Tales of the Sausage Factory

Retrans Food Fight! Why This Administration Will Deal With Cable After All.

Remember how once whacky old Kevin Martin the Cable Playa Hatah was gone the FCC was gonna forget all about cable? Because, after all, cable was all vibrant and competitive and stuff and who needs dumb old cable when everyone has Broadband?

Item one in communications land for the new year is the first round of retransmission fights. The biggies at the moment are Sinclair/Mediacom, where Mediacom has tried to get the FCC to weigh in on its side, TWC v. Fox, TWC v. Food Network/Scripps Howard (which no longer includes Scripps broadcasting properties), and Cablevision v. Food Network. Although TWC and Mediacom agreed to extensions with the various programmers to continue to try to sort things out, and TWC ultimately reached an agreement with Fox, Cablevision and Food Network ended up in stalemate.

Result, Cablevision has dropped Food Network and HGTV. In the war for the hearts and minds of customers, the Food Network folks have launched web based outreach with clips and fact sheets. Cablevision’s response is a little harder to find, but digging through their customer service led me to this page which basically says “Scripps wanted to much money for their programming, we hope you enjoy the other cooking shows we have.” Unfortunately for Scripps, the broadcast TV fights have significantly overshadowed them.

Which brings us to the first point of importance for all those folks in policyland who keep insisting that “broadcasting is dead.” You will notice that from the perspective of people reporting news to folks outside policyland, keeping broadcast programming was much bigger news than people actually losing popular cable-only programming. Second point – this is Food Network’s first round of negotiations as a stand alone cable company without also negotiating for broadcast properties. This gives them significantly less leverage.

But all these pale beside the third point — cable (and I mean cable, not “MVPD”) regulatory issues remain important and the market power and consumer protection issue don’t disappear because we now have multiple delivery platforms. Millions of people spend billions of dollars on these services and care a heck of a lot about them. Like it or not, and despite all the coventional wisdom about youtube, twitter, teh inerwebz, blah blah, this medium and these programmers dominate — indeed, arguably define — our common national culture. That means cable policy will continue to be a vital part of the FCC’s focus despite a desire to do sexier things like wireless and broadband.

Which means the folks on the 8th Floor need to wake up, grudgingly admit that whacky old Kevin Martin wasn’t so whacky after all, and reopen the proceedings on wholesale cable programming unbundling, retrans, leased access, Section 616 reform, and the other issues around boring cable programming the FCC hoped it could forget about because broadband and wireless would solve evrything and who watched TV anymore anyway.

Stay tuned . . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

On the Cultural Significance of “The Cultural Significance of Free Software” : Part one: my review of the book.

In a manner remarkably similar to how my homologue John Compton Sundman was approached by the obscure editors from the Society for Analytical Engines to edit the entries of the inaugural Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative (as chronicled in Cheap Complex Devices), I was approached, some five months ago, by the book review editor of the journal “Science as Culture” to write a review of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software by Christopher M. Kelty. I agreed to write the review for free. (Why? Because I’m a monkey/amateur –just ask Harlan Ellison).

I think the book, despite its various shortcomings, is good; important, even. It raises significant issues that bear upon (yes, I know how hyperbolic this sounds) whether democracy and the ideals of pan-human equality have any future.

My draft review appears below. At some point, presumably, a version of this review, perhaps considerably revised, will appear in Science as Culture

Funny issues arose regarding copyrights and copylefts of the review itself. I’ll write more about them in a second post.


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Tales of the Sausage Factory

It's Nice WhenThe FCC Listens — Sorta. Why I like The Proposed Resolution Of Comcast's Complaint Against Verizon But Why Some Of It Makes Me Uneasy.

Back in February, I blogged about Comcast’s complaint against Verizon for its “retention marketing” practices. That’s Verizon’s practice that, when they get a request from another carrier to terminate voice service and transfer the phone number of a customer who is switching from Verizon (a practice called “porting” the number), they make one last run at trying to persuade the customer to stay. At the time, I observed (as I have for well over a year now, since I first made this argument at the at the Federal Trade Commission’s 2007 workshop), that if we are going to rely on competition, then we cannot have rules that privilege one side over another. To cancel video service, you have to call the cable operator, who then gets a last chance to pitch you hard to stay and makes it as difficult as possible to terminate service. But to change telephone provider, the cable company can ask the telco provider and the telco provider isn’t allowed to try to keep the customer — but must wait to pitch the customer until after the customer has already switched. That’s crazy. It needs to be consistent, or it puts the telcos at a serious disadvantage against the cable cos.

Well, back in April, the Enforcement Bureau issued a recommended decision that adopts this same argument. (I’ve been a shade busy, or would have blogged on this earlier.) It strongly recommends that the Commission commence a notice of proposed rulemaking designed to harmonize the rules for switching video and voice. No surprise, as this also tracks a Verizon Petition for Declaratory Ruling — as noted by the Bureau in a footnote.

Needless to say, I wholeheartedly approve of such harmonization, having supported this approach for well over a year. So why does the recommendation make me uneasy?

Because of the legal reasoning around the facts of the instant complaint. The Bureau recommends a finding of no violation because number porting is not a Title II telecom service and cable providers offering voice over IP (VOIP) are not providing Title II services. Which means that the FCC can flit back and forth between Title I and Title II at will, depending on its policy needs of the moment. It also means that Title II telecommunications service has now been reduced to only the voice component of plain old telephone service. And even critical elements of POTS, like managing the phone number systems, no longer count as telecommunication services under Title II.

I’m even more queasy about this because it is probably right under the enormous deference shown to FCC definitional hair splitting thanks to the combination of the Brand X decision and the D.C. Circuit’s decision on CALEA in ACE v. FCC. Well, Scalia warned the Brand X majority, but they didn’t listen. And Michael Powell, by trying to put broadband services beyond the reach of FCC regulation, ended up enormously expanding the power of the FCC to regulate services on a whim.

More on what I’m talking about and what this means for the future (if adopted by the Commission) below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Ownership Limits: This Is The Jonathan Adelstein I know

OK, first, as our Great Hero and the real Favorite Son of South Carolina, Stephen Colbert would say: Martin as a true set of huevos grande. On Tuesday, when it looked like he was going down in flames, I opined that Martin wouldn’t risk touching cable again with a ten foot pole and wondered whether he would be relegated to the status of a “lame duck” Chairman. Boy was I wrong. Not only did fight his way back from a total loss to a partial win against the massed might of the cable lobby, but he has emerged determined to go on for another round in bringing cable market power to heel, and this time with no distractions about a la carte.

This time, it’s a vote on the proposed cable ownership limit. Under Martin’s proposal, a cable company may control no more than 30% of the total number of cable, satellite, or other “multichannel video programming distributor” (MVPD) subscribers. As usual, we in the media reform/diversity community have been pushing this for years and, as usual, the cable industry insists it is totally unnecessary, ilegal, fattening, and will mean that the terrorsts win.

So I take a moment to appluad Kevin Martin for his continued courage and willingness to do the right thing on cable, even while making a huge mistake on broadcast ownership. But perhaps more importantly, Jonathan Adelstein has jumped on this puppy and run with it. After the bitter disappointment of this past week’s cable vote, it is a much needed shot in the arm to see Adelstein back in his usual form as a defender of diversity and an opponent of market power. Not to take anything away from Michael Copps, mind, who as usual has a track record of opposing consolidation in cable and has worked with Martin on a host of issues limiting cable market power. I’m just saying that seeing Adelstein act decisively on this one restores my faith that while we may have disagreed on 70/70 (and as usual when these things happen, I’m the one whose right), it was an honest disagreement and not something more nefarious. So while I remain disappointed, I am no longer dismaly disillusioned or dismayed.

More below . . . .

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Inventing the Future

Self-destruction of a monster?

My cable company seems to be self-destructing. We can only hope.

Recently I wrote about my cableco cutting off my service, and not turning it back on until I answered questions about my and my wife’s social security numbers and download habits.

Last Monday I called to complain that despite the premium I was paying for 3Mb/s service, I was getting 300 Kb/s downloads and worse. They responded by cutting me off completely. I’ll spare you the dialog, but you can just substitute any page from Franz Kafka or Lewis Carroll. A guy came on Wednesday to replace my cable modem and splitter, and it appeared in his immediate testing to yield close to the expected 3000 Kb/s.

Over the next few days I found that I only got that speed immediately after rebooting the cable-modem. After a few minutes, it would drop to 1500, 600, 300, 150, and finally 30 Kb/s. Slower than an acoustic modem from before my children were born. All through the rest of the week, I would reboot, and watch as the speed fell off.

Charter stopped taking my calls altogether. They just hung up on me over and over again.

After one of these calls we ordered DSL from our local phone company. The modem arrived Friday. I plugged it in and it worked! 3.5 to 4 Mb/s. And it has stayed that way ever since. I’ve been trying to get my mail and Webpages copied off from Charter, but they won’t let me log in.

Since then, I’ve discovered two things I didn’t know or pay any attention to when things just worked:

  • Charter Communications is run by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. What an asshole.
  • Despite increasing their revenue from saps like me by more than 10% over this quarter last year, they announced this week that they’re losing even more money than ever, and their stock lost nearly 20% of it’s value. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving group.
  • Posted in General, Inventing the Future | Also tagged , , , , | 3 Comments (Comments closed)

    Tales of the Sausage Factory

    FCC Staff resolves leased access complaint after only 3 years! Go team!

    O.K., it is probably a bad idea to make fun of people for doing stuff you want them to do. So when the FCC released a leased access complaint on January 29, I should probably have just applauded for joy. But given that it took three years to resolve a complaint when the cable company in question never even filed a reply to the complaint, I think a little mention of what is wrong with the current leased access rules, and the Commission’s enforcement of same, is needed.

    And I will pause to put in a genuinely good word for the New Media Chief Monica Shah Desai for getting this cranked out relatively quickly after she got there. Keep crackin’ that whip!

    But the decision also highlights everything I’ve been complaning about in the current leased access system so that even the people who want to make it work are having a heck of a time and why we need the leased access rulemaking that Martin promised Adelstein back in July.

    Some analysis below . . . .

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    Tales of the Sausage Factory

    Cable Market Power For Dummies

    Most folks outside of Washington DC still find their cable company an obnoxious monopoly, despite the presence of competitors like DirecTV, Dish Network, and the occassional overbuilder like RCN. But, despite the fact that customers express far more satisfaction with satellite and overbuilder service, most folks remain subscribed to cable. What gives? And how does cable get away with raising prices and favoring affiliated programming in the face of this “vigorous competition.” Needless to say, the cable folks respond with a host of fancy economic papers that they file with the FCC and present to members of Congress.

    My own impression, having spoken with a number of economists, is that the Cable Cos use economics the same way Creationists use intelligent design. The point isn’t to engage in real scientific inquiry. The point is to throw enough scientific sounding stuff out there to confuse the issue and make people believe there are two equally valid sides to the debate. My problem is that the FCC and Congress usually end up playing the the Dover School District Board rather than Judge Jones.

    Anyway, in an attempt to cut through some of the nonesense, MAP released a white paper of my authorship yesterday: “The Switching Equation” and Its Impact on the Video Proramming Market and MVPD Pricing. As you can tell by the title, even an attempt to write a simple, plain language version of this ends up more complicated than I’d like. (Sad fact is, economics is hard.)

    So here’s the short version — most people find it such a pain in the butt to switch from one service to another that they will put up with higher prices, worse programming, and worse customer service rather than kill two days futzing with unsubscribing to cable and resubscribing to someone else. As long as cable doesn’t stink too badly, they can keep enough market power to make it even harder for competitors by cutting exclusive deals for regional sports programming and jacking up the price of video on demand to competitors (Comcast and Time Warner own 78% of iN Demand, the leading supplier of VoD). If we want real competition, we need to have rules that actually address market power and make it easier for people to switch to competitors. Otherwise, we get a lot of empty rhetoric about “level playing field” and “free market” and blah blah, and we still pay ridiculously high prices for cable and broadband service that still suck.

    You want proof? Go read the paper.

    Stay tuned . . .

    Posted in General, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , | 3 Comments (Comments closed)

    Tales of the Sausage Factory

    Fighting Big Cable (and why it matters)

    Most of my time the last few weeks has been taken up with cable ownership issues. If you want the short version and the immediate, easy action to take, click through to my friends at Free Press. For those interested in a little more detail and what else you can do, read on . . .

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    Posted in Cable, General, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments (Comments closed)
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