The announcement that the White House that it would support reallocating the D Block – the 10 MHz of spectrum left over from big broadcast band auction of 2008 (the 700 MHz Auction) – to public safety use rather than auction it for commercial use defies conventional wisdom on two fronts. First, the National Broadband Plan called for an auction of D block to commercial providers as a means of providing critical spectrum for broadband, using the revenue to fund the construction of the public safety network, and giving public safety access to the rest of the 700 MHz band. Given that the Administration generally supported the FCC’s assessment that we have a looming “spectrum crisis” (although they took no position, until now, on D Block), why pull 10 MHz of prime spectrum ready for auction out of contention? Second, conventional wisdom holds that because of deficit concerns, lust for auction revenue will drive spectrum policy. But the White House not only endorses taking prime spectrum off the market, it wants to spend additionally billions on public safety infrastructure (under the FCC’s original plan, the auction of D Block would fund the build out of an interoperable national public safety network). So what happened?
As folks in broadband policy land know, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the FCC needs to present a National Broadband Plan to Congress by February 2010. The FCC has been holdng a bunch of workshops on various aspects of the plan as part of the inputs. I spoke last week at the Benchmarks Workshop. As I remarked to the sparse crowd, you can tell this is the deep uber-wonk stuff that only a handful of us find terribly interesting and vitally important while the rest of the world zones out and watches videos in their minds. For the short version, I include my latest “Five Minutes With Harold Feld.” Those more interested can watch the entire panel or read my written statement here. My more snarky comments (including my assessment of the panel) below.
More below . . .
Regular readers may recall that I find CellAntenna’s continuing effort to leverage the problem of contraband cell phones to get the law changed so that they can sell cell phone jammers legally in this country not merely obnoxious and offensive, but downright dangerous. CellAntenna has proven real good at persuading state prison wardens that this technology solves their problems, despite the statements of frequency coordinators and public safety orgs that this is a real bad idea. The mainstream media, as is all too common these days, has generally acted like mindless cheer leaders without troubling to dig into whether cell phone jamming will actually work or not. The only decent in depth coverage was this Wired piece by Vince Beiser. For one thing, Beiser notes that prisoners can beat the jammers with a few sheets of aluminum foil.
I’ve blogged in a little more in-depth on this over here at Public Knowledge. We also (with additional sign ons from a number of other orgs) sent this letter to the Senate Commerce Committee in advance of tomorrow’s hearing so that at least someone is on record opposing this scam. Finally, for those of you who prefer the short, pithy medium of me staring into a camera and yakking about this, I give you my latest Five Minutes With Harold Feld The Prison Problem: Cell Phone Jamming and Shrimp Scampi.
Stay tuned . . . .
In an interesting new development in the wireless microphone saga, Shure is now offering a $1000 rebate on a replacement wireless microphone for anyone who trades in a wireless microphone that operates on the 700 MHz frequencies, provided the purchaser bought the microphone before February 2007. I’m not sure why the magic cut off date, and Shure does not explain.
Shure does, OTOH, offer an explanation for why it will make this generous offer — albeit an incomplete one:
“Our number one priority is to provide our customers with the highest quality products, service, and support,” said Al Hershner, Vice President and General Manager of the Shure U.S Business Unit. “We’ve known for some time that the ‘700 MHz band’ would be reallocated for new services following the DTV transition on February 18, 2009. Although a final decision from the FCC is still pending, we felt the need to assure our customers now that we will take care of them regardless of the outcome.”
Shure does not mention, of course, that the most likely outcome involves outlawing all use of wireless microphones in the 700 MHz, and a reasonable probability that Shure (and other manufacturers) will be required to replace the equipment for free. But that doesn’t mean Shure will miss an opportunity to
spin its customers and recruit their support at the FCC explain to interested customers the ongoing FCC legal proceeding:
“There has been a great deal of confusion for wireless microphone users regarding the political and technological developments surrounding the DTV transition and the 700 MHz auction over the past few years,” added Hershner. “As always, Shure has a team of sales, customer service, and technical support staff available to answer any questions people might have about this rebate program or their products.”
Hmmm….could this have something to do with the recent push by the incoming public safety and commercial 700 MHz licensees to take this seriously so it won’t mess up deployment? Could Shure be trying to fob off the FCC with a fake remedial action while boosting its own sales and recruiting its customers for a massive push against the wireless guys and public safety? Or is that just my nasty and suspicious nature rejecting the idea that Shure is deeply — deeply I say — concerned about its customers (which it assures the FCC are only retailers and not members of the public ineligible for licenses to operate such systems) and I should be ashamed of myself for questioning this noble voluntary remediation by an upstanding corporate citizen that just happened to build its business on wholesale violation of federal law?
I explore the possibilities below . . . .
The FCC has just released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing the problem of wireless microphone operations in the 700 MHz Band and how it may screw up the introduction of new public safety and commercial wireless services. It basically proposes to adopt the recommendations we made to prohibit any future manufacture, sale or importation of wireless microphones that operate on the relevant 700 MHz frequencies, and prohibit operation on those bands after the DTV transition in February.
Along the way, the Commission asks for comment on our informal complaint and Petition for Rulemaking. Oh yes, and the NPRM also announced that the Enforcement Bureau has commenced an investigation into the wireless microphone manufacturers and their sales tactics.
I wish I could take all the credit for this one, but I really gotta hand it to Shure. I’m not saying that Shure’s insistence on dragging FCC engineers out to field testing so they could see first hand the blatant way in which Shure and others violate FCC rules, getting all their illegal customers to right into the FCC by the thousands and regale the FCC with tales of unauthorized use all over the country, and generally rubbing the FCC’s nose in the fact that Shure and the rest of the industry were engaged in widescale violation of the rules over and over and OVER again necessarily had anything to do with this. I will merely note that it is a happy coincidence of timing that the FCC commenced its investigation the Friday following the field testing, and immediately thereafter put our Petition out for comment attached to an item already in the works. No, it is no doubt my good looks and charm once again bending the FCC to my will.
To the extent the industry press has picked up on this, it has (surprise!) assigned credit for this to the great Google Overlords. Mind you, the same article also thinks that wireless microphones “produced little or no complaints because their signals have traditionally been programmed to avoid TV channels,” so this will tell you something about the accuracy of their analysis. (For those wondering, wireless microphones are dumb devices and the user selects the channel. It has no sensing equipment or database or any of the interference avoidance tech proposed for white space devices.)
I would also say that much as I would love to see this as a sign that the FCC supports opening up the white spaces for unlicensed use, I don’t. The NPRM is very carefully neutral on the subject, without any statements from Commissioners one way or another, and voted on circulation (meaning it is non-controversial). No, I think the Register pretty much got it right when they described this as “having sold off 700MHz to the highest bidders last year, the FCC now has a responsibility to clear the area before the new tenants move in.” The ball on white spaces, whether licensed, unlicensed, or not used at all is still very much up in the air.
Mind you, this certainly impacts the debate over the white spaces, and potentially removes a stumbling block by providing a road map on how to address the wireless microphone issue in a way that punishes spectrum scofflaws like Shure while protecting users like churches deceived by Shure’s sales tactics (and give parties an incentive to come to the table and do a deal over real interference concerns before the FCC bites their patooties off). And I think it is fair to say that we did help move the debate forward by providing the FCC with the pathway to making this possible. But I would say that all the Commissioners are still waiting for the field testing results to come in before making a final decision on the merits.
What is really critical here for the white spaces proceeding is that the broadcasters now have to make a very unpleasant choice. Do they embrace the radio pirates and forgive Shure for unleashing a million illegal transmitters all over “their” spectrum? Or do they stick to their usual guns and condemn any unauthorized use of the broadcast bands as unmitigated evil and warn that sanctioning a million new authorized users — with new General Wireless Microphone Users added every day — could utterly destroy broadcast television as we know it? Either way presents problems for broadcasters — with the added bonus of highlighting their blatant hypocrisy. Embracing the likes of Shure and unauthorized users undercuts all the hysteria broadcasters have so carefully cultivated, especially when they have always maintained that opening this spectrum to anyone new would destroy free over the air television. OTOH, siding with the FCC on enforcement against Shure and warning the FCC not to allow millions of transmitters operating at higher power and with fewer protections in the white spaces destroys their ability to use Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry, and all those megachurches as human shields.
Needless to say, the broadcasters have desperately sought to avoid saying anything on the subject and have tried to spin this to their advantage: “Gosh, moving wireless microphones off Channels 52-69 will sure make it harder to fit in all them white spaces devices,” claims David Donovan of the Association for Maximum Service Television, a trade association for TV broadcasters that has fought against any sharing of the white spaces.
The problem with this statement is that, according to the FCC, there are only 156 licensed wireless microphones authorized to operate on Channels 52-69. That’s not a heck of a lot of crowding. Unless, of course, MSTV plans to support our Petition for Rulemaking and support creation of a General Wireless Microphone Service licensed by rule and open to the general public.
Mind you I expect that MSTV, like the McCain campaign, will continue to get a free ride on this from an obsequious broadcast trade press and a tech press that cannot get past the Great Google Overlords. But they are going to have to file comments on this at some point. And I imagine that, as they come in to lobby against white spaces, the good folks at the Commission will want their opinion on this separate but related matter. I’ll certainly be interested in rading those Ex Partes.
Stay tuned . . .
If I weren’t generally pleased with my quick flip through of the Commission’s Latest Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on D Block, I would declare it a true sign of the coming of the Apocalypse. Amidst the Mighty Earthquakes, the Great Whirlwinds, and other terrible signs and wonders, THE FCC RELEASED A NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULEMAKING ON THE SAME DAY AS THE OPEN MEETING!!!! Tremble all ye telecom whores Babylon, for the Day of Judgment is surely upon us!
I must also take the opportunity to give a huge THANK YOU to Commissioner Copps and whoever else got us a full 30 days for comment and 15 days for reply. Because given how impossible it will be to met these deadlines, I shudder to think what would have happened on an “accelerated” schedule.
A bit more below . . . .
The FCC can certainly move fast when it wants to — and when it has had a few weeks to get used to the idea. The FCC just released a public notice that it will “de-link” the D Block from Auction 73, and will release the names of the winners as soon as the Commission collects the payments (ten days after it issues the official notice that the auction is over and that parties now need to file “long forms” and pay up).
Also of importance, Chairman Martin has referred the question of whether Cyren Call made all manner of demands of Frontline, and did this break any rules to the Office of the Inspector General. This extremely important detail was buried in this somewhat less than stellar Washington Post article about our letter to the FCC calling for an investigation. I say “less than stellar” because, in addition to “burying the lead” big time, the reporters did not trouble themselves to contact me despite that fact that (a) I broke this story in the first place (only narrowly beating out Dow Jones’ Cory Boles); (b) I drafted the friggin’ letter. I therefore recommend this far superior article in eWeek (i.e., it mentions me and links to the relevant blog entry — a clear mark of superior journalistic skills).
A bit more analysis below . . .
I’m getting a number of folks from different walks of life coming forward with the same story: Morgan O’Brien was the direct cause of Frontline’s investors pulling out.
Of course, there is no way I can actually confirm this on the record because the people in the room either can’t talk about it (due to the anticollusion rules) or won’t. Nevertheless, having confirmed this with sources I find reliable and who could not have coordinated with each other, I feel I need to come forward here and put this on the table. D Block and the public safety partnership are far too important to end up falling victim to the combination of insider baseball, manipulation and greed that appears at play here.
I have absolutely not talked to anyone at the FCC about this. No one at the FCC can legally respond to any of this, and I would not ask them to do so. Similarly, in my discussions, I have been at pains to avoid any conflict with the anticollusion rules. Nevertheless, the sources I have are, I believe, reliable, and I have therefore made a decision to go forward with this story. I must also add that because I am on sabbatical, I have not had any discussions about this with my employer, Media Access Project, or with anyone at Media Access Project while developing this story.
Details below . . . .
I’m out here at the Consumer electronic Show with actual blogger credentials (primarily so I can get the free back pack and use the blogger lounge). So, of course, we get major 700 MHz Auction news today before I can even start to do CES blogging.
As reported by my fellow PISC-ER Gregory Rose and elsewhere, Frontline Wireless has dropped out of the bidding. That’s kind of a surprise, given how Frontline fought to get a designated entity credit and still pursue wholesale as a real business model. It’s also impossible to say (at the moment at least) why Frontline self-destructed at the last minute.
Leaving aside the Frontline specifics, the big question is “how will this impact the auction” and “will we see wholesale emerge at all as a model.” Unsurprisingly, most analysts are going conventional and saying (a) D block (which Frontline had targeted) may not attract bids to meet the reserve price, and (c) This makes it even less likely we will see a new entrant, let alone a wholesale new entrant.
Also as usual, I will play the contrarian here. D Block is still very attractive to the conventional carriers looking to get national footprint or others looking for national footprint and willing to work with public safety. If AT&T and Verizon are both serious about this auction (and indications are that they are), both may push hard for D Block — especially if C Block is competitive.
On the new entrant side, it still remains to be seen what Vulcan and Google will do. Even if — as I suspect — Google wants to win the network but not build out, it may find D Block attractive. As holder of D Block, Google could still negotiate with third pary carriers (such as Alltel, US Cellular or even Sprint or T-Mobile) to build the network on its terms and to the satisfaction of public safety. The much lower price of D Block would offset the the aggravation of working with public safety and ensuring that their needs come first.
Finally, there’s Towerstream and the other wild cards like Qualcom. Who knows what they intend, especially given the likely competitiveness for C Block.
So while I’m sorry to see Frontline go, I don’t think it hurts the odds for a very competitive auction or a new entrant. It does potentially make a wholesale network more of a stretch, because Frontline was really the only bidder gung-ho on the model (Google being traditionally in favor of wholesale but making no promises at this point beyond “open”). That’s a shame, but not devestating or fatal to a new entrant.
Stay tuned . . . .
CellAntenna, a company that sells wireless equipment, has decided to challenge the FCC’s ban on cell phone jammers. As some of you may recall, about a year and a half ago the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a public notice that 47 U.S.C. 333 makes it illegal for people to market or use cell phone jammers in this country. (By which I mean active intentional jamming, as the jury is still out on the passive cellphone jamming nano-paint.)
According to the article, CellAntenna has some theory that Section 333 and the FCC’s general authority under the Communications Act are trumped by the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Since cell phones are used by terrorists to trigger bombs, they appear to argue in the article, the public security mandate outweighs Sec. 333 and the FCC’s determination on its general authority over the use of radio spectrum to prohibit cell phone jammers.
I confess that, based solely on the reading from the article, I’m highly skeptical. Why?
See below . . .