Assessing the 700 MHz Order Part III — Anonymous Bidding Alone Makes This a Big Win

Regular readers will know that, as far as I am concerned, getting anonymous bidding automatically makes this Order a big win. I pushed hard on this in the lead up to the AWS auction a year and a half ago. Sadly, I lost. As a result, the cable companies were able to block the DBS guys from winning any new licenses, and the incumbents generally succeeded in keeping out any potentially disruptive new entrants (the cable guys having made it clear they would not compete with the cellular guys).

Fortunately, Greg Rose spent a year crunching the data and demonstrated that if the incumbents hadn’t rigged the auction, it sure looked like it from a statistical analysis/game theory perspective. With this “smoking gun” evidence in hand (utterly dickish footnotes by the Wireless Bureau staff to the contrary), we were able to persuade the Commission that adopting anonymous bidding rules would make the auction more competitive, give new entrants a better chance, and as a result probably increase the auction revenue overall.

So, having lost this last time around, I consider it a real coup to get it now. As both Google and Frontline supported anonymous bidding as necessary to encourage new entrants, I am hopeful that we may still get our “third pipe” provider even without wholesale open access.

Analysis below . . . .

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All Over But The Screaming; Assessing the 700 MHz Order: Part I — Putting This In Context

At the end of last week, the FCC released its mammoth 350 page Order on the 700 MHz Auction. As advertised, it resolves most of the major issues, but delegates some details for the Wireless Bureau to resolve so we can continue to have wonky auction fun through the fall. Because the only thing better than Fantasy Football is Fantasy Reserve Prices.

Below, and for the next several posts, I give my patented Sausage Factory long, detailed analysis. Briefly, in my usual contrarian-but-hopefully-sophisticated-and-nuanced-way, I think we did pretty well. In fact I think we totally kicked ass, took names, and got something that — over the long haul — has the potential to seriously revolutionize wireless and broadband policy in the United States.

“Wha?” I hear you cry. “I thought we lost on wholesale. I thought the Order had only wussy half measures that amounts to either a giveaway to the incumbents for crumbs or Google (depending on whom you hate more). Are you just trying to buck us up and make us feel better?”

True, we lost on wholesale and the FCC did not go as far as I would like on the “wireless Carterfone.” But, as with the debate over the AT&T/BS Conditions, we need to assess the results as part of a long-term campaign for reform rather than expecting to achieve a Glorious Revolution in a single stroke. This was our Battle of Britain (or, for those who think of us as a bunch of Socialist enemies of capitalism, our Batte of Stalingrad). We have stood before the united might of the telco, cable and wireless industries, halted the tide of “business as usual,” and extracted some key changes and precedents that we shall leverage for the next phase of the campaign to create a 21st Century information grid worthy of a democracy; an information grid that extends the benefits of modern communications to everyone and eliminates the power of gatekeepers to control what we say and what information we discover.

Which, at the end of the day, is not too shabby — especially when compared to what we expected last April. We got some pretty huge stuff — things that will revolutionize this auction not merely help us for the long term.

Using my “Red Sox scale” of success, this feels to me a lot like the 1975 World Series. Looking back as an adult, I can see that it was one of the finest moments in professional baseball, with the Sox losing by a single run in the 7th game. But at the time, it felt like a Hell of a loss, precisely because we came so close to winning it all.

So I’m not nearly as down as most of my friends in the movement. Part of that has to do with long-term view over short term. Part of that has to do with whether I believe that Martin is acting in good faith or not (again, I’m contrarian in our community by saying “good faith” for reasons I will explain). Part of it has to do with an appreciation of the FCC’s institutional dynamics including, to paraphrase Jon Stewart, the absolute dickishness of the Wireless Bureau staff.

I do see problems and issues in the Order, some of which I hope to get fixed on Recon, some of which reflect rational disagreements on the proper course and what level of risk we should take for political payoff (I’m talking about the reserve price stuff here). And, at the end of the day, we are still facing a host of unknowns that will depend on a future FCC’s willingness to enforce these conditions. But in the end, I’m feeling we at MAP earned our corn and achieved things we can be proud of (I’ll let the other members of PISC speak for themselves on that score, but I hope they feel the same way as well).

Because this is really, really long, and will probably take several days to cover, I am breaking this up into parts. Below, I provide some of the necessary institutional context for understanding the Order and why I think this counts as a big win.

More below . . . .

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Microsoft Screws Up the White Spaces; or, Why Citizens Movements Are Citizen Driven — the Latest Example

As most of you may have heard by now, the case for using the television “white spaces” for unlicensed use hit an unfortunate snag when the prototype submitted by Microsoft and the tech allies did not perform according to spec. MS and friends now claim that the FCC managed to break the prototype when they took it out of the box. Meanwhile, of course, the broadcaster are making the most of this opportunity to repeat that unlicensed use of the white spaces can never work (ignoring that the the Philips prototype worked perfectly in the lab and that New America Foundation submitted its own, independent engineering data in support of sensing technology).

I have blogged extensively about this on my Public Knowledge blog. Briefly, while an annoying political set back, it means very little from an engineering perspective. There is plenty of evidence from both the Philips proptotype, the New America Foundation data, and other relevant technologies (such as the sharing of the 5.3 GHz space with military radar) to prove the essential soundness of the concept. While important work needs to be done in terms of actually setting appropriate standards and then building devices that will perform to spec, we know it can be done — assuming Microsoft’s blunder doesn’t create enough political noise to kill or cripple the project.

Which is why I bother to blog again about it here. To underscore yet again the importance of making sure citizen’s movements are citizen driven and that we do not allow ourselves to let corporate allies do all the heavy lifting. It’s nice to have big friends like Microsoft and Google. They sure as heck open a lot of doors and can bring a lot of resources to the fight. But never, never, NEVER make the mistake of letting them handle the driving of an issue when the public interest is at stake.

And, if I may make some pointed remarks to my friends in the open software and GNU Radio movement. Some time back I linked to this excellent piece urging techies to spend more time making the mechanisms of government work and less time merely bitching about how government keeps coming up with the wrong result. Here is an excellent opportunity to step up to the plate and provide some open source prototypes (or even simply additional test data) that demonstrate proof of concept. No, this is not a simple project. It requires an investment of time and resources. But the payoff is potentially huge. I’m making a standing offer for techies who want to contribute some real science and engineering know-how to the cause of open spectrum: if you have something you want submitted, contact me and I will work with you to get it in the record (or explain to you why it is not as useful as you thought and how you can improve it). Because I can tell you from experience that the engineers at the FCC are actually very eager to get as much data as possible and to get the engineering right on this.

Because freinds, this is like anything else in our democracy. If you don’t participate, then you’re just bleeting sheep. But if you come play, you can make a difference. As Ben Franklin once said: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. Liberty is a well armed lamb protesting the vote.”

Time for us to see if we have enough well armed lambs, or if the techno-herd would rather see Microsoft do the fighting.

Stay tuned . . . . .

Sprint Swaps Spectrum Co. for Google: Care To Guess Who Bids in 700 MHz Now?

As I repeatedly observed during the lead up to last Tuesday’s FCC meeting to decide the rules for the 700 MHz band, it is an extremely risky business to try to guess who will bid at this stage. Despite the much shorter time between announcing the rules for the AWS auction last year and the time bidders needed to get their forms in, numerous companies changed their positions, created new ventures, and generally did the unexpected.

Now, with everyone speculating whether whether or not Google will really bid or whether the cablecos will give the telcos a run for their money, comes a significant change. In the course of a week, Sprint has forged an alliance with Google, followed a few days later with a surprise request to exit the cableco consortium SpectrumCo. This comes on top of Sprint’s announcement two weeks ago that it will team with Clearwire to do nationwide WiMax.

And suddenly all those wise speculations about how Sprint won’t bid because it doesn’t have the cash and it has enough spectrum, Clearwire won’t bid because it’s too small to challenge the telcos, and Google won’t bid because they don’t have the expertise and don’t want to spend the money, need some serious recalculation. A Google/Sprint/Clearwire consortium (with possible help from Intel, which both owns a chunk of Clearwire and participated in the auction rulemaking as part of the “4G Coalition” with Google, Skype, and Yahoo!) looks like much more of a spectrum player than any of them alone. Sprint and Clearwire have the infrastructure and expertise, Google has the bucks and the need to expand into wireless. Further, depending on the nature of the partnership, Google could start testing and and marketing its wireless services now so that it does not have to wait until it has built and activated a network (which probably won’t be until 2010 at the earliest).

Meanwhile, what happens to SpectrumCo.? Granted the cablecos still have no plan for the licenses they got in the AWS auction (since, lets face it, the real reason to show up was to block DBS from getting a terrestrial broadband pipe), but to the extent they pretended to have a plan, they usually cited their ability to work with Sprint as a means of implementing it. So what happens now? Granted the cablecos still have tons of money to throw at this, but how will Wall St. treat their stocks if they look set to pour another couple of billion into a business without the benefit of an experienced partner with existing infrastructure? And besides, with the FCC adopting anonymous bidding, the cablecos will find it much harder (if not impossible) to target and block rivals without going all the way and actually winning the licenses. (Remember, blocking is usually cheap because you don’t usually have to spend the blocking premium, you just have to prove to the other guy that you are willing to spend the blocking premium. It’s like when tough guy walks in on shopkeeper and asks if shopkeeper would like to buy “insurance.” Tough guy doesn’t have to actually trash the store to get paid. As long as shopkeeper believes tough guy will break his legs, shopkeeper will pay to avoid testing the theory.)

So, a mere three days after the FCC announces rules, we find ourselves reexamining the conventional wisdom in light of changed events. McDowell rather relished the warning he gave Martin and the rest of the majority that it was “risky” to tailor the band plan to attract a single “white knight” who would become a new national broadband provider. Suddenly, Martin’s confidence that if you set the table folks will come to dinner seems a bit more justified.

But it’s still a few months until FCC forms to participate will be due, and anything can happen in between.

Stay tuned . . . . .

Why Google May Still Bid

Journalists and industry analysts have been characterizing Tuesday’s FCC decision not to include a wholesale open access condition on the C block licenses as a defeat for Google which makes it very unlikely that Google will bid in the 700 MHz auction, obviating the best chance for emergence of a third broadband pipe to challenge the cablecos and telcos. This seems highly premature to me for several reasons.

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700 MHz Endgame: Wholesale Open Access Down, But Not Quite Out.

Yesterday, the House Commerce Committee held its FCC Oversight hearing. As expected, the 700 MHz auction attracted a great deal of attention. As I wrote in previous entries, this was make or break time for wholesale open access. If Commerce Committee Chair John Dingell (D-Michigan) and Telecom Subcommittee Chair Ed Markey (D-MA) voiced strong support, that might push Martin to adopt full wholesale open access in light of Google’s commitment to bid. OTOH, if the House Dems did not back wholesale, then Martin would be unlikely to budge.

Dingel and Markey did not back wholesale open access. Indeed, Dingell backed off slightly from his previous hard-line stance on even device open access (aka, “open access-lite” aka the “Martin plan”), asking for assurances that including such a condition would not hurt auction revenue or limit bidding. Markey, while enthusiastically supporting device open access and suggesting ways to improve it and make it effective, did not mention wholesale at all.

The biggest supporter of wholesale open access was Mike Doyle (D-PA), who gets a huge Sausage Factory cheer for stepping up to the challenge. You can see a clip of him asking the Commissioners where they stand on wholesale open access here. The good news is that Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathon Adelstein remained staunch in their defense of wholesale open access as a means of encouraging competition and deployment. Intriguingly, Martin did not slam the idea, but said this was not the place to do it because he had concerns about the incentives for network build out of wholesalers. McDowell remained adamant against (as he did against even Martin’s device open access proposal), although McDowell praised the pending FCC proceeding to open the broadcast “white spaces” for unlicensed use (which I hope he remembers when the time comes). Tate did not answer Doyle’s question (no time), but elsewhere said she was keeping an “open mind” on device open access.

Republicans, with the exception of Pickering (R-Miss) slammed Martin hard for supporting even device open access. To his credit, Martin defended the idea that the auction was not about maximizing revenue but about getting the best policy. But the near-uniform opposition to any conditions on licenses by Republicans, combined with the silence of key Democrats on wholesale, puts Martin in a real bind.

So what happens now? Are there any cards left to play, rabbits to pull out of hats, or Corbemite maneuvers to run that could still save wholesale open access. Yes, but they are very long odds indeed. With the vote now scheduled for July 31, we are just after the two minute warning and down a touchdown and a field goal.

More analysis below . . . .

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Jet Blue and me

I live on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, which is served by Cape Air. Cape Air owns planes that seat nine passengers.

I fly to San Francisco airport (“SFO”) on business about eight times a year. I’m making this post from a lonely hotel room 7 miles from SFO right now, as a matter of fact.

Often I fly to Boston on Cape Air, & then catch a flight from Boston to SFO (although sometimes I take the boat & then drive or take the bus to Boston). I’ve taken about 8 round trips between Boston and California on Jet Blue in the last 2 years.

Recently Jet Blue did two things that greatly increased their attractiveness to me when booking my round-trip flights Boston/SFO: they partnered up with Cape Air to make it easier to book flights and check baggage, and they initiated direct service from Boston to SFO (until recently I had to fly into San Jose or Oakland if I wanted to take Jet Blue).

Their prices are good, their airplanes are clean and comfortable, they offer a lot of legroom (which is very important to me, as I’m 6’3″), and they have nifty in-flight TV. So while I have never been a crazy JetBlue fanboy, I have certainly been willing to give them my business.

Alas, no more.

As Google can tell anybody who’s interested, JetBlue has decided to cast its lot with Bill O’Reilly and the radical right.

Good for them. Let them spend their dollars as they see fit. As will I.

Unless and until Jet Blue changes its policy, I’ve taken my last flight with them. It should be interesting to see how their kowtowing to the radical right plays out. Who knows, it may be a money-making decision for them. That would surprise and sadden me, but stranger things have happened. I would suspect that demand for seats on their Boston-SFO routes will go down, but maybe not enough so they’ll notice. In any event, they’ve pissed on me and mine, so they can kiss my travel dollars goodbye.

So it goes.

700 MHz Endgame: Martin Antes. AT&T Raises. Google Calls. Does AT&T Fold or Call?

So yesterday, AT&T was extolling the virtues of the Martin plan. Among its virtues, Jim Ciconni included:

In effect, Chairman Martin’s plan faces Google and others with a “put up or shut up” opportunity. If they are serious, they will be able to bid and test their model in the marketplace against the business models of companies already enjoying widespread consumer acceptance.

Critically, Ciconni was referring to the “reserve price” feature of the Martin plan. To protect himself against the threat that even his device only open access would depress auction revenues, if the 22 MHz “C” block did not fetch at least $4.6 billion in bids, the FCC would cancel that part of the auction, split the 22 MHz int two 11 MHz blocks, and reauction without conditions. (Reserve prices are not uncommon in spectrum auctions, although as far as I know they have never been tied to a specific condition.)

So today, Google’s Eric Schmidt called Ciconni’s raise. In a letter to Chairman Martin, Schmidt committed to bidding a minimum of $4.6 for the “C” Block — but only if the Commission adopts all “four opens” that Google demanded in its letter last week and endorsed by the public interest coalition, Frontline, and a bunch of others. That means not just real device attachment and open application rules, but also real wholesale obligations at non-discriminatory prices. (You can find Google’s blog post explaining their letter here.)

The fear that Google would not bid no matter what, or that only one or two companies would bid on a license with wholesale open access conditions, has been one of the central features of the debate. Even ardent believers in real open access like Commissioner Adelstein have expressed real concerns over this. And, as I have noted previously, AT&T and its various sock puppets and Republican subsidiaries have used the threat of messing with the revenues as a major weapon against wholesale open access.

In a stroke, the Google letter changes the nature of the game. Google has now guaranteed that the feds will make their auction projections — but only if they include real open access. Meanwhile, rumors swirl that it may be AT&T, rather than Google, that sits this auction out. Suddenly, we switch from “will including wholesale open access keep out bidders and lower the revenue” to “will not including wholesale open access keep out needed bidders and drive down revenue.”

Meanwhile, the clocks ticks toward deadline. What does it mean? What happens next? And will I ever get a vacation this summer?

See below . . . .

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700 MHz Endgame: AT&T Reverses Course So Fast It Gets Whiplash

AT&T did a full reverse thrust on Martin’s proposed open access plan. According to this USA Today piece, Jim Cicconi, Senior Executive Vice President for Public Policy at AT&T, has nothing but praise for the genius of Kevin Martin and the utter perfection of his proposed 700 MHz band plan with “open access-lite”. No, seriously, that Solomon Guy was a moron compared to Kevin Martin and the clever way he has cut this spectrum baby in half. Further, to hear Cicconi sing it, he cannot imagine why anyone would think that AT&T was threatening to sue the Commission if it implemented this wonderful, perfect, glorious plan that the genius that is Kevin Martin has brought down from Heaven after spending 40 days and 40 nights reading the docket.

So, in the last two weeks, we have seen: AT&T hint that it will bid even if there is a wholesale open access condition, followed by AT&T bactracking without actually denying they would bid, followed by AT&T breathing fire and threatening lawsuits if the FCC adopts the “Google plan” of full wholesale open access. Now, a mere week later, AT&T loves the Martin plan and can’t imagine how anyone could have thought otherwise.

I hope the AT&T Deathstar has good shock absorbers, or they are going to have serious whiplash from all these radical course reversals.

But I know y’all don’t come here just to see me mock incumbents (although I like to think of that as an added service). The big question that everyone wants to know is WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON AT AT&T? Sadly, short of sneaking some veritaserum into Jim Ciconni’s coffee, there is no way to tell for sure. But I provide some guesses, theories, and speculations on the implications for the 700 MHz Endgame below…..

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