was Mike Doyle (D-PA), who gets a huge Sausage Factory cheer for stepping up to the challenge. You can see a clip of him asking the Commissioners where they stand on wholesale open access here. The good news is that Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathon Adelstein remained staunch in their defense of wholesale open access as a means of encouraging competition and deployment. Intriguingly, Martin did not slam the idea, but said this was not the place to do it because he had concerns about the incentives for network build out of wholesalers. McDowell remained adamant against (as he did against even Martin’s device open access proposal), although McDowell praised the pending FCC proceeding to open the broadcast “white spaces” for unlicensed use (which I hope he remembers when the time comes). Tate did not answer Doyle’s question (no time), but elsewhere said she was keeping an “open mind” on device open access.

Republicans, with the exception of Pickering (R-Miss) slammed Martin hard for supporting even device open access. To his credit, Martin defended the idea that the auction was not about maximizing revenue but about getting the best policy. But the near-uniform opposition to any conditions on licenses by Republicans, combined with the silence of key Democrats on wholesale, puts Martin in a real bind.

So what happens now? Are there any cards left to play, rabbits to pull out of hats, or Corbemite maneuvers to run that could still save wholesale open access. Yes, but they are very long odds indeed. With the vote now scheduled for July 31, we are just after the two minute warning and down a touchdown and a field goal.

More analysis below . . . .

Read More »

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