Econoklastic

700 MHz: More Evidence for Success of Anonymous Bidding Rules

I’d like to reiterate what fellow Wetmachiner Harold Feld wrote yesterday: the telecoms incumbents’ claims of problems arising from anonymous bidding are nonsense, part of a campaign to sow disinformation lest Auction 73 (700 MHz) and its success persuade the FCC to permanently adopt anonymous bidding rules for its auctions.

I call your attention to this table, which compares the number of bids on each license in B Block in rounds 1-26 of Auction 73 to the number of bids on each comparable CMA in Auction 66 (AWS-1) in rounds 1-26 of that auction. Note that in general the smaller the CMA number, the larger the population of the CMA (e.g., CMA001 is New York City and its immediate environs, CMA002 is the Los Angeles area, etc.).

What is striking about the data presented in this table is threefold. First, significantly more bids are being placed in general in rounds 1-26 in Auction 73 than in Auction 66. Second, extraordinarily more bids are being placed on the smaller and intermediate-size CMAs in Auction 73 than in Auction 66. Third, a much smaller percentage of licenses are receiving no bids in the first 26 rounds in Auction 73 than in Auction 66.

I am hard put to find an explanation of this extraordinary increase in competition, particularly for the smaller and intermediate-size licenses, which does not involve the effects of anonymous bidding. I suggest that the data, even though they do not disclose bidder identities, are entirely consistent with a more vigorous presence of new entrant and non-incumbent bidders who are protected from retaliatory and blocking bidding by large incumbents by anonymous bidding and are, therefore, more willing to engage in strong competition.

The telcos and cablecos can wail and moan to Communications Daily about the “risks” of anonymous bidding to the FCC, but the principal risk of anonymous bidding seems thus far to be the risk that fat-cat telecoms incumbents won’t be able to get all the spectrum in this auction by their usual bullying and exclusionary tactics. There’s no risk at all to the treasury — revenue from the auction is already wildly exceeding pre-auction projections — and there’s no risk that competition will be wan, as the data presented here amply demonstrate.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Martin Gets the Ball Rolling On “Blocking” Investigation: What Does It Mean And What Happens Next?

As always, I am impressed with the ability of so many people to hate whatever Kevin Martin does, and for so many different reasons! At CES, Martin announced that the FCC would investigate allegations of blocking content and determine whether they violated the FCC’s four broadband principles. Comcast pledged to cooperate in any investigation (although, unsurprisingly, Comcast representatives — along with supposed object of Martin’s affection AT&T and other big telcos and cablecos — said at CES they would restructure or eliminate FCC altogether).

As I said in my PK blog post, while details remain unclear, I am “cautiously optimistic” that this will be a good thing. But it did not take long for the folks in the “Martin is a bastard 24/7 crwd” to express themselves. DSL reports doubted this would go anywhere, while the “why ya gotta hate on cable” crowd at Techdirt opined that Martin would never investigate if it were a telco rather than a cable co.

So we flash forward to yesterday, when new developments began to percolate out of the FCC. Of significance:

1) The FCC issued a public notice asking for comment on our Petition for Declaratory Ruling that Comcast’s “network management practice” of messing with BitTorrent uploads violated the FCC’s “Broadband Policy Statement,” which includes a principle that network operators may not block or degrade content or applications. In a separate public notice (but as part of the same proceeding), the FCC also seeks comment on the Vuze Petition for Rulemaking on how broadband access providers handle and shape IP traffic generally. (Copy of Vuze Petition here, copy of our Petition here).

2) Separately, the FCC issued a separate public notice seeking comment on a Petition filed by Public Knowledge and the usual suspects asking the FCC to declare that wireless carriers cannot deny short codes or block text messaging. This goes after Verizon’s high profile “oopsie” of denying a request by NARAL for a short code. Although, as we pointed out in the Petition, the more likely and pernicious problem is with plain old anticompetitive blocking, such as denying a short code to VOIP provider Rebtel.com and denying applications to major banks offering competing services.

3) Comcast confirmed that the FCC has lanched a formal inquiry into whether it violated the FCC’s broadband policy statement. Comcast reiterated that it will fully cooperate with the FCC, and expects any investigation to show that Comcast did not block content and has engaged in legitimate network management practices.

Not bad for a commitment made a week ago. But what does it mean and where will it go from here? Analysis below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz PreGame Show: Cable Cos Largely Pass — No Surprise And A Win for Public

Yesterday was the day for companies interested in bidding in the 700 MHz auction to file their “Short Form” applications with the FCC. While it will still take a few days for the FCC to process the forms and for companies that made errors to correct the forms and give companies a chance to correct possible errors, we are seeing a few interesting developments already — notably in cable land. It is also interesting to see that MetroPCS and Leap never did get together before the auction.

On the cable side, no real surprise that most cable cos are sitting this one out. (Back in August, I already doubtful they’d want to play.) Actually, the mild surprise is that Cox is going it alone. I have not expected Spectrum Co. (the Comcast/Time Warner/other cable co joint venture) to bid, despite winning big in the 2006 and AWS auction and participating in the rulemaking for the 700 MHz auction. For one thing, thanks to the introduction of anonymous bidding, the cable cos cannot effectively target their industry rivals (like the telcos or the DBS guys) to drive up prices or block them altogether, as they did in the 2006 AWS auction. So a big motivator for the cable companies to participate, i.e. strategic blocking outside the value of the spectrum itself, is gone.

In addition, Sprint divorced itself from the partnership and shacked up with Google, leaving the cable cos with an ugly alimony settlement for the AWS auction and no wireless partner to help them build the network. And, finally, the cable guys haven’t figured out what the heck to do with the AWS spectrum they acquired last summer. While that went relatively cheap (45 cents/mhz pop), it still cost $2.5 Billion with nothing to show and a danger that if the cable cos don’t start building out a network they will lose the licenses at the end of the license term for failure to meet the mandatory performance metrics. (Licensees are required to meet build out and service requirements. The aren’t terribly onerous for the AWS band, but they do require you to build something and push a signal through it.) Given that the 700 MHz licenses have the most rigorous build out requirements ever (in no small part to ensure that folks like Spectrum Co. don’t win the spectrum and then “warehouse” it), the cable cos are very unlikely to buy spectrum on the off chance they’ll figure out something to do with it.

Finally, there is the big reason every is pointing to — the cable stock valuations. Cable stocks have declined significantly this year, both as a function of the general decline in the market and because it looks like Verizon bet right on fiber to the home. Competing against FIOS means that cable operators (particularly Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner) are in for another round of expensive capital investment to maintain their competitive footing or risk losing customers to FIOS. In this sort of situation, the last thing investors want to see is cable companies spending billions for licenses they can’t use unless they spend billions more to build networks from scratch.

This last is probably why Cablevision is sitting it out, despite vigorously playing in the AWS auction in ’06, and why Cox, which recently went private, has decided to toss its hat in the ring and play. Cox also has the advantage that licenses that overlap its territories (assuming it does not go for C Block or D Block) also have significant overlap with the area covered by AT&T with its purchase of Aloha. This potentially removes a major competitor for the A and B Block licenses, giving Cox a chance to get coverage of it’s network and offer a package of wireless and wireline services down the road. So Cox can ante up for a chance to catch a bargain without taking a stock hit. By contrast, Cablevision directly overlaps with Verizon for the licenses that cover its region and the adjacent markets into which Cablevision would want to expand. Verizon will fight like a tiger because it wants the spectrum, so the inability to block due to anonymous bidding does not help Cablevision. And, because Cablevision is publicly traded, even anteing for a chance to play will cost it big time.

UPDATE Apparently, Cablevision did file a short form. A Cablevision spokescritter said that Cablevision was reserving the right to bid, but declined to say if Cablevision would bid. Earlier stories I had seen said they wouldn’t bid. Well, I give them credit for trying. Good luck trying to break out of NYC.

All in all, I consider the elimination of Comcast and Time Warner as potential bidders to be a real win for the public interest. As I have written before, allowing cable companies to bid for this spectrum raises extremely serious competition problems and would make it virtually impossible to see a new, independent broadband provider emerge. Given that the 700 MHz auction creates a potential “transformative moment” for wireless broadband, and therefore potentially for broadband generally (especially the much hoped for “third pipe”), I breathe a huge sigh of relief to see the cable boys out of it.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Verizon's “Sitefinder-lite,” Cox Traffic Shaping (Without Lying), And The Shape of Things To Come

Jim Harper at Technology Liberation Front pinged me (sort of) to comment on reports that anyone who subscribes to Verizon’s FIOS broadband service who mistypes a domain name will now land on a Verizon search page. So, for example, trying to get to i-want-sprint-cell-phones.com will land you on a a page like this (my thanks to ace domain name practitioner John Berryhill for capturing this in a screen shot and putting it up on his web page). Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Cox cable is also interfering with BitTorrent uploads, although at least Cox has the intelligence to admit from the start that it actively manages traffic, rather than go through several rounds of idiotic denials like Comcast (which is probably why the Cox issue is getting a lot less notice).

Briefly:

1) I ain’t that excited about the Verizon DNS redirection in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it breaks end-to-end, and I’m not happy about it. But unlike traffic shaping, this development was foreseen and approved of by the FCC and the Supreme Court in the Brand X case when both pegged DNS as the thing that made broadband access an “information service” and therefore free from pesky regulation. At least Verizon’s redirection doesn’t actually hurt the average user.

2) OTOH, it does raise serious privacy issues and highlights the general problems of letting the ISPs control all of this. There was, after all, a reason we regulated telcos and cable cos to keep user information private. It also starts to raise a very troubling question — what happens when network operators and application developers learn to distrust all the basic protocols under which the ‘net operates? It works fine for the first few guys. But what holds this together is everyone agreeing on a set of basic protocols. Eliminate the trust in those protocols, and things start to break down.

3) Some folks that gave a great big yawn to Comcast’s traffic shaping have gone ballistic over messing with DNS lookup. But both are natural consequences of turning this stuff over to ISPs. Folks who hate the thought of even limited government regulation of network management but also hate the thought ISPs messing with DNS and other protocols have some tough choices ahead.

Thoughts below . . . .

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Econoklastic

The Best Senator Money Can Buy

The mainstream media is finally picking up on the real story behind Senator Jay Rockefeller’s (D-WV) push for immunity for the big telecom companies for cooperating with the Bush administration in illegally surveilling the communications of U.S. citizens: the huge spike in telco contributions to Rockefeller in 2007, particularly from AT&T and Verizon executives. According to today’s Washington Post, AT&T and Verizon have given $47,350 in 2007, up from $5,000 in 2006 and $7,000 in 2005.

AT&T attributes the increase to Rockefeller being a senior Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee up for reelection in 2008. However, the contributions from all other major telecoms companies belie this excuse: $4,000 in 2005, $4,900 in 2006, and $5,250 in 2007. The rest of the telecoms industry raised their contributions to Rockefeller by 7.14% in 2007; AT&T and Verizon increased their contributions by 847%.

I’d say the difference has more to do with Rockefeller chairing the Senate Intelligence Committee and shepherding legislation which would free AT&T and Verizon from roughly 40 pending lawsuits which charge the telcos with violating the privacy rights of U.S. citizens by cooperating with the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance programme.

The story of the AT&T and Verizon contributions was broken by Ryan Singel on Wired’s Threat Level blog.

This is one more example of why progressives need to treat the Democratic Congress with the same skeptical eye that they did the Republicans. Rockefeller has sold out to the telcos and progressives should respond by refusing to support his reelection. It’s better to see real enemies in office than false friends who can be bought to betray you; it would be even better to see real progressives in primary challenges to Democrats who are bought by corporate interests.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Of Bandwidth Hogs, QoS, and Regulatory Chameleons

I can live with the internet as a best efforts network. I can live with the internet as a regulated utility. What I absolutely cannot stand is the idiocy of the current regulatory scheme that allows broadband access providers to justify the deregulated state of a competitive best efforts environment because they need to provide a public utility.

Case in point, Comcast’s recent actions of cutting off “bandwidth hogs” and purportedly throttling BitTorrent traffic to its subscribers (Comcast denies it targets BitTorrent traffic). Comcast in its user agreement explicitly reserves the right to cut off users using “too much bandwidth” — although Comcast refuses to say how much bandwidth is “too much.” Comcast defends its actions (including the secrecy of the bandwidth limit) on the grounds that “bandwidth hogs” overload the system capacity and thus slow down everyone’s use of the system.

As I discuss below, Comcast and the other broadband providers are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They claim they have no liability for anything and should not be regulated because they are providing “best efforts” services and everyone knows it. But when they want to cut off users, tier traffic, or indulge in other behavior that sticks it to subscribers they haul out the “Quality of Service (QoS)” and “critical infrastructure” arguments. “What about voice?” They cry. “What about poor crippled Tiny Tim and his medical monitoring unit, cut off by some bandwidth hog downloading pirated child pornography and Al Qeda instructional videos (which, we will admit, makes a very interesting mash up when viewed via deep packet inspection)? You have to let us do whatever we want and charge whatever we want because people are relying on us for critical services.”

Of course, historically, companies that provided critical services were “public utilities.” At which point, the telcos and cable cos amazingly morph back into laissez faire “best efforts” providers and subscribers need to know there are no guarantees and that which we tell you three times may or may not be true.

My further analysis of the amazing regulatory chameleon, the private public utility, below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Bush Administration DOJ Just Can't Do Enough For Its Friends

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. For AT&T and its industry compatriots, domestic spying is the gift that keeps on giving.

Today, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division announced it had filed written comments in the FCC’s Inquiry Into Broadband Industry Practices, aka lets do a wussy study on net neutrality so we can pretend we are defending the public by ‘being vigillant.’ And — surprise, surpirse, SURPRISE! — the DOJ Antiutrust division comments look like the “Cliffsnotes version” of the AT&T filing.

So to recap, in the last few weeks, we have seen top Administration officials go public with classified data to push for retroactive immunity for the telcos for domestic spying, we’ve seen AT&T admit that they “accidentally” bleeped out Pearl Jam’s anti-Bush lyrics, and now we have the DOJ Antitrust division going to the mat for their buddies at the FCC.

I tell you, in this day and age of rampant cynicism and political opportunism, it warms my heart to see the Bushies stick with their buddies through thick and thin, and to see AT&T doing the same. Never mind what it looks like! As Mirror Universe (Evil) Cartman would sing: “You guys are my best friends, through tick and thin we’ll always be together . . . I love you guys.”

Of course, it probably helps that the tiering that the telcos and cable cos want to do makes it much easier to monitor traffic via deep packet inspection, and the fact that it is an “information service” rather than a telecom service means the telcos and cable cos can do whatever they want with the data (they don’t even need to get a warrant, as they would to take advantage of CALEA). But it’s mutual self-interest like this that keeps friendships strong! This way the DOJ gets its domestic spying built into the architecture, and the cable and telcos get to fulfill their fantasies of exacting monopoly rents out of every single bit that crosses their networks (despite the collateral damage to free speech and the long term damage to the economy as a whole). But hey, a “duopoly tax” in the form of higher costs for slower speeds is a small price to pay to have surveillance equipment built directly into the network architecture — and to help a true friend.

You can read my official reaction as VP Media Access Project in this press release on the MAP web page (also reproduced below).

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Sprint Swaps Spectrum Co. for Google: Care To Guess Who Bids in 700 MHz Now?

As I repeatedly observed during the lead up to last Tuesday’s FCC meeting to decide the rules for the 700 MHz band, it is an extremely risky business to try to guess who will bid at this stage. Despite the much shorter time between announcing the rules for the AWS auction last year and the time bidders needed to get their forms in, numerous companies changed their positions, created new ventures, and generally did the unexpected.

Now, with everyone speculating whether whether or not Google will really bid or whether the cablecos will give the telcos a run for their money, comes a significant change. In the course of a week, Sprint has forged an alliance with Google, followed a few days later with a surprise request to exit the cableco consortium SpectrumCo. This comes on top of Sprint’s announcement two weeks ago that it will team with Clearwire to do nationwide WiMax.

And suddenly all those wise speculations about how Sprint won’t bid because it doesn’t have the cash and it has enough spectrum, Clearwire won’t bid because it’s too small to challenge the telcos, and Google won’t bid because they don’t have the expertise and don’t want to spend the money, need some serious recalculation. A Google/Sprint/Clearwire consortium (with possible help from Intel, which both owns a chunk of Clearwire and participated in the auction rulemaking as part of the “4G Coalition” with Google, Skype, and Yahoo!) looks like much more of a spectrum player than any of them alone. Sprint and Clearwire have the infrastructure and expertise, Google has the bucks and the need to expand into wireless. Further, depending on the nature of the partnership, Google could start testing and and marketing its wireless services now so that it does not have to wait until it has built and activated a network (which probably won’t be until 2010 at the earliest).

Meanwhile, what happens to SpectrumCo.? Granted the cablecos still have no plan for the licenses they got in the AWS auction (since, lets face it, the real reason to show up was to block DBS from getting a terrestrial broadband pipe), but to the extent they pretended to have a plan, they usually cited their ability to work with Sprint as a means of implementing it. So what happens now? Granted the cablecos still have tons of money to throw at this, but how will Wall St. treat their stocks if they look set to pour another couple of billion into a business without the benefit of an experienced partner with existing infrastructure? And besides, with the FCC adopting anonymous bidding, the cablecos will find it much harder (if not impossible) to target and block rivals without going all the way and actually winning the licenses. (Remember, blocking is usually cheap because you don’t usually have to spend the blocking premium, you just have to prove to the other guy that you are willing to spend the blocking premium. It’s like when tough guy walks in on shopkeeper and asks if shopkeeper would like to buy “insurance.” Tough guy doesn’t have to actually trash the store to get paid. As long as shopkeeper believes tough guy will break his legs, shopkeeper will pay to avoid testing the theory.)

So, a mere three days after the FCC announces rules, we find ourselves reexamining the conventional wisdom in light of changed events. McDowell rather relished the warning he gave Martin and the rest of the majority that it was “risky” to tailor the band plan to attract a single “white knight” who would become a new national broadband provider. Suddenly, Martin’s confidence that if you set the table folks will come to dinner seems a bit more justified.

But it’s still a few months until FCC forms to participate will be due, and anything can happen in between.

Stay tuned . . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Endgame: Has AT&T Asked Bush to Put Thumb On Scale?

Unsurprisingly, in the swirl of folks around this week’s House Commerce “iPhone” Hearing, rumors and gossip about the 700 MHz Endgame abounded. In the nasty-but-sadly-believable category comes a rumor that the Bells have asked (through a wholly owned subsidiary in the House) for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to do a “study” on whether any open access condition (of any definition) or other incumbent restriction (such as the spectrum caps urged by the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition) will depress auction revenue.

To those who know how these things usually work, the first question is “Why Ask OMB and not the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) or the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which usually do this sort of thing?” And to those of us who have lived through the last 6 years of an Administration that spells “research” P-R-O-P-O-G-A-N-D-A will cynically answer, “because that way the telcos can make sure they get the ‘right’ result.” Unlike CBO or CRS, which are under the control of Congress and generally take their research pretty seriously, OMB is directly under the control of the Bush administration.

Man, Telco spying for NSA is just the gift that keeps on giving. First the Bush Justice Department behaves like a nice little lap doggie and rolls over and plays dead for AT&T buying BellSouth. Then Bush tried to give the Bells retroactive immunity for what they did. Now, according to rumor, Bush will help the telcos rig the auction to keep the status quo.

Some needed background and why the oft-repeated idea that open access will automatically reduce auction revenue is a load of nonsense below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Last Call — Part I: Cable

The FCC sure had a busy day a its last open meeting on December 20, 2006. In addition to the oral argument for the indecency cases in the 2nd Cir., the FCC also had its last open meeting of 2006. While it is impossible to provide a thorough analysis until the FCC releases the full text of the orders it adopted, below find some brief impressions based on the what we know so far about the FCC’s cable franchising order, cable rates report. Later, a post on the surprise Return of the Incredibly Awful Cyren Call Proposal.

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