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FCC-CIRC#1
A New Procedure for FCC:
ATSC 3.0 Issues

CIRC-No-1
Today FCC began a new procedure on a trial basis to make drafts of pending agenda items available for public review prior to adoption by FCC. The procedure so far does not give any mechanism for telling FCC what you think about these drafts. However, it is assumed that all the key trade associations and major communications law firms have the cell phones numbers of key 8th Floor staffers on speed dial so they will just call up their friends. Small businesses, consumer groups, and those without a prominent FCBA member as they regulatory representative will be disadvantaged. Is this what Pres. Trump meant by "cleaning up the swamp"? Giving major players more access to the disadvantage of others?

Now this can be resolved simply by specifying a vaguely transparent mechanism for giving feedback on these drafts, whether it is ECFS or a more informal system. Should there be
some "paper trail" of what the feedback was or who gave feedback?

But here are my views on F
CC CIRC #1, shown above. This is a draft NPRM "Authorizing Permissive Use of the 'Next Generation' Broadcast Television Standard" called ATSC 3.0. Readers of this blog know that there is no greater supporter of Section 7 of the Communications Act which deals with new technology. Thus it is amusing to note that even though NAB explicitly raised the issue of Section 7 on p. 1 of its petition:

NAB-157

that he draft NPRM actually never mentions the Section 7! Did the FCC staff that drafted it not notice that Chmn. Pai's very first speech as a commissioner dealt explicitly with the Commissioner's failure to use this law signed by Pres. Reagan 30+ years ago? In that speech, then Comm. Pai said:

Pai-157

So since NAB raised it, why doesn't the NPRM deal with the Section 7 issue?

(Perhaps NAB is "entitled" as a "professional courtesy" to the same superfast treatment that CTIA received for 5G. FCC staff may be afraid of even citing Section 7 for fear of setting a precedent that less entitled entities might seek to use. Previously FCC set an odd precedent that one is never entitled to Section 7 treatment unless the issue was raised from the very beginning. NAB's, perhaps unintentional, mention of Section 7 may thus be creating problems for the Section 7 deniers on the FCC staff and in certain industries. But isn't Section 7 the "law of the land"?)

Another issue with the present draft is its exclusive focus on the positive aspects of the NAB petition. Unfortunately a transition to ATSC 3.0, like many other spectrum policy transitions, has a transitional period that has some pain for those involved. In the DTV transition this was minimized by giving each broadcast a 2nd channel so they could simulcast on the 2 incompatible technologies. There were originally 82 TV channels. At the time of the DTV transition there were 67. Now there are 49 and it is simply impossible to have full parallel simulcasting in 2 different standards now. So the petitioners and the draft NPRM ask for the requirement that those broadcasters voluntarily turning off their ASTC 1.0 signal to use ATSC 3.0 must maintain coverage by arranging for continuing ATSC 1.0 coverage in their service area on the multiplex streams of a remaining ATSC 1.0 broadcaster. This is feasible because an ATSC 1.0 system broadcasts a 19 Mbps digital stream that can be divided up several ways. Thus if you have a DTV receiver and a physical antenna you may notice channels like 4-1, 4-2, and 4-3. (I have one on my sailboat!) These are 3 different video signals multiplexed together to the same 6 MHz TV channel. (In this case the TV is apparently tuned to "channel 4", but likely a different physical channel number that the TV set learned during initial setup is the physical frequency used for the signal.) Channel 4-1 is the main signal of the TV broadcasters, so in DC and many other cities it is the NBC affiliate. The other 2 are video streams of lesser technical quality, often old analog programming, that the broadcaster makes a little extra money out of. In some cases the other sub channels have novel programming of local interest.

Now para. 11 of the NPRM draft raises this issue a little:

"If the simulcast content will not be identical to the originating station’s primary video programming stream, we ask commenters to explain the reasons for any deviations in content and/or format (HD) versus SD) and the impact of such deviations on television viewers and the regulatory implications."


But the text of the NPRM draft does not discuss what this means. The technical quality of a DTV signal on a consumer's TV set depends greatly on how many bits/s are provided for that signal. By packing multiple network TV signals on a single 19 Mbps ATSC 1.0 signal it is very possible that the bit rate of a given network signal will decline from present practice and hence the signal quality will also decline. For some types of programming this may not be apparent, e.g. talk shows like "Meet the Press". But for more action programming, e.g. James Bond films and football, the degradation will be apparent. This is not discussed at all.

If the remaining ATSC 1.0 stations during the transition previously had multiple subchannels and the channel's moving ATSC 3.0 also had subchannels, will many of those sub channels and their diversity disappear during the transition? Presumably this is part of the question in para. 11, but it isn't clear.

Now depending if you want to believe NAB or not, 80-90% of US households do not have a physical TV antenna and get video programming from MVPDs. This large fraction of US households will see little or no impact from the NPRM. However, NAB claims this MVPD market share is decreasing and is even giving away free antennas to expedite that decrease. The draft doesn't discuss this bifurcation of US households and the varying impact on them.

(Para. 4 explains that MVPD is an abbreviation of "multichannel video programming distributors", but explains it no further. As a public service, here is a Wikipedia link that explains for the non-FCBA members what this specialized term means. We believe that a 49 page NPRM that will affect millions of US households should have room for a sentence or two explaining such jargon.)

The draft asks in para. 71-73 about possibly requiring all future TV receivers to include the new ATSC 3.0 technology. The draft accepts the NAB suggestion:

The Petitioners assert, however, that the Commission should not mandate Next Gen TV tuners in television receivers at this time,but should instead allow the marketplace to dictate the availability of television receivers with a Next Gen TV tuner.


But it does ask questions about a possible consumer receiver mandate under the provisions of the 1962 All Channel Receiver Act. Nowhere in this discussion is there any viewpoint other than "manifest destiny" for new broadcast technology. For example there is no mention of the market place failures for previous NAB boosted technology such as AM stereo or HDRadio. Indeed the market failure of AM stereo was not only in the US, but worldwide under a variety of regulatory policies! In today's fast changing world of digital electronics do such mandates make any sense? This is an issue not in the present draft.

We support the basic idea of this NPRM, but take advantage of this opportunity to urge the Commission to consider the above issues in drafting the final version. We also urge it to clarify how they want to receive feedback on such drafts.

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Great Book on Spectrum Policy

Mazar cover
There aren't many serious books on spectrum policy for either class instruction or for a reference for professionals. Haim Mazar, formerly of the Israeli national spectrum regulator and a veteran of ITU deliberations has done a great service by writing such a book. Before the book came out, I heard positive comments about him from both an FCC staffer who frequently participated in ITU activities and his counterpart from a nearby Arab country who had dealt with him on regional spectrum issues.

While it has a good section on many of the technical aspects of spectrum policy (Chapter 5 - RF Engineering and Link Budget), the non engineer can set that aside for review as needed. However, the wireless engineering program that wants to use this for a textbook will find that the chapter adds a key part of technical anises that is not normally addressed in electrical engineering education. Many such engineering programs take spectrum policies as coming direct from Mt. Sinai and being immutable. Rather this section shows how technical rules are developed from physical phenomena and estimates of reasonable radio equipment performance which inevitably varies with both equipment cost and progress in technology. A whole chapter is devoted to ITU issues and the parallel recent role of standards development organizations/SDOs. There is a good discussion of the goals of national spectrum management followed by more detail on regulatory arrangements in China, France, UK, and US.

A final chapter on RF safety is more technical than the rest of the book but is a convenient reference to have around when the topic comes up.

While there is discussion of radio propagation in Chapter 5, the focus is on traditional bands and nothing is said about the current "spectrum frontier" of millimeter waves and how the propagation there is so different than the lower traditional bands. But, then again, most spectrum management controversies involved these lower bands. and they will be the interest of most readers. But with that limitation it does an excellent job covering many different aspects of this interdisciplinary field.

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Observations on FCC Staffing from the Plum Book


plum-book
A ritual in DC every 4 years is publication of the "Plum Book" - which GPO produces with a plum colored cover showing they have a good sense of humor.

This book lists all the political jobs in the federal government and all the senior jobs that could be occupied by political appointees. While FCC staffing info is theoretically public information with respect to position title,job holder's name and salary, in reality this information is not readily available. But in the Plum Book we get a readily available snapshot that is illuminating. As a public service here is a link to the 3 pages that deal with FCC. From the FCC listings we can see how many senior positions there are at FCC, which are held by political appointees and which are held by career appointees.

FCC staffinh ex
At right is an except from the FCC pages that shows the type of information available. For reasons that are unclear the position of General Counsel is not listed but all the other 8 senior positions in OGC are filled by "career incumbents". Indeed, it is interesting to note that OGC has 8 or 9 senior jobs while OET, a list further down on the list, has just two. (I remember when OET has about time its current total staff it had 6 senior positions.) It can be seen that the Chief, WTB is a "career incumbent as are his 4 incumbent deputies and Chief Engineer and Chief Economist. (There is an additional vacant deputy position in WTB so the status of the position was unavailable when the data was collected.)

But then consider the following tweet from Chairman's Office official Gigi Sohn:

A little further down in the Plum Book we see that Mr. DelNero is a "career incumbent" who is leaving FCC a little less than 3 years after joining it from Covington & Burling. What is going on?WCB
While there are some that may be critical of everything the current FCC leadership has done, this involves a practice that has been going on for decades at FCC under BOTH parties.

The commissioners, their advisors, the senior managers in the Office of Media relations, and the chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau are now political appointees and usually have been so in the past. The position of general counsel has nominally alternated back and forth between career and political over the years. My old boss at OET, Ed Thomas, chose to be chief of that office as a political appointee although he certainly was qualified for a career appointment due to his management and technical experience. Ed thought it would give him more prestige in dealing with political appointees at other agencies.

But most of the other bureau/office chiefs and some of their deputies are de facto political appointees who have been masquerading as career appointees and will leave in droves in the next few weeks. This masquerading has several "advantages" to the individuals involved:
  • It gets around limits on the number of political appointees at FCC and allows the Chairman to stack senior managers with people who have unambiguous loyalty to him
  • Career senior officials have to be vetted by OPM and committees of actual career civil servants for both job related skills and management experience. Some younger lawyers from private practice may not qualify under such standards
  • Only career senior officials are eligible for special SES "performance awards"/bonuses of 5-20% of their normal salary, so having a career appointment has financial benefits

But this decades old bipartisan procedure has real downsides also.
  • It discourages the development of an effective tier of top career civil servants who are politically neutral and act in the interests of the agency with loyalty to the current leadership. You say this is impossible? Consider Bob Pepper the chief of the former Office of Plans and Policy who held senior policy jobs and was a trusted advisor to chairman of both parties. OET Chief Julius Knapp has only served in that position under the current administration but has been widely viewed as politically neural during his long tenure as deputy in OET. It is hard to have such a career path at FCC now and as a result sometimes career civil servants are not as objective as they should be. Some may tell political people what they want to hear and some may secretly drag their feet on policies they disagree with. Both are inappropriate behavior for career civil servants and the fear of this is why political appointees want a thorough house cleaning.
  • This system keeps much of the SES bonus pools away from real career civil servants where Congress directed it to go, further discouraging them.
  • It results in large flux of senior managers with FCC chairman transitions. This is not just when the party in the White House changes. I recall a massive "career incumbent" shakeup when Chmn. Fowler left and was replace by Chmn. Sikes near the end of the Reagan Administration. This large group of senior changes decreases FCC productivity and effectiveness.

When my wife worked at NRC she reported no influx of political appointees masquerading as career civil servants into senior manage positions. NRC has a career civil service management structure that is loyal to the institution. More of this at FCC would probably help FCC effectiveness and allow the new leadership to have on hand a loyal and effective team to advise them and implement the desired policies.

Such a change cannot be implemented immediately because the current career civil servants have been affected by past practices, but I hope the next Commission will recognize the the large level of politicization of senior managers at FCC is really counterproductive. Once this problem is recognized it can start considering options for a slow and deliberate change in senior staffing and building up the skills of career civil servants to make FCC more effective.

Older Plum Books for comparison
2008
2012

UPDATE

Is it obvious to others why the bureau chief who deals with public safety should be a political appointee? It has been since this bureau was created so both parties have been behaving the same way. But does it really make sense?



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Lessons on FCC Morale

bptw_1824x800

This week the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report was issued as it has been every year since the Bush 43 administration fostered the start of this program in 2003 and made surveys mandatory for Executive Branch agencies. FCC participation was optional and it dodged the survey until the 2009 survey - based on 2008 data collection during the Martin chairmanship. Now the purpose of FCC is not to amuse its staff and keep them happy. But enlightened management knows that you can get more done if everyone on the team understands goals and works in the same direction. Indeed, if they don't why have 1500-2000 people sitting around.

During my career at FCC Chmn. Michael Powell seemed to be the best leader at motivating the staff. Chmn. Kevin Martin, his immediate successor, the worst. Both Republicans. Most FCC chairs in recent history had essentially no management experience. They were generally Hill staffers or lawyers in private practice. Chmn. Wheeler despite other flaws, had at least directed 2 trade associations with a few hundred employees. Chmn. Powell did not have this direct experience, but he grew up in the family of a senior military officer and no doubt learned from his father how to be a leader of those in your unit. He also had been a junior military officer before his career was wrecked by a near fatal training accident. Having been a junior officer myself, I know that leadership training is a key part of preparation for commissioning. I doubt if many other FCC chairs have had comparable training.

So let's look at this year's results:

FCC scores bptw 16

FCC had a dismal score during the Martin chairmanship as morale plummeted. This was particularly striking after the enlightened workplace leadership of Chmn. Powell. While Chmn. Genachowski was controversial for some of his policies, he at least made a wonderful turnaround in workplace morale at FCC.

bptw table 16
However, morale has been drifting down in the most recent 3 surveys and is now below government wide averages. More troubling is what is shown in the table at the left. This compared FCC with other regulatory commissions of comparable size. NLRB has worse morale than FCC; but FERC, FTC, NRC, and EEOC have higher morale than FCC. Thus in this narrow peer group of multimember regulatory commissions FCC is near the bottom.

Wheeler-D-R-votes-1
So I hope that the Transition Team in planning the new FCC leadership focuses on the positive accomplishments of Chmn. Powell in FCC administration and leadership and eschews the management style of Chmn. Martin, his successor. This is an independent issue of the 8th Floor harmony illustrated at left. Now partisanship in FCC is not totally independent of partisanship on the Hill so blaming Chmn. Wheeler entirely for this partisanship growth in FCC voting is not really fair. FCC is not really isolated from Congress especially when 3 of the commissioners are former Hill staffers and a fourth is the daughter of a key House member. Hill staffers make great commissioners, but there is a downside of having a near monoculture of such former staffers on the Commission.

So let's hope in the next few years we can have both good staff morale at FCC and better 8th Floor harmony too.
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Federal Spectrum Reform in the Next Administration

We have previously written about FCC spectrum policy reform in the next administration. This post deals with federal spectrum management reform. The US has an unusual bifurcation of spectrum policy going back tot eh pre-FCC beginning os spectrum regulation in the US: While FCC (and its predecessors) has responsibility for spectrum use by the private sector and state and local governments, federal spectrum use is the responsibility of the President but since 1978 has been delegated to NTIA. However, the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), a committee of federal agencies that use spectrum, usually the largest agencies. IRAC was started in the 1920s and his predates both FCC and the previous Federal Radio Commission.

In practice, IRAC has had a major role in federal spectrum policy development and the top leadership of NTIA rarely overrules its decisions. Indeed, having sat in on may IRAC meetings it is clear that in the view of many IRAC members, NTIA is the law firm that represents their views to FCC and Congress and its not a regulatory agency. These members also tend to view the NTIA Office of Spectrum Management as the "IRAC Secretariat" -implementing the will of IRAC and recording the spectrum assignments that it has approved. Indeed a review of the spectrum report coauthored by Nobel laureate Ronald Coase in the early 1960s, "Problems of Radio Frequency Allocation" shows not much has changed int eh decades since it was written. In particular, the section entitled "The Work of the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee" may be the most accurate description of how IRAC worked publicly available although there have been some minor changes over the decades. Here is a section from the Coase report:

.Coase-on-IRAC

Would the pending MOBILE NOW Act and previously congressionally mandated reallocations of federal spectrum to nonfederal use have been necessary of NTIA and FCC had been working together in the national interest? Do the delays and uncertainties of needing Congress to act on these impose real costs on economic growth? While the cellular industry has the political influence to get legislative support for such reallocations, other spectrum users may not - particularly those in the early stages of their business plans - do not have enough political influence but may have significant economic potential.

The irony is that the congressionally mandated reallocations of the past 2 decades have resulted in antagonisms against reallocation of federal spectrum to non federal government users so requests for access to federal spectrum from less politically connected parties tend to get at best a slow response from NTIA.

I even had a client who was a military contractor who requested brief access to passive spectrum near 100 GHz that had no interference risk to any actual passive systems and the initial application was rejected by NTIA because one IRAC member did like the idea of it. It took a month of a DoD IRAC member beating up on the objecting IRAC member before be finally relented and dropped his objection. It did not appear that during this pendency any NTIA employees ever asked the objecting agency for a "reality check" to see if there was any technical merit to their objection. If this is how they handle requests of military contractors, imagine how privately funded research from non-CTIA members is handled?

47 usc 901c
I hope that the FCC and Commerce transition teams take a close look at how federal spectrum management is done now and has been handled for the past several decades. While a return to the Nixon Era Office of Telecommunications Policy would be too complex a solution, more White House involvement in spectrum policy is needed to implement the goals of 47 USC 901(c) shown at right. After the 2012 PCAST spectrum report, one middle level NTIA staffer was detailed to OSTP to work on spectrum policy issues. More White House participation is needed to make sure NTIA can press IRAC to act in the overall national intern - not just the parochial interests of its members as Prof. Coase pointed out decade ago.

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