Tales of the Sausage Factory

Big Congratulations To Copps on Being Named Acting

No surprise, but good to see it finally happen officially. According to this article, Commissioner Copps has been named as acting Chair, pending appointment of the official chair (presumed to be Julius Genachowski).

I expect Acting-Chairman Copps will be heavily focused on the DTV transition for the next few weeks. Indeed, I think that if they do not push off the analog switch off date, the smartest thing would be to keep Copps in as Acting until after the transition. We have only a few weeks to go, and the idea of piling on the inevitable confusion of a new Chairman — even one as familiar with the agency as Genachowski — on top of the mad scramble of the DTV transition is probably not a good idea.

In any event, I’m extremely pleased with the FCC in Copps’ extremely capable hands however long it lasts.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

A Quick Note On The Departure of Kevin Martin

I will, hopefully, have time in the near future to write up my farewell to Kevin Martin and assessment of his term as Chairman of the FCC. In the meantime, I think Commissioner Copps gives a good assessment and farewell.

As I say, I hope to have more to say later. For now, I will simply say that I have enormous respect for Kevin Martin and for what he tried to accomplish, even when I disagreed with him.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Update: Cable Cos Respond, FCC Reviewing.

To update on the question of whether cable companies think they are above the law. According to this piece by Ted Hearn in Multichannel News, all 13 cable cos responded to the FCC’s letter of inquiries (LOIs) issued in response to the consumer complaints. The FCC is apparently now reviewing the adequacy of the response.

Mind you, according to the article, we are still likely to find that the cable cos responded in a less than thorough way, and will necessitate the FCC coming back with another request. But this is merely the usual fun and games by which large companies avoid obeying the law, rather than an outright statement of defiance that the law simply doesn’t apply to them.

I suspect the cable cos will do their best to run out the clock, in the hopes that the next FCC will be more tolerant of their exercise of market power. Whether that is true or not (and it will certainly NOT be true if either Adelstein or Copps is chair), I would hope that all the FCC Commissioners, but especially the two Democrats, back Martin on this investigation and make it clear to the cable cos they will not tolerate any efforts to run out the clock.

As President-elect Obama observed at his first press conference: “The United States only has one President at a time.” Similarly, the FCC has only one Chairman at a time. Certainly when it comes to investigating consumer complaints, all FCC Commissioners need to stand united in making it clear to industry that a time of transition is not a time when you can get away with screwing consumers.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Sixth Circuit Upholds FCC on LFA Limits: A Bad Decision and A Sad Day for Localism, With Possible Silver Lining for Ancillary Authority and Leased Access.

The Sixth Circuit has denied the Petitions for Review filed by local franchise authorities (LFAs) and PEG programmers challenging the FCC’s December 2006 Order limiting the ability of LFA’s to negotiate with telco video overbuilders. (You can read a copy of the decision here.)

I am rather disappointed with the decision, as readers might imagine. Not only do I think limiting the authority of LFA’s to protect their residents is a phenomenally bad idea, I think the court takes a very expansive view of FCC authority over LFAs given the legislative history and the statute in question.

On the other hand, the decision potentially provides a substantial boost both the FCC’s ancillary authority and to its leased access reform order, currently pending before the Sixth Circuit. While I find this rather cold and uncertain comfort at the moment, it’s the best I can do in the face of what has become an utter rout for LFAs and PEG programmers. God willing, a future FCC will conduct the inquiry into strengthening PEG programming Commissioners Adelstein and Copps have repeatedly urged.

Some further analysis of the decision and what it might mean below…

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

D Block Rides Again! And the NPRM Is Already Released!

If I weren’t generally pleased with my quick flip through of the Commission’s Latest Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on D Block, I would declare it a true sign of the coming of the Apocalypse. Amidst the Mighty Earthquakes, the Great Whirlwinds, and other terrible signs and wonders, THE FCC RELEASED A NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULEMAKING ON THE SAME DAY AS THE OPEN MEETING!!!! Tremble all ye telecom whores Babylon, for the Day of Judgment is surely upon us!

I must also take the opportunity to give a huge THANK YOU to Commissioner Copps and whoever else got us a full 30 days for comment and 15 days for reply. Because given how impossible it will be to met these deadlines, I shudder to think what would have happened on an “accelerated” schedule.

A bit more below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

YAMA (“Yet Another 'Mission Accomplished'”) On Wireless Carterfone.

“Mission Accomplished” has become a useful catch phrase denoting a declaration of victory so premature as to be ironic, comical, and/or tragic. Sadly, Kevin Martin’s decision to circulate an Order denying the Skype Petition is the latest YAMA (for “yet another ‘Mission Accomplished’”). To refresh folk’s memories, in the Skype Petition, Skype asked the FCC to enforce the Broadband Policy Statement against wireless broadband networks: specifically, the part that says that consumers have the right to attach any device to the network that will not harm the network, and run any application of their choosing.

While not official, Martin has stated that he has circulated a draft Order dismissing the Petition, although Martin indicated at last week’s House 700 MHz hearing that he would dismiss the Petition “without prejudice” (meaning “not now, but try again later if things don’t improve”). Indeed, although none of the coverage of the 700 MHz hearing focused much on this, Martin’s statements and answers to questions indicate that he thinks (a) the C Block open device condition was the right thing to do, and (b) the FCC shouldn’t do anything else on “wireless Carterfone” until we see how the C Block open device condition works out.

While disappointing, this decision is hardly surprising. And, as usual, it is weirdly consistent with Kevin Martin’s First Church of the Market, Reformed ideology and a dash of realpolitik (waste not, want not after all, and if you can make what you think is the right decision serve your political ends, so much the better). Lamentably, Martin clearly has the votes from his fellow Republican Commissioners — although Tate appeared to hedge a bit. Nor do I expect there is much for Copps and Adelstein to do here, other then issue a strong dissent and make sure the damage (in the form of bad precedent) is limited. Indeed, there is a certain appeal to taking a dismissal without prejudice and living to fight another day rather than getting into a fight that may end up with stronger language a future Commission would need to overcome.

Some 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

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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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Time For Some Hot Bi-Partisan Action on Cable: Or, Why Copps and Adelstein Need to Work With Martin Here Part I

I gotta hand it to the NCTA – they really know how to spin the press. Given the outrageous excesses of market power displayed by incumbent cable operators, you would imagine that activists would leap at the opportunity offered by Kevin Martin to reign in cable market power – regardless of whether one likes Martin personally or thinks he is a Bellhead or industry tool in other respects. But no, over the weekend, the NCTA has done an exemplary job of spinning the upcoming sledgehammer to cable market power as a bad thing.

I am talking primarily about the news that the FCC may invoke the “70/70″ provision of Section 612(g) of the Communications Act (codified at 47 U.S.C. 532(g)). For those not as obsessed with the Communications Act as yr hmbl obdnt, this provision states:

[A]t such time as cable systems with 36 or more activated channels are available to 70 percent of households within the United States and are subscribed to by 70 percent of the households to which such systems are available, the Commission may promulgate any additional rules necessary to provide diversity of information sources. Any rules promulgated by the Commission pursuant to this subsection shall not preempt authority expressly granted to franchising authorities under this subchapter.

Now you would think anyone who opposes media concentration would be jumping for joy here, wouldn’t you? At last, a clear source of authority for the FCC to regulate cable in the name of diversity, and a directive from Congress to do it (without preempting local franchise authorities). And one would certainly expect that the Democratic Commissioners, Copps and Adelstein, who have repeatedly shown themselves stalwart champions of diversity and enemies of consolidation, would rush to seize the moment. But while I hope the later is true, some normally sensible people are buying into the cable spin that this is somehow bad because (choose however many apply):

A) It’s an “archaic leftover” of another time and nowadays cable is “highly competitive.”

B) It’s not really true that the 70/70 test is met anyway so the courts will just reverse it.

C) Kevin Martin is an evil Bellhead who has it in for cable, wants to deregulate broadcast media, and shafted local franchising authorities, so you know this must somehow be evil, even though it is something media reform advocates have fought for over 20 years to achieve.

D) Somehow, this is just an effort to distract us from the fact that Kevin Martin is an evil Bellhead who eats puppies and throws kittens into trees for his amusement.

E) Martin is just slapping the cable guys around because they didn’t do family tier.

G) Somehow this helps Kevin Martin deregulate the broadcast industry.

Having spent the last several years trying to get the FCC to recognize the goddamn truth that 70/70 was met years ago, and trying to get the FCC to address leased access and carriage complaint issues, the 30% cable ownership cap, and a bunch of other reforms to address cable market power, I am just a shade peeved to see folks who should know better eating out of NCTA’s hand. Because public policy is not about whether I like or dislike the current FCC Chair or whether I would rather he focus on reigning in telcos rather than cable cos. It’s about what is the best public policy. And what Martin has put out for a vote: 70/70, reform of leased access and the carriage complaint process, and reaffirming the 30% cable ownership cap, are all things justified by the record and urgently needed.

We have already seen that when the Democrats work with Martin to protect independent programmers, good things happen. Holding the cable operators accountable under the set-top box law, letting The America Channel arbitrate its case against Comcast, these are areas where Copps and Adelstein recognized that their interest in promoting diversity and free expression converged with Martin’s interests in restricting cable market power and worked together to create well-crafted rules that promote the public interest without selling anyone out. This is that “bipartisan” thing everyone claims they want – work together where you can, oppose each other when you must, and always keep in mind the public interest rather than your partisan ends.

Below, I run through some background on what’s going on — especially with the 70/70 test. Since that will make this ridiculously long, I will save for Part II why Copps and Adelstein need to seize this opportunity before the NCTA gets a chance to work its mind-clouding magic and once again get a quorum to vote that slavery is freedom and market power is competition. And, since Martin’s motives appear to absolutely rivet everyone’s attention, I will give my best speculative guesses followed by my explanation of why Martin’s motives don’t matter. Because, as in all good politics, Martin has maneuvered it so that he will get his political pay off whether the Democrats vote for the cable items or not. So rather than waste the best chance at cracking cable market power in the last 20 years and give Martin a political victory anyway, the only sensible thing to do is vote for the items and make it clear that doing the right thing in cable over here doesn’t give Martin a pass on previous bad Orders (like preempting local franchise authority) or give a license to deregulate broadcast ownership.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC loses Barry Ohlson

At the conclusion of yesterday’s meeting, Commissioner Adelstein announced the departure of Barry Ohlson. Barry has been Adelstein’s wireless adviser since forever, and Adelstein’s senior legal adviser for sometime. Lord knows he deserves a rest.

Commissioners, of necessity, rely very heavily on their advisers because Commissioners must be generalists. In addition, because the Government in the Sunshine Act prevents the Commissioners from meeting together except at public meetings, a far amount of the drafting and negotiating on FCC decisions happens at the adviser level. Finally, advisers serve an important meeting and screening function for overworked commissioners. A Commissioner must therefore rely on an adviser for a multitude of skills. An adviser must not merely have expertise in the law, policy, economics and engineering of the subject matter, but must have a rare combination of discretion, diplomacy and judgment.

In my opinion, Barry has been one of the best and a fantastic asset to Commissioner Adelstein’s office. I will miss working with Barry on wireless issues, although his successor, Renee Crittendon, has certainly come through her trial by fire in the 700 MHz auction with a fine crown of laurels based on the conditions Adelstein and Copps were able to secure for enforcement of the device open access rule in the C Block.

So good luck to Barry Ohlson, wherever he ultimately lands. Who knows, perhaps someday he will be back on the FCC’s 8th floor, but as a commissioner instead. After all, Kevin Martin got his start at the FCC as adviser to Commissioner Furchgott-Roth. I can hope, anyway.

Stay tuned . . . .

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