Tales of the Sausage Factory

Dave Sez: “It's raining, and I can't watch Charlie Brown in HD.”

Some of you may remember my friend “Dave” who tried to get the $10 DSL deal from AT&T in ’07 when he moved to Sacremento. As I noted at the time, Dave does not get cable TV “on the grounds that 99% of the programming ‘sucks.’” Being a smart and technologically savvy fellow, as well as keeping up on all things media and telecom by reading this blog, Dave went and got his NTIA coupon and bought a converter box and did everything like a technologically savvy consumer should.

Did this bring Dave the wonders of digital television? Sadly, no. But let him tell you in his own words below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Jonathan Adelstein Totally Rocks!

It’s no big deal for a Commissioner of the FCC to go to a major trade show like NAB or the CTIA. It’s not even a surprise when Commissioners or their staff take the time to come to meetings of important constituency groups or proven political powerhouses. But who takes the time to show up to speak to a bunch of geeks and policy hackers from around the world of no particular political or financial importance? I mean, hearing about how folks in Northern India or Serbia or the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago are using unlicensed spectrum to massive improve the quality of life of their communities is nice and inspiring and all, but life is busy and time is short.

Which is why Jonathan Adelstein and his wireless advisor, Rene Crittendon, totally rock. Commissioner Adelstein and Crittendon came down yesterday to the Fourth International Summit on Community Wireless going on here in Washington D.C. You can read the gist of Commissioner Adelstein’s remarks here. I should add that I thought Adelstein’s speech as delivered was brilliant. He deftly drew together the important themes of wireless broadband, connecting people, human rights, and the benefits of digital inclusion. (If I can get a link to the speech or the audio, I will post it.)

After the speech, Adelstein stuck around to take questions and talk to folks. All in all, I think he and Renee ended up spending about two hours down here.

I have often lamented that policy makers in Washington rarely manage to get together with real people who are doing things. Even when folks come to town, it is a carefully managed “field trip” designed to maximize the effectiveness of presentation. It’s important, but it’s not the raw, unvarnished and not always polite perspective of scruffy tower-climbers and local community organizers.

No major policy initiatives, no big announcements. Heck, hardly a whisper of press coverage. But it means a lot when an FCC Commissioner and his advisor take two hours out of a busy day to come down and have an open conversation about things that people passionately believe matter.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Most Important Wireless Conference of the Year — IS4CWN '08

There are an endless number of conferences out there, many of them quite good. But there is one conference I never skip if I can possibly make it — the International Summit For Community Wireless.

Why? You won’t find billion dollar CEOs or announcements of major product releases or huge deals. This year, owing to its location in Washington D.C., there will be some very good speakers (such as FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein — one of the great friends of community wireless at the Commission). And I and fellow Washington public interest conspirators will be hatching our plots for the new Administration. But that’s not why this is, in my opinion, the most important conference I attend.

This conference is the biggest collection of people I know who do things — and talk about them without worrying about non-disclosure agreements. These are the folks providing wireless connectivity in urban neighborhoods were folks can’t afford DSL; or who have figured out how to store, share and tag local content on wifi network in a safe manner that transforms a hot spot from an access point to the internet to a source of rich local media. It’s where I can hear about the innovations in mesh or deployment that are taking place on a daily basis as people deploy systems and play with equipment and code. It’s where I learned about how a city in Chile is improving the efficiency of city services because they asked local people “what is your biggest problem that we can solve with a wifi network” and the answer was “empty the garbage dumpsters when they get full.” It’s a place to find out how people are changing lives with unlicensed wireless technologies, and coordinating better how to get that story told.

For me, it gives meaning to my work. Because what I do doesn’t mean jack unless it actually changes people’s lives. (You can see the speech I gave at the second Summit on Community Wireless here, and here the speech I gave last year here (feel free to skip the intro by Sascha, which contains reference to things that never happened and I was somewhere else at the time so it could not have been me anyway.) But for everyone else, whether you are a policy wonk who wants to see how spectrum policy changes people’s lives, or a technogeek looking for cool toys, or a venture capitalist scouting for the next Big Thing to come out of the weeds, this is the place to be.

Fourth International Summit on Community Wireless Networking
May 28-30
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
1200 New York Ave NW
Washington, DC 20005

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Ownership Limits: This Is The Jonathan Adelstein I know

OK, first, as our Great Hero and the real Favorite Son of South Carolina, Stephen Colbert would say: Martin as a true set of huevos grande. On Tuesday, when it looked like he was going down in flames, I opined that Martin wouldn’t risk touching cable again with a ten foot pole and wondered whether he would be relegated to the status of a “lame duck” Chairman. Boy was I wrong. Not only did fight his way back from a total loss to a partial win against the massed might of the cable lobby, but he has emerged determined to go on for another round in bringing cable market power to heel, and this time with no distractions about a la carte.

This time, it’s a vote on the proposed cable ownership limit. Under Martin’s proposal, a cable company may control no more than 30% of the total number of cable, satellite, or other “multichannel video programming distributor” (MVPD) subscribers. As usual, we in the media reform/diversity community have been pushing this for years and, as usual, the cable industry insists it is totally unnecessary, ilegal, fattening, and will mean that the terrorsts win.

So I take a moment to appluad Kevin Martin for his continued courage and willingness to do the right thing on cable, even while making a huge mistake on broadcast ownership. But perhaps more importantly, Jonathan Adelstein has jumped on this puppy and run with it. After the bitter disappointment of this past week’s cable vote, it is a much needed shot in the arm to see Adelstein back in his usual form as a defender of diversity and an opponent of market power. Not to take anything away from Michael Copps, mind, who as usual has a track record of opposing consolidation in cable and has worked with Martin on a host of issues limiting cable market power. I’m just saying that seeing Adelstein act decisively on this one restores my faith that while we may have disagreed on 70/70 (and as usual when these things happen, I’m the one whose right), it was an honest disagreement and not something more nefarious. So while I remain disappointed, I am no longer dismaly disillusioned or dismayed.

More below . . . .

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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

Hot Bi-Partisan Action On Cable Part II — All Eyes On Adelstein As Cable Vote Nears

So I spent a good deal of time in Part I explaining why 70/70, leased access, and the rest of it are necessary steps to curb cable market power. You can also see the back and forth between MAP and the cable guys on whether the 70/70 threshold is met (for those of us that actually care about the substance) either by going to the FCC’s Electronic Comment search page and pluging in the docket number 06-189. Or you can check out what my friend Greg Rose has written on his blog. Because regardless of what you think the policy is, there is an actual empirical question here that — if we required cable companies to submit real subscriber numbers to the FCC rather than letting them file whatever the heck they want without any kind of verification or standard system of reporting — we would be able to answer.

And, as we head to a vote on Tuesday, Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein remains the swing vote. As regular readers know, I defended Commissioner Adelstein during the 700 MHz Auction fights when some of my friends in the movement wondered whether Adelstein was taking up the cause of the wireless companies against the consumer. Then, my faith was rewarded when Adelstein came out in favor of wholesale. Even though we ultimately lost that fight, there was no doubt that Jonathon Adelstein was on the side of the people not the special interests.

But now we come to cable. Where Commissioner Copps has always been a clear and unambiguous foe of cable market power, Adelstein has always been more … nuanced. For example, when Comcast and Time Warner divided up bankrupt Adelphia cable, Copps voted against the merger while Adelstein concurred in part and dissented in part. Adelstein used his concurrence to extract a promise from Chairman Martin to reform the cable leased access process. So was this going along with big cable or shrewd realpolitik? At the time, and still, I argued the later, trusting that Commissioner Adelstein’s longstanding support for diversity and strong stand against media consolidation belied the rumors that he was “soft” on cable consolidation.

More troubling was Adelstein’s recent concurring statement with Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell on denying Comcast’s request for a waiver of the 1996 law requiring cable operators to create an open, standard interface for cable set-top boxes. But OK, Adelstein did vote to deny the waiver and was apparently chiefly honked off that Martin was cutting Verizon a break but not Comcast. While I might disagree (giving Verizon two years to develop compliance for a non-cable system when Comcast and the rest of the cable industry got ten years on the same excuse doesn’t seem that outrageous to me — given that there are real honest-to-God technical differences between FIOS and cable systems and CableLabs, which developed the cable card standard, is a cable industry operation), I can at least understand where folks might get peeved at Martin’s apparent favoritism between the telcos and the cable cos (more on that in Part III). And, after all, Adelstein did vote to actually enforce the law against the cable industry.

But still the same ugly rumors persist — Adelstein is soft on cable. Adelstein is looking for an excuse to avoid the vote. Adelstein wouldn’t vote against cable on Comcast’s fight with The America Channel except that Copps voted with Martin and ADelstein didn’t want to look bad. etc., etc., etc.

Washington is a cynical town. It’s always easier to believe that people are acting because they are owned by this special interest or owe favors to that industry than to believe that people are trying to do their best in a complicated world. I am an oddball in starting from a position that I give those on the same side as me and those on the opposite side the benefit of the doubt until I see something that puts it beyond doubt that a person is favoring a private interest or industry over the public interest no matter what.

So we come down to the wire on cable. I’ve fought the cable industry on these issues for the last 8 years, and I am a newbie compared to some of the folks in the movement that lived to see the vote on Tuesday. I believe that, as an objective matter, the 70/70 cable penetration benchmark has been met — and was met at least as early as 2005. I continue to believe that cable exercises market power over programming and subscription rates and that the FCC needs to address these problems.

And I believe that Commissioner Adelstein, like Commissioner Copps, cares about diversity of programming and protecting consumers from cable market power. At least, I believe it now. And I hope I’ll still believe it after Tuesday.

Stay tuned . . . .

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