My Insanely Long Field Guide To The War On CableCARD — Part I: More Background Than You Can Possibly Imagine.

We often talk about the power of cable lobbying in the context of big proceedings like network neutrality. But where the real power comes, and where consumers routinely get screwed the most, happens off-screen. Because people hardly ever know what is happening, cable lobbyists play an outsized role in working their magic and making it legal to find new ways to screw over subscribers. Nothing illustrates this better than the fight over the Satellite Television Access and Viewers Rights Act (STAVRA). As my Public Knowledge colleague John Bergmayer explains in this blog post, unless Congress passes STAVRA, a lot of satellite TV subscribers will lose access to some of their broadcast channels. Since Americans totally freak out if they cannot watch their favorite show, and channel this rage to their members of Congress, that makes STAVRA “must pass” legislation.

 

The cable industry lobbyists have managed to append this bill designed to protect consumers a little gift to themselves. Cable operators make over $1 billion a year on equipment rentals to subscribers. Section 203 of STAVRA eliminates the FCC rule (“the integration ban”) that makes it even vaguely possible at the moment for people to avoid these rip off rental fees and actually buy your own cable set top box (STB) or digital video recorder (DVR) using something called CableCARD.

 

From a policy wonk perspective, I have to say that Section 203 of STAVRA is a work of art. Unless you know what to look for, you will never find it by flipping through the bill. And unless you know the whole background on how the cable industry has frustrated the effort to get competition in the STB and cable device attachment business, you would never know how the cable arguments about how CableCARD doesn’t work are self-serving baloney. And, best of all, Section 203 contains a fake solution so members of Congress and the cable lobby can pretend this will make things better, rather than continue to screw consumers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in cable fees annually.

 

Hence the need for two insanely long posts. But since we are talking about consumer rip offs of over $1 billion a year, I kinda hope you will consider it worth reading. Here in Part I, I will give you everything you need to know about the history of how cable has ripped us off on equipment rental fees despite Congress passing two separate laws (here and here) to make it possible to actually own equipment and avoid this nonsense (which worked from 1992 until we went digital), what the heck the “integration ban” is, and why CableCARD — lame as it is — actually does make things mildly better and is picking up steam as a result of stuff the FCC did back in 2010.

 

In Part II, I will cover the current fight over the Section 203 of STAVRA, what makes Section 203 such an amazing work of art and how Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) is standing up for consumers on this. With help, Markey can actually flip this around and convert this from a gift to the cable industry to something that would genuinely help consumers by making the promise of stand alone STBs and other cable equipment real. But, at a minimum, Markey needs help getting the bad provision stripped from the bill so we can at least keep what we have and keep working to make it better.

 

Part I with all the background you need to understand Part II below. You can find Part II by clicking here.

 

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Wheeler: “We Now Return To Our Transition of the Phone System Already In Progress.”

In the last two days, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has made back-to-back speeches that on their surface appear as dissimilar as could be. First, he gave this speech at the Fall 2014 COMPTEL Show. The next day, he gave this speech at the 32nd Annual Everett Parker Lecture. Dig a little deeper, however (and keep in mind what I have previously said about Tom Wheeler signaling what he wants to do if anyone actually pays attention) you notice some startling commonalities between these two speeches. Notably, this is the first time Wheeler has brought up the transition of the phone network in a serious way in a long time. And, in both speeches he made it very clear that transition of the phone system to an all IP platform does not end the FCC’s role.

ITo summarize my take aways:

1. Wheeler wants to shift the FCC back into working on the IP Transition despite the fact that AT&T is not going to have its pilot project ready until the second half of 2015. It is, after all, the thing he came to the FCC to do in the first place before net neutrality and Comcast/TWC essentially hijacked 2014.

 

2. While the nature and form of regulation will change, the FCC will continue to play a critical role — during the transition and after the transition — both in promoting competition and protecting consumers.

 

3. That Network Compact Wheeler keeps talking about? He really means it. When he leaves the FCC, he wants to leave an agency that still protects network users under this fundamental set of values.

 

A bit more below . . .

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The Comcast Witness Protection Program and Misplaced Rage.

There is a style of article I find online occasionally that takes a classic work of film or literature and tries to flip your idea about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, or vice versa. For example, this piece explaining why Glinda the Good Witch is really the villain of the Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West is just an innocent woman wronged.

 

I thought of that when I saw recent pieces by Randolph May and Geoffrey Manne explaining how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), by complying with its rules and doing its job soliciting input on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable from stakeholders scared to come forward for fear of reprisals, makes the FCC the bad guy and Comcast the innocent victim. Some of this concern seems to flow from a misunderstanding of the law. The FCC can’t act on anything outside the public record, so the concern that Comcast won’t get to make its case because of some body of secret evidence is groundless.

 

In addition – and this is why I’m particularly bitter here – Comcast set the precedent more than ten years ago for having the FCC look at stuff outside the public record as part of a merger review, and the D.C. Circuit affirmed it when I challenged it as a due process violation. So even if it did make a practical difference, the D.C. Circuit says it’s totally OK (at least when exclusion of evidence from the record favors Comcast).

 

Nor is this process so unusual as my Opposite Numbers (as I call my colleagues on the Libertarian side) believe. True, this is the first time the FCC actually listened to me (and others) and publicized the relevant FCC rules (although, as I explain below, I don’t think I actually had much to do with this). But this is also a rather exceptional merger. As for use of the relevant procedures, my experience is rather contrary to that of Randy May. I’ve not only urged the FCC to use (and publicize) the relevant procedures, I’ve invoked them.  Nor is it unusual for the FCC to solicit input from stakeholders.

 

Below, I offer an alternate perspective and deal with the various objections my Opposite Numbers raise for why they think the FCC shouldn’t be telling stakeholders afraid of retaliation to come in and speak off the record.

 

More below . . .

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Policy, Anecdotes and The Problem of The Black Swan. Why Events Like Comcast/Netflix and Fire Island Matter.

Often in policy debates I find myself facing a broad general statement, such as “Wireless is just as good for everyone as wireline, just look at how the market has adopted it.” Or “ISPs would never block or degrade service because they would lose customers.” Point to a counter example, e.g., “Verizon’s effort to replace wireline with Voicelink on Fire Island was a total flop” or “But Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and other ISPs have deliberately allowed Netflix quality to degrade as a negotiating strategy” and the response is invariably “Oh, that’s just an anecdote and you can’t base rules on anecdotal evidence.”

 

Oddly, this throws most people into a tizzy of confusion because (a) they vaguely remember learning something about anecdotes not being proof or something; (b) everyone always says anecdotes aren’t proof; but (c) the general statement is clearly false based on real world experience. People know that “it’s only an anecdote, therefore it doesn’t count” is a bull$#@! answer, but they can’t explain why. Hence confusion and much bull$#@! going unchallenged in policy.

 

In logic, we refer to this as “The Problem of the Black Swan.” No, this has nothing to do with the somewhat racy but very artsy so that makes it OK movie starring Natalie Portman. And, while it is the inspiration for the book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it actually means something different. “The Problem of the Black Swan” is a demonstration of the problem of reasoning by induction and falsifiabilty. You cannot prove all swans are white just by finding a white swan, but you can disprove all swans are white by finding a single black swan.

 

While I don’t normally use this blog to teach Logic 101 type stuff, application (and misapplication) of the “Problem of the Black Swan” comes up so often that I will delve into this below. By the time we’re done, you will be able to explain to people who pull that “oh, an anecdote isn’t evidence” crap exactly why they are wrong. You’ll also be able to apply the “anecdote rule” properly so that you don’t get caught in any embarrassing errors.

Elucidation below . . .

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My Handy Guide To The May 15 FCC Meeting: What The Heck Is An Open FCC Mtg And How Does It Work?

Even before Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on possible new net neutrality rules to replace the ones vacated by the D.C. Cir. the May 15 Open Meeting of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promised to be one of the more important meetings in recent memory.  As a result, it has become one of the more contentious in recent memory as well.

 

In addition to the net neutrality NPRM, we have an Order deciding key issues for the upcoming incentive auction (aka the 600 MHz auction, aka that really complicated thing where we pay broadcasters to get off spectrum they got for free by simultaneously selling it to wireless companies for mobile broadband). This mega item has two fairly important side pieces from my perspective: the future of unlicensed use in the TV broadcast bands (aka the TV white spaces (TVWS) aka “super wifi” aka “engineers will never be allowed to name anything ever again”) and possible limits on how much spectrum any one company can acquire (aka the “no piggies rule” aka spectrum aggregation policies aka “lawyers are not allowed to name anything ever again either”). The TVWS item has its own satellite proceeding about wireless microphones and coexistence between wireless mics and unlicensed use in an ever shrinking broadcast band.

 

So for those of you first timers, and those of you who have gone so long without a contentious FCC meeting you’ve forgotten how it’s done, I’ve prepared this helpful guide on “what is an open FCC meeting and how does it work.”

 

Mechanics of the meeting below . . .

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My Insanely Long Field Guide To Understanding FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Statement On Peering.

At the press conference following the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) March 31 Open Meeting, Chairman Tom Wheeler made the following observation:

 

“Interconnection is part of the Network Compact.” Peering “is just a $3.50 word for interconnection.”

 

Wheeler followed up this statement by explaining that there was a difference between “network neutrality” and the “open internet” on one hand and “interconnection” as the ‘path to the Internet’ on the other hand. While government has a critical role in monitoring peering/interconnection to protect the values of the Network Compact, it isn’t a network neutrality issue. You can see Wheeler’s full statement here (Start at 144:45 – 147:23 has unrelated stuff in middle) (transcript here).

 

After the meeting, the FCC released a separate statement that they really mean it when they say that they aren’t going to do peering as part of the Net Neutrality rules. While Brendan Sasso at National Journal gets points for noticing that “the FCC could decide to enact separate regulations on the issue or force Comcast to accept new rules in order to receive permission to buy Time Warner Cable,” most folks I’ve read in the press have broadly interpreted this as indicating the FCC will not look into the Comcast/Netflix dispute or complaints by Cogent and Level 3 about large edge-providers squeezing them for higher interconnection fees.

 

Personally, I think most people are totally misreading this. Wheeler’s statements make it look more likely to me that the FCC will start looking closely at the Internet peering market, not less likely, especially as part of the Comcast/TWC deal. Indeed, Comcast’s Chief Lobbyist David Cohen, who ranks in my book as one of the absolutely smartest and most effective telecom lobbyists ever, has already started backing away from earlier statements that regulators would ignore peering issues and that he expects them to look at the Comcast/Netflix deal. (Unsurprisingly, Cohen also said he expects regulators to find no problems with the deal and called Netflix CEO Reed Hasting’s arguments that this eviscerated net neutrality “hogwash.”)

 

Below, I will rant at considerable length that (a) Wheeler is right, this is not a “network neutrality” issue, but the same goddam interconnection issue that we have struggled with for more than a hundred years in every networked industry from railroads to electricity to broadband; (b) The FCC needs to actually look at this and study it and understand how the market works before it makes any decisions on what to do; and, (c) While Wheeler is not saying in any way, shape or form he actually plans to do anything before he has real information on which to base a decision, he is signaling — for anyone actually paying attention — that he is, in fact, going to actually look at this as part of his overall transition of the agency around his “Fourth Network Revolution” and “Network Compact” ideas.

 

 

While this last would seem pretty basic and obvious, it represents a significant change in policy from the previous insistence that IP magic pixie dust obscures all things Internet and makes them invisible to the FCC. Whether I agree with what Wheeler ultimately does or not — and I have no idea what he might ultimately do here, he could decide the market is competitive and working just fine — I don’t believe Wheeler is going to go around with his eyes and ears covered blathering about the magic nature of the Internet. I think Wheeler is actually going to check under the hood and see what actually makes the damn thing tick — and Comcast is just the company to help him do it.

 

Much ranting below . . .

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A Guide To The Mechanics of the Comcast/TWC Deal. Part IV: Congress, The White House And The Public.

If you read most of the reporting on the Comcast/TWC deal, you would think that Congress and the White House play a huge role. In reality, as I alluded to in the Part I intro, not so much. The political stuff tends to get over-reported in part because it’s easier (it took me about 3000 words just to explain how the antitrust and the FCC review work never mind any actual reporting), and in part because everyone assumes that Washington is a corrupt cesspit where politics invariably determine outcomes.

 

As always, while the political matters, it plays a much more complicated role in the mix. Below, I will unpack how the political pieces (including public input) play into the actual legal and merits analysis. Again, keep in mind that I’m not talking about merits here. I’m just trying to explain how the process works so people can keep track over the course of the merger review (which will last a minimum of 6 months and may well run for more than a year).

 

Political details below . . . .

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A Guide To The Mechanics of the Comcast/TWC Deal. Part III: The Federal Communications Commission.

In Part II, I described how the Department of Justice will conduct its antitrust review of the Comcast/TWC. Here, I describe how the Federal Communications Commission will conduct its review under the Communications Act. While the FCC and the DoJ will coordinate their reviews and work together, the two agencies have very different procedures and operate under very different legal standards. (For those wondering why, you can see this article I wrote on the subject about 15 years ago.)

 

Details on FCC process below . . .

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A Guide to The Mechanics of the Comcast/TWC Deal. Part II: Antitrust Review

In Part I, I gave a general overview of the regulatory review process for the Comcast/TWC Deal. In Part II, I describe how the antitrust review works (which, in this case, will be conducted by the Department of Justice Antitrust Division). Keep in mind I am not discussing any of the arguments on the merits. I’m just trying to give people a sense of how the process will work and where they can weigh in if they feel so inclined.

Part III will address the review by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Communications Act.  Part IV will talk about Congress, the White House and the public.

 

Antitrust process described below . . .

 

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