Tales of the Sausage Factory

PK Action Alert To Save the Future of Unlicensed Spectrum

Despite the obvious reliance on unlicensed spectrum by Americans every day in the form of everything from wifi to baby monitors to RFID, the current mania for spectrum auction revenues combined with lobbying from companies opposed to the TV white space has put the future of unlicensed spectrum at risk. This is particularly true under the discussion draft circulated by House Republicans last week. That draft would require that before the FCC could allocate any new spectrum for unlicensed use, it would first have to have an auction that would allow companies to buy the spectrum for exclusive use. Only if everyone collectively outbid AT&T or Verizon for unlicensed would the spectrum go to unlicensed use. As Stacy Higginbotham at GigaOm notes, this would have devastating impact on the future of unlicensed and the innovation that comes out of the unlicensed bands.

As if that were not enough, the proposed bill literally allows companies to buy their way out of FCC consumer protection regulation.

We are trying to stop this before it’s too late.  Public Knowledge has created an Action Alert asking anyone who cares about protecting unlicensed, or opposed to letting companies literally buy their own rules, then help us this Friday (tomorrow) by telling your member of Congress not to sell off our digital future or let companies buy their way out of public interest obligations. Sign up for the PK mobile Action Alert and you will get a text message tomorrow letting you directly contact your member of Congress so you can tell them why this bill is a really, really bad idea.

I reprint the PK Action Alert below.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Posted in How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, I Fear These Things, Life In The Sausage Factory, Media Ownership, Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed

Tales of the Sausage Factory

The FCC and the Flying Purple People Meter.

O.K., technically, it is the Arbitron Portable People Meter (PPM). For those unfamiliar with this issue, Arbitron has rolled out a a new technology it claims will more accurately measure radio audience share. Many folks in the minority community think that the PPM undercounts minority listeners and has serious flaws in its technology. This later claim, at least, is circumstantially supported by the refusal of the Media Rating Council to certify the technology for use in some markets (but apparently permitting it in others). But since the MRC will not disclose the reasons for its refusal, and neither will Arbitron, no one can say anything for certain.

As an aside, I’ll bet it also undercounts low-power FM stations as well. I also have to wonder whether it counts the new digital stations for radios that have converted to digital. But I haven’t made a study of this and only minority broadcasters and organizations concerned with broadcast diversity have raised the issue in a major way.

You may think, “what’s the big deal?” Well, not only does millions of dollars in advertising ride on this, along with major decisions on programming, format, etc., but so does federal policy. Since we have basically outsourced all significant information gathering on mass media (because the private sector is so much more efficient and why would an industry reporter ever have incentive to manipulate the information?), the FCC now relies on Arbitron ratings for a wide variety of ownership rules and policy decisions. For example, the FCC rules prohibit the top four rated broadcast television stations in any given market to merge.

So the FCC has put out a public notice in response to a Petition for an investigation filed by a coalition of minority broadcasters and the Minority Media Telecommunications Council (MMTC) called the PPM Coalition (PPMC). (you can download the Petition here). The FCC can, of course, investigate anything it wants — especially where its rules rely on the validity of the Arbitron rating system. But does the FCC have authority to do anything about Arbitron’s roll out of the Portable People Meter?

Well, if you believe in FCC ancillary authority, then the answer is probably yes. Arbitron and its rating system are clearly ancillary to a variety of FCC statutorily mandated goals. And if the FCC can require Best Buy to put a big sign next to any analog-only televisions saying “Will Not Work After February 17, 2009,” they can require Arbitron to show they are counting everybody. OTOH, if you don’t believe in ancillary authority, it becomes a heck of a lot harder.

Still, as the study itself demonstrates, there is value even in investigation by the FCC and getting the FCC to issue some kind of report. At some level, Arbitron does have to care if people buying advertisements consider its products reliable. It would be even more embarrassing if the FCC concluded it would no longer rely on Arbitron data — something it clearly has the right to do regardless of any authority to directly regulate Arbitron. By contrast, if the FCC gives Arbitron a clean bill of health, it may not satisfy the PPMC, but it will enhance Arbitron’s claims of reliability for the broader market.

Credit to the FCC for getting this out on notice quickly. We’ll just have to see what comes of it.

Stay tuned. . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The FCC Starts Its Wireless Microphone Investigation. Will Broadcasters Throw Broadway Under A Bus?

The FCC has just released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing the problem of wireless microphone operations in the 700 MHz Band and how it may screw up the introduction of new public safety and commercial wireless services. It basically proposes to adopt the recommendations we made to prohibit any future manufacture, sale or importation of wireless microphones that operate on the relevant 700 MHz frequencies, and prohibit operation on those bands after the DTV transition in February.

Along the way, the Commission asks for comment on our informal complaint and Petition for Rulemaking. Oh yes, and the NPRM also announced that the Enforcement Bureau has commenced an investigation into the wireless microphone manufacturers and their sales tactics.

I wish I could take all the credit for this one, but I really gotta hand it to Shure. I’m not saying that Shure’s insistence on dragging FCC engineers out to field testing so they could see first hand the blatant way in which Shure and others violate FCC rules, getting all their illegal customers to right into the FCC by the thousands and regale the FCC with tales of unauthorized use all over the country, and generally rubbing the FCC’s nose in the fact that Shure and the rest of the industry were engaged in widescale violation of the rules over and over and OVER again necessarily had anything to do with this. I will merely note that it is a happy coincidence of timing that the FCC commenced its investigation the Friday following the field testing, and immediately thereafter put our Petition out for comment attached to an item already in the works. No, it is no doubt my good looks and charm once again bending the FCC to my will.

To the extent the industry press has picked up on this, it has (surprise!) assigned credit for this to the great Google Overlords. Mind you, the same article also thinks that wireless microphones “produced little or no complaints because their signals have traditionally been programmed to avoid TV channels,” so this will tell you something about the accuracy of their analysis. (For those wondering, wireless microphones are dumb devices and the user selects the channel. It has no sensing equipment or database or any of the interference avoidance tech proposed for white space devices.)

I would also say that much as I would love to see this as a sign that the FCC supports opening up the white spaces for unlicensed use, I don’t. The NPRM is very carefully neutral on the subject, without any statements from Commissioners one way or another, and voted on circulation (meaning it is non-controversial). No, I think the Register pretty much got it right when they described this as “having sold off 700MHz to the highest bidders last year, the FCC now has a responsibility to clear the area before the new tenants move in.” The ball on white spaces, whether licensed, unlicensed, or not used at all is still very much up in the air.

Mind you, this certainly impacts the debate over the white spaces, and potentially removes a stumbling block by providing a road map on how to address the wireless microphone issue in a way that punishes spectrum scofflaws like Shure while protecting users like churches deceived by Shure’s sales tactics (and give parties an incentive to come to the table and do a deal over real interference concerns before the FCC bites their patooties off). And I think it is fair to say that we did help move the debate forward by providing the FCC with the pathway to making this possible. But I would say that all the Commissioners are still waiting for the field testing results to come in before making a final decision on the merits.

What is really critical here for the white spaces proceeding is that the broadcasters now have to make a very unpleasant choice. Do they embrace the radio pirates and forgive Shure for unleashing a million illegal transmitters all over “their” spectrum? Or do they stick to their usual guns and condemn any unauthorized use of the broadcast bands as unmitigated evil and warn that sanctioning a million new authorized users — with new General Wireless Microphone Users added every day — could utterly destroy broadcast television as we know it? Either way presents problems for broadcasters — with the added bonus of highlighting their blatant hypocrisy. Embracing the likes of Shure and unauthorized users undercuts all the hysteria broadcasters have so carefully cultivated, especially when they have always maintained that opening this spectrum to anyone new would destroy free over the air television. OTOH, siding with the FCC on enforcement against Shure and warning the FCC not to allow millions of transmitters operating at higher power and with fewer protections in the white spaces destroys their ability to use Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry, and all those megachurches as human shields.

Needless to say, the broadcasters have desperately sought to avoid saying anything on the subject and have tried to spin this to their advantage: “Gosh, moving wireless microphones off Channels 52-69 will sure make it harder to fit in all them white spaces devices,” claims David Donovan of the Association for Maximum Service Television, a trade association for TV broadcasters that has fought against any sharing of the white spaces.

The problem with this statement is that, according to the FCC, there are only 156 licensed wireless microphones authorized to operate on Channels 52-69. That’s not a heck of a lot of crowding. Unless, of course, MSTV plans to support our Petition for Rulemaking and support creation of a General Wireless Microphone Service licensed by rule and open to the general public.

Mind you I expect that MSTV, like the McCain campaign, will continue to get a free ride on this from an obsequious broadcast trade press and a tech press that cannot get past the Great Google Overlords. But they are going to have to file comments on this at some point. And I imagine that, as they come in to lobby against white spaces, the good folks at the Commission will want their opinion on this separate but related matter. I’ll certainly be interested in rading those Ex Partes.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

We File Wireless Microphone Complaint: Shure Says Breaking Law Should Be OK If You Sound Good.

As regular readers will know, among my many wireless fixations are the use of the broadcast white spaces and the 700 MHz auction. So what happens when I get to combine the two together?

Answer: A 50 page complaint and Petition for Rulemaking, another 175 pages of evidence that Shure and other manufacturers have been marketing wireless microphones in violation of FCC rules, then using the victims of this deceptive marketing scam as “human shields” in the white spaces debate, and a possible road map toward solving the potential for massive interference with new public safety and wireless services operating on the returned UHF bands. As a side benefit, it also provides a route to authorization for the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of illegal wireless microphones, finds a use for that leftover 5 MHZ band in the AWS-2/AWS-3 proceeding (waste not want not), and potentially changes the debate in the white spaces fight by getting the goddamn fact that the overwhelming majority of wireless microphones are (at the moment) used illegally out in the open so people can have a rational discussion about interference protection.

Oh yeah, and it will require the wireless microphone manufacturers to clean up the mess by exchanging the old, unauthorized equipment for new equipment that doesn’t work on Channels 52-69. I love a plan that only punishes the guilty rather than letting the wireless microphone guys reap yet another windfall by requiring the unauthorized users to pay for their own equipment replacement.

And what was Shure’s response to the complaint? According to the Associated Press, Shure did not deny breaking the law. Instead, they said: “today’s uses of wireless microphones provide a valuable and irreplaceable public good, regardless of the licensing scheme.”

Or, in other words, “yeah, we broke the law — but it doesn’t matter because we will use Broadway and churches as human shields if you try to go after us” (insert international gesture of respect performed with raised middle finger at FCC).

You can see the press release here, and get copies of our complaint/Petition here. (Links to the Exhibits are on the press page.) You can see a bit more analysis from yr hmbl obdn’t below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Worsht Ex Parte Ever: I Gloat Over Latest D.C. Cir. Case on a Procedural Point

One of the constant irritants for me and others trying to follow what happens at the FCC is the problem of “the too brief ex parte.” Under the Commission’s rules (47 C.F.R. 1.1200, et seq), when a party meets with FCC staff on an open proceeding, the party is supposed to submit into the record a written statement providing a summary of the conversation. This is called a “notice of oral ex parte presentation” in FCC-speak, but we usually shorten this to just ex parte. By rule, the ex parte should provide a reasonable explanation of what took place so that a reader can get a sense of the argument made (although you can refer back to a previous filing to avoid repetition). In practice, however, you usually get nonsense like this piece of garbage from Alltel which wins the Comic Book Guy Award for “Worsht Ex Parte Ever.”

So it was with a considerable amount of schadenfreude that I saw the D.C. Circuit whomp Sprint/Nextel for producing crappy ex parte‘s that failed to provide a record of their no doubt numerous detailed conversations with Commission staff. This failure to leave a record resulted in dismissal of Sprint’s case and may cost it many billions of dollars.

More gloating below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

What Does Cablevision Want With Newsday? And Should I Care?

For a business supposedly on the edge of extinction, newspapers attract an odd assortment of newcomers eager to get in on the game. Real Estate billionaire Sam Zell bought Tribune last year, marking fresh blood coming into the newspaper and broadcasting biz. Now, as Zell sells off some chunks of Tribune to to pay down debt, it would appear another new player is poised to enter the game.

According to this story, NYC based Cablevision has beat out Rupert Murdoch for the Daily News. Unlike the Murdoch deal, this would not implicate any FCC rules and should not raise too many hackles on the antitrust side. Arguably it has an impact on the local advertising market, but hardly enough to make a difference. Besides, I’m not sure if there is any evidence that the newspaper advertising market and the cable advertising market are related.

What is more interesting is “why does Cablevision want Newsday at all? And should I care?” Cablevision has in the past tried to break out of its main business as a cable operator and dabbler in cable programming and owner of various sports venues and franchises. At various points, it has tried to launch a satellite service and was a bidder in the last two major FCC spectrum auctions (coming away empty handed both times). Is this a toe in the water to go into the newspaper business or a more limited foray?

It is interesting to note that a few years ago, Cablevision was sued by the Jets over an alleged effort to block the Jets from building a sports stadium that would compete with those owned by Cablevision. Among the charges, the Jets claimed that Cablevision routinely gave its own front group free advertising time on its cable systems to drum up support against the Jets’ stadium effort, while refusing to sell advertising time to the Jets for pro-stadium advertising. Owning Newsday will certainly give Cablevision a bit more political clout in its backyard should it find itself wanting to lobby local government again. While I don’t think that’s the primary reason for Cablevision buying Newsday, it does make for an attractive bonus from Cablevision’s perspective.

Unfortunately, I think only DOJ or the FTC will examine the acquisition. It doesn’t trigger either FCC rules or local franchise review. But this sort of impact on the diversity of news sources and the ability to leverage ownership of different media assets for political gain falls outside antitrust review — even in an administration that cares about antitrust. So for better or for worse, barring some new bidder emerging, I expect the deal to sail through easily.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

It's Nice When the FCC Listens Part II — The Cyren Call Investigation Is Out.

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 . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

So What Did Cyren Call Have To Say Now That The Curtain Is Lifted? Turns Out We Agree On A Lot.

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 . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Possible AT&T Shift on Open Access May Signal Seismic Shift In 700 MHz Auction

Until now, the existing incumbents of all shapes and sizes have presented a solid, immovable wall of resistance against any kind of “open access”/wholesale obligation attached to a license. In the context of the Frontline proposal in particular, carriers have railed against it as a “poison pill” that would scare away potential bidders and reduce the projected $15 Billion auction revenue to spare change and half a wooden pencil.

Which makes this tepid expression of possible interest in a Frontline “E Block” license despite an open access condition by AT&T Senior Vice President Robert Quinn Jr. epic news and potentially another major win (on par with support from Senator John Kerry and Presidential candidate John Edwards) for the forces of open access. According to the article — reporting on an interview Mr. Quinn gave to the Center for Public Integrity’s Drew Clark:

“It’s a different business model for us, but one that we’d be looking at,” Quinn said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity’s “Well Connected” Project. “If, in the end, that spectrum is attached to public safety, and for example there’s a wholesale requirement, we’ll take a look at it.”

AT&T is waiting for final FCC rules before deciding whether or not to place a bid. “Our position is that we need to see the specific rules the FCC adopts for the auction before determining our level of participation,” AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said on Monday. The FCC rules are expected by July.

That looks pretty tame, until one considers the speaker and the context. In spectrum lobbying terms, this is roughly the equivalent of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying that, under the right circumstances, he would accept an invitation to visit Israel and meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

More importantly, AT&T’s statement that it would consider bidding on an E Block license with an open access condition has significant implications for the debate about the auction itself. Statements churned out by incumbents and their think tank cheerleaders — such as this Washpo Op Ed from two CTIA consultants/think tank dudes — portray open access as so onerous that it will kill the auction revenue. AT&T’s statement that it would consider bidding on open access licenses demonstrates that such arguments are utterly bogus. Because if AT&T would consider bidding, you can bet your last cell tower that every other major incumbent would conisder it as well. What, sit it out and let all that spectrum go to a rival?

So why would AT&T even hint at a change in position, given how deeply this undermines the “absolutely no, never, you must be mad” rhetoric of the anti-open access opposition? For wild speculations, see below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC, Hartford and Tribune

For them what follow media ownership at the local level, the recent doings in Hartford offer an interesting opportunity for some tea-leaf reading about how the FCC will address these issues. I’ll preface by saying I haven’t actually talked to anyone at the FCC about the case, so all this is just my educated guesses. But what’s life without speculation in an ignorance of actual facts . . .

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