Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cleveland and the Return Of Broadband Redlining.

I am the last person to deny anyone a good snarky gloat. So while I don’t agree entirely with AT&T’s policy blog post taking a jab at reports of Google Fiber stumbling in deployment, I don’t deny they’re entitled to a good snarky blog post. (Google, I point out, denies any disappointment or plans to slow down.) “Broadband investment is not for the feint hearted,”

 

But the irony faeries love to make sport. The following week National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) had a blog post of their own. Using the publicly available data from the FCC’s Form 477 Report, NDIA showed that in Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods (which are also predominantly African American), AT&T does not offer wireline broadband better than 1.5 mbps DSL – about the same speed and quality since they first deployed DSL in the neighborhood. This contrasts with AT&T’s announcement last month that it will now make its gigabit broadband service available in downtown Cleveland and certain other neighborhoods.

 

Put more clearly, if you live in the right neighborhood in Cleveland, AT&T will offer you broadband access literally 1,000 times faster than what is available in other neighborhoods in Cleveland. Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the history of redlining, the neighborhoods with crappy broadband availability are primarily poor and primarily African American. Mind you, I don’t think AT&T is deliberately trying to be racist about this. They are participating in the HUD program to bring broadband to low-income housing, for example.

 

There are two important, but rather different issues here — one immediate to AT&T, one much more broadly with regard to policy. NDIA created the maps to demonstrate that a significant number of people who qualify for the $5 broadband for those on SNAP support that AT&T committed to provide as a condition of its acquisition of DIRECTV can’t get it because the advertised broadband in their neighborhood is soooo crappy that they fall outside the merger condition (the merger requires AT&T to make it available in areas where they advertise availability of 3 mbps). Based on this article from CNN Money, it looks like AT&T is doing the smart thing and voluntarily offering the discount to those on SNAP who don’t have access to even 3 mbps AT&T DSL.

 

The more important issue is the return of redlining on a massive scale. Thanks to improvements the FCC has made over the years in the annual mandatory broadband provider reporting form (Form 477), we can now construct maps like this for neighborhoods all over the country, and not just from AT&T. As I argued repeatedly when telcos, cable cos and Silicon Valley joined forces to enact “franchise reform” deregulation in 2005-07 that eliminated pre-existing anti-redlining requirements – profit maximizing firms are gonna act to maximize profit. They are not going to spend money upgrading facilities if they don’t consider it a good investment.

 

Again, I want to make clear that there is nothing intrinsically bad or good about AT&T. Getting mad at companies for behaving in highly predictable ways based on market incentives is like getting mad at cats for eating birds in your backyard. And while I have no doubt we will see the usual deflections that range from “but Google-“ to “mobile gives these neighborhoods what they need” (although has anyone done any actual, systemic surveys of whether we have sufficient towers and backhaul in these neighborhoods to provide speed and quality comparable to VDSL or cable?) to “just wait for 5G,” the digital inequality continues. I humbly suggest that, after 10 years of waiting and blaming others, perhaps we need a new policy approach.

 

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Is Fear of Wireless Foreclosure “Speculative?” Depends. Is this About Intent Or Effect?

Recently, the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice  (DOJ) filed these comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the proceeding on spectrum aggregation limits (aka spectrum screen v. spectrum cap). The DOJ comments have some good stuff about the economics of the wireless industry and competition (in a theoretical way), and about why it is important to make sure potential competitors have spectrum, particularly low-band spectrum. Mostly, DOJ’s argument rests on the idea of “foreclosure,” that a wireless firm will bid on licenses at auction just to keep them out of the hands of competitors.

Asked about this on a recent earnings call, VZ CFO Fran Shammo basically said that there is no evidence that Verizon is bidding on licenses just to keep them out of the hands of rivals, so DOJ’s argument is “theoretical” and the FCC should not adopt any limits.

VZ basically argues that we should not worry about possible foreclosure unless there is evidence of an actual intent to foreclose. This treats a spectrum screen (and concern about foreclosure) as a precaution against bad actors. As long as bidding on licenses at auction makes sense for reasons other than foreclosure, and there is no evidence of any intent to foreclose, then everything should be just fine even if the outcome has the same effect as a foreclosure strategy (e.g., competitors don’t have enough spectrum to offer viable competing services.)

But the Communications Act does not work this way. Specifically, Section 309(j)(3)(B). Whether Verizon (or any other carrier’s) intent is as pure as the driven snow, or black as any comic opera villain, does not matter one iota. What matters is whether we avoid a “concentration of licenses” and “disseminate licenses among a wide variety of applicants” so that we “promot[e] economic opportunity and competition and ensur[e] that new and innovative technologies are readily accessible to the American people.”

As I will discuss below, the evidence from the 700 MHz auction and subsequent transactions demonstrates that we are feeling the effects of foreclosure, regardless of whether there was an actual intent to foreclose. As a result, the DOJ concern is not “theoretical,” but very real.

 

More below . . .

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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

AT&T, Anger Management and Spectrum Legislation

Based on recent statements, it’s hard to tell whose angrier at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its Chair, Julius Genachowski: AT&T’s Upper Management or the House Commerce Committee Republicans. Mere mention of Genachowski’s name converts House Commerce Committee Republicans, such as Telecom Subcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR), from urbane sophisticated legislators into sputtering mad parodies of Elmer Fudd.  “Oooh that wascally Chaiwman! Always wegulating the fwee market! I’ll fix his wagon!” Meanwhile, AT&T CEO Randal Stephenson devoted the main part of his recent earnings call to repeating variations on “Juliuth, you’re desthpicable.”

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why DoJ’s Win Against H&R Block Is Bad News For AT&T/T-Mo.

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DoJ) just won its lawsuit to block H&R Block from acquiring its smaller, “maverick” competitor Tax Act. Even with the actual Order sealed for a month to let parties scrub out the trade secrets, a few important things stand out for why this is good news for DoJ in its lawsuit to block AT&T taking over T-Mo. In sports terms, this is like DoJ having a super strong exhibition season going into the regular season of play. While you still need to play the games to see who wins, anyone facing them ought to be worried.

My major takeaways from what we know so far below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Will Wall St. Put The Kibosh On The AT&T/T-Mo Takeover Before the DoJ Does?

The more I see AT&T frantically spend money like water and call in every political chip it has to try to pressure the Department of Justice to settle its case, the more I become convinced that it will ultimately be the Wall St. financial community that will finally persuade Randal  Stephenson to give up before AT&T gets to trial. Oh, I expect to see more wild gyrations. There’s perpetual whispers that AT&T will find a dance partner in the form of MetroPCS (the current favorite of the rumor mongers) or Leap or U.S. Cellular (one even occasionally hears Sprint, but that doesn’t even pass the laugh test) and they will publicly announce some big proposed settlement so that AT&T’s political friends and its cadre of honest politicians can howl some more for DoJ to settle. Who knows? We have five months until trial, and AT&T seems infinitely capable of making all sorts of political noise.

But the more I look at it, the more convinced I become that the upper management at AT&T and that of T-Mobile’s parent, Deutsche Telekom (DT), have not really thought through just what kind of a settlement they would now have to offer and how radically different it is from what AT&T expected to offer before DoJ brought suit. A settlement now is far, far more expensive than anything AT&T envisioned and quietly vetted with Wall St. analysts back in March. Back then, AT&T expected to divest from 30-50 midsized markets via a divestiture trust (allowing them to sell licenses at profit-maximizing prices over time), some wussy roaming and deployment conditions that could be easily evaded or ignored. Now, AT&T will need to divest enough to create a “T-Mo Lite,” something that can at least pretend to replace the loss of a national carrier. As I explain below, that becomes so expensive and complicated that even if AT&T can find the financing to make it happen, its stock is likely to tank on the mere announcement of such a deal.

Mind you, I am not saying a settlement is desirable or good policy. I continue to believe that AT&T’s take over of T-Mobile is so thoroughly awful as a mater of both antitrust and telecom policy that no conditions or divestitures can save it. But even discounting my opinion on the matter, there are certain practical realities that make a settlement at this point not merely bad policy, but so expensive and complicated to manage that it is effectively impossible.

If I’m right, the only question is how much shareholder money and political capital AT&T spends lobbying for a settlement that can’t be done for financial reasons before enough officers on the AT&T and DT Boards sit down AT&T CEO Randal Stephenson and DT CEO Rene Obermann and explain to them that the time has come to face reality, renegotiate the break up fee to let DT out early, and cut their loses before AT&T stock starts to tank big time.

I demonstrate why below. Warning, as this is a “show your work” thing, it’s kinda long . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Deutsche Telekom Keeps Messing Up “T-Mo Is Doomed Unless AT&T Buys It” Song By Explaining Who Else Could Buy T-Mo

 Two weeks ago, Deutsche Telekom (DT) Chief Technology Officer Olivier Baujard accidentally spoke truth about T-Mobile to an audience of German investment analysts. After running through the usual company talking points about the effort to sell T-Mobile to AT&T (e.g., it will happen, DoJ is just playing hardball with negotiations, etc.), Baujard said at a public presentation at a Paris broadband conference that: “any rational company had a Plan B and that Deutsche Telekom had other opportunities for its U.S. operations should the U.S. Department of Justice succeed in terminating the deal.”

This is vitally important because, after accidentally shooting the “this is the only way to bring 4G to rural America” argument in the foot by accidentally leaking documents proving AT&T could bring 4G to rural America whenever it wants, and T-Mobile killed the ‘this will create jobs’ argument by confirming that it was preparing pink slips for more than 20,000 employees after the acquisition gets approved, the “T-Mobile is a sickly gazelle” argument is about all AT&T and it supporters have left. Unfortunately for AT&T, this is not the first time Deutsche Telekom has screwed up the “sickly gazelle” storyline by revealing inconvenient truths about its other options. And while there is usually a rule in Washington that “we totally ignore what you say to investors when it contradicts your chosen story,” this deal is sufficiently high profile and has sufficient problems that eventually someone may notice if AT&T’s “Sickly Gazelle Chorus” keeps getting thrown off key by Deutsche Telekom’s “We Have Lots of Other Options Counterpoint.”

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

What’s At Stake in United Stated v. AT&T, Inc.? The Future of Antitrust. (Part I)

The Department of Justice (DoJ) Antitrust Division challenge to the AT&T/T-Mo deal, United States v. AT&T, Inc., in addition to being a huge deal for us in the telecom world, is probably the single most important merger review case for the next ten years. In two ways, this has become a battle about the future of antitrust enforcement and the soul of the Antitrust Division.

Yes, that sounds melodramatic, but I make no apologies. As I explain below, this case has become a test case for the nature of antitrust and whether traditional metrics of concentration and market share, notably the Herfendahl-Hirschman Index (“HHI”), coupled with the concerns that such concentration predicts both the ability of the largest company to raise process and for all surviving companies to raise process (the “coordinated effects” test), will still have validity going forward.  If the court accepts the arguments from AT&T and its defenders that the traditional measures of concentration are irrelevant, then antitrust review of mergers will essentially end for the next 5-10 years while economists and antitrust enforcers struggle to develop a new set of metrics for predicting the likely impact of mergers.

More importantly, however, this case represents a clear decision of the Antitrust Division to move ahead with enforcement despite the possible political consequences. Yes, politics has always mattered, and anyone who rises to the position of Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust has a well-developed political sense. The back channels for unofficial influence remain strong, and only a brave head of the Antitrust Division, whether or Acting or confirmed Appointee, seeks to challenge the most powerful and well connected companies in Washington.

But we have not yet reached the point where the head of the Antitrust Division decides to enforce the Antitrust law and the White House tries to pull it back. This may seem a small thing, but it is what separates us as a country that can still aspire to say it follows the rule of law and a country like Russia where  law enforcement is simply the extension of the policy of the ruling oligarchy. And I assure you, oh cynical reader, that when we cross that threshold you will know the difference between a society where influence matters and a society that has abandoned any pretense of the rule of law.

I shall reserve this second point for a separate post. I address the legal significance of the case below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

DoJ Says “No” To Ma Cell; Here’s What Happens Next (and Why It’s All Over But The AT&T Screaming)

In what is undoubtedly the best Labor Day present the Department of Justice ever gave America, DOJ has filed to block the AT&T/T-Mobile Merger in court. One should not, however, expect AT&T to give up easily. AT&T can, and almost certainly will, decide to fight rather than simply abandon the deal. If nothing else, it has $6 billion in break up fees to pay if the merger does not go through. On the plus side, the odds definitely favor the DoJ, which is why so many companies simply abandon the merger once DoJ has filed.

Meanwhile, the FCC, an independent agency, still needs to make its decision on what it will do. Unlike DoJ, where the head of the Anti-Trust division makes the call (subject to the usual political checks, of course), the FCC must have a vote on an Order, which must get a majority of the Commission (3 votes). Since Congress repealed the FCC’s ability to immunize phone mergers from antitrust back in 1996, the FCC cannot approve if DoJ wins in court. OTOH, the FCC is under no time pressure, and can wait to see how the court case turns out. At the same time, however, the court may decide to stay consideration until the FCC decides, since the merger cannot proceed without FCC approval.

All of this has huge implications for AT&T and its current bluster that it will fight DoJ for the right to eat T-Mo. Normally, AT&T could hope to get this wrapped up in a few months, and continue to try to use its political muscle to force a settlement. But the interaction between DoJ’s challenge and the FCC lawsuit make it incredibly difficult for AT&T to get this done before Deutsche Telekom decides it wants it $6 billion cash ‘n spectrum break up fee. As I explain below, AT&T must simultaneously persuade the FCC not to act while convincing the court to move at super speed, despite the fact that the usual way things work is for courts to wait for agencies to finish review (because the agency may remove the need for the court to act).

I explain AT&T’s legal problems below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The AT&T/T-Mobile Fine Print

Anyone who has a service contract with AT&T knows that there are two parts: the advertisement and the fine print.  The advertisement promises all kinds of wonderful things. The fine print explains how AT&T really has no legal obligation to provide them, and you have no recourse if AT&T doesn’t live up to its terms. The ad has a little asterix (*), to let me know to look for the fine print. For example, AT&T recently offered me a free 4G phone*. *DISCLAIMER: Provided I sign up for a minimum $15 data plan, 4G is available in limited areas, and other restrictions apply. They also promise I can download amazing videos*, DISCLAIMER: *provided I don’t exceed my capacity cap, in which case I will pay lots more money. Etc.

Unsurprisingly, the AT&T/T-Mobile deal comes with its own set of fine print. AT&T and its allies make all kind of promises about how the deal will encourage mobile broadband and create jobs ‘n stuff, while the actual FCC filings have all kinds of wonderfully crafted (from a legal perspective) fine print that explains all the limitations on these promises. Alas, AT&T doesn’t do nearly as good a job with the helpful* for fine print on it’s advertisements for approving A&T/T-MO as it does on its regular advertisements. I want to especially point this out to all the state governors that have supported the merger based on the advertising implying that the mighty AT&T lion is going to go all Aslan and spread broadband and jobs after it devours the sickly gazelle that is T-Mobile.   Based on the fine print, you have as much chance of seeing rural broadband deployment and job creation as the average AT&T iPhone user in San Francisco has of connecting a call and enjoying “unlimited downloads”* (*subject to bandwidth cap, phases of the Moon, and wicked packet-intercepting gremlins).

Advertising matched with FCC filing fine print below . . .

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