Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz: Notes From The Spectrum New Hampshire Primary, C Block Not Dead Yet

Everyone remember how Clinton was dead after Iowa? Now who remembers two weeks ago, or even last week, when analysts wrote off the 700 MHz auction as doomed due to credit crunch? But, other than D Block’s utter failure to move (and regular readers will know my opinion of why that happened), the auction has proven a success by every measure we can obtain so far. Sadly, however, the key measures are not yet in, and won’t be until after the auction is over. Which is why, despite C Block exceeding it’s reserve price, I caution folks that we are still at the equivalent of just after the New Hampshire primaries and that any speculation about the important points of the outcome remain unresolved.

Here’s what we know for sure now:

1) The current take now stands at over $14 b. This not only exceeds the $10 b that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated, it will exceed the “wildly successful” 2006 AWS auction (which grossed about 13.9 b). A, B, and C blocks have all met their reserve prices, with the most contentious fighting in certain high value markets B block.

2) Because C Block has met its reserve price, it will not be reauctioned and the open device conditions will go into effect.

So the auction is clearly a success from Kevin Martin’s perspective (again, with the exception of D Block, which is a special case). While those like Commissioner McDowell can argue that C block might have fetched more without conditions, $4.7 billion is nothing to sneeze at. And it is clear that the aggressive build out conditions did not scare bidders away from A and B block, so (assuming the FCC is serious about enforcement) we should see increased deployment of services into rural regions.

What we still don’t know is whether the new auction rules gave new entrants a real chance to win spectrum, or (as the conventional wisdom had it) will incumbents Verizon and AT&T end up capturing the lion’s share of the spectrum (albeit at higher prices, owing to the introduction of anonymous bidding). That we cannot know until after the anonymity lifts when the auction ends (which, if the FCC chooses to reauction D Block under the rules proposed for reauctioning the other blocks, might not be for several months yet). Much depends on the identity of the current C Block holder. Is it Google? Verizon? Some other deep pockets like AT&T or Echostar, or perhaps the mysterious Vavasi NexGen Inc.? And is C Block settled? If the package bidder in round 17 knocked off the previous high bidder, then the previous high bidder will need to respond fairly soon or it will start losing its eligibility (bidding chips) and no longer be able to challenge.

If it turns out the incumbents capture most of the spectrum, I will need to eat a huge plate of crow and tip my hat to Commissioner Adelstein and Publius at Obsidian Wings, both of whom fretted that only Verizon could win a huge block like C Block and that we would get more new entrants by slitting the spectrum up. OTOH, if the Great Google Prophecy comes true, I will become insufferably pleased with myself for at least a month.

But, rather than pull a Tweety Bird and start treating my own speculation in the absence of data as fact, I will simply say —

Stay tuned . . . .

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700 MHz: The C Block Minuet

The fact that the C Block has dangled on the precipice of reaching its reserve price from round 13 to the close of today’s bidding action in round 16 has led to speculation that Google never intended to go seriously for the spectrum, but was merely trying to goad Verizon or ATT into committing on the Block. I grant that we have almost no intelligence on who the C Block bidders are, and it is very, very early to speculate on the auction’s ultimate outcome. However, I have a theory, grounded in an understanding of game theory and the auction rules, which calls this latest conventional wisdom into question.

There are at least two, and possibly three, current bidders for the bulk of C Block. Two have been trading off the lead for the 50 state package (REAGs 1-8), let’s call them A and B: A in the first round (1 new bid), B in the second (1 new bid), A in the third (1 new bid), B in the fourth (1 new bid), A in the fifth (1 new bid), B in the seventh (1 new bid), A in the eighth (1 new bid), B in the tenth (1 new bid), A in the twelfth (1 new bid), B in the thirteenth (1 new bid). B has been the high bidder since the thirteen round with no need to raise its bid. In the sixth round there were also mid-range bids placed individually on REAGs 1-8. Either the individual bids on REAGs 1-8 in round six were B’s response to A’s bid on the package in round 5 or another bidder, C, forayed at that point.

B can sit indefinitely on its current bid, waiting for the minimum acceptable bid (MAB) to converge on the reserve price of the Block without requiring activity waivers (the FCC historically reduces MABs in the presence of bidding inactivity). That would allow B to obtain the package for almost $122 million less than the current MAB for round 17. A must bid on REAGs 1-8 either on the package or individually in round 17 or lose eligibility, since it has had to expend three activity waivers to avoid bidding in rounds 14, 15, and 16. That is what we know.

I hypothesize that B is Google, that it is sitting just below the reserve price, and will continue to do so unless another actor bids, until just before the close of the auction, when it will bid the reserve price and save roughly $122 million. I grant that it is also possible that B is Verizon or ATT or some other bidder which I don’t know and haven’t mentioned. But game theory and the auction rules explain why B is sitting pat. A has to bid in round 17 (the MAB for the 50 state package in round 17 is over the reserve price of the Block, and the sum of MABs for REAGs 1-8 individually in round 17 is equal to the MAB for the 50 state package), or B’s strategy is likely to win.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Endgame Part I: Martin Tries To Redefine “Open Access” With A PR Offensive

Martin has opened the endgame on the 700 MHz auction rules with some strategic press leaks to frame the debate and the circulation of his draft Order. According to USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, Martin’s draft proposes including a network attachment/wireless Cartefone rule on two blocks (the “C” and “D” blocks). At the same time, Martin is redefining “open access” to mean network attachment/wireless Cartefone (the issue popularized by Tim Wu with the help of the iPhone) rather than the wholesale obligation pushed by Frontline and the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC).

What makes Martin’s proposal particularly problematic is that it does actually do some good on issues I (and other folks in spectrum and media reform) care deeply about. It does represent a step forward. But it represents such a baby step, and deferred so far into the future, that it becomes useless for the near term (as Google argued in this recent filing (worthy of a post of its own)) and may actually take the pressure off the FCC to do something real like grant the Skype Petition or do something real on Network Neutrality.

Still, it presents a real challenge for the Democratic Commissioners as they enter into negotiations. Do they hang tough and risk losing everything on a 3-2 partyline vote? Do they accept a compromise, recognizing the political risk?

Worse for the Ds (and supporters of open access generally), the pressure from Congress has gone fairly hard against wholesale open access in recent days. The Republicans in the Senate and the House have bombarded the FCC with letters against wholesale open access. While some Ds (notably Kerry) have supported real open access, the Dem leadership and most Ds have remained on the sidelines. Still, tomorrow’s House Commerce Committee Hearing on Wireless Innovation will offer Democratic leaders to weigh in — if they so desire.

This Is long, so I am going to break it up into a couple of posts. First, the difference between Martin Open Access and Real Open Access . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Anonymous bidding and not so anonymous shakedowns at the FCC

Say what you like about Martin in other areas, but he is (so far) sticking to his guns on whether to require anonymous bidding for the upcomming AWS spectrum auction. MAP has actively supported this proposal, because it will make the auctions work better and facilitate entry by minority owned businesses and new, disruptive competitors (I’m stuck with them by statute, so I may as well try to get them to work right).

In perhaps the most telling evidence that anonymous/blind/sealed bidding (in which the identity of the bidder is not disclosed during the action) is a good idea, every incumbent (except VZ Wireless, which has been “targeted” in certain auctions) is lobbying fiercly against it. My favorite little tidbits of when the Sausage Factory turns nasty below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Bidding Credits and Digital Inclusion

For the forseeable future, we’re stuck with spectrum auctions, so we may as well try to get them to work as well as possible. Contrary to what some folks argue, I don’t think that means just jacking up one-time revenue to the government. It means trying to get licenses to folks who don’t usually get ’em (like women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, and small businesses generally), trying to get services deployed to underserved communities, and trying to foster real competition.

So last week, MAP submitted a lengthy set of comments (including a 30-page econ analysis from my economist friend Greg Rose) on reforming the FCC’s designated entity “bidding credit” for the upcomming AWS auction.

What does all this mean, and why should the guy who says “spectrum auctions are the crack cocaine of public policy” care? See below . . .

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