Tales of the Sausage Factory

D.C. Circuit Affirms Inside Wiring In Fairly Broad Opinion. Terrestrial Loophole Next? And What About Time Warner's TV Anywhere?

While folks in the suburbs sometimes forget this, a lot of people live in what we call “multiple dwelling units” (MDUs) — which is a fancy way to say things like apartment buildings and condos. One of the problems for people trying to switch from one provider to another for cable (for example, from Comcast to RCN) is that a cable operator may already have an exclusive deal with the landlord to provide cable services to everyone in the building. Competitors asked the FCC to ban such practices. In 2003, under Michael Powell, the FCC refused to ban such exclusive deals because “regulation is always bad, mmmmkayyy.” In 2007, as part of Kevin Martin’s attack on cable market power evil vendetta against the helpless cable industry, the FCC reversed this determination and found that under Section 628(b) of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. 548) it needed to prohibit cable operators from entering into or enforcing such exclusive deals because Verizon can’t sell FIOS w/out being able to offer triple play. Predictably, this was widely denounced by the cable companies and their cheerleaders as not merely unwarranted, but a violation of law and certain to be overturned on appeal.

Turns out, not so much. In fact, in a rather broadly worded opinion, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the 2007 Order. Indeed, the language affirming the decision opens the door to the FCC tackling other cable issues, such as the terrestrial loophole (which Verizon wasted no time in pointing out to the FCC). Mind you, it remains unclear at this point whether the new FCC will have any interest in cable market power or not.

Still, there are a number of important aspects about this case, especially its implications for the FCC to regulate Time Warner’s TV Anywhere strategy, aka “how cable operators plan to preserve their existing business model and fight off Netflix.” I discuss this in more detail below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Did AT&T Get Left Off The Cable Investigation List — A Very Boring Answer.

While killing time waiting for the Nov 4 meeting to start FCC Chair Kevin Martin discussed the recently opened investigation into cable pricing. To the surprise of those who conceive of Martin as simply having a “vendetta” against cable, the list of companies getting notices about the investigation included Verizon. OTOH, it did not include AT&T. Needless to say, the “Martin can do no good because he is EEEEVVVVVIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!” crowd hit on this as proof that Martin is merely doing the bidding of his telco masters (Verizon having been added to the investigation merely for protective coloring).

Well, I’ve given my views on Kevin Martin repeatedly. As I have said time and again, I may disagree with him a lot, but I don’t think he is an industry shill. He does what he thinks is right and the devil with the consequences. While this has its disadvantages, notably his managing to piss off the other four Commissioners and thus secure for himself a series of policy set backs and rack up a record of number of votes actually lost by the Chairman, it does mean I tend to look for an explanation that goes beyond “Martin is a bastard 24/7 and therefore this is part of an evil plot.”

Here, I think the non-AT&T conspiracy theory answer is fairly straightforward. It has to do with the particular practice the FCC is investigating — forcing customers to migrate to digital. As AT&T does not seem to be behaving in the same way as the named cable operators that got letters from the Enforcement Bureau, they are not being investigated.

OTOH, even if the FCC does find evidence of deceptive advertising practices or anticompetitive conduct, it may lack authority to act.

Thoughts below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

What Will Comcast Do Today? First Compliance Check On Comcast/BitTorrent Order.

Back on August 20, the FCC released its Order resolving the complaint against Comcast for blocking P2P protocols. As part of the remedy, the FCC ordered Comcast to provide a full report on its current “network management practices” within 30 days, along with a transition plan for how it intended to manage traffic after it discontinued its current practices. The FCC then invited Free Press and anyone else interested to keep a sharp eye on Comcast.

Comcast has sworn up and down that it will comply with the FCC’s Order and it is only appealing in the D.C. Circuit as a matter of principle. I, nasty cynical public interest dude that I am, so doubt this noble intention that i have filed a law suit of my own to get the FCC to clamp down on Comcast now. So, here we are at last on September 19. What does Comcast do?

Comcast has a range of options. Comcast could refuse to comply, forcing the FCC to take action and potentially giving Comcast grounds to go to the D.C. Circuit for an emergency stay. I think that pretty unlikely, given what a big deal Comcast has made about complying.

Comcast could fully comply. But, to paraphrase Arlo Gutherie, that isn’t very likely and I don’t really expect it.

What I expect is for Comcast to file something incomplete, possibly with a request for the FCC to protect its proprietary data. But more likely they will file something that will be just enough compliance to present Kevin Martin with a nasty political choice: Does he enforce the letter of Order and go in guns blazing against Comcast, knowing that Comcast will make great political hay of his supposed “vendetta” against them? Or does he let Comcast thumb their noses at him and — in addition to the humiliation factor — have public interest groups question whether he really intend to enforce that end of the year deadline and thus call his hard-won consumer protection credentials into question? The situation is further complicated by the internal politics of the Commission. Whichever choice Martin makes (and he gets to make it himself, since it is an enforcement action and not subject to a vote of the full Commission), it is almost certain that two Commissioners will call him on it publicly. McDowell and Tate are almost certain to regard whatever fig leaf Comcast files as sufficient, whereas Copps and Adelstein will likely raise a hue and cry if Martin lets Comcast get away with filing an incomplete report.

As an aside, I also expect Comcast to file after close of business and to do so by hand rather than electronically, so that the content is not immediately accessible. I also do not expect to get a service copy, despite being counsel to complainants. That’s perfectly legal of Comcast, as it can take the position that this is a report to the FCC and not a pleading that needs to be served on the complainant or complainant’s counsel. But it does mean I don’t expect to see what Comcast actually filed until sometime next week.

Happily, I put my trust in the advice of the Bible and do not put my trust in princes — or FCC Commissioners. In this case, the pending Petition for Review gives us a certain leverage, and Comcast will have to consider that it will have a tough time arguing my Petition is moot and pointless when they are not actually in compliance with the FCC’s Order.

Perhaps I misjudge Comcast. It would certainly make my life easier if they just complied and filed something open that detailed their past practices and explained how they planned to go forward (including details of he 250 GB cap). In particular, I very much want to know if Comcast intends to exempt its own content from the 250 GB cap. That would be rather anticompetitive, and without any actual rational connection to the stated need to reduce last-mile congestion. Comcast originated packets running from the head-end to the subscriber take up as much capacity as non-Comcast originated packets.

See, there goes that nasty and suspicious mind of mine again. Still, I hope I’m wrong and Comcast comes clean.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Tell Me Again How Professional Journalists Have Higher Standards Than Us Mere Bloggers.

I generally don’t consider myself a “citizen journalist.” While I believe strongly that bloggers can be journalists, I don’t believe that bloggers are journalists simply by being bloggers and imitating their favorite left-wing or right-wing pundit. For me, the importance of blogging is that it creates genuine conversation and give and take, a willingness to rediscover once taboo subjects like politics and public policy. You know, the stuff it became no longer polite to discuss because none of us fragile souls could handle disagreement, so we had to leave it to the experts.

But occasionally, one sees a pompous soul defending “traditional journalism” and arguing that it is positively dangerous and unsafe to let the mob of “citizen journalists” loose upon an unsuspecting world. And next time I encounter such a poor misguided soul, I intend to ask him or her about Scott Glover and his hack job on Chief Judge Alexander Kozinski, as published in the LA Times.

As documented in several posts at Patterico’s Pontifications, it would appear that Scott Glover was “played” by one Cyrus Sanai, although perhaps “played” is the wrong word. Sanai appears to have pursued a relentless vendetta against Kozinski, and found a willing ally in Glover. As Kozinski’s wife explains in this rebuttal, Glover’s descriptions of the items on the website are at best misleading and at worst outright efforts to sensationalize things circulated all over the internet (typically with the “not work safe” heading). For example, what Glover describes as “video of a half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal” turns out to be a a fairly popular Youtube video of a man who had gone to relieve himself in a pasture fending off an aroused donkey. (The San Francisco Chronicle, apparently wishing to demonstrate the further virtues of trained journalists over bloggers, characterized the video as images of bestiality.

As a result of this rather shoddy bit of professional journalism, a well respected judge has been made an object of ridicule and disgust, Kozinski declared a mistrial and initiated an ethics investigation of himself — costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars for no good purpose, and a lawyer with a reputation for vindictiveness is boasting how — with the help of such skilled professional journalism — he brought down a federal judge who dared defy him. Nice.

And the response of the LA Times? Kozinski should have just ignored the story. Boy, says the Times Editorial Board, that would have sure shown those blue noses who still read newspapers! I rather agree with Patterico, however, who notes that the real question is why did the LA Times put this story on its front page? Not since Bob Balaban manipulated Sally Field to go after Paul Newman in Absence of Malice has a reporter so willingly served as the tool of another to report something so accurately and yet untruthfully. It is merely the crowning insult that the LA Times should editorialize that Kozinski is somehow at fault for not telling them to bugger off — preferably in front of a camera for the amusement of the masses and future storage at alex.kozinski.com.

To repeat, I make no claims to being a “citizen journalist” simply because I blog. And I respect the work of real journalists no matter what medium they use. But after incidents like this, professional journalists should hardly wonder why so many bloggers feel they can replace them.

Stay tuned . . . .

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

Tales of the Sausage Factory

D.C. Cir. to Comcast: “Making You Obey The Law Is Not A 'Vendetta.'”

When an industry challenging agency action loses the sympathy of the D.C. Cir., it is a good sign that someone overreached just a tad. In apparent preparation for the The Big Cable Show in New Orleans this week, the D.C. Circuit issued this opinion denying Comcast’s insistence that it deserves a waiver of the FCC’s cable set-top box interoperability rules.

The case actually has an interesting precedential aspect I shall discuss below, but the primary reason I am noting it is because this is the first in a series of cases in which Comcast and the rest of the cable industry have actually pleaded that they should be excused from the law because enforcement is all part of an evil vendetta by Kevin Martin against the cable industry. Really. Because while people may accuse Hilary Clinton of having a “sense of entitlement” about the Democratic Nomination, she has the humility of a saint with zero self-esteem compared with the ravening sense of entitlement of the cable industry.

Mind you, the cable industry won won so much for so long at the FCC that a Chairman willing to enforce the law against the cable industry, with 2 other Commissioners willing to vote with him, is quite the shock to the system. And of course, when you have a paid chorus of wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress and captive industry press (combined, I’m sad to say, with a boatload of easily manipulated public interest groups that should know better but hate Kevin Martin for other reasons), it becomes easy to believe your own press releases. Which is why not merely the cable industry, but their allies as well, have started to put some genuinely stupid and insulting things in their filings that make you shake your head and go “whoa! I can’t believe they actually said that!”

And neither could the D.C. Cir. Not only did the panel hearing the case dryly reprimand the cable industry a few times, but they gave Comcast ‘n friends a very thorough bitchslap in the opinion.

More fun details, and the actual useful legal point, below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Operators Shocked…Shocked I Tell You…about Verizon Marketing Practices.

I may occasionally (O.K., more than occasionally) have some snarky things to say about the free market philosophies of my opposite numbers at places like CATO and Progress & Freedom Foundation. But what distinguishes them in my mind from industry shills and sock puppets is their ideological integrity. When they want everything deregulated, they really mean it. Not so the industry and its true sock puppets, who can spin on an ideological dime without the least regard for even the vaguest notions of consistency with their previous statements.

Case in point, this FCC complaint by the cable companies against Verizon for “retention marketing.” Mind you, these are the same folks that complain whenever the FCC even thinks about interfering with the “vibrant and competitive telecommunications market,” and who protest that enforcing the laws passed by Congress to require interoperable set top boxes and set a numeric limit on the number of subscribers they can have constitutes a “vendetta.” But, as usual, consistency is not exactly a strong point for industry. As I continually remind folks, industry does what is best for its bottom line, period. And here, it means using the big bad evil FCC to slap the telcos around.

Which brings me to the point I expound upon below. Too often, the industry gets to win by making this a fight about process and “level playing field” and confusing the issue. But what we really need to care about is what our actual policy IS. If we want to encourage competition because we prefer it to regulation of monopolies, then we damn well better make sure competition actually happens, which means subjecting the incumbents with market power (at least initially) to a very different set of regulations than the new entrants. For many years after the break up of AT&T, the FCC subjected AT&T to a set of regulations designed to keep it from using its position as the dominant long-distance carrier to prevent the new entrants like MCI and Sprint from attracting customers. The FCC did not worry if that was “fair” to AT&T to have different rules that prevented exercise of market power by a dominant firm. It said “hey, we want competition! That’s about economic policy, not about being fair.”

Mind you, I don’t expect my opposite numbers to agree. But they will at least have the virtue of consistency.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Enlisting The Power Of The Web For A Bit Of Research Help — Taking the MCDowell/Tate Challenge!

I wish my employer, Media Access Project, had sufficient funds to hire me a research assistant. But they don’t. So I’m going to turn to the collective readership for a bit of fast research to help me refute the pack of lies the cable industry is spreading.

As regular readers know, Martin has proposed a slew of much needed cable reform rules. Chief among these is the finding that cable serves 70% of homes in areas served by cable systems of 36 or more activated channels. NCTA, the cable trade association, has denounced the dea that their members serve that many customers as a vicious lie and generally denounced Martin for carrying on a vendetta against his industry (where “vendetta”=”actually enforce existing law and regulate in the public interest“).

Turns out, however, that Martin did not just pull the numbers out of his posterior. They came from the Warren Communications News Television and Cable Factbook, a neutral and respected industry reporter. According to the Warrens data, cable serves over 71.4% of the relevant market — more than enough to trigger the 70/70 threshold and give the FCC authority to reregulate cable to promote diversity.

To my considerable surprise — given how much Warrens depends on their reputation for accuracy to convince customers to pay many thousands of dollars for this research — the cable industry prevailed on the managing editor of The TV and Cable Factbook to declare their own research unreliable. In fairness, they claim the research is unreliable only when used to prove that the cable industry has passed the 70/70 threshold, so I assume all the advertisers and businesses that rely on this data will not be troubled. They also claim tat the data are unreliable due to systemic underreporting by cable which, as my friend and fellow Wetmachine blogger Greg Rose observed, means that the number of households served must be even more than the 71% Warrens initially found.

Such is the power of cable, however, that the industry reporters following this have uncritically lapped up the NCTA party line while failing the elementary school math noted above (ironically, proving the point about how media consolidation is all about serving corporate interests). Martin’s fellow Republicans on the Commission, McDowell and Tate, apparently determined to make sure that everyone knows that they would never pursue a ”vendetta“ against an industry merely because it has demonstrated market power, sent this letter to Warrens asking for more information (and apparently missing the elementary school math that if you underreport cable subscribers that means they serve more than the number reported). The letter takes a rather nasty shot at Martin, as well as inviting explanation for why the other reporters come in so much lower and looking for validation of the numbers.

Of course, as Rose pointed out in his post, the other numbers come in lower because they are estimates where the cable operators provided even less info than they did to Warrens. But it occurred to me that there is a rather simple way to make the point that even incumbent cable operators passed the 70% threshold sometime ago.

Back for the 2005 cable report, NCTA submitted numbers ranging from 62% to 68.9%. Since then, with the exception of the most recent cable quarter, the cable operators enjoyed consistent growth in their basic subscriber numbers. I would like to find out the quarterly basic subscriber statistics for the largest cable operators (Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision, Cox, and Charter). If the largest operators enjoyed significant growth after NCTA condeded 68.9% as a valid measurement, then we can have reasonable assurance that findings above 70% are accurate. Problem is, I’m a little strapped for time here.

So I’m turning to the distributed power of the web for help meet the McDowell/Tate Challenge of ensuring that the data meet the highest standards of ”trustworthiness, truthfulness, and viability” (which, I have to say, has not exactly been the case with Commission cable reports before Martin took over. Either make a donation to MAP to get me a research assistant, or send me an email with useful cable statistics.

Stay tuned . . . .

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