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

Comcast Needs To Take A Lesson From Verizon: Unions Aren't the Enemy You Think They Are.

Comcast has certainly had some lousy luck with contractors. Most recently, a Comcast contractor got all nasty on 74 year old trying to get broadband service. Before that, Comcast contractors were caught literally torturing kittens. And who can forget the unfortunate overworked Comcast tech who famously fell asleep on someone’s couch while on hold with Comcast’s repair center.

I don’t think Comcast actually wants these results. To the contrary, I think they are horribly embarrassed about them and really are doing what they can to weed out bad contractors and hire good contractors.

But Comcast needs to learn a basic lesson here. Having a quality work force is not compatible with cutting costs by hiring the cheapest contractors available. To have a quality work force, you need to invest in your workforce, make long term commitments to provide a good wage and good living conditions and, dare I suggest it, permit workers to come together in collective bargaining units so that workers and management can negotiate realistic contracts that meet everyone’s needs?

Meanwhile Verizon just averted a strike by reaching a tentative new contract with Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The contract, as usual, provides concessions on both sides, but will certainly cost Verizon a bundle more in pay raises and in future benefits than Comcast’s labor force, which depends largely on hiring local contractors and non-union labor.

But in exchange for its financial concessions, Verizon is preserving a skilled and experienced workforce with a proven track record. A workforce that, because of its union-negotiated benefits, will likely remain relatively stable and dedicated even during difficult economic times. Rather like buying itself a large bundle of wireless minutes so it doesn’t run over and pay huge charges, Verizon has ended up paying more in salary and benefits to avoid a boatload of customer service headaches.

Comcast already missed the boat once by opting to build a crappy network that can’t handle broadband capacity like Verizon can handle with FIOS — even though FIOS cost more to build. Perhaps Comcats should consider a similar lesson in its labor practices and encourage, rather than resist, efforts to unionize its workforce.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Comcast Not On Notice? They Were Told Point Blank!

It is a rather trite cliche that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But in law, where concepts such as precedent and law matter a great deal, there’s an even bigger problem: Those who do not learn from history are likely to miss the obvious.

As we all know, Comcast has invested a lot of time in arguing that they lacked notice that the FCC would enforce the principles of the policy statement via a complaint against them. “How could we possibly have known?” Comcast has asked, winning sympathetic nods from a variety of folks. “Policy statements aren’t enforceable! How can you possibly punish us for something we didn’t know we might be held accountable for, all our public statements to the contrary?”

Well, let us suppose that Comcast was told two years ago today that the FCC would entertain complaints if Comcast blocked or degraded traffic. Would that make a difference? If the FCC had said directly to Comcast: “If in the future evidence arises that any company is willfully blocking or degrading Internet content, affected parties may file a complaint with the Commission.” I would think we could all agree that this constituted “notice,” yes? Perhaps not notice of whether or not the behavior at issue constituted blocking or degrading — that is, after all, what the Commission determines in a complaint. But certainly if the FCC had told Comcast directly, to its face, no ifs and or buts, the above quoted line, I would hope we could all agree that Comcast had received reasonable notice that parties could bring complaints to the Commission, asking the Commission to determine whether the parties had behaved in an inappropriate manner.

Because — Surprise! — exactly two years ago today, that is exactly what the FCC told Comcast.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Assessing A Rather Complicated Result — But Not A Disaster As Some Maintain.

The intervention of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is celebrated by getting drunk until you cannot tell the difference between Verizon winning the C Block and Google winning the C Block, kept me from posting sooner. I would have held off until I could give more details, but there are so many people rushing to call it a disaster that a few words need to be said here.

O.K., Google didn’t win, but Echostar did, giving me a .500 batting average in prophecy against the conventional wisdom. I’m not covinced that Echostar winning gives us a third pipe (Martin’s suggestions about combining this with other spectrum assets to the contrary). But even if not, it is important for keeping Echostar competitive with cable and with DIRECTV (which will have an advantage in programming assests). I shall try to do a more detailed analysis of Echostar and what the E Block does for them in a future post.

It is also interesting to note that some non-incumbents like Cavtel picked up licenses, although I am not as enthusaistic about this for competition as Martin was at the press release.

That said, I do not see how the rules could have been structured any better without barring Verizon and AT&T from playing. While we might have done better for new entrants after all with smalled licenses rather than REAGs, as demonstrted by Echostar doing an end run to assemble a near national footprint after they begged and pleaded to have the FCC offer a national license, I can’t say for sure (I’ll have a longer discussion on this later, and I expect Greg Rose will have some things to say on his blog once he has crunched the numbers). My preliminary conclusion is that Verizon (and to a lesser degree AT&T) was simply determined to get the spectrum it wanted and did not let anything stand in its why. The fact that Verizon paid $9 MHz/Pop for a B block license for Chicago, and that Verizon and AT&T spent over $16 billion of the approximately $19 billion raised should tell anyone who cares about the reality all they need to know. Verizon and AT&T were not “bargain hunting.” They were at each other’s throats and cutting out anyone who dared to get in their way. The only way to stop them was to keep them out entirely, and there was not a heck of a lot of support for that from the Hill or at the FCC beyond the Dems.

I think Commissioner Adelstein gives a fair assesment when he says we won on revenue and openness and lost on diversity and competition. But again, the only way we could have done any better was by adopting auction rules that banned Verizon and AT&T from playing and by using aggressive means to address minority and women ownership (as MAP requested as early as March 2006). Perhaps now Congressional Democrats will add their voices to those of Commissioners Adelstein and Copps on restoring the minority bidding credit and supporting incumbent exclusions or — at a minimum — restoring the spectrum cap.

As it was, thanks to anonymous bidding, Echostar was able to do an end run and acquire a national footprint — something previously denied to it in the AWS Auction in 2006. And, while AT&T and Verizon got most of the licenses, they had to pay through the nose to get them — rather than sopping them up dirt cheap as happened in the AWS auction (where licenses equivalent to the A & B block licenses went for 45 cents MHZ/pop not $9 MHZ/pop). This auction attracted more new bidders and more minority bidders than previous auctions, so the field was ripe for a success on these fronts. But they were simply outspent by Verizon and AT&T.

To conclude, unlike the utter failure of the AWS auction (which everyone else hailed as a success — despite the incumbents winning more licenses for less money), this auction produced some very positive results. But it also shows us the limit of what purely competitive auctions will do. Neither this auction nor freeing more spectrum for future auctions, on their own, will provide us with a third pipe or introduce new competitiors in wireless. The advanatges enjoyed by incumbents in a relatively mature industry (as opposed to back in the early/mid-1990s when the first auctions were conducted) are simply too great to overcome just by “leveling the playing field.”

Finally, one last question remains: Why didn’t Qualcom drop their bid on D Block? Why did they tie up all that eligibility, instead of using it to go after more E Block licenses? For us spectrum geeks, this is the equivalent of asking Why did the Minbari surrender at the Battle of the Line (best answer from a friend of mine: “turns out Echostar bidders have Qualcom souls”). Did Qualcom hope they could keep the D Block for such a low price? Did they wish to avoid a penalty for dropped bids by the time they realized no one would bid on D Block? Hopefully, we will find out.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Assessing the 700 MHz Order Part III — Anonymous Bidding Alone Makes This a Big Win

Regular readers will know that, as far as I am concerned, getting anonymous bidding automatically makes this Order a big win. I pushed hard on this in the lead up to the AWS auction a year and a half ago. Sadly, I lost. As a result, the cable companies were able to block the DBS guys from winning any new licenses, and the incumbents generally succeeded in keeping out any potentially disruptive new entrants (the cable guys having made it clear they would not compete with the cellular guys).

Fortunately, Greg Rose spent a year crunching the data and demonstrated that if the incumbents hadn’t rigged the auction, it sure looked like it from a statistical analysis/game theory perspective. With this “smoking gun” evidence in hand (utterly dickish footnotes by the Wireless Bureau staff to the contrary), we were able to persuade the Commission that adopting anonymous bidding rules would make the auction more competitive, give new entrants a better chance, and as a result probably increase the auction revenue overall.

So, having lost this last time around, I consider it a real coup to get it now. As both Google and Frontline supported anonymous bidding as necessary to encourage new entrants, I am hopeful that we may still get our “third pipe” provider even without wholesale open access.

Analysis below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Assessing the 700 MHz Order Part II: “C” Does Not stand For “Crap;” Why the Wireless Carterfone Condition Is A Big Win.

Few things in the last few days have generated more discussion and overall pessimism in the Order than the C Block “wireless Carterfone” or “network attachment” conditions. “A tease,” says Art Brodsky. “Crippled by loopholes,” opines Susan Crawford.

“Not so fast!” Says yr hmbl obdnt blogger. In point of fact, there is a a hell of a lot here to like in the C Block conditions. Not just for trying to get actual devices attached, but in terms of FCC precedent and broader spectrum policy. This is an “Eyes on the Prize” moment, similar to the preliminary decisions that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education. We did not win the grand prize, but we got a lot good precedent for future spectrum reform.

Further, as I explain below, I do not think the conditions the FCC imposed here are meaningless. To the contrary, I think the rules are about as aggressive as possible to draft (as I worked hard with Commissioner Adelstein and his staff to think of anything I could possibly add to them). But at the end of the day, what matters is the political will. If the next FCC (which will be the FCC that enforces this) wants to give these license conditions meaning, it has the tools to do so. If a future FCC wants to make this meaningless, then there is nothing we can do no matter how well we draft things.

And I will add that if anyone has some better ideas on what to put in as rules, they should certainly file Petitions for Reconsideration

My analysis of why the C Block conditions do matter below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

A Network Neutrality Primer

For those just tuning in, Network Neutrality (aka “NN”, becuase every public policy deserves its own acronym) has gone from sleepy tech issue to major policy fight. So I have prepared a rather lengthy primer below for folks who want a deeper understanding of what’s happening (at least as of today, May 3, 2006).

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Bidding Credits and Digital Inclusion

For the forseeable future, we’re stuck with spectrum auctions, so we may as well try to get them to work as well as possible. Contrary to what some folks argue, I don’t think that means just jacking up one-time revenue to the government. It means trying to get licenses to folks who don’t usually get ’em (like women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, and small businesses generally), trying to get services deployed to underserved communities, and trying to foster real competition.

So last week, MAP submitted a lengthy set of comments (including a 30-page econ analysis from my economist friend Greg Rose) on reforming the FCC’s designated entity “bidding credit” for the upcomming AWS auction.

What does all this mean, and why should the guy who says “spectrum auctions are the crack cocaine of public policy” care? See below . . .

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