Tales of the Sausage Factory

CellAntenna Scam Continues To Gain Momentum — Bummer.

Regular readers may recall that I find CellAntenna’s continuing effort to leverage the problem of contraband cell phones to get the law changed so that they can sell cell phone jammers legally in this country not merely obnoxious and offensive, but downright dangerous. CellAntenna has proven real good at persuading state prison wardens that this technology solves their problems, despite the statements of frequency coordinators and public safety orgs that this is a real bad idea. The mainstream media, as is all too common these days, has generally acted like mindless cheer leaders without troubling to dig into whether cell phone jamming will actually work or not. The only decent in depth coverage was this Wired piece by Vince Beiser. For one thing, Beiser notes that prisoners can beat the jammers with a few sheets of aluminum foil.

I’ve blogged in a little more in-depth on this over here at Public Knowledge. We also (with additional sign ons from a number of other orgs) sent this letter to the Senate Commerce Committee in advance of tomorrow’s hearing so that at least someone is on record opposing this scam. Finally, for those of you who prefer the short, pithy medium of me staring into a camera and yakking about this, I give you my latest Five Minutes With Harold Feld The Prison Problem: Cell Phone Jamming and Shrimp Scampi.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

My Latest 5 Minutes: The Newspaper's Lame Blame Game

I propose the radical notion that not only is changing the copyright law to preserve existing newspapers a bad idea, it doesn’t address the problem and won’t work. The New York Times needs to get with the times and get over themselves.

Of note, Tribune, the bankrupt newspaper/TV chain, continues to have a profit margin of 8%. That’s right, they are making money. Just a heck of a lot less than they used to and not nearly enough to service their debt.



And, for amusing contrast, Jason Jones’ report on the NYT. Comedy Central has better production values.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Pass the Popcorn! CRTC Offers Great Opportunity To Watch Someone Else Play With Critical Infrastructure.

According to this official news release, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) denied a request from the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) to stop Bell Canada from throttling without notice the traffic of rival ISPs leasing access to Bell Canada’s network. Instead, CRTC punted to a general inquiry on traffic shaping.

According to Michael Geist, expert on all things telecom and Candian and general super-smart guy, this is not the last word from the CRTC on the question. But since — according to the public notice — the first public hearing on the subject is scheduled for July 9, 2009, Canadian ISPs can look forward to a considerable period of time when they live at the mercy of their largest rival.

This does not depress me, as I do not live in Canada. Rather, I am excited at the prospect of some other country (for a change) deciding to make offerings to the Gods of the Marketplace and play games with its critical infrastructure while I get to watch. Until now, Canada has generally been outranking us in the international rankings on penetration, although it ranks less well on affodability and only so-so on speed (as compared to countries with real broadband). Those who see such things as relevant (and not everybody does, the situation is complex and the data messy, hard to come by, and subject to multiple interpretations) generally regard this as a consequence of bad policy choices by the FCC (again, not everyone agrees, the data — to the extent we even have data — is very messy and complex). In particular, a lot of us think that the decision to eliminate mandatory wholesale access and rely on “intermodal” competition was a phenomenally bad idea.

Now we may get a chance over the next few years to test this hypothesis, and at someone else’s expense! Go Canada!

More below . . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

Run the banks?

On some other blogs I read (obsessively, lately), I’m starting to see people calling for a run on the banks. Go down and take out $700.00. Or or $70. Or $7,000. Whatever you can afford. That’s what they’re saying, not me. The idea is that even though nobody in the country likes this bailout, congress is going to vote for it. Since they won’t listen to our calls, faxes and letters, send a message that they cannot ignore.

Frankly, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me. Sure, it’s like burning down your own house to make a point, but it’s better than just being robbed at gunpoint with no protest at all.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

ESPN360.Com Locks Up It's Content — Let The Fragmentation Games Begin!

There’s been a lot of back and forth over whether letting broadband providers lock up content, or content providers lock out ISPs, is a good thing or a bad thing. And now, ESPN360.Com is going to kick off the fragmentation games and let us all find out.

It is a fine old Republican free market anti-deregulatory tradition to deregulate critical infrastructure and hope for the best, pooh-poohing doomsday predictions as ignorant exaggerations and fear mongering by business-hating regulation-loving quasi-commies. And since this philosophy worked so well with our financial sector, we have now moved it to the next major engine of the economy — broadband.

I am so excited! For those who have developed a taste for Lehman Bros-type thrill rides, the ESPN360.com deal will bring back fine memories of your first subprime derivative. You (and the rest of us along for the ride) can look forward to the thrill, the excitement, the dramatic highs and lows of playing high stakes roulette with our digital future. True we’ve lost our mortgage money (literally and metaphorically) playing “follow the Subprime queen.” But don’t worry. As any economist will tell you, the combination of a lack of information, high transaction costs, complex interrelated markets, and poorly understood network effects is just tailor made for that wild west anything goes atmosphere that made all them miners rich in the Sacramento gold fields!

Bet our critical infrastructure? How can we afford NOT TOO!!!

Details below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Sixth Circuit Upholds FCC on LFA Limits: A Bad Decision and A Sad Day for Localism, With Possible Silver Lining for Ancillary Authority and Leased Access.

The Sixth Circuit has denied the Petitions for Review filed by local franchise authorities (LFAs) and PEG programmers challenging the FCC’s December 2006 Order limiting the ability of LFA’s to negotiate with telco video overbuilders. (You can read a copy of the decision here.)

I am rather disappointed with the decision, as readers might imagine. Not only do I think limiting the authority of LFA’s to protect their residents is a phenomenally bad idea, I think the court takes a very expansive view of FCC authority over LFAs given the legislative history and the statute in question.

On the other hand, the decision potentially provides a substantial boost both the FCC’s ancillary authority and to its leased access reform order, currently pending before the Sixth Circuit. While I find this rather cold and uncertain comfort at the moment, it’s the best I can do in the face of what has become an utter rout for LFAs and PEG programmers. God willing, a future FCC will conduct the inquiry into strengthening PEG programming Commissioners Adelstein and Copps have repeatedly urged.

Some further analysis of the decision and what it might mean below…

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The UK Broadband Infrastructure And the Debate We Should Be Having.

This article from the London Times is useful both for its substance and for what it says about the sorry state of the debate in the U.S. While the U.K. has much higher available penetration and speed than the U.S., it is considered rather pokey and slow for Europe. As the article observes, the problem is that private companies don’t want to invest in upgrades of infrastructure.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Rural Carriers File “Skype-Lite,” or “Wireless Carterfone, it's not just for developers and other parasites anymore.”

Today, the FCC will most likely dismiss the the Skype Petition. I’ve already written why I think this is a phenomenally bad idea and, while I continue to respect Kevin Martin and understand why he is doing this, he is totally wrong here. Once again, those worried about “unintended consequences,” “first do no harm,” etc., etc. fail to appreciate that a refusal to take action and granting permission to carriers to control the sorts of devices, applications and therefore what innovation and what free speech, go on over their networks is as much an action as granting the Skype Petition. There is no evading responsibility or avoiding unforseen consequences.

Which brings me to the Petition for Rulemaking filed by the Rural Carriers Association (RCA) to prevent exclusive deals on equipment, aka “Skype Lite.” Mind you, the rural carriers opposed the Skype Petition as much as any other carrier, arguing that it would be awful for their limited capacity rural networks if they could not control what equipment attached to their networks and what applications ran on that equipment. Nevertheless, they too are unsatisified in a world where market size and raw capitalism dominate. So, without ever once raising the same arguments as Skype or referencing the Commission’s information policy statement, the rural carriers argue for what amounts to the same relief as Skype, only tailored differently. Rather than regulate all carriers to require open networks, they ask the Commission to limit the market power of the major carriers by prohibitting exclusives. Otherwise, they argu, rural America will never know the joy of the iPhone or any other significant innovation — since the major carriers will tie up the most valuable applications and equipment in exclusive deals.

Nor are the rural carriers alone in finding the world according to Coase and Friedman less than they desire. The Commission has before it a good handful of petitions from carriers asking for mandatory roaming reform, access charge reform, and other limits on the ability of the dominant, vertically integrated providers from exercising their market power. Of course, all of these carriers asking for regulatory intervention are simultaneously celebrating the dismissal of the Skype Petition, piously telling Skype and the rest of the non-carrier industry that they are a bunch of parasites and that if they want access to a network they need to get their own licenses and build one.

I do not write to underscore the hypocrisy of these contradictory positions. That would be a waste of bits. Companies make whatever arguments they need to make in order to survive and thrive. No, my warning to the rural carriers and the rest of the Skype-lite crowd is simply one of practicality. You cannot win your request for special regulation while simultaneously singing the praises of the fiercely competitive broadband market and arguing that there is no place for regulation in this great free market success story. By contrast, if you simply admit that the industry now suffers from excessive concentration and the cure for this requires a comprehensive approach, you will find yourselves much more likely to prevail.

Martin indicated that he would dismiss the Skype Petition “without prejudice,” meaning that Skype or others will be free to try again — say, in six months or so when the FCC changes hands. In the mean time, I suggest the rural carriers and the other industry players anxious for regulatory relief — whether in the form of spectrum caps in auctions, mandatory roaming, or access charge reform — rethink their strategy.

Or, to put it another way, “regulation, it’s not just for developers and other parasites any more.”

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Auction: D Block Panic, Damping Expectations, And My Final Thoughts Before the Opening Bell.

After so much pre-game hype, it’s hard to believe we have actually gotten down to the 700 MHz Auction week. The fun and games will start January 24, although we won’t know (much) about the auction until it is all over sometime in late February or early March.

Not surprisingly, the news that Frontline Wireless , the company that did so much to shape the rulemaking around the “D Block” public/private partnership, went belly up before the auction even started has triggered a round of hand-wringing about the fate of D Block and finger-wagging by those who always thought it was a bad idea to impose any kind of conditions on licenses. As a result, we see a slew of stories questioning whether anyone will bid for D Block (or, at least, meet it’s $1.3 billion reserve price), with some spillover questioning about the future of the auction itself.

While I agree with GigaOm that wireless auctions aren’t for wimps, I do think the panic over Frontline’s failure to scrounge up capital to make the necessary up front payment (the “ante” required to buy “bidding credits” to participate in the auction) is exaggerated. Nor am I as pessimistic that the auction will produce some groundbreaking changes as others, although it could well happen that we get through this auction with no new “disruptive third-pipe providers.” I think we will certainly see the auction hit the $10 billion Congress estimated (and the FCC set as aggreagte reserve price), and we will see C Block meet its $4.6 billion reserve price.

On the other hand, if things start to go poorly in the auction, we may see some panic moves by the FCC, particularly with regard to D Block. The possibility that the FCC may retroactively drop the reserve price on D Block (possibly without holding a reauction) may introduce strategic behavior into the auction. Of course, since no one (including the FCC) can actually talk about this possibility makes the speculation even more insubstantial than usual. Still, since the possibility does exist, and because I think such a course would create real problems with the auction, I briefly discuss it below.

Analysis below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Open Access Gains Another Convert, AT&T Denies Poisition Change

A brief update on my recent post that AT&T recently conceded it might consider bidding on an open access license. Unsurprisingly, Frontline Wireless — the party pushing for the “E Block” public safety/open access network — filed a copy with the Commission stating that this proves that an E Block auction would attract bidders and that the business model is workable. In response, according to today’s (6/29) Communications Daily an AT&T spokesperson said: “Our position has not changed. As we’ve stated on the record at the FCC, mandated ‘open access’ conditions on licenses in the 700 MHz band should be rejected. We need to see the specific rules the FCC adopts for auction before determining our level of participation.”

The carefull reader will note that these statements are not inconsistent. Of course AT&T would prefer not to have open access, and — at the drop of a hat — will explain why open access is an unworkable awful idea and you should ignore all the evidence from Europe or from the U.S. until we abolished open access in 2005. But there is a huge difference between “we hate open access and think it’s a bad idea” and “we absolutely refuse to bid on a license with an open access condition and nobody else with any money would bid either.” Given that the most potent argument against open access from a political perspective is “don’t mess with the revenue” (as evidenced by the recent Op Ed in the Washington Post by two CTIA lobbyists wearing their “think tank” hats), proof that folks other than Frontline will even show up to bid (and folks with deep pockets at that) on an open access license is rather significant.

Meanwhile, open access for the 700 MHz auction continues to attract new supporters from different sectors of the industry. Northop Grumman, rather a heavy-weight in the equipment manufacture and public saftey/defense contracting world, filed this document supporting open access and explaining that yes, you really can construct a secure public safety network that shares spectrum with an open access commercial network. So much for “it will never work, it’s too hard, lets stick to what we’ve always done.”

In addition, the Frontline cover letter on the submission that introduced the “Well Connected” post with the AT&T interview stated that Citibank had made a presentation to the Commission “last week” explaining that open access is a workable business model. Annoyingly, I can find no record of this presentation in the record for Docket 06-150, but I may just be missing it (it is a pretty big docket). (UPDATE: My thanks to Susan Crawford for pointing me to the appropriate ex parte filing.)

But assuming that Frontline accurately describes a presentation that took place, we now have:

1) A statement by a major financial investor that open access is an attractive and workable model from a business perspective;

2) A statement by a major equipment manufacturer and network operator that commercial open access — even in the more complicated universe of a dual use public safety network — is technologically feasible;

3) A statement by a major incumbent that it would at least “look at” bidding on an open access license if the Commission adopts such a rule;

4) Statements by wireless equipment and wireless application providers that there is a desperate need for open access in the wireless world and in the provision of broadband services generally;

5) Over 250,000 individuals saying the status quo sucks and we want open networks and new providers.

On the other side, we have the entire incumbent industry and its usual cheer leading section chanting that everything is vibrantly competitive, we live in the best of all possible worlds, everything works perfectly and competitively, and even thinking “open access” too loudly will scare away bidders and reduce revenue to a fraction of the expected $10-15 billion. And besides, open access can’t possibly work either on the business side or the technical side.

And all the while, the clock ticks away, as everyone scrambles to get this done before the end of the summer.

Stay tuned . . . .

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