I surrender! I admit defeat. I cry “uncle.” You win. Despite my earlier doubts, I am now prepared to say the National Broadband Plan process is the most open, transparent, comprehensive, bestest and wonderfullest proceeding ever in the entire history of the FCC since passage of the Communications Act of 1934! Just please, please PLEASE no more public notices. [break off into uncontrolled sobbing]
Over a year ago, the FCC took a major leap forward on deployment of broadband and rethinking our national spectrum policy by voting to open the unused broadcast channels for unlicensed use (aka the “broadcast white spaces”). The Order left a bunch of questions unanswered, such as who would run the proposed database of available frequencies for white space use. Petitions for Recon got filed, lots of requests for revision and modification of the rules got made, and then nothing happened.
In fairness to OET, it’s been a busy year. First there was a change in administration, then it was “all DTV all the time” until the magic June 12 deadline. Then it was bringing on a new FCC Chair and two additional new Commissioners. Then it was “National Broadband Plan all the time.” But still, it was with a tremendous sense of relief that the process had not utterly vanish off the FCC’s radar screen that I saw the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology release a Public Notice on the database. At last! We can get moving on this again, and hopefully move forward on the most promising ‘disruptive’ technology currently in the hopper.
And move we are, in a very peculiar fashion. Rather than resolve the outstanding questions about how the database provider will collect money, operate the database, or whether the database will be exclusive or non-exclusive, the Public Notice asks would-be database managers to submit proposals that would cover these issues. Further, parties have until January 4, 2010 to submit proposals. The FCC will take comment from members of the public on the proposals a month later.
I label this approach “good, but weird.” On the one hand, this seems to my non-engineering and well ordered mind to be totally backwards. How the heck can anyone tell if they want to manage the database when they don’t even know what the requirements are. On the other hand, this basically accomplishes the same thing by having would-be operators that have been pestering the FCC to resolve the matter and trying to get the FCC to adopt rules that favor their own technology/business model a chance to stop pretending that these rules are neutral and the opportunity to make their pitch directly to the FCC. It also cuts down on the number of steps until we actually have a functioning database and can start deploying the technology. Finally, having just gone back and looked at the 2008 Order, the FCC was fairly explicit (Par. 221) that this was always the plan.
And, as usual, I really wish the FCC would not sit around taking months to decide things and then want an immediate response out of us poor public interest folks with our limited resources.
Except they didn’t. Not exactly. Which is extremely important on the delicate question of FCC authority. Actually, the FCC invited three companies involved in a very high-level spat on an issue pending before the FCC in two proceedings to provide them with useful information on how the market actually works.
I know, I know, this is all boring legal stuff that folks who care just about outcomes hate with a passion — or think is just cheap legal handwaving. But these things matter, both as a matter of law and and as a matter of policy. The fact is that the FCC is very carefully not exercising authority over anyone. The companies don’t even need to respond. However, if they fail to respond, they invite the FCC (and the rest of us) to assume the worst. Because allowing industry folks to foreclose needed agency action by simply refusing to provide necessary information is a crappy outcome we’ve lived with for the last 8 years (longer, really). Far smarter to invite industry folks to respond to questions, but decide that at some point you need to move with the information you have. Heck, if the FCC pulls that trick only once, I bet we’ll see lots more folks with relevant information willing to come forward.
So while I expect lots of folks to yammer about FCC authority on August 21 when the answers are due, they’ll be barking up the wrong tree. Won’t stop ’em, of course. But for those who would like a sense of what is actually going on from a legal/regulatory authority angle —
It seems every now and then I see some company or organization that finds itself challenged by the fact that the internet gives people lots of interesting alternatives and thus upsets traditional business models. This prompts said company to flail around for a bit, denouncing how piracy or whatever is unfairly destroying it, then announcing some stunning new proposal or plan that lashes out at this supposed piracy. Usually, since the problem is not “piracy” but “competition,” this plan makes no sense whatsoever.
As I noted previously, the newspaper industry generally is flailing around and proposing all kinds of foolish things rather than figuring out how to adapt and thrive in new market realities where people and advertisers have a very different set of choices and the days of 20% profit margins are gone. The Associated Press is the latest organization to jump off the deep end. AP believes that by setting up a “beacon” system for its content it can require everyone “stealing” its content to pay royalty fees.
There are several problems with this scheme. First, the article does not make clear whether it tries to cover linking as “using content” for free. I’m not sure that it could, nor does it make sense given their theory of “piracy.” If I link to an AP story, I haven’t copied anything and clicking the link actually brings people to the content — the desired result from AP’s perspective. Nor can the AP prevent me from describing an AP story even without a link. Heck, many of my local radio stations do this with my local newspapers, simply summarizing articles with an attribution. So if the object is to prevent people from linking to AP articles, or discussing AP articles (the “free ride” that so incenses the traditional news media and its defenders), this proposal really doesn’t seem likely to help.
The AP can prevent wholesale copying of its articles where the amount copies exceeds fair use. But, as the article linked to above points out, the AP already uses software to do this. The new system may make it easier to license AP works (a result I would heartily support — AP should use technology to make it easier to monetize its content with license fees for reprints), but the description seems to go well beyond that. Either I am dramatically underestimating the number of websites that reproduce significant amounts of AP content over and above linking and simple descriptions of stories (which is certainly possible), or the technology dramatically lowers the transaction cost of licensing content and thus makes collection of license fees easier, or this fails to strike at the real root of the problem — people have lots more options for news.
Ultimately, it is this last point that has me scratching my head about how the AP expects this to work. If the AP locks up its content, I can find lots of other news content. True, AP might be “better” — although modern reporting leaves me dubious. But the ability to access, debate and discuss news far outweighs any marginal superiority in quality AP can claim over other outlets (which include many traditional news outlets with high quality reporting) that provide accessibility.
There is a delightful historic irony here, in that AP was to some extent the product of the last revolution in telecommunications. Ubiquitous telegraph service made it possible for small news organizations to have the same reporter resources as larger operations by sharing costs among their members and leveraging local reporters. Finally, papers in small towns and on the frontier could run the same stories as the NY Times or the London Telegraph, reporting news from around the world thanks to a global communications network. Larger papers, which had traditionally held a huge advantage from their superior ability to send reporters to distant sources of news and receive faster reports, found they had to join the AP themselves or risk missing important stories covered by the AP’s superior network of on the ground reporters already present as news developed.
AP should learn from its own past and adapt to the future, rather than trying to fight the future and cling to the past. AP and other news media need to work on how to leverage the advantages of a global communications network that allows for distribution of news reporting resources rather than chasing phantom “pirate” gold.
Stay tuned . . . .
Update: This article in Columbia Journalism Review clarifies that the intent is to go after those who are doing wholesale copying, rather than those linking or quoting. As I said above, good for them. I hope that the program in question actually provides some data on how widespread this practice really is. Given the tools that already exist to find direct copying, I’m not sure how this new beaconing adds value.
I propose the radical notion that not only is changing the copyright law to preserve existing newspapers a bad idea, it doesn’t address the problem and won’t work. The New York Times needs to get with the times and get over themselves.
Of note, Tribune, the bankrupt newspaper/TV chain, continues to have a profit margin of 8%. That’s right, they are making money. Just a heck of a lot less than they used to and not nearly enough to service their debt.
And, for amusing contrast, Jason Jones’ report on the NYT. Comedy Central has better production values.
From my perspective, this looks like very good news. Genachowski is no stranger either to the FCC or to the private sector, a distinct advantage given the twin difficulties of managing the agency and dealing with all manner of incumbent dog-and-pony shows. Heck, Genachowski is no stranger to the DTV transition, having been involved in the initial standard setting work back in the day. Genachowski’s close relationship with Obama, heavy involvement in the Obama campaign from the beginning, and general tech background provide fairly strong early assurance that — contrary to the hopes of some and fears of others — Obama does not appear to be backing away from his campaign commitment to open networks and media diversity.
All that said, let nobody think the fun is over and we all get to go home. Now more than ever, progressives need to build on our movement momentum and press our case open networks, real spectrum reform, a more diverse media, adequate consumer protection, and regulation that creates real competition by opening bottleneck facilities and limit market power. We have an opportunity, not a victory, and we must act to seize it.
Tonight, the Jewish month of Tishrei will begin. Tishrei ushers in a season of numerous Jewish holidays, starting with the ones everybody has heard of (Rosh Hashannah) and concluding with the ones people are convinced we are making up to get out of work (Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah). Unless you live in Israel, or it comes out as one of those years when the holidays overlap with the weekends, it tends to make for a very, very compressed month on the secular side. As a result, I expect to post a heck of a lot less than usual this month.
I just want to wish regular readers a happy New Year and trust that those of other religious faiths will forgive the hubris of those Jewish people — including me — who believe that (a) God is judging the entire world (including you guys) this Tuesday and Wed.; and, (b) the entire world hinges on our showing up in Synagogue on time to put in a good word for everyone.
And, btw, a happy Eid ul-Fitr to those celebrating that this new moon as well.
One may logically ask, if I am right about the wireless microphones being such a big problem for public safety, why haven’t the public safety folks complained to the FCC about this?
Answer: turns out they have. But, the public safety folks being quiet and unassuming, failed to make themselves heard.
Allow me to change that. The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, a federation of public safety associations, sent a letter to Chairman Martin asking that the FCC address the problem of wireless microphones back on June 30, 2008. i.e., about two weeks before I filed. While I wish I could claim that it was the NPSTC letter that inspired me, I had no idea it was out there until today. My conversations with the public safety guys were all informal and off the record. Still, as always when folks remind me I’m not an engineer (or an economist, or technologist, or any of the other topics on which I chose to share my humble layperson’s opinion), I am rather pleased to find a bunch of actual engineers that agree with me.
Mind you, the NPSTC letter asks the FCC to go a heck of a lot further than I have. NPSTC wants wireless microphones kicked out of the entire 700 MHz band. I, OTOH, think lots of folks can productively use the broadcast white spaces. Still, I do feel compelled to point out that wireless microphones do not have nearly the level of intelligence/sophistication being discussed for interference avoidance for the white spaces devices at issue in 04-186. Perhaps we should require wireless microphones to rely on sensing as well, or require that they consult an online database for possible new users in the band, or require them to acknowledge some sort of “permissive beacon.” Perhaps public safety entities like NPSTC should administer the database or beacon, and we should require wireless microphone users to pay for these services.
I mean, after all, we wouldn’t want to let these devices run around loose, would we? Think of the terrible interference that might cause. Unless these devices can meet the same rigorous standards that Shure and others seek to impose on unlicensed devices in 04-186, I don’t see how we can ask NPSTC to abide by circumstances that they feel place our public safety at risk.
I’ve been working with various representations of self inside Croquet. The other day, I had a kind off goofy cartoon-like avatar, and at the same time, I had a Web cam of myself displayed on the wall of the virtual conference room. We were looking at technical problems with both. David said, “Well, Howard looks interesting.” Do I? Which me? Or do you mean me?
I’ve also been working with 3D heads that are automatically generated to look like a person from in a 2D photograph. The software has some large number of parameters by which a canonical head is adjusted. The values for a particular person are measured off the photograph. Now, I think of a person’s ears as being unique as a fingerprint, but the software uses the same generic ear for everyone. Since there’s only one frontal picture used, there isn’t enough side-view data to make personalized ears. It made me think of Westworld or Neuromancer, in which future people recognize artificiality by flaws in the hands. A character says, “’They’ can’t do hands right.” In the near-term metaverse, it’ll be the ears.
On the other hand, one of these heads was a fellow I’d never met before, although I’ve been working closely with him days, nights and weekends for two months. I had seen him with a small 2D photograph where his face would be on his avatar. From his family name, I thought his ancestors might be Asian, but the ID photo was just too generic. Maybe Eastern Europe? However, the 3D head had a distinct Pac-Rim cast to me that just didn’t jump out at me in the photo. Interesting.
Lots of opportunities to define who the heck you are. And are you the same wherever you go? Am I different at work and in social gatherings? (Is there a difference?) Should I have distinct identities and distinct representations? I don’t want to walk into the virtual office wearing my B&D avatar! (And indeed, tonight I walked into a meeting not realizing that I was wearing Intel’s CEO that I’d been testing earlier.) Qwaq CEO Greg Nuyens puts it this way: after you meet and work with someone in Qwaq Forums, we want some of that relationship to carry over to a subsequent meeting in person. You shouldn’t feel like the non-virtual meeting is your first. (Greg’s in the video at the previous link discussing identity, but not this particular point.)