Tales of the Sausage Factory

We File Wireless Microphone Complaint: Shure Says Breaking Law Should Be OK If You Sound Good.

As regular readers will know, among my many wireless fixations are the use of the broadcast white spaces and the 700 MHz auction. So what happens when I get to combine the two together?

Answer: A 50 page complaint and Petition for Rulemaking, another 175 pages of evidence that Shure and other manufacturers have been marketing wireless microphones in violation of FCC rules, then using the victims of this deceptive marketing scam as “human shields” in the white spaces debate, and a possible road map toward solving the potential for massive interference with new public safety and wireless services operating on the returned UHF bands. As a side benefit, it also provides a route to authorization for the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of illegal wireless microphones, finds a use for that leftover 5 MHZ band in the AWS-2/AWS-3 proceeding (waste not want not), and potentially changes the debate in the white spaces fight by getting the goddamn fact that the overwhelming majority of wireless microphones are (at the moment) used illegally out in the open so people can have a rational discussion about interference protection.

Oh yeah, and it will require the wireless microphone manufacturers to clean up the mess by exchanging the old, unauthorized equipment for new equipment that doesn’t work on Channels 52-69. I love a plan that only punishes the guilty rather than letting the wireless microphone guys reap yet another windfall by requiring the unauthorized users to pay for their own equipment replacement.

And what was Shure’s response to the complaint? According to the Associated Press, Shure did not deny breaking the law. Instead, they said: “today’s uses of wireless microphones provide a valuable and irreplaceable public good, regardless of the licensing scheme.”

Or, in other words, “yeah, we broke the law — but it doesn’t matter because we will use Broadway and churches as human shields if you try to go after us” (insert international gesture of respect performed with raised middle finger at FCC).

You can see the press release here, and get copies of our complaint/Petition here. (Links to the Exhibits are on the press page.) You can see a bit more analysis from yr hmbl obdn’t below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Worsht Ex Parte Ever: I Gloat Over Latest D.C. Cir. Case on a Procedural Point

One of the constant irritants for me and others trying to follow what happens at the FCC is the problem of “the too brief ex parte.” Under the Commission’s rules (47 C.F.R. 1.1200, et seq), when a party meets with FCC staff on an open proceeding, the party is supposed to submit into the record a written statement providing a summary of the conversation. This is called a “notice of oral ex parte presentation” in FCC-speak, but we usually shorten this to just ex parte. By rule, the ex parte should provide a reasonable explanation of what took place so that a reader can get a sense of the argument made (although you can refer back to a previous filing to avoid repetition). In practice, however, you usually get nonsense like this piece of garbage from Alltel which wins the Comic Book Guy Award for “Worsht Ex Parte Ever.”

So it was with a considerable amount of schadenfreude that I saw the D.C. Circuit whomp Sprint/Nextel for producing crappy ex parte‘s that failed to provide a record of their no doubt numerous detailed conversations with Commission staff. This failure to leave a record resulted in dismissal of Sprint’s case and may cost it many billions of dollars.

More gloating below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

White Spaces and the CTIA Game Changer

The idea of auctioning the broadcast white spaces, rather than opening them for unlicensed use, is not new. It started out as an NAB “poison pill” back in 2005, when we looked like we might be making progress on getting a pro-white spaces amendment in the DTV transition bill that ultimately became the Digital Tranisition Act of 2005. When the FCC reinvigorated the proceeding in 2006, the NAB managed to get the FCC to put the question of licensed v. unlicensed in the Further Notice. But the NAB doesn’t want any neighbors, either licensed or unlicensed, and has focused its efforts until now on trying to kill the whole idea rather than on trying to promote licensing and auctions rather than unlicensed.

But the idea of licensing the white spaces for cellular or backhaul has gained new life recently, particularly after the 700 MHz auction. Both Verizon’s Steven Zipperstein and analyst Coleman Bazelon recommended this in their testimony at the House Telecom Subcommitte hearing on the 700 MHz auction. That comes on top of a serious filing by CTIA on the benefits of auctioning some of the white space and leaving a smidge so that unlicensed technologies can continue to develop.

We’ve now gone from NAB poison pill to serious issue. The proposal has not yet gained traction, but it does not do to underestimate CTIA and its members because, particularly after the 700 MHz auction, a number of its members really need that spectrum. This has the potential to change the game radically, including shifting alliances as the threat becomes more credible.

Analysis below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

This Week I Get My Wonk On, Next Week I Am A Free Man.

Passover comes late this year. It doesn’t start until Saturday night, April 19. Getting ready for Passover is a phenomenal pain in the rear end, because it involves all sort of complicated cleaning things. So this time of year is really busy for us true believer types.

Which is why the Good Lord has made it such a plentiful season for critical hearings. This week on Tuesday morning, I will testify before the House Telecom Subcommittee at the incredibly crowded second panel on the 700 MHz Auction aftermath. Then it’s out to California to catch the FCC Hearing on Network Management (official witness list still not posted, but my name turned up in Comm Daily on the short list).

Mind you, I am extremely happy to have the opportunity to testify before the House and all that. Indeed, given how much I’ve lived these things (especially the spectrum stuff), I’d be really miffed if I didn’t get a chance to speak my piece. I just wish it could be a little, y’know, less hectic.

At least I will be able to say with conviction at my Passover celebration “Now I am a free man.”

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: What Does The EchoStar Win Mean?

EchoStar getting a near-national footprint ranks as one of the major successes for the 700 MHz auction. Chased out of the AWS auction, deserted by its former partner DIRECTV, no one gave EchoStar much hope of winning anything significant (with the exception of yr hmbl obdn’t blogger).

But what does it mean? Can EchoStar become the broadband “third pipe” hoped for by Martin and others? Or is the conventional wisdom right that this is just about improving EchoStar’s subscription television service? Or is there something else at work here? According to the Wall St. Journal (subscription required), the same analysts that could not understand why Ergen would play, and did not believe he could win, now wonder what the heck he will do. Nor is the journal alone in asking this question.

My short version is: EchoStar cannot become a serious broadband provider with just E Block spectrum — particularly given the current service rules for E Block. But, as we all know, FCC service rules are fluid — particularly when licensees promise to deliver broadband services (the recent changes to the AWS service rules providing a perfect example). But even with favorable rule changes, EchoStar faces serious capacity issues if it tries to compete head-to-head with DSL or cable modem service.

Still, there are ways EchoStar can pull it out, especially if it focuses on rural markets with relatively poor broadband connectivity. While the E Block licenses don’t have enough terrestrial capacity to go head-to-head with FIOS or even the high-end cable or DSL services, it can provide a better option than dial-up or ridiculously expensive broadband currently available in flyover country and even in the exurbs. And then there are the perpetually swirling rumors of an AT&T/Echostar merger. Could the E Block merely be AT&T bait? More importantly perhaps, does even Charlie Ergen know what the heck his plan is? Or did he simply see an opportunity and grab it?

In advance of tomorrow’s lifting of the anti-collusion rules, when winning bidders will finally start talking about their plans, I offer my own speculations.

More below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Google Makes A White Spaces Concession.

In yet another chapter of “Why Citizens Movements Are Citizen Driven,” I think Google has conceded too much too soon in its letter today to the FCC. Briefly, in an effort to try to head off the persistent claims that the white spaces prototypes have “failed” and to move out of the wireless microphone trap that opponents of white spaces have used so effectively, Google proposes a combination of “beaconing” (give users of wireless microphones a low power gadget that mimics a dtv signal, thus denying use of the vacant channel to any white spaces device (WSD) in the immediate vicinity, as the WSD will interpret the channel as “active”) combined with setting aside channels 36-38 for wireless microphones, and requiring geolocation and a “permission to activate” signal from higher power stationary devices.

For reasons discussed below, I am not happy . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Quick 700 MHz Updates

First, we at PISC have sent a letter to the FCC asking the FCC to sever the D Block issues, announce the winners of the rest of the auction, and thoroughly investigate the allegations around Cyren Call and its pre-auction discussion with Frontline. (Martin has apparently already circulated something that severs D Block, so they can announce results as soon as the other Commissioners vote and the wireless bureau finishes the necessary housekeeping.)

Perhaps more importantly for the long run, we ask that the FCC take a hard look at whether to try to fix the public/private partnership or possibly do something else. The FCC has a lot of options here. And with the auction clearing over $19 Billion and the statutory requirement to start an auction before January 28, 2008 fulfilled, the money pressure and time pressure are off. We have time to have a public process and do it right.

Second, here is Kevin Martin’s official statement explaining why the auction was a huge success (and, by implication, why he did a bang up job getting this done). Martin, sensitive to the grumblings from folks who say that different rules could have gotten more revenue, included this handy chart showing that, on a pure revenue basis, the 700 MHz auction is the most successful FCC auction ever.

(In the reading the tea leaves department, I note that the chart subtracts out the D Block bid. And indication the FCC won’t just pass off the D Block to the lone low bidder? Maybe, but no surprise if that turns out to be the case.)

You can find Tate’s statement here. I have not seen official statements from any of the other offices.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

And Now for D Block

It’s apparent to anyone who has been following the 700 MHz auction that the plan to allocate spectrum for a nationwide public safety network which would allow a private company to deploy the infrastructure and sell access to the network to private users, who could be preempted by public safety users in an emergency, isn’t going to happen. D Block has miserably failed to reach its reserve price for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the apparent bullying of Frontline by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust’s agent Morgan O’Brien which led to Frontline’s withdrawal from the auction.

Fellow Wetmachiner Harold Feld’s trenchant analysis lays out the options for D Block. I have a few things to say on the matter as well.

A national public safety broadband system is a vital national security interest of the United States. The notion of handing vital national security infrastructure over to private enterprise is one of the worst ideas the Bush administration has ever had. It hasn’t worked well in Iraq and it’s a non-starter for D Block. Let’s drive a stake through the heart of the idea that private providers can more efficiently deliver a vital public good than government can. The FCC should simply shelve the D Block proposal until the new Congress is elected.

The new Congress should definitively decide whether a national public safety network is, as the 911 Commission opined, a vital national security need. If so, it should appropriate the funds for the federal government to build and deploy the necessary infrastructure. It’s what Dwight Eisenhower did with the interstate highway system. The 700 MHz auction has already raised nearly twice the projected revenue. Either a national public safety is needed or it isn’t.

Such a federally-built public safety network offers an additional benefit. There is little additional marginal cost to building a network which allows capacity to be used by others while allowing public safety to preempt them during emergencies. Such capacity could be offered at cost to municipalities for community wireless broadband networks. The presence of such a government-owned network would force the major wireless broadband providers to cease redlining rural and inner-city America, closing the digital divide, as well as provide partial reimbursal to the Treasury for the costs of building the network. We would have our third broadband pipe, and it would be a joint federal-state-local asset.

If a national public safety broadband network is needed, we should do it right and the government should build it, or the Democrats and Republicans in Congress should publicly admit that there is no compelling national security need. And if it is built, it should be built with the benefit of all Americans in mind, not just the profits of the corporate greed machine.

Probably won’t happen, for all the reasons Harold cited. But it makes me nostalgic for a visionary like Dwight Eisenhower (and those are words I don’t often utter).

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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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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Not Giving Up On The Great Google Prophecy

You can read a far more brilliant analysis by Greg Rose on why the punditry on the trickle of data from the 700 MHz auction is all wrong here. Briefly, Greg maintains that this slow convergence on the reserve price over several weeks of bidding is what to expect from a serious auction, and that the failure of parties to bid heavily on C or D Block in the early rounds with so much activity going on in the smaller blocks is a sign of a strong auction to come. Little players on the side are active for the specific licenses that they want, while the large bidders slowly stalk each other up to the reserve price on the major block.

For me, having stacked much on the Great Google Prophecy, I will cheerfully admit to being too close to things to judge objectively. But here are two tidbits of food for thought.

1) Google CEO Eric Schmidt made the evolution of the wireless net a centerpiece of his speech at Davos. How likely is it that Google CEO would hype the importance of wireless if they were not planing to win licenses?

2) Most analysts predicted Google would come in, bid the reserve price for C Block, and leave. They haven’t. So far, no one has bid the reserve price for C Block. Instead, the price has crept up gradually. Now it could be that Google will only bid high if it must, for fear of getting stuck with licenses it doesn’t want. But if that is the case, why show up at all? “To save face with the FCC?” Yes, but we will know after the auction when the identities of bidders and round by round information is revealed if Google never bid. So the “save face” excuse doesn’t really hold water. Rather, it seems likely that they are bidding like everyone else, i.e., like bidders that want to win.

Straws in the wind, perhaps. But no worse than the straws of data everyone else is trying to spin into gold.

Stay tuned . . . .

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