Tales of the Sausage Factory

What Next For The FCC? Beats the Heck Out of Me — So I'll Just Describe the Terrain.

A favorite Washington sport has become trying to out think the Obama transition team. I occasionally get asked about this or that possible pick, or what I think the FCC is likely to do on this or that, issue. I do not have a friggin’ clue.

Certainly I’m happy with some moves. I wildly applauded the appointment of Susan Crawford and Kevin Werbach to the FCC transition team, and am equally happy to see them joined by Dale Hatfield. Similarly, the policy review team has a number of names I recognize as strong thinkers who both understand the policy issues and have a good idea where the bodies are buried here in DC. But none of this tells me anything specific about what the Obama Administration or the FCC might do.

Nor do I put much stock in the daily news articles suggesting this or that candidate is in the running for Chairman. The Obama team has demonstrated a capacity to hold information tight to the chest. Nor do I wish to push any particular candidate. As I like to point out, when the Communist Party wanted to destroy someone back in the Red Scare days, they would praise them in their official publications. I expect that any candidate I favor will be the target of serious opposition from incumbents who would find my approach and priorities less than pleasing.

Mind you, I still think it is important for folks in the media reform and progressive communities to make their preferences known — especially on policy issues and what we think priorities ought to be. It is very nice that the Obama folks appear predisposed to agree on many issues such as network neutrality and media consolidation. But whoever gets appointed to the FCC (or other critical posts) will face a veritable army of folks all armed with excellent reasons why their issue of choice needs to go to the top of the priority list and how this exactly fits with Obama’s stated goals. Anyone who thinks that electing the right people means we can go home and let them figure it out for themselves needs to seriously think again.

But I can describe one thing with some certainty, the terrain at the FCC. Or, more accurately, I can describe the uncertainty around that terrain and how it will likely effect policy. In addition to the power to designate the Chairman, Obama may be looking at appointing no commissioners (very unlikely), one commissioner (reasonably likely), two commissioners (also likely), or three commissioners (unlikely). This uncertainty makes it very hard to predict what happens with the FCC next year. To add to the lack of clarity, the DTV transition occurring in February will pretty much suck up all the attention for the first two months — possibly more if it goes really badly. Add to this the significant turn over in both the House and the Senate Commerce Committees, with accompanying likely changes in staff, and you have a cloud of uncertainty powerful enough to obscure any crystal ball.

I explore these possible scenarios below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Matt Stoller Interviews Me Over On OpenLeft

As anyone reading the sidebar can tell, I’m a big fan of the folks over at OpenLeft. So I was extremely happy when Matt Stoller asked to interview me on what the November 4 white spaces vote at the FCC means for the future of media and telecom policy.

You can find the interviews here:

Day 1: Broadband and Breaking Up Telecom/Cable/Broadcast Monopolies.

Day 2: Real Use Anywhere ‘Skype-style’ Phone In The Offing.

I have no idea if the Obama people — or anyone else for that matter — agree with me on this stuff. The views expressed in the interviews are my own, just like any other time I talk to the press. In particular, I am pretty sure no one else agrees that our priority should be to “crush monopoly incumbents, drive them before us, and hear the lamentations of their shareholders.” “have a strong national broadband policy that includes federally funded fiber-to-the-home and greater access to federal spectrum for intelligent devices.”

But I hope we can persuade them to agree with me.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Assessing A Rather Complicated Result — But Not A Disaster As Some Maintain.

The intervention of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is celebrated by getting drunk until you cannot tell the difference between Verizon winning the C Block and Google winning the C Block, kept me from posting sooner. I would have held off until I could give more details, but there are so many people rushing to call it a disaster that a few words need to be said here.

O.K., Google didn’t win, but Echostar did, giving me a .500 batting average in prophecy against the conventional wisdom. I’m not covinced that Echostar winning gives us a third pipe (Martin’s suggestions about combining this with other spectrum assets to the contrary). But even if not, it is important for keeping Echostar competitive with cable and with DIRECTV (which will have an advantage in programming assests). I shall try to do a more detailed analysis of Echostar and what the E Block does for them in a future post.

It is also interesting to note that some non-incumbents like Cavtel picked up licenses, although I am not as enthusaistic about this for competition as Martin was at the press release.

That said, I do not see how the rules could have been structured any better without barring Verizon and AT&T from playing. While we might have done better for new entrants after all with smalled licenses rather than REAGs, as demonstrted by Echostar doing an end run to assemble a near national footprint after they begged and pleaded to have the FCC offer a national license, I can’t say for sure (I’ll have a longer discussion on this later, and I expect Greg Rose will have some things to say on his blog once he has crunched the numbers). My preliminary conclusion is that Verizon (and to a lesser degree AT&T) was simply determined to get the spectrum it wanted and did not let anything stand in its why. The fact that Verizon paid $9 MHz/Pop for a B block license for Chicago, and that Verizon and AT&T spent over $16 billion of the approximately $19 billion raised should tell anyone who cares about the reality all they need to know. Verizon and AT&T were not “bargain hunting.” They were at each other’s throats and cutting out anyone who dared to get in their way. The only way to stop them was to keep them out entirely, and there was not a heck of a lot of support for that from the Hill or at the FCC beyond the Dems.

I think Commissioner Adelstein gives a fair assesment when he says we won on revenue and openness and lost on diversity and competition. But again, the only way we could have done any better was by adopting auction rules that banned Verizon and AT&T from playing and by using aggressive means to address minority and women ownership (as MAP requested as early as March 2006). Perhaps now Congressional Democrats will add their voices to those of Commissioners Adelstein and Copps on restoring the minority bidding credit and supporting incumbent exclusions or — at a minimum — restoring the spectrum cap.

As it was, thanks to anonymous bidding, Echostar was able to do an end run and acquire a national footprint — something previously denied to it in the AWS Auction in 2006. And, while AT&T and Verizon got most of the licenses, they had to pay through the nose to get them — rather than sopping them up dirt cheap as happened in the AWS auction (where licenses equivalent to the A & B block licenses went for 45 cents MHZ/pop not $9 MHZ/pop). This auction attracted more new bidders and more minority bidders than previous auctions, so the field was ripe for a success on these fronts. But they were simply outspent by Verizon and AT&T.

To conclude, unlike the utter failure of the AWS auction (which everyone else hailed as a success — despite the incumbents winning more licenses for less money), this auction produced some very positive results. But it also shows us the limit of what purely competitive auctions will do. Neither this auction nor freeing more spectrum for future auctions, on their own, will provide us with a third pipe or introduce new competitiors in wireless. The advanatges enjoyed by incumbents in a relatively mature industry (as opposed to back in the early/mid-1990s when the first auctions were conducted) are simply too great to overcome just by “leveling the playing field.”

Finally, one last question remains: Why didn’t Qualcom drop their bid on D Block? Why did they tie up all that eligibility, instead of using it to go after more E Block licenses? For us spectrum geeks, this is the equivalent of asking Why did the Minbari surrender at the Battle of the Line (best answer from a friend of mine: “turns out Echostar bidders have Qualcom souls”). Did Qualcom hope they could keep the D Block for such a low price? Did they wish to avoid a penalty for dropped bids by the time they realized no one would bid on D Block? Hopefully, we will find out.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

That's It! The 700 MHz Auction Is Ovah ! On to Tasting And Judgment . . . .

At long last, the FCC went three rounds without any new bids and declared Auction 73 (better known as Battle 700 MHz) closed. You can see the final provisional winning bids on the FCC’s Auction 73 page here.

Of course, we are all waiting to see who won what licenses, particularly C Block. But we have some preliminaries to go through first. Most importantly, the FCC has to make a decision on whether to sever the D Block from the Auction so that it can investigate what happened, especially the allegations around Cyren Call and Morgan O’Brien.

Even with the information available, Auction 73 has clearly succeeded on a number of key fronts. Unsurprisingly, I am inclined to credit anonymous bidding with the enormous surge in value for the licenses. Even if incumbents ended up walking away with the lion’s share of the licenses, at least they paid market value for a change (as opposed to the AWs auction, where they picked them up dirt cheap). I also note that at the end of the day, the FCC has only 8 unclaimed licenses (compared with 35 for AWS). As Greg Rose observed previously on his blog, there is good reason to believe we saw a lot of new people bidding.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the auction brought in new competitors or if, as the conventional wisdom predicted, AT&T and Verizon walked off with the big prizes. In particular, we all wait with baited breath on who won C Block.

Finally, two points on D Block. First, even if the experiment failed, that did not make it a dumb move. Babe Ruth used to lead the league in home runs and strike outs, because you can’t hit home runs unless you swing at a lot of pitches. With the FCC trying to satisfy the mandate of Congress to promote a national interoperable public safety network, but with insufficient spectrum allocated and with insufficient funds to build it. So the Commission tried to think outside the box and took a chance. turns out — for reasons still unknown — it did not work out.

Always punish innovators if things don’t go exactly right and you run out of innovators damn quick. Anonymous bidding was also an innovation. So is the open device condition. Before folks rush out to buy stink bombs to lob at Martin and the other Commissioners over D Block, consider if we want the next FCC reduced to such political timidity that we always get the same auction rules again and again and again, because the price of innovating is too high.

Second point: the FCC has a silver lining here. With the auction over, the FCC has fulfilled its statutory obligation to hold an auction commencing by January 28. Not only can the FCC take the time it needs to consider what to do, it can also consider other solutions besides trying to fix up D Block or even auctioning it off the highest bidder. That could include non-exclusive licenses, real time auctions, or even an unlicensed commons — if that would best serve the public interest.

I’m not saying what the best solution for D Block is, because we don’t know enough yet. It will depend on a lot of factors, such as who won the other licenses and how much stomach the FCC has to innovate. But I’m hoping that the FCC and others, when assessing Auction 73, will consider the successes as well as the D Block failure. Otherwise, they will vote to do the politically safest thing. Not a result I’d like to see.

stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Senator Pryror Angry At Right Problem, But Picks Wrong Solution.

UPDATE: On reflection, I’ve decided to modify the tone of this considerably. After all, when someone basically agrees with you (the incumbents have too much market power), slapping them around for relying on the press is a pretty stupid and counterproductive move. Besides, my real frustration is with the press for offering up speculation as if it were fact, not Pryor for reading the press and getting upset about the supposed failure of the auction to produce a new competitor. So with apologies to Pryor for needless snark the first time around, here we go again.

Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark) is upset with reports that AT&T or Verizon probably won C Block. More specifically, he is angry that we don’t have more wireless competition. That’s good. But he accusses Kevin Martin of fixing the 700 MHz auction to benefit the telcos. That’s where he goes wrong, in my opinion. As I’ve said before, I don’t think Martin rigged this for the telcos, especially in light of Verizon’s persistent efforts to get the C Block conditions “clarified” away and Martin’s telling them to go take a hike. Further, adoption of the anonymous bidding rules means that we don’t know yet who won the licenses. We may very well be surprised when we see the results.

But if it turns out that, as predicted, the incumbents did win the lion’s share of the licenses, that doesn’t make the outcome Martin’s fault. Rather, Senator Pryor should direct his anger where it belongs — at the statutory requirement for the FCC to auction licenses for use of the public airwaves. As I explain below, and as many of us explained before the auction, incumbents enjoy real advantages even under the best of conditions because they don’t have additional costs new entrants have — like building the network from scratch or pulling customers away from a service they already use. To make matters worse, Senator Pryor’s Republican colleagues are constantly haranguing the FCC to “not pick winners” and objecting to any kind of mechanism that could neutralize these incumbent advantages.

We can’t have it both ways, and Congress makes the call. Either Congress eliminates auctions, or allows the FCC to exclude incumbents from the auction, or gives up on auctions as a way of generating competition and goes back to regulating market power directly. But blaming Kevin Martin and the FCC for the fact that incumbents keep winning auctions makes as much sense as blaming Bud Selig for the fact that the Yankees and the Red Sox always make the playoffs and the Nationals haven’t gotten to the World Series.

More below . . . .

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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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Econoklastic

700 MHz: More Evidence for Success of Anonymous Bidding Rules

I’d like to reiterate what fellow Wetmachiner Harold Feld wrote yesterday: the telecoms incumbents’ claims of problems arising from anonymous bidding are nonsense, part of a campaign to sow disinformation lest Auction 73 (700 MHz) and its success persuade the FCC to permanently adopt anonymous bidding rules for its auctions.

I call your attention to this table, which compares the number of bids on each license in B Block in rounds 1-26 of Auction 73 to the number of bids on each comparable CMA in Auction 66 (AWS-1) in rounds 1-26 of that auction. Note that in general the smaller the CMA number, the larger the population of the CMA (e.g., CMA001 is New York City and its immediate environs, CMA002 is the Los Angeles area, etc.).

What is striking about the data presented in this table is threefold. First, significantly more bids are being placed in general in rounds 1-26 in Auction 73 than in Auction 66. Second, extraordinarily more bids are being placed on the smaller and intermediate-size CMAs in Auction 73 than in Auction 66. Third, a much smaller percentage of licenses are receiving no bids in the first 26 rounds in Auction 73 than in Auction 66.

I am hard put to find an explanation of this extraordinary increase in competition, particularly for the smaller and intermediate-size licenses, which does not involve the effects of anonymous bidding. I suggest that the data, even though they do not disclose bidder identities, are entirely consistent with a more vigorous presence of new entrant and non-incumbent bidders who are protected from retaliatory and blocking bidding by large incumbents by anonymous bidding and are, therefore, more willing to engage in strong competition.

The telcos and cablecos can wail and moan to Communications Daily about the “risks” of anonymous bidding to the FCC, but the principal risk of anonymous bidding seems thus far to be the risk that fat-cat telecoms incumbents won’t be able to get all the spectrum in this auction by their usual bullying and exclusionary tactics. There’s no risk at all to the treasury — revenue from the auction is already wildly exceeding pre-auction projections — and there’s no risk that competition will be wan, as the data presented here amply demonstrate.

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Econoklastic

700 MHz: Indirect Evidence for More New Entrant/Non-Incumbent Activity

I can’t prove it, but the following table is suggestive that there is significant new entrant/non-incumbent activity over a wide range of licenses, most strikingly in B Block. This table tracks numbers of bids per license by block (and the licenses are further sorted by total number of bids per license) over rounds 1-26 (round 27 will open on Monday).

What is interesting is that there are large numbers of bids on a wide variety of licenses of differing population sizes. Since the incumbents traditionally focus on the higher population area licenses in each block, the relatively high levels of competition over licenses of significantly differing population size suggests that anonymous bidding has emboldened new entrants and non-incumbents to compete more intensely than in earlier auctions (which also accounts, in part, for the larger revenue stream indicated by the higher provisionally winning bids).

It’s not much evidence, but it is an interesting datum, and it appears to show a pattern consistent with higher levels of competition over a wider range of licenses.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz: Notes From The Spectrum New Hampshire Primary, C Block Not Dead Yet

Everyone remember how Clinton was dead after Iowa? Now who remembers two weeks ago, or even last week, when analysts wrote off the 700 MHz auction as doomed due to credit crunch? But, other than D Block’s utter failure to move (and regular readers will know my opinion of why that happened), the auction has proven a success by every measure we can obtain so far. Sadly, however, the key measures are not yet in, and won’t be until after the auction is over. Which is why, despite C Block exceeding it’s reserve price, I caution folks that we are still at the equivalent of just after the New Hampshire primaries and that any speculation about the important points of the outcome remain unresolved.

Here’s what we know for sure now:

1) The current take now stands at over $14 b. This not only exceeds the $10 b that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated, it will exceed the “wildly successful” 2006 AWS auction (which grossed about 13.9 b). A, B, and C blocks have all met their reserve prices, with the most contentious fighting in certain high value markets B block.

2) Because C Block has met its reserve price, it will not be reauctioned and the open device conditions will go into effect.

So the auction is clearly a success from Kevin Martin’s perspective (again, with the exception of D Block, which is a special case). While those like Commissioner McDowell can argue that C block might have fetched more without conditions, $4.7 billion is nothing to sneeze at. And it is clear that the aggressive build out conditions did not scare bidders away from A and B block, so (assuming the FCC is serious about enforcement) we should see increased deployment of services into rural regions.

What we still don’t know is whether the new auction rules gave new entrants a real chance to win spectrum, or (as the conventional wisdom had it) will incumbents Verizon and AT&T end up capturing the lion’s share of the spectrum (albeit at higher prices, owing to the introduction of anonymous bidding). That we cannot know until after the anonymity lifts when the auction ends (which, if the FCC chooses to reauction D Block under the rules proposed for reauctioning the other blocks, might not be for several months yet). Much depends on the identity of the current C Block holder. Is it Google? Verizon? Some other deep pockets like AT&T or Echostar, or perhaps the mysterious Vavasi NexGen Inc.? And is C Block settled? If the package bidder in round 17 knocked off the previous high bidder, then the previous high bidder will need to respond fairly soon or it will start losing its eligibility (bidding chips) and no longer be able to challenge.

If it turns out the incumbents capture most of the spectrum, I will need to eat a huge plate of crow and tip my hat to Commissioner Adelstein and Publius at Obsidian Wings, both of whom fretted that only Verizon could win a huge block like C Block and that we would get more new entrants by slitting the spectrum up. OTOH, if the Great Google Prophecy comes true, I will become insufferably pleased with myself for at least a month.

But, rather than pull a Tweety Bird and start treating my own speculation in the absence of data as fact, I will simply say —

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

The 700 MHz Band Auction, Part IIIb: More Mid-Range Competitors

Once again let’s begin our analysis of strategic options for major actors in Auction 73, 700 MHz Band, with a look at the footprints established by many of those actors in two previous Lower 700 MHz auctions (Auction 44 and 49) and the AWS-1 auction (Auction 66):
Cellular Market Areas (CMA) Map for Auction 44
Economic Area Groupings (EAG) Map for Auction 44
Cellular Market Areas (CMA) Map for Auction 49
Economic Area Groupings (EAG) Map for Auction 49
Cellular Market Areas (CMA) Map for Auction 66
Economic Areas (EA) Map for Auction 66
Regional Economic Area Groupings (REAG) Map for Auction 66

The Mid-Range Competitors (Continued)

Cablevision is bidding as CSC Spectrum Holdings LLC. In Auction 66 it bid as Dolan Family Holdings and got creamed by incumbent blocking bidding. Cablevision unsuccessfully bid on two EAs, AW-BEA010-B (NYC-Long Is. NY-NJ-CT-PA-MA-VT) and AW-BEA010-C (NYC-Long Is. NY-NJ-CT-PA-MA-VT), and the following CMAs: AW-CMA001-A (New York-Newark, NY-NJ), AW-CMA042-A (Bridgeport-Stamford-Danbury CT), AW-CMA062-A (New Brunswick-Perth Amboy NJ), AW-CMA070-A (Long Branch-Asbury Park NJ), AW-CMA144-A (Orange County NY), AW-CMA151-A (Poughkeepsie NY), AW-CMA551-A (Ocean NJ), and AW-CMA552-A (Sussex NJ). Cablevision unsuccessfully sought all three licenses for the Northest REAG: AW-REA001-D, AW-REA001-E, and AW-REA001-F. The pattern is straightforward: replicate the footprint of their cable service in the NY-CT-NJ region in the A and B Blocks and try for one of the Northeast REAGs. Cablevision didn’t get it in AWS-1 and it has to do well in Auction 73 or its triple play options are seriously curtailed. Anonymous bidding helps Cablevision only a bit, because the chief competitors know exactly where they have to bid and it is prime spectrum in the richest market in America.

More below…

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