Tales of the Sausage Factory

Republicans Finally Make FCC Picks. McDowell and Baker to Take R Slots. Now Can The Senate Please Get Everyone Confirmed So We Can Get To Work.

At long last, it looks like the Senate Republicans got their act together enough to settle on two FCC candidates: Current Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell and former NTIA Administrator Meredith Atwell Baker. While I expect a fair number of policy fights, I also expect to see this group weighing matters fairly and searching for common ground.

I’m hopeful this can clear the Senate before July 4 recess. The FCC has a pretty big agenda, starting with the National Broadband Plan (yes, February 2009 may seem far away, but not for this), continuing through finishing up on white spaces and wireless microphones, FCC Reform, ownership, network neutrality, etc., etc. Be nice if the Senate also confirmed Larry Strickling for NTIA. Finally, if we really want to get things moving, the Senate Agriculture Committee should schedule a hearing for Adelstein’s appointment to head up the Rural Utility Service now (they don’t have to wait for him to be off the FCC to have a hearing on his nomination to RUS) so he can be confirmed in a group with everyone else.

A bit more on Baker and McDowell 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

Adelstein To Go To RUS, But When?

In a not entirely unexpected move, FCC Commissioner Jonathon Adelstein will shift over to the RUS program. One would be hard put to think of anyone better qualified to oversee spending to stimulate rural broadband deployment (granted, as regular readers know, I am huge fan of Adelstein’s and hardly impartial). Adelstein comes from a rural state (South Dakota) and has long been a champion of rural issues — particularly broadband and wireless deployment — at the FCC. Overseeing a program to spend $2.5B explicitly on rural broadband seems tailor made for Adelstein, especially if this is just the “down payment” for making sure that we make the benefits of high-speed access available to all Americans.

When Adelstein will get a chance to shift over, however, is less clear. The FCC has dropped down to the bare minimum for a functioning quorum of three commissioners. The Administration has now officially nominated Julius Genachowski for FCC chair. In theory, the Senate could hold a hearing, confirm Genachowski, and then shift Adelstein over to RUS at any time. In practice, however, some other considerations intervene. And while a few months might not normally make much difference in the grand scheme of things, the RUS, like the NTIA, is very busy at the moment setting the ground rules for the availability of the stimulus money. No one wants to show up after the rules are already settled, especially if you have some significant experience that would give you some strong ideas on how to spend the money effectively.

Some elaboration and speculation below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Farewell to Commissioner Deborah Tate

As I observed back awhile ago when describing possible scenarios for the FCC, Commissioner Deborah Tate would need to depart when the 110th Congress expired and the 111th Congress convened at Noon on January 3, 2009. So, at the FCC’s pro forma meeting on December 30, Commissioner Tate stepped down and made her farewell address. Despite the rather tense atmosphere that often prevails on the 8th Floor of the FCC these day, her fellow Commissioners used most of the meeting time to say many nice things in appreciation of her tenure.

Allow me to add my own appreciation for Commissioner Tate’s service. This may come as a surprise to some, given that I disagreed with Tate a fair amount on most matters of substance. As others have noted, Tate voted along fairly standard Republican lines — generally shying away from regulation of “the market” despite a sincere concern about consumer welfare. (I should add that despite her much publicized comments about the dangers of Worlds of Warcraft, her support for strong digital right management and urging ISPs do more to block content potentially harmful to minors, Tate still generally followed a deregulatory line in simply urging industry to voluntarily do more and raising this in the context of voting against the Comcast/Bittorrent Order).

But let me tell a little story below which illustrates why Commissioner Tate deserves a respectful farewell even from staunch progressives such as myself.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Adelstein Is Right On FCC Authority to Launch An Investigation Into Arbitron Portable People Meter.

FCC Commissioner Adelstein wrote Chairman Martin a letter yesterday asking Martin to launch a formal inquiry into Arbitron’s use of the new portable people meter (PPM). As I noted back in September when the FCC put the Petition for an inquiry out on Public Notice, this issue means a lot to minority-oriented stations and their audiences, as they believe the PPM undercounts listeners to minority radio programming.

Also as I said back then, I think the FCC has very broad authority to investigate just about anything related to its core mission of, in the words of Section 1 of the Communications Act, “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, for the purpose of promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications.”

Mind you, having the power to launch an official inquiry does not mean you have the power to actually do anything. The FCC’s mandate is fairly broad, but it has limits. But one of the questions the FCC can ask is: “So, if we discovered something we didn’t like, what could we do about it?” That answer may be nothing more than “tell Congress this sucks,” a conclusion the FCC has reached in the past on occasion when it concluded it could take no action under existing law. But it also allows the FCC to explore other options. For example, the FCC could decide that concerns over the ppm make Arbitron ratings unreliable for certain measurements relating to its rules, like determining whether or not a station is in the “top four” for purposes of permitting a merger. Or the FCC could decide, after seeing lots of opinions and legal research from interested parties pro and con, that the FCC does have authority even if it has never exercised this authority. Adelstein cites 47 U.S.C. 257, which requires the FCC to eliminate market barriers to entry. I think a fairly strong case can be made that regulation of ratings services falls under the FCC’s ancillary authority over broadcasting. That’s a little difficult after American Library Association v. FCC (the broadcast flag case), because a ppm is not a “communication” and ALA held that ancillary jurisdiction must regulate an actual communication or transmission rather than simply have some possible impact on the future of television. OTOH, ratings are so clearly integral to the entire broadcasting industry that the connection with the “statutorily mandated” responsibilities and goals of the Communications Act is very strong.

Neither of these views may bear out on close investigation as authority to act. But again, this is why the FCC conducts inquiries. While it is easy to point to things that might have an impact on broadcasting that clearly lie outside the FCC’s jurisdiction, such as building the Sears Tower in Chicago, and easy to point to things that lie squarely inside the authority of the FCC to regulate (such as media ownership limits), there is also a middle ground of things that are rather murky. In a case such as this, where interested parties have submitted a mess of evidence that raises questions on a matter that potentially impacts millions of people getting access to diverse programming, I think the FCC ought to go ahead and have an inquiry.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Off to Big Tent In Denver Next Week.

For anyone who cares, I will be in Denver next week, but not for the Democratic National Convention (although I wouldn’t say no if someone wanted to slip me a pass — hint, hint). I will be attending the Big Tent event for bloggers, progressives, and anyone else who cares to wonder over and see what the changing face of online politics looks like. The event is running in parallel with the Democratic Convention, with significant overlap, although not actually part of it and far enough away geographically to be separate and distinct. I shall leave it to the reader to draw his or her own meaning from this.

Still, the hope is that the Big Tent event will attract significant cross over from the convention. On Tuesday, in conjunction with Common Cause Colorado, there will be a symposium on media issues and all that policy stuff I do over in my day job at Media Access Project. If you’re there, you can catch me speaking on media ownership and its impact on diversity in the afternoon, and/or my colleague at MAP, Parul Desai, talking on network neutrality. In the morning there will be a bunch of other speakers, including FCC Commissioner Jonathon Adelstein, so it should be fun.

Anyway, if you see me out there, feel free to come up and say hi.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Jonathan Adelstein Totally Rocks!

It’s no big deal for a Commissioner of the FCC to go to a major trade show like NAB or the CTIA. It’s not even a surprise when Commissioners or their staff take the time to come to meetings of important constituency groups or proven political powerhouses. But who takes the time to show up to speak to a bunch of geeks and policy hackers from around the world of no particular political or financial importance? I mean, hearing about how folks in Northern India or Serbia or the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago are using unlicensed spectrum to massive improve the quality of life of their communities is nice and inspiring and all, but life is busy and time is short.

Which is why Jonathan Adelstein and his wireless advisor, Rene Crittendon, totally rock. Commissioner Adelstein and Crittendon came down yesterday to the Fourth International Summit on Community Wireless going on here in Washington D.C. You can read the gist of Commissioner Adelstein’s remarks here. I should add that I thought Adelstein’s speech as delivered was brilliant. He deftly drew together the important themes of wireless broadband, connecting people, human rights, and the benefits of digital inclusion. (If I can get a link to the speech or the audio, I will post it.)

After the speech, Adelstein stuck around to take questions and talk to folks. All in all, I think he and Renee ended up spending about two hours down here.

I have often lamented that policy makers in Washington rarely manage to get together with real people who are doing things. Even when folks come to town, it is a carefully managed “field trip” designed to maximize the effectiveness of presentation. It’s important, but it’s not the raw, unvarnished and not always polite perspective of scruffy tower-climbers and local community organizers.

No major policy initiatives, no big announcements. Heck, hardly a whisper of press coverage. But it means a lot when an FCC Commissioner and his advisor take two hours out of a busy day to come down and have an open conversation about things that people passionately believe matter.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Most Important Wireless Conference of the Year — IS4CWN '08

There are an endless number of conferences out there, many of them quite good. But there is one conference I never skip if I can possibly make it — the International Summit For Community Wireless.

Why? You won’t find billion dollar CEOs or announcements of major product releases or huge deals. This year, owing to its location in Washington D.C., there will be some very good speakers (such as FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein — one of the great friends of community wireless at the Commission). And I and fellow Washington public interest conspirators will be hatching our plots for the new Administration. But that’s not why this is, in my opinion, the most important conference I attend.

This conference is the biggest collection of people I know who do things — and talk about them without worrying about non-disclosure agreements. These are the folks providing wireless connectivity in urban neighborhoods were folks can’t afford DSL; or who have figured out how to store, share and tag local content on wifi network in a safe manner that transforms a hot spot from an access point to the internet to a source of rich local media. It’s where I can hear about the innovations in mesh or deployment that are taking place on a daily basis as people deploy systems and play with equipment and code. It’s where I learned about how a city in Chile is improving the efficiency of city services because they asked local people “what is your biggest problem that we can solve with a wifi network” and the answer was “empty the garbage dumpsters when they get full.” It’s a place to find out how people are changing lives with unlicensed wireless technologies, and coordinating better how to get that story told.

For me, it gives meaning to my work. Because what I do doesn’t mean jack unless it actually changes people’s lives. (You can see the speech I gave at the second Summit on Community Wireless here, and here the speech I gave last year here (feel free to skip the intro by Sascha, which contains reference to things that never happened and I was somewhere else at the time so it could not have been me anyway.) But for everyone else, whether you are a policy wonk who wants to see how spectrum policy changes people’s lives, or a technogeek looking for cool toys, or a venture capitalist scouting for the next Big Thing to come out of the weeds, this is the place to be.

Fourth International Summit on Community Wireless Networking
May 28-30
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
1200 New York Ave NW
Washington, DC 20005

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

No, I Don't Know Anything About the McCain Story.

I regret to disappoint my fellow Wetmachiner John Sundman and legions of of folks discovering telecom policy is incredibly sexy (a fact I mentioned in my very first Wetmachine post), but I really have nothing to add about the McCain/Iseman story. This is not Wonkette here folks.

Policy, sure. I can tell you what made this transaction so controversial. And it may even have some bearing on the next FCC, given that one of the folks involved was Susan Ness, the former FCC Commissioner whispered about as the most likely nominee to replace Kevin Martin if Clinton wins. It also, of course, involved Bill Kennard who, along with Reed Hundt, is advising Obama. So I suppose the policy might have some relevance here. But as for the “juicy stuff:”

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Adelstein to Tech Sector & Frontline: Can You Hear Me Now?

FCC Commissioner Jonathon Adelstein’s recent speech at the Wireles Communications Association (WCA) conference — and subsequent remarks to the press on the 700 MHz auction have caused quite a stir among those in the blogosphere following this issue. My fellow advocates of open access, such as Matt Stoller at Mydd.com, voiced considerable concern that Commissioner Adelstein (a long-time friend of the public interest) would come down against open-access proponent Frontline and against the position staked out by the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition, the 4G/Tech industry and others in support of larger license blocks. (Go take a look at my Impossibly Long Field Guide if you are lost on who these players are). OTOH, Publius over at Obsidian Wings has posted a defense of Adelstein, in which he also falls into the classic trap (as he does in his (much shorter than mine) auction guide for dummies) in believing that the telcos are the antichrist when, at least in my opinion, it’s a Hell of a lot more complicated. Yo, Netheads! You can hate other incumbents besides the Telcos! Really!

Anyway, to get back to the issue of the day: Adelstein’s speech and subsequent reactions. Matt and Publius raise good points, but neither sees the full picture here. But heck, that’s why folks need TotSF (or so I like to think), to fill in the blanks and provide the needed backstory for those not familiar with how life in the public policy sausage factory works (and its why the average TotSF post is about 4 single-spaced pages — yeah, I talk too much, I know).

Short version: Adelstein was not committing to a position or dissing a proposal. He was sending a signal to the tech guys and Frontline that if they want to get what they are asking for, they need to answer some very real and legitimate questions. Because Adelstein and McDowell are widely considered “swing votes” on critical questions (with Tate and Copps believed focused primarily on public safety), their public speeches (along with Chairman Martin’s of course) get particular scrutiny. Adelstein has not sold out (as feared by Stoller). Nor is Martin a “a wholly owned subsidiary of Verizon”, nor are 4G Coalition (or yr hmbl obdnt) “useful idiots,” as argued by Publius.

So what is going on (at least in my long-winded opinion)? See below….

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