Tales of the Sausage Factory

Wireless Bureau Wisely Decides To Not Play Referee In 3.65 GHz Band

I have a fondness for the 3.65 GHz band for a number of reasons. In the first place, I was heavily involved in the the fight over the rules. For another, it seems to be filing an important niche in the wireless broadband ecosystem. So I was pleased when the FCC’s Wireless Bureau resisted the invitation to get involved in interference disputes in the band. OTOH, it also highlights the value of having a referee with jurisdiction in case something does go wrong.

I know I’m getting to this late, as the decision came out at the end of December, but it’s been a busy time. More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Brief Update on Wireless Microphones: Where Mike Marcus and I Disagree

As Mike Marcus pointed out in the comments on my previous wireless microphone piece and on his blog, he and I disagree on the advisability of allowing prisons to jam cell phone communication.

Let me begin by saying that Mike has both tremendous engineering chops as well as a thorough understanding of the FCC and the politics therein. He worked there for some ungodly amount of time in the Office of Engineering and Technology, and was a critical force in pushing the 1989 rule changes to Part 15 that made the unlicensed revolution possible. His comments are not to be taken lightly here.

Where Mike and I disagree is not so much on the primary data but on how much weight to assign things. This is not uncommon in the messy world of policy, and is why even people generally aligned with one another can disagree strongly on important matters of policy (and why I hate the tendency for people to start calling each other nasty personal names over such disagreements). That’s why it’s important to see where and how we disagree.

In addition to his blog post, Mike also consulted for the state correction facilities on their Petition for Rulemaking (“Prison jamming Petition” or “PJP”). Read through that and his blog post and we come up with the following:

1) We both agree this is a hard engineering problem. Whereas I am more skeptical (based on the folks I’ve talked to) that this can be done in a way that is effective, affordable, and without interference, Mike thinks it is possible for some prison environments. I stress this last because, as the PJP points out, even the most optimistic projection for the current level of technology makes it doubtful this will work in detention facilities in high-density population areas.

2) Which brings us to major point of disagreement #2, how much will this really help and is the trade off worth the risk. Mike readily acknowledges that this is no “magic bullet” that would solve the security problems. The question is whether it does enough to be worth taking the risk of interference and the risk that jammers will proliferate. I think no, Mike thinks yes. Part of the reason I think this is a bad idea is because my experience with bright line rules tells me that where you have so many people interested in cell phone jamming it is inevitable that whatever protections are put in place will be whittled away over time. In addition, in a messy field like engineering, we disagree a lot about how easy/hard it would be to neutralize jamming, a critical question on the cost/benefit analysis.

3) Finally, we both agree that the wireless industry needs to step up to the plate and work with detention authorities to make solutions other than jamming affordable for for prisons, and that the FCC needs to address the problem of charges for prison calls made under proper supervision.

I expect Mike’s well reasoned and narrow disagreement will be manipulated by those who want to exploit this for their own profit (yes, I’m looking at you CellAntenna). That’s unfortunate. I hope that the wireless industry and correction facilities can work together to develop real solutions to the problem of contraband cell phone use before Congress pushes through legislation that would do more for CellAntenna’s bottom line than it would for prison security.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Big Low Power FM Win!

Back in 2007, the FCC issued an Order to try to address some of the problems impacting the low-power FM (LPFM) service. You can find out more about how amazing LPFM is, and why Congress needs to pass legislation to remove the artificial restrictions on how many LPFM stations we can have, here on the Prometheus Radio website.

Briefly, LPFMs are very small, very local non-commercial stations that operate at 100-watts or less. The FCC authorized the service in 2000, relaxing the “third adjacent channel” (A radio station must be 3 jumps away from the next radio station) rule to permit several thousand LPFM’s to operate without interfering with full power station. The NAB persuaded Congress to reverse this determination with the ironically named Radio Broadcaster Preservation Act of 2000. That act prohibited the FCC from relaxing or waiving the 3rd adjacent channel spacing requirement.

A few years ago, it became clear that the several hundred LPFMs permitted under the act were in danger of being crowded out by full power stations. Because of what appeared to be an unrelated decision to streamline the process by which full power FM stations can change their market designation. As a result, an LPFM could suddenly find itself impermissibly close to a full power station and need to shut down. Or it might start experiencing interference and get drowned out. The Commission therefore issued an Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which provided some relief by making it easier for LPFMs to relocate on the 2nd adjacent channel, thus avoiding Congress’ mandate that the FCC not reduce or waive the separation distance required on the 3rd adjacent channel. This is not nearly as silly as it sounds, as the process involves a fact-based determination on whether there is actually any interference to any full power as a result of the move. Given how interference works, it is very possible to fit a LPFM into space on the 2nd adjacent without causing interference. Spacing is based on averages to make processing applications easier. Actual engineering can determine how to place a low-power tower to avoid interference. Mind, this would be easier to do if Congress hadn’t absolutely prohibited any waiver of 3rd adjacent spacing. But they did. Happily, however, Congress did not prohibit any waiver of 2nd channel adjacent.

The NAB promptly appealed, arguing that the FCC had no authority to alter first,second or third adjacent as a result of the 2000 Act. This, in turn, stalled the conclusion of the Rulemaking, since why finish a rulemaking if you don’t even know whether or not you have authority?

Today, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the FCC’s decision. It rejected the NAB’s argument based on the plain language of the statute and found that the FCC had rationally justified its decision.

This is extremely good news for LPFM, and for those communities lucky enough to have them. As acting Chairman Copps noted in a statement issued today after the ruling, the FCC is now free to move quickly to finish the pending rulemaking. And, of course, Congress should move just as quickly to pass the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, so that hundreds of new communities can enjoy the diverse voices of low-power FM.

My former colleagues at MAP — especially Parul Desai who did the lion’s share of work on this issue — deserve a huge shout out for this win. I should also mention that it was not a Democratic FCC, but Kevin Martin who brought the 2007 Order to a vote — and then voted with the Democrats against both his fellow Republicans to get the needed 3 votes to clear the Commission.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Broadcasters and Broadway Challenge White Spaces Order, Standing Hijinks To Ensue.

Unsurprisingly, the NAB and MSTV have filed a Petition for Review with the D.C. Circuit to try to get last November’s Order permitting unlicensed use of the white spaces overruled. As is the norm, the Petition merely recites the basics of jurisdiction and the general allegation that the Order is “arbitrary, capricious and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

Of perhaps greater interest, Broadcasting and Cable reports that a coalition of Broadway groups is filing in the Second Circuit.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

White Spaces Wrap Up: Exclusive Licensing, Or The Part 101 Poison Pill

As we enter the last 24 hours before the critical and transformative November 4 vote (no, not this one, the FCC vote!), a last battleground has emerged. While the broadcasters and wireless microphone guys have generally not generated any traction, a final possible hitch has shown up on the question of higher power for rural providers. While I applaud the sentiment, this has become the last ditch effort to sneak a “poison pill” into the Order by keeping alive the hope/fear of exclusive licensing in the band.

As I have long warned, the potential last-minute threat to unlicensed in the band would not come from broadcasters, whose interference claims have been discredited and who have stooped to rather ridiculous smear tactics, or even from wireless microphone manufacturers and their vast horde of politically powerful pirate users. No, I have always believed that at the last minute, the real flank attack against the public interest would come from the licensed wireless guys pushing for licensed backhaul.

Which is why I am unsurprised to find the last potential stumbling block toward the finish line, after five years of unprecedented testing and investment, comes from a push for some kind of exclusive licensing scheme, either as an immediate set aside in the existing order or as part of a further proceeding.

I call this the “Part 101 Poison Pill.” Part 101 of the FCC’s rules governs high-power point-to-point transmission links of the sort used by telecommunications companies for transmitting significant distances. Part 101 is different from cellular licensing, in that it can accommodate multiple users on a “first in time, first in right” basis. Whoever comes in later must protect everyone who comes in earlier, which essentially makes it a very high-cost game of “king of the mountain.”

What makes exclusive licensing, even the relatively more open licensing such as Part 101, such a poison pill for unlicensed?

See below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Wireless Mic Follow Up: Turns Out Public Safety Did Get There First

One may logically ask, if I am right about the wireless microphones being such a big problem for public safety, why haven’t the public safety folks complained to the FCC about this?

Answer: turns out they have. But, the public safety folks being quiet and unassuming, failed to make themselves heard.

Allow me to change that. The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, a federation of public safety associations, sent a letter to Chairman Martin asking that the FCC address the problem of wireless microphones back on June 30, 2008. i.e., about two weeks before I filed. While I wish I could claim that it was the NPSTC letter that inspired me, I had no idea it was out there until today. My conversations with the public safety guys were all informal and off the record. Still, as always when folks remind me I’m not an engineer (or an economist, or technologist, or any of the other topics on which I chose to share my humble layperson’s opinion), I am rather pleased to find a bunch of actual engineers that agree with me.

Mind you, the NPSTC letter asks the FCC to go a heck of a lot further than I have. NPSTC wants wireless microphones kicked out of the entire 700 MHz band. I, OTOH, think lots of folks can productively use the broadcast white spaces. Still, I do feel compelled to point out that wireless microphones do not have nearly the level of intelligence/sophistication being discussed for interference avoidance for the white spaces devices at issue in 04-186. Perhaps we should require wireless microphones to rely on sensing as well, or require that they consult an online database for possible new users in the band, or require them to acknowledge some sort of “permissive beacon.” Perhaps public safety entities like NPSTC should administer the database or beacon, and we should require wireless microphone users to pay for these services.

I mean, after all, we wouldn’t want to let these devices run around loose, would we? Think of the terrible interference that might cause. Unless these devices can meet the same rigorous standards that Shure and others seek to impose on unlicensed devices in 04-186, I don’t see how we can ask NPSTC to abide by circumstances that they feel place our public safety at risk.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

American Radio Relay League v. FCC, Why A Good Case Will Bring Confusion And Bad Results

I should be overjoyed with the D.C. Circuit’s latest case: American Radio Relay League v. FCC. First, it affirms the right of the Commission to balance between unlicensed Part 15 users and licensed users, even where operation of Part 15 certified devices/services will cause occasional interference to traditional Sec. 301 licensees. Second, it requires the FCC to publish staff reports on which it relies in their entirety, rather than merely including in the record the parts with which it agrees. Third, it requires the FCC to address proposals by commenters with something more substantive than “well, we’ve always done it this way, so we see no need to change.”

All good news, yes? As a legal matter, absolutely. But as a practical matter, I expect it to slow down movement on the FCC’s white spaces proceeding. Why? Because it was a reversal and a reversal almost always causes the good folks in the Office of Engineering and Technology to go into paralysis for a few months while they try to figure out what the new legal standard is now. That the court actually affirmed the critical part on respecting the FCC’s balance between Part 15 and traditionally licensed services is likely to get lost in the noise — especially as we can expect NAB and other white spaces opponents to dwell on the reversal aspect and ignore what the court actually said. And, in the short term, OET now has to figure out how to issue a report on the WSD testing that conforms to the D.C. Circuit’s standard of disclosure. While I, lawyer and advocate that I am, consider this simply an exercise in “tell the truth and shame the devil,” we can expect that opponents will press their own reading of the case and that OET (and FCC’s Office of General Counsel) will now have the difficult and potentially time consuming task of deciding on the proper interpretation.

So a good case in fact, but more delays while the agency digests its implications.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Verizon, AT&T & the $16 Billion Termites.

Imagine you just spent a fortune on some excellent beachfront property, only to discover some termites in the basement. Now imagine that the only way to get rid of the termites involves some toxic chemicals that may arouse the ire of the environmentally conscious locals. What do you do? Learn to live with the termites, or spray and tell your green neighbors to deal?

Oddly, Verizon and AT&T now find themselves in a similar mess — if we substitute “wireless microphones” for “termites.” Verizon and AT&T (As well as a bunch of other folks) just spent a boatload of cash on licenses in the reclaimed analog television spectrum. The FCC has rules in place to migrate the broadcasters — both full power and low power. But — as far as I can tell — no one has plans to migrate the wireless microphone folks, who operate on vacant channels in the band. While in theory wireless microphones are a secondary licensed service and notifying the licensees that channels 52-69 are off limits after the digital conversion, the situation is a little more complicated. As comments filed in white spaces proceeding confirm, wireless microphones are bloody everywhere — with huge numbers of users buying and operating them without licenses.

The NAB and the FCC have turned a blind eye to proliferation of unlicensed wireless microphone use (despite the NAB’s usually firm stand against unauthorized use of “their” spectrum), both because the wireless microphones don’t actually cause any interference with television and because the “unauthorized wireless microphone user community” (which sounds so much better than “pirates”) includes megachurches, Broadway groups, and other warm cuddly folks able to gather political support. Indeed, so great is the political protectzia for the unauthorized wireless microphone user community that the FCC is, apparently, requiring that unlicensed devices in the white spaces have the ability to sense and protect these illegal wireless microphone users. (Hence Google’s recent extension of an olive branch which NAB promptly grabbed and started thwaking Google over the head. D’oh!)

AT&T, Verizon, and the rest of the 700 MHZ auction winners therefore face a bit of a dilemma. They just dropped a bundle on the 700 MHZ, and damned if they want to set precedent by allowing a bunch of illegal squatters to use “their” spectrum. Heck, if they’d thought of it earlier, they’d probably have initiated a rulemaking to migrate the legal users.

In fact, under a fair reading of the rules, if the FCC does nothing, licensed wireless microphone systems may enjoy equal or superior rights to 700 MHz Auction winners. OTOH, no one involved is stupid about the politics, giving an incentive to maintain a low profile. If you don’t mind telling shareholders that the NFL may have superior rights in the spectrum you just paid $16 Billion for.

Meanwhile, for those of us happy to see the NAB and the wireless microphone folks get their comeuppance, while not weeping overmuch for the incumbent wireless winners, one word: SCHWEET.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Boston Tea Leaf Party

Those interested in a great eye witness account of what happened at the FCC hearing in Boston on February 25 should read fellow Wetmachiner John Sundman’s piece on the part he saw (including the reception afterwards). But after listening to the FCC’s video archive, reading the statements, and reading the coverage, I’m willing to read the Boston Tea Leaves and see where we are so far and how I think this ends up.

Speculation below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Assessing the 700 MHz Order Part V: The “Property School” Takes It On The Chin

In this final installment assessing the FCC’s Order on the 700 MHz auction approved at the July 31 Commission meeting, I want to conclude by placing this in the context of the broader spectrum reform debate, notably the Property v.Commons debate.

Short answer, the Property School really took it on the chin here. Not like this was a big victory for the “commons” school either, however, although the C Block conditions helped a smidgen there by reasserted the Commission’s right to regulate and the First Amendment value of open platforms. Actually, I’m talking about the invocation of Section 316 to move a licensee that was making it very difficult for the FCC to resolve the cross-border interference with Canada caused by the new band plan. In keeping with the extremely pragmatic nature of the Martin FCC, the Commission resolved a roadblock by calling upon its statutory powers and telling a licensee: “Sorry dude, you gotta move for the public good.”

This would be wholly unremarkable if some of us didn’t remember back to a distant time a few years ago when the times, they were a changin’, the ideology battles was ragin’, and partisans on both sides confidently predicted the end of “command and control” regulation. But change for anything with as much inertia as spectrum regulation does not happen overnight or even in a matter of years. It happens gradually, with many maddening ebbs and flows. And, as in the case of the stubborn licensee and shift to avoid interference with Canada, we rediscover why “command and control” is never quite so dead as academics, reformers, and others seem to think.

More below . . . .

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