A Promising First Step

O.K., it is only a modest first step, but it is still nice to see.

In keeping with that whole “use the internet and new technologies, government transparency, yadda yadda yadda” stuff from the campaign, Obama and his transition team have now set up a new website for the transition at change.gov.

The website includes many of the features that made the Obama campaign website so effective. It is also an unprecedented time to compliance with a campaign promise (even before taking office). More importantly, if you click on the technology agenda, you will observe that it is pretty much the same tech agenda as from the campaign website.

That may not seem like a big deal, until you notice the top items. Protect the Openness of the Internet and Encourage Diversity In Media top the list.

Yes, it is merely a continuation of his previous campaign commitments. Yes, simply saying protecting the openness of the internet is your top priority does not actually gaurantee you will do it. I am not some Kool-Aide drinking neophyte. But I am also not someone who thinks that cynicism substitutes for wisdom and can’t wait to rush to proclaim that all that progressive stuff was just campaign chin music. I find it pleasantly reassuring that (a) these guys continue to show the same level of discipline in planning and execution they did during the campaign, (b) they appear quite serious about the business of governing, and (c) they seem to be on track to take us in the right direction.

Not bad for Day 2 after the election . . . .

Stay tuned . . . .

McCain Campaign Wusses Out On NAF Tech Smackdown.

So my friends at New America Foundation went to all the trouble to arrange for a final Technology Smackdown between former FCC Chair and Obama Campaign surrogate Reed Hunt and McCain Campaign surrogate Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Holtz-Eakin, you may recall, was the man who traced the invention of the Blackberry back to McCain’s stalwart leadership on the Commerce Committee, ignoring the fact that the Blackberry is manufactured by a Canadian company and that only limited models are available in the U.S. thanks to McCain’s awesome tech policies, which can be summed up as “no taxes, no regulation, no clue.”

So needless to say, I and every other policy wonk in DC came ready to see the sparks fly. Reed Hunt, former FCC Chair, known for saying what he thinks and letting the chips fall where they may. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, looking for any kind of “game changer” and hoping to prove how his man has mastery of this key policy arena rather than the young and untested Obama. Who will take it? Whose tech cuisine will reign supreme?

But then this morning, Douglas Holtz-Eakin canceled and the McCain campaign informed NAF they could not send a surrogate. NAF scurried, but could find no one blessed by the McCain campaign to debate Reed Hunt. With Washington tech wonkdom descending on their doorstep, NAF decided to hold the event anyway. This allowed Reed to switch from technology policy and plug his new comedy CD – “Reed Hunt — Unplugged Because I’m Using Wireless Which Will Be Far More Competitive Under An Obama FCC Which I Will Now Illustrate With An Anecdote And Could You Please Remind Me What The Question Was Again.” (Trust me, in policy wonk circles, this is hysterical.)

There may be many reasons why Holtz-Eakin did not show up. But for the campaign to refuse to send a substitute surrogate is a totally punk move. What, no one on the Straight Talk Express can use a computer? And if you all whine about how unfair it was that Reed went on to trash talk you guys or that NAF was “in the tank for Obama” because they went ahead and held the highly publicized and well attended event anyway, all I can say is “shut up, punks! McCain’s tech policy is for wussy incumbents who want their market power protected. In keeping with geek tradition, I shall taunt you with my very very bad Monty Python impression. [outrageous French accent] I fart in your general direction! I wave my private parts at you — you silly de-regulatory free-market Libertarian persons. Now go away or I shall taunt you some more.”

OK, my trash talk is a bit weak. But Holtz-Eakin and the McCain tech team are still punks.

Stay tuned . . .

UPDATE: Apparently, Holtz-Eakin ditched out to try to convince MSNBC viewers that it is Obama who will be four more years of Bush. You can find more details on how the McCain Campaign vetoed Carly Fiorina and generally punked out here on ThinkProgress.

The McCain Tech Policy Part II: Why McCain Can’t Fix The “Mercedes Divide?”

O.K., jokes aside about the lameness and lateness of McCain’s tech policy and associated privacy policy. How does this all really stack up as a substantive plan?

Two quotes from former FCC Chair and McCain tech adviser Michael Powell nicely illustrate the fundamental thrust of the plan. Not so coincidentally, both come from Powell’s first press conference as Chair of the FCC.

Quote 1.

“I don’t believe deregulation is like the dessert that you serve after people have fed on their vegetables, like a reward for competition,” Powell said. “I believe deregulation is instead a critical ingredient to facilitating competition, not something to be handed out after there is a substantial number of players and competitors in the market.”

Quote 2:

“I think the term [digital divide] sometimes is dangerous in the sense that it suggests that the minute a new and innovative technology is introduced in the market, there is a divide unless it is equitably distributed among every part of the society, and that is just an unreal understanding of an American capitalistic system. I think there is a Mercedes divide. I would like to have one, but I can’t afford one. I’m not meaning to be completely flip about this. I think it’s an important social issue, but it shouldn’t be used to justify the notion of, essentially, the socialization of deployment of the infrastructure.”

Once you accept the “Mercedes Divide” frame, you have run out of tools to deal with the issues because, by definition, whatever the market provides is what result you should get. McCain, obviously, does not wish to accept this rather obvious consequence, and therefore falls back on the usual platitudes and reliance on the gods of the marketplace, the competition fairy, and the delightful myth that — Adam Smith to the contrary — getting a collection of companies with similar interests together to regulate themselves will somehow work.

Surprisingly, as David Isenberg noted on his blog, what is amazing is that the plan leaves out the few bright stars of Michael Powell’s tenure at the FCC — notably Powell’s commitment to spectrum reform. While I certainly opposed Powell’s efforts to make spectrum licenses a species of property I enthusiastically applauded his equal willingness to engage seriously on opening more spectrum for non-exclusive unlicensed use (you can see a very old primer of mine from the dawn of the spectrum reform debates here). Perhaps spectrum reform proved too complicated or controversial an issue for McCain to address, even buried at the bottom of a tech policy.

But having ruled out open spectrum, McCain has left himself very few tools to actually provide all the benefits he promises. Rather like the current administration, which will tell you that Bush achieved his 2004 promise of universal broadband by 2007 so shut the heck up about those stupid international rankings, McCain’s tech platform will work swimmingly for true believers unconcerned with the impact on actual reality. Below, I draw out the substantive problems with the McCain tech & privacy plans in greater detail, and explain why the Obama plan actually looks like it would make real improvements in people’s lives because Obama recognizes that there is a real difference between “the government needs to build roads rather than wait for car companies to build them” and mandating that “everyone must have a Mercedes.”

More below . . . .

Continue reading

McCain Tech Policy — A First Reaction

When you show up as the butt of a joke on the Colbert Report, you should know you’re in trouble. And when, by merry coincidence, Stephen Colbert does a piece on your self-professed computer illiteracy the night before you release your long awaited technology policy, you are in real trouble. Especially after your campaign gets repeatedly nailed in debates in tech policy fora (such as my employer’s Innovation ’08) for not even having a tech policy, when Barak Obama had a fully developed tech policy and functioning advisory team way back in the beginning of the primary, and after former FCC Chairman and campaign surrogate Michael Powell goes into virtual seclusion for a month to develop your tech plan, you know it had better be Goddamn Frickin’ Awesome. Even if you have already signaled it is going to be an extension of the same “the market solves all our problems and even thinking about regulation angers the terrible market gods, scares away the happy competition fairies, and brings a plague of liberal command and control locust ‘oer the land” nonsense that marked Powell’s FCC tenure and has plunged our telecommunications sector — nay, our entire economy — into the crapper, it should at least be a well written and engaging song of praise to the gods of the market place.

No such luck. It reads like some crotchety technophobe knocked over the bumper sticker rack at an Ayn Rand Reading Revival and tried to rearrange them so it made a policy. Half of it isn’t even particularly tech specific. For example, I don’t find it a coincidence that the first six bullet points are just variations on McCain’s standard “I hate taxes” theme. They could have easily have applied to his agriculture policy, if you substituted “no new taxes on wireless services” for “no new taxes on sorghum.” Nor am I aware of a serious mass movement to tax wireless services (or sorghum).

As for the rest, well, see below. . . .

Continue reading

Rather Trivial In the Scheme of Things, But Trivial Is What The News Has Become.

In the journalists who act like the stereotypical blogger rather than the bloggers that rise to level of journalists, I cannot help but include this little piece by Ted Hearn over at Multichannel News. It is perhaps no surprise that reporters for trade magazines beholden to cable television have been, to put it politely, less than pleased with Kevin Martin. But there is a difference between general unfavorable coverage that upholds journalistic standards and the sort of gratuitous nastiness that is supposed to be the purview of the blogosphere and the editorial pages. Or there used to be. And when Hearn compounds this by missing the opportunity for a more interesting story to focus on the little Martin-zingers, I just gotta wonder if I should consider myself a journalist after all.

Hearn’s story is about a Korean journalist miffed at Martin having a press conference in Seoul, South Korea, at the OECD Ministerial Meeting. Hearn’s opening, that “Fifty-five years of peace on the Korean peninsula suffered a minor setback last week after Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin landed in Seoul for a two-day ministerial session of the 30-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,” can be dismissed as comic overstatement for humor. It’s the little zinger at the end that has me shaking my head in wry amusement wondering if Hearn has been taking lessons recently from Rita Skeeter.

The whole thing would hardly be worth a raised eyebrow but for how it illustrates a more serious issue that Hearn muffed. As anyone who follows international news in even a cursory way knows, U.S. – S. Korea relations have been in a bit of a tailspin over the decision of S. Korean Pres. Lee Myung-Bak to lift restrictions on importation of U.S. beef (‘Said Myung-Bak: “We have assurances that the U.S. guarantees the safety of it beef.” Sadly, the U.S. Ambassador was suffering from salmonella from some U.S. tomatoes and could not respond to a request for a quote . . .’) That a reporter was miffed over Martin’s conduct is a potential barometer for the touchiness of U.S.-Korean relationships and whether the beef business will spill over into cable or tech concerns, and whether the trivial conduct of U.S. officials may have impact for American interests.

Such a story would have been timely and important, but would have required some actual work and reporting. So much easier to simply take what someone else has done and editorialize around it. You know, like this thing you’re reading here. Except this is a blog that I write in my spare time without the pretension of pretending to be a journalist. Although given this story and last week’s MSM hack job on Kozinski, I’m starting to rethink calling myself a journalist. Judging from what I’m seeing, what I do isn’t really that different.

Stay tuned . . . .

Why Jonathan Adelstein Totally Rocks!

It’s no big deal for a Commissioner of the FCC to go to a major trade show like NAB or the CTIA. It’s not even a surprise when Commissioners or their staff take the time to come to meetings of important constituency groups or proven political powerhouses. But who takes the time to show up to speak to a bunch of geeks and policy hackers from around the world of no particular political or financial importance? I mean, hearing about how folks in Northern India or Serbia or the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago are using unlicensed spectrum to massive improve the quality of life of their communities is nice and inspiring and all, but life is busy and time is short.

Which is why Jonathan Adelstein and his wireless advisor, Rene Crittendon, totally rock. Commissioner Adelstein and Crittendon came down yesterday to the Fourth International Summit on Community Wireless going on here in Washington D.C. You can read the gist of Commissioner Adelstein’s remarks here. I should add that I thought Adelstein’s speech as delivered was brilliant. He deftly drew together the important themes of wireless broadband, connecting people, human rights, and the benefits of digital inclusion. (If I can get a link to the speech or the audio, I will post it.)

After the speech, Adelstein stuck around to take questions and talk to folks. All in all, I think he and Renee ended up spending about two hours down here.

I have often lamented that policy makers in Washington rarely manage to get together with real people who are doing things. Even when folks come to town, it is a carefully managed “field trip” designed to maximize the effectiveness of presentation. It’s important, but it’s not the raw, unvarnished and not always polite perspective of scruffy tower-climbers and local community organizers.

No major policy initiatives, no big announcements. Heck, hardly a whisper of press coverage. But it means a lot when an FCC Commissioner and his advisor take two hours out of a busy day to come down and have an open conversation about things that people passionately believe matter.

Stay tuned . . . .

'Scuse Me Whilst I Pause to Savor the Irony — Wall St. J Writer Blames Kevin Martin For Slow Broadband

So Wall St. Journal Technology Review Walt Mossberg blames Kevin Martin for our ridiculous slow broadband speed.

Here’s the dialog:

Mossberg: “You are the head of the FCC. How have you allowed this to happen? I AM DEAD SERIOUS. HOW HAVE YOU ALLOWED THIS TO HAPPEN?

Martin: “I am not sure I am solely responsible. I am also not sure the charts capture the whole story. I think you do have to put in the context some of the demographics of the United States and some of the countries we are competing against.

Mossberg: Does that explain why we pay $12.50 per megabit in the United States as opposed to $3.09 in Japan and $3.70 in France? Why are we paying four times as much?

Martin: Yes it does. Because it costs a lot more to build out in more rural areas and people who live further apart… We have a history of averaging some of the cost to make it affordable for people in Montana.

I find this ironic on two levels. First, I have a memory that goes back far enough to remember the Wall St. Journal editorials absolutely crucifying Kevin Martin when, as a Commissioner, he tried to stop Michael Powell’s full-bore deregulation of broadband and the local telephone loop because only a completely laissez faire non-regulatoy approach could get industry to invest and do its job. Ditto the editorials on why C Block open device conditions because any sort of government mandate is bad bad bad BAD and can never, ever, ever be good.

Yes, I know that the Wall St. J. prides itself on having an ironclad fire wall between the reporting function and that editorial function. So I am not saying that Mossberg is being inconsistent or hypocritical in any way. But it is still ironic that reporters dismayed at the current state of affairs blame Kevin Martin for failure to act, while the folks on the Editorial Page routinely pillory Martin for even thinking the word “regulation” without puting a “de” in front.

Second, it’s ironic because, while I will be the first to say that Martin has not done nearly enough for my money (let’s start with not adopting mandatory wholesale as we at PISC recommended for half the auctioned 700 MHz spectrum last year, and the painfully slow pace of Universal Service Fund Reform), he has done more to foster the development of better broadband at faster speeds than any other member of the Bush Administration. Unlike, say, former NTIA Administrator John Kneuer, who explained last year how everything in American broadband was just ducky and we just need to stay the course, Martin has acknowledged that we need to do better and have higher expectations (although, again, not going nearly far enough IMO). This includes not merely making a show of reforming the FCC’s impossibly lame broadband study and report, but actually making some substantive improvements.

Mind you, I’m not defending Kevin Martin’s record on broadband here. And I will readily acknowledge that he’s been a good soldier for the Bush Administration on a number of key issues (I do not hold my breath to learn if AT&T and Verizon broke the law when they cooperated with NSA on domestic spying). But I cannot let the double irony of a Wall St. J. columnist blaming Kevin Martin for our wretched national broadband situation go unpassed, when the Wall St. J. editorial board has been in the vangaurd of pillorying Kevn Martin any time he actually tries to do something.

Again, I know Wall St. J. takes great pride in keeping its editorial board and reporting functions separate, but it’s still delightful. At least, for those of us in the progressive movement who have always been utterly consistent in blaming Kevin Martin and the rest of the Bush Administration for not nearly going far enough. That’s why next week at National Conference on Media Reform, the Martin-bashing won’t be ironic. It will be heartfelt, sincere, consistent, and deeply passionate Martin bashing. Well, actually it will be ironic then, too; but for entirely different reasons I will post about next week.

But for the Wall St. J. and its fellow worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace, I can only smile and say “what, you don’t like the world the Gods of the Marketplace have made? Then I guess you better pray harder — or perhaps consider a different faith.”

Stay tuned . . . .

It's Nice WhenThe FCC Listens — Sorta. Why I like The Proposed Resolution Of Comcast's Complaint Against Verizon But Why Some Of It Makes Me Uneasy.

Back in February, I blogged about Comcast’s complaint against Verizon for its “retention marketing” practices. That’s Verizon’s practice that, when they get a request from another carrier to terminate voice service and transfer the phone number of a customer who is switching from Verizon (a practice called “porting” the number), they make one last run at trying to persuade the customer to stay. At the time, I observed (as I have for well over a year now, since I first made this argument at the at the Federal Trade Commission’s 2007 workshop), that if we are going to rely on competition, then we cannot have rules that privilege one side over another. To cancel video service, you have to call the cable operator, who then gets a last chance to pitch you hard to stay and makes it as difficult as possible to terminate service. But to change telephone provider, the cable company can ask the telco provider and the telco provider isn’t allowed to try to keep the customer — but must wait to pitch the customer until after the customer has already switched. That’s crazy. It needs to be consistent, or it puts the telcos at a serious disadvantage against the cable cos.

Well, back in April, the Enforcement Bureau issued a recommended decision that adopts this same argument. (I’ve been a shade busy, or would have blogged on this earlier.) It strongly recommends that the Commission commence a notice of proposed rulemaking designed to harmonize the rules for switching video and voice. No surprise, as this also tracks a Verizon Petition for Declaratory Ruling — as noted by the Bureau in a footnote.

Needless to say, I wholeheartedly approve of such harmonization, having supported this approach for well over a year. So why does the recommendation make me uneasy?

Because of the legal reasoning around the facts of the instant complaint. The Bureau recommends a finding of no violation because number porting is not a Title II telecom service and cable providers offering voice over IP (VOIP) are not providing Title II services. Which means that the FCC can flit back and forth between Title I and Title II at will, depending on its policy needs of the moment. It also means that Title II telecommunications service has now been reduced to only the voice component of plain old telephone service. And even critical elements of POTS, like managing the phone number systems, no longer count as telecommunication services under Title II.

I’m even more queasy about this because it is probably right under the enormous deference shown to FCC definitional hair splitting thanks to the combination of the Brand X decision and the D.C. Circuit’s decision on CALEA in ACE v. FCC. Well, Scalia warned the Brand X majority, but they didn’t listen. And Michael Powell, by trying to put broadband services beyond the reach of FCC regulation, ended up enormously expanding the power of the FCC to regulate services on a whim.

More on what I’m talking about and what this means for the future (if adopted by the Commission) below . . .

Continue reading

Worsht Ex Parte Ever: I Gloat Over Latest D.C. Cir. Case on a Procedural Point

One of the constant irritants for me and others trying to follow what happens at the FCC is the problem of “the too brief ex parte.” Under the Commission’s rules (47 C.F.R. 1.1200, et seq), when a party meets with FCC staff on an open proceeding, the party is supposed to submit into the record a written statement providing a summary of the conversation. This is called a “notice of oral ex parte presentation” in FCC-speak, but we usually shorten this to just ex parte. By rule, the ex parte should provide a reasonable explanation of what took place so that a reader can get a sense of the argument made (although you can refer back to a previous filing to avoid repetition). In practice, however, you usually get nonsense like this piece of garbage from Alltel which wins the Comic Book Guy Award for “Worsht Ex Parte Ever.”

So it was with a considerable amount of schadenfreude that I saw the D.C. Circuit whomp Sprint/Nextel for producing crappy ex parte‘s that failed to provide a record of their no doubt numerous detailed conversations with Commission staff. This failure to leave a record resulted in dismissal of Sprint’s case and may cost it many billions of dollars.

More gloating below . . . .

Continue reading

It's Always Nice When The FCC Listens

A few months ago, fellow Wetmachiner Greg Rose and I wrote a wrote a white paper on how to improve the FCC’s processes, make FCC rulemakings and proceedings more accessible to the public, and generally increase the legitimacy and reliability of FCC decision making. As one relatively easy change, we suggested the FCC post the agenda for open meetings far enough in advance that people can come in and make their last pitches to the agency before “Sunshine” (the period when communications stop under the “Government In the Sunshine Act”) kick in. As we explained, providing the agenda at the last second often advantages insiders who hear when an item is likely to go on the agenda, who therefore rush in while those who don’t know the item is going on Sunshine will lose their last chance to rebut arguments or press their case.

So it was pleasant to see Chairman Martin announce that from now on he will publish the likely agenda 3 weeks in advance. That should be a big help to everyone — including the other Commissioners, who will not suddenly find themselves with a week to digest an agenda of a dozen items.

Yes, it is a relatively minor change, but it is important in two ways. First, practical details really do matter. That sometimes gets lost in the fight over specific substantive issues. Second, it demonstrates a willingness by Martin to listen to criticism and take action — at least on the low hanging fruit. Such things deserve notice and suitable (although not overly elaborate) praise. Remember, public policy is made by human beings, and you get what you reward.

Stay tuned . . . .