The FCC Starts Its Wireless Microphone Investigation. Will Broadcasters Throw Broadway Under A Bus?

The FCC has just released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing the problem of wireless microphone operations in the 700 MHz Band and how it may screw up the introduction of new public safety and commercial wireless services. It basically proposes to adopt the recommendations we made to prohibit any future manufacture, sale or importation of wireless microphones that operate on the relevant 700 MHz frequencies, and prohibit operation on those bands after the DTV transition in February.

Along the way, the Commission asks for comment on our informal complaint and Petition for Rulemaking. Oh yes, and the NPRM also announced that the Enforcement Bureau has commenced an investigation into the wireless microphone manufacturers and their sales tactics.

I wish I could take all the credit for this one, but I really gotta hand it to Shure. I’m not saying that Shure’s insistence on dragging FCC engineers out to field testing so they could see first hand the blatant way in which Shure and others violate FCC rules, getting all their illegal customers to right into the FCC by the thousands and regale the FCC with tales of unauthorized use all over the country, and generally rubbing the FCC’s nose in the fact that Shure and the rest of the industry were engaged in widescale violation of the rules over and over and OVER again necessarily had anything to do with this. I will merely note that it is a happy coincidence of timing that the FCC commenced its investigation the Friday following the field testing, and immediately thereafter put our Petition out for comment attached to an item already in the works. No, it is no doubt my good looks and charm once again bending the FCC to my will.

To the extent the industry press has picked up on this, it has (surprise!) assigned credit for this to the great Google Overlords. Mind you, the same article also thinks that wireless microphones “produced little or no complaints because their signals have traditionally been programmed to avoid TV channels,” so this will tell you something about the accuracy of their analysis. (For those wondering, wireless microphones are dumb devices and the user selects the channel. It has no sensing equipment or database or any of the interference avoidance tech proposed for white space devices.)

I would also say that much as I would love to see this as a sign that the FCC supports opening up the white spaces for unlicensed use, I don’t. The NPRM is very carefully neutral on the subject, without any statements from Commissioners one way or another, and voted on circulation (meaning it is non-controversial). No, I think the Register pretty much got it right when they described this as “having sold off 700MHz to the highest bidders last year, the FCC now has a responsibility to clear the area before the new tenants move in.” The ball on white spaces, whether licensed, unlicensed, or not used at all is still very much up in the air.

Mind you, this certainly impacts the debate over the white spaces, and potentially removes a stumbling block by providing a road map on how to address the wireless microphone issue in a way that punishes spectrum scofflaws like Shure while protecting users like churches deceived by Shure’s sales tactics (and give parties an incentive to come to the table and do a deal over real interference concerns before the FCC bites their patooties off). And I think it is fair to say that we did help move the debate forward by providing the FCC with the pathway to making this possible. But I would say that all the Commissioners are still waiting for the field testing results to come in before making a final decision on the merits.

What is really critical here for the white spaces proceeding is that the broadcasters now have to make a very unpleasant choice. Do they embrace the radio pirates and forgive Shure for unleashing a million illegal transmitters all over “their” spectrum? Or do they stick to their usual guns and condemn any unauthorized use of the broadcast bands as unmitigated evil and warn that sanctioning a million new authorized users — with new General Wireless Microphone Users added every day — could utterly destroy broadcast television as we know it? Either way presents problems for broadcasters — with the added bonus of highlighting their blatant hypocrisy. Embracing the likes of Shure and unauthorized users undercuts all the hysteria broadcasters have so carefully cultivated, especially when they have always maintained that opening this spectrum to anyone new would destroy free over the air television. OTOH, siding with the FCC on enforcement against Shure and warning the FCC not to allow millions of transmitters operating at higher power and with fewer protections in the white spaces destroys their ability to use Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry, and all those megachurches as human shields.

Needless to say, the broadcasters have desperately sought to avoid saying anything on the subject and have tried to spin this to their advantage: “Gosh, moving wireless microphones off Channels 52-69 will sure make it harder to fit in all them white spaces devices,” claims David Donovan of the Association for Maximum Service Television, a trade association for TV broadcasters that has fought against any sharing of the white spaces.

The problem with this statement is that, according to the FCC, there are only 156 licensed wireless microphones authorized to operate on Channels 52-69. That’s not a heck of a lot of crowding. Unless, of course, MSTV plans to support our Petition for Rulemaking and support creation of a General Wireless Microphone Service licensed by rule and open to the general public.

Mind you I expect that MSTV, like the McCain campaign, will continue to get a free ride on this from an obsequious broadcast trade press and a tech press that cannot get past the Great Google Overlords. But they are going to have to file comments on this at some point. And I imagine that, as they come in to lobby against white spaces, the good folks at the Commission will want their opinion on this separate but related matter. I’ll certainly be interested in rading those Ex Partes.

Stay tuned . . .

The Return of the Great Google Overlords and I Do Another Rant On Why Citizen Movements Are Citizen Driven.

I suppose it was inevitable. Let Google enter the policy arena and suddenly that’s all anyone will ever think about. Never mind that Media Access Project and New America Foundation first participated in this policy exercise back in the spectrum task force days in 2002, that we mobilized around this issue (and I blogged on it) back in 2004 before Google or Microsoft showed up, or that New America Foundation has published some ungodly amount of content on this well before Google even had a wireless policy. No, like last summer and the 700 MHz auction, or the 2006 Net Neutrality fight, it is all about the Great Google Overlords blah blah blah. Because everyone knows that no one in Washington really cares about the public interest groups and its all about refereeing industry food fights.

I should note that the utter refusal of the trade press (and others who should know better) leads them to consistently screw up on where the Commission actually goes. Flashback to last November, and I defy you to find any oh-so wise insider with the cynicism that passes for wisdom these days who thought for a moment that a Kevin Martin-led FCC would even consider our complaint about Comcast blocking BitTorrent. When Martin defied expectation and put it out on notice, no one thought we had a chance of getting an actual judgment in our favor. And of course, when we did win, it didn’t disprove anything, since it was either all the work of the Great Google Overlords or a clever reverse fake by Martin to screw Net Neutrality.

I’d let it go as excellent political cover (since God knows most industry lobbyists make the same mistake) and a reason why folks should read my blog to get some balance, but the pernicious myth that no one in Washington cares about anything but major corporate players is one of those things that becomes self-fulfilling prophecy when regular citizens buy into it. The fact is that decisionmakers and policy folks are all over the map here in DC. You will find people who are wholly owned subsidiaries, people who are driven exclusively by ideology and — surprising to many — a large number of folks in both parties trying to do what they think is the right thing given all the information they have and what they think is right. I class all five FCC Commissioners, even the ones with whom I most frequently disagree, as being in this category.

Does it matter that Google is involved? Of course. Not only is it a question of available lobbying resources, but also a question of whether anyone is likely to take advantage of the rule change. That’s not always determinative, but it certainly helps. As the Frontline debacle shows, FCC Commissioners need to worry about what happens if they guess wrong, while still finding the courage to try new things when required. Seeing a company like Google come gives a certain amount of reassurance and makes it a lot easier for commissioners to beleive us public interest folks when we say “yes, open the white spaces to unlicensed and it will get used.”

But for Om Malik over at Giga Om and other well informed press folks to make their judgments about the white spaces based on Google’s involvement or non-involvement is as ridiculous as the worshippers of the Gods of the Marketplace deciding based on ideology without regard to actual evidence. Google’s financial interests are obvious, their interest here long standing, and their latest outreach effort no more or less noxious than those of any other company. In this case, they have the advantage of showcasing organizations that came on the scene (like MAP and NAF) long before they did.

As I have said before and will say many times again, citizen’s movements must be citizen driven. That is their strength, and why so many pundits and lobbyists who mistake lazy cynicism for experience and wisdom seem utterly incapable of understanding. But as long we believe it we will continue to change the world — and reporters like Malik will continue to be smugly wrong about what to expect.

Stay tuned . . . .

Mr. Moffett, I Thought You Said Cable Was Vibrantly Competitive?

In an interesting turn of events, industry analyst Craig Moffett takes a look at the growth of cable broadband and overall subscriber growth, as compared with that of telcos and satellites, and comes to this interesting conclusion: Cable is a natural monopoly in the making — and has been on course to do so since about 2005.

What is interesting to me is this is the same Craig Moffett who, during the fight last year on whether cable penetration had triggerred the 70/70 rule that would enable the FCC to significantly regulate cable by reaching 70% penetration, rushed to Commissioner Adelstein (the swing vote in last year’s fight) to explain that cable penetration remained stuck at 60% and would never reach 70% because of all the amazing competition.

Mind you, we all make bad predictions (I still remember with considerable heartbreak my Great Google Prophecy). But Mr. Moffett has a habit of telling Wall St. what a great investment cable stocks are while telling Washington how wildly competitive the market is, how cable can’t possibly exercise market power, and how in no way shape or form should anyone even think about regulating this market.

With Kevin Martin repeatedly saying he is unlikely to act on a proposal by small cable operators to unbundle expensive cable programming and retransmission rights for broadcast signals at the wholesale level, the coast no doubt looks clear to start explaining why cable is such a great investment and will crush its competition. But I will be curious to see what happens if, for example, Congress holds hearings on the FCC’s decision in the Comcast complaint and asks whether we need to regulate broadband. Will Mr. Moffett stand by his “natural monopoly” analysis — even if he argues for deregulation for other reasons? Or will he suddenly discover new life in FIOS, WiMax, and other potential broadband competitors?

Stay tuned . . . .

Getting back to our paranoid rootz: The Palfrey “suicide”

My original vision for Wetmachine was that it would be kind of an anti-Boing-Boing: a technology-themed site full of fear and dread, skeptical of the notion of “progress” and paranoid about machines from nanoscopic brain-rearrangers to the DNA-sniffing, face-recognizing satellites in the sky– the Overmind emergent. Then of course 9/11 changed everything.

I’m sorry, that was a joke.

Or no, actually it wasn’t. For what’s the point of a half-joking technoparanoia site when Dick Cheney is in the White House? What I’m trying to say is, do you think the “D.C. Madam” killed herself, or do you think she was suicided?

By the way, that’s a link to the site “Infowars.com”, where the motto is, “Because there is a war on for your mind”. That site, like its sister site Prison Planet, represent the deepest fears of my fellow Wetmechiners about what Sundman may turn our little site into if he ever sets free his technoparanoiac demons. I guess with Infowars and Prison Planet out there, there’s no need for me to go nutz on Wetmachine. (But Harold, Greg, Howard: Watch out! The first danger sign is when he starts to talk about himself in the third person!).

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One man is but a pale imitation of the worst president in US history

Google pays me about four cents a month to run adverts on this-a-here policy-wonk & general bullshit blog, and lately they’ve been running an awful lot of the John McBush “one man” animated gif, which may be running to the right of this image even now. On account of which, my friends and family give me a fair amount of grief. I tell them that I’m not crazy about Google’s running McBush ads here, but I need the money.

In any event it reminds me to run the above picture, which I plan to do at least once a week, until I no longer need to.

700 MHz: Breaking the C Block Package

I apologise for the hiatus between this and my last 700 MHz Auction update, but with 36,419 bids over 261 rounds, analysing the data set is taking a bit of time.

Among the several controversies arising the from now-completed auction has been ATT’s claim that bidders were deterred from bidding on C Block because of the open access rules imposed on the block. I can say with confidence that this is a bald-faced lie.

Twenty-six companies bid on C Block spectrum: Alltel Corporation, AST Telecom, LLC, AT&T Mobility Spectrum, LLC, Bluewater Wireless, L.P., Cellco Partnership d/b/a Verizon Wireless, Cellular South Licenses, Inc., CHEVRON USA INC., Choice Phone LLC, Club 42 CM Limited Partnership, Copper Valley Wireless, Inc., Cox Wireless, Inc., Cricket Licensee 2007, LLC, Google Airwaves Inc., King Street Wireless, L.P., Thomas K. Kurian, MetroPCS 700 MHz, LLC, NatTel, LLC, PTI Pacifica, Inc., Pulse Mobile LLC, QUALCOMM Incorporated, SAL Spectrum, LLC, SeaBytes, L.L.C., Small Ventures USA, L.P., Triad 700, LLC, Vulcan Spectrum LLC, and Xanadoo 700 MHz DE, LLC.

Note that the lying buggers at ATT bid on REAGs 2 and 4. They were deterred, but only by Verizon’s deeper pockets.

The interesting dynamic in C Block is the effect of combinatorial bidding on the outcome. Under the combinatorial bidding rules three packages of REAGs were available (the 50 state package, the Atlantic package, and the Pacific package) as well as the individual REAGs. The rules provided that so long as the bid on a package exceeded the total amount of the bids on all the individual REAGs in that package, the package bidder would win (assuming that the package bid reached the reserve price). If the total amount bid on the individual REAGs exceeded the package bid in a round, then the package was “broken” and the package bidder wouldn’t be required to take any REAGs if it couldn’t have the whole package (this was to prevent a bidder who wanted a national footprint from getting stuck with less if another bidder outbid on one or two crucial components of the package).

Echostar was a strong proponent of combinatorial bidding, insisting that they wouldn’t show up and bid if the C Block did have a combinatorial bidding rule. Oddly enough, they got the rule and then their bidding entity, Frontier Wireless, didn’t even show in C Block bidding (they bid mainly in E Block without combinatorial bidding). But what they inadvertently did was screw at least one major bidder with the combinatorial bidding rules they insisted on.

More below…

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So What Did Cyren Call Have To Say Now That The Curtain Is Lifted? Turns Out We Agree On A Lot.

Last night at 6 p.m., the anticollusion rules finally lifted and everyone in the universe started blabbing about the auction. Google confirmed that the conventional wisdom was right and I was wrong about their motives for bidding (ah well). AT&T and Verizon talked about their upcoming 4G Networks, and AT&T confirmed it places enormous value on its ability to squeeze monopsony rents out of its customers and vendors and therefore avoided the C Block. But most interesting, and not terribly well reported, was Morgan O’Brien’s response to the allegations around D Block, and subsequent interview with Jeff Silva at RCRWireless. While denying that Cyren call “killed” Frontline or “demanded” $50 million/yr for ten years, O’Brien does say that yes, a meeting took place, and yes, O’Brien asked for $50 million/yr as a lease payment in his opening negotiation positions.

One will pardon me for regarding this as a complete vindication of the story I broke back in January, thank you very much. I have always been careful to observe that I don’t think Morgan O’Brien meant to drive Frontline out of the auction or scare off other bidders, or even necessarily did anything wrong. But whatever O’Brien’s intent, it seems pretty clear that this was the straw that broke Frontline’s back and may have scared away other bidders as well (that still remains to be seen based on the FCC’s processes and investigations, and what turns up at the House Telecom Subcommittee Hearing on the 15th).

Critically, however, I agree with Morgan O’Brien’s bottom line. This should not be about finding a “fall guy” or assigning blame if it turns out no FCC rules were broken. What’s important is to figure out how to make the D Block public/private partnership work (or find some other productive solution for this spectrum). PSST will be an important part of that process going forward, and no one should imagine that I am suggesting otherwise.

More below . . . .

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A Fatal Exception Has Occured In Your White Spaces Sensing Device

It would be funny were it not so easy for NAB to exploit.

The Microsoft prototype shut itself down last week and would not restart. Users familiar with MS products that are scheduled for release, never mind pre-beta versions, will find this so unremarkable as to wonder at the sensation. It goes up there with “Apple denies latest i-rumor.”

Unsurprisingly however, the folks opposed to the use of white spaces (primarily the broadcasters and the wireless microphone folks, with a dash of the cable folks thrown in for good measure), will spin this as the entire technology for sensing if a channel is occupied as “failing.” This ignores the other prototypes of course (Phillips and Google), and ignores the fact that the failure had nothing to do with the sensing (the thing being tested). Finally, of course, it ignores the fact that this is a proof of concept prototype.

The fact is, that the FCC testing shows that “sensing” as a technology works at levels that easily detect operating television channels and even wireless microphones. In fact, it is too bloody sensitive. In a foolish effort to appease the unappeasable, the companies submitting prototypes keep pushing the level of sensitivity to the point where the biggest problem in recent rounds appears to be “false positives.” i.e., it is treating adjacent channels as “occupied.”

As a proof of concept, that should be a success. The testing demonstrates that you can detect signals well below the threshold needed to protect existing licensees. Logically, the next step would be to determine the appropriate level of sensitivity to accurately protect services, set rules, and move on to actual device certification based on a description of a real device.

But that is not how it works in NAB-spin land. Instead, NAB keeps moving the bar and inventing all sorts of new tests for the devices to “fail.” For example, the initial Public Notice called for prototypes for “laboratory testing.” MS and Phillips submitted prototypes that performed 100% in the lab. But then, the MS people did something very foolish, but very typical — they decided their laboratory device was good enough for field testing. No surprise, it did not work as well in the field as in the lab. As this was a laboratory prototype, the failure to perform flawlessly in the field should have been a shrug — it would have been astounding beyond belief if a prototype designed for the lab had worked perfectly the first time in the field. But the fact that the prototype did not work in the field was widely declared a “failure” by NAB, which unsurprisingly gave itself lots of free advertising time to spin the results this way.

So the FCC went to round two, and again the NAB and white spaces opponents have managed to move the bar so they can again declare a “failure.” Back in 2004, when the FCC first proposed opening the white spaces to unlicensed use, it concluded that operation of white spaces devices would not interfere with licensed wireless microphone users. The FCC has never reversed that determination. Unsurprisingly, businesses developing prototypes according to the FCC’s proposed rules have not taken particular care to address wireless microphones. Because the FCC explicitly said “don’t worry about them.”

But suddenly, if the devices can’t accurately sense and detect wireless microphones, they will be “failures.” It doesn’t matter that the devices have proven they can protect wireless microphones. It doesn’t matter that Google has proposed additional ways of protecting wireless microphones besides sensing. As long as NAB can frame what defines “failure” (rest assured, there will never be any successes of NAB gets to call the tune), and can keep changing that definition at will, the political environment will ensure that the actual engineering is irrelevant.

Which is why the companies need to stop trying to placate the NAB by agreeing to an endless series of tests with ever-shifting criteria. And OET needs to write up a report that does what the initial notices promised to do, use the data collected from prototypes to determine if the concept works and, if so, to set appropriate technical standards. The prototypes have proven they can detect signals with a sensitivity better than an actual digital television set or wireless microphone receiver, so the “proof of concept” aspect stands proven. Rather than buy NAB spin, the next step should be to determine what level of sensitivity to set as the standard.

Hopefully, the Office of Engineering and Technology, which is conducting the tests, will not suffer the fate of the Microsoft prototype and shut down under pressure.

Stay tuned . . . .

“The Spring Spectrum Shotgun Wedding Fling” or “Sprint WiMax, the Wily Temptress!”

Was it really only last August that Sprint threw over its cable allies by filing for a messy divorce with Spectrm Co. and ran off giggling with Clearwire and Google for a happy WiMax menage? Ah, what a tempestuous summer of spectrum love was 2007! So full of bright promises and prospects for a wireless third pipe that could genuinely compete with cable or DSL speeds. But with the autumn frost, passions cooled. Like Fantine from Les Miserables, Sprint soon found itself abandoned by its spectrum partners and out on the street on its own — desperately trying to make its way in the cold and uncaring world while posting a loss of $30 Billion, and reduced to chanting the old Israeli spectrum folksong Xhom golly, golly, golly, Xhom golly, golly.

But a possible happy ending for Sprint awaits below . . . .

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Google Makes A White Spaces Concession.

In yet another chapter of “Why Citizens Movements Are Citizen Driven,” I think Google has conceded too much too soon in its letter today to the FCC. Briefly, in an effort to try to head off the persistent claims that the white spaces prototypes have “failed” and to move out of the wireless microphone trap that opponents of white spaces have used so effectively, Google proposes a combination of “beaconing” (give users of wireless microphones a low power gadget that mimics a dtv signal, thus denying use of the vacant channel to any white spaces device (WSD) in the immediate vicinity, as the WSD will interpret the channel as “active”) combined with setting aside channels 36-38 for wireless microphones, and requiring geolocation and a “permission to activate” signal from higher power stationary devices.

For reasons discussed below, I am not happy . . .

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