Tales of the Sausage Factory

SkyAngel Files Program Access Complaint — Has Media Bureau Really Changed, Or Will They Again Sit On Sidelines?

Some people wonder why I remain so down on the Media Bureau. “Harold,” they say. “Why do you keep saying the Media Bureau are in the pocket of the cable industry? Aren’t they just all fired up and rarin’ to go on the upcoming cable set top box proceedings?”

Perhaps I am allowing the experiences of the past to cloud my vision of a hopeful tomorrow. Perhaps, despite an utterly abysmal track record on cable matters, the cable folks in the Media Bureau have now turned over a new leaf. Perhaps now they will at least process complaints in less than three years, so that companies other than cable operators might feel they get some due process — if not actual justice — at the FCC. Who knows?

Which is why I shall watch the developments around the Sky Angel program access complaint with considerable interest. Sky Angel used to distribute programming by satellite, making it eligible for the “program access” rules that require cable operators with affiliated programming to make that programming available to rivals. (I’ve written about these rules at length before here.)

From what I can tell from the limited data available, Sky Angel is now a “Christian IPTV distributor.” It resembles a cable/satellite-like service (or “MVPD” for “multichannel video programming distributor”) in every way except for the fact that it does not own its own facilities. It distributes its programming online. We generally call these things “over the top” video distributors. According to the Broadcasting and Cable story (since I haven’t been able to find a copy of the complaint), the Discovery Channel has decided to terminate its distribution contract with Sky Angel four years early — apparently because Sky Angel has switched its distribution model to become a pure over-the-top distributor.

My problem is, that this looks very similar to a complaint a company called VDC (“Virtual Digital Cable”) filed three years ago. The Media Bureau has yet to process that complaint, but there’s no rush — since the company went bankrupt and shut down while waiting for Media Bureau action.

More below . . . .

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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.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Comcast Channel Shifts — Looking for info.

I’m getting email about Comcast migrating MSNBC and CNN out of its expanded tier to a higher priced tier while keeping Fox News on expanded tier in a number of markets. If this is actually going on, I’m mightily curious.

Such shifts do not happen casually. They are generally the product of fairly intense negotiations among cable operators and programmers. They also require advance notice to viewers. This makes me extremely reluctant to impute a political motive here. If NBC and Time Warner (the owners of MSNBC and CNN respectively) were being screwed against their will over a political agenda, I would have expected to hear it in DC. What mainstream coverage there is of this suggests it is part of Comcast’s general digital upgrade. So we should expect to see all remaining channels migrated off to the higher priced tier eventually. While that will constitute a significant rate increase, it will put everyone back on equal footing. Besides, as the DC Circuit instructed us all last month, cable operators have no market power and cannot influence the programming market, whatever your personal experience to the contrary may be.

So if anyone has more info on this and would like to either comment below or talk to me, I’d love to hear about it.

I suppose I should add that unless Comcast failed to give proper notice to subscribers before changing their channel line up, their is nothing the FCC can do about it, so don’t bother complaining.

Stay tuned . . .

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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

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

So How's That Time Warner Bandwidth Cap Working Out?

Reposting a recent blog entry of mine from the Public Knowledge blog. As Time Warner expands out its usage cap pilot from Beaumont, TX to somewhat more populated and user-intensive communities, users are starting to notice and complain. Hopefully, with the FCC getting the ball rolling on the National Broadband Plan mandated by the broadband stimulus package, we will start to probe into the whole bandwidth cap issue a little more deeply.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Fragmentation Games Continue: Cable Has a Plan So Cunning Even THEY Can't Figure It Out.

So back in September ’08, when ESPN.com cut a deal with Verizon and AT&T to lock out subscribers to rival ISPs, I predicted the cable guys would try to lock up content of their own. and, indeed, the cable guys have proven uniquely ambitious. As reported at DSL Reports and elsewhere, the cable guys want to lock in all cable network programming. But subsequent reports, and a lack of object from competitors like DIRECTV, make it look more like a cable programming network play and less like an incumbent cable ISP play.

One way or another, I expect this to keep getting interesting over time.

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

Why Did AT&T Get Left Off The Cable Investigation List — A Very Boring Answer.

While killing time waiting for the Nov 4 meeting to start FCC Chair Kevin Martin discussed the recently opened investigation into cable pricing. To the surprise of those who conceive of Martin as simply having a “vendetta” against cable, the list of companies getting notices about the investigation included Verizon. OTOH, it did not include AT&T. Needless to say, the “Martin can do no good because he is EEEEVVVVVIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!” crowd hit on this as proof that Martin is merely doing the bidding of his telco masters (Verizon having been added to the investigation merely for protective coloring).

Well, I’ve given my views on Kevin Martin repeatedly. As I have said time and again, I may disagree with him a lot, but I don’t think he is an industry shill. He does what he thinks is right and the devil with the consequences. While this has its disadvantages, notably his managing to piss off the other four Commissioners and thus secure for himself a series of policy set backs and rack up a record of number of votes actually lost by the Chairman, it does mean I tend to look for an explanation that goes beyond “Martin is a bastard 24/7 and therefore this is part of an evil plot.”

Here, I think the non-AT&T conspiracy theory answer is fairly straightforward. It has to do with the particular practice the FCC is investigating — forcing customers to migrate to digital. As AT&T does not seem to be behaving in the same way as the named cable operators that got letters from the Enforcement Bureau, they are not being investigated.

OTOH, even if the FCC does find evidence of deceptive advertising practices or anticompetitive conduct, it may lack authority to act.

Thoughts 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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