Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Issues Excellent Wireless Microphone Order — Perhaps NAB Will Rely Less on Scare Tactics and Celebrity Letters Now.

Time to clear up a little piece of unfinished business for which I and this humble blog can claim some modest responsibility. The FCC finally issued it’s long awaited Order on wireless microphones stemming from this blog post and the subsequent complaint/Petition for Rulemaking by the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (to which a special shout out to the folks at New America Wireless Future is due, given the fantastic amount of work they did on assembling evidence and helping draft the document).

As one can tell from this FCC press release describing the details, we pretty much got what we wanted — although not entirely and not in the way we expected. But, as I noted in this press statement in my role as Legal Director of Public Knowledge, we’re very happy with how things turned out. Briefly:
(a) all wireless mic users are now granted legal status, this is done pursuant to the FCC’s Part 15 rules for unlicensed rather than the “license by rule” that we suggested, but my only regret about that is I didn’t think of it when we filed.
(b) Everyone using wireless microphones needs to clear out of the 700 MHz band by Jun 12, 2010 — one year after the DTV transition and 15 months after the original date proposed by the FCC. Given how the Broadway people have been telling the FCC for months how they are off the 700 MHz band, this should not be too much of a hardship — especially for those who had no right to be there in the first place.
(c) The FCC will invest a boatload of its own resources, and gin up the FCC 2.0 machinery, to get the word out to folks and help consumers, churches, etc. handle the transition.
(d) The FCC will require that wireless microphones have signs and labels going forward to make sure that people understand the difference between licensed users and unlicensed users.

In addition, the FCC is having a further notice of proposed rulemaking that will:
1) Set the rules for the new Part 15 unlicensed wireless microphones.
2) Will examine whether to expand the class of Part 74 Subpart H eligible licensees to see if they should expand the class to give interference protection to some set of users — which would include who gets to be in the database of licensed services protected from operation of TV white spaces devices.

Yeah, that kicks the can down the road rather than saying flat out “anyone who was using a wireless microphone illegally is not entitled to protection against the TV white spaces devices, which went through the legal process and got approved.” But I can most definitely live with that. For one thing, I am confident that in an evidence-driven FCC which places consumer interests first, as demonstrated by this Order with its unprecedented investment of FCC resources for outreach (which we had not even dreamed of requesting except in the most general way of offering to help), will focus on the real question of whether or not there is interference and if so how to strike the appropriate balance between allowing new technologies and protecting existing users. Hopefully, this will inspire white spaces opponents to focus on engineering rather than trying to use scare tactics and celebrity “star power”.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Very Good News On Broadband Stimulus — I Get My Herring!

After Blair Levin’s warning to the world (and the financial markets in particular) that the stimulus package will not try to solve the broadband problems in this country and that people needed to stop dreaming in the tens or even hundreds of billions for broadband, no one should be surprised at today’s announcement that the Administration/House proposal budgets $6 Billion for broadband primarily in the form of grants. (Obey press release on full package here.)

Thank God!

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Industry Flips Off FCC, Fines To Follow? Expect Other Industries to Tell FCC To [Fleeting Expletive] Off Too.

I clearly missed a class in law school. Not once in my Administrative Law class did my professor ever tell me that you could respond to a federal investigation by telling the agency “We know you have authority, but we’d rather not answer these questions because you are a great big meany.” But then, I’m not working for the cable industry, which has repeatedly shown it has trouble with the concept that federal law really applies to them and that the FCC is supposed to be a regulator not a lap dog.

Today’s episode of “I Can’t Believe The Chutzpah” comes from the ongoing investigation by the FCC over whether cable operators are using the confusion around the DTV conversion to push users into buying digital tier service, and rent new digital set-top boxes in violation of the rules on set-top box interoperability, or just generally violating the law by changing channel line ups without notice to either subscribers or local franchise authorities, migrating stuff off basic tier without warning, or charging for additional tiers to get channels required by law to be available on the basic tier. Mind, I’d also like them to explicitly ask whether the cable guys are unfairly migrating unaffiliated channels to digital in violation of Section 616, but that’s just me.

Anyway, after getting a bunch of consumer complaints and reading Consumers Union’s letter to Congress (or at least hearing about it on NPR), the FCC sent out a bunch of letters of inquiry to the named cable companies and Verizon asking them to provide a boatload of information which would allow the FCC to determine if the consumer complaints were, ya know, true. Given that this is lots of people being potentially ripped off big time, the agency told the everyone that got a letter they had two weeks to reply.

Mind you, this is hardly an original process or unique to the cable industry. I should know. The FCC did the same thing in response to my complaint about the wireless microphone guys back in August. The FCC (also under Martin I should add) acted with similar swiftness and intensity back in 2006, when Verizon and BellSouth tried to keep charging USF fees on DSL after they were phased out. The phone companies, apparently under the same misconception that I was that even if you are a big company you actually have to obey the law, backed off. The cable companies have other ideas. And, if they get away with it, I’m sure the Bells, broadcasters, and every one else will follow suit.

So yesterday, NCTA,the trade industry for the cable guys, sent a lengthy letter to the FCC explaining that the FCC is not allowed to investigate the cable industry. They recommend that the FCC rescind the letters of investigation and, instead of having the Enforcement Bureau actually act on consumer complaints, the FCC should hold a nice, quiet Notice of Inquiry instead. Then, if Martin gets all the other Commissioners to agree, and the FCC asks nicely and without any legal compulsion to answer honestly or completely, cable operators might consider responding.

Now I just know, KNOW that there are people out there who hate Kevin Martin so much that they will decide that it is really O.K. for cable to tell the FCC to “fleeting expletive off and die,” because it is the poor helpless widdle cable guys and the evil Kevin Martin (I cannot help but observe that Verizon does not seem to have any problems complying with this request, but of course they are an evil minion of Kevin Martin, or the other way around. Besides, Kevin Martin hates the cable industry, so there!)

As what is often called a “consumer advocate,” I’m a little alarmed that we will now have a new doctrine that says “consumers can complain, but the FCC can’t protect them if we think the FCC Chair might enjoy it.” And while I would flippin’ think that the idea that the cable companies need to obey the law like everyone else would be bloody self-evident, not to mention that the consequences of letting industry dictate to the federal watchdog agency what it will and won’t respect on enforcement go well beyond the poor picked on widdle cable guys to whatever industry you don’t like (in my case, wireless microphone manufacturers — I can hardly wait for Shure to refuse to cooperate with the FCC next), I long ago learned that even bloody obvious things need explaining when it comes to the cable industry and their rabid defenders.

So I address the actual legal issues below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Comcast Needs To Take A Lesson From Verizon: Unions Aren't the Enemy You Think They Are.

Comcast has certainly had some lousy luck with contractors. Most recently, a Comcast contractor got all nasty on 74 year old trying to get broadband service. Before that, Comcast contractors were caught literally torturing kittens. And who can forget the unfortunate overworked Comcast tech who famously fell asleep on someone’s couch while on hold with Comcast’s repair center.

I don’t think Comcast actually wants these results. To the contrary, I think they are horribly embarrassed about them and really are doing what they can to weed out bad contractors and hire good contractors.

But Comcast needs to learn a basic lesson here. Having a quality work force is not compatible with cutting costs by hiring the cheapest contractors available. To have a quality work force, you need to invest in your workforce, make long term commitments to provide a good wage and good living conditions and, dare I suggest it, permit workers to come together in collective bargaining units so that workers and management can negotiate realistic contracts that meet everyone’s needs?

Meanwhile Verizon just averted a strike by reaching a tentative new contract with Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The contract, as usual, provides concessions on both sides, but will certainly cost Verizon a bundle more in pay raises and in future benefits than Comcast’s labor force, which depends largely on hiring local contractors and non-union labor.

But in exchange for its financial concessions, Verizon is preserving a skilled and experienced workforce with a proven track record. A workforce that, because of its union-negotiated benefits, will likely remain relatively stable and dedicated even during difficult economic times. Rather like buying itself a large bundle of wireless minutes so it doesn’t run over and pay huge charges, Verizon has ended up paying more in salary and benefits to avoid a boatload of customer service headaches.

Comcast already missed the boat once by opting to build a crappy network that can’t handle broadband capacity like Verizon can handle with FIOS — even though FIOS cost more to build. Perhaps Comcats should consider a similar lesson in its labor practices and encourage, rather than resist, efforts to unionize its workforce.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

D.C. Cir. to Comcast: “Making You Obey The Law Is Not A 'Vendetta.'”

When an industry challenging agency action loses the sympathy of the D.C. Cir., it is a good sign that someone overreached just a tad. In apparent preparation for the The Big Cable Show in New Orleans this week, the D.C. Circuit issued this opinion denying Comcast’s insistence that it deserves a waiver of the FCC’s cable set-top box interoperability rules.

The case actually has an interesting precedential aspect I shall discuss below, but the primary reason I am noting it is because this is the first in a series of cases in which Comcast and the rest of the cable industry have actually pleaded that they should be excused from the law because enforcement is all part of an evil vendetta by Kevin Martin against the cable industry. Really. Because while people may accuse Hilary Clinton of having a “sense of entitlement” about the Democratic Nomination, she has the humility of a saint with zero self-esteem compared with the ravening sense of entitlement of the cable industry.

Mind you, the cable industry won won so much for so long at the FCC that a Chairman willing to enforce the law against the cable industry, with 2 other Commissioners willing to vote with him, is quite the shock to the system. And of course, when you have a paid chorus of wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress and captive industry press (combined, I’m sad to say, with a boatload of easily manipulated public interest groups that should know better but hate Kevin Martin for other reasons), it becomes easy to believe your own press releases. Which is why not merely the cable industry, but their allies as well, have started to put some genuinely stupid and insulting things in their filings that make you shake your head and go “whoa! I can’t believe they actually said that!”

And neither could the D.C. Cir. Not only did the panel hearing the case dryly reprimand the cable industry a few times, but they gave Comcast ‘n friends a very thorough bitchslap in the opinion.

More fun details, and the actual useful legal point, below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Verizon, AT&T & the $16 Billion Termites.

Imagine you just spent a fortune on some excellent beachfront property, only to discover some termites in the basement. Now imagine that the only way to get rid of the termites involves some toxic chemicals that may arouse the ire of the environmentally conscious locals. What do you do? Learn to live with the termites, or spray and tell your green neighbors to deal?

Oddly, Verizon and AT&T now find themselves in a similar mess — if we substitute “wireless microphones” for “termites.” Verizon and AT&T (As well as a bunch of other folks) just spent a boatload of cash on licenses in the reclaimed analog television spectrum. The FCC has rules in place to migrate the broadcasters — both full power and low power. But — as far as I can tell — no one has plans to migrate the wireless microphone folks, who operate on vacant channels in the band. While in theory wireless microphones are a secondary licensed service and notifying the licensees that channels 52-69 are off limits after the digital conversion, the situation is a little more complicated. As comments filed in white spaces proceeding confirm, wireless microphones are bloody everywhere — with huge numbers of users buying and operating them without licenses.

The NAB and the FCC have turned a blind eye to proliferation of unlicensed wireless microphone use (despite the NAB’s usually firm stand against unauthorized use of “their” spectrum), both because the wireless microphones don’t actually cause any interference with television and because the “unauthorized wireless microphone user community” (which sounds so much better than “pirates”) includes megachurches, Broadway groups, and other warm cuddly folks able to gather political support. Indeed, so great is the political protectzia for the unauthorized wireless microphone user community that the FCC is, apparently, requiring that unlicensed devices in the white spaces have the ability to sense and protect these illegal wireless microphone users. (Hence Google’s recent extension of an olive branch which NAB promptly grabbed and started thwaking Google over the head. D’oh!)

AT&T, Verizon, and the rest of the 700 MHZ auction winners therefore face a bit of a dilemma. They just dropped a bundle on the 700 MHZ, and damned if they want to set precedent by allowing a bunch of illegal squatters to use “their” spectrum. Heck, if they’d thought of it earlier, they’d probably have initiated a rulemaking to migrate the legal users.

In fact, under a fair reading of the rules, if the FCC does nothing, licensed wireless microphone systems may enjoy equal or superior rights to 700 MHz Auction winners. OTOH, no one involved is stupid about the politics, giving an incentive to maintain a low profile. If you don’t mind telling shareholders that the NFL may have superior rights in the spectrum you just paid $16 Billion for.

Meanwhile, for those of us happy to see the NAB and the wireless microphone folks get their comeuppance, while not weeping overmuch for the incumbent wireless winners, one word: SCHWEET.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz: Although Apparently The FCC Decided to Give Headlines . . .

No sooner did the FCC clarify that they would lift anonymity after they collected the money when Martin held a press conference and the FCC released the results. Here are the headlines:

1) Verizon won C Block and a boatload of licenses;

2) AT&T took a boatload of licenses;

3) Google didn’t win anything (stupid oak leaves!).

I will have more details as I can track them down, and more analysis later. I also metaphorically owe Commissioner McDowell a dollar, for his prediction that the new entrants wouldn’t bite on the big C.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Tales of the Sausage Factory: Congress Giveth, Congress Taketh Away

Good news: The House Commerce Committee had a hearing on the Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act, which would undo the more obnoxious provisions of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

Bad news: The House Judiciary Committee (which handles intellectual property issues) approved the Fraudulent Online Identity Sanctions Act, a bill to criminalize the use of false information in WHOIS registrations. This wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t required to divulge a boatload of personal information under the “thick” WHOIS requirements in order to register a domain name. Folks who hate getting beaten up by their governments over free speech issues or just hate the way spammers use the WHOIS database often try to defnd themselves by submitting false information.

More on the merits of the bills below. But also of relevance (and what makes the Sausage Factory so much fun) is to note the difference a change in committee makes.

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