Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Issues Excellent Wireless Microphone Order — Perhaps NAB Will Rely Less on Scare Tactics and Celebrity Letters Now.

Time to clear up a little piece of unfinished business for which I and this humble blog can claim some modest responsibility. The FCC finally issued it’s long awaited Order on wireless microphones stemming from this blog post and the subsequent complaint/Petition for Rulemaking by the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (to which a special shout out to the folks at New America Wireless Future is due, given the fantastic amount of work they did on assembling evidence and helping draft the document).

As one can tell from this FCC press release describing the details, we pretty much got what we wanted — although not entirely and not in the way we expected. But, as I noted in this press statement in my role as Legal Director of Public Knowledge, we’re very happy with how things turned out. Briefly:
(a) all wireless mic users are now granted legal status, this is done pursuant to the FCC’s Part 15 rules for unlicensed rather than the “license by rule” that we suggested, but my only regret about that is I didn’t think of it when we filed.
(b) Everyone using wireless microphones needs to clear out of the 700 MHz band by Jun 12, 2010 — one year after the DTV transition and 15 months after the original date proposed by the FCC. Given how the Broadway people have been telling the FCC for months how they are off the 700 MHz band, this should not be too much of a hardship — especially for those who had no right to be there in the first place.
(c) The FCC will invest a boatload of its own resources, and gin up the FCC 2.0 machinery, to get the word out to folks and help consumers, churches, etc. handle the transition.
(d) The FCC will require that wireless microphones have signs and labels going forward to make sure that people understand the difference between licensed users and unlicensed users.

In addition, the FCC is having a further notice of proposed rulemaking that will:
1) Set the rules for the new Part 15 unlicensed wireless microphones.
2) Will examine whether to expand the class of Part 74 Subpart H eligible licensees to see if they should expand the class to give interference protection to some set of users — which would include who gets to be in the database of licensed services protected from operation of TV white spaces devices.

Yeah, that kicks the can down the road rather than saying flat out “anyone who was using a wireless microphone illegally is not entitled to protection against the TV white spaces devices, which went through the legal process and got approved.” But I can most definitely live with that. For one thing, I am confident that in an evidence-driven FCC which places consumer interests first, as demonstrated by this Order with its unprecedented investment of FCC resources for outreach (which we had not even dreamed of requesting except in the most general way of offering to help), will focus on the real question of whether or not there is interference and if so how to strike the appropriate balance between allowing new technologies and protecting existing users. Hopefully, this will inspire white spaces opponents to focus on engineering rather than trying to use scare tactics and celebrity “star power”.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

So Did Anything Actually Happen In Telecom In 2009? And What That Means for 2010.

Ah, the inevitable end of the year summation post. This year certainly started with massive change of the relevant players in Congress, at the FCC, and in the Administration generally. It also began with some massive changes for me personally. Within the first month, Congress passed an economic stimulus bill that focused on the broader broadband ecology and explicitly required we shift from praying to the Gods of the Marketplace to trying to grapple with the very difficult challenge of developing a 21st Century information infrastructure.

So then what happened? More, including the inevitable overused sports metaphor, below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Could the FCC Structure A Broadcaster Clearance Auction Without Congress? Yeah, actually . . .

Progress and Freedom Foundation has recently published this piece by Adam Theirer and Barbara Esbin on how encouraging a deal between broadcasters and wireless providers to reduce the spectrum used by broadcasters and auction more spectrum for wireless use would serve the public interest. The piece raises some good points. For one thing, it is happily free of the “broadcasters are obsolete and we ought to take their spectrum back” rhetoric that often accompanies these proposals (not from PFF, I should add, but from a number of others). But the paper is woefully short on specifics. It touts the value of such a deal (freeing up spectrum for wireless) and lays out some general approaches, then urges the FCC and Congress to broker a deal between the broadcasters and the wireless industry through a number of possible auction mechanisms.

And now, the FCC has issued a public notice in the National Broadband Plan soliciting input on what they should think about using broadcast spectrum as part of the national broadband plan.

This got me thinking. Is there a mechanism the FCC could use, consistent with existing law, which would allow for the sort of broadcast band clearance the FCC would like to see? And, as a bonus, could this also clear some space for white space use? After some consideration, I hatched the scheme below. It is somewhat slower than than the wireless industry would like. I expect it would take about 5 years to finish the transition. But that is not bad given that it took 4 years to manage the DTV transition and auction from the time Congress set the hard date in 2005 to the end of analog broadcasting in June 2009. Also, my plan would allow continuing gradual build out, and combines some sticks to go with the carrots.

I’ll add that I’m not convinced this is worth doing. I think the current obsession with broadcast spectrum as the solution for the upcoming spectrum crisis suffers the same myopia as focusing on offshore drilling to cure the energy crisis — it defers the crunch but doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Wireless demand is going to continue, and we need to fundamentally change how we manage spectrum access (rather than spectrum allocation) to remain on a sustainable path for growth. I also point out, as we discovered while doing the broadcast white spaces proceeding, that there are a lot of non-broadcast uses in the existing television bands that are not broadcast users. These secondary services are going to get awfully squeezed if we crunch the broadcast bands further.

All that said, a well constructed auction could free up a nice chunk of spectrum in the short term that could promote wireless services and competition — especially if it came with a spectrum cap so VZ and AT&T didn’t hog all the good stuff again.

More below . . . . .

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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 . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Obama Moving Appointments Along in Telecom — Strickling Named, Genachowski & Adelstein Likely to Go Late April/Early May.

The Obama Administration has nominated Larry Strickling for the post of Administrator of the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA). While long anticipated, the nomination was delayed until Commerce actually had a Secretary — it being polite to give the person running the Department at least the opportunity for input into who his assistant secretaries will be. It also looks like, contrary to my analysis last week, that Genachowski may come on board as soon as late April/Early May when Congress comes back from recess rather than after the DTV transition in June, and that Adelstein will simultaneously move to RUS. This would mean that the Obama administration would have their primary media/telecom team on board within the first 100 days, with the balance of the FCC waiting for the Republicans to come to some sort of consensus on whom to recommend for the second Republican slot.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

House Republicans Continue to Stand Up For Principle Despite Self Interest or Common Sense. Go GOP!

I am not entirely sure that a delay of the DTV transition is a good thing, but I know a political reality when I see it. With too many viewers likely to experience serious television viewing disruption, the smart politician takes some prudent steps to avoid blame. Hence the unanimous Senate vote to delay the transition until June. But the House Leadership, eager to give Obama and the Ds their first “defeat,” felt otherwise. They managed to muster a cadre of the faithful to vote against the passage of the Senate bill in the House “on suspension,” meaning without debate and requiring a 2/3rds majority.

It’s largely a symbolic gesture, since the Ds can always bring the bill up through the usual processes. And, for the majority of the country who are not hardcore GOP “we hate Obama and want him to fail no matter what this does to the country or even us personally,” it reenforces the perception that the Rs would much rather play games than get stuff done. Still, Republicans and various news outlets are all about how this marks Obama’s first “defeat.”

I look forward, therefore, to future news stories such as this:

Washington — House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and senior Republican members of the House of Representatives suffered serious head injuries today after slamming their heads repeatedly into a wall until they fell unconscious. The strange behavior began when Obama suggested he would introduce legislation that would have made it illegal to slam your head into a wall until you fall unconscious.

Conservative pundits praised Boehner and his colleagues for “sticking to their principles” and “refusing to cave.” “If Obama and his socialist comrades in Congress outlaw giving yourself a concussion, they’ll take our guns away next!” Warned Rush Limbaugh. Other media analysts questioned whether this “head banger rebellion” marked a turn around in the Republican’s fading fortunes. “If Obama can’t get bipartisan support for not injuring yourself, you have to ask what sort of influence he really has,” said Brit Hume.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) expressed sympathy for her Republican colleagues and wished them a speedy recovery. However, a source close to the Speaker reported that — when conferring with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) — Pelosi giggled and said: “Next week, let’s get them to eat dung beetles.”

Stay tuned . . . .

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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

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 . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Shure Makes Clever Defensive Gambit Against CTIA/Public Safety in 700 MHz Tussle — $1000 Rebate.

In an interesting new development in the wireless microphone saga, Shure is now offering a $1000 rebate on a replacement wireless microphone for anyone who trades in a wireless microphone that operates on the 700 MHz frequencies, provided the purchaser bought the microphone before February 2007. I’m not sure why the magic cut off date, and Shure does not explain.

Shure does, OTOH, offer an explanation for why it will make this generous offer — albeit an incomplete one:

“Our number one priority is to provide our customers with the highest quality products, service, and support,” said Al Hershner, Vice President and General Manager of the Shure U.S Business Unit. “We’ve known for some time that the ‘700 MHz band’ would be reallocated for new services following the DTV transition on February 18, 2009. Although a final decision from the FCC is still pending, we felt the need to assure our customers now that we will take care of them regardless of the outcome.”

Shure does not mention, of course, that the most likely outcome involves outlawing all use of wireless microphones in the 700 MHz, and a reasonable probability that Shure (and other manufacturers) will be required to replace the equipment for free. But that doesn’t mean Shure will miss an opportunity to spin its customers and recruit their support at the FCC explain to interested customers the ongoing FCC legal proceeding:

“There has been a great deal of confusion for wireless microphone users regarding the political and technological developments surrounding the DTV transition and the 700 MHz auction over the past few years,” added Hershner. “As always, Shure has a team of sales, customer service, and technical support staff available to answer any questions people might have about this rebate program or their products.”

Hmmm….could this have something to do with the recent push by the incoming public safety and commercial 700 MHz licensees to take this seriously so it won’t mess up deployment? Could Shure be trying to fob off the FCC with a fake remedial action while boosting its own sales and recruiting its customers for a massive push against the wireless guys and public safety? Or is that just my nasty and suspicious nature rejecting the idea that Shure is deeply — deeply I say — concerned about its customers (which it assures the FCC are only retailers and not members of the public ineligible for licenses to operate such systems) and I should be ashamed of myself for questioning this noble voluntary remediation by an upstanding corporate citizen that just happened to build its business on wholesale violation of federal law?

I explore the possibilities below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

CORRECTION: The Record Is NOT Closed In White Spaces. Record On That Item Open Until Friday.

Serves me right for rushing something out late last night. As one reader pointed out to me in email, the FCC has not closed the record on the white spaces proceeding, although it has on the other agenda items. The record for white spaces will remain open until Friday, October 31.

Although closing the record a week before the meeting is usual, the FCC has authority to extend the time for ex parte presentations and hold the record open. The last time I recall them doing this was before the first 700 MHz Order back in April 2007.

I do not think this extension of the Sunshine period is necessarily good or bad for any side in the white spaces debate, although I would prefer if they would just vote the Order on circulation and get it out (which won’t happen ntil the record closes). At a guess, I think Martin (and it is his prerogative as Chair) extended the opportunity for presentations because the Commissioners have been on travel as roving amabassadors for the DTV transition, and getting meetings with Commissioners and their staff has been very difficult for folks — especially given the crush of other items on the agenda. The Order is also fairly complicated from a technical perspective, and, as a political matter, it helps mitigate the accusation about a “rush to judgment” (because five years is just too short, ya know).

Stay tuned . . . .

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