FCC Meeting for November 3 . . . . It Just Keeps Getting Stranger

The FCC has issued the agenda for it’s November 3 meeting. Gone is the proposed Notice of Inquiry on Network Neutrality. And a number of non-merger related items have popped up instead. Meanwhile, the trade press report a hot and heavy debate around forcing AT&T to divest wireless spectrum to create a real competitor (you can read the comments I wrote for Media Access Project here).

My thoughts on all these doings below . . .

Those who read my recent summary of the state of play on AT&T/BS will recall that Martin set Nov. 3 as the date for a vote on the merger (although some of us continued to express skepticism on the time frame). This looked like another special meeting, since the regular date for the November meeting was actually supposed to be November 7.

Instead, a glance at the agenda the FCC released Friday has a bunch of non-merger related business. the non-merger related items are in the “non-controversial bucket” (with the possible exception of the radio market definitions item). Broadband over power lines is certainly going to be classed as an “information service” just as DSL was last year. And, while I confess I have not been following the migratory birds item, I also haven’t heard any major fights about it either.

What is extremely interesting to note is the absence of the proposed Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) on Network Neutrality. As discussed last time, this item was a compromise proposal by Martin to move Net Neutrality out of a “merger specific” review and out into a general “industry rulemaking.” As I observed on my Public Knowledge blog, however, this really constitutes a trap. McDowell, the third R, cannot vote on the AT&T/BS merger. But he would participate, and follow Martin’s party line, on network neutrality in a general rulemaking.

In any event, the proposed NN NOI appears to have dropped off the agenda entirely. I presume the Ds made it clear that they would not agree to any sort of Network Neutrality NOI as a substitute for merger conditions.

Meanwhile, Communiations Daily (10/23) reports that the Commission is seriously wrangling over whether AT&T should divest its 2.3 GHz and 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses. Industry opponents Clearwire and Sprint/NexTel, as well as wacky public interest folks such as yr hmbl obdnt, think that the combined AT&T/BS (which will control Cingular) will have control of way, way, waaaay too much spectrum — especially when you throw in all the licenses Cingular won in the recent AWS auction.

So will the Commission actually vote on Friday, 11/03, or will this get delayed yet again? It appears that there will be a meeting on 11/03, if only to resolve all the other items on the agenda. But will the merger get decided?

While possible, I just don’t see a vote as likely on Friday. I grant that all Rs and all Ds are genuinely negotiating in good faith. The Ds understand they can’t hold this up forever, and the Rs understand that they have to give the Ds some concessions to get a vote. But it is a very big, very complicated merger. What kind of a deal could emerge that satisfies the Ds, but is not a deal killer for AT&T/BS, is unclear to me. I think one will ultimately emerge, but I don’t give good odds for it happening by Friday, even with everyone at the Commission puting in serious overtime this week.

Then again, it just might happen. Stranger things have happened, and everyone has incentive to reach an agreement.

Stay tuned . . . .

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