Tales of the Sausage Factory

MAP Brings DC To The Valley

Time for a shameless plug for my employer, the Media Access Project (MAP).

As long-time readers know, one of my frequent complaints is why don’t folks whose lives depend on the rules made in DC bestir themselves and get active on the policy front. All it takes is a web browser and a docket number, after all. Why don’t we see more Silicon Valley folks, VCs, and others show up at FCC proceedings.

Answer, they live as much in their own isolated bubbles as the DC folks do. If you are out in Silicon Valley, odds are good you rarely think of DC as having any relevance to your life and there is not going to be anyone or anything around you to tell you otherwise.

Well rejoice, lucky Silicon Valley people (and whoever else wants to make the trip out)! Media Access Project is sponsoring a series of policy forums (fora?) in Silicon Valley, wherein we will bring the D.C. policy world to you. And, lest you think this is some sort of socialist cult-like retreat wherein we will brainwash you with our public interest ways, we are working with big corporate partners like AT&T and eBay to assemble panels that present a wide variety of views. The primary purpose here is to get folks actually thinking about policy and why it is important for everyone to participate in the process. Think of it as a kind of “Rock the Vote” for Silicon Valley.

In any event, details below.

Stay tuned . . . .

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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

AT&T's $10 DSL and the Renomination of Commissioner Tate: What The Senate Confirmation Hearing Should Ask

The Consumerist runs this good but inaccurate report on AT&T’s offering its mandated $10 DSL intro rate for those who have not subscribed to DSL previously. AT&T accepted this as a merger condition when it acquired BellSouth last year. What Consumerist gets wrong is that this condition comes not from the FTC, which did not review the merger (regular readers will recall that it was the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division that gave the merger a thumbs up with no conditions). The price control aspect came from the FCC, as part of the bucket ‘o concessions AT&T made after it failed to get McDowell unrecused and suddenly had to respond to Democrats rather than blowing them off with bogus concessions.

This matters for two reasons. First, it means that complaining to the Federal Trade Commission, as suggested by Consumerist, is not exactly effective. FTC had nothing to do with the condition and won’t enforce it under their merger authority. If AT&T makes it damn hard for people to order the cheap rate, then there might be a claim as an unfair or deceptive trade practice, but I think that is kind of a stretch.

No, the place to complain is at the Federal Communications Commission. While it doesn’t hurt to file a complaint with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, you will also want to make sure that you copy it to the FCC’s record in the AT&T/BellSouth merger via its Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS). The relevant docket number is 06-74.

But, more importantly, this raises some serious questions that Congress needs to ask not merely about AT&T’s commitment to honoring the merger conditions, but also about the FCC’s willingness to enforce them — especially in light of statements made by Chairman Martin and Commissioner Tate at the time of the merger. Fortunately, President Bush’s decision to nominate Tate for a second term provides an excellent opprtunity for members of the Senate Commerce Committee to put these questions to Commissioner Tate directly.

Because while $10 DSL is important, this is also important to other AT&T merger conditions, such as network neutrality condition. And while, unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t think Martin or Tate are mindless Bellheads or wholly owned subsidiaries of AT&T, I do think it’s important to get them pinned down on the record that they will vigorously enforce the merger conditions and not allow AT&T to weasel out by “complying” in a way that deprives these conditions of meaning.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Oh yeah, the Skype Petition . . .

In addition to my pleas to save the 700 MHz auction, save postal rates, save internet radio, save the last dance, etc., etc., I almost completely forgot about supporting the Skype Petition. Comments are due Monday, April 30. You can file comments by going to the FCC’s website and filling out the fields. It’s pretty self explanatory except the docket number, which is RM-11361. Just click here.

Oh yeah, I should probably explain a bit about what this is and why you should care. For that, see below . . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Tales of the Sausage Factory: Goodies for the Broadcasters, Zip for the Public

Only in Washington would the Clear Channels of the world, those great champions of efficiencies and deregulation, declare that their monopoly on local content must be protected with regulation. And only in Washington would the deregulatory anti-big-government Republicans lap it up with a spoon. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has petitioned the FCC and Congress to prohibit the new satellite radio competitors from providing local content (mostly traffic and weather). Of course, this is moving at hyperspeed, while the effort to impose real public interest obligations on the broadcasters moves at one quarter impulse. Still, I can’t help stirring the pot at the FCC and seeing what bubbles up.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Tales of The Sausage Factory: Unlicensed Spectrum Access II

O.K., so what’s at stake this year and how can you participate? Read below on how to help get more spectrum available for unlicensed access, help boost available power, exercise your democratic rights with your web browser, and educate the FCC and your Congresscritter.

Or you can go back to being a cynical consumer moo cow who thinks bitching and moaning about how stupid government is relieves you of your responsibilities. (Think I have an opinion?)

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