The announcement that the White House that it would support reallocating the D Block – the 10 MHz of spectrum left over from big broadcast band auction of 2008 (the 700 MHz Auction) – to public safety use rather than auction it for commercial use defies conventional wisdom on two fronts. First, the National Broadband Plan called for an auction of D block to commercial providers as a means of providing critical spectrum for broadband, using the revenue to fund the construction of the public safety network, and giving public safety access to the rest of the 700 MHz band. Given that the Administration generally supported the FCC’s assessment that we have a looming “spectrum crisis” (although they took no position, until now, on D Block), why pull 10 MHz of prime spectrum ready for auction out of contention? Second, conventional wisdom holds that because of deficit concerns, lust for auction revenue will drive spectrum policy. But the White House not only endorses taking prime spectrum off the market, it wants to spend additionally billions on public safety infrastructure (under the FCC’s original plan, the auction of D Block would fund the build out of an interoperable national public safety network). So what happened?
I’ve been rather pressed for time, hence have not had much chance to blog on the FCC’s recent spectrum policy announcements for D-Block and the broadcast migration offer. Combine these two speeches with Genachowski’s recent statement in an interview that the NBP will finance the $25 billion via existing programs and it is clear that the FCC will adopt the T-Mobile’s “asymmetric auction” proposal for the AWS-2 and AWS-3 band, leaving M2Z high and dry. The only question is whether or not there will be spectrum caps to keep AT&T and Verizon from snarfing the good stuff, but do not expect the NBP to touch something as “controversial” as spectrum caps even by veiled implication the way the DoJ did in its comments.
Mind, this is another example of the “spectrum auctions are the crack cocaine of public policy” problem. The thirst for revenue pushes all other considerations out the window. I’m not convinced the T-Mobile approach is wrong (especially if subject to spectrum caps), and I think the D-Block finesse was extremely clever. But when revenue sits in the driver’s seat, policy invariably takes a wrong turn somewhere along the road. But it is difficult to imagine how Genachowski could resist a $15 bn secret cash cow to fend off accusations that Democrats are once again writing checks against our children’s future blah blah blah.
I unpack all this below. . . .
Yes, for policy wonks in the summer, this is high drama. Once upon a time, before the 700 MHz auction, we used to have two very clear groups of stakeholders in spectrum policy land. We had public safety on one side and commercial wireless carriers on the other. (We also had us public interest folks, but no one — especially in the Wireless Bureau — gave a crap about us.) While these two groups might disagree internally, they solidified into utterly united and utterly opposing camps when confronting each other — regarding the battle for spectrum as a zero sum game with each side trying to wrestle every last MHz out of the other one.
But the 700 MHz changed all that. It cemented the spectrum advantage of AT&T and Verizon over all other carriers, breaking the commercial world into “AT&T and Verizon” and “carriers who need backhaul, roaming agreements, and special access — all of which they buy from AT&T and Verizon.” And it fractured consensus in the public safety community by creating the enormous loose end known as the “D Block.” As readers may recall (and if they don’t, you can check out my extensive coverage of the 700 MHz auction) the D Block was the private part of a public/private partnership where a private entity would bid and then build out the network, then enter into a sharing agreement with the public safety block. Sadly, for various reasons I will not rehash here, this didn’t work out.
And now, just when it looked like public safety was lining up behind AT&T and Verizon to lobby Congress to reallocate the D Block entirely to public safety, all Hell breaks loose. The “not Verizon and AT&T” wireless carriers have introduced a counter proposal to take back the 12 MHz on the public safety side of the partnership and auction the whole 22 MHz for commercial use as one, unpaired block. And they have received the backing, sort of, of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
What drama to greet the arrival of Chairman Genachowski and the finally fleshed out full FCC! Commercial wireless carriers at war! Public safety in disarray! Spectrum brother against spectrum brother in the ultimate spectrum policy smackdown!
I analyze the possible deals, the potential winners and losers, and my guesses on odds for success below . . . .
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 . . . .
When it rains, it positively pours. The FCC just released its Inspector General Report on whether Cyren Call screwed up the D Block. As readers may recall, I and my friends from the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC) sent a letter to the FCC as soon as the auction ended, asking the FCC to investigate the allegations over whether Cyren Call scared away D Block bidders. To his credit, Martin referred our letter to the FCC’s inspector general. The IG did a quick and thorough job, which you can read here. I shall add that it always gives one pause to find oneself as a subject heading in an IG report.
Generally, I’m satisfied with the report, which confirms my own suppositions after the anticollusion rules lifted and Cyren Call started yapping. Critically:
1) The meetings took place;
2) They were understood by all participants to be business negotiations, not “take it or leave it” demands;
3) The lease payment itself was not a deal breaker, but the potential bidders interviewed said that so many questions about potential financial liability and business model remained — aggravated in part by the uncertain role of Cyren Call — that they opted to stay away (or, as the IG concludes “this was just one drop in many different buckets”);
4) No FCC rules were broken and no one acted in bad faith, therefore there is no need for a referral for any criminal investigation.
Personal reflections below . . . .
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 . . . .
The FCC can certainly move fast when it wants to — and when it has had a few weeks to get used to the idea. The FCC just released a public notice that it will “de-link” the D Block from Auction 73, and will release the names of the winners as soon as the Commission collects the payments (ten days after it issues the official notice that the auction is over and that parties now need to file “long forms” and pay up).
Also of importance, Chairman Martin has referred the question of whether Cyren Call made all manner of demands of Frontline, and did this break any rules to the Office of the Inspector General. This extremely important detail was buried in this somewhat less than stellar Washington Post article about our letter to the FCC calling for an investigation. I say “less than stellar” because, in addition to “burying the lead” big time, the reporters did not trouble themselves to contact me despite that fact that (a) I broke this story in the first place (only narrowly beating out Dow Jones’ Cory Boles); (b) I drafted the friggin’ letter. I therefore recommend this far superior article in eWeek (i.e., it mentions me and links to the relevant blog entry — a clear mark of superior journalistic skills).
A bit more analysis below . . .
First, we at PISC have sent a letter to the FCC asking the FCC to sever the D Block issues, announce the winners of the rest of the auction, and thoroughly investigate the allegations around Cyren Call and its pre-auction discussion with Frontline. (Martin has apparently already circulated something that severs D Block, so they can announce results as soon as the other Commissioners vote and the wireless bureau finishes the necessary housekeeping.)
Perhaps more importantly for the long run, we ask that the FCC take a hard look at whether to try to fix the public/private partnership or possibly do something else. The FCC has a lot of options here. And with the auction clearing over $19 Billion and the statutory requirement to start an auction before January 28, 2008 fulfilled, the money pressure and time pressure are off. We have time to have a public process and do it right.
Second, here is Kevin Martin’s official statement explaining why the auction was a huge success (and, by implication, why he did a bang up job getting this done). Martin, sensitive to the grumblings from folks who say that different rules could have gotten more revenue, included this handy chart showing that, on a pure revenue basis, the 700 MHz auction is the most successful FCC auction ever.
(In the reading the tea leaves department, I note that the chart subtracts out the D Block bid. And indication the FCC won’t just pass off the D Block to the lone low bidder? Maybe, but no surprise if that turns out to be the case.)
You can find Tate’s statement here. I have not seen official statements from any of the other offices.
Stay tuned . . . .
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 . . . .