Tales of the Sausage Factory

Will Comcast/NBC Need FCC Approval? And How Would That Play Out?

The industry news is abuzz with the upcoming Comcast/NC Universal Deal. According to recent reports, Comcast would buy 51% of NBC Universal (assuming Vivendi, which owns 20% at the moment, agreed with the terms). But beyond this general framework, it’s unclear whether all the assets held by NBC Universal would be included in the deal. Whether or not the FCC has jurisdiction hinges on this question.

The FCC does not have general jurisdiction over deals pertaining to content. NBC Universal owns lots of radio and television stations. Transfer of the licenses to the new Comcast-controlled entity would require FCC approval. But if the deal does not include the licenses, the FCC would probably lack a jurisdictional hook. Review of the deal would lie strictly in antitrust — at either the DoJ or Federal Trade Commission (FTC). From an antitrust perspective, the deal raises some concerns given the concentration of content and Comcast’s position vis-a-vis other existing subscription television providers (e.g., FIOS, DIRECTV) and potential new competitors (e.g., Netflix and other “over the top” video providers)). It may also concern broadcasters, both NBC affiliates worried about the change in management and other broadcasters worried how this would impact Comcast’s retrans negotiations. Much of this will also depend on whether the deal includes the movie production studios, prior existing content, and a host of other details that impact the universe of content distribution these days.

Assuming the TV and/or radio stations are included, it’s not entirely clear what happens. The D.C. Circuit eliminated the FCC’s existing ban on cable/television cross ownership (which applied only to broadcast licenses in a cable system’s franchise area) in 2002 on the basis that the D.C. Circuit didn’t like it (Fox Television Stations, Inc. v. FCC, 280 F.3d 1027 (D.C. Cir. 2002). That decision does not directly impact the FCC’s general obligation under Section 310(d) to ensure that any transfer of a license serves the public interest. Comcast and NBC will certain push the Fox Television decision for all its worth, arguing that the DC Circuit decision to vacate the rule means that there are no circumstances under which the FCC could prevent a broadcast/cable cross-ownership rules. Opponents will argue that while the D.C. Circuit vacated a per se rule that any cable/broadcast combination was contrary to the public interest, that has zero impact on the Commission’s responsibility to resolve the question of whether transfer of these licenses to this cable company serves the public interest. I expect much confusion and argument on this point. Assuming the FCC has jurisdiction in the first place.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Today on Telecom Mythbusters: FCC Ancillary Authority in Comcast/BitTorrent

Cable gets a lot of mileage out of repeating things over and over until folks believe it’s true. Today on Telecom Mythbusters I’d like to focus on the question of “ancillary” authority and regulating broadband. The cable guys generally circulate two myths about this.

1) Ancillary jurisdiction by the FCC is an exceedingly rare, wacky, way out thing and the fact that net neutrality advocates even want to rely on it shows how way out there and kooky it is.

2) The D.C. Circuit has been busy trimming back ancillary jurisdiction so that it really doesn’t exist anymore. Specifically, the D.C. Cir. 2005 decision in American Library Association v. FCC, 406 F.3d 689 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (and, to a lesser degree, MPAA v. FCC, 309 F.3d 796 (D.C. Cir. 2002) worked some kind of mojo against the expansive grant of power by the Supreme Court in United States v. Southwest Cable, 392 U.S. 157 (1968) and the Supreme Court’s explicit statement in Brand X so that the FCC cannot regulate broadband access and prohibit Comcast from targeting specific applications such as BiTtorrent under ancillary jurisdiction. A sub-myth of this is “Title I cannot be the source of authority on its own.”

Marvin Ammori, General Counsel of Free Press, has written a stunning tour de force rebutting these arguments. The 100+ page filing masterfully traces the FCC’s authority under Title I and in this particular proceeding. But for those who don’t want to read through the whole thing, I will give my own take below.

I must once again warn readers that this will be a breathtakingly dull review of applicable case law, along with an examination of FCC precedents and does not go to the juicier merits of policy (not that I expct this to stop the Brett-bot from his inevitable comments). If you do not find legal minutia fascinating beyond words, if you do not thrill at the discussion of the subtle differences between a “Telecommunications Service Provider” and a “Common Carrier,” then for God’s sake, turn back now! Lest your brain dissolve into tapioca pudding from the awesome power of legal analysis unleashed.

(and for Brett: Blah blah blah evil blah blah Free Press blah blah MAP blah blah Ginger)

Otherwise, to see both myths BUSTED, read more below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Leased Access Reform Hits A Major Speed Bump.

I had hoped to be able to tell all my friends at the National Conference on Media Reform in the beginning of June about the fantastic opportunity to put independent progressive programming, minority-oriented programming, and local programming on cable when the new rates and improved rules for cable leased access became effective June 1. Unfortunately, due to a decision by the Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granting the cable request for a stay pending resolution of the challenges to the rules, that won’t happen. While not a total loss (the Sixth Circuit rejected the NCTA’s motion to transfer the case to the D.C. Circuit) and not preventing programmers from trying to take advantage of leased access now, this is a serious bummer for a lot of reasons — not the least of which is the anticipated crowing by the cable guys (ah well, we all endure our share of professional hazards).

But mostly, I am disappointed that the cable operators will continue to withold the real rates under the new formula. As part of the stay request to the FCC (and subsequently to the 6th Cir.), the cable operators had submitted affidavits claiming that under the leased access rate formula adopted by the Commission, the new rate would be FREE!!! and they would have to drop C-Span and any other programming you like as a result. Since the cable operators always claim that the impact of any regulation is that they will need to charge higher rates, drop C-Span, stop deploying broadband, etc., etc., I am not terribly inclined to believe them this time and had looked forward to either their releasing real rates or putting programmers on for free. But since cable operators uniformly refuse to make the new rates available before the new rules go into effect (another reason I disbelieve the “the rate will be zero” claim), and because they control all the information relevant to the rate calculation, I can’t actually prove they are blowing smoke. Now it looks like we will have to win the court case (which will likely take a year or more) before we find out the real leased access rates.

Mind you, leased access had already hit a few roadblocks, owing to the inexplicable delay in sending the rules to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Although the rules were approved in November ’07, released on February 1, 2008, and published in Fed Reg on February 28, the order was not sent to OMB for the mandatory review under the Paperwork Reduction Act until April 28. I might almost think the cable folks in the Bureau were less than enthusiastic about supporting leased access reform. OTOH, since it also took the broadcast enhanced disclosure rules a a few months to get to OMB, it may just be the natural slowness of the process. After all, by federal law, the carrier pigeons used to take the text in little scraps from FCC across town to OMB can fly no more than two flights a day.

But to return to the critical point, what does the court ruling mean for leased access reform and the hope that local programmers, progressive programmers, minority programmers and others could have an effective means of routing around the cable stranglehold on programming?

See below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

D.C. Cir. to Comcast: “Making You Obey The Law Is Not A 'Vendetta.'”

When an industry challenging agency action loses the sympathy of the D.C. Cir., it is a good sign that someone overreached just a tad. In apparent preparation for the The Big Cable Show in New Orleans this week, the D.C. Circuit issued this opinion denying Comcast’s insistence that it deserves a waiver of the FCC’s cable set-top box interoperability rules.

The case actually has an interesting precedential aspect I shall discuss below, but the primary reason I am noting it is because this is the first in a series of cases in which Comcast and the rest of the cable industry have actually pleaded that they should be excused from the law because enforcement is all part of an evil vendetta by Kevin Martin against the cable industry. Really. Because while people may accuse Hilary Clinton of having a “sense of entitlement” about the Democratic Nomination, she has the humility of a saint with zero self-esteem compared with the ravening sense of entitlement of the cable industry.

Mind you, the cable industry won won so much for so long at the FCC that a Chairman willing to enforce the law against the cable industry, with 2 other Commissioners willing to vote with him, is quite the shock to the system. And of course, when you have a paid chorus of wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress and captive industry press (combined, I’m sad to say, with a boatload of easily manipulated public interest groups that should know better but hate Kevin Martin for other reasons), it becomes easy to believe your own press releases. Which is why not merely the cable industry, but their allies as well, have started to put some genuinely stupid and insulting things in their filings that make you shake your head and go “whoa! I can’t believe they actually said that!”

And neither could the D.C. Cir. Not only did the panel hearing the case dryly reprimand the cable industry a few times, but they gave Comcast ‘n friends a very thorough bitchslap in the opinion.

More fun details, and the actual useful legal point, below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Comcast to Illinois: I loves Me The Market Power!

As reported on BroadbandReports.com, Comcast has greeted former Insight customers transferred to Comcast as part of unwinding a partnership with a 6% rate hike. Thanks to all the delightful cover given to Comcast by Congressional Republicans, who declare that all is “A OTAY” in Cableland, the Comcast guys are no longer even pretending that the rise in rates has anything to do with cost. Rather, as Comcast rep Libbie Steh told the Springfield Journal Register in a rare attack of honesty: “increased costs are not a factor this year.” Rather:

“Comcast periodically reviews prices and adjusts them to reflect what’s in the marketplace,” Stehn said.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Last Call — Part I: Cable

The FCC sure had a busy day a its last open meeting on December 20, 2006. In addition to the oral argument for the indecency cases in the 2nd Cir., the FCC also had its last open meeting of 2006. While it is impossible to provide a thorough analysis until the FCC releases the full text of the orders it adopted, below find some brief impressions based on the what we know so far about the FCC’s cable franchising order, cable rates report. Later, a post on the surprise Return of the Incredibly Awful Cyren Call Proposal.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Joker in the Stevens Deck — Section 1004

In the dead of night, just before the latest draft of the Stevens bill came out, a helpful Telco lobbyist inserted a little provision to stack the deck in the case of judicial review. Section 1004 of the Stevens draft now places exclusive jurisdiction for all decisions by the FCC in the D.C. Circuit. This includes not just network neutrality, but media ownership, CALEA, wireless issues, anything.

Why would anyone do that you ask? Because the D.C. Cir. is, without doubt, the most activist court in the land when it comes to pressing its vision of media and telecom policy. More than any other court, the D.C. Cir. can be credited with destroying hope of telecom competition in the United States by perpetually reversing and remanding the FCC’s efforts at rulemaking and enforcement until the FCC finally gave up and effectively deregulated. The D.C. Cir. is also responsible for vacating (eliminating by judicial fiat) the rule preventing cable companies from owning television stations where they have cable systems, and overturning much of the FCC’s cable and broadcast ownership limits. Finally, through the legal doctrine known as “standing”, the D.C. Crcuit has done its best to make it impossible for regular people to challenge FCC decisions or bring individual cases on antitrust grounds.

As a practical matter, the move privileges large companies that can afford to litigate in DC. If you are a small company somewhere else, upset about how FCC action impacts your life, you must now get a lawyer familiar with DC practice ad Petition for review here. Of course, the best (and most expensive) firms most likely have deals with your larger rivals, precluding them from taking the case.

So no wonder why the telco lobbyists want this provision. But why on Earth would anyone else? However, because it comes in at the end, while most of the action takes place elsewhere, it may slip by.

So certainly go to Save the Internet and follow the directions on how to call the Senate Commerce Committee and tell them you want real network neutrality. But don’t forget to tell them at the top of your lungs STRIP OUT SECTION 1004! DO NOT GIVE THE DC CIRCUIT EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION OVER FCC RULES. You’ll be glad you did.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

St. Louis Pre-Game Show

Just finished the pre-game show here in St. Louis. It’s already shaping up nto be a huge conference here. It made attending the fourth iteration of “the academic and the activist should be friends” worthwhile. Why do self-organizing iterative processes need to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat? More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Tales of the Sausage Factory: Of Open Access, Kicking Butt, and Why Arbs Don't Know Jack

The Ninth Circuit has given us another win in the fight to make cable plants open their facilities to independent ISPs (aka “open access” ). Winning feels good, especially when you predicted it over the odds given by the “experts”. The experts here are the industry analysts and arbitrageurs (or “arbs” ). What does it mean, and why are the experts so often wrong? See my opinions below.

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