St. Cloud Muni System Saved by Citizen Users — “Waste” or “Success.”

As reported by Esme Vos at Munireless, the St. Cloud Muniwireless system has been granted a reprieve. In an effort to lower municipal costs to avoid raising taxes, the town council voted on September 30 to shut down the wireless network. At a city council meeting two days later, a crowd of local residents showed up to protest the decision, resulting in a 120-day extension to reexamine the question.

St. Cloud’s political fight over its municipal wireless network cuts to the heart of one of the core debates in the national broadband plan. Do we regard connectivity as a service on the same level as schools, sewage, and public transportation — where we expect the city to subsidize the service because it provides needed social benefits? Or do we insist that we only provide broadband where it can pay for itself on a going forward basis (after some initial stimulus money to get the network built and get the ball rolling)? There is no doubt that for a city of 30,000, a fair number of people use the St. Cloud wireless network (at least 8500 unique connections/month) and enough regard it as sufficiently important to lobby their city council to keep the network in the face of a financial shortfall. At the same time, no one argues with the fact that the network costs the city $30K/month and seems likely to do so for the foreseeable future.

So how do we measure waste or success? I’ve argued on more than one occasion that we should look on these networks as the equivalent of a public transportation system. They don’t compete with cabs or car sales despite the fact that many people rely on them to avoid driving. In fact, cabs and auto dealers benefit because public transportation systems because they keep traffic manageable. And, as the iPhone and other smartphones continue to increase the demand for spectrum for data traffic, licensed wireless operators like AT&T are finding it beneficial to encourage customers to use wifi hotspots and offload the traffic whereas previously carriers resisted letting customers use wifi at all.

We have until February to debate how we want to incorporate this into our national broadband plan. Broadband as utility — where we encourage local governments to offer services like St. Cloud for the positive externalities for everyone even if it requires continuing subsidy? Or does it only make sense to have municipal broadband where it can pay for itself? With the final decision on St. Cloud now due in January 2010 — a month before the National Broadband Plan — it will be very interesting to see what the citizens of St. Cloud and their local government decide.

Stay tuned . . . .

Everybody Get Your DUNS! And Why Grants.Gov Needs An Extreme Makeover.

I have no doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The official OMB Guidance to Federal agencies on how to handle stimulus money requires everyone to go through the federal grants portal Given that the same guidance also requires agencies to coordinate with one another to further the broader interests of the legislation, to streamline things for applicants and grantees, and to track money disbursed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) from the moment it leaves the Treasury to the moment it is spent on a shovel, this would appear to make perfect sense.

So, being an independent contractor these days, I decided to try to see how easily the system worked. Surfing over to, I see nothing directing me to ARRA, stimulus, or whatever. But that’s OK. Since I know I’m going to need to get registered, I click on the get registered link where — still no specifics about ARRA — I must now choose between registering myself as an organization or as an individual. OK, lets go with “organization.” Here I hit my first roadblock:

Step 1: Obtain DUNS Number

The DUNS number is issued by Dunn & Bradstreet, and appears to be something of a universal identifier for government purposes. Why the government outsourced this function is probably lost in the mists of time, but OK, whatever. Happily, has a link to the Dunn & Bradstreet site to apply for a DUNS Number. This includes the helpful information that, for some reason, Dunn & Bradstreet is a bit backed up at the moment as lots of people are applying for DUNS Numbers. As part of filling, I discover I first needed to figure out my Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) Code. Again, a helpful link takes me to the right website, so all I need to do is figure out if my new business is “consulting” or “business consulting.” so it’s just fill out the rest of the form, submit, and wait.

Now that I have my DUNS Number (did I mention there may be some wait, as they are backed up at the moment), I can proceed to the next step: registering in the Central Contractor Registration Database (CCR Database — and no, they do not provide the lyrics to Bad Moon Rising or any other song). After that, I’m almost ready start applying for actual stimulus money . . . .

I learned two things from this. First, anyone who thinks they might, possibly, perhaps, vaguely could someday want to apply for any ARRA money should go out and get themselves DUNS number so they can get registered in the CCR ASAP. And, to its credit, the OMB guidance said only about a zillion times that agencies needed to go out and evangelize to prospective grantees (especially little ones) to go get DUNS Numbers.

Second, and more importantly, needs an extreme makover — quickly. The idea that I need to get a number so I can register for another number to go into a database that will be redundant with other databases is rather ridiculous in this day and age. worse, it creates a serious barrier to every single desired outcome. The current systems, as it stands, not only makes it hard to apply (especially for small organizations or folks who find out about the procedures at the last minute), it makes it needlessly difficult for the Feds to track the ARRA money.

My recommendation below . . . .

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2:30 P.M., Still No Meeting . . . .

O.K., I hope tonight’s election results go better. Rumor is the hold up is on roaming conditions in the VZ/Alltel merger. Still, after the DOJ approved the merger with a few divestitures, there was no doubt that the FCC will roll over. The only question is whether Tate or McDowell will side with the Ds to exact some additional conditions for the benefit of the rural carriers or competitors. Hence the speculation that this involves roaming. But I still expect a vote today. You can almost hear the Verizon charatcer in the Alltel ads whispering “Soon Chad . . . .soon you will share your circle for the last time . . . . you ding dong.”

While we wait, here are some preliminary thoughts about the items.

Here’s the original agenda. The FCC dropped item 1, Universal Service/Intercarrier Compensation (USF/ICC), and voted the item on distributed television systems (DTS) and closed captioning on circulation.

Of these, the voted items were fairly non-controversial. DTS is designed to address the fact that DTV signals don’t work the same way as analog, and will allow broadcasters to maintain their audience after the conversion. The only possible pitfall was whether it would allow broadcasters to expand their footprint which would (a) eat into the available white spaces, and (b) give them yet more free spectrum goodies for no good reason. My info is that the order will emphasize that the intent is to maintain the status quo ante transition. I have no idea on the closed captioning item.

That leaves USF/ICC. USF/ICC is a huge mess of biblical proportions that causes even a hardened policy wonk like me to quail and flee the room screaming. It is famously broken, everyone hates it, but no one can agree on how to fix it. There is absolutely no right answer, and any piece of it impacts all the other pieces.

What is interesting is that this created another 4-1 revolt by the other offices against Martin. While I give Martin credit for trying to get hideously controversial stuff done, you are clearly doing something wrong if you have managed to uniformly piss off all four Commissioners to the point where they are making pointed public statements that boil down to “Kevin, you ain’t the boss of me.” It is always hard for a Chairman to get stuff done in the last months of an administration, but unless Martin and the other offices figure out a way to get along, it is going to be a very viscious and unproductive couple of months until January 21.

The delay on this meeting, which caught Martin totally by surprise, is not exactly an auspicious omen.

Stay tuned . . . .

The Attack on Oprah: A Case Study Of The Strategies of the Conservative Noise Machine.

If I told you after the Palin announcement that Republicans would attack Oprah, you’d have called me crazy. Oprah is beloved of the precise demographic Rs hope to win over by naming Palin. It would be suicide! Besides, what would be the grounds for the attack?

Then when I told you “because she is keeping her promise to keep politics off her show,” you would say I was doubly nuts. “Impossible! Everyone knows that when Oprah backed Obama she made it clear that she was not going to leverage her show for him. How on Earth are the Republicans going to turn that into an attack?”

Welcome to You will find that after the initial blip on Sept. 5-6, it has slowly leaked into the mainstream media. I discovered it via the ever excellent Benton Foundation media headlines service, which linked to this trade press piece. I expect it will start to dominate the cable and broadcast news rounds via FOX and other conservative commentators soon. Timing will no doubt depend on focus group polling on whether Obama is gaining traction or if passion about Palin begins to wane. But from the current ferment in the vectors, I’m pegging it to be next week’s distraction.

The fact is that the developing attack on Oprah is an excellent case study of how the Republicans manipulate both their base and the mainstream media. It also highlights what Obama and the Ds need to do to defend. It is not simply about going after smears or going negative sooner stronger or any of these things. It is to understand that the Republican stategists at this level do not wait for targets of opportunity, nor do they hitch their train to a single issue or person. It is a matter of understanding overall methods of operation and developng proactive counter-strategies rather than reactive counter strategies. Along the way, it also helps highlight the current problem with our mainstream media and illustraights how the Rs are taking advatange of the internet in non-obvious ways.

Full analysis below . . . .

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The McCain Tech Policy In Action!

Apparently, the Dems were accused of being too wonky by having Mark Warner talk about bringing tech jobs to America, and the Republicans vowed not to repeat that mistake. Even former EBay CEO Meg Whitman, once such a strong advocate of network neutrality she sent an email to EBay users asking them to lobby Congress, remained silent about that series of tubes that Republicans find so gosh darned perplexing. No doubt this is in deference to Mr. McCain, who has boasted that he is a computer illiterate.

But this latest gaff, running a picture of Walter Reed Middle School on the green screen behind McCain instead of Walter Reed Hospital because they screwed up a Google images search, has certainly cemented not merely McCain, but the McCain campaign, as being in the ranks of the terminally clueless on matters technical. Mind you, it seems a piece with the general slovenly way they ran the convention. In a city run like a friggin’ police state, where “preemptive raids” are being used to lock up reporters and supposedly “keep us safer,” how the heck did protesters manage to infiltrate the candidates acceptance speech? More importantly, perhaps, how is it that the Dems could keep their own convention safer with less draconian security means?

Well, I shall leave the rather blatant messages on this as an exercise to the reader. While I hope to post about the Republican manipulation of the spineless wussies of the MSM later (what a sad state of affairs when the best running commentary and reporting on the convention has been the Indecision08 blog), I intend to focus here on the McCain Tech Policy or, more accurately, the utter absence of one.

As I observed when I first wrote about the McCain tech policy, it is unbelievable that the Republicans treat a multibillion dollar industry that has become one of our most critical pieces of infrastructure and major drivers of our economy as an afterthought to the business of cutting taxes and extending offshore drilling. All this lip service about “the jobs of tomorrow” and doesn’t mean squat if you still think “the interwebs” is all about downloading porn, stealing music, and soliciting minors in AOL chat rooms and this newfangled thing called “my space.”

And no, having Carly Fiorina and Meg Whittman or Michael Powell in your party does not mean squat about your commitment to this stuff unless you actually let them talk about this stuff in prime time. The Daily Show may have mocked Warner for getting into details only geeks could love, but the fact that the Democratic keynote speaker was all about how technology brought good jobs to rural Virginia and the Dems will bring those same good jobs to the small towns and inner cities tells us something about the parties priorities. And the fact that none of the Republican speakers, even the supposed tech experts, could take time away from mocking community organizers and helping the poor to mention anything vaguely tech-related tells us something as well.

Stay tuned . . . .

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 . . .

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 . . . .

Really Getting Away From It All for Bit.

I’m off for my annual escape from the 21st Century. Don’t look for me until after August 10. Sadly, this means I will miss the conclusion of the Comcast bittorrent complaint on Friday, and will no doubt miss a ton of other really cool and important things. Such is life. Frankly, if y’all think I’m a snarky SOB now, you should see me if I didn’t get some vacation.

Stay tuned . . . .

Back In the NCMR: Pappa Bear Comes To Town!

So here I am at the 2008 National Conference on Media Reform, and I have the most exciting news: the FOX NEWS TEAM IS HERE for Bill O’Reilly. (No doubt he is in town to endorse Al Franken in his bid for the Senate.)

Woo hoooo!!!! Talk about your status symbols. We have really made the big time if Poppa Bear himself has come to town to pay his respects. As for me, it’s as if the Goodfeathers had fallen into a catnip truck then accidentally wandered into a cat show.

I understand that some folks, however, may be nervous talking to the good folks at Fox News. Here is my advice: keep confusing O’Reilly with Stephen Colbert.

So for example:
Fox News: Can we interview you for O’Reilly Factor.
Person: Great! I’ve always wanted to be on the Colbert Show!
FN: That’s not us. This is Bill O’Reilly.
Person: Oh yeah. I saw him on the Colbert Show once.
FN: Anyway —
Person: Do you think O’Reilly can get me on Colbert?
FN: No. Now —
Person: Because Stephen Colbert is just a god, you know. A. Total. God. O’REilly should definitely try to get on Colbert again. You know, for the Colbert bump.
FN: We want to talk to you about —
Person: Did you know Stephen Colbert was just given the distinguished “Understandable Vanity Award by the Princeton University Class of ’08 (Go Tigers!). Did O’Reilly ever go to college?
(Persist until FN people quit in disgust.)
Person: Wait! Come back! Does this mean O’Reilly won’t introduce me to Stephen Colbert?

Stay tuned . . . .