There are few things more likely to get constituents to call their representative than TV programming blackouts, and the increase in broadcasting disruptions arising from licensing disputes in recent years means Congress may be forced to once again fix television and copyright laws. As Jerry Brito explains at Reason, the current standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable is the result of bad regulations, which contribute to more frequent broadcaster blackouts. While each type of TV distributor (cable, satellite, broadcasters, telcos) is both disadvantaged and advantaged through regulation, broadcasters are particularly favored. As the US Copyright Office has said, the rule at issue in CBS-TWC is “part of a thicket of communications law requirements aimed at protecting and supporting the broadcast industry.”
But as we approach a damaging tipping point of rising programming costs and blackouts, Congress’ potential rescuer–Aereo–appears on the horizon, possibly buying more time before a major regulatory rewrite. Aereo, for the uninitiated, is a small online company that sets up tiny antennas in certain cities to capture broadcast television station signals–like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the CW, and Univision–and streams those signals online to paying customers, who can watch live or record the local signals captured by their own “rented” Aereo antenna. Broadcasters hate this because the service deprives them of lucrative retransmission fees and unsuccessfully sued to get Aereo to cease operations. Continue reading →
Over at The Switch, the Washington Post’s excellent new technology policy blog, Brian Fung has an interesting post about tethering and Google Glass, but I think he perpetuates a common misconception:
Carriers have all sorts of rules about tethering, and sorting through them can be like feeling your way down a dark alley. Verizon used to charge $20 a month for tethering before the FCC ruled it had to allow tethering for free. Now, any data you use comes out of your cellular plan’s overall data allowance. AT&T gives you a separate pool of data for tethering plans, but charges up to $50 a month for the right, much as Verizon once did.
Fung claims that due to the likely increase in tethering as devices like Google Glass come to market, “assuming the FCC didn’t require all wireless carriers to make tethering free, it’d be a huge source of potential revenue for companies like AT&T.”
In fact, the cost of tethering on AT&T is not very different from the cost of doing so on Verizon, which means by definition that AT&T is not likely to get a windfall from increased use of tethering. It’s also evidence that the FCC tethering rule for Verizon doesn’t matter very much.
Continue reading →
Jerry Ellig, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, discusses the the FCC’s lifeline assistance benefit funded through the Universal Service Fund (USF). The program, created in 1997, subsidizes phone services for low-income households. The USF is not funded through the federal budget, rather via a fee from monthly phone bills — reaching an all-time high of 17% of telecomm companies’ revenues last year. Ellig discusses the similarities between the USF fee and a tax, how the fee fluctuates, how subsidies to the telecomm industry have boomed in recent years, and how to curb the waste, fraud and abuse that comes as a result of the lifeline assistance benefit.
The 600 MHz spectrum auction “represents the last best chance to promote competition” among mobile wireless service providers, according to the written testimony of T-Mobile executive who appeared before a congressional subcommittee Jul. 23 and testified in rhetoric that is reminiscent of a bygone era.
The idea that an activist Federal Communications Commission is necessary to preserve and promote competition is a throwback to the government-sanctioned Ma Bell monopoly era. Sprint still uses the term “Twin Bells” in its FCC pleadings to refer to AT&T and Verizon Wireless in the hope that, for those who can remember the Bell System, the incantation will elicit a visceral response. The fact is most of the FCC’s efforts to preserve and promote competition have failed, entailed serious collateral damage, or both.
Unless Congress and the FCC get the details right, the implementation of an innovative auction that will free up spectrum that is currently underutilized for broadcasting and make it available for mobile communications could fail to raise in excess of $7 billion for building a nationwide public safety network and making a down payment on the national debt. Aside from ensuring that broadcasting is not disrupted in the process, one important detail concerns whether the auctioning will be open to every qualified bidder, or whether government officials will, in effect, pick winners and losers before the auctioning begins. Continue reading →
“Permitting voluntary spectrum transactions between federal and commercial users would harness the power of market forces to put both commercial and federal spectrum to its highest and best uses.”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is holding a hearing today to ask, “How can Congress meet the needs of Federal agencies while addressing carriers’ spiraling demand for spectrum in the age of the data-intensive smartphone?” In my view, the answer requires a flexible approach that permits experimentation among multiple approaches.
There are challenges and opportunities for both (1) clearing and reallocating federal spectrum for commercial use and (2) sharing spectrum among federal and commercial users. Economic and technical issues may require different strategies for different spectrum bands and different uses. Experience indicates that voluntary negotiations among interested parties – not bureaucratic fiat – are likely to produce the most efficient strategy in any particular instance. Unfortunately, current law does not provide market incentives or mechanisms for the relevant parties (federal and commercial spectrum users and spectrum regulators) to achieve efficient outcomes.
Congressional action creating markets for spectrum transactions between federal and commercial users would provide the relevant parties with an opportunity to maximize their spectrum use through voluntary negotiation. A market-oriented approach would permit experimentation, encourage innovation, and promote investment while increasing the efficiency of spectrum use. The result would benefit consumers, federal agencies, and the economy. Continue reading →
Richard Brandt, technology journalist and author, discusses his new book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.Com. Brandt discusses Bezos’ entrepreneurial drive, his business philosophy, and how he’s grown Amazon to become the biggest retailer in the world. This episode also covers the biggest mistake Bezos ever made, how Amazon uses patent laws to its advantage, whether Amazon will soon become a publishing house, Bezos’ idea for privately-funded space exploration and his plan to revolutionize technology with quantum computing.
A few days ago, the big news in the telecom world was that President Obama again ordered federal agencies to share and sell their spectrum to expand commercial mobile broadband use. This effort is premised on the fact that agencies use their gifted airwaves poorly while demand for mobile broadband is surging. While the presidential memorandum half-heartedly supports clearing out agencies from some bands and selling it off, the focus of the memo is shared access, whereby federal agencies agree to allow non-federal users to use the same spectrum bands with non-interfering technologies.
The good news is that there is no mention of PCAST’s 2012 recommendation to the president to create a 1000 MHz “superhighway” of unlicensed federal spectrum accessed by sensing devices. This radical proposal would replace the conventional clearing-and-auction process with a spectrum commons framework reliant on unproven sensing technologies. Instead of consumers relying on carriers’ spectrum for mobile broadband, this plan would crudely imitate (in theory) wifi on steroids, where devices would search out access over a huge portion of valuable spectrum, avoiding federal users. Its omission in the recent memo likely means the unlicensed superhighway won’t be pursued.
Still, this doubling-down on other forms of dynamic spectrum sharing is unfortunate for several reasons. Continue reading →
The Department of Justice has suddenly reversed course from its previous findings that mobile providers who lack spectrum below 1 GHz can become “strong competitors” in rural markets and are “well-positioned” to drive competition locally and nationally. Those supporting government intervention as a means of avoiding competition in the upcoming incentive auction attempt to avoid these findings by highlighting misleading FCC statistics, including the assertion that Verizon owns “approximately 45 percent of the licensed MHz-POPs of the combined [800 MHz] Cellular and 700 MHz band spectrum, while AT&T holds approximately 39 percent.”
Sprint Nextel Corporation (Sprint Nextel) recently sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) signed by Dick Thornburgh, a former US Attorney General who is currently of counsel at K&L Gates, expressing his support for the ex parte submission of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that was recently filed in the FCC’s spectrum aggregation proceeding. The DOJ ex parte recommends that the FCC “ensure” Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile obtain a nationwide block of mobile spectrum in the upcoming broadcast incentive auction. In his letter of support on behalf of Sprint Nextel, Mr. Thornburgh states he believes the DOJ ex parte “is fully consistent with its longstanding approach to competition policy under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.”
Mr. Thornburgh is mistaken. The principle finding on which the DOJ’s new recommendation is based – that the FCC should adopt an inflexible, nationwide restriction on spectrum holdings below 1 GHz – is clearly inconsistent with the DOJ’s previous approach to competition policy in the mobile marketplace. Both the FCC and the DOJ have traditionally found that there is no factual basis for making competitive distinctions among mobile spectrum bands in urban markets, and the DOJ has distinguished among mobile spectrum bands only in rural markets. Continue reading →