Tales of the Sausage Factory

D.C. Circuit Affirms Inside Wiring In Fairly Broad Opinion. Terrestrial Loophole Next? And What About Time Warner's TV Anywhere?

While folks in the suburbs sometimes forget this, a lot of people live in what we call “multiple dwelling units” (MDUs) — which is a fancy way to say things like apartment buildings and condos. One of the problems for people trying to switch from one provider to another for cable (for example, from Comcast to RCN) is that a cable operator may already have an exclusive deal with the landlord to provide cable services to everyone in the building. Competitors asked the FCC to ban such practices. In 2003, under Michael Powell, the FCC refused to ban such exclusive deals because “regulation is always bad, mmmmkayyy.” In 2007, as part of Kevin Martin’s attack on cable market power evil vendetta against the helpless cable industry, the FCC reversed this determination and found that under Section 628(b) of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. 548) it needed to prohibit cable operators from entering into or enforcing such exclusive deals because Verizon can’t sell FIOS w/out being able to offer triple play. Predictably, this was widely denounced by the cable companies and their cheerleaders as not merely unwarranted, but a violation of law and certain to be overturned on appeal.

Turns out, not so much. In fact, in a rather broadly worded opinion, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the 2007 Order. Indeed, the language affirming the decision opens the door to the FCC tackling other cable issues, such as the terrestrial loophole (which Verizon wasted no time in pointing out to the FCC). Mind you, it remains unclear at this point whether the new FCC will have any interest in cable market power or not.

Still, there are a number of important aspects about this case, especially its implications for the FCC to regulate Time Warner’s TV Anywhere strategy, aka “how cable operators plan to preserve their existing business model and fight off Netflix.” I discuss this in more detail below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Section 616: The Wheels of Justice Roll (albeit slowly) At the FCC.

Back last November, the FCC considered reforming various rules designed to limit cable market power. While the FCC did adopt rules limiting the size of cable operators to 30% of the market and lowering the rates for leased access, the FCC failed to move forward on reform of its rules for how independent programmers can file complaints against cable operators for unfairly discriminating against them based on affiliation or lack thereof.

But now things are looking up. Last Friday, the Media Bureau addressed several pending complaints and designated them for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. Unsurprisingly, the NFL got the media attention, but the more typical case was that of WealthTV — and it is that case that is therefore likely to have more long term impact on the industry (not that the NFL and MASN cases weren’t important as precedent).

This doesn’t eliminate the need for an Order that would clarify how the process works and set a reasonable time table for complainants and defendants, but it does help to move things along for those who dared to trust the process by filing a complaint, and may put heart into the rest of the independent programming industry to hang in there and keep trying.

More below . . .

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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

Follow Up On MI PEG Lawsuit

So the judge heard the motion for a restraining order by Dearborn and Meridian to keep Comcast from migrating PEG channels to digital. The court issued the restraining order, finding that the towns were more likely than not to prevail on several of their issues, that Comcast would suffer no harm from the delay, but that the cities would potentially suffer irreparable harm if Comcast migrated the PEG channels to where most citizens couldn’t see them. (You can find the opinion, the pleadings, and other useful information here.)

On the question of the definition of “basic tier” I raised in yesterday’s post, the court found:

1) Nothing requires a cable operator to offer the basic package as all digital or all analog, so it is more likely than not that Comcast can migrate PEG to digital while keeping broadcast channels analog.

2) However, cable operators must offer the basic tier on equal terms. Requiring rental of additional equipment to get part of the basic tier therefore is more likely than not a violation of law.

A preliminary restraining order is not a final judgment. The court must make a determination on what arguments are “likely to prevail.” But the court may rule otherwise once the questions are fully briefed and argued. Hence, the “more likely than not” language.

But the courts findings produce some oddball results. By implication, at least so far, the court accepts that the obligation to offer a “basic tier” persists even after the FCC finds “effective competition.” But despite what I would think is fairly straightforward legislative language and strong legislative language, the court thinks it more likely than not that cable operators can treat the elements of the basic package in a different way from each other.

I expect fights over the basic package and the meaning of Section 623(b)(8) to become much more common, as cable operators try to migrate more popular programming to digital and look to stop carrying analog after the digital transition. For me, the real question is: “Will the FCC weigh in?” If so, when, and how? Under NCTA v. Brand X (yes, that Brand X), the FCC can weigh in at any time, since a decision by a court deciding the issue does not alter the deference due to the agency. So there’s no rush for the FCC to assert jurisdiction on its own. Cable operators are rather unlikely to rush in and ask the FCC to start a rulemaking to preempt the states on this issue. So will someone else go to the FCC and ask them to resolve the issue? PEG supporters or local governments would be a logical choice, but they don’t exactly have warm fuzzy feelings about this FCC Chairman given his willingness to preempt local franchise authorities to the detriment of PEG and local consumer protection. Especially given the outcome in Michigan (which buys time) and the possibility of Congressional help, I expect the PEG folks to wait and see what the new FCC looks like before going to the FCC.

Broadcasters might also look to get the FCC involved early, rather than wait for a situation to develop. But that seems unlikely. Still, if folks at PBS or folks representing the independent affiliates get spooked, or if problems develop in the field, we may see the broadcasters come in.

Finally, the FCC itself could wake up and notice the issue. But that also strikes me as unlikely.

Stay tuned . . . .

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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

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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