Tales of the Sausage Factory

Iowa Broadcasters to FCC: “We Do Localism! All It took Was A 500 Year Flood.”

One has to admire the utterly ruthless and meticulous way in which broadcasters will move swiftly to exploit absolutely any possible set of circumstances for their regulatory advantage. Case in point, this letter from Sue Toma, Executive Director of the Iowa Broadcaster’s Association to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, touting their involvement in their communities during the recent terrible flooding.

Mind you, I am glad that Iowa broadcasters can get it together to do their job during a 500 year flood. And it is the job of trade associations to tout the good its members do — even when it is the sort of thing we expect them to do. And certainly Iowa broadcasters should be praised for stepping up to the plate when needed and recognized for playing their part — along with the other community businesses and volunteers from around the country who, unlike the broadccasters, are not under a legal obligation to provide service to the local community. But of course, for the broadcasters, that is not enough. As usual, the broadcasters behave rather like spoiled 6 year old children who expect bribes to do their homework or their chores. Hence inclusion of this little zinger at the end:

I can’t help but note that the Iowa floods come at a time when well meaning but misguided activists are questioning broadcasters’ commitment to localism. My response: Spend time in Iowa, and see first-hand how local and radio and TV stations are serving our communities during the worst flooding in a century. Iowa broadcasters have once again proven their exemplary commitment to the communities that we serve, without the need for more mandates, paperwork and unnecessary regulation.

In other words, that stations actually do their jobs in a once in a century crisis gets them off the hook for the remaining 99 years, 11 months. To which I can only say, giving proper credit and appreciate to stations doing the work they are supposed to do, “get real.” The real test of localism isn’t just how you do in a crisis and that somehow gives you a free pass on the rest of the license period. The real test of localism is how you serve your local community on a daily basis. That broadcasters refuse even to list what programming they show and what they think their viewers get out of the programming choices — whether news, or entertainment, or exposure to local culture and matters of local interest — should raise serious questions about whether broadcasters take their role as stewards of a public license held in trust for the local community seriously.

I recognize that leveraging responses to natural disasters for regulatory goodies is a hallowed tradition among broadcasters, so I’m not offended at the Iowa Broadcaster’s Association rushing to send this letter as soon as their laptops dried out. But because broadcasters get a lot of mileage out of their so called commitment to localism — such as cable must carry, the right to play music without paying performance royalties, and a rule against satellite radio providing local content that might compete — someone needs to call them on this. You can’t get the benefits of being a licensee with a duty to serve your local community without shouldering the responsibilities as well. So just as my son doesn’t get out of doing his chores just because he did his homework — even if he got an A — broadcasters don’t get excused from serving their community every regular day just because they came through during a flood or some other epic crisis. Kudos for doing a good job on this one, but it’s still your job and you’re supposed to do it well.

And, given that nearly 1 million people took the time to tell the FCC during its localism proceeding that they thought local broadcasters were doing a lousy job serving their local community (I make no claims as to Iowa, that’s national), it doesn’t seem out of line for the FCC to require you to actually tell the FCC how your programming serves the local community as required by your license and to make that documentation publicly available, a requirement broadcasters have gone to court to resist.

Finally, I can’t help but note that low power FM stations (that full power broadcasters fight tooth and nail to keep off the air) have likewise done amazing coverage of the flood and heroic service to their local communities — while still managing to produce local content and serve their communities on a regular basis. If they can pull their weight while still more than complying withe the “mandates, paperwork, and unnecessary regulations” that ensure they serve their local communities, I think the rest of the broadcast community in Iowa can do so as well. And ought to.

Stay tuned . . . .

Posted in Media Ownership, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Operators Shocked…Shocked I Tell You…about Verizon Marketing Practices.

I may occasionally (O.K., more than occasionally) have some snarky things to say about the free market philosophies of my opposite numbers at places like CATO and Progress & Freedom Foundation. But what distinguishes them in my mind from industry shills and sock puppets is their ideological integrity. When they want everything deregulated, they really mean it. Not so the industry and its true sock puppets, who can spin on an ideological dime without the least regard for even the vaguest notions of consistency with their previous statements.

Case in point, this FCC complaint by the cable companies against Verizon for “retention marketing.” Mind you, these are the same folks that complain whenever the FCC even thinks about interfering with the “vibrant and competitive telecommunications market,” and who protest that enforcing the laws passed by Congress to require interoperable set top boxes and set a numeric limit on the number of subscribers they can have constitutes a “vendetta.” But, as usual, consistency is not exactly a strong point for industry. As I continually remind folks, industry does what is best for its bottom line, period. And here, it means using the big bad evil FCC to slap the telcos around.

Which brings me to the point I expound upon below. Too often, the industry gets to win by making this a fight about process and “level playing field” and confusing the issue. But what we really need to care about is what our actual policy IS. If we want to encourage competition because we prefer it to regulation of monopolies, then we damn well better make sure competition actually happens, which means subjecting the incumbents with market power (at least initially) to a very different set of regulations than the new entrants. For many years after the break up of AT&T, the FCC subjected AT&T to a set of regulations designed to keep it from using its position as the dominant long-distance carrier to prevent the new entrants like MCI and Sprint from attracting customers. The FCC did not worry if that was “fair” to AT&T to have different rules that prevented exercise of market power by a dominant firm. It said “hey, we want competition! That’s about economic policy, not about being fair.”

Mind you, I don’t expect my opposite numbers to agree. But they will at least have the virtue of consistency.

More below . . . .

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

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Of Bandwidth Hogs, QoS, and Regulatory Chameleons

I can live with the internet as a best efforts network. I can live with the internet as a regulated utility. What I absolutely cannot stand is the idiocy of the current regulatory scheme that allows broadband access providers to justify the deregulated state of a competitive best efforts environment because they need to provide a public utility.

Case in point, Comcast’s recent actions of cutting off “bandwidth hogs” and purportedly throttling BitTorrent traffic to its subscribers (Comcast denies it targets BitTorrent traffic). Comcast in its user agreement explicitly reserves the right to cut off users using “too much bandwidth” — although Comcast refuses to say how much bandwidth is “too much.” Comcast defends its actions (including the secrecy of the bandwidth limit) on the grounds that “bandwidth hogs” overload the system capacity and thus slow down everyone’s use of the system.

As I discuss below, Comcast and the other broadband providers are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They claim they have no liability for anything and should not be regulated because they are providing “best efforts” services and everyone knows it. But when they want to cut off users, tier traffic, or indulge in other behavior that sticks it to subscribers they haul out the “Quality of Service (QoS)” and “critical infrastructure” arguments. “What about voice?” They cry. “What about poor crippled Tiny Tim and his medical monitoring unit, cut off by some bandwidth hog downloading pirated child pornography and Al Qeda instructional videos (which, we will admit, makes a very interesting mash up when viewed via deep packet inspection)? You have to let us do whatever we want and charge whatever we want because people are relying on us for critical services.”

Of course, historically, companies that provided critical services were “public utilities.” At which point, the telcos and cable cos amazingly morph back into laissez faire “best efforts” providers and subscribers need to know there are no guarantees and that which we tell you three times may or may not be true.

My further analysis of the amazing regulatory chameleon, the private public utility, below….

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

Tales of the Sausage Factory

RIAA v. XM — Hard Cases and Clueless Judges Make for a Dangerous Mix

[Update: I’m aware the Audio Home Recording Act does not apply to video recordings. See my more detailed update here]

It’s an old cliche in Lawland that “hard cases make bad law.” To which I will now add: “and when you throw in clueless judges, the mix becomes positively toxic.”

Case in point, the recent decision by Judge Deborah Batts to deny XM Radio’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit by the RIAA for copyright violation. This case turns on the rather difficult interplay between the sections of the Copyright Act that provide a license for satellite radio, the immunity granted to equipment manufacturers under the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act, and the nature of the service offered by XM. It doesn’t help that, at the “motion to dismiss” phase, we gave the complainant (here the RIAA) the benefit of every doubt. To win, XM Radio would need to persuade Judge Batts that there is no set of provable facts under which the RIAA has a case.

Contrary to some of my colleagues (such as the eloquent and brilliant Art Brodsky in this post on the Public Knowledge website), I don’t think this was a slam dunk for XM. I actually think there is a complicated legal question here that needs to go forward for further analysis. That’s why I’m hiding over here on Sausage Factory for this one (if you check the Technorati rating for PK v. that for TotSF — you’ll understand what I mean by “hiding”).

Unfortunately, the language of Judge Batts opinion has — IMO — really, really, really bollixed things up badly. It calls to mind the awful results driven analysis in Jews for Jesus v. Brodsky when judges didn’t know squat about the internet and domain names, but sure knew they didn’t like these evil “cybersquatters” and boy were they gonna show ’em a lesson! The devil with the actual law or understanding the technology — we got us a heapin’ gavel of JUSTICE to whack you’re ass!

Batts opinion reads rather the same way J4J did. She doesn’t understand the technology and doesn’t feel any need to do so. All that matters is that someone seems to be making money that she thinks should go to the music mafia instead, and by God is she gonna get ’em! So she fixes on the wrong details and creates potential havoc for the likes of Tivo or anyone else making a PVR integrated into a receiver that picks up a subscription video or audio service.

The real issue in the RIAA v. XM case, and where Batts goes horribly, tragically, gut-churningly wrong, below….

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Posted in Fighting the IP Mafia, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)
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