Tales of the Sausage Factory

Republican Bill To Reform FCC Not A Bad Place To Start Discussions.

There’s an old saying that goes “when it rains, can’t fix the roof; when it don’t rain, the roof don’t need fixin.’” That rather sums up most efforts at government reform. When you’re out of power, you can’t really do anything about it. When you’re in power, it turns out things don’t really need fixing. So no shocker that Joe Barton (R-TX), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined by Mr. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), ranking member of the Telecom Subcommittee, have decided to introduce an FCC reform bill now that (a) Democrats control Congress, and (b) Democrats control the FCC. You can find the press release here and the full bill text here.

If political expediency were a mortal sin, however, nothing would ever get done. So it is not enough to simply note that politicians of either party are more apt to want reform when they are on the outside. It is important to examine the bill in its own right. Given that a lot of folks in both parties and in the public interest community would like to see some longstanding issues corrected, and I have opined on the matter myself from time to time, it’s important to consider whether the Barton-Stearns bill makes a good start and a basis for going forward. Remember, we want functional government. If out of power Rs are now in the mood to address real issues and get substantive stuff done, the thing to do is make it easy for them to work together with Ds. Perhaps it will become a habit. OTOH, as Ds have learned over the last several month, agreement for the sake of agreement is not worth doing.

My personal feeling after a quick read is that this bill is not a bad place to start on some long-standing procedural gripes, but that there are a couple of things that worry me.

Details below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why NTIA Should Tell NARUC “Thanks, But We Can Manage the Stimulus Spending Just Fine.”

OK, I get that when you are a trade association you push for your members. But this is silly.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) has sent a letter to the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) and the USDA Rural Utility Service (RUS) explaining how the only, possible conceivable way for them to spend the $7.2 Billion they must spend under the Broadband Stimulus package is to send all the applications to NARUC’s members to evaluate. This way, the poor little overworked NTIA and RUS won’t have to worry their pretty little heads about anything. You can read NARUC’s press release here.

The appeal to administrative convenience is a convention one. And, like most conventional wisdom on the stimulus package — utterly wrong. For a start, Congress actually realized this would take resources. So NTIA can use up to 3% of the money for Administrative costs associated with running the program. The idea that poor little NTIA, forced to focus on the DTV transition and coupon program (which happens in June) can’t possibly manage to process all these applications is rather ridiculous in light of the fact that NTIA can spend Over $150 million on administrative costs. I think you can hire a bunch of real sharp, real experienced grant evaluators for that. Bluntly, such folks will do a heck of a lot better job of evaluating grant proposals than NARUC, as I explain below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

McCain Campaign Wusses Out On NAF Tech Smackdown.

So my friends at New America Foundation went to all the trouble to arrange for a final Technology Smackdown between former FCC Chair and Obama Campaign surrogate Reed Hunt and McCain Campaign surrogate Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Holtz-Eakin, you may recall, was the man who traced the invention of the Blackberry back to McCain’s stalwart leadership on the Commerce Committee, ignoring the fact that the Blackberry is manufactured by a Canadian company and that only limited models are available in the U.S. thanks to McCain’s awesome tech policies, which can be summed up as “no taxes, no regulation, no clue.”

So needless to say, I and every other policy wonk in DC came ready to see the sparks fly. Reed Hunt, former FCC Chair, known for saying what he thinks and letting the chips fall where they may. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, looking for any kind of “game changer” and hoping to prove how his man has mastery of this key policy arena rather than the young and untested Obama. Who will take it? Whose tech cuisine will reign supreme?

But then this morning, Douglas Holtz-Eakin canceled and the McCain campaign informed NAF they could not send a surrogate. NAF scurried, but could find no one blessed by the McCain campaign to debate Reed Hunt. With Washington tech wonkdom descending on their doorstep, NAF decided to hold the event anyway. This allowed Reed to switch from technology policy and plug his new comedy CD – “Reed Hunt — Unplugged Because I’m Using Wireless Which Will Be Far More Competitive Under An Obama FCC Which I Will Now Illustrate With An Anecdote And Could You Please Remind Me What The Question Was Again.” (Trust me, in policy wonk circles, this is hysterical.)

There may be many reasons why Holtz-Eakin did not show up. But for the campaign to refuse to send a substitute surrogate is a totally punk move. What, no one on the Straight Talk Express can use a computer? And if you all whine about how unfair it was that Reed went on to trash talk you guys or that NAF was “in the tank for Obama” because they went ahead and held the highly publicized and well attended event anyway, all I can say is “shut up, punks! McCain’s tech policy is for wussy incumbents who want their market power protected. In keeping with geek tradition, I shall taunt you with my very very bad Monty Python impression. [outrageous French accent] I fart in your general direction! I wave my private parts at you — you silly de-regulatory free-market Libertarian persons. Now go away or I shall taunt you some more.”

OK, my trash talk is a bit weak. But Holtz-Eakin and the McCain tech team are still punks.

Stay tuned . . .

UPDATE: Apparently, Holtz-Eakin ditched out to try to convince MSNBC viewers that it is Obama who will be four more years of Bush. You can find more details on how the McCain Campaign vetoed Carly Fiorina and generally punked out here on ThinkProgress.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Consistency of Kevin Martin and the Faith Based FCC

So many people are mad at Kevin Martin these days, but for so many different things. He is either a “tool of industry” or “interfering with the market,” depending on whom you ask. And no one seems more confused about this than the ranking member of the House Commerce Committee, Joe Barton (R-Tx).
Mr. Barton understands all bout de-regulating. That’s what good Republicans do, after all. But he cannot understand why Mr. Martin is making such trouble for the “highly competitive” cable industry. As reported in this article:

“It’s been said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the committee’s senior Republican. “If that’s the case, we could use a few hobgoblins at the FCC.”

Barton complained that Martin plans to ease the cross-ownership ban while doing little on other media ownership restrictions and is attempting to limit the number of subscribers one cable system can reach.

“It baffles me how the same FCC can appropriately eliminate regulations for some segments of industry because of increased competition, and at the very same time refuse to deregulate or even impose more regulation on segments of industry that are creating that very competition,” he said.

Democrats, of course, accept that Mr. Martin as a Republican should be a tool of industry. To the extent they wonder about any apparent inconsistencies, they attribute it to Martin being a shill for the telcos. This, of course, does not explain why Martin denied Verizon’s request for deregulation in six major cities or why Martin told Verizon to bugger off on modifying C Block. But if he isn’t an industry tool, why did he ram through the sale of Tribune and waive FCC regs so that Tribune could appeal in the DC Circuit and try to get the entire newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban repealed?

While armchair psychology and analysis based on shreds of available information is always a perilous past-time, I will argue below that Kevin Martin is actually extremely consistent in his decisions and his management style. I say this neither as a criticism or as praise. But pivotal to understanding the actions of the FCC and therefore to exercising my stock in trade of effective advocacy is trying to make some guess on what actually drives the current FCC Chairman in making decisions. Feld’s Second Law of Public Policy states: “Public policy is made by human beings.” (OK, I know Clausewitz said it first about war, but the principle still holds.) So understanding the human beings making policy is a critical step in influencing policy — even if we understand them poorly.

Besides, it’s fun.

Guesses below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Is Nancy Pelosi Possessed By A Demon Trying To Sabotage The Democratic Party? Or Is The “SAFE Act” A Big Yawn?

That’s the question I’m trying to figure out today.

It all has do with the passage last night of yet another bill written by luddites who see Internet access as the work of Satan and don’t care if they are screwing up the lives of actual women and children who depend on cheap access for their education, health care and livelihoods. While such things were a routine election year stunt under the Republicans, it is somewhat shocking to see Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) pull something like this. As the Dems used a special parlimentary manuever reserved for “noncontroversial” bills to bring a fresh bill to the floor without any consideration by relevant committees or debates, (let us savor the irony of this happening the same day as the House Commerce Committee hearing labeling Martin’s FCC processes as “broken” for pushing items through in the dead of night without allowing debate or time for consideration) it is clear Pelosi and the House Democratic Leadership view this as something positive and important.

As I discuss below, however, according to the report by Declan McCaluagh, the bill is a potential disaster of epic proportions for poor women and children, minority inner city neighborhoods, and rural areas — all of whom benefit from the growing availability of community-based wifi and municipal wifi projects. And, as a political matter, it will create serious headaches for the Democrats among tech voters, younger voters who actually understand and rely on these servcies, and civil libertarians. Because just as these voters were finally starting to shake the long-standing stereotype of the Dems as the “Nanny State” party and regard the Republicans as the party that is generally anti-tech, anti-civil liberties, and far too obsessed about sex for its own good, in steps Ms. Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership to alienate these guys in time for the ’08 election.

So is Pelosi possessed by a demon out to destroy the Democratic Party’s chances in ’08? Or — as equally Libertarian but usually more careful George Ou suggests — has famed Libertarian and generally anti-Democratic Party reporter (of “Al Gore Claims He Invented the Internet” fame, and, more recently, “Net Neutrality Is Dead and Buried — Thank God”) once again let his prejudices run away with him ad get in the way of accurate reporting? Although frankly, even if Ou is right, I think Pelosi and the Democratic leadership that rushed this through last night have done themselves no favors and — as is so often in the case with bills writen by a cobination of sincere ignoramaces with deep feelings and no sense with cynical political grandstanders — the proposed SAFE Act doesn’t actually do much to solve the real problem of trafficking in child pornography.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Endgame: Wholesale Open Access Down, But Not Quite Out.

Yesterday, the House Commerce Committee held its FCC Oversight hearing. As expected, the 700 MHz auction attracted a great deal of attention. As I wrote in previous entries, this was make or break time for wholesale open access. If Commerce Committee Chair John Dingell (D-Michigan) and Telecom Subcommittee Chair Ed Markey (D-MA) voiced strong support, that might push Martin to adopt full wholesale open access in light of Google’s commitment to bid. OTOH, if the House Dems did not back wholesale, then Martin would be unlikely to budge.

Dingel and Markey did not back wholesale open access. Indeed, Dingell backed off slightly from his previous hard-line stance on even device open access (aka, “open access-lite” aka the “Martin plan”), asking for assurances that including such a condition would not hurt auction revenue or limit bidding. Markey, while enthusiastically supporting device open access and suggesting ways to improve it and make it effective, did not mention wholesale at all.

The biggest supporter of wholesale open access was Mike Doyle (D-PA), who gets a huge Sausage Factory cheer for stepping up to the challenge. You can see a clip of him asking the Commissioners where they stand on wholesale open access here. The good news is that Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathon Adelstein remained staunch in their defense of wholesale open access as a means of encouraging competition and deployment. Intriguingly, Martin did not slam the idea, but said this was not the place to do it because he had concerns about the incentives for network build out of wholesalers. McDowell remained adamant against (as he did against even Martin’s device open access proposal), although McDowell praised the pending FCC proceeding to open the broadcast “white spaces” for unlicensed use (which I hope he remembers when the time comes). Tate did not answer Doyle’s question (no time), but elsewhere said she was keeping an “open mind” on device open access.

Republicans, with the exception of Pickering (R-Miss) slammed Martin hard for supporting even device open access. To his credit, Martin defended the idea that the auction was not about maximizing revenue but about getting the best policy. But the near-uniform opposition to any conditions on licenses by Republicans, combined with the silence of key Democrats on wholesale, puts Martin in a real bind.

So what happens now? Are there any cards left to play, rabbits to pull out of hats, or Corbemite maneuvers to run that could still save wholesale open access. Yes, but they are very long odds indeed. With the vote now scheduled for July 31, we are just after the two minute warning and down a touchdown and a field goal.

More analysis below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Endgame Part I: Martin Tries To Redefine “Open Access” With A PR Offensive

Martin has opened the endgame on the 700 MHz auction rules with some strategic press leaks to frame the debate and the circulation of his draft Order. According to USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, Martin’s draft proposes including a network attachment/wireless Cartefone rule on two blocks (the “C” and “D” blocks). At the same time, Martin is redefining “open access” to mean network attachment/wireless Cartefone (the issue popularized by Tim Wu with the help of the iPhone) rather than the wholesale obligation pushed by Frontline and the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC).

What makes Martin’s proposal particularly problematic is that it does actually do some good on issues I (and other folks in spectrum and media reform) care deeply about. It does represent a step forward. But it represents such a baby step, and deferred so far into the future, that it becomes useless for the near term (as Google argued in this recent filing (worthy of a post of its own)) and may actually take the pressure off the FCC to do something real like grant the Skype Petition or do something real on Network Neutrality.

Still, it presents a real challenge for the Democratic Commissioners as they enter into negotiations. Do they hang tough and risk losing everything on a 3-2 partyline vote? Do they accept a compromise, recognizing the political risk?

Worse for the Ds (and supporters of open access generally), the pressure from Congress has gone fairly hard against wholesale open access in recent days. The Republicans in the Senate and the House have bombarded the FCC with letters against wholesale open access. While some Ds (notably Kerry) have supported real open access, the Dem leadership and most Ds have remained on the sidelines. Still, tomorrow’s House Commerce Committee Hearing on Wireless Innovation will offer Democratic leaders to weigh in — if they so desire.

This Is long, so I am going to break it up into a couple of posts. First, the difference between Martin Open Access and Real Open Access . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Support the Internet Radio Equality Act!

According to this article, Rep. Inslee (D-WA) and Rep. Manzullo (R-IL) have introduced The Internet Radio Equality Act. From my brief reading, it nullifies the previous decision of the Copyright Royalty Board that started this mess, replaces the current langauge with the same standard used for satellite radio, and sets transitional rates until the next CRB hearing under the new standard.

Inslee has long been a friend to tech and new media and a foe of media consolidaion. In 2006, he joined with Markey and others to sponsor a stand alone NN bill after COPE passed out of the House Commerce Committee. Inslee has also been a champion on unlicensed access in the broadcast white spaces and supported municipal broadband.

The folks at SaveNetRadio now have an action alert on their front page to get nfolks to contact their representatives to get this through and signed into law before the new rates kick in on May 15.

I am reminded of an old saying that one of the professors at my law school alma mater was want to say: “Dogs get kicked; hogs get et.” Here, SoundExchange decided to act like a hog. As a result, they may get their cushy litte standard completely reset.

At least until May 15, stay tuned . . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Raising the Profile on Franchising and Public Access Cable

The good folks at Saveaccess.org are trying to push members of the House Commerce Committee to press Martin on his order preempting local franchising authorities. You can read about Saveaccess.org’s campaign here.

Public access is one of these very useful things that people take for granted, until its gone. I may not want to watch my local city council or local educational programming that often. But when I want it, I really appreciate it being there. Nothing on cable can replace PEG for local programming or “local C-Span” like coverage. We need to push hard to save it.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Bracing for the House COPE Vote

The House will likely vote tomorrow (Fri. June 9) on the Communications Opportunity Enhancement Act (COPE). In fact, the vote may come as early as tonight.

According to the report from the Rules Committee, the House has set debate for one hour and approved a number of amendments. The critical amendments for network neutrality are the Markey amendment (D-MA) and an anti-trust savings amendment introduced by Lamar Smith (R-TX) that clarifies that COPE will not preempt anti-trust law (NB: This is not the much stronger Sensenbrenner-Conyer Bill which passed out of Judiciary.

As discussed below, the Rules Committee (which responds to the House Republican leadership) has done its best to stack the odds against NN. Unsurprising, since Speaker Hastert (along with Commerce Chair Barton and Telecommuniations Subcommittee Chair Upton) support COPE and oppose NN. Expect the Smith Amendment to pass, the Markey Amendment to lose, and COPE to pass. Public pressure may still swing some members, but the odds of swinging enough members are vanishingly small.

As I wrote after the loss at the Commerce Committee, we citizens will make the difference. We have gained much ground in the last two months. We now carry the battle to the Senate, where the rules help curb the power of one or two majority leaders to force through legislation.

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