Econoklastic

Auction 86 — All Over, But Rural America is Shafted Again.

Auction 86, the BRS auction, is over and all bids have cleared. There were no defaults. The auction netted a mere $19,426,600, rather less than most industry analysts speculated before the auction. However, it must be remembered that the BTA licenses up for auction were heavily encumbered with the need for interference agreements with P35 license holders and resembled more “white space” swiss-cheese spectrum than real BTA licenses.

The bidding ended after 24 rounds in four days on Oct. 30. However, it took until now to be certain that no winning bidder was going to default.

As expected, Clearwire took the overwhelming majority of licenses at offer, 42 of them for $11,177,000. Those licenses represent a deepening of Clearwire’s spectrum pool for national footprint and, in a few cases, even expanded it. Utopian Wireless and DigitalBridge Spectrum, companies which are concentrating on providing WiMax in areas where Clearwire is not deploying, acquired 4 and 2 licenses, respectively. As expected, Stratos Offshore Services and Trident Global Communications shared the three new Gulf of Mexico licenses, 2 and 1 respectively, for a little over $2.5 million, the third most expensive acquisitions. Vermont Telephone Company acquired three licenses in its current footprint for the second highest expenditure in the auction, $2.8 million.

The other successful bidders included James E. McCotter (3 licenses), Ztark Communications (2), Cellular South (1), and Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative (1) — all reinforced existing license footprint. Broadcast Cable Bloomington, Chevron USA, Emery Telecom-Wireless, Gateway Telecom, N-1 Communications and Pulse Mobile all walked away with no wins.

More interesting still, 17 licenses failed to clear. These licenses were overwhelmingly in rural areas, continuing the pattern established by Clearwire and its cableco and telco partners of redlining a substantial portion of rural America for broadband service generally and WiMax in particular. If this pattern had been allowed to prevail in rural electrification, much of the West and the South would still not have electricity. It makes you wonder where FDR is when you really need him.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Could the FCC Structure A Broadcaster Clearance Auction Without Congress? Yeah, actually . . .

Progress and Freedom Foundation has recently published this piece by Adam Theirer and Barbara Esbin on how encouraging a deal between broadcasters and wireless providers to reduce the spectrum used by broadcasters and auction more spectrum for wireless use would serve the public interest. The piece raises some good points. For one thing, it is happily free of the “broadcasters are obsolete and we ought to take their spectrum back” rhetoric that often accompanies these proposals (not from PFF, I should add, but from a number of others). But the paper is woefully short on specifics. It touts the value of such a deal (freeing up spectrum for wireless) and lays out some general approaches, then urges the FCC and Congress to broker a deal between the broadcasters and the wireless industry through a number of possible auction mechanisms.

And now, the FCC has issued a public notice in the National Broadband Plan soliciting input on what they should think about using broadcast spectrum as part of the national broadband plan.

This got me thinking. Is there a mechanism the FCC could use, consistent with existing law, which would allow for the sort of broadcast band clearance the FCC would like to see? And, as a bonus, could this also clear some space for white space use? After some consideration, I hatched the scheme below. It is somewhat slower than than the wireless industry would like. I expect it would take about 5 years to finish the transition. But that is not bad given that it took 4 years to manage the DTV transition and auction from the time Congress set the hard date in 2005 to the end of analog broadcasting in June 2009. Also, my plan would allow continuing gradual build out, and combines some sticks to go with the carrots.

I’ll add that I’m not convinced this is worth doing. I think the current obsession with broadcast spectrum as the solution for the upcoming spectrum crisis suffers the same myopia as focusing on offshore drilling to cure the energy crisis — it defers the crunch but doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Wireless demand is going to continue, and we need to fundamentally change how we manage spectrum access (rather than spectrum allocation) to remain on a sustainable path for growth. I also point out, as we discovered while doing the broadcast white spaces proceeding, that there are a lot of non-broadcast uses in the existing television bands that are not broadcast users. These secondary services are going to get awfully squeezed if we crunch the broadcast bands further.

All that said, a well constructed auction could free up a nice chunk of spectrum in the short term that could promote wireless services and competition — especially if it came with a spectrum cap so VZ and AT&T didn’t hog all the good stuff again.

More below . . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

White Spaces Lurches Forward Again. OET Issues Good But Weird Proposal.

Over a year ago, the FCC took a major leap forward on deployment of broadband and rethinking our national spectrum policy by voting to open the unused broadcast channels for unlicensed use (aka the “broadcast white spaces”). The Order left a bunch of questions unanswered, such as who would run the proposed database of available frequencies for white space use. Petitions for Recon got filed, lots of requests for revision and modification of the rules got made, and then nothing happened.

In fairness to OET, it’s been a busy year. First there was a change in administration, then it was “all DTV all the time” until the magic June 12 deadline. Then it was bringing on a new FCC Chair and two additional new Commissioners. Then it was “National Broadband Plan all the time.” But still, it was with a tremendous sense of relief that the process had not utterly vanish off the FCC’s radar screen that I saw the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology release a Public Notice on the database. At last! We can get moving on this again, and hopefully move forward on the most promising ‘disruptive’ technology currently in the hopper.

And move we are, in a very peculiar fashion. Rather than resolve the outstanding questions about how the database provider will collect money, operate the database, or whether the database will be exclusive or non-exclusive, the Public Notice asks would-be database managers to submit proposals that would cover these issues. Further, parties have until January 4, 2010 to submit proposals. The FCC will take comment from members of the public on the proposals a month later.

I label this approach “good, but weird.” On the one hand, this seems to my non-engineering and well ordered mind to be totally backwards. How the heck can anyone tell if they want to manage the database when they don’t even know what the requirements are. On the other hand, this basically accomplishes the same thing by having would-be operators that have been pestering the FCC to resolve the matter and trying to get the FCC to adopt rules that favor their own technology/business model a chance to stop pretending that these rules are neutral and the opportunity to make their pitch directly to the FCC. It also cuts down on the number of steps until we actually have a functioning database and can start deploying the technology. Finally, having just gone back and looked at the 2008 Order, the FCC was fairly explicit (Par. 221) that this was always the plan.

And, as usual, I really wish the FCC would not sit around taking months to decide things and then want an immediate response out of us poor public interest folks with our limited resources.

But on the whole, I’m very happy indeed.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Farewell to Commissioner Deborah Tate

As I observed back awhile ago when describing possible scenarios for the FCC, Commissioner Deborah Tate would need to depart when the 110th Congress expired and the 111th Congress convened at Noon on January 3, 2009. So, at the FCC’s pro forma meeting on December 30, Commissioner Tate stepped down and made her farewell address. Despite the rather tense atmosphere that often prevails on the 8th Floor of the FCC these day, her fellow Commissioners used most of the meeting time to say many nice things in appreciation of her tenure.

Allow me to add my own appreciation for Commissioner Tate’s service. This may come as a surprise to some, given that I disagreed with Tate a fair amount on most matters of substance. As others have noted, Tate voted along fairly standard Republican lines — generally shying away from regulation of “the market” despite a sincere concern about consumer welfare. (I should add that despite her much publicized comments about the dangers of Worlds of Warcraft, her support for strong digital right management and urging ISPs do more to block content potentially harmful to minors, Tate still generally followed a deregulatory line in simply urging industry to voluntarily do more and raising this in the context of voting against the Comcast/Bittorrent Order).

But let me tell a little story below which illustrates why Commissioner Tate deserves a respectful farewell even from staunch progressives such as myself.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

White Spaces and the CTIA Game Changer

The idea of auctioning the broadcast white spaces, rather than opening them for unlicensed use, is not new. It started out as an NAB “poison pill” back in 2005, when we looked like we might be making progress on getting a pro-white spaces amendment in the DTV transition bill that ultimately became the Digital Tranisition Act of 2005. When the FCC reinvigorated the proceeding in 2006, the NAB managed to get the FCC to put the question of licensed v. unlicensed in the Further Notice. But the NAB doesn’t want any neighbors, either licensed or unlicensed, and has focused its efforts until now on trying to kill the whole idea rather than on trying to promote licensing and auctions rather than unlicensed.

But the idea of licensing the white spaces for cellular or backhaul has gained new life recently, particularly after the 700 MHz auction. Both Verizon’s Steven Zipperstein and analyst Coleman Bazelon recommended this in their testimony at the House Telecom Subcommitte hearing on the 700 MHz auction. That comes on top of a serious filing by CTIA on the benefits of auctioning some of the white space and leaving a smidge so that unlicensed technologies can continue to develop.

We’ve now gone from NAB poison pill to serious issue. The proposal has not yet gained traction, but it does not do to underestimate CTIA and its members because, particularly after the 700 MHz auction, a number of its members really need that spectrum. This has the potential to change the game radically, including shifting alliances as the threat becomes more credible.

Analysis below….

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