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

Google Makes A White Spaces Concession.

In yet another chapter of “Why Citizens Movements Are Citizen Driven,” I think Google has conceded too much too soon in its letter today to the FCC. Briefly, in an effort to try to head off the persistent claims that the white spaces prototypes have “failed” and to move out of the wireless microphone trap that opponents of white spaces have used so effectively, Google proposes a combination of “beaconing” (give users of wireless microphones a low power gadget that mimics a dtv signal, thus denying use of the vacant channel to any white spaces device (WSD) in the immediate vicinity, as the WSD will interpret the channel as “active”) combined with setting aside channels 36-38 for wireless microphones, and requiring geolocation and a “permission to activate” signal from higher power stationary devices.

For reasons discussed below, I am not happy . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

SCOTUS Gets Down & Dirty with Indecency!

The Supreme Court just agreed to hear the FCC’s appeal on the indecency case. This case involves whether the FCC acted correctly when it changed previous precedent and held that even a “fleeting utterance” of certain words (in this case, the “F-word”) can qualify as “indecent.” Previously, the FCC had a rule that it would take the entire context of the use of an obscenity into account, and that a mere “fleeting utterance” in the context of live television (especially of a newsworthy event) would not constitute indecency.

What’s at stake? See below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Potentially Much More At Stake In Michigan Than PEG — NAB, PBS and Folks Worried About Bundling of Services Better Wake Up And Pay Attention!

Compared to the primary battles in Michigan, the fight between Comcast and local governments about Comcast’s decision to migrate Public Educational and Government (PEG) channels to digital seems like small potatoes. But potentially, the lawsuit filed by the cities of Dearborn and Meridian in local federal court could have huge impact on how cable operators carry broadcast television and even how they bundle video services with their voice and broadband offerings.

For those just tuning in: Comcast has decided take advantage of Michigan’s franchise reform law and forcibly migrate PEG channels to digital tier, which will require anyone who wants to see PEG channels to get a digital box and will put the PEG channels waaaay up the dial where channel surfers rarely tread. This has prompted angry protests by city officials, and even a reprimand from House Commerce Chair Rep. John Dingell (D-MI). While other cable operators have used such tactics in the past, Comcast appears to be the first operator to do this for an entire state at once.

As a result, Dearborn and Meridian challenged Comcast’s right to move the PEG channels without consent by the localities in federal court. But while this focus remains on PEG, it goes much further. In 1992, Congress mandated that cable operators must offer subscribers a “basic tier” that consists of the broadcast channels and PEG channels. Congress also prevented cable operators from bundling this “basic tier” with any other service or “buy through.”

For reasons having to do with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, cable operators may no longer need to offer a “basic tier.” But if that’s true, what does that mean for broadcasters? Can cable operators forcibly migrate broadcast channels in the same way they claim they can forcibly migrate PEG? And — looking ahead — does that mean that cable operators will have the freedom to change how they bundle packages? Right now, cable operators generally offer their basic video product and then offer all manner of additional services. But what happens if the “basic tier” requirement is really dead? Will we see cable operators get more aggressive, forcing customers to take additional services if they want video programming?

From where I sit (which is really just looking at the plain language of the statutes), it’s a real muddle. I’m glad I’m not litigating. But if I were the NAB and PBS, I’d start paying real close attention here. Otherwise, they may wake up and discover that they are also going on a forced march migration to digital, even if they can keep their channel position and not end up in the 900s.

Analysis below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Quick On Cable: Martin and Copps Pull Out A Partial Win By Persuading Adelstein To Meet Them Halfway

Well, I’ll have a lot more to say over the next few days. And there were a bunch of very good Orders that came out on other subjects, like Low Power FM and mandatory disclosure requirements for broadcasters. But here’s the summary:

1) The Commission acknowledges that data about the 70/70 threshold remains unclear, and will therefore require that all cable operators must report real subscriber numbers, including all MDU subscribers, for 2006 and 2007.

OK, as regular readers will know by now, I think it was clear that cable penetration passed this threshold long ago. But since we at MAP have been asking the FCC to collect real data on this stuff from the cable operators since 2000, I am pleased with the ultimate outcome. Hell, I was telling Steve Effross of NCTA last night that I’d wait on the result to get real data from all cable operators so that we could do this right.

If I’m wrong on penetration, so be it. This is an empirical question and we should solve it through the obvious expedient of telling cable operators to actually report their subscriber numbers. Three cheers for Kevin Martin for having the courage to stand up to the wholly bought cable subsidiaries in the GOP, and three cheers for Michael Copps for pushing for collecting actual data from cable companies for years now.

As for Jonathan Adelstein. _sigh_ Yes, I’m still disappointed. I get that Adelstein doesn’t like being in the hot seat, that he thinks Martin is a — if you’ll excuse me — martinet who cooks the books, etc. etc. But he is just plain wrong on this one. As noted with copious citations in the MAP filings (see links in comments in previous post) the FCC has always relied on Warrens data and exclusively on Warrens data, which showed cable penetration hovering at pretty damn close to 70%.

And as for the much vaunted Cable 325 Reports that Adelstein and McDowell went on at great length about, I shall refer interested parties to the GAO’s analysis, with the lengthy but descriptive title “Data Gathering Weaknesses in FCC’s Survey of Information On Factors Underlying Cable Rate Changes.” And, as also mentioned in MAP filings, the FCC’s regulatory fees NPRM determined that cable gained 1.5 million subscribers in 2006. If we’re going to include all the FCC data, the fact that everyone (including McDowell and Tate) already voted to find that cable gained 1.5 million subscribers in 2006 should be included in the discussion as well.

But, at the end of the day, Adelstein voted to demand the cable companies provide the data and end this debate once and for all. That counts for a lot. Nevertheless, for me on this, Adelstein comes out of this a lot less like Han Solo and a lot more like Hamlet, spending five acts waffling and causing havoc before finally managing to stab the right villain.

As for Tate and McDowell — hardly a surprise. Given how thoroughly the cable guys appear to own the Republicans, the surprise is not that McDowell and Tate went with the cable boys but that Martin actually went ahead and defied them.

2) Leased Access: The Commission adopts a pretty good Order that will lower the rate, require cable operators to be more responsive, and generally force staff to get complaints processed quickly. Surprisingly, it took some convincing to get Adelstein to go along with this one, as the cable operator’s last minute complaint that they didn’t get enough due process struck a chord. (I love it that industry always discovers due process when they are about to get their comeuppance, but when it’s about shafting us the due process concerns go out the window.) Fortunately, Copps and Martin were able to broker a compromise that the FCC will stay operation of the new rate formula until after they process Petitions for Reconsideration. And surprise! Tate and McDowell dissented. McDowell’s comments about how leased access doesn’t work as an economic model run afoul of the fact that the record contains several examples of programmers that do make a go of it even under the existing abominable rules (such as CaribeVision). But when your “Mr. DeReg Guy” a little thing like facts will not figure into your theorizing.

A minor tweak. The Commission will not apply the new rate to home shopping channels, but rolled that over into a separate rulemaking. Given my general feeling on home shopping channels and the public interest, I can’t complain too loudly about this one. I don’t think it’s terribly needful, but I can live with it.

3) Section 616 Carriage Complaint: The process for independent programmers to file complaints with the Commission was up for major reform. It didn’t happen. Score a kill for the cable guys.

That’s the quick and dirty. I’ll try to have more over the next couple of days. But first I gotta take a little nap. It’s been a Hell of a month.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

This Genuine Commemorative 1993 Petition for Recon Available If You Act Within 30 Days

Back before I finished law school, my employer Media Access Project was arguing that broadcast stations that did nothing but air program-length commercials (aka the Home Shopping Network and its various clones) did not serve the public interest and therefore did not deserve one of the scarce licenses made available for broadcast television. This being back in the day when there was still some expectation that broadcasters needed to demonstrate that they served the “public interest, convenience and necessity” as required by the statute, you understand. i.e. a long time ago.

As part of the 1992 Cable Act, Congress forced the FCC to have a proceeding to determine if stations that did only home shopping served the public interest. Unsurprisingly, the FCC found that there is a vital public interest need for people who could not otherwise get zirconium diamonds or commemorative collectors plates.

And you wonder why we learned to treat the “public interest” as a joke?

Anyway, my boss, Andy Schwartzman, filed a petition for reconsideration after the FCC issued its decision in 1993. Under the statute, you must file a petition for reconsideration before going to court. So MAP filed, arguing that the Commission had not really done its job when it claimed that Home Shopping Network and other such stations served the local community, and that the Commission had failed to consider other valuable uses of the spectrum.

And there the matter sat — for fourteen bloody years! — with us unable to go to court until the Commission resolved the damn thing. It became something of a joke. Every year, Andy would have a meeting with the Chairman of the FCC, and every year would ask about this petition. Every time someone new got named as head of the FCC’s Media Bureau, we’d trundle over with our wish list of outstanding proceedings, and at the top of the list was always Petition for Reconsideration in Docket No. 93-8. And every time, the Chairman or the Chief of the Media Bureau would promise to look into the matter. And the matter sat….and sat…..and sat….

Until Kevin Martin, under pressure from the new Democratic Congress, started putting the squeeze on the FCC staff to get the damn backlog under control. And then — Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles! — the staff decided to address our pending Petition for Recon. Of course, by this time, the record had gotten a tad “stale” (more like “mummified”) so the Bureau issued a Public Notice soliciting comment to refresh the record.

Aside from my personal venting, however, why should anyone care? After all, how many home shopping channels are there at this point (not broadcasters who run infomercials from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., I mean broadcasters who only show home shopping)?

Because, as explained below, this proceeding actually provides an important opportunity to make two points. First, that the public interest really does matter. After years of neglect, there is (I hope) a body of very angry people ready to tell the FCC that the Commission cannot get away with treating the statutory requirement to serve the local community as a joke; that endless chances to buy adorable porceline figurines of kittens do not make up for the total absence of local programming and coverage of meaningful local news. Second, that there are plenty of more valuable uses for broadcast spectrum, like say opening it up for unlicensed use.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why wait for the Daily Show for Fake News?

This goes back a ways. Between vacation for Passover and the net neutrality fight, this fell a bit by the wayside. But it is still an important issue.

Back on April 6, my friends over at Free Press, working with the Center for Media and Democracy, have issued a rather stunning report on how local television stations rebroadcast “video news releases” — press releases created by corporations — as real news. For example, a “news story” about a new drug treatment may, in fact, an advertisement created by the drug company and packaged to look like a news report.

Free Press subsequently hosted a “blogger briefing” call, which you can listen to here. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstien spoke. And I attended wearing my blogger hat.

My thoughts on this most recent disclosure of how pathetic our news media has become below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Pulls Broadcast Ownership Item and Makes My Summer Easier

Given my current insane workload, I can only rejoice at the last minute decision by the FCC to pull from this morning’s meeting agenda a new rulemaking that would start the broadcast media ownerhsip fight all over again. Contrary to what I’m sure will be the popular wisdom, I think this demonstrates a healthy, functional agency rather than the usual partisan sniping. My analysis below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Unlicensed Spectrum in TV

The FCC has released its eagerly anticipated (or dreaded) Notice of Proposed Rule Making which would authorize the use of unlicensed spectrum access in the television bands. (Word, PDF, and Text). This is one of the real important proceedings before the FCC on unlicensed. You can be sure that major companies on both the pro-unlicensed and the anti-unlicensed side will file? But will you? Are you content to let Microsoft or Intel cut a deal with Viacom, News Corp and the rest of the media conglomerates for you? Or would you rather participate yourself and help define your own rights?

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