Tales of the Sausage Factory

A Quick Addendum To My AWS-2/AWS-3 Prediction

Last week, I predicted the FCC would opt to auction the AWs-2/AWS-3 spectrum rather than adopt the M2Z proposal. Yesterday, the FCC issued it’s teaser for recommendations to improve broadband adoption. One of these was “[c]onsider use of spectrum for a free or very low cost wireless broadband service.”

That, of course, was M2Z’s chief selling point. They would provide a free tier for for everyone supported by adds and by the higher-speed, ad free pay tier. So do I want to revise my prediction on whether the FCC will adopt the M2Z or T-Mobile asymmetric auction proposal?

Not at this point. Sure, this tea leaf looks much more favorable to M2Z than it does to T-Mobile. But I note two things. First, the language says “consider” rather than simply “use.” The question of whether to require free service of some kind as a public interest obligation was teed up in the pending AWS-2/AWS-3 proceeding. If they were going to go with M2Z, they wouldn’t say “consider,” they’d say “use spectrum . . . .” Second, there are a number of other ways to use spectrum for free or low cost wireless. These range from expanding the use of unlicensed spectrum to facilitate creation of community wireless networks to mandating “wireless lifeline”-type programs that would require all carriers to offer cheap or free access on a needs basis. It also remains to be seen whether the FCC will actually do anything other than “consider” such an approach, or whether revenue concerns and incumbent resistance will ultimately carry the day.

So while I’m pleased to see the FCC looking at spectrum from a public interest/public welfare perspective, I’m not changing my bet on how the FCC resolves the AWS-2/AWS-3 band fight. The real questions are (a) timetable, and (b) spectrum caps, yes/no? (and no, I haven’t forgotten about Fred Campbell’s standing invite/challenge for me to justify spectrum caps generally, just haven’t gotten time yet). The FCC could conceivably issue an Order with service rules and schedule an auction date. Or it could put out a final set of rules for further notice. My personal bet is thy will move quickly — both to show they are taking action and because OMB would really like to book that revenue. But we’ll have to see.

Heck, I could be entirely wrong in my prediction and they could go with M2Z, or some variant thereof. Stranger things have been known to occur.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Issues Excellent Wireless Microphone Order — Perhaps NAB Will Rely Less on Scare Tactics and Celebrity Letters Now.

Time to clear up a little piece of unfinished business for which I and this humble blog can claim some modest responsibility. The FCC finally issued it’s long awaited Order on wireless microphones stemming from this blog post and the subsequent complaint/Petition for Rulemaking by the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (to which a special shout out to the folks at New America Wireless Future is due, given the fantastic amount of work they did on assembling evidence and helping draft the document).

As one can tell from this FCC press release describing the details, we pretty much got what we wanted — although not entirely and not in the way we expected. But, as I noted in this press statement in my role as Legal Director of Public Knowledge, we’re very happy with how things turned out. Briefly:
(a) all wireless mic users are now granted legal status, this is done pursuant to the FCC’s Part 15 rules for unlicensed rather than the “license by rule” that we suggested, but my only regret about that is I didn’t think of it when we filed.
(b) Everyone using wireless microphones needs to clear out of the 700 MHz band by Jun 12, 2010 — one year after the DTV transition and 15 months after the original date proposed by the FCC. Given how the Broadway people have been telling the FCC for months how they are off the 700 MHz band, this should not be too much of a hardship — especially for those who had no right to be there in the first place.
(c) The FCC will invest a boatload of its own resources, and gin up the FCC 2.0 machinery, to get the word out to folks and help consumers, churches, etc. handle the transition.
(d) The FCC will require that wireless microphones have signs and labels going forward to make sure that people understand the difference between licensed users and unlicensed users.

In addition, the FCC is having a further notice of proposed rulemaking that will:
1) Set the rules for the new Part 15 unlicensed wireless microphones.
2) Will examine whether to expand the class of Part 74 Subpart H eligible licensees to see if they should expand the class to give interference protection to some set of users — which would include who gets to be in the database of licensed services protected from operation of TV white spaces devices.

Yeah, that kicks the can down the road rather than saying flat out “anyone who was using a wireless microphone illegally is not entitled to protection against the TV white spaces devices, which went through the legal process and got approved.” But I can most definitely live with that. For one thing, I am confident that in an evidence-driven FCC which places consumer interests first, as demonstrated by this Order with its unprecedented investment of FCC resources for outreach (which we had not even dreamed of requesting except in the most general way of offering to help), will focus on the real question of whether or not there is interference and if so how to strike the appropriate balance between allowing new technologies and protecting existing users. Hopefully, this will inspire white spaces opponents to focus on engineering rather than trying to use scare tactics and celebrity “star power”.

More below . . .

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My Thoughts Exactly

Last day to get your comments to the FCC about Net Neutrality

OK, get off your duff & file your comment with the FCC. Here’s why and how.

My comment:

The Internet is a fundamental engine of our democracy. It’s the equivalent in our day of what “the press” was in the earliest days of our republic. Yielding control of the Internet to large corporations is a betrayal of the bedrock values upon which our nation was founded and still rests.

In the words of MIT professor Daniel Weitzner, in testimony given before the FCC at Harvard, “What’s at stake is everyone’s ability to communicate with everyone else.”

In effect, the FCC must decide whether the Internet is to be optimized as a vital tool for promoting and protecting citizen engagement with each other and with their government, or as a tool for maximizing shareholder value of large corporations. It’s a simple fact that you cannot optimize for both. If the FCC optimizes for democracy and “everyone’s ability to communicate with everyone else”, there will still be ample room for lots of people and lots of corporations to make money.

But if the FCC decides to void the principles of Net Neutrality in the interests of corporations, our democracy will be decisively and perhaps irremediably harmed.

The FCC must now act decisively in the public interest by enacting strong rules that keep the Internet free from blocking, censorship and discrimination.

Don’t give in to pressure from AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and their lobbyists. Stand with us in support of a strong Net Neutrality rule.

Do it now. It will take two minutes. It’s important. Do it. (Weitzner citation from this brilliant eye-witness report ).

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Could the FCC Structure A Broadcaster Clearance Auction Without Congress? Yeah, actually . . .

Progress and Freedom Foundation has recently published this piece by Adam Theirer and Barbara Esbin on how encouraging a deal between broadcasters and wireless providers to reduce the spectrum used by broadcasters and auction more spectrum for wireless use would serve the public interest. The piece raises some good points. For one thing, it is happily free of the “broadcasters are obsolete and we ought to take their spectrum back” rhetoric that often accompanies these proposals (not from PFF, I should add, but from a number of others). But the paper is woefully short on specifics. It touts the value of such a deal (freeing up spectrum for wireless) and lays out some general approaches, then urges the FCC and Congress to broker a deal between the broadcasters and the wireless industry through a number of possible auction mechanisms.

And now, the FCC has issued a public notice in the National Broadband Plan soliciting input on what they should think about using broadcast spectrum as part of the national broadband plan.

This got me thinking. Is there a mechanism the FCC could use, consistent with existing law, which would allow for the sort of broadcast band clearance the FCC would like to see? And, as a bonus, could this also clear some space for white space use? After some consideration, I hatched the scheme below. It is somewhat slower than than the wireless industry would like. I expect it would take about 5 years to finish the transition. But that is not bad given that it took 4 years to manage the DTV transition and auction from the time Congress set the hard date in 2005 to the end of analog broadcasting in June 2009. Also, my plan would allow continuing gradual build out, and combines some sticks to go with the carrots.

I’ll add that I’m not convinced this is worth doing. I think the current obsession with broadcast spectrum as the solution for the upcoming spectrum crisis suffers the same myopia as focusing on offshore drilling to cure the energy crisis — it defers the crunch but doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Wireless demand is going to continue, and we need to fundamentally change how we manage spectrum access (rather than spectrum allocation) to remain on a sustainable path for growth. I also point out, as we discovered while doing the broadcast white spaces proceeding, that there are a lot of non-broadcast uses in the existing television bands that are not broadcast users. These secondary services are going to get awfully squeezed if we crunch the broadcast bands further.

All that said, a well constructed auction could free up a nice chunk of spectrum in the short term that could promote wireless services and competition — especially if it came with a spectrum cap so VZ and AT&T didn’t hog all the good stuff again.

More below . . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

D Block Drama Erupts! NENA Breaks Ranks! Wireless Carriers At War! Oh, the Humanity!

Yes, for policy wonks in the summer, this is high drama. Once upon a time, before the 700 MHz auction, we used to have two very clear groups of stakeholders in spectrum policy land. We had public safety on one side and commercial wireless carriers on the other. (We also had us public interest folks, but no one — especially in the Wireless Bureau — gave a crap about us.) While these two groups might disagree internally, they solidified into utterly united and utterly opposing camps when confronting each other — regarding the battle for spectrum as a zero sum game with each side trying to wrestle every last MHz out of the other one.

But the 700 MHz changed all that. It cemented the spectrum advantage of AT&T and Verizon over all other carriers, breaking the commercial world into “AT&T and Verizon” and “carriers who need backhaul, roaming agreements, and special access — all of which they buy from AT&T and Verizon.” And it fractured consensus in the public safety community by creating the enormous loose end known as the “D Block.” As readers may recall (and if they don’t, you can check out my extensive coverage of the 700 MHz auction) the D Block was the private part of a public/private partnership where a private entity would bid and then build out the network, then enter into a sharing agreement with the public safety block. Sadly, for various reasons I will not rehash here, this didn’t work out.

And now, just when it looked like public safety was lining up behind AT&T and Verizon to lobby Congress to reallocate the D Block entirely to public safety, all Hell breaks loose. The “not Verizon and AT&T” wireless carriers have introduced a counter proposal to take back the 12 MHz on the public safety side of the partnership and auction the whole 22 MHz for commercial use as one, unpaired block. And they have received the backing, sort of, of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

What drama to greet the arrival of Chairman Genachowski and the finally fleshed out full FCC! Commercial wireless carriers at war! Public safety in disarray! Spectrum brother against spectrum brother in the ultimate spectrum policy smackdown!

I analyze the possible deals, the potential winners and losers, and my guesses on odds for success below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Libby Beaty Memorial Fund

Last June, Libby Beaty, the Executive Director of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers (NATOA) passed away. Libby was a tireless fighter for local government and the public interest, and someone I was pleased to regard as a friend and frequent ally at the FCC.

NATOA has now set up an education fund for her two children, Jonathan and Nicolas. To quote from the announcement:

Contributions to the fund can be mailed to the Libby Beaty Memorial Education Fund, c/o NATOA, 2121 Eisenhower Avenue, Suite 401, Alexandria, VA 22314. Checks should be made payable to the “Libby Beaty Memorial Education Fund” (please DO NOT make checks payable to NATOA) and we thank you for your support and donations, in remembrance of Libby and all that she embodied as NATOA’s Executive Director.

I hope that everyone who follows this field and wants to honor the memory of a worthy advocate for an important cause, will consider making a contribution.

Stay tuned . . .

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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

It's Nice When the FCC Listens Part II — The Cyren Call Investigation Is Out.

When it rains, it positively pours. The FCC just released its Inspector General Report on whether Cyren Call screwed up the D Block. As readers may recall, I and my friends from the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC) sent a letter to the FCC as soon as the auction ended, asking the FCC to investigate the allegations over whether Cyren Call scared away D Block bidders. To his credit, Martin referred our letter to the FCC’s inspector general. The IG did a quick and thorough job, which you can read here. I shall add that it always gives one pause to find oneself as a subject heading in an IG report.

Generally, I’m satisfied with the report, which confirms my own suppositions after the anticollusion rules lifted and Cyren Call started yapping. Critically:

1) The meetings took place;

2) They were understood by all participants to be business negotiations, not “take it or leave it” demands;

3) The lease payment itself was not a deal breaker, but the potential bidders interviewed said that so many questions about potential financial liability and business model remained — aggravated in part by the uncertain role of Cyren Call — that they opted to stay away (or, as the IG concludes “this was just one drop in many different buckets”);

4) No FCC rules were broken and no one acted in bad faith, therefore there is no need for a referral for any criminal investigation.

Personal reflections below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Reform Week At the FCC — And Why Letting In The Public Is Better

(Sadly, the original version of this got lost in the disk failure we had Tuesday. So this is a somewhat shorter reconstruction.)

With both Republicans and Democrats interested in reforming the FCC for their own reasons, it seems a perfect time to crank out a new white paper on reforming the FCC. As you can see from the press release, Common Cause and my employer Media Access Project have released a new white paper called Puting the Public Back In Public Interest: Painless Reforms to Improve the FCC, authored by yr hmbl obdn’t, fellow Wetmachiner Gregory Rose, and Common Cause’s Jon Bartholomew. Astute readers with good memories will recognize many of the recommendations from previous posts and writings of mine, including this from this speech I gave back in 2003. Most of these issues have festered for years, for all that they have gained recent notoriety.

In the same vein, I draw attention to Matthew Lasar’s piece, 5 Ways to Improve FCC.GOV, on his generally excellent FCC Blog Lasar’s FCC Letter. Lasar’s suggestions are good, and many of them are echoed in our white paper (although derived independently, great minds think alike and all that).

Coincidentally, a different piece by Matt, “Faux Celebrity Comments At the FCC,” triggered a serious question by Adam Thierer at the Progress and Freedom Foundation blog. Given that we have situations in which a single organization such as Parent’s Television Council is able to generate thousands of identical comments from its members, and that others are using fake names, and that there are even allegations that NAB submitted false comments fake brief text comments opposing the Xm-Sirius merger, or used deceptive means to get people to send in such comments, is there any real value in making it easier for the public to file brief comments? Doesn’t that just create opportunities for confusion and abuse, warping the regulatory process and shifting power away from the real public to the manipulators and unscrupulous?

Matt gave his answer here, in which he makes reference to what I call the “Alice’s Restaurant” rule of public comments: If one commentor says ‘my media sucks because of consolidation,’ that’s an outlier and you ignore it. If two people file, ‘my media sucks because of consolidation,’ then it’s just tree huggin’ liberals and you ignore it. But if two million people file such comments, that’s data—because we’ve demonstrated enough people care to at least make a minimal effort to express their feelings.

To amplify a bit, I would certainly like to see anyone who submits fake comments designed to persuade the FCC that people support a particular position when they don’t, either by forging their names and email addresses or obtaining these through deceptive means, should be subject to criminal penalties under 18 USC 1001. But I do not dismiss the ability of an organization to get its members to file a boatload of identical comments or complaints through a comment engine. This is the modern equivalent of the petition drive. In a previous generation, the determined citizen might spend a day in a mall parking lot or knocking door to door to get signatures on a petition in support of some candidate or in opposition to some law. Signing something in a parking lot to “send a message about global warming” or “show Washington you hate big government” takes about as much time and understanding as filling out the info in a standard “comment engine,” and tells us the same thing — a broad base of citizens cares at least enough to take a minute to send a message rather than just ignore it.

Policymakers have long experience with petitions and petition drives. They understand the difference between a petition with 10,000 names, 100 individual letters that talk about real life experiences, and the 5 people who take the trouble to actually call or make a visit to discuss their case. Each of these forms of contact provides a type of information, and decisionmakers weight it accordingly — or should.

In addition, as I went on at length after the media ownership vote, the entire regulatory process gains validity when the public perceives it has a meaningful way of communicating with regulators and can monitor the process. Taking brief text public comments in a a simple and straightforward fashion, and allowing the public to follow who files and how many people file, is an important aspect of this.

Finally, it reconfirms for those that have filed that they are not alone (or, perhaps, that they are), helping interested members of the public to organize and engage in discussion with each other. It provides a focal point for concerned citizens to act as citizens and make themselves heard in a way that goes beyond the mere ritual of voting. Even if public comments had no other value, it would be worth it for this benefit alone.

Which is why, I suppose, I’ve been such a fan of FCC reform for so many years. It’s not just about getting better data and creating a process that everyone perceives as more open and fair. These are important. But it is also about something more vital. Ensuring that in our modern administrative state, when so much of our government in a democratic society seems beyond our control, any means by which we maintain the vital link between the government and the governed is to be cherished and nurtured. It reminds us that we are free people in the land of the free, with both the right ad the responsibility to participate in the government decisions that matter to us. We are not spectators in our own lives, nor helplessly awaiting the decisions of others. We are citizens, from whose consent all sovereignty arises, and without whose consent sovereignty is tyranny. When we speak, the FCC (and the rest of the federal government) owes it to us to listen.

Stay tuned . . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Jenny Toomey Takes Over At Ford to Replace Becky Lentz — Excellent!

A brief bit of noteworthy good news. The Ford Foundation has hired Future of Music Coalition founder and Executive Director Jenny Toomey to take the place of Becky Lentz as the Program Officer for Ford’s Media and Culture Policy program.

This is absolutely unqualifiedly fantastic news. As you can see from Wikipedia entry, Jenny has had tons of experience as an indie rocker, indie prodcer, movement organizer, and “big vision” umm… visionizer. I’ve worked with Jenny for the last 6-7 years and cannot think of anyone I’d rather have in this spot. Because of her experience, Jenny has the rare combination of understanding what makes effective organizing in the field and what makes things happen in DC. She has put together major presentations that tour the country and break down these complicated issues into something people can understand — and see why it impacts their lives. At the same time, she has testified before Congress some ungodly number of times, talking the policy wonk talk with the best of them. She is unfazed by the industry tactics of obfuscation and intimidation, and knows damn well when they are trying to buy off the public interest for pennies.

So while I am sorry I will no longer bump into Jenny regularly here in Washington policy land, I expect real good things to happen from her going to Ford. Good luck Jenny, and keep rocking the world.

Stay tuned . . . .

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