Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why The White House and CTIA Don’t Agree On Incentive Auction Revenue, And Why I Think Both May Be Wrong.

The White House budget proposed last week contains an estimate of about $28 billion from auctioning federal spectrum and giving the FCC authority to conduct incentive auctions.  By contrast, the CTIA – The Wireless industry Association — and the Consumer Electronic Association (CEA) have published a study showing that the FCC could raise $33 bn from an incentive auction of the broadcast bands alone. So what gives?

The short answer is that spectrum auctions are extremely hard to predict, and incentive auctions are even harder to predict because we’ve never done one before. The longer answer is that because the White House is banking on the revenue as part of the budget process with real world consequences, they have therefore hedged against uncertainty by including an easier to estimate spectrum auction. CTIA/CEA, have written an advocacy piece. As with all such pieces, it tends to accent the positive. Unfortunately, the Report fails to address some rather pivotal issues, a factor that renders it of rather limited utility for resolving what I consider the most critical question no one has answered: will enough broadcasters participate in a voluntary auction to make it happen at all. It is on this point in particular that I remain profoundly skeptical.

Fair warning, as with all spectrum policy posts, this one tends to run pretty long. Still, I’m hoping the prospect of all that money  will rivet folks as I unpack the “known unknowns,” the “unknown unknowns,” and why I raise a skeptical eyebrow over the CTIA/CEA estimate below .  .  .  .

UPDATE: As I’ve explained here, I’ve edited this article considerably to take out some unwarranted snark on my part against CTIA/CEA.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Genachowski's Secret $15 bn Piggy Bank, or T-mobile Triumphs Over M2Z.

I’ve been rather pressed for time, hence have not had much chance to blog on the FCC’s recent spectrum policy announcements for D-Block and the broadcast migration offer. Combine these two speeches with Genachowski’s recent statement in an interview that the NBP will finance the $25 billion via existing programs and it is clear that the FCC will adopt the T-Mobile’s “asymmetric auction” proposal for the AWS-2 and AWS-3 band, leaving M2Z high and dry. The only question is whether or not there will be spectrum caps to keep AT&T and Verizon from snarfing the good stuff, but do not expect the NBP to touch something as “controversial” as spectrum caps even by veiled implication the way the DoJ did in its comments.

Mind, this is another example of the “spectrum auctions are the crack cocaine of public policy” problem. The thirst for revenue pushes all other considerations out the window. I’m not convinced the T-Mobile approach is wrong (especially if subject to spectrum caps), and I think the D-Block finesse was extremely clever. But when revenue sits in the driver’s seat, policy invariably takes a wrong turn somewhere along the road. But it is difficult to imagine how Genachowski could resist a $15 bn secret cash cow to fend off accusations that Democrats are once again writing checks against our children’s future blah blah blah.

I unpack all this below. . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC “WiMAX Auction” Already Over — Not a Surprise, But Still Impressive.

Some of you may recall that last month fellower Wetmachiner Greg Rose and I published our first industry report on the FCC’s Auction 86. We dubbed this the “WIMAX Auction” because the band at issue, the 2.5 GHz band, is the focus of major WIMAX activity in the U.S. and the report described the current state of the industry (including coverage maps for Clearwire and Sprint and the most extensive private database yet of who holds what in the band), likely outcomes in the auction, and what the behavior of bidders in the auction would tell us.

One prediction we made, that the auction itself would attract very little interest because it was an “ash and trash” auction of the leaving in the band, held up pretty well. The auction opened on October 27, and closed Friday, November 6. In other words, the entire auction lasted a week (4 bidding days) — which in FCC terms is greased lightning (the 700 MHz auction last year, for example, went on for 38 bidding days covering over 2 months). Total haul was $20 million, which will hopefully serve as a reminder to folks that spectrum auctions are not all multi-billion dollar gold mines.

As promised, we will release a post auction analysis available with the spectrum maps and databases for $799 within the next few months, once we (meaning Greg) have a chance to crunch the numbers and the round by round results. (Those who pre-ordered at the reduced rate when they bought the earlier report do not need to re-order). If you order now (the report is available through Muniwreless.com and through BroadbandCensus.com), you will not only pre-order the post-auction updates, but will get a copy of the original report with its industry analysis and coverage maps.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Washington Needs To Hear From More Venture Capitalists (and pay less attention to Wall St. Analysts) on Telecom.

Reprinting below a piece I just posted over at the Public Knowledge Policy blog.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Announces 2.5 GHz Broadband Radio Service Auction. Who Will Show Up to Fight Over Rules? Or Bid?

One might think from the press coverage that all spectrum auctions are multi-billion dollar affairs like the AWS-1 Auction in ’06 or the 700 MHz Auction in ’08. But these auctions are the exception rather than the rule. More typical are the steady stream of small auctions like Auction 78, which auctioned remaining licenses in the AWS-1 band.

Which brings us to the Wireless Bureau’s Public Notice of the Broadband Radio Service (BRS) auction. Some of us have followed the adventures of the 2.5 GHz band back when it was “Wireless Cable” and the non-commercial licensees used it to offer closed circuit television for what we now call distance learning. These days of course, we know this as the “Broadband Radio Service” (BRS) and the “Educational Broadband Radio Service” (EBRS), and we care about the 2.5 GHz band as the home of Clearwire and the great hope of WiMax.

You might think that the “WiMax” auction would be a big deal — but only if you don’t know the band, its history, and the inventory up for auction. If you know that, you know why this auction is likely to prove as boring but ploddingly necessary as a run for office supplies.

So why do I consider this worth blogging about, other than my sentimental fondness for the band and my general obsession about things spectrum? Because (a) my cause celebre, anonymous bidding, faces its first post-700 MHz challenge, and (b) 2.5 GHz is the home of the major WiMax plays, and what happens in the auction has the potential to shape the field going forward and influence whether deployment goes more smoothly or gets all bollixed up.

More detail below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

What Does Cablevision Want With Newsday? And Should I Care?

For a business supposedly on the edge of extinction, newspapers attract an odd assortment of newcomers eager to get in on the game. Real Estate billionaire Sam Zell bought Tribune last year, marking fresh blood coming into the newspaper and broadcasting biz. Now, as Zell sells off some chunks of Tribune to to pay down debt, it would appear another new player is poised to enter the game.

According to this story, NYC based Cablevision has beat out Rupert Murdoch for the Daily News. Unlike the Murdoch deal, this would not implicate any FCC rules and should not raise too many hackles on the antitrust side. Arguably it has an impact on the local advertising market, but hardly enough to make a difference. Besides, I’m not sure if there is any evidence that the newspaper advertising market and the cable advertising market are related.

What is more interesting is “why does Cablevision want Newsday at all? And should I care?” Cablevision has in the past tried to break out of its main business as a cable operator and dabbler in cable programming and owner of various sports venues and franchises. At various points, it has tried to launch a satellite service and was a bidder in the last two major FCC spectrum auctions (coming away empty handed both times). Is this a toe in the water to go into the newspaper business or a more limited foray?

It is interesting to note that a few years ago, Cablevision was sued by the Jets over an alleged effort to block the Jets from building a sports stadium that would compete with those owned by Cablevision. Among the charges, the Jets claimed that Cablevision routinely gave its own front group free advertising time on its cable systems to drum up support against the Jets’ stadium effort, while refusing to sell advertising time to the Jets for pro-stadium advertising. Owning Newsday will certainly give Cablevision a bit more political clout in its backyard should it find itself wanting to lobby local government again. While I don’t think that’s the primary reason for Cablevision buying Newsday, it does make for an attractive bonus from Cablevision’s perspective.

Unfortunately, I think only DOJ or the FTC will examine the acquisition. It doesn’t trigger either FCC rules or local franchise review. But this sort of impact on the diversity of news sources and the ability to leverage ownership of different media assets for political gain falls outside antitrust review — even in an administration that cares about antitrust. So for better or for worse, barring some new bidder emerging, I expect the deal to sail through easily.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Endgame: Martin Antes. AT&T Raises. Google Calls. Does AT&T Fold or Call?

So yesterday, AT&T was extolling the virtues of the Martin plan. Among its virtues, Jim Ciconni included:

In effect, Chairman Martin’s plan faces Google and others with a “put up or shut up” opportunity. If they are serious, they will be able to bid and test their model in the marketplace against the business models of companies already enjoying widespread consumer acceptance.

Critically, Ciconni was referring to the “reserve price” feature of the Martin plan. To protect himself against the threat that even his device only open access would depress auction revenues, if the 22 MHz “C” block did not fetch at least $4.6 billion in bids, the FCC would cancel that part of the auction, split the 22 MHz int two 11 MHz blocks, and reauction without conditions. (Reserve prices are not uncommon in spectrum auctions, although as far as I know they have never been tied to a specific condition.)

So today, Google’s Eric Schmidt called Ciconni’s raise. In a letter to Chairman Martin, Schmidt committed to bidding a minimum of $4.6 for the “C” Block — but only if the Commission adopts all “four opens” that Google demanded in its letter last week and endorsed by the public interest coalition, Frontline, and a bunch of others. That means not just real device attachment and open application rules, but also real wholesale obligations at non-discriminatory prices. (You can find Google’s blog post explaining their letter here.)

The fear that Google would not bid no matter what, or that only one or two companies would bid on a license with wholesale open access conditions, has been one of the central features of the debate. Even ardent believers in real open access like Commissioner Adelstein have expressed real concerns over this. And, as I have noted previously, AT&T and its various sock puppets and Republican subsidiaries have used the threat of messing with the revenues as a major weapon against wholesale open access.

In a stroke, the Google letter changes the nature of the game. Google has now guaranteed that the feds will make their auction projections — but only if they include real open access. Meanwhile, rumors swirl that it may be AT&T, rather than Google, that sits this auction out. Suddenly, we switch from “will including wholesale open access keep out bidders and lower the revenue” to “will not including wholesale open access keep out needed bidders and drive down revenue.”

Meanwhile, the clocks ticks toward deadline. What does it mean? What happens next? And will I ever get a vacation this summer?

See below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Utterly shameless self promotion

As regular readers know, I have no shame or restraint. So I am going to make a pitch for nomination for this University of Michigan Tech Writing Award. From the website:

Taking a cue from the open-source movement, we’re asking readers to nominate their favorite tech-oriented articles, essays, and blog posts from 2006. The competition is open to any and every technology topic–biotech, information technology, gadgetry, tech policy, Silicon Valley, and software engineering are all fair game. But the ideal candidates will:

* be engagingly written for a mass audience;
* be no longer than 5,000 words;
* have been published between January and December, 2006.

The guest editor for The Best of Technology Writing 2007 will be Steven Levy. It will be published in fall 2007 by digitalculturebooks, a new imprint of the University of Michigan Press and Library, and available in print and online.

THE DEADLINE FOR NOMINATIONS IS FEBRUARY 11, 2007.

You can fill out the nominating form here. A list of my personal faves on technology (not including straight media policy) from 2006 below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Appears that Rose and Lloyd (and me) were right . . .

A month or so back, I reported that Greg Rose and Mark Lloyd had written a study for the Center for American Progress concluding that incumbent wireless providers used spectrum auctions to block the mergence of new competitors. Then came the AWS auction, with its legion of bidders. “A ha!” Declared the Wall St. Journal and others in the anti-net neutrality, anti-regulatory, pro-spectrum property camp. “Look at how the market-based policies create competition! No need for regulation here!”

Turns out, not so much . . . . Either for new spectrum entrants or for broadband competition.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Back From Vacation And FCC Auction Still Going On . . . .

As I guessed, the FCC AWS Spectrum Acution continues apace. My two weeks off proving an insufficient time for the wonkiest and most expensive of online multiplayer games — spectrum auctions.

You can track the “action” (as we must call it) here. A quick flip through the current standings yields some interesting patterns so far. The DBS Wireless partnership, Wireless DBS LLC, started with some strong positions on regional licenses. Over time, they have been forced out by Spectrum Co (the Comcast/TW/Sprint group), AWS Wireless (the Salmesi “wild card”) and traditional cell phone cos. Dolan family (Cablevision) took a position in the NYC market (its home base) but also appears to have been knocked out.

A look at the overall stats in round 29 shows that T-Mobile, unsurprisingly, has the lead bid on the most licenses — 129. Spectrum Co comes in nest with 96. After that, there is a significant drop off in the number and nature of licenses held, with traditional cellular companies Cingular and Cricket holding 43 each. Interestingly, AWS is next, with 38. There follows a list of smaller fry with diminishing numbers of licenses in less desirable territories. Of the cable players aside from Comcast/TW, only Cable One (Washington Post) continues to have a presence with 24 licenses.

Unless something dramatic happens, the auction is unlikely to yield a drisuptive player/new competitor (unless one counts Spectrum Co).

More after I unpack and look at the stats.

Stay tuned . . . .

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