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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Title II Forbearance Is Actually So Easy It Makes Me Want To Puke.

For those following the debate around whether to classify broadband access service as a “Title II” telecommunications service under the Communications Act of 1934, you may have heard about a thing called “forbearance.” For those unfamiliar with telecom law lingo, “forbearance” refers to  a special magic power that Congress gave the FCC as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the major edit/update Congress did almost 20 years ago. The 1996 Act added Section 10 (now codified at 47 U.S.C. 160) which gives the FCC the power to say “you know that specific provision of law that Congress passed? We decide it really doesn’t make sense for us to enforce it in some particular case, so we will “forbear” (hence the term ‘forbearance’) from enforcing it.” Or, as the D.C. Circuit explained in a case called Orloff v. Federal Communications Commission, once the FCC invokes forbearance and decides to forbear from a particular statute, the statute for all practical purposes disappears.

 

For those familiar with the argument, you will also know that the anti-Net Neutrality camp argues that getting the FCC to forbear from any rule is such a horribly complicated and detailed market-by-market analysis that the FCC couldn’t possibly grant the kind of broad, nationwide forbearance we would need to make Title II workable. As someone who actually lived through the 8 years of the Bush Administration and saw almost every single pro-competition provision of the 1996 Act stripped away by forbearance proceedings, I can only say “hah, I wish.”

Anyone who actually troubles to look up cases like Earthlink v. FCC or Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee v. FCCor a bunch of other FCC and DC Circuit cases that are not that hard to find, you will discover that Forbearance is so easy it makes a consumer protection and rule of law guy like me want to puke. Srsly, the standards on this are so low, and so deferential to the FCC, that if Chairman Wheeler stands up at an open meeting and chants “Broadband is great, competition is good, be deregulated like you should. All in favor say ‘aye!'” — and then at least two other Commissioners vote yes — the DC Circuit will affirm it. Heck, according to ATT, Inc. v. FCCyou can even forbear as against potential obligations that don’t even exist yet.

Not that I expect mere facts to alter firmly held opinions that have become factesque. What Paul Krugman has termed the Very Serious People of telecom have all decided that Title II is a terrible onerous thing and that forbearance is just not going to make it work — despite the fact that the stupid cell phone you’re using couldn’t even have existed if Congress hadn’t made it Title II in 1993 by adding Section 332(c) of the Communications Act and the only non-Title II service we have other than broadband access — cable service — is widely regarded a monopolistic nightmare with all the innovating power of a fossilized brick. But the lawyer and eternal optimist in me keeps trying. So I unpack all this below — with lots of quotes because I know most of y’all not gonna actually click through to the cases.

Besides, I do a My Little Pony (MLP) mashup below because “Broadband is magic!” And that always cracks me up. . . .

 

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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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Tom Wheeler and the Defining Question of Network Neutrality

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler caused quite a stir last week when he circulated a new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on network neutrality. As reported by the press, the proposed rule moves away from generally prohibiting wireline broadband providers from offering “paid prioritization” (aka Internet “fast lanes”) to explicitly permitting wireline providers to offer paid prioritization subject to conditions designed to guard against anti-competitive and anti-consumer conduct.

 

Needless to say, this pleased just about nobody. Supporters of network neutrality regard paid prioritization as intrinsically anti-competitive and anti-consumer by making the Internet experience dependent on the ‘commercially reasonable’ deals of the network provider rather than the choice of the subscriber. By contrast, opponents of net neutrality oppose any limitations on what ISPs can do as “regulating the internet.” To employ a crude analogy, network neutrality supporters see Wheeler’s proposal as roughly the equivalent of teaching the rhythm method in sex ed, while opponents are outraged that Wheeler would teach anything other than pure abstinence.

 

What Wheeler has done here is to frame the defining question of network neutrality. The upcoming Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) gives those of us who believe that paid prioritization is the opposite of net neutrality and an Open Internet the opportunity to make the case. Even more importantly, Wheeler has now confirmed that the May 15 NPRM will ask whether the FCC needs to reclassify broadband as a Title II “telecommunications service” so that the FCC will have sufficient authority to create real and effective network neutrality rules. (You can see Wheeler’s blog post setting out his proposed approach here, and his aggressive speech in the veritable heart of enemy territory — the 2104 Cable Show in Los Angeles) here.)

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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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Commissioner Pai: A ‘Consensus’ Of Incumbents Without Consumers Is No Consensus And means Disaster For 600 MHz.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Wireless Bureau issued what should have been a fairly routine and highly technical Public Notice about possible alternative band plans for the 600 MHz Auction aka the Incentive Auction aka “that incredibly crazy, complicated deal Congress came up with last year where broadcasters sell back licenses to the FCC so the FCC can sell them to wireless companies.” Since public comment makes it clear that the various proposals present a lot of challenges (see my incredibly long and wonky explanation here), it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Wireless Bureau asked for further comment after holding a band plan workshop a few weeks ago.

 

But Commissioner Pai issued a separate statement blasting the Wireless Bureau. In particular, Pai berated the Bureau for departing from what he called the “consensus framework” for one particular band plan – the band plan favored by AT&T, Verizon, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the largest equipment manufacturers. Pai ignored objections to the AT&/VZ/NAB plan and support from consumer groups (including Public Knowledge), competitors such as Sprint, or tech companies such as Microsoft. Over and over in his statement, Pai cited to the comments of AT&T, Verizon and NAB as proof of a “broad consensus” as if none of these objections existed.

As someone fairly active in this proceeding, who actually participated in the Band Plan Workshop, I am more than a little peeved. Yoo hoo! Commissioner Paaaaiiiiii!!! What am I, chopped liver? I am also more than a little irked at the allegations that the Bureau somehow behaved improperly in issuing the Public Notice. Pai’s accusation that the PN violates the Bureau’s delegated authority by soliciting comment on alternatives to the AT&T/VZ/NAB “consensus plan” appears designed to bully the Bureau into submission.

Setting my personal pique aside, as I keep trying to explain, letting the broadcasters and the largest wireless incumbents write the rules for the auction spells absolute disaster. If Pai genuinely wants to see a successful Incentive Auction, that means looking past industry “consensus” and getting into the very nasty and complicated details to figure out the right set of tradeoffs that will (a) get the broadcasters and wireless guys to the auction, but (b) not let them short the U.S. Treasury out of the cash it expects to collect in the process.

I vent and take one more shot at explaining this below . . . .

 

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Would Tom Wheeler Really Have Approved The AT&T/T-Mo Merger? Why I don’t Think So.

After weeks of speculation, it now appears certain that President Obama will nominate Thomas Wheeler to replace Julius Genachowski as Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to serve as acting until Wheeler’s nomination gets confirmed by the Senate. In recent weeks, Wheeler’s background as a lobbyist many years ago for first the cable industry and then the wireless industry have raised concerns that Wheeler remains more sympathetic to business interests than the public interest. As anyone who has read Public Knowledge’s official statement in response to the nomination can see, while we understand those concerns, we agree with many other public interest colleagues who think that Wheeler has an independent perspective and an open mind. Certainly we will have disagreements with the new Chairman (assuming Wheeler is confirmed), but we expect that Wheeler will actively work to promote competition and protect consumers.

 

Yeah, I know, that sounds like either wishful thinking or Washington insider talk. So allow me to explain my line of reasoning (since, unlike a number of other Wheeler supporters, I actually don’t know Wheeler at all). In particular, I want to tackle the current “Tom Wheeler would have approved the AT&T/T-Mobile merger in 2011.” It’s easy to say “oh, all that lobbying for the cable and wireless industry was long ago when they were scrappy upstarts. Why, that was so long ago that the cable industry were battling the broadcasters and the wireless industry were battling the telcos (as opposed to these days when the cable industry battles the telcos and the wireless industry battles the broadcasters)!” But if Wheeler was actually a supporter of AT&T/T-Mo, then it would seem to prove he still has sympathies to his old industry incumbent comrades.

 

I examine the People v. Tom Wheeler in the matter of AT&T/T-Mo below . . .

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The Progeny Waiver: Will the FCC Wipe Out Smart Grid? Save Thousands of Lives? Both? This Season on Spectrum Wars!

Depending on whom you ask, the Progeny Waiver will either (a) totally wipe out the smart grid industry, annihilate wireless ISP service in urban areas, do untold millions of dollars of damage to the oil and gas industry, and wipe out hundreds of millions (possibly billions) of dollars in wireless products from baby monitors to garage door openers; (b) save thousands of lives annually by providing enhanced 9-1-1 geolocation so that EMTs and other first responders can find people inside apartment buildings and office complexes; (c) screw up EZ-Pass and other automatic toll readers, which use neighboring licensed spectrum; or (d) some combination of all of the above.

 

That’s not bad for a proceeding you probably never heard about.

 

For me, the Progeny Waiver is a microcosm of why it has become so damn hard to repurpose spectrum for new uses. The added twist here is that this time it is largely the unlicensed spectrum users acting like incumbents and saying that it will be the end of the universe if Progeny lights up its system (although the licensed neighbors say the same thing, pretty much), and Progeny, the licensee, arguing that everything will be JUST FINE, really, and if it isn’t too damn bad because we are licensed and they are unlicensed so there!

 

You might ask, “if this Progeny thingie is so gosh darn important, why have I never heard of it?” Well that’s why you read this blog, you clever reader you. This amazing little proceeding is still so deep in the bowels of the FCC that only the true spectrum wonks have noticed. But action now appears imminent, so consider this a sneak preview of this season’s favorite telecom reality show, Spectrum Wars.

What raises the stakes on this too damn high, however, is the implications for the future of unlicensed generally and the implications for the credibility of the FCC as an agency able to actually do the technical job of managing an increasingly complex spectrum world. Fairly or unfairly, everyone is going to compare this to Lightsquared (waiver, followed by worries about interference, arguments that the FCC failed to follow its own rules and procedures, blah blah). Let us add to this House Republicans who would love to call the FCC on the carpet for mismanaging spectrum – especially around unlicensed. Add to that the car manufacturers in the 5 GHz band and the federal users generally wanting to show that the FCC can’t adequately manage the stuff it has and you have a pack of circling sharks just waiting for the FCC to screw this one up and commence the feeding frenzy. So no pressure.

 

Happily, I have, if not a solution, at least a better way for the FCC to cover it’s rear-end and contain the damage, below . . . .

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Obama finally Nominates Rosenworcel and Pai: Can They Get Confirmed Before The FCC Drops to 3?

The White House finally confirmed what everyone in the D.C. telecom world has expected for months. Obama officially nominated Jessica Rosenworcel to replace outgoing FCC Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, whose term expires when Congress adjourns, and Ajit Pai to replace Republican Commissioner Meredith Baker, who stepped down last March. Both have considerable experience at the FCC, giving them understanding of how the agency functions in a very nuts and bolts kind of way. Both have broad experience with a range of communications issues, and no particular ties for/against any particular industry sector or company.

In short, both are “workhorse wonks,” with a proven track record of digging in on the complex issues that make this sector such a joy for those of us who like wonkiness and tough questions and such an eye-glazing, mind-numbing experience for those who don’t. While no one can say with any certainty what happens in this crazy and poisonous partisan environment, which every day comes more closely to resemble the delightful fable of the turtle and the scorpion crossing the river, their nominations should raise little controversy. Hopefully, the Senate will confirm both before the end of the year, when the FCC will otherwise drop down to 3 Commissioners.

For those unfamiliar with how this works, or with the candidates themselves, I provide a primer below.

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