So What’s This “Designated Entity” Thing, and Why Does DISH Owe The FCC $3 bn When They Didn’t Break The Rules?

Generally, I loath the cliche “be careful what you wish for.” But I can think of no better way to describe the vast consternation in the spectrum world over the licenses won by SNR and Northstar in the AWS-3 Auction. If you don’t recognize the names off-hand, that’s because most of the time people just refer to them as the “DISH Designated Entities” or the “DISH DEs.” As detailed in many articles and petitions to deny SNR and Northstar their DE credits (totaling $3.3 billion), most people regard SNR and Northstar as “sham” or “fake” DEs, owned and controlled by DISH.

But here’s the funny thing. As far as anyone can tell from the filings, DISH, SNR and Northstar followed the precise letter of the law. And, what’s even more surprising, if you look at the results, this was the most successful auction ever for DEs. Both SNR and Northstar are minority owned (as defined by the FCC’s rules). All the “loopholes” DISH used with regard to ownership interest and bidding coordination were designed to make it easier for DE’s to get capital, win licenses, and benefit from partnering with a larger telecommunications company — which SNR and Northstar certainly did.

As a result, as noted by my usual frenemies at Phoenix Center, as measured by every traditional metric, the AWS-3 auction was the single most successful auction in awarding licenses not merely to small businesses, but to minority owned firms specifically. By every past criteria ever used, the AWS-3 auction results ought to be celebrated as a ginormous success for the DE program. Every aspect worked exactly as intended, and the result was exactly what people claimed to want. Indeed, as noted by Phoenix Center, even the $3.3 bn in bidding credits was in line with other spectrum auctions as a percentage of revenue.

Except, in classic “be careful what you wish for” fashion, when you scaled these results up to their logical outcome, no one was really happy with the result (except for DISH). Which has now prompted FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to circulate an order denying SNR and Northstar their designated entity credits. As a result, SNR and Northstar (meaning their financial backer DISH) must cough up $3.3 bn within 30 days of issuance of the Order or — unless granted a stay or extension — the licenses will revert back to the FCC. Oh yes, and the FCC might need to deduct an additional $10 bn from the auction revenue. And there might be default charges (the FCC charges a penalty for defaulting on payments so people don’t bid and hope they find the money later). Or it might get more complicated, since there has never been a clawback of this magnitude before.

 

In Part 1, I will explain what exactly happened, why DISH did not violate the rules as written and why SNR and Northstar are technically “minority owned.” Along the way, we will consider some delightful ironies about the whole business.

In Part 2, I’ll tackle why the FCC decided that it could yank the DE discount anyway, and try to figure out what happens next.

More below . . . .

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What the Heck Is The “Duplex Gap” And Why Has It Blown Up The July FCC Meeting?

Difficult as it is to believe, there are times in policy when issues do not break down simply by partisan interest or into neat categories like incumbents v. competitors or broadcasters v. wireless carriers. Sometimes — and I know people are not gonna believe me on this – issues break down on pure substance and require lots of really hard choices. Of course, because these issues are highly technical and complicated, most people like to ignore them. But these kinds of issues are also usually the hardest and most intractable for people who actually care about what the world looks like and how this policy decisions will actually work in reality.

 

So it is with the question of whether to put broadcasters in the duplex gap as part of the repacking plan in the incentive auction. Did your eyes glaze over yet? Heck, for most people, it’s gonna take a paragraph or two of explanation just to understand what that sentence means. But even if you don’t know what it means, you can understand enough for this basic summary:

 

  1. Just about every stakeholder in the auction — wireless carriers, broadcasters, wireless microphone users, tech company supporters of using unlicensed spectrum in the broadcast bands, public interest groups — all told the FCC not to put broadcasters in the duplex gap.

 

  1. Nevertheless, the Auction Team proposed putting broadcasters in the duplex gap, based on a set of simulation that suggested that the FCC would only get back 50-60 MHz of spectrum to auction if they protected the duplex gap. The Chairman circulated a draft order adopting the Auction Team’s proposal.

 

  1. Everybody freaked out. The Chairman found he did not have 3 votes, or possibly not even 2 votes, to adopt his proposal on duplex gap. The freak out is so intense and so bad that the FCC actually waived the Sunshine Period for this itemso that interested parties can continue to talk to FCC staff and commissioners until the night before the meeting. The FCC also released additional data showing the impact would be limited to a relatively small number of cities.

 

  1. That helped some, but not enough. Despite progress on negotiations, the FCC clearly did not have time to get to the right solution in the 5 days between the release of the new data and the actual vote. Also, a bunch of people were pissed that the Auction Team hadn’t released the data sooner, and hadn’t provided more explanation of the underlying model and the assumptions behind it. On Tuesday, the Republican Chairs of the House Energy & Commerce Committee & the Telecom Subcommittee wrote Wheeler a letter chastising him for having a bad process and calling on Wheeler to pull the item from the agenda entirely. On Wed., the day before the vote, Wheeler wrote back defending the process but agreeing to pull the item (and the associated item on whether or not to change the spectrum reserve) until the August Meeting three weeks from now.

 

In Policyland, this passes for high drama. It is, to say the least, highly unusual. Enough so that even folks who find technical issues like this complicated and boring to the point of insanity are asking: “what the heck just happened there? Who lost and who won?” The equally complicated answer: “no one lost or won, we’ve got a serious debate about a technical problem which has consequences no matter how you resolve it” is not nearly as satisfying as “the carriers” or “the tech companies” or whatever.

 

I explain and unpack all of this below, as well as consider possible impacts and ways to resolve this. But again, I want to stress this is a super hard problem. This is about competing goals and the difficulty of predicting the future with any certainty. It’s also about trust and stuff, which is hard to come by in Washington even at the best of times. This is not subject to simplistic plotlines like “Oh, the Auction Team are out of control” or “The broadcasters and unlicensed supporters are just being stubborn.” (Wait, the NAB and the unlicensed guys and the wireless microphone guys are on the same side? And they agree with Verizon? WTF?) This stuff is hard.

 

More below . . .

 

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The First Net Neutrality Complaint Under The 2015 Rules Is Likely To Lose, And That’s A Good Thing.

As reported by Brian Fung at Washpo and others, a company called Commercial Network Services (CNS) has filed the first network neutrality complaint under the FCC’s new rules — which went into effect June 12 after the D.C. Circuit denied a stay request. You can read the complaint here. While I probably should not prejudge things, I expect the FCC to deny the complaint for the excellent reason that — accepting all the facts alleged as true — Time Warner Cable did absolutely nothing wrong.

 

I elaborate on what CNS gets wrong, why this differs from other high-profile disputes like Cogent and Level 3, and why such an illustration is good for the FCC’s rules as a whole, below . . .

 

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Net Neutrality Litigation: Round 1 Goes To the FCC.

Good news! The D.C. Circuit denied the request by the carriers suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prevent the FCC’s net neutrality rules and reclassification of broadband as a Title II telecom service. As of today, the Net Neutrality rules are in effect, and broadband access is once again a Title II telecommunications service — pending the final outcome of the lawsuit challenging the the FCC’s actions.

 

Reactions from net neutrality opponents have ranged from defiance to “no biggie” with a side of trying to claim a partial win for getting expedited briefing (I’ll explain below why this is a tad disingenuous). On Twitter, I did see a few of my opposite numbers wailing and gnashing their teeth, at the prospect that their beloved Broadband Equestria ruled by the wise Queen Comcast Celestia and Princess Verizon Twilight Sparkle is now going to be converted into a Hellscape overrun with Tyrannosaurus Tariffs that will devour helpless ISPs like tourists dumb enough to go to Jurassic World. Needless to say, supporters of net neutrality and Title II, like my employer Public Knowledge, have been somewhat more upbeat.

 

So what does all this mean for the litigation and the ongoing machinations in Congress around net neutrality? Short version — the court was not impressed with the arguments of the carriers that the FCC was so whacky crazy power-usurping unlawful that this case is the slam-dunk reversal the carriers and their cheerleaders keep saying it is. Mind you, that doesn’t mean the FCC will win. But it does mean that opponents of net neutrality and Title II might want to ratchet back the TOTAL CONFIDENCE OF VICTORY they have exuded until now just a wee bit. It also provides a psychological lift to the pro-net neutrality side that the FCC can win this even in the D.C. Circuit.

 

On the political side, Republicans had hoped that a stay would push Democrats to the bargaining table to avoid the litigation risk. Because the FCC’s odds improve with the denial of the stay, this may have the opposite effect, with Democrats more likely to wait for a court decision rather than try to strike a deal. This could either prompt Republicans to sweeten their offer, or double down on efforts for total repeal.

 

I provide the longer version below . . .

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First Round of Lawsuits Filed In Net Neutrality Case. Now What?

Yesterday, the U.S. Telecom Association (USTA), the trade association for incumbent telecoms like Verizon and AT&T, and a Texas WISP called Alamo Broadband, filed separate appeals from the FCC’s Order reclassifying broadband as Title II and applying net neutrality rules. (This Ars piece links to both Petitions). USTA filed in the D.C. Circuit, while Alamo filed in the 5th Circuit (which is generally considered one of the more hostile to the FCC).

 

I dig into this a bit, and try to explain what happens next, below . . .

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Title II, Robert McDowell, And The Boy Who Cried ‘Black Helicopter.’

I noted with some considerable interest the February 17 Wall St. Journal Op Ed by Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell and Gordon M. Goldstein describing how reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service will invariably lead to “the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a regulatory arm of the United Nations” asserting jurisdiction over the Internet. As a consequence, McDowell warns us, the ITU will allow freedom-hating dictatorships such as Russia and China to take control of “Internet governance,” extend censorship to the Internet, and generally crush freedom-as-we-know-it.

What I noted, however, was the remarkable similarity between this column and McDowell’s 2010 Wall St. Journal Op Ed on the same theme. “The U.N. Black Helicopters will swoop down and carry off our Internet if we try to reign in carriers from abusing consumers and adopt real net neutrality” has become a perennial favorite for McDowell and some others. We heard the same cries in 2012 as we geared up for the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). In the lead up to the WCIT, the refusal of then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to close the inquiry into whether to reclassify broadband as Title II prompted more than a few anti-net neutrality advocates to claim that supporting Title II, or even just plain ‘ol net neutrality, gave aid and comfort to Russia, China, Iran, etc. in their efforts to use the ITU to take over the Internet.

So no surprise, as we move closer to actually reclassifying broadband and getting strong network neutrality rules in place, it is time once again for the annual reunion tour of Robert McDowell and the Black Helicopter Band. Despite making the same wrong prediction about the ITU for the last 5 years, we will once again see Robert McDowell and the usual suspects singing backup that reclassifying broadband will serve the nefarious agenda of Russia, China and anyone else we don’t like by allowing the U.N. to swoop in with their black helicopters and carry off our Internet and crush our freedoms.

For those new to this performance, I debunk it (once again) below . . .

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Title II Doesn’t Give FCC New Rate Regulation Powers — For One Thing, Section 706 Already Did That.

As we get closer to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) historic vote on reclassifying broadband as Title II, we descend further into a phenomena I refer to as #broadbandghazi. Crazy conspiracy theories and wild allegations abound, with the faithful ever insisting that the latest revelation proves, PROVES I SAY, the nefariousness of the evil dictator and tyrant Obama. The very fact that there is no actual evidence only proves how NEFARIOUS and EVIL are his ObamaPlans ™, etc.

 

Case in point, the oft repeated meme by opponents of Title II that Section 201 — by its very nature — imposes “utility style rate regulation” on broadband. Commissioner Pai, who has come to exceed even his usual histrionics on this particular subject, dramatically and repeatedly pushed this meme at his recent press conference. “The American people are being misled by about President Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet,” dramatically declaimed Pai, not sounding in the least like a crazed-conspiracy theorist. (And no, I’m not exaggerating, that actually was his opening line. See his statement here.) “the claim that President Obama’s Plan to regulate the Internet does not include rate regulation is flat out false.” (emphasis in original, *sigh*) When pressed to explain whether he accused Chairman Wheeler of being a liar, Pai demurred slightly, explaining that while everything Wheeler said about forbearing from the explicit price regulation statutes, Section 201(b) (47 U.S.C. 201(b)), by prohibiting all rates and practices that are “unjust and unreasonable,” by its very nature imposes “utility style price regulation” on broadband since it would allow people to bring complaints that the price charged is unjust and unreasonable. Q.E.D. Accordingly, no matter what the FCC Order actually forbears from or says, PRICE REGULATION IS COMING!! BE AFRAID AMERICA!! UTILITY! UTILITY! Pai in particular points out that the proposed Order will — *gasp* — allow consumers to file complaints and even use the courts if broadband providers rip them off with unjust or unreasonable rates and practices. “The plan repeatedly invites complaints from end users and edge providers alike,” warns Pai, apparently unaware that most people like the idea of a consumer protection agency like the FCC being authorized to take complaints when companies screw them over with unjust and unreasonable rates (as demonstrated by this delightful “Ode to Comcast (while waiting for the cable guy)”).

 

A few problems with this argument. First and foremost, Section 706 (47 U.S.C. 1302(a)) explicitly directs the FCC to use “price caps” to promote broadband deployment. In fact, if you go read the statute, price caps are the first explicit authority the FCC is already directed to use under Section 706. Keep in mind that Section 706 applies to broadband already under Title I. So to the extent the argument is based on the idea that language in 201 adds new authority, this argument fails. The explicit directive in Section 706 for the FCC to use price caps as direct rate regulation far exceeds any secret plan to regulate prices by implication from the language in Section 201 despite lots of forbearance to the contrary.

 

Indeed, given the explicit price cap language in Section 706, the FCC forbearance from future price regulation tied to reclassification actually reduces the likelihood of “utility style rate regulation” from the existing Section 706 authority (because, as I discussed back in this blog post on forbearance, the FCC can actually forbear from future obligations that don’t exist yet).

 

There are lots of other problems with this argument as well, as Politifact found when Ted Cruz first raised it back in November. So I elaborate on all the reasons the “Section 201 means utility style price regulation” is bogus #broadbandghazi conspiracy mongering below. . . .

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Welcome To The 2015 Spectrum Season!

Happy New Year faithful readers! Following in the footsteps of Congress, The Daily Show, and just about everyone else here in D.C., I’ve been on hiatus for the last month or so getting rested and rejuvenated for the exciting new year of 2015. In particular, I am extremely excited about this year’s roll out of the “Spectrum Wars” series.  To make life easier for everyone (and more entertaining for myself), I will provide some summaries of the major regulatory issues currently on the table — including what TV series they resemble. As this is primarily intended for people trying to catch up on existing proceedings, I’m not going to speculate on new things that might happen.

Enjoy below . . . .

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Title II And The Return of the “Gore Tax.” Or, The Debate We Should Be Having.

Hal Singer and Robert Litan over at Progressive Policy Institute caused some stir recently with this paper claiming that if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassifies broadband as a Title II telecommunications service, it will tack on over $15 billion in new state taxes, fees and federal universal service charges. As Free Press already pointed out, (a) Congress extending the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) in the recent “CRomnibus” funding bill” takes the state tax issue off the table; and (b) even without ITFA, the PPI Report made a lot of questionable assumptions to reach their high number.

 

Update: Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the drafters of the IFTA extension, has this short but forceful statement about the claims that reclassifying broadband as Title II will allow states to tax broadband access despite IFTA. “Baloney.”

 

Happily, the ITFA extension lets us blow past the debate about whether states even use the FCC definition of “telecommunications” for revenue services (many don’t, see, e.g., this tax letter from Tennessee as an example). We can cut right to the chase on the big thing ITFA doesn’t cover — Universal Service Fund (USF). Here again, I want to blow past the question of the numbers used by PPI (which rely on a set of assumptions that amount to what we call in the trade a SWAG (“scientific wild ass guess”)) and focus on the debate we should be having — do we still believe in Universal Service or not?

 

If we no longer believe in Universal Service as a fundamental principle, fine. Lets own that and end the program. If we do believe in the principle of universal service, and we agree that broadband is the critical communications medium of the 21st Century, it makes no sense to play tax arbitrage games with definitions. The FCC continues to play silly, complicated games with the Connect America Fund (CAF) because everyone wants to redirect USF support to broadband but nobody wants to include broadband in the contribution base. As a result, an increasingly smaller base of voice services is supporting an increasingly larger set of overall services. This makes no sense and is inherently unsustainable.

 

As I explain below, this isn’t the first time we’ve debated the importance of universal service and whether we care enough about it to pay for it. Nor will reclassification trigger some sort of “sticker shock,” as the PPI paper suggests. Instead, as I explain below, reclassification is the prelude to the real debate we need to have on whether we still believe in the fundamental principle of service to all Americans, or not.

 

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The Last Time The FCC Classified A Service As Title II Was 2007. Here’s How It Worked.

Predictably, as we get closer to actually adopting Title II for broadband, we see much scrambling about by folks who never seriously considered the question of how Title II would actually work because no one in the press or the opposition ever really thought it could get that far. Opponents of Title II, needless to say, describe a blasted bureaucratic Hellscape smothering broadband service with (to quote the latest missive from a bunch of House and Senate Republicans) “1000 active rules that are based on Title II, and 700 pages of the C.F.R.”

 

After 6 solid years of Republicans opting for the partisan politics of obstruction rather than engaging on substance, such ridiculous claims hardly come as a surprise. It’s also a rather silly argument given that the bulk of those rules address things that would not apply to broadband and that everyone — even Republicans — actually like: making sure  9-1-1 works reliably, fixing rural call completion problems, keeping track of phone reliability and phone outages during natural disasters, protecting the privacy of our phone calls and requiring providers to report data breaches, etc.

 

Still, even without deliberate efforts to muck things up and exaggerate things, I recognize that this whole “Title II” thing doesn’t happen every day and lots of folks have questions about what the heck does this all mean. As I (and others) have noted in the past, classification doesn’t have to be a big deal. To illustrate this, I will go back to the last time the FCC classified a service — automatic voice roaming in the wireless world — as a Title II service. As we will see, this took remarkably little effort. The FCC explicitly rejected the requirement to do rate regulation or a requirement to file tariffs with the prices and did not need to engage in any extensive forbearance. They just said “nah, we’re not gonna do that.” The final adopted rules are less than a page and a half.

 

I will also note that despite classifying automatic voice roaming as a Title II service in 2007 (and classifying mobile wireless phone service as a Title II service in 1993), the wireless industry seems to be doing OK, with more than 300 million subscribers and (as CTIA never tires of telling us) several gagillion dollars worth of capital investment.

 

The automatic voice roaming decision also provides a nice comparison with a similar service classified under NOT TITLE II some years later. In 2011, the FCC issued an Order adopting data roaming rules, but couldn’t bring itself to go the Title II route. The result was an insanely complicated “commercial reasonableness” standard which requires wireless carriers to negotiate under a bunch of vague guidelines that still allow carriers to avoid coming to an actual deal. As the D.C. Circuit pointed out in affirming this approach, the FCC needed to leave enough room for carriers to discriminate against each other to avoid triggering the “common carrier prohibition.” Recently, T-Mobile (which opposes using Title II) filed a Petition on data roaming with the FCC alleging that the existing “commercially reasonable” standard is utterly useless unless the FCC adopts a bunch of “benchmarks” and presumptions to put some teeth into the standard. Without getting into the merits of the data roaming petition (which my employer Public Knowledge supports), it is interesting to compare how the Title II automatic voice roaming worked out v. the Title III/Title I data roaming rules.

 

I do not claim that reclassifying broadband as a Title II service (which, as I have noted before, was tariffed back in the day it was Title II) is exactly comparable. Rather, I offer this as an example of the principle of the Black Swan. Just as the appearance of a single black swan falsifies the statement “all swans are white,” the hysterical ravings of the anti-net neutrality crowd that classifying something as Title II would require the FCC to impose price controls, tariffs, and the occasional human sacrifice to avert structural separation is falsified by demonstrating that the FCC has, in the past, classified services as Title II and did not impose any of these things. In fact, the Title II solution worked out much better than the NOT TITLE II alternative.

 

More detail below . . . .

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