Look Who's Talking 700 MHz: Edwards, Bloggers, and Moveon, Oh my!

[Channeling Our Great Master, Stephen Colbert]
In an obvious attempt to curry favor and win the valuable “Tales of the Sausage Factory” endorsement, John Edwards released a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin the day after I announced I was scoping out his campaign. The Edwards letter endorsed three key policy positions of the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition: open access, network neutrality, and — my all time favorite and beloved of intensly geeky issues no one else gets — anonymous bidding.

That’s right! The Edwards campaign is actually cluefull enough and willing enough to get “into the weeds” to the point of endorsing anonymous bidding. Of course, the Edwards letter does not actually mention “ToTSF” or even PISC by name, but I’m sure that was just an oversight from the amazing speed with which they rushed to endorse the PISC positions after hearing that I was “checking them out.”

So, for all you folks from the Edwards campaign no doubt hanging on these words, all I can say is — well done! A tremendous Tip of the Hat to all of you. Still, in fairness to the other candidates (both Republicans and Democrats), I will need to wait to see whether they chose to endorse the PISC proposals before giving an official ToTSF endorsement.

[End Colbert]

Of course, Edwards isn’t the only one to start talking about the 700 MHz auction and what it means to our broadband future. For who else is talking about PISC proposals and the impact it appears to be having on Washington, see below . . . .

In the last few weeks, the progressive blogosphere has started to sit up and take notice on this critically important auction. We have this piece in Forbes by Tim Wu, stories on MYDD by
Nancy Scola and Matt Stoller, and this piece by my friend Tim Karr at Free Press. Simultaneous with this, progressive orgs such as Free Press, Working Assets and Moveon.org have leapt into the fray. Already, as a result of Free Press’ outreach, more than 14,000 individuals filed comments demanding that the FCC put the public interest ahead of the incumbent’s private interests.

Lets marvel at that miracle for a moment before considering its transformative effect. 14,000 people wrote the FCC on a spectrum auction. Conventional wisdom holds that spectrum auctions, while critically important, are the ultimate snoozer — what with their mind numbing details and the fact that the MSM print media (which I am convinced stands for “mostly silent media”) hardly says boo about them outside the business page. As for the cable news channels and the broadcast news, y’all are familiar with who owns SpectrumCo and other bidders, right. I doubt that CNN (owned by potential bidder and lover of the status quo Time Warner), Fox News (owned by potential bidder and hater of open access Rupert Murdoch) and others have much interest in whipping the public up on this.

But it turns out that, given a chance, a growing number of people do “get” why auctioning the public airwaves matters, once they find out about it. They understand enough, at least, to know that the current situation of crippled wireless networks and a deregulated broadband duopoly sucks, and that an auction that gives the same companies a monopoly on access to the best block of wireless available now or for the forseeable future is a really, really bad idea on so many levels. And, just like they did when they “got” media ownership and “got” network neutrality, these people are quite willing to make their voices heard and demand that their elected officials and the FCC do their job and look out for the public rather than broker backroom deals among industry incumbents.

And that has started to have a real and transformative effect on how these decisions get made, and the outcome of the 700 MHz auction will unfold. The more people talk about this, and the more high profile politicans like John Edwards feel its important to take a public position on this that supports the public interest and new entrants over the interests of companies like Comcast, AT&T and T-Mobile, the more this creates political pressure for members of Congress and the FCC to do the right thing. Remember Feld’s Ratio of Political Power: “Your political power is directly proportional to your perceived ability to cause pain.” I, and Gigi Sohn and Michael Calabrese can yack ’til the cows come home and hope to persuade folks by sheer reason. But, as Feld’s First Law of Politics states: “Being right is not enough (but it helps).” We can team and form alliances with allies like Google and Frontline, but that only goes so far. Because, as I repeat like a goddamn broken record, citizen movements must be citizen driven — or we have ceded our sacred First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances and deserve the government we get.

While the MSM remains silent about this, except for a handfull of folks who think Google is pulling all the strings, the incumbents have started to feel the heat. As “Exhibit A” in proof of this assertion, I offer a series of ads appearing this week in Communications Daily. While no one outside telecom policy land has heard of Comm. Daily, most DC telecom policy folks read it religiously as the leading industry newsletter (and, while most of the trade press tends to just reprint corporate press releases, Comm Daily actually does reporting an analysis). So, as you can imagine, taking out a weekly series of full page ads is an expensive but effective way to influence the handful of decision makers in this area.

Since Tuesday, CTIA, the trade association for the incumbent cell phone companies, has had a full page ad about how the FCC should just hurry up and adopt the same rules it has always used for auctions. After all, these ads urge, the wireless industry is fiercly competitive and dynamically innovative! Why would we want to mess that up by changing anything? This series of ads comes about a week after CTIA President and former Republican Congressman Steve Largent did a scad of meetings at the FCC to lobby on the 700 MHz issue and explain why the Commission should reject those silly PISC proposals about open access, network neutrality, banning incumbents from the auction, and anonymous bidding.

I do not think Mr. Largent would be spending money for aggressive ads in Comm Daily if those conversations had gone well for him.

So to recap, we managed to survive the first round cut and get our issues into the second round. The blogosphere has treated the usual media blackout as damage and routed around it, and the robust public debate we hoped to spark has begun. The issue has attracted the attention and endorsement of a serious presidential candidate, elevating the pressure for other high-profile politicians to say they want the public airwaves used for the public good.

Whatever the final outcome of the 700 MHz auction (and it is still long odds against us for getting any of our proposals into the final rules), one thing has changed forever. We have opened spectrum policy to the public. No longer will decisionmakers treat this as merely an exercise in balancing various industry interests and trying to keep corporate “stakeholders” happy. No longer will politicians get to quietly do favors for their corporate friends and contributors while claiming to hate “pork barrel politics” or “business as usual in Washington.” The days of the free ride for the incumbents like Comcast, T-Mobile and AT&T are over. The day of spectrum public policy — and I mean public in every sense of that word — has arrived.

Stay tuned . . .


  1. WOOHOO! According to FreePress there have been a total of approximately a QUARTER MILLION comments to the FCC! I bet they never ever ever would have predicted in a zillion years that they’d have that much response to this issue!


    Not that we don’t still have a lotta work to do, but that has to be one of the most encouraging things I’ve heard to date.

    I also think we’ve started to see reaction to this, notably with North Carolina’s proposed “Local Government Fair Competition Act” which would make it illegal for Muni wifi or fios to compete with commercial interests on the state level.


    I’m sure we’ll be seeing lots more dirty tricks coming down the pike.

  2. Hell, <b>I</b> didn’t think we’d get 250,000 comments. This certainly changes the dynamic.

    As for North Carolina, yeah. I’ve been meaning to blog on it. It seems like every time we stomp on a roach another one tries to slip in.

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