Tales of the Sausage Factory

Doing Kojo Nnamdi Show This Tuesday — and other opportunities to see me.

For those interested, I’ll be appearing on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on Tuesday, January 26 (tomorrow). I’ll be on for a discussion of the future of cable with Greg Sandoval and Derek Thompson. Should be fun and interesting, as I hope to talk about things like our set-top box petition, the SOC Waiver, and how all this ties in with TV Everywhere, overt-the-top video, Comcast/NBCU, and the general “cable digital transition” as more systems convert to all-digital. Should be fun — if you are the sort of person who reads this blog.

UPDATE: You can listen to the Kojo show here.

As long as I’m doing the self-promotion thing, I’ll mention three other events where I’ll be speaking.

February 16: The Administrative Law Review event on Regulatory Change Under The Obama Administration at the Washington College of Law at American University.

March 15: Law Seminars International Telecom Conference in Seattle.

June 10: Pike & Fisher’s Broadband Policy Summit VI, where I shall square off against the ever popular Scott Cleland on everyone’s favorite topic “Who are the Internet Gatekeepers and Should They Be Regulated?” [I know, big suspense on which of us will say “Google” an which of us will go on about ISPs, switching costs, and all that other stuff.]

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Dave Sez: “It's raining, and I can't watch Charlie Brown in HD.”

Some of you may remember my friend “Dave” who tried to get the $10 DSL deal from AT&T in ’07 when he moved to Sacremento. As I noted at the time, Dave does not get cable TV “on the grounds that 99% of the programming ‘sucks.’” Being a smart and technologically savvy fellow, as well as keeping up on all things media and telecom by reading this blog, Dave went and got his NTIA coupon and bought a converter box and did everything like a technologically savvy consumer should.

Did this bring Dave the wonders of digital television? Sadly, no. But let him tell you in his own words below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Follow Up On Medical Devices: Smarter Devices And Smarter Policy, Not More Bandwidth

So I’ve been following up more since initial post yesterday. As a general matter, I recommend interested readers start with this piece from the FDA’s website, followed by the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) FAQ on wireless medical telemetry devices and the digital transition. OET does not see this as likely to cause a big deal because there’s plenty of empty “white spaces” out there after the digital transition and users can adjust their devices as digital televisions come online.

Well, I hope they are right about that, although I’d feel a lot better if someone were responsible for actually keeping track of this and making sure that users get informed. Under the rules, there are notification requirements for when a station goes live with its digital signal so hospitals can make changes. That works as long as folks are paying attention, of course. In any event, in case OET is looking for more work (or someone on the Hill wants to step up), I would suggest that it would be awfully nice to know what the state of the industry is. But I suspect the right place to do that is really the FDA not the FCC, or perhaps the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But there is a broader lesson here. As with wireless microphones and a host of other specific low power applications, the real problem is not capacity. The problem is that we have a legacy system that slices spectrum uses into these discrete little services rather than allowing general low power unlicensed use and using cognitive radios to avoid interference.

Hospitals provide a particularly useful environment for smart devices, because they have so many noisy devices, sensitive devices, and such an expanding need for wireless devices for medical telemetry. Imagine a device that works equally well in all locations of the hospital without putting other systems at risk because it senses and adjusts for its radio frequency environment in a real-time basis. If another doctor starts up a device in a neighboring bed that is noise generator, the device monitoring my patient will move to a clear frequency. Devices and systems could even be tagged for priority, so that a mobile monitor attached to a patient knows that it must give the “right of way” to the cardiac ward systems if they come into conflict.

But more specifically here, there is nothing that existing wireless medical telemetry devices authorized in the band do that could not be replicated more flexibly and at lower cost by authorizing generic low-power white spaces devices. This is essentially the same problem as with wireless microphones. If wireless microphones had never received a special dispensation to function in the broadcast white spaces as a licensed ancillary service, you could replicate these systems with unlicensed white spaces devices. But, like the QWERTY typewriter, they are an embedded technology. And they have a constituency that, quite logically, resists change and argues that it plays an important role that generic devices could not replicate.

We thus have the irony of everybody agreeing there is “plenty of white space” for existing secondary users like wireless microphones and medical telemetry, but supposedly no room for the next generation of devices that could do the job of both technologies and bring us a host of other applications besides. We could cure this with more powerful cognitive radios, but the same natural conservatism by incumbents against any intrusion in “their” spectrum makes any movement in that direction politically difficult (as demonstrated by the FCC terminating two promising proceedings last year).

We therefore have the classic political and collective action result of fixing the wrong problem, at least from a public policy perspective. Rather than expanding wireless use generally, we make the new, more useful generic technology subordinate to the existing stakeholders. It is rather like what would have happened if harness makers and farriers had been able to demand that automobiles must protect their industries before being allowed to share the road with the horse and buggy.

Hardly a new problem or an original observation, I recognize. This has been the lament of spectrum reformers since five minutes after the first licenses were issued and the rest of us got cut off. Still, I keep hoping that this time around we’ll manage to get the right result and not let the embedded old technology trump the next generation of users.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Paging Hospital Techies: You Have Bigger Worries Than White Spaces

CNET has this story about how “Hospital Techies” (notably medical monitor manufacturer GE) are worried that white spaces devices will mess up their medical systems.

Bluntly, “hospital techies” have bigger problems. As the CNET article observes, but lightly passes over, some unknown number of hospitals are using legacy medical monitoring equipment that will stop working after the digital transition. So while the odds of white spaces devices (WSDs) interfering with actual medical equipment on the approved set aside, Channel 37, approaches zero, and WSD interference with legacy equipment is equally unlikely, we may face a total meltdown in poor hospitals of medical monitoring equipment.

Rather than waste time on white spaces, I would say manufacturers like GE Healthcare need to start working with the FCC (and Congress) to engage in a massive education and outreach effort equal to what the FCC has done with the NAB and retailers to educate the public. That means stop selling any legacy equipment, require manufacturers to notify customers that have legacy equipment that it may stop working, and find out how many hospitals are likely to lose medical monitoring equipment after the DTV transition happens. A little funding from Congress to help poor hospitals that can’t afford to upgrade wouldn’t hurt either.

But worrying about white spaces is like worrying about whether a candle will blow over when a brush fire is bearing down you. Unless folks wake up to the danger, we may get seriously burned.

More analysis below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Brief Update On $16 Billion Termites

SO it turns out in 2003, the FCC amended the rules — but only with regard to higher power services governed by Subpart F. These higher power services were explicitly made secondary to any new entrants following the digital transition. (See 47 CFR 74.602(h)(3)). But the lower power wireless microphones governed by Part H (47 CFR 74.800 et seq) were not so designated.

I suppose an argument can (and will) be made that the FCC’s 2003 BAS Order designated all BAS services as secondary to new entrants in Channels 52-69. But it should be reflected in the rules, and failure to modify 47 CFR 74.802 creates legal headaches at the very least. And, even if the argument is accepted, it doesn’t solve the problem of all the legacy equipment in the hands of tens of thousands of users who will potentially be screwing up the new licensed wireless systems.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The 700 MHz Auction Pre-Show: Live from the AT&T/Aloha Bowl!

The pre-game show for the 700 MHz auction has definitely gone into full swing. Lets ignore for the moment the purely regulatory shenanigans such as Verizon’s war of litigation and regulatory maneuver. Let’s pause for a moment to consider some of the player training and pre-game jockeying for position. Notably, today’s big announcement that AT&T will buy Aloha Partners 700 MHz licenses.

“Whoa!” I hear you cry. “How did Aloha Partners (or anyone else) get 700 MHz licenses? I thought the auction wasn’t until January!” Well, for reasons I will address below, the FCC actually auctioned some of these licenses back in 2002 and 2003. Aloha Partners won a fair number of them dirt cheap (since at the time no one knew if the broadcasters would ever finish the digital transition and get off the spectrum), and then began a steady stream of acquisitions, culminating in the purchase last month of Lin TV’s 700 MHz licenses, giving them a total of 270 licenses overall and healthy coverage in the major markets of the southwest, south, east coast, and portions of the midwest. (You can see and old map of the major coverage areas here.)

And now, in what has become the all too familiar paradigm for the telecom world, AT&T has turned around and swallowed Aloha Partners 700 MHz licenses. What does this mean? What impact for the auction? For other deals? Will this impact the regulatory end game?

My speculations are even wilder-ass than usual, given the utter lack of real data. But if you’re up for a walk through the entrails with me, see below . . . .

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