Tales of the Sausage Factory

What the Heck Is The “Duplex Gap” And Why Has It Blown Up The July FCC Meeting?

Difficult as it is to believe, there are times in policy when issues do not break down simply by partisan interest or into neat categories like incumbents v. competitors or broadcasters v. wireless carriers. Sometimes — and I know people are not gonna believe me on this – issues break down on pure substance and require lots of really hard choices. Of course, because these issues are highly technical and complicated, most people like to ignore them. But these kinds of issues are also usually the hardest and most intractable for people who actually care about what the world looks like and how this policy decisions will actually work in reality.

 

So it is with the question of whether to put broadcasters in the duplex gap as part of the repacking plan in the incentive auction. Did your eyes glaze over yet? Heck, for most people, it’s gonna take a paragraph or two of explanation just to understand what that sentence means. But even if you don’t know what it means, you can understand enough for this basic summary:

 

  1. Just about every stakeholder in the auction — wireless carriers, broadcasters, wireless microphone users, tech company supporters of using unlicensed spectrum in the broadcast bands, public interest groups — all told the FCC not to put broadcasters in the duplex gap.

 

  1. Nevertheless, the Auction Team proposed putting broadcasters in the duplex gap, based on a set of simulation that suggested that the FCC would only get back 50-60 MHz of spectrum to auction if they protected the duplex gap. The Chairman circulated a draft order adopting the Auction Team’s proposal.

 

  1. Everybody freaked out. The Chairman found he did not have 3 votes, or possibly not even 2 votes, to adopt his proposal on duplex gap. The freak out is so intense and so bad that the FCC actually waived the Sunshine Period for this itemso that interested parties can continue to talk to FCC staff and commissioners until the night before the meeting. The FCC also released additional data showing the impact would be limited to a relatively small number of cities.

 

  1. That helped some, but not enough. Despite progress on negotiations, the FCC clearly did not have time to get to the right solution in the 5 days between the release of the new data and the actual vote. Also, a bunch of people were pissed that the Auction Team hadn’t released the data sooner, and hadn’t provided more explanation of the underlying model and the assumptions behind it. On Tuesday, the Republican Chairs of the House Energy & Commerce Committee & the Telecom Subcommittee wrote Wheeler a letter chastising him for having a bad process and calling on Wheeler to pull the item from the agenda entirely. On Wed., the day before the vote, Wheeler wrote back defending the process but agreeing to pull the item (and the associated item on whether or not to change the spectrum reserve) until the August Meeting three weeks from now.

 

In Policyland, this passes for high drama. It is, to say the least, highly unusual. Enough so that even folks who find technical issues like this complicated and boring to the point of insanity are asking: “what the heck just happened there? Who lost and who won?” The equally complicated answer: “no one lost or won, we’ve got a serious debate about a technical problem which has consequences no matter how you resolve it” is not nearly as satisfying as “the carriers” or “the tech companies” or whatever.

 

I explain and unpack all of this below, as well as consider possible impacts and ways to resolve this. But again, I want to stress this is a super hard problem. This is about competing goals and the difficulty of predicting the future with any certainty. It’s also about trust and stuff, which is hard to come by in Washington even at the best of times. This is not subject to simplistic plotlines like “Oh, the Auction Team are out of control” or “The broadcasters and unlicensed supporters are just being stubborn.” (Wait, the NAB and the unlicensed guys and the wireless microphone guys are on the same side? And they agree with Verizon? WTF?) This stuff is hard.

 

More below . . .

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

AT&T, Anger Management and Spectrum Legislation

Based on recent statements, it’s hard to tell whose angrier at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its Chair, Julius Genachowski: AT&T’s Upper Management or the House Commerce Committee Republicans. Mere mention of Genachowski’s name converts House Commerce Committee Republicans, such as Telecom Subcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR), from urbane sophisticated legislators into sputtering mad parodies of Elmer Fudd.  “Oooh that wascally Chaiwman! Always wegulating the fwee market! I’ll fix his wagon!” Meanwhile, AT&T CEO Randal Stephenson devoted the main part of his recent earnings call to repeating variations on “Juliuth, you’re desthpicable.”

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Smart Cities, Spectrum, and Senator Snowe — Will Any Republican Presidential Candidates Show Vision?

Thomas Friedman writes in his column yesterday that none of the Republican candidates has focused much on technological innovation, then proceeds to focus on the matter of “smart cities.” Friedman’s thesis is fairly straightforward: to maintain our competitive edge, we will need to keep pumping up our bandwidth, particularly in cities and towns which historically act as the incubators for The Next Big Thing and all its associated, Highly Useful Little Things. Blair Levin’s Gig U gets favorable mention, and Blair gets quoted a lot on why we want huge bandwidth in urban areas as well as making sure everyone gets access to functional broadband.

Let me give the Republican candidates that care (and I just know y’all hang on my every word) some advice. When you want to know where to stand on spectrum, follow the lead of Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Most importantly, do NOT follow the lead of House Republicans. Why? See below . . . .

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Posted in How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

My Insanely Long Field Guide To Cisco’s War On The TV White Spaces

Will Cisco’s war against the TV white spaces tank incentive auctions? No doubt this question comes as a surprise to the vast majority of people unaware Cisco was running a war against TV white spaces (TVWS). True, Cisco has mostly tried to stay behind the scenes. But as we get closer to the Super Committee deadline, which include negotiations for incentive auction rules that would let TVWS survive, Cisco has become increasingly willing to go public with its anti-TVWS lobbying efforts.

This blog post on the Cisco blog, followed by this letter from the High Tech Spectrum Coalition (HTSC), finally say publicly what Cisco and its allies have been saying privately since debate over spectrum legislation began last January: “Death to the TV White Spaces.” Instead, argues Cisco, open up a new block of 5 GHz spectrum to “replace” the white spaces. But with spectrum legislation in trouble – as evidenced by CTIA’s non-stop radio advertising here in D.C. and it’s recent ‘we love unlicensed, can’t we all get along?’ letter to the Super Committee – Cisco’s continued opposition to white spaces threatens to tank any hope of getting incentive auctions passed either in the Super Committee or elsewhere.

Incentive auctions, while popular as a revenue generator, were always a tough sell because of broadcaster passive/aggressive opposition. Adding D Block reallocation made it even more difficult. Cisco’s war on the TVWS threatens to be the final straw that makes this lift just too heavy. It splits a tech community that would otherwise wholly support incentive auctions, while simultaneously pissing off key members of Congress who helped get TVWS done in the first place.

So the time has come for Cisco, CTIA, and others who really want incentive auctions, to ask themselves whether it’s worth it to risk incentive auctions just so that Cisco can keep Microsoft, Google/Motorola, Dell, and others from bringing a competing product to market. The Hutchison/Rockefeller Bill, S.911, was a compromise that kept spectrum for TVWS, gave Cisco the 5 GHz block it wants, and made sure that a minimum threshold of 84 MHz would be auctioned before allocating any recovered spectrum to replace white spaces lost by auction or repacking. While not great from my perspective as a white spaces supporter (and I’d still like to see it tweaked some), it was at least a livable compromise. Cisco’s anti-TVWS campaign already backfired once, with the Republican discussion draft to require auction for all unlicensed spectrum. Will Cisco and CTIA fail to learn just how easy it would be for them to blow this for everyone? Or will they settle for the compromise that got a bipartisan bill out of the Commerce Committee?

Why Cisco has been gunning for the TVWS, the quiet little war of the last ten months, and how to get out of this quagmire before it’s too late, below. . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

PK Action Alert To Save the Future of Unlicensed Spectrum

Despite the obvious reliance on unlicensed spectrum by Americans every day in the form of everything from wifi to baby monitors to RFID, the current mania for spectrum auction revenues combined with lobbying from companies opposed to the TV white space has put the future of unlicensed spectrum at risk. This is particularly true under the discussion draft circulated by House Republicans last week. That draft would require that before the FCC could allocate any new spectrum for unlicensed use, it would first have to have an auction that would allow companies to buy the spectrum for exclusive use. Only if everyone collectively outbid AT&T or Verizon for unlicensed would the spectrum go to unlicensed use. As Stacy Higginbotham at GigaOm notes, this would have devastating impact on the future of unlicensed and the innovation that comes out of the unlicensed bands.

As if that were not enough, the proposed bill literally allows companies to buy their way out of FCC consumer protection regulation.

We are trying to stop this before it’s too late.  Public Knowledge has created an Action Alert asking anyone who cares about protecting unlicensed, or opposed to letting companies literally buy their own rules, then help us this Friday (tomorrow) by telling your member of Congress not to sell off our digital future or let companies buy their way out of public interest obligations. Sign up for the PK mobile Action Alert and you will get a text message tomorrow letting you directly contact your member of Congress so you can tell them why this bill is a really, really bad idea.

I reprint the PK Action Alert below.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Posted in How Democracy Works, Or Doesn't, I Fear These Things, Life In The Sausage Factory, Media Ownership, Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Chairman Genachowski Should Appoint Commissioner Baker To Chair The Spectrum Task Force

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski has a spectrum politics problem problem. On the one hand, he learned from last year’s D Block battle that he needs to stay aggressively on message to sell his spectrum reforms.  His every speech on spectrum therefore reads like a campaign speech for incentive auctions. ‘We have a looming spectrum crisis, we need bold action, Congress must act now to pass incentive auctions.’ But, as Genachowski has discovered, this approach can have unintended consequences. Recently, Commissioner Robert McDowell reported that this focus on incentive auctions created uncertainty in Silicon Valley over the FCC’s commitment to the TV white spaces (TVWS). This follows earlier concerns from Senator Snowe (R-ME) and others that the Chairman’s exclusive public focus on incentive auctions invariably means giving short shrift to other, equally important spectrum reforms identified in the National Broadband Plan.

 

Genachowski moved quickly to reaffirm that support for TVWS remains strong and that TVWS is a big part of the FCC’s  spectrum for broadband initiative. Further, the inclusion of several spectrum items for the next open FCC meeting shows that Genachowski remains committed to broad spectrum reform. But these incidents underscore Genachowski’s difficult dilemma. How can he campaign to push through incentive auctions on the one hand, while making sure that other aspects of the spectrum reform agenda receive the prominence and attention they need to move forward? The fact that anyone could doubt the FCC’s continuing commitment to developing the TVWS despite its broad bipartisan support and support from the Obama Administration spectrum team underscores how little it takes to undermine confidence even in reforms already accomplished.

Commissioner Meredith Baker may hold the solution to Chairman Genachowski’s spectrum politics dilemma.  Genachowski should appoint Commissioner Baker chair of the reconstituted Spectrum Task Force. At the moment, the Spectrum Task Force is co-chaired by Julie Knapp (Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology) and Ruth Milkman  (Chief of the Wireless Bureau). In an ideal world, having two such extraordinarily qualified experts and Bureau Chiefs heading the Spectrum Task Force would be enough to show that Genachowski is not neglecting spectrum reform outside incentive auctions. But in status-conscious Washington DC, the sad truth is that only a Commissioner can give the Spectrum Task Force the “star power” it needs to reassure everyone that serious work continues along multiple fronts.

More below . . . .

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Posted in Life In The Sausage Factory, Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , | 2 Comments (Comments closed)
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