Tales of the Sausage Factory

“Will Comcast Join the NAB?” Measuring the Merger On The Trade Association Scale

Few rivalries in the media world match those of cable operators and broadcasters. Since the first cable regulation by the FCC to prevent cable operators from importing blacked out sports events and “distant signals” that threatened local broadcast content back in the 1960s, broadcasters and cable operators have constantly sought regulatory advantage over one another. Broadcasters once ruled video as its unchallenged masters. Then came cable, which became the dominant platform for delivery of video. But broadcasting continues to aggregate mass audiences and produce more popular programming. Despite all the yapping about how no one can tell broadcast and cable apart anymore, neither one can survive without the other, but both have radically different interests. As a result, the broadcasters and the cable operators, and therefore their trade associations, are constantly at loggerheads.

The fact that Comcast, after acquiring NBC’s broadcast stations, will be eligible to join the National Association of Broadcasters, underscores just how radically and completely the proposed Comcast acquisition of NBC extends Comcast’s reach into every sector of communication. In ideological terms, it is rather like Vatican City joining the Arab League. But that’s not the only powerful trade association Comcast would now be eligible to join. Comcast will also be able to join the MPAA. Depending on how it develops its broadcast spectrum and other wireless assets, it could join CTIA and other wireless trade associations. These, of course, join the already impressive list of trade associations Comcast already belongs to as the largest broadband access provider, one of the largest residential phone companies, purchasers of telecommunications equipment, etc.

So I propose a new metric for measuring antitrust impact of mergers, the uniquely Washington “Trade Association Scale.” How many trade associations will you qualify for after the merger. If the number is too high, that shows you are getting into far too many lines of business to be healthy, because you have too much influence on everybody else’s business. And on the Trade Association Scale, the Comcast/NBC merger ranks a 10 out of 10.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Fragmentation Games: Playstation Gets “Boxeed,” TV Anywhere Gets More Content.

In the latest twist in the broadband fragmentation games driven the overlap of MVPDs and broadband access providers, users of PlayStation 3 can no longer access Hulu. As some may recall, Hulu tried a similar trick with Boxee.tv, resulting in a good old fashioned tech arms race wherein Boxee camouflaged itself as browser and Hulu responded by encrypting html.

Now Hulu has shut off the spigot to Playstation 3. Why? As I noted when Hulu pulled this on Boxee in the spring, the people who make money off the existing video subscription model (both the cable operators like Comcast and the content holders like NBC Universal) really dislike the thought of streaming media actually competing with them. As long as video stayed on the laptop and occasionally stopped to buffer, it didn’t really threaten the established business models. But make it possible to watch streaming media on your regular TV, with a quality practically equal to what you get on cable, and it becomes a very disruptive technology.

Playstation 3 and other game consoles are obvious candidates to disrupt the existing business model. They already plug into your television set, you are very familiar with the controls, and the manufacturers are always expanding the capabilities of the units to make them more “media centers” and less “game centers.” Like Boxee, they represent a real threat by making it possible for me to stream online content effortlessly on my TV and watch in exactly the same way I watch anything else.

Meanwhile, Time Warner and Comcast have found lots of other content networks eager to join the “Entitlement Program.” This initiative appears to be gathering critical mass very rapidly, which is not too surprising. While some of the bigger folks like Disney may hold out to see how they can maximize their return, the midsized players anxious about possible changes to the business model are likely to want to get in while the getting is good.

To conclude, what we have here is not anything obvious or dramatic. It is a few more ripples in the pond, indicating where the big fish swim. Any one of the “fragmentation games” incidents I’ve discussed, for example the ESPN360.com business which has been slowly ratcheting up to include more ISPs, is not necessarily significant on its own. Taken together, however, I see a pattern emerging that tells me where the fun and games will happen over the next few years. Heck, at this point, I’m not even sure what policy prescription I would offer. I just know that I’m seeing a bunch of ripples that might be nothing. Or it might be bunch of salmon and a great place to cast a line. Or it might be a school of piranha and I need to be very careful before wading in.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

What We Learn From the VZ-Frontier Deal

Verizon is selling 5 million access lines to Frontier. I expect the deal will go through — after all, a dominant carrier is getting smaller, there is no place where VZ and Frontier compete, etc., etc. What makes the deal interesting is what it tells us about the problem of relying on ILEC/Cable competition to drive broadband. Briefly, (a) we will be perpetually without fiber in a lot of places if we are going to wait for cable and ILECs to meet our needs; and (b) the real problem for is not just the high cost of deployment, but the need to show high rates of return to keep Wall St. happy. It is this latter that will keep telecom policy a very unhappy and complicated place unless we get out of our usual silos and start thinking about some holistic solutions.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Can RUS Turn $2.5 Bn to $25 Bn? Loan Gaurantees May Work Better Than Loans or Grants.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of folks at David Isenberg’s excellent Freedom 2 Connect Conference this past week had a lot of attention focused on the stimulus. Most of the discussion has centered around NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) Rather than around the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services (RUS) Program. After all, BTOP has more money ($4.7 bn to RUS’s $2.5 bn) more potentially eligible grantees, and more terms that will need definition.

But the $2.5 Bn for rural broadband is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and because of its more specific focus (rural infrastructure build rather than broader digital inclusion) and narrower set of eligible applicants, it may have greater opportunity to do some very clever things to maximize the impact of its spending. On the one hand, $2.5 Bn is more money than we have ever seen committed by the federal government to building rural broadband access infrastructure. OTOH, it is a pitifully small amount when compared to what most folks think it will take to bring meaningful broadband to rural America. Ideally, therefore, every dollar spent should stimulate more spending in this area.

Enter Geoff Daily at App-Rising, who writes this intriguing piece on how to leverage the wackiness of the financial system to our advantage (for a change). Unlike NTIA, which gives only grants, RUS can give loans and loan guarantees as well as grants. in fact, RUS has traditionally given loans and loan guarantees rather than grants. Geoff thinks this provides a way to turn the RUS $2.5 Bn into $25 bn in actual spending on rural broadband infrastructure. Unfortunately, it runs into a Dilbert-esque paradox. This is such an efficient and effective way for the government to use the money RUS is afraid that Congresscritters and pundits eager to declare the stimulus a failure will point to RUS’ “unspent” loan guarantees as a sign of waste and a failure to “spend” the money.

Fortunately, I think RUS can set up the program in a way that minimizes this risk.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Look! My Solution Found A Problem! Comcast Degrades BitTorrent Traffic Without Telling Users.

O.K., free speech issues are always sexier. Nothing gets the public (or me) wound up like blocking NARAL or censoring Pearl Jam. But, as Ecclesiastes tells us: “Money answers all.” (10:19) At the very least, it tends to rivet people’s attention without the distraction of whether or not you like the speaker or the message.

So I was quite pleased to see the Associated Press run this story on how Comcast degrades BitTorrent traffic in the name of quality of service (QoS), especially after Comcast had denied such rumors as vicious lies last August. (Where is Mona “the Hammer” Shaw when we need her?) While my friend Greg Rose on Econoclastic gives his (to my mind quite plausible) theory as to why Comcast would engage in such blocking on a large enough scale to be worth getting caught, I would like to play out the public policy implications of Comcast’s actions.

As I discuss below, this recent episode underscores several of the critical points I have made in the past about the economics of access, but without all the sexy free speech stuff clouding things up. In particular, I hope all those idjit content producers like Viacom that oppose Net Neutrality they think it will help police content for infringement and give them an advantage over rivals who can’t afford to pay the “fast lane fees.” Because, as Comcast’s little tepid step toward “How to Monetize Monopsony Power and Make the World Your Bee-Yatch” shows, making a deal with the broadband access devil to police your content guarantees that broadband access providers will end up owning you the way Microsoft ended up owning IBM and everyone else who thought that they could leverage another parties control of a bottleneck facility to its own advantage.

Given the amazing track record the IP mafia has for making bad decision in this regard, I’m not exactly holding my breath they will see reason. But I can at least secure myself the bitter pleasure of saying “toldja so” after it’s too late.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Susan Crawford's Five Good Question

Susan Crawford, a law Professor at Cardozo and a Board Member of ICANN supportive of Net Neutrality, asks and answers five good questions about Network Neutrality. Chris Yoo, a law professor at Vanderbilt and opposed to Net Neutrality, gives his answers (along with Susan’s) here. Harold Feld, not a law professor anywhere, gives his answers below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Wyden Introduces Net Neutrality

Wyden (D-Ore) has pushed back against the wussiness of the Enisgn (R-NV) bill. The Ensign Bill has a provision that would require “neuterednet neutrality.” The broadband access provider could still favor its own content and could offer “premium” service to others.

The Wyden “Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006” requires real Net neutrality and has a serious enforcement mechanism. If the FCC sits on a complaint, it is deemed granted in 90 days.

Of course I’m partial to the Wyden bill from shear vanity. The bill references the muni broadband paper I wrote last year in the legislative findings.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Tales of the Sausage Factory: Michael Powell on Indecency

I’m reprinting below FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s Op Ed on indecency that appearedin the NYT on 12-3. As most of you know, I am a frequent critic of Powell’s ownership and broadband access policies, as I find him far too much the libertarian intellectual without regard to the practical impact of his policies. But on the indecency stuff, I think he raises some good points. My comments interspersed with his.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Tales of The Sausage Factory: Unlicensed Spectrum Access II

O.K., so what’s at stake this year and how can you participate? Read below on how to help get more spectrum available for unlicensed access, help boost available power, exercise your democratic rights with your web browser, and educate the FCC and your Congresscritter.

Or you can go back to being a cynical consumer moo cow who thinks bitching and moaning about how stupid government is relieves you of your responsibilities. (Think I have an opinion?)

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