All of these years, I wondered why you find folks in the cable industry who are such a pain in the neck about maintaining and getting stuff from their “public file.” Now I understand that this was really a last line of defense against an army of terrorists and saboteurs bent on destroying our way of life. Unfortunately, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the FCC’s recent action approving the technology for the broadcast white spaces may undermine this defense of our vital public infrastructure. How? Read below. And pray, PRAY, that the FCC heeds this warning and helps NCTA protect us from the army of lazy, easily frustrated terrorists inspired by Family Guy to destroy cable head ends that apparently surrounds us.
This Petition for Reconsideration filed by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) in the white spaces docket numbers among the silliest filings I have read in nearly 15 years of practice — which takes much. NCTA believes that if its members must put the geographic coordinates of their cable headends into the publicly accessible database, we will create a veritable shopping list for terrorists eager to strike at our vital internet hubs and greatest source of OnDemand soft-core porn (God bless the First Amendment and US v. Playboy Enterprises, Inc.).
For those just joining us, the FCC approved the final rules for operating unlicensed devices on the unassigned tv channels, aka the broadcast white spaces, back in September. These rules require that devices check in with a database containing the precise geographic coordinates of every protected transmitter or receiver. Among those entitled to protection are cable headends. Cable operators worried that the devices might interfere with their picking up and distributing over-the-air broadcast signals can enter the location of the headend in the database and receive a reasonable zone of protection.
During the white spaces proceeding, NCTA filings were what you would expect from a concerned incumbent. We need a bigger zone of protection, what if something goes wrong, etc., etc. For our part, we told the FCC we thought they were being too conservative, etc., etc. The FCC made its engineering judgment and both sides decided they could live with it.
Imagine my surprise, then to see NCTA file a Petition for Reconsideration not on the subject of interference, but on something entirely different. Tech companies and public interest groups that the database should be accessible by the public. This way, people can challenge information they think is either erroneous or stale. A closed database accessible only to certain parties, or subject to some sort of fee requirement, we argued, could becomes a source of needless mischief either through neglect or if someone figures out how to game the database (I don’t know how that would work, but I am confident in the ability of people to be very creative when it comes to such things). The FCC decided a publicly accessible system would work better than a non-publicly accessible one and made that a requirement for the database operators.
Now comes NCTA to explain that the FCC — quite unintentionally — has put our national broadband infrastructure at risk. Apparently, if we make the location of cable headends public, Al Qeda or some other vile freedom-hating terrorist organization will launch itself against our cable headends in an effort to disrupt our vital infrastructure and destroy our way of life. NCTA expressed this with the same fervor and sincerity usually reserved for State Attorneys General and Concerned Citizens warning that Craig’s List is nothing but a take out menu for perverts, prostitutes and child molesters and if we ban the “Adult” section of Craig’s List we can end human trafficking forever.
Lest you think I am exaggerating, here is the quote from the actual Petition:
The Commission apparently failed to recognize the danger to the public that could arise from unfettered access to certain database information, such as the precise geographic coordinates of cable headends and their associated broadcast receive antenna specifications. These facilities are critical infrastructure for broadband Internet, voice over IP, emergency alert messaging and other critical communications services. The headend is the point of origination and processing for most of the signals received by cable operators from external content providers, local exchange carriers, the Internet, and other networks. The headend processes and combines signals for distribution to hubs or directly to consumers. In most cases, the headend also serves as a distribution hub for the fiber nodes closest to the headend. The Order would deliver this sensitive headend and tower information in a readily accessible format, available online worldwide on an anonymous basis, to anyone who wants to see it for any purpose – including terrorists and saboteurs.
The Petition then goes on to quote a raft of Executive Orders and directives about how all Federal Agencies need to keep such vital information safe, and recommends that the FCC change its rules so that the database would no longer be publicly accessible. The fact that this would drive up cost to providers and make it harder to correct errors or remove stale information is a small price to pay when national security is at stake.
Normally when I see the cable industry post something this outrageously silly, I ask myself “what are they hiding?” But I honestly could not think of any other reason why they would want the location of their cable headends secret. It doesn’t impact interconnection or tell us anything broadband-related because what matters is the location of broadcast receiver antennas and, besides, cable operators don’t have any interconnection obligations. It doesn’t impact franchise fees, or provide any information about whether or not operators are meeting their build out obligations.
Reluctantly, I concluded that the cable guys seriously believe that if we publish the locations of cable headends, swarms of “terrorists and saboteurs” are going to attack us on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis to destroy our access to broadband. That’s a heck of a lot of “terrorist and saboteurs.” We’ll leave aside the fact that any terrorist cell that actually wanted to disrupt our broadband infrastructure could get much more “bang for the buck” by going after special access points and other high-volume exchanges. Personally, I suspect that cable operators were traumatized for life by watching an early episode of Family Guy and are determined that the “tragedy of Quahog” must not happen again. Whatever. The upshot is that, for whatever reason, the NCTA apparently believes that if we disclose the location of cable headends, the “terrorists and saboteurs” will win the War on Terror.
We had better pray that NCTA is wrong, because it is already too late. Federal law already requires cable operators to make this information publicly available. 47 C.F.R. 76.1708 states:
76.1708 Principal headend.
(a) The operator of every cable television system shall maintain for public inspection the designation and location of its principal headend. If an operator changes the designation of its principal headend, that new designation must be included in its public file.
(b) Such records must be maintained in accordance with the provisions of §76.1700(b).
Mind you, this may explain why some cable operators can be such a pain in the neck about compliance with the public file rule. While it looks like they are flouting the law and frustrating public oversight just because they can — the real reason is that they are our last line of defense from the army of terrorists and saboteurs itching to destroy our critical infrastructure and stuff. This also explains why cable operators are so resistant to any FCC requirement that they put their public file info online and insist on the right to make you come down in person. This way they can screen the information and catch the terrorists and saboteurs asking for the location of cable headends! Happily, the terrorists and saboteurs that target cable headends are apparently too lazy to go down to look at the public file. On those rare occasions when these terrorists get inspired by watching Family Guy to “pull a Quahog” and attack a cable headend, they are easily frustrated when the clerk at the public file location tells them “sorry, the guy with the key to the public file room is on vacation, come back next week.” All the smart terrorists, of course, are focused on actual high-value targets.
Mind you, I am not sure how this army of lazy/easily frustrated terrorists inspired by Family Guy to target cable headends will get the information in useable form out of the database. Perhaps the smart terrorists will build an ap for them, assuming they can pay Apple the new 30% fee for in ap based terrorist attacks (Jobs: “If our platform brings a terrorist and a useful ap together, we deserve a share of his virgins in Paradise”).
In any event, NCTA clearly thinks we can’t risk it. The sad thing is, I expect DHS and other cybersecurity “experts” to weigh in on the side of the NCTA. The people who think a “kill switch” is our best defense against a cyber-attack are exactly the kind of people who believe an imaginary army of lazy-but-easily-frustrated terrorists inspired by an early episode of Family Guy to destroy cable headends could bring our nation to its knees, and driving up the cost of an actually useful technology is a small price to pay for protecting us from this threat. Hopefully, the FCC will show a bit more sense and deny NCTA’s Petition.
Stay tuned . . . .