Tales of the Sausage Factory

Will The DC Circuit Pull The Plug On Program Access?

Next week, the D.C. Circuit will hear oral argument on the FCC’s 2007 decision to extended the program access rules another five years. What surprises me is how few people seem to have considered the possibility that the D.C. Circuit will reverse this decision and vacate the rule, as they did last month with the 30% cable horizontal ownership limit.

Part of that is the way people tend to make analysis based on conventional wisdom. “Everyone knows” that without the program access rules, competitive providers would be toast because the largest cable incumbents can control programming, just as “everyone knows” that we don’t need a 30% cable ownership limit because the MVPD market is so wildly competitive that the largest cable incumbents can not possibly influence cable programming. As Comcast and Cablevision pointed out to the DC Circuit, however, the conventional wisdom in this regard is not entirely consistent. If, as the court found last month as a matter of law, the MVPD market is wildly competitive and consumers switch willy-nilly from one to the other rendering it impossible for a cable provider to block a rival programming network from emerging, how on Earth can cable programmers below the 30% limit exercise foreclosure?

There are, of course, sound answers to that in both law and economics, although the biggest single deciding factor is likely to be the absence from the panel of Douglas Ginsburg, a man who believes membership in the Federalist Society substitutes for an actual understanding of economics and has published an academic article yearning for the “good old days” when the courts made economic regulation unconstitutional and concluding that courts should not defer to agency efforts to create “synthetic competition.” (An offense in the eyes of the Gods of the Marketplace.) I believe the panel is Sentelle, Griffith and Kavanaugh, which is not exactly good news for the program access rules but isn’t death on wheels like Ginsburg (or Williams or Edwards). Sentelle and Griffith, who were both on the imaginary competition outweighs real competition decision back in June overturning the FCC’s decision not to grant Verizon a forbearance petition, and Kavanaugh, who was on the cable ownership panel and therefore presumably agrees that switching costs aren’t real and cable operators are in such fear of youtube clips they would never make programming decisions based on affiliation. On the flip side, Kavanaugh actually wrote the somewhat more deferential special access opinion from July. Unfortunately for those who rely on program access, none of the judges who affirmed the Inside Wiring Order are on this panel.

Of course, there is something to be said for actual law and analysis of the underlying FCC Order, even in the D.C. Circuit. So below, I shall provide a brief outline of the program access rules, how we end up in court, the likely arguments, and what happens if the D.C. Cir. overturns the rules (which even I give a low probability to, but do not discount — especially given the panel) — including why that might actually be the best thing to happen to cable regulation in the long run.

More below . . .

Read More »

Posted in Cable, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

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 . . . .

Read More »

Posted in Tales of the Sausage Factory, The Stimulus Package (ARRA) | Also tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Looks Like Julius Genachowski Will Get The Nod — And What That Means For the Progressive Media & Telecom Agenda

Sometimes the conventional wisdom gets it right. After much speculation, it now seems increasingly likely that Obama’s Harvard Law classmate Julius Genachowski will be nominated to take over as FCC Chair.

From my perspective, this looks like very good news. Genachowski is no stranger either to the FCC or to the private sector, a distinct advantage given the twin difficulties of managing the agency and dealing with all manner of incumbent dog-and-pony shows. Heck, Genachowski is no stranger to the DTV transition, having been involved in the initial standard setting work back in the day. Genachowski’s close relationship with Obama, heavy involvement in the Obama campaign from the beginning, and general tech background provide fairly strong early assurance that — contrary to the hopes of some and fears of others — Obama does not appear to be backing away from his campaign commitment to open networks and media diversity.

All that said, let nobody think the fun is over and we all get to go home. Now more than ever, progressives need to build on our movement momentum and press our case open networks, real spectrum reform, a more diverse media, adequate consumer protection, and regulation that creates real competition by opening bottleneck facilities and limit market power. We have an opportunity, not a victory, and we must act to seize it.

More below . . . .

Read More »

Posted in Life In The Sausage Factory, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

So What Did Cyren Call Have To Say Now That The Curtain Is Lifted? Turns Out We Agree On A Lot.

Last night at 6 p.m., the anticollusion rules finally lifted and everyone in the universe started blabbing about the auction. Google confirmed that the conventional wisdom was right and I was wrong about their motives for bidding (ah well). AT&T and Verizon talked about their upcoming 4G Networks, and AT&T confirmed it places enormous value on its ability to squeeze monopsony rents out of its customers and vendors and therefore avoided the C Block. But most interesting, and not terribly well reported, was Morgan O’Brien’s response to the allegations around D Block, and subsequent interview with Jeff Silva at RCRWireless. While denying that Cyren call “killed” Frontline or “demanded” $50 million/yr for ten years, O’Brien does say that yes, a meeting took place, and yes, O’Brien asked for $50 million/yr as a lease payment in his opening negotiation positions.

One will pardon me for regarding this as a complete vindication of the story I broke back in January, thank you very much. I have always been careful to observe that I don’t think Morgan O’Brien meant to drive Frontline out of the auction or scare off other bidders, or even necessarily did anything wrong. But whatever O’Brien’s intent, it seems pretty clear that this was the straw that broke Frontline’s back and may have scared away other bidders as well (that still remains to be seen based on the FCC’s processes and investigations, and what turns up at the House Telecom Subcommittee Hearing on the 15th).

Critically, however, I agree with Morgan O’Brien’s bottom line. This should not be about finding a “fall guy” or assigning blame if it turns out no FCC rules were broken. What’s important is to figure out how to make the D Block public/private partnership work (or find some other productive solution for this spectrum). PSST will be an important part of that process going forward, and no one should imagine that I am suggesting otherwise.

More below . . . .

Read More »

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

Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: What Does The EchoStar Win Mean?

EchoStar getting a near-national footprint ranks as one of the major successes for the 700 MHz auction. Chased out of the AWS auction, deserted by its former partner DIRECTV, no one gave EchoStar much hope of winning anything significant (with the exception of yr hmbl obdn’t blogger).

But what does it mean? Can EchoStar become the broadband “third pipe” hoped for by Martin and others? Or is the conventional wisdom right that this is just about improving EchoStar’s subscription television service? Or is there something else at work here? According to the Wall St. Journal (subscription required), the same analysts that could not understand why Ergen would play, and did not believe he could win, now wonder what the heck he will do. Nor is the journal alone in asking this question.

My short version is: EchoStar cannot become a serious broadband provider with just E Block spectrum — particularly given the current service rules for E Block. But, as we all know, FCC service rules are fluid — particularly when licensees promise to deliver broadband services (the recent changes to the AWS service rules providing a perfect example). But even with favorable rule changes, EchoStar faces serious capacity issues if it tries to compete head-to-head with DSL or cable modem service.

Still, there are ways EchoStar can pull it out, especially if it focuses on rural markets with relatively poor broadband connectivity. While the E Block licenses don’t have enough terrestrial capacity to go head-to-head with FIOS or even the high-end cable or DSL services, it can provide a better option than dial-up or ridiculously expensive broadband currently available in flyover country and even in the exurbs. And then there are the perpetually swirling rumors of an AT&T/Echostar merger. Could the E Block merely be AT&T bait? More importantly perhaps, does even Charlie Ergen know what the heck his plan is? Or did he simply see an opportunity and grab it?

In advance of tomorrow’s lifting of the anti-collusion rules, when winning bidders will finally start talking about their plans, I offer my own speculations.

More below….

Read More »

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

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 . . . .

Posted in Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

That's It! The 700 MHz Auction Is Ovah ! On to Tasting And Judgment . . . .

At long last, the FCC went three rounds without any new bids and declared Auction 73 (better known as Battle 700 MHz) closed. You can see the final provisional winning bids on the FCC’s Auction 73 page here.

Of course, we are all waiting to see who won what licenses, particularly C Block. But we have some preliminaries to go through first. Most importantly, the FCC has to make a decision on whether to sever the D Block from the Auction so that it can investigate what happened, especially the allegations around Cyren Call and Morgan O’Brien.

Even with the information available, Auction 73 has clearly succeeded on a number of key fronts. Unsurprisingly, I am inclined to credit anonymous bidding with the enormous surge in value for the licenses. Even if incumbents ended up walking away with the lion’s share of the licenses, at least they paid market value for a change (as opposed to the AWs auction, where they picked them up dirt cheap). I also note that at the end of the day, the FCC has only 8 unclaimed licenses (compared with 35 for AWS). As Greg Rose observed previously on his blog, there is good reason to believe we saw a lot of new people bidding.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the auction brought in new competitors or if, as the conventional wisdom predicted, AT&T and Verizon walked off with the big prizes. In particular, we all wait with baited breath on who won C Block.

Finally, two points on D Block. First, even if the experiment failed, that did not make it a dumb move. Babe Ruth used to lead the league in home runs and strike outs, because you can’t hit home runs unless you swing at a lot of pitches. With the FCC trying to satisfy the mandate of Congress to promote a national interoperable public safety network, but with insufficient spectrum allocated and with insufficient funds to build it. So the Commission tried to think outside the box and took a chance. turns out — for reasons still unknown — it did not work out.

Always punish innovators if things don’t go exactly right and you run out of innovators damn quick. Anonymous bidding was also an innovation. So is the open device condition. Before folks rush out to buy stink bombs to lob at Martin and the other Commissioners over D Block, consider if we want the next FCC reduced to such political timidity that we always get the same auction rules again and again and again, because the price of innovating is too high.

Second point: the FCC has a silver lining here. With the auction over, the FCC has fulfilled its statutory obligation to hold an auction commencing by January 28. Not only can the FCC take the time it needs to consider what to do, it can also consider other solutions besides trying to fix up D Block or even auctioning it off the highest bidder. That could include non-exclusive licenses, real time auctions, or even an unlicensed commons — if that would best serve the public interest.

I’m not saying what the best solution for D Block is, because we don’t know enough yet. It will depend on a lot of factors, such as who won the other licenses and how much stomach the FCC has to innovate. But I’m hoping that the FCC and others, when assessing Auction 73, will consider the successes as well as the D Block failure. Otherwise, they will vote to do the politically safest thing. Not a result I’d like to see.

stay tuned . . . .

Posted in Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz: Notes From The Spectrum New Hampshire Primary, C Block Not Dead Yet

Everyone remember how Clinton was dead after Iowa? Now who remembers two weeks ago, or even last week, when analysts wrote off the 700 MHz auction as doomed due to credit crunch? But, other than D Block’s utter failure to move (and regular readers will know my opinion of why that happened), the auction has proven a success by every measure we can obtain so far. Sadly, however, the key measures are not yet in, and won’t be until after the auction is over. Which is why, despite C Block exceeding it’s reserve price, I caution folks that we are still at the equivalent of just after the New Hampshire primaries and that any speculation about the important points of the outcome remain unresolved.

Here’s what we know for sure now:

1) The current take now stands at over $14 b. This not only exceeds the $10 b that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated, it will exceed the “wildly successful” 2006 AWS auction (which grossed about 13.9 b). A, B, and C blocks have all met their reserve prices, with the most contentious fighting in certain high value markets B block.

2) Because C Block has met its reserve price, it will not be reauctioned and the open device conditions will go into effect.

So the auction is clearly a success from Kevin Martin’s perspective (again, with the exception of D Block, which is a special case). While those like Commissioner McDowell can argue that C block might have fetched more without conditions, $4.7 billion is nothing to sneeze at. And it is clear that the aggressive build out conditions did not scare bidders away from A and B block, so (assuming the FCC is serious about enforcement) we should see increased deployment of services into rural regions.

What we still don’t know is whether the new auction rules gave new entrants a real chance to win spectrum, or (as the conventional wisdom had it) will incumbents Verizon and AT&T end up capturing the lion’s share of the spectrum (albeit at higher prices, owing to the introduction of anonymous bidding). That we cannot know until after the anonymity lifts when the auction ends (which, if the FCC chooses to reauction D Block under the rules proposed for reauctioning the other blocks, might not be for several months yet). Much depends on the identity of the current C Block holder. Is it Google? Verizon? Some other deep pockets like AT&T or Echostar, or perhaps the mysterious Vavasi NexGen Inc.? And is C Block settled? If the package bidder in round 17 knocked off the previous high bidder, then the previous high bidder will need to respond fairly soon or it will start losing its eligibility (bidding chips) and no longer be able to challenge.

If it turns out the incumbents capture most of the spectrum, I will need to eat a huge plate of crow and tip my hat to Commissioner Adelstein and Publius at Obsidian Wings, both of whom fretted that only Verizon could win a huge block like C Block and that we would get more new entrants by slitting the spectrum up. OTOH, if the Great Google Prophecy comes true, I will become insufferably pleased with myself for at least a month.

But, rather than pull a Tweety Bird and start treating my own speculation in the absence of data as fact, I will simply say —

Stay tuned . . . .

Posted in Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

Econoklastic

700 MHz: The C Block Minuet

The fact that the C Block has dangled on the precipice of reaching its reserve price from round 13 to the close of today’s bidding action in round 16 has led to speculation that Google never intended to go seriously for the spectrum, but was merely trying to goad Verizon or ATT into committing on the Block. I grant that we have almost no intelligence on who the C Block bidders are, and it is very, very early to speculate on the auction’s ultimate outcome. However, I have a theory, grounded in an understanding of game theory and the auction rules, which calls this latest conventional wisdom into question.

There are at least two, and possibly three, current bidders for the bulk of C Block. Two have been trading off the lead for the 50 state package (REAGs 1-8), let’s call them A and B: A in the first round (1 new bid), B in the second (1 new bid), A in the third (1 new bid), B in the fourth (1 new bid), A in the fifth (1 new bid), B in the seventh (1 new bid), A in the eighth (1 new bid), B in the tenth (1 new bid), A in the twelfth (1 new bid), B in the thirteenth (1 new bid). B has been the high bidder since the thirteen round with no need to raise its bid. In the sixth round there were also mid-range bids placed individually on REAGs 1-8. Either the individual bids on REAGs 1-8 in round six were B’s response to A’s bid on the package in round 5 or another bidder, C, forayed at that point.

B can sit indefinitely on its current bid, waiting for the minimum acceptable bid (MAB) to converge on the reserve price of the Block without requiring activity waivers (the FCC historically reduces MABs in the presence of bidding inactivity). That would allow B to obtain the package for almost $122 million less than the current MAB for round 17. A must bid on REAGs 1-8 either on the package or individually in round 17 or lose eligibility, since it has had to expend three activity waivers to avoid bidding in rounds 14, 15, and 16. That is what we know.

I hypothesize that B is Google, that it is sitting just below the reserve price, and will continue to do so unless another actor bids, until just before the close of the auction, when it will bid the reserve price and save roughly $122 million. I grant that it is also possible that B is Verizon or ATT or some other bidder which I don’t know and haven’t mentioned. But game theory and the auction rules explain why B is sitting pat. A has to bid in round 17 (the MAB for the 50 state package in round 17 is over the reserve price of the Block, and the sum of MABs for REAGs 1-8 individually in round 17 is equal to the MAB for the 50 state package), or B’s strategy is likely to win.

Posted in Econoklastic, General | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

I Go Delphic, Snort Oak Leaves, And Give Four Reasons Why Google Will Bid To Win in the 700 MHz Auction (despite what the smart money says)

Analysts who watch Google and watch the wireless world really, really, really don’t want to think of Google as getting into the wireless biz. This spring, I heard an awful lot of “Google won’t bid” or “Google can’t win” or, my personal favorite, “you think Google is going to bid? Are you on crack?”

As regular readers know, while I have occasionally been a shade grumpy about how Google worshipers have attributed all things in the auction to our Great Google Overlords, I have been surprised at the reluctance of most analysts to accept that Google really does want to win licenses. For example, when Verizon announced it would open its network to third party devices, analysts suggested this would take the pressure off Google to win licenses itself. When Google announced it definitely would participate in the auction, a number of analysts again questioned whether Google was really serious about winning or whether it just wanted to insure the $4.6 billion C Block reserve got met. Although as shown in this article here, some analysts expect Google to press hard to win, the conventional wisdom among analysts has jelled into “Google is only bidding to make sure the C Block conditions stay in place.”

These analysts have sound reasons for thinking Google would be mad to bid. Google never wanted to be a network provider. Sure, they’ve dabbled a bit by investing in broadband over power line (BPL) and dipping a toe in muniwireless (neither of which has amounted to very much). But Google never took the potentially ruinous plunge from being an applications provider (its realm of dominance) to becoming a network provider. Worse, the estimated $5-$6 billion price tag for the C Block licenses is only the beginning of the cost to actually build a network. According to one widely reported estimate by Google itself, it would cost another $12 billion to build the network once Google has the licenses.

Nor is the wireless industry considered ripe for expansion. If anything, analysts expect further consolidation as smaller carriers find it tough sledding against the vertically integrated giants AT&T and Verizon (which jointly control the bulk of residential subscribers, can offer a nice set of wireless and wireline bundles, and enjoy other advantages that make them tough to beat). Even with Google’s genius for creating new capital opportunities, the conventional wisdom goes, how on Earth can Google ever recoup this mammoth investment as yet-another-wireless carrier in the highly-commoditized world of wireless telephony. And the one thing that might have worked, creating its own compelling “walled garden” that encourages users to go with Google wireless to enjoy access to features they routinely access in the wireline world, is the one thing Google has sworn up and down it won’t do. To put icing on the cake, the formation of Android and the inclusion of national carriers T-Mobile and Sprint make it impossible for Google to create its own walled garden if it changes its mind after winning.

With all this to consider, small wonder analysts by and large don’t see much chance of Google making a serious run to win. They believe that Google wants someone else to win, but offer an open network Google can ride on. So while bidding to make sure the spectrum gets bought makes sense, actually wanting to win the licenses doesn’t. Hence the convergence of the conventional wisdom that Google will leave it to Verizon or someone else rather than tie a multi-billion dollar albatros around its neck and potentially crash its stock valuation (especially if you hold Google stock).

For the reasons given below, I will play the contrarian. I think Google will bid and fight hard to win licenses. Indeed, while I expect Google to target C Block, it may well go after D Block or some of the other licenses as well, if that’s what it takes to build a national footprint. Google might still get outb id by Verizon and other carriers, but I don’t think that’s Google’s plan. I think they are in to win.

Why? See below . . . . .

Read More »

Posted in Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments (Comments closed)
  • Connect With Us

    Follow Wetmachine on Twitter!

Username
Password

If you do not have an account: Register