Tales of the Sausage Factory

3 p.m., FCC approves another item. Crowd Thins, But Reporters and Hardcore Policy Wonks and White Space Folks Hang On.

O.K., now coming up on 3 p.m. on the meeting that should have started at 11 a.m. The FCC has announced that the Commissioners voted another relatively non-controversial item on circulation, the grant of the Verizon C Block licenses.

As some folks may recall, Google filed a Petition with the FCC after the 700 MHz auction requesting that they put some teeth into the C Block conditions and provide further clarity on how they can enforce the conditions against Verizon if it plays games. It is expected that the item basically says “yes, we mean it,” but not give any further details. We’ll have to wait for when they publish the Order to find out.

Meanwhile, those of us desperate for a white spaces vote continue to sweat it out and hope the Order doesn’t get derailed. Those opposed, unsurprisingly, are now hoping for the opposite.

NEWSFLASH: According to FCC staff, while Commissioner Godot will not vote today, he will surely vote tomorrow!

AAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Vote this thing!!!!!!!!!!!!

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Live Blogging the FCC Vote — What If They Called A Vote and Nobody Came?

So here I am, waiting for the white spaces vote, votes on the merger items, and a few other things. The FCC adopted two orders on circulation already — an item on closed captioning and an item on distributed television systems, a technology that will allow digital television broadcasters to keep their current viewers after the transition (I will explain this later). Given that Martin pulled the USF/Intercarrier comp itemyesterday at the insistence of the other Commissioners, that leaves (a) The Verizon/Alltel deal, (b) the New Clearwire deal, (c) the white spaces item, and (d) Google’s pending petition to have the FCC put some teeth into the C block conditions before granting the licenses to Verizon.

The meeting was scheduled for 11 a.m. It’s now after 12:30 p.m. Martin was down here for about an hour before heading back upstairs again. He appeared surprised at the delay.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Waxman Gets It Right On USF Reform –Use Subsidies To Open Networks.

Although it doesn’t have a chance of passing this Congress, particularly with the utter gridlock over the bail out, but I gotta give a shout out to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) for his targeted approach to solving the roaming problem in wireless. The proposed bill, H.R. 7000, says that any wireless provider that takes Universal Service Fund (USF) money needs to provide roaming to all other carriers “at just and reasonable rates, consistent with Sections 201 and 202” of the Communications Act. It does not require tariffing or rate regulation. It refers disputes over whether the terms are reasonable or the technology technologically compatible to the FCC, to handle under its well developed wireline procedures.

An entity can opt out of the program at any time by saying it no longer wants high-cost USF subsidy. But if you take government money, you need to provide roaming at just and reasonable rates.

And here is the kicker that makes it effective. The obligation to provide roaming applies to the entity accepting the USF, and any affiliates. In other words, if you have a rural subsidiary of one of the major carriers, then that carrier has to enter roaming agreements for its entire network. So if AT&T or Verizon are getting subsidies for “rural affiliate co.,” taking the money would require them to do roaming agreements on reasonable rates throughout their systems nationally. Don’t like it? Either stop taking public money or sell the rural carrier off to someone else who will do reasonable roaming.

I expect critics to say that this will mean wireless rural carriers will go under and the only thing to do is give wireless carriers money with no strings attached. I am dubious myself. Yes, the larger carriers may value their control over roaming to divest rural carriers. But there are plenty of mid-size carriers or small carriers willing to absorb these companies in exchange for federal subsidies who won’t mind making roaming agreements. Nor am I so convinced that the major carriers will actually decide they’d rather forgo the considerable subsidies they get now simply to preserve their control over roaming. Besides, if excluding parties from commercially reasonable roaming agreements is such an important element of the business model of major carriers, we have a bigger problem that needs to be more broadly addressed.

For too long, we’ve succumbed to the twin arguments that we must subsidize business to get policy goals, but we cannot actually demand anything in return because that would scare away the shy little beasties we are trying to coax, cajole and outright bribe into good behavior. I think it’s time to test that theory a bit. Although I’m doubtful the Waxman bill goes anywhere in the current Congress, I can hope that when Congress reconvenes in 2009 it will be reintroduced and given serious consideration.

Or instead, perhaps carriers will see the writing on the wall and try to solve this problem at the FCC before Congress reconvenes. Either way, its a good bill that nudges us closer to a more pro-competitive roaming policy.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

My Invitation Must Have Been Blocked Or Degraded.

So my old friends at the National Cable Telecommunications Association (NCTA) are doing a blogger outreach event today. Oddly, I was not invited. No doubt my invitation was blocked or degraded.

I never get this crap from Verizon.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Verizon Should Give Away FIOS Connections and Get People Addicted to Speed.

I just got a postcard from Verizon telling me FIOS will soon be available in my neighborhood. While I’m probably one of the last residential CLEC subscribers in the United States, I’m a firm believer in the idea that fiber is better and have been waiting for FIOS to become available so I can look at switching.

Then I saw the prices. Yuck. Verizon prices its FIOS as “competitive” with cable and other providers in my region — for a premium service. But it takes more than competitive to get me to go through the hassle of switching, especially when I am reasonably comfortable with my service right now. Switching doesn’t just mean spending several days going through hook up Hell and having Verizon install some super duper power pack on my premises. It also means changing a whole bunch of things tied to my (or my wife’s) current email address. That’s no small deal.

Meanwhile, as everyone knows, the cable operators did better at gaining new broadband customers in Q2, although uptake for broadband was generally anemic. Not surprisingly, Verizon defends its performance on its policy blog. Besides the usual (when you do poorly) inveighing against looking at a single quarter. Verizon points to a number of indicators that its FIOS system is the top dog system in the U.S., with possible top speeds of up to 50 MBPS and usually providing its advertised speed (I love that as a selling point!). Still, analysts argue that Verizon is pricing itself out of the market, and should go back to DSL.

I have a different take. I think VZ needs to get people addicted to speed.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Assessing A Rather Complicated Result — But Not A Disaster As Some Maintain.

The intervention of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is celebrated by getting drunk until you cannot tell the difference between Verizon winning the C Block and Google winning the C Block, kept me from posting sooner. I would have held off until I could give more details, but there are so many people rushing to call it a disaster that a few words need to be said here.

O.K., Google didn’t win, but Echostar did, giving me a .500 batting average in prophecy against the conventional wisdom. I’m not covinced that Echostar winning gives us a third pipe (Martin’s suggestions about combining this with other spectrum assets to the contrary). But even if not, it is important for keeping Echostar competitive with cable and with DIRECTV (which will have an advantage in programming assests). I shall try to do a more detailed analysis of Echostar and what the E Block does for them in a future post.

It is also interesting to note that some non-incumbents like Cavtel picked up licenses, although I am not as enthusaistic about this for competition as Martin was at the press release.

That said, I do not see how the rules could have been structured any better without barring Verizon and AT&T from playing. While we might have done better for new entrants after all with smalled licenses rather than REAGs, as demonstrted by Echostar doing an end run to assemble a near national footprint after they begged and pleaded to have the FCC offer a national license, I can’t say for sure (I’ll have a longer discussion on this later, and I expect Greg Rose will have some things to say on his blog once he has crunched the numbers). My preliminary conclusion is that Verizon (and to a lesser degree AT&T) was simply determined to get the spectrum it wanted and did not let anything stand in its why. The fact that Verizon paid $9 MHz/Pop for a B block license for Chicago, and that Verizon and AT&T spent over $16 billion of the approximately $19 billion raised should tell anyone who cares about the reality all they need to know. Verizon and AT&T were not “bargain hunting.” They were at each other’s throats and cutting out anyone who dared to get in their way. The only way to stop them was to keep them out entirely, and there was not a heck of a lot of support for that from the Hill or at the FCC beyond the Dems.

I think Commissioner Adelstein gives a fair assesment when he says we won on revenue and openness and lost on diversity and competition. But again, the only way we could have done any better was by adopting auction rules that banned Verizon and AT&T from playing and by using aggressive means to address minority and women ownership (as MAP requested as early as March 2006). Perhaps now Congressional Democrats will add their voices to those of Commissioners Adelstein and Copps on restoring the minority bidding credit and supporting incumbent exclusions or — at a minimum — restoring the spectrum cap.

As it was, thanks to anonymous bidding, Echostar was able to do an end run and acquire a national footprint — something previously denied to it in the AWS Auction in 2006. And, while AT&T and Verizon got most of the licenses, they had to pay through the nose to get them — rather than sopping them up dirt cheap as happened in the AWS auction (where licenses equivalent to the A & B block licenses went for 45 cents MHZ/pop not $9 MHZ/pop). This auction attracted more new bidders and more minority bidders than previous auctions, so the field was ripe for a success on these fronts. But they were simply outspent by Verizon and AT&T.

To conclude, unlike the utter failure of the AWS auction (which everyone else hailed as a success — despite the incumbents winning more licenses for less money), this auction produced some very positive results. But it also shows us the limit of what purely competitive auctions will do. Neither this auction nor freeing more spectrum for future auctions, on their own, will provide us with a third pipe or introduce new competitiors in wireless. The advanatges enjoyed by incumbents in a relatively mature industry (as opposed to back in the early/mid-1990s when the first auctions were conducted) are simply too great to overcome just by “leveling the playing field.”

Finally, one last question remains: Why didn’t Qualcom drop their bid on D Block? Why did they tie up all that eligibility, instead of using it to go after more E Block licenses? For us spectrum geeks, this is the equivalent of asking Why did the Minbari surrender at the Battle of the Line (best answer from a friend of mine: “turns out Echostar bidders have Qualcom souls”). Did Qualcom hope they could keep the D Block for such a low price? Did they wish to avoid a penalty for dropped bids by the time they realized no one would bid on D Block? Hopefully, we will find out.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz: Although Apparently The FCC Decided to Give Headlines . . .

No sooner did the FCC clarify that they would lift anonymity after they collected the money when Martin held a press conference and the FCC released the results. Here are the headlines:

1) Verizon won C Block and a boatload of licenses;

2) AT&T took a boatload of licenses;

3) Google didn’t win anything (stupid oak leaves!).

I will have more details as I can track them down, and more analysis later. I also metaphorically owe Commissioner McDowell a dollar, for his prediction that the new entrants wouldn’t bite on the big C.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Chutzpah, Thy Name Is Wireless Incumbent.

So here we are in the middle of the most intensely competitive auction ever. As you can tell looking at the recent postings by fellow Wetmachiner Greg Rose this auction has dramatically pushed up the amount of money paid by bidders for licenses and has created more intense competition for a broader group of licenses than previous auctions, strongly suggesting that — as Greg and I predicted when we first started pushing anonymous bidding in March 2006 — anonymous bidding eliminates all kinds of targeting, collusion and retaliation that typically held back smaller bidders and allowed larger bidders to pick up licenses for a song. An utter smashing success (at least from the perspective of those who favor using auctions for distribution of licenses), right? Who could have a bad word to say about it?

Answer: All the people who hate anonymous bidding BECAUSE it eliminates the ability to signal, retaliate, and collude and thus makes the auction more competitive. i.e. The incumbent wireless licensees (other than Verizon, which wanted anonymous bidding to avoid being targeted).

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz: Notes From The Spectrum New Hampshire Primary, C Block Not Dead Yet

Everyone remember how Clinton was dead after Iowa? Now who remembers two weeks ago, or even last week, when analysts wrote off the 700 MHz auction as doomed due to credit crunch? But, other than D Block’s utter failure to move (and regular readers will know my opinion of why that happened), the auction has proven a success by every measure we can obtain so far. Sadly, however, the key measures are not yet in, and won’t be until after the auction is over. Which is why, despite C Block exceeding it’s reserve price, I caution folks that we are still at the equivalent of just after the New Hampshire primaries and that any speculation about the important points of the outcome remain unresolved.

Here’s what we know for sure now:

1) The current take now stands at over $14 b. This not only exceeds the $10 b that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated, it will exceed the “wildly successful” 2006 AWS auction (which grossed about 13.9 b). A, B, and C blocks have all met their reserve prices, with the most contentious fighting in certain high value markets B block.

2) Because C Block has met its reserve price, it will not be reauctioned and the open device conditions will go into effect.

So the auction is clearly a success from Kevin Martin’s perspective (again, with the exception of D Block, which is a special case). While those like Commissioner McDowell can argue that C block might have fetched more without conditions, $4.7 billion is nothing to sneeze at. And it is clear that the aggressive build out conditions did not scare bidders away from A and B block, so (assuming the FCC is serious about enforcement) we should see increased deployment of services into rural regions.

What we still don’t know is whether the new auction rules gave new entrants a real chance to win spectrum, or (as the conventional wisdom had it) will incumbents Verizon and AT&T end up capturing the lion’s share of the spectrum (albeit at higher prices, owing to the introduction of anonymous bidding). That we cannot know until after the anonymity lifts when the auction ends (which, if the FCC chooses to reauction D Block under the rules proposed for reauctioning the other blocks, might not be for several months yet). Much depends on the identity of the current C Block holder. Is it Google? Verizon? Some other deep pockets like AT&T or Echostar, or perhaps the mysterious Vavasi NexGen Inc.? And is C Block settled? If the package bidder in round 17 knocked off the previous high bidder, then the previous high bidder will need to respond fairly soon or it will start losing its eligibility (bidding chips) and no longer be able to challenge.

If it turns out the incumbents capture most of the spectrum, I will need to eat a huge plate of crow and tip my hat to Commissioner Adelstein and Publius at Obsidian Wings, both of whom fretted that only Verizon could win a huge block like C Block and that we would get more new entrants by slitting the spectrum up. OTOH, if the Great Google Prophecy comes true, I will become insufferably pleased with myself for at least a month.

But, rather than pull a Tweety Bird and start treating my own speculation in the absence of data as fact, I will simply say —

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

700 MHz: The C Block Minuet

The fact that the C Block has dangled on the precipice of reaching its reserve price from round 13 to the close of today’s bidding action in round 16 has led to speculation that Google never intended to go seriously for the spectrum, but was merely trying to goad Verizon or ATT into committing on the Block. I grant that we have almost no intelligence on who the C Block bidders are, and it is very, very early to speculate on the auction’s ultimate outcome. However, I have a theory, grounded in an understanding of game theory and the auction rules, which calls this latest conventional wisdom into question.

There are at least two, and possibly three, current bidders for the bulk of C Block. Two have been trading off the lead for the 50 state package (REAGs 1-8), let’s call them A and B: A in the first round (1 new bid), B in the second (1 new bid), A in the third (1 new bid), B in the fourth (1 new bid), A in the fifth (1 new bid), B in the seventh (1 new bid), A in the eighth (1 new bid), B in the tenth (1 new bid), A in the twelfth (1 new bid), B in the thirteenth (1 new bid). B has been the high bidder since the thirteen round with no need to raise its bid. In the sixth round there were also mid-range bids placed individually on REAGs 1-8. Either the individual bids on REAGs 1-8 in round six were B’s response to A’s bid on the package in round 5 or another bidder, C, forayed at that point.

B can sit indefinitely on its current bid, waiting for the minimum acceptable bid (MAB) to converge on the reserve price of the Block without requiring activity waivers (the FCC historically reduces MABs in the presence of bidding inactivity). That would allow B to obtain the package for almost $122 million less than the current MAB for round 17. A must bid on REAGs 1-8 either on the package or individually in round 17 or lose eligibility, since it has had to expend three activity waivers to avoid bidding in rounds 14, 15, and 16. That is what we know.

I hypothesize that B is Google, that it is sitting just below the reserve price, and will continue to do so unless another actor bids, until just before the close of the auction, when it will bid the reserve price and save roughly $122 million. I grant that it is also possible that B is Verizon or ATT or some other bidder which I don’t know and haven’t mentioned. But game theory and the auction rules explain why B is sitting pat. A has to bid in round 17 (the MAB for the 50 state package in round 17 is over the reserve price of the Block, and the sum of MABs for REAGs 1-8 individually in round 17 is equal to the MAB for the 50 state package), or B’s strategy is likely to win.

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