Tales of the Sausage Factory

Richard Bennett Invites Me To A Panel On Tuesday March 2

Back in October, Richard Bennett wrote a paper on why he thought network neutrality was particularly inappropriate — indeed, dangerous to the future evolution of — mobile internet access. On Tuesday March 2, his employer, The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation will be hosting an event to discuss the paper, mobile internet access and policy. He’s asked me to join Barbara Esbin from Progress and Freedom Foundation and Morgan Reed from the Association for Competitive Technology on a panel to discuss the issues. Should be fun.

Click here for the event announcement, which contains an RSVP link.

Stay tuned . . . .

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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

Congrats to Adam Thierer! PFF to Get Needed New Blood and New Ideas (But Don't Worry, We'll Still Disagree On Most Things).

Adam Thierer, long-time friend and opposite number in the Libertarian Camp, has just been named President of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, replacing Ken Ferree. Frankly, I hope Adam will bring a dose of new thinking tp PFF, since Ken Ferree has pretty much spent the last several years explaining at great length why everything the Powell FCC did was wonderful, rational, and the epitome of all that was right in public policy whereas Kevin Martin was a revisionist wanker and traitor to the Neocon Revolution. Much as I’m sure this was amusing for the participants, it did get old after a bit.

I expect Adam and I (and PFF) will continue to disagree on most things regulatory. But I have found in the past that Adam is an intelligent and engaging person willing to actually listen to what other people have to say before responding — and generally sticking to substance rather than the ad hominem or mindless talking points favored by too many here in DC. In other words, he is the sort of Free Market enthusiast/anti-regulatory advocate who makes me work for a living and is a necessary counterpoint to make any system work.

I wish him luck, but (if you will excuse me) not too much success.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

If Both Survive the Lirpa , We Will Continue With The Ahn'woon.

Alright Net Neutrality fans, policy wonks, and children of all ages. Bring your quatloos and tune your internet browsers to Von TV on March 11 at 2 p.m. to see THE ULTIMATE STEEL CAGE DEATHMATCH TAG-TEAM POLICY SMACKDOWN ON NETWORK NEUTRALITY!!!!

Yes! For the edification, enlightenment, and entertainment of the policy world, I, yr hmbl obdn’t blogger, with Comcast Complaint Co-Counsel Marvin Ammori of Free Press, will square off against Progress and Freedom Foundation President Ken “the Assassin” Ferree and Phoenix Center President Lawrence “Terminator” Spiwak on the burning issue of network neutrality. As House Subcommittee Chariman Ed Markey (D-MA) once said: “This is no country for old broadband.” And I, personally, can assure you, There Will Be Blood. (If by “blood” we mean some “civil but very intense, passionate debate”).

“Not since the last Latke v. Hamentashen Debate has so much intellectual fire power, passion, and eloquence been mustered in one place on a vital issue of public policy.” — Random Policy Person

“Great background while multitasking.” — Overworked FCC staffer.

“A fantastic series of debates for a fantastic series of tubes.” –Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)

So don’t you dare miss the action! Tuesday, March 11, 2 p.m., live on VonTV and absolutely free. I shall float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, as I and my co-counsel Ammori, make mincemeat out of Spiwak and Ferree!

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Operators Shocked…Shocked I Tell You…about Verizon Marketing Practices.

I may occasionally (O.K., more than occasionally) have some snarky things to say about the free market philosophies of my opposite numbers at places like CATO and Progress & Freedom Foundation. But what distinguishes them in my mind from industry shills and sock puppets is their ideological integrity. When they want everything deregulated, they really mean it. Not so the industry and its true sock puppets, who can spin on an ideological dime without the least regard for even the vaguest notions of consistency with their previous statements.

Case in point, this FCC complaint by the cable companies against Verizon for “retention marketing.” Mind you, these are the same folks that complain whenever the FCC even thinks about interfering with the “vibrant and competitive telecommunications market,” and who protest that enforcing the laws passed by Congress to require interoperable set top boxes and set a numeric limit on the number of subscribers they can have constitutes a “vendetta.” But, as usual, consistency is not exactly a strong point for industry. As I continually remind folks, industry does what is best for its bottom line, period. And here, it means using the big bad evil FCC to slap the telcos around.

Which brings me to the point I expound upon below. Too often, the industry gets to win by making this a fight about process and “level playing field” and confusing the issue. But what we really need to care about is what our actual policy IS. If we want to encourage competition because we prefer it to regulation of monopolies, then we damn well better make sure competition actually happens, which means subjecting the incumbents with market power (at least initially) to a very different set of regulations than the new entrants. For many years after the break up of AT&T, the FCC subjected AT&T to a set of regulations designed to keep it from using its position as the dominant long-distance carrier to prevent the new entrants like MCI and Sprint from attracting customers. The FCC did not worry if that was “fair” to AT&T to have different rules that prevented exercise of market power by a dominant firm. It said “hey, we want competition! That’s about economic policy, not about being fair.”

Mind you, I don’t expect my opposite numbers to agree. But they will at least have the virtue of consistency.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Reform Week At the FCC — And Why Letting In The Public Is Better

(Sadly, the original version of this got lost in the disk failure we had Tuesday. So this is a somewhat shorter reconstruction.)

With both Republicans and Democrats interested in reforming the FCC for their own reasons, it seems a perfect time to crank out a new white paper on reforming the FCC. As you can see from the press release, Common Cause and my employer Media Access Project have released a new white paper called Puting the Public Back In Public Interest: Painless Reforms to Improve the FCC, authored by yr hmbl obdn’t, fellow Wetmachiner Gregory Rose, and Common Cause’s Jon Bartholomew. Astute readers with good memories will recognize many of the recommendations from previous posts and writings of mine, including this from this speech I gave back in 2003. Most of these issues have festered for years, for all that they have gained recent notoriety.

In the same vein, I draw attention to Matthew Lasar’s piece, 5 Ways to Improve FCC.GOV, on his generally excellent FCC Blog Lasar’s FCC Letter. Lasar’s suggestions are good, and many of them are echoed in our white paper (although derived independently, great minds think alike and all that).

Coincidentally, a different piece by Matt, “Faux Celebrity Comments At the FCC,” triggered a serious question by Adam Thierer at the Progress and Freedom Foundation blog. Given that we have situations in which a single organization such as Parent’s Television Council is able to generate thousands of identical comments from its members, and that others are using fake names, and that there are even allegations that NAB submitted false comments fake brief text comments opposing the Xm-Sirius merger, or used deceptive means to get people to send in such comments, is there any real value in making it easier for the public to file brief comments? Doesn’t that just create opportunities for confusion and abuse, warping the regulatory process and shifting power away from the real public to the manipulators and unscrupulous?

Matt gave his answer here, in which he makes reference to what I call the “Alice’s Restaurant” rule of public comments: If one commentor says ‘my media sucks because of consolidation,’ that’s an outlier and you ignore it. If two people file, ‘my media sucks because of consolidation,’ then it’s just tree huggin’ liberals and you ignore it. But if two million people file such comments, that’s data—because we’ve demonstrated enough people care to at least make a minimal effort to express their feelings.

To amplify a bit, I would certainly like to see anyone who submits fake comments designed to persuade the FCC that people support a particular position when they don’t, either by forging their names and email addresses or obtaining these through deceptive means, should be subject to criminal penalties under 18 USC 1001. But I do not dismiss the ability of an organization to get its members to file a boatload of identical comments or complaints through a comment engine. This is the modern equivalent of the petition drive. In a previous generation, the determined citizen might spend a day in a mall parking lot or knocking door to door to get signatures on a petition in support of some candidate or in opposition to some law. Signing something in a parking lot to “send a message about global warming” or “show Washington you hate big government” takes about as much time and understanding as filling out the info in a standard “comment engine,” and tells us the same thing — a broad base of citizens cares at least enough to take a minute to send a message rather than just ignore it.

Policymakers have long experience with petitions and petition drives. They understand the difference between a petition with 10,000 names, 100 individual letters that talk about real life experiences, and the 5 people who take the trouble to actually call or make a visit to discuss their case. Each of these forms of contact provides a type of information, and decisionmakers weight it accordingly — or should.

In addition, as I went on at length after the media ownership vote, the entire regulatory process gains validity when the public perceives it has a meaningful way of communicating with regulators and can monitor the process. Taking brief text public comments in a a simple and straightforward fashion, and allowing the public to follow who files and how many people file, is an important aspect of this.

Finally, it reconfirms for those that have filed that they are not alone (or, perhaps, that they are), helping interested members of the public to organize and engage in discussion with each other. It provides a focal point for concerned citizens to act as citizens and make themselves heard in a way that goes beyond the mere ritual of voting. Even if public comments had no other value, it would be worth it for this benefit alone.

Which is why, I suppose, I’ve been such a fan of FCC reform for so many years. It’s not just about getting better data and creating a process that everyone perceives as more open and fair. These are important. But it is also about something more vital. Ensuring that in our modern administrative state, when so much of our government in a democratic society seems beyond our control, any means by which we maintain the vital link between the government and the governed is to be cherished and nurtured. It reminds us that we are free people in the land of the free, with both the right ad the responsibility to participate in the government decisions that matter to us. We are not spectators in our own lives, nor helplessly awaiting the decisions of others. We are citizens, from whose consent all sovereignty arises, and without whose consent sovereignty is tyranny. When we speak, the FCC (and the rest of the federal government) owes it to us to listen.

Stay tuned . . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Federal Trade Commission Gets in on Network Neutrality

As widely reported, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Deborah Platt Majoras announced that the FTC will look at network neutrality. In the same paragraph, however, she also expressed her doubts on the need for network neutrality legislation. That, combined with her choice of forum (Progress and Freedom Foundation’s Aspen Summit; PFF is a vigorous opponent of NN), the FTC’s natural bias toward post-conduct remedies rather than prophylactic regulation, and Majoras’ decision to sign off on the Adelphia transaction without considering the voluminous evidence collected by the FCC make me suspect that the FTC will conclude that Congress should take no action and that antitrust solves everything.

A bit more analysis below.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Stevens Bill IV –The Bad Stuff (Network Neutrality)

Finally, we get to this week’s big enchilada, Network Neutrality (or “NN,” as we policy wonks like to call it when we type it over and over and over again).

Many have opposed the Communications Enhancement Act of 2006 (COPE) because it would limit FCC authority to prevent abuses of market power by the few broadband ISPs in control of the “last mile”. Well, the Stevens Bill would not just limit FCC authority, it would eliminate it altogether. A dream for the telcos, cable cos and my opposite numbers at Progress and Freedom Foundation, a nightmare for the rest of us.

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