Tales of the Sausage Factory

SkyAngel Files Program Access Complaint — Has Media Bureau Really Changed, Or Will They Again Sit On Sidelines?

Some people wonder why I remain so down on the Media Bureau. “Harold,” they say. “Why do you keep saying the Media Bureau are in the pocket of the cable industry? Aren’t they just all fired up and rarin’ to go on the upcoming cable set top box proceedings?”

Perhaps I am allowing the experiences of the past to cloud my vision of a hopeful tomorrow. Perhaps, despite an utterly abysmal track record on cable matters, the cable folks in the Media Bureau have now turned over a new leaf. Perhaps now they will at least process complaints in less than three years, so that companies other than cable operators might feel they get some due process — if not actual justice — at the FCC. Who knows?

Which is why I shall watch the developments around the Sky Angel program access complaint with considerable interest. Sky Angel used to distribute programming by satellite, making it eligible for the “program access” rules that require cable operators with affiliated programming to make that programming available to rivals. (I’ve written about these rules at length before here.)

From what I can tell from the limited data available, Sky Angel is now a “Christian IPTV distributor.” It resembles a cable/satellite-like service (or “MVPD” for “multichannel video programming distributor”) in every way except for the fact that it does not own its own facilities. It distributes its programming online. We generally call these things “over the top” video distributors. According to the Broadcasting and Cable story (since I haven’t been able to find a copy of the complaint), the Discovery Channel has decided to terminate its distribution contract with Sky Angel four years early — apparently because Sky Angel has switched its distribution model to become a pure over-the-top distributor.

My problem is, that this looks very similar to a complaint a company called VDC (“Virtual Digital Cable”) filed three years ago. The Media Bureau has yet to process that complaint, but there’s no rush — since the company went bankrupt and shut down while waiting for Media Bureau action.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

So What's Up With That FCC Investigating Apple and AT&T Blocking Google Voice — Oh Wait, They Aren't . . .

So while I was gone, Apple and/or AT&T turned down Google’s effort to get a Google Voice Application certified for the iPhone, so the FCC launched an investigation into the matter.

Except they didn’t. Not exactly. Which is extremely important on the delicate question of FCC authority. Actually, the FCC invited three companies involved in a very high-level spat on an issue pending before the FCC in two proceedings to provide them with useful information on how the market actually works.

I know, I know, this is all boring legal stuff that folks who care just about outcomes hate with a passion — or think is just cheap legal handwaving. But these things matter, both as a matter of law and and as a matter of policy. The fact is that the FCC is very carefully not exercising authority over anyone. The companies don’t even need to respond. However, if they fail to respond, they invite the FCC (and the rest of us) to assume the worst. Because allowing industry folks to foreclose needed agency action by simply refusing to provide necessary information is a crappy outcome we’ve lived with for the last 8 years (longer, really). Far smarter to invite industry folks to respond to questions, but decide that at some point you need to move with the information you have. Heck, if the FCC pulls that trick only once, I bet we’ll see lots more folks with relevant information willing to come forward.

So while I expect lots of folks to yammer about FCC authority on August 21 when the answers are due, they’ll be barking up the wrong tree. Won’t stop ’em, of course. But for those who would like a sense of what is actually going on from a legal/regulatory authority angle —

More below . . . . .

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Posted in Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

It's Always Nice When The FCC Listens

A few months ago, fellow Wetmachiner Greg Rose and I wrote a wrote a white paper on how to improve the FCC’s processes, make FCC rulemakings and proceedings more accessible to the public, and generally increase the legitimacy and reliability of FCC decision making. As one relatively easy change, we suggested the FCC post the agenda for open meetings far enough in advance that people can come in and make their last pitches to the agency before “Sunshine” (the period when communications stop under the “Government In the Sunshine Act”) kick in. As we explained, providing the agenda at the last second often advantages insiders who hear when an item is likely to go on the agenda, who therefore rush in while those who don’t know the item is going on Sunshine will lose their last chance to rebut arguments or press their case.

So it was pleasant to see Chairman Martin announce that from now on he will publish the likely agenda 3 weeks in advance. That should be a big help to everyone — including the other Commissioners, who will not suddenly find themselves with a week to digest an agenda of a dozen items.

Yes, it is a relatively minor change, but it is important in two ways. First, practical details really do matter. That sometimes gets lost in the fight over specific substantive issues. Second, it demonstrates a willingness by Martin to listen to criticism and take action — at least on the low hanging fruit. Such things deserve notice and suitable (although not overly elaborate) praise. Remember, public policy is made by human beings, and you get what you reward.

Stay tuned . . . .

Posted in Life In The Sausage Factory, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed

Tales of the Sausage Factory

David Weinberger's Excellent Piece On Structural Separation

Despite the efforts to make common carriage and structural separation of wholesale and retail services a forbidden topic of discussion (go read the piece Greg Rose and I wrote last year on how industry rationalizes policy by controlling the debate), the old and highly successful idea of structural separation for carriers continues to undergo a significant revival. For starters, the Europeans have recently embraced structural separation as a policy goal, and have consequently begun kicking our rear ends in broadband speed, price and overall adoption. For another, some of us do not forget that structural separation used to be the law under the Computer Proceedings, and that this old form of open access is what gave us the internet in the first place. Finally, the argument advanced that simply because we have more providers in the market, the underlying rationale for structural separation goes away, as always struck me as poor policy driven by ideology.

I am pleased to see that David Weinberg has now written this excellent piece on structural separation. This marks the second internet “thought leader” to offer well-written and challenging pieces pleading the case of structural separation, the first being David Isenberg’s Making Network Neutrality Sustainable. Both these authors make the case for the next logical step in the Network Neutrality fight — going back to a set of rules that will prevent the network operators from interfering with the content that flows over the network by altering the economic incentives of the carriers.

Not surprisingly, we can anticipate two responses, the standard antiregulatory response (“Regulation is bad, hmmmmmmKay….Cause, if you do the regulation, then, that’d be government, and big government is bad, hmmmmmmKay….so regulation is bad, hmmmmmKay……”) and the economic response about how such a scheme destroys producer incentives so networks don’t get built. The chief problem with the producer incentive argument, however, is that the empirical evidence in Europe and Asia appears to prove the opposite case: a combination of structural separation and government subsidy facilitates deployment and maximizes incentives and revenue throughout the value chain, while focusing strictly on incentives for core network providers (e.g., the AT&T’s and Comcasts of the world) produces inferior results by every metric other than network operator profits.

My key takeaway here is that we continue to see a revitalized public policy debate that moves beyond the timid counsels of the edge-based industry players who define their “ask” in terms of what the incumbents have defined as possible, and despite every effort by the incumbents and their supporters to convince the broader public that “network neutrality” is dead and lawmakers should not worry their pretty little heads about it. Yes, we are in a legislative lull at the moment, as the public policy pendulum swings away from the incumbents and towards a more aggressive public policy more in line with the broadband success stories of Europe and Asia. But as Weinberg and Isenberg have shown, the public education and public debate remains quiet lively and continues to advance.

Stay tuned . . . .

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