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

Quick On Cable: Martin and Copps Pull Out A Partial Win By Persuading Adelstein To Meet Them Halfway

Well, I’ll have a lot more to say over the next few days. And there were a bunch of very good Orders that came out on other subjects, like Low Power FM and mandatory disclosure requirements for broadcasters. But here’s the summary:

1) The Commission acknowledges that data about the 70/70 threshold remains unclear, and will therefore require that all cable operators must report real subscriber numbers, including all MDU subscribers, for 2006 and 2007.

OK, as regular readers will know by now, I think it was clear that cable penetration passed this threshold long ago. But since we at MAP have been asking the FCC to collect real data on this stuff from the cable operators since 2000, I am pleased with the ultimate outcome. Hell, I was telling Steve Effross of NCTA last night that I’d wait on the result to get real data from all cable operators so that we could do this right.

If I’m wrong on penetration, so be it. This is an empirical question and we should solve it through the obvious expedient of telling cable operators to actually report their subscriber numbers. Three cheers for Kevin Martin for having the courage to stand up to the wholly bought cable subsidiaries in the GOP, and three cheers for Michael Copps for pushing for collecting actual data from cable companies for years now.

As for Jonathan Adelstein. _sigh_ Yes, I’m still disappointed. I get that Adelstein doesn’t like being in the hot seat, that he thinks Martin is a — if you’ll excuse me — martinet who cooks the books, etc. etc. But he is just plain wrong on this one. As noted with copious citations in the MAP filings (see links in comments in previous post) the FCC has always relied on Warrens data and exclusively on Warrens data, which showed cable penetration hovering at pretty damn close to 70%.

And as for the much vaunted Cable 325 Reports that Adelstein and McDowell went on at great length about, I shall refer interested parties to the GAO’s analysis, with the lengthy but descriptive title “Data Gathering Weaknesses in FCC’s Survey of Information On Factors Underlying Cable Rate Changes.” And, as also mentioned in MAP filings, the FCC’s regulatory fees NPRM determined that cable gained 1.5 million subscribers in 2006. If we’re going to include all the FCC data, the fact that everyone (including McDowell and Tate) already voted to find that cable gained 1.5 million subscribers in 2006 should be included in the discussion as well.

But, at the end of the day, Adelstein voted to demand the cable companies provide the data and end this debate once and for all. That counts for a lot. Nevertheless, for me on this, Adelstein comes out of this a lot less like Han Solo and a lot more like Hamlet, spending five acts waffling and causing havoc before finally managing to stab the right villain.

As for Tate and McDowell — hardly a surprise. Given how thoroughly the cable guys appear to own the Republicans, the surprise is not that McDowell and Tate went with the cable boys but that Martin actually went ahead and defied them.

2) Leased Access: The Commission adopts a pretty good Order that will lower the rate, require cable operators to be more responsive, and generally force staff to get complaints processed quickly. Surprisingly, it took some convincing to get Adelstein to go along with this one, as the cable operator’s last minute complaint that they didn’t get enough due process struck a chord. (I love it that industry always discovers due process when they are about to get their comeuppance, but when it’s about shafting us the due process concerns go out the window.) Fortunately, Copps and Martin were able to broker a compromise that the FCC will stay operation of the new rate formula until after they process Petitions for Reconsideration. And surprise! Tate and McDowell dissented. McDowell’s comments about how leased access doesn’t work as an economic model run afoul of the fact that the record contains several examples of programmers that do make a go of it even under the existing abominable rules (such as CaribeVision). But when your “Mr. DeReg Guy” a little thing like facts will not figure into your theorizing.

A minor tweak. The Commission will not apply the new rate to home shopping channels, but rolled that over into a separate rulemaking. Given my general feeling on home shopping channels and the public interest, I can’t complain too loudly about this one. I don’t think it’s terribly needful, but I can live with it.

3) Section 616 Carriage Complaint: The process for independent programmers to file complaints with the Commission was up for major reform. It didn’t happen. Score a kill for the cable guys.

That’s the quick and dirty. I’ll try to have more over the next couple of days. But first I gotta take a little nap. It’s been a Hell of a month.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Get Your Brackets Set for Tomorrow's Spectrum Sweet Sixteen!

In the FCC’s version of “April Madness,” the FCC will hold a meeting tomorrow (April 25). Among other items, the meeting will consider an Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the upcoming 700 MHz Auction.

Readers who plowed through my impossibly long field guide to the 700 MHz auction may recall that I highlighted a large number of issues and players that have clustered around this extremely important auction. Many critical filings and proposals (including, I am embarassed to admit, those of the public interest spectrum coalition) came in after the official deadline. (Hey! We’re busy! If someone wants to give Media Access Project a million dollars or two so we can stay on top of everything, email me!)

The combination of far reaching proposals and lack of time has prompted incumbents to challenge the FCC’s ability to grant these proposals because they do not comply with the “notice” requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA requires that an agency give everyone notice of what it plans to do and give interested parties a chance to comment. So the FCC will solve this problem by making some basic decisions now, and rolling over the remaining decisions to a Further Notice. Since we have a statutory deadline ticking away, parties will get only a month for comments and replies, and the FCC will make its final decisions at the end of May or early June. That way, they can still get to the auction by January 2008.

In other words, Wed. represents the first cut on how the FCC will proceed and the general direction it will go for the auction. Will it favor the incumbent push for large license blocks and open bidding? Will it allow the Frontline proposal to go forward? What about network neutrality?

Below I give my “spectrum bracket” for who gets to go from the Sweet Spectrum Sixteen to the Final Four. What’s likely to get cancelled, get renewed, or remains on “the bubble” for next season? Which proposals get “voted off the Island?” For my guesses, and my further entries for the next Stephen Colbert Meta-Free-For-All, see below . . .

Read More »

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My Thoughts Exactly

Congressman Delahunt on Net Neutrality

I called Bill Delahunt’s office and sent him emails in support of net neutrality.

I received this response by email a few days ago. I’m entering it here for the record, without comment. I may comment on it later, and would be interested in what you think of it (espescially in the case where “you” == Harold Feld).

Dear Friend:

Thank you for your email message in support of net neutrality legislation.
I appreciate the benefit of your views, and wanted to take a moment to
explain my vote of “present” during last week’s consideration of the
Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill in the House Judiciary Committee.

First, I support keeping cyberspace free and open to all. As a member of
the House International Relations Committee, I’ve seen how the Internet has
made it possible to bridge cultural and political differences that exist.
As a father, email made it possible for me to keep in touch with my daughter
while she was working overseas in Spain – and helped me to make sure that
she was safe after the Madrid terrorist bombings.

Read More »

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

URGENT: TECH EQUIPMENT AND VOLUNTEERS NEEDED FOR KATRINA VICTIMS

Please distribute this broadly.

At 2 p.m., I participated in a conference call hosted by the FCC Chief of Staff on how network operators providing service with license exempt spectrum can assist in re-establishing critical voice, data and video service in areas devestated by Katrina.

Part-15.org is taking
the lead in organizing volunteers and donations of equipment from individuals,
WISPs and community wireless networks. Companies such as Cisco and Intel are
also heavily involved.

THERE IS AN URGENT NEED FOR DONATIONS OF EQUIPMENT AND VOLUNTEERS FROM THE TECH
COMMUNITY WILLING TO TRAVEL TO THE AREA EFFECTED BY KATRINA. Interested parties
can volunteer or describe contributions through www.part-15.org (there is a link
on the front page).

There is freely available software and instructions on how to convert a computer and wireless router into a mesh network node from the Champaign Urbana Wireless Network. Their website is http://www.cuwireless.net/

The FCC will remain open throughout the holiday weekend to address the crisis. Coordination efforts are ongoing, but part-15.org hopes to have a preliminary asset list for coordination with federal authorities by Noon Saturday 9/3/05. It would therefore be enormously helpful to hear from people who can donate equipment or time, even if they cannot provide the equipment or time until a later date.

Harold Feld
Senior VP
Media Access Project

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Inventing the Future

Inventing the Future: Jasmine release

Croquet is still being designed. Personally, I’d like to see something useable this summer, but that remains to be seen.

There is a “developer’s version” available now, called Jasmine, but there’s some confusion as to what Jasmine is in relation to the real thing. I’m going to try to straighten that out here.

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