Tales of the Sausage Factory

Adelstein Is Right On FCC Authority to Launch An Investigation Into Arbitron Portable People Meter.

FCC Commissioner Adelstein wrote Chairman Martin a letter yesterday asking Martin to launch a formal inquiry into Arbitron’s use of the new portable people meter (PPM). As I noted back in September when the FCC put the Petition for an inquiry out on Public Notice, this issue means a lot to minority-oriented stations and their audiences, as they believe the PPM undercounts listeners to minority radio programming.

Also as I said back then, I think the FCC has very broad authority to investigate just about anything related to its core mission of, in the words of Section 1 of the Communications Act, “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, for the purpose of promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications.”

Mind you, having the power to launch an official inquiry does not mean you have the power to actually do anything. The FCC’s mandate is fairly broad, but it has limits. But one of the questions the FCC can ask is: “So, if we discovered something we didn’t like, what could we do about it?” That answer may be nothing more than “tell Congress this sucks,” a conclusion the FCC has reached in the past on occasion when it concluded it could take no action under existing law. But it also allows the FCC to explore other options. For example, the FCC could decide that concerns over the ppm make Arbitron ratings unreliable for certain measurements relating to its rules, like determining whether or not a station is in the “top four” for purposes of permitting a merger. Or the FCC could decide, after seeing lots of opinions and legal research from interested parties pro and con, that the FCC does have authority even if it has never exercised this authority. Adelstein cites 47 U.S.C. 257, which requires the FCC to eliminate market barriers to entry. I think a fairly strong case can be made that regulation of ratings services falls under the FCC’s ancillary authority over broadcasting. That’s a little difficult after American Library Association v. FCC (the broadcast flag case), because a ppm is not a “communication” and ALA held that ancillary jurisdiction must regulate an actual communication or transmission rather than simply have some possible impact on the future of television. OTOH, ratings are so clearly integral to the entire broadcasting industry that the connection with the “statutorily mandated” responsibilities and goals of the Communications Act is very strong.

Neither of these views may bear out on close investigation as authority to act. But again, this is why the FCC conducts inquiries. While it is easy to point to things that might have an impact on broadcasting that clearly lie outside the FCC’s jurisdiction, such as building the Sears Tower in Chicago, and easy to point to things that lie squarely inside the authority of the FCC to regulate (such as media ownership limits), there is also a middle ground of things that are rather murky. In a case such as this, where interested parties have submitted a mess of evidence that raises questions on a matter that potentially impacts millions of people getting access to diverse programming, I think the FCC ought to go ahead and have an inquiry.

Stay tuned . . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

Kevin Martin, champion of Net Neutrality?

According to Freepress.net, Martin joins a “Bipartisan FCC Majority” to punish Comcast for its peer-to-peer blocking funny business, already discussed here lots of times.

Like everybody else, I’ll await the in depth analysis sure to come from Harold Feld.

But assuming that this is what it appears to be, I hereby congratulate Chairman Martin. As I reported here, I had a chance to talk to him at the reception following the FCC hearing in Boston. And I found him sympathetic to the point of view that net neutrality was about more than consumer rights, it was about preserving the Internet as an engine of democracy. I wouldn’t be surprised if that argument figured in the deliberations on this ruling. In any event, I’m cautiously optimistic.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Wireless Mic Follow Up: Turns Out Public Safety Did Get There First

One may logically ask, if I am right about the wireless microphones being such a big problem for public safety, why haven’t the public safety folks complained to the FCC about this?

Answer: turns out they have. But, the public safety folks being quiet and unassuming, failed to make themselves heard.

Allow me to change that. The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, a federation of public safety associations, sent a letter to Chairman Martin asking that the FCC address the problem of wireless microphones back on June 30, 2008. i.e., about two weeks before I filed. While I wish I could claim that it was the NPSTC letter that inspired me, I had no idea it was out there until today. My conversations with the public safety guys were all informal and off the record. Still, as always when folks remind me I’m not an engineer (or an economist, or technologist, or any of the other topics on which I chose to share my humble layperson’s opinion), I am rather pleased to find a bunch of actual engineers that agree with me.

Mind you, the NPSTC letter asks the FCC to go a heck of a lot further than I have. NPSTC wants wireless microphones kicked out of the entire 700 MHz band. I, OTOH, think lots of folks can productively use the broadcast white spaces. Still, I do feel compelled to point out that wireless microphones do not have nearly the level of intelligence/sophistication being discussed for interference avoidance for the white spaces devices at issue in 04-186. Perhaps we should require wireless microphones to rely on sensing as well, or require that they consult an online database for possible new users in the band, or require them to acknowledge some sort of “permissive beacon.” Perhaps public safety entities like NPSTC should administer the database or beacon, and we should require wireless microphone users to pay for these services.

I mean, after all, we wouldn’t want to let these devices run around loose, would we? Think of the terrible interference that might cause. Unless these devices can meet the same rigorous standards that Shure and others seek to impose on unlicensed devices in 04-186, I don’t see how we can ask NPSTC to abide by circumstances that they feel place our public safety at risk.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

It's Always Nice When The FCC Listens

A few months ago, fellow Wetmachiner Greg Rose and I wrote a wrote a white paper on how to improve the FCC’s processes, make FCC rulemakings and proceedings more accessible to the public, and generally increase the legitimacy and reliability of FCC decision making. As one relatively easy change, we suggested the FCC post the agenda for open meetings far enough in advance that people can come in and make their last pitches to the agency before “Sunshine” (the period when communications stop under the “Government In the Sunshine Act”) kick in. As we explained, providing the agenda at the last second often advantages insiders who hear when an item is likely to go on the agenda, who therefore rush in while those who don’t know the item is going on Sunshine will lose their last chance to rebut arguments or press their case.

So it was pleasant to see Chairman Martin announce that from now on he will publish the likely agenda 3 weeks in advance. That should be a big help to everyone — including the other Commissioners, who will not suddenly find themselves with a week to digest an agenda of a dozen items.

Yes, it is a relatively minor change, but it is important in two ways. First, practical details really do matter. That sometimes gets lost in the fight over specific substantive issues. Second, it demonstrates a willingness by Martin to listen to criticism and take action — at least on the low hanging fruit. Such things deserve notice and suitable (although not overly elaborate) praise. Remember, public policy is made by human beings, and you get what you reward.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

My Testimony From Today

Well, that was fun. I reprint my testimony as prepared, not as delivered. I also cut a very insider joke. I’d planned to start:

“Mr. Chairman, I understand that this is the open Commission meeting, so it is perhaps no surprise that we are running an hour late. Also, as I have not had time to complete this testimony, I ask for editorial privileges.”

But no one off the podium was likely to get it.

[Editorial note from John (to help search engines and any random Wetmachine readers who stumble upon this): This post concerns Harold Feld’s testimony at today’s FCC hearing at Stanford University.]

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Update: FCC Severs D Block, Refers Cyren Call Allegations To Inspector General.

The FCC can certainly move fast when it wants to — and when it has had a few weeks to get used to the idea. The FCC just released a public notice that it will “de-link” the D Block from Auction 73, and will release the names of the winners as soon as the Commission collects the payments (ten days after it issues the official notice that the auction is over and that parties now need to file “long forms” and pay up).

Also of importance, Chairman Martin has referred the question of whether Cyren Call made all manner of demands of Frontline, and did this break any rules to the Office of the Inspector General. This extremely important detail was buried in this somewhat less than stellar Washington Post article about our letter to the FCC calling for an investigation. I say “less than stellar” because, in addition to “burying the lead” big time, the reporters did not trouble themselves to contact me despite that fact that (a) I broke this story in the first place (only narrowly beating out Dow Jones’ Cory Boles); (b) I drafted the friggin’ letter. I therefore recommend this far superior article in eWeek (i.e., it mentions me and links to the relevant blog entry — a clear mark of superior journalistic skills).

A bit more analysis below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Auction: Whither The D Block?

With even Chairman Martin publically agreeing that D Block is unlikely to attract any new bids, the question logically arises — what now? Needless to say, folks have not been shy about voicing their suggestions — especially those who think we ought to focus on maximizing revenue. Instead, I have a novel suggestion. Why don’t we actually investigate what the heck happened first?

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Responding to Kevin Martin and Other Reflections On Yesterday's FCC Broadcast Ownership Vote

(As you may have seen from John’s post, we lost several days worth of material yesterday and couldn’t get this posted promptly. So forgive me for posting what is literally yesterday’s news. And hopefully I will be able to get back or reconstruct the other posts.)

So the day has come. Martin has crossed the ownership Rubicon, and we now move on to the campaign to force Congress to over-rule the FCC vote while simultaneously fighting in the courts. (And if you want to see us stay in the fight and have a chance of winning, I highly recommend making a tax deductible contribution to my employer (and lead counsel for the case) Media Access Project).

First, a hearty congratulations to the Commissioners, and Kevin Martin in particular, for starting only an hour late from the announced time! This is quite the improvement from the last meeting. Who says FCC reform doesn’t work? Second, if it is going to take 2 hours for everyone to read their statements, please let us know so we can use the bathroom first. Third, if the FCC is going to make a habit of this, I recommend putting in a concession stand so we can buy snacks during the intermission.

That out of the way, a few more serious reflections below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Hot Bi-Partisan Action On Cable Part II — All Eyes On Adelstein As Cable Vote Nears

So I spent a good deal of time in Part I explaining why 70/70, leased access, and the rest of it are necessary steps to curb cable market power. You can also see the back and forth between MAP and the cable guys on whether the 70/70 threshold is met (for those of us that actually care about the substance) either by going to the FCC’s Electronic Comment search page and pluging in the docket number 06-189. Or you can check out what my friend Greg Rose has written on his blog. Because regardless of what you think the policy is, there is an actual empirical question here that — if we required cable companies to submit real subscriber numbers to the FCC rather than letting them file whatever the heck they want without any kind of verification or standard system of reporting — we would be able to answer.

And, as we head to a vote on Tuesday, Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein remains the swing vote. As regular readers know, I defended Commissioner Adelstein during the 700 MHz Auction fights when some of my friends in the movement wondered whether Adelstein was taking up the cause of the wireless companies against the consumer. Then, my faith was rewarded when Adelstein came out in favor of wholesale. Even though we ultimately lost that fight, there was no doubt that Jonathon Adelstein was on the side of the people not the special interests.

But now we come to cable. Where Commissioner Copps has always been a clear and unambiguous foe of cable market power, Adelstein has always been more … nuanced. For example, when Comcast and Time Warner divided up bankrupt Adelphia cable, Copps voted against the merger while Adelstein concurred in part and dissented in part. Adelstein used his concurrence to extract a promise from Chairman Martin to reform the cable leased access process. So was this going along with big cable or shrewd realpolitik? At the time, and still, I argued the later, trusting that Commissioner Adelstein’s longstanding support for diversity and strong stand against media consolidation belied the rumors that he was “soft” on cable consolidation.

More troubling was Adelstein’s recent concurring statement with Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell on denying Comcast’s request for a waiver of the 1996 law requiring cable operators to create an open, standard interface for cable set-top boxes. But OK, Adelstein did vote to deny the waiver and was apparently chiefly honked off that Martin was cutting Verizon a break but not Comcast. While I might disagree (giving Verizon two years to develop compliance for a non-cable system when Comcast and the rest of the cable industry got ten years on the same excuse doesn’t seem that outrageous to me — given that there are real honest-to-God technical differences between FIOS and cable systems and CableLabs, which developed the cable card standard, is a cable industry operation), I can at least understand where folks might get peeved at Martin’s apparent favoritism between the telcos and the cable cos (more on that in Part III). And, after all, Adelstein did vote to actually enforce the law against the cable industry.

But still the same ugly rumors persist — Adelstein is soft on cable. Adelstein is looking for an excuse to avoid the vote. Adelstein wouldn’t vote against cable on Comcast’s fight with The America Channel except that Copps voted with Martin and ADelstein didn’t want to look bad. etc., etc., etc.

Washington is a cynical town. It’s always easier to believe that people are acting because they are owned by this special interest or owe favors to that industry than to believe that people are trying to do their best in a complicated world. I am an oddball in starting from a position that I give those on the same side as me and those on the opposite side the benefit of the doubt until I see something that puts it beyond doubt that a person is favoring a private interest or industry over the public interest no matter what.

So we come down to the wire on cable. I’ve fought the cable industry on these issues for the last 8 years, and I am a newbie compared to some of the folks in the movement that lived to see the vote on Tuesday. I believe that, as an objective matter, the 70/70 cable penetration benchmark has been met — and was met at least as early as 2005. I continue to believe that cable exercises market power over programming and subscription rates and that the FCC needs to address these problems.

And I believe that Commissioner Adelstein, like Commissioner Copps, cares about diversity of programming and protecting consumers from cable market power. At least, I believe it now. And I hope I’ll still believe it after Tuesday.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

Well, Yeah, Actually, I Am Gloating…

I try not to gloat, but it’s impossible not to take a certain amount of satisfaction in the Wall Street Journal‘s confirmation on Nov. 16 that Google intends to bid in the 700 MHz auction in January, regardless of whether it has partners in a bidding consortium. This confirms my prediction back on August 2 in Econoklastic that Chairman Martin’s refusal to impose a wholesale open access condition on the C block would not prevent Google from bidding, despite naysayers in the press and on Wall Street.

The underlying reality is that Google needs a third broadband pipe to escape imposition of monopoly rents by the wireline and cable carriers, since net neutrality provisions with real enforcement teeth are nowhere to be seen on the horizon: that means do it themselves or get someone to do it for them. That reality hasn’t changed, and the guys at Google clearly recognise this fact. I am equally heartened by assurances from Google counsel Rick Whitt at a conference in NYC week before last that Google still intends to implement its full wholesale open access business plan over any spectrum it obtains in the 700 MHz auction.

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