Tales of the Sausage Factory

FCC Announces 2.5 GHz Broadband Radio Service Auction. Who Will Show Up to Fight Over Rules? Or Bid?

One might think from the press coverage that all spectrum auctions are multi-billion dollar affairs like the AWS-1 Auction in ’06 or the 700 MHz Auction in ’08. But these auctions are the exception rather than the rule. More typical are the steady stream of small auctions like Auction 78, which auctioned remaining licenses in the AWS-1 band.

Which brings us to the Wireless Bureau’s Public Notice of the Broadband Radio Service (BRS) auction. Some of us have followed the adventures of the 2.5 GHz band back when it was “Wireless Cable” and the non-commercial licensees used it to offer closed circuit television for what we now call distance learning. These days of course, we know this as the “Broadband Radio Service” (BRS) and the “Educational Broadband Radio Service” (EBRS), and we care about the 2.5 GHz band as the home of Clearwire and the great hope of WiMax.

You might think that the “WiMax” auction would be a big deal — but only if you don’t know the band, its history, and the inventory up for auction. If you know that, you know why this auction is likely to prove as boring but ploddingly necessary as a run for office supplies.

So why do I consider this worth blogging about, other than my sentimental fondness for the band and my general obsession about things spectrum? Because (a) my cause celebre, anonymous bidding, faces its first post-700 MHz challenge, and (b) 2.5 GHz is the home of the major WiMax plays, and what happens in the auction has the potential to shape the field going forward and influence whether deployment goes more smoothly or gets all bollixed up.

More detail below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Update on Cablevision Free Wi-Fi, and What It Means for VZ (and everyone else).

Awhile ago, I wrote about Cablevision’s decision to offer free wi-fi to its subscribers throughout its footprint. As I explained then, this amounted to a “Plan B” after the failure to win usable spectrum in either the AWS-1 auction in August 2006 or in the 700 MHz Auction in the winter of ’08. Now, according to this story at DSL Reports, Cablevision is massively expanding and improving its wi-fi service for customers. This represents a real challenge for VZ, more so IMO than Time Warner’s participation in New Clearwire.

Why? See below . . . .

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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

Tonight, a Dramatic Conclusion for the AT&T/BellSouth Telenovella!

In the dramatic penultimate episode of the telecom world’s favorite Telenovella Death Star Reborn: The AT&T-BellSouth Merger, the forces of Network Neutrality and competition win a dramatic victory!

AT&T has submitted a new 20-page letter outlining the conditions it will accept for the merger. Unlike the previous concessions in October, which amounted to little more than a joke and a promotional offer, this set of conditions is quite thorough. The breadth and scope of the conditions leaves me positively breatheless. To mangle Woody Gutherie for a moment:
You shall be neutral, in all your networks
From the first tier backbone, to the retail last mile,
from special access, to the U-N-Es
You shall not leverage market power!

I need a couple of different posts to really cover the implications. But here are the headlines:

1) Network neutrality is required in its fullest form. AT&T cannot prioritize or degrade service based on third party payments or affiliation anywhere between the peering point and the residential “last mile.” So not only has the definition of network neutrality been solidified consistent with that advocated by Save Our Internet and others, but it has been extended from the last mile to the vertically integrated backbone.

2) Residential fixed WiMax is included in the definition of “last mile.” This is the first time net neutrality has ever been applied to a wireless network.

3) AT&T must divest the 2.5 GHz spectrum it would acquire from BellSouth. This addresses a concern raised by Media Access Project and others that AT&T/BS would have an overwhelming spectrum advanatage against other wireless players.

4) AT&T has an agressive build out schedule to provide DSL at 768 KBPS for $19.95/month throughout its coverage area.

5) AT&T agrees to numerous conditions that amount to a return to tariffs and price caps for telecom and DSL resellers and special access (commercial) customers. AT&T can no longer lock competing local exchange carriers (CLECs) or DSL resellers in non-disclosure agreements.

Bonus: AT&T agrees to “repatriate” 3,000 jobs BellSouth had shipped overseas and locate at least five hundred of these “repatriated” jobs in New Orleans.

In tomorrow’s concluding episode, expect the FCC to release the final Order on Friday December 29 and the deal to close immediately thereafter.

Roll credits. Special thanks to Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, for their amazing tenacity and skill. Free Press, Consumers Union, CFA, and the rest of the public interest community that fought like Hell. The tens of thousands of people who filled comments. And Commissioner Robert McDowell, for his amazing act of ethical fortitude.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

3650 Band Up for grabs again

Haven’t posted much, as I’ve been busier than I can imagine, and a big computer crash in our office from last weekend into Tuesday put me waaaayy behind.

Fortunately, my good buddies and folks who actually deploy stuff (as opposedto us lawyers) Sascha Meinrath and Steve Ronan (both involved with CTCNet, as well as Sascha’s role with CUWN have sounded the alarm for me.

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