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Sinclair Offers to Sell WPIX, WGN to Win Approval of Tribune Station Deal

Phillip Dampier February 21, 2018 Competition, Online Video, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Sinclair Broadcast Group has told the Federal Communications Commission it is willing to sell two well-recognized TV stations in Chicago and New York owned by Tribune Media if it will help win approval of its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune-owned stations by the Justice Department and FCC.

The move is a sign Sinclair may be concerned its blockbuster acquisition might not get approved if the deal remains mired in the regulatory review process.

The filing is effectively a new application because it fundamentally changes the structure of the deal and its impact on several TV markets where Sinclair could own multiple stations in a single city.

Few expected Sinclair would offer to divest WGN-TV Chicago and WPIX-TV in New York, which are major market stations with major advertising revenue. Sinclair also offered to sell off KSWB-TV, San Diego’s FOX affiliate, to keep Sinclair under the FCC’s theoretical 39% nationwide audience cap, which was watered down in 2017 by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to count UHF stations at only 50% of their actual viewing audiences — a direct benefit to Sinclair, which already owns and controls an enormous station group that had been constrained from getting much larger.

As part of the revised proposal, Sinclair will sell one or more stations in the following markets, with FOX often mentioned as a potential buyer:

  1. Seattle, Washington;
  2. St. Louis, Missouri;
  3. Salt Lake City, Utah;
  4. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma;
  5. Greensboro-High Point-Winston Salem, North Carolina;
  6. Grand Rapids, Michigan;
  7. Richmond, Virginia;
  8. Des Moines-Ames, Iowa.

But Sinclair is seeking a waiver to continue to own two of the top four stations in Greensboro-High Point-Winston Salem, N.C., Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York, Pa., and Indianapolis, Ind.

Selling WPIX and WGN will likely make a significant dent in Sinclair’s acquisition expenses, if the deal is approved.

WPIX and WGNhave been owned by Tribune since both stations first signed on in 1948.

Trump’s FTC Nominees Signal Agency Will Take More Relaxed Approach to Consumer Protection

At a hearing Wednesday to question President Donald Trump’s nominees for the Federal Trade Commission, Democrats expressed concern about some signals from the three Republican and one Democratic nominees that they intend to enforce consumer protection laws as long as there is evidence they have the indisputable authority to act.

What happens when corporate interests and special interest groups insist the FTC’s regulatory powers are uncertain, limited by precedent, blocked by court opinions, or contrary to the wishes of Congress remained uncertain after the hearing.

The Senate Commerce Committee is facing some urgency to approve the nominations to fill a large number of vacancies at the FTC, which currently prevents the agency from taking votes on actions. If all four nominees are approved, the FTC will still have a single open commissioner’s seat on the Democratic side.

The nominated FTC commissioners are:

Simons

Joseph J. Simons, nominated for chairman for the FTC, is a Republican antitrust lawyer who has taken a few trips through Washington’s revolving door, serving as chief of the FTC’s Competition Bureau, investigating mergers and anticompetitive conduct from 2001 to 2003 under President George W. Bush. During his tenure, the FTC mostly pursued high-profile cases that brought clear evidence of antitrust harm. Under Simons, the FTC blocked Libbey, Inc. from acquiring its chief glassware rival Anchor Hocking. Vlasic Foods International and Claussen Pickle found an unreceptive FTC for their merger, eventually also blocked. Simons was noted for investigating pharmaceutical companies that applied for misleading drug patents designed to delay the entry of cheaper generic versions of brand name pharmaceutical products. After his tenure at the FTC, Simons accepted a lucrative $1.9 million partnership at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, which handles corporate mergers and acquisitions for corporate clients.

Wilson

Christine S. Wilson, a Delta Air Lines executive, is also a frequent flyer through D.C.’s revolving door. During the George W. Bush administration, she was chief of staff for then-FTC chairman Tim Muris. She also held three other significant corporate-public policy positions that advised companies and the U.S. government about antitrust matters. In 2011, Wilson accepted a high paying partnership at Kirkland and Ellis, a firm well-regarded for helping corporations successfully complete antitrust reviews of their mergers and acquisitions. Wilson’s latest employer was Delta Air Lines, which offered her an executive position in August 2016 as the company’s senior vice president for legal, regulatory, and international affairs. In addition to the $521,000 in distributions Wilson earned from her partnership at Kirkland and Ellis, Wilson accepted an undisclosed cash signing bonus, $136,000 in bonuses in 2017 from a management incentive plan, and a regular salary of $390,000. Wilson retains various amounts of unvested Delta stock and stock options that would normally be lost after leaving the company, but Delta apparently wanted to part with Wilson on the friendliest of terms, granting her pro rata compensation for the stock and waiving the usual requirement that an employee leaving so quickly after being hired should pay back 50% of their signing bonus.

Phillips

Noah Joshua Phillips served as chief counsel for Republican Sen. John Cornyn at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before coming to Capitol Hill, Phillips was an associate at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington and at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York. He focused on civil litigation.

Consumer Federation of America senior fellow Rohit Chopra is a Democrat and the only nominee with a long record of representing consumer interests and pushing for increased consumer protection and better oversight of financial services and products targeting consumers. Chopra was previously assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he oversaw the agency’s agenda on students and young consumers. He specialized in targeting the student loan industry for abusive practices and secured hundreds of millions of dollars in relief for student loan borrowers.

Chopra

Because of the unprecedented number of vacancies at the Commission, President Trump’s nominees could have an enormous impact on the direction of the FTC over the next several years. Traditionally, three of the commissioners belong to the current president’s political party and two belong to the other party.

Observers suggest the nominees are not atypical for a Republican president to nominate and some have served at the FTC before. None have attracted the kind of controversy that followed Makan Delrahim, Trump’s pick for head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. Most expect the Republican majority-led FTC will bend towards the interests of businesses unless there is clear and convincing evidence of significant consumer harm, especially in cases of mergers and acquisitions.

“Traditionally, Republican commissioners tend to be more lenient in merger enforcement on the marginal case, and we haven’t seen any evidence to indicate that [Simons] would depart from the traditional Republican posture,” said Mary Lehner, a partner with Freshfields and a former FTC attorney who also served as an adviser to two chairmen of the agency.

A major concern for some Democrats is that the FTC is now being tasked with protecting what remains of net neutrality, the open internet protocol that was swept away by the Republican majority at the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC reclassified internet service providers once again as “information services,” under Title 1 of the Communications Act. That transfers oversight back to the FTC — an agency not known for careful oversight of internet providers’ business practices.

At the hearing, Simons equivocated on how the FTC will deal with allegations of ISP abuse and signaled his concern that a Ninth Circuit court ruling found that telecommunications companies that also serve as common carriers (ie. telephone companies) are completely exempt from FTC authority.

Some Democrats interpreted Simons’ remarks as suggesting he could adopt a “my hands are tied” approach to ISP oversight, claiming that the FTC lacks the authority to keep an eye out for industry abuses.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) seized on such comments, asking Simons to confirm if he believes the FTC specifically “lacks rulemaking authority” on net neutrality while the FCC, directly responsible for transferring net neutrality enforcement away from itself, “does have rulemaking authority to prevent blocking, throttling and paid prioritization by ISPs.”

Simons prevaricated in his answer, telling Markey, “We both have rulemaking, and they’re different types of rulemaking.”

Markey

“I’d want to talk to the general counsel’s office before I gave a specific answer to that, but I’m not entirely clear,” Simons said in response to a followup question pressing the issue.

“We are going to take the [statutory] authority we have and use it as best we can,” Simons told senators at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing. “I don’t know exactly what types of anti-competitive or deceptive and unfair practices may come up. If something comes up that we can’t reach under our statute, then I would certainly talk to you about a federal legislative fix.”

But observers note such a fix could take years, and the FTC often takes a year or more to complete investigations of alleged wrongdoing before starting to act.

Chopra, the lone Democratic nominee, agreed with Democrats that he also feared the FTC’s authority to act is uncertain, and that lack of certainty is likely to delay any enforcement actions. Chopra comments suggested the telecom industry is likely to use the Ninth Circuit court ruling to their advantage.

“I share a lot of the skepticism and concerns,” Chopra told the committee. “The FTC may face an unlevel playing field where some major market participants are exempt from the commission’s authority while others are subject to it.”

Blumenthal

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that single Ninth Circuit court ruling could provide the telecom industry with a ready-made loophole to escape the FTC’s jurisdiction altogether. An ISP could acquire “a minor side business” like a small rural telephone company subject to common carrier rules and win blanket corporate immunity from FTC oversight. Although Simons said he would support striking the common carrier exemption from the Federal Trade Commission Act which defines the FTC’s authority, such a change could take several years to get through Congress and a well-funded telecom industry lobbying effort.

Phillips seemed impatient about the net neutrality debate which occupied a significant part of the hearing, characterizing it as a side issue worth sidestepping to focus on broader issues.

“We can’t allow contentious issues to distract us from the bread and butter of the agency […] looking out for children, veterans, the elderly and Americans generally,” Phillips said.

Aside from the net neutrality debate, the Republican nominees signaled their interest in the possibility of investigating large tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook for antitrust activities. Republicans have been especially critical of Google, and some conservatives believe Twitter and Facebook exhibit political bias against them. The president has also frequently attacked Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos owns the Washington Post, one of the many news outlets Trump said has been unfair to him. Trump has also accused Amazon of stiffing the government on sales taxes.

“Oftentimes companies get big because they are successful with the consumer, they offer a good service at a low price,” Simons said. “And that’s a good thing, and we don’t want to interfere with that. On the other hand, companies that are already big and influential can sometimes use inappropriate means — anticompetitive means — to get big or to stay big. And if that’s the case then we should be vigorously enforcing the antitrust laws.”

Another issue the FTC nominees promised to prioritize: online security/data breaches which expose consumers’ private information.

AT&T Replacing Storm/Wildfire Damaged Copper Wiring With Fiber Optics

Phillip Dampier February 14, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon 1 Comment

AT&T is staying committed to its wireline network in the face of two significant natural disasters by replacing beyond-repair copper wiring with fiber optics.

The phone company has recently notified the Federal Communications Commission its existing facilities in parts of California that were damaged by last year’s wildfires will be replaced by fiber optic infrastructure.

Fierce Telecom notes customers affected by the Nuns, Tubbs, Redwood and Sulphur fires will be served by a new optical fiber network in portions of Sonoma, Ukiah, Santa Rosa, and Lower Lake.

“The circuits will be transferred to fiber based NGDLC systems,” AT&T said in a FCC filing. “The transfer of these circuits does not compromise the capacity of the cabinets.”

In Florida, as a result of last September’s Hurricane Irma, AT&T will migrate its irreparably damaged copper wire network that strings throughout the Florida Keys to a new fiber to the home network.

AT&T’s decision to maintain its wired networks comes in contrast to Verizon’s 2013 attempt to scrap its copper facilities on Fire Island, N.Y. and certain New Jersey barrier islands left devastated by Superstorm Sandy. Verizon hoped to replace traditional landline service with a wireless alternative known as VoiceLink. A firestorm of protests over the service’s limitations, sound quality, and reliability forced Verizon to scrap the plan in New York and install its FiOS fiber-to-the-home network instead.

Verizon Thumbs Its Nose at FCC: Will Lock Smartphones Despite Agreement Prohibiting It

Verizon Wireless, ignoring its agreement with the Federal Communications Commission not to lock handsets, will soon stop selling unlocked phones, at least temporarily preventing customers from taking their phones to another carrier or overseas without Verizon’s consent.

Verizon’s ‘SIM Lockdown’ is expected to begin later this year in a move Verizon is calling a “theft control measure.”

Verizon Wireless is the only major carrier that does not lock its smartphones, but that policy was agreed to as a condition of its acquisition of 700 MHz spectrum licenses in 2008, which included a prohibition on phone locking. But Verizon seems to think its new locking policy doesn’t break any rules or that nobody will care.

“We’re taking steps to combat this theft and reduce fraud. These steps will make our phones exponentially less desirable to criminals,” Tami Erwin, executive vice president of wireless operations for Verizon, said in a statement to CNET.

After the change takes effect, Verizon Wireless customers will find their new handsets locked and unable to be used with other carriers until activated on a new or existing Verizon Wireless account. After that, Verizon says it will still keep the phone locked for an unspecified waiting period to prevent cell phone thieves from stealing a phone, activating it with a stolen identity, and then selling it for profit. Verizon won’t say exactly when customers will be able to get their devices unlocked.

With an industry friendly Republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission, Verizon may be attempting to test the waters to see if it can successfully walk away from its agreement with the FCC without penalty or even win itself a waiver. But FCC rules don’t appear to give Verizon the leeway it needs to unilaterally act:

§ 27.16 Network access requirements for Block C in the 746-757 and 776-787 MHz bands.

(a)Applicability. This section shall apply only to the authorizations for Block C in the 746-757 and 776-787 MHz bands assigned and only if the results of the first auction in which licenses for such authorizations are offered satisfied the applicable reserve price.

(b)Use of devices and applications. Licensees offering service on spectrum subject to this section shall not deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choice on the licensee’s C Block network, except:

(1) Insofar as such use would not be compliant with published technical standards reasonably necessary for the management or protection of the licensee’s network, or

(2) As required to comply with statute or applicable government regulation.

(c)Technical standards. For purposes of paragraph (b)(1) of this section:

(1) Standards shall include technical requirements reasonably necessary for third parties to access a licensee’s network via devices or applications without causing objectionable interference to other spectrum users or jeopardizing network security. The potential for excessive bandwidth demand alone shall not constitute grounds for denying, limiting or restricting access to the network.

(2) To the extent a licensee relies on standards established by an independent standards-setting body which is open to participation by representatives of service providers, equipment manufacturers, application developers, consumer organizations, and other interested parties, the standards will carry a presumption of reasonableness.

(3) A licensee shall publish its technical standards, which shall be non-proprietary, no later than the time at which it makes such standards available to any preferred vendors, so that the standards are readily available to customers, equipment manufacturers, application developers, and other parties interested in using or developing products for use on a licensee’s networks.

(d)Access requests.

(1) Licensees shall establish and publish clear and reasonable procedures for parties to seek approval to use devices or applications on the licensees’ networks. A licensee must also provide to potential customers notice of the customers’ rights to request the attachment of a device or application to the licensee’s network, and notice of the licensee’s process for customers to make such requests, including the relevant network criteria.

(2) If a licensee determines that a request for access would violate its technical standards or regulatory requirements, the licensee shall expeditiously provide a written response to the requester specifying the basis for denying access and providing an opportunity for the requester to modify its request to satisfy the licensee’s concerns.

(e)Handset locking prohibited. No licensee may disable features on handsets it provides to customers, to the extent such features are compliant with the licensee’s standards pursuant to paragraph (b)of this section, nor configure handsets it provides to prohibit use of such handsets on other providers’ networks.

(f)Burden of proof. Once a complainant sets forth a prima facie case that the C Block licensee has refused to attach a device or application in violation of the requirements adopted in this section, the licensee shall have the burden of proof to demonstrate that it has adopted reasonable network standards and reasonably applied those standards in the complainant’s case. Where the licensee bases its network restrictions on industry-wide consensus standards, such restrictions would be presumed reasonable.

Verizon’s old unlocking policy.

Verizon does not need to lock phones to control stolen device trafficking. An earlier initiative by the wireless industry tracks stolen phone IMEI and other identification numbers that are needed to activate service. If a carrier gets a request to activate service on a phone or device with a suspect IMEI number, the carrier can refuse service, rendering the phone useless on the stolen goods market. But Verizon may have other motives in mind.

“This is going to make it harder for rivals to poach subscribers from Verizon,” Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data, told CNET, because customers bringing their Verizon smartphones to other carriers may find they cannot use them on the competitor’s network. The phones also won’t work if a customer travels abroad and uses a SIM card purchased in the destination country, which could offer substantially lower rates than Verizon’s international calling and data plans or roaming.

Few consumers would be willing to buy new phones for $600+ just to switch carriers, a fact Verizon is likely well aware will keep customers loyal to them.

Charter Seeks Favorable Licensing Terms for New Mobile/Rural Wireless Broadband Service

There are three tiers of Citizens Broadband Radio Service users – incumbent users (usually military) that get top priority access and protection from interference, a mid-class Priority Access License group of users that win limits on potential interference from other users, and unlicensed users that have to share the spectrum, and interference, if any.

Charter Communications wants to license a portion of the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band to launch a new wireless broadband service for its future mobile customers and potentially also offer its own rural broadband solution.

The CBRS band has sat largely unused except by the U.S. military since it was created, but now the Federal Communications Commission is exploring opening up the very high frequencies to attract wireless broadband services with Priority Access Licenses that will assure minimal interference.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of CBRS is Charter/Spectrum, which has been testing a 3.5 GHz wireless broadband service using CBRS spectrum in Centennial and Englewood, Col., Bakersfield, Calif., Coldwater, Mich., and Charlotte, N.C. Those tests, according to Charter, reveal the cable company “can provide speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps at significant distances,” which it believes could become a rural broadband solution for customers outside of the reach of its wired cable network.

But Charter’s interest in CBRS extends well beyond its potential use to reach rural areas. Charter’s primary goal is to offer wireless connectivity in neighborhoods for its forthcoming mobile phone service. Charter plans to enter the wireless business this year, selling smartphones and other wireless devices that will depend on in-home Wi-Fi, CBRS, and a contract with Verizon Wireless to provide coverage everywhere else.

Charter wants to keep as much data usage on its own networks as possible to reduce costs. It has no interest in building a costly, competing LTE 4G or 5G wireless network to compete with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. But it is interested in the prospect of using LTE technology on CBRS frequencies, which are likely to be licensed at much lower costs than traditional mobile spectrum.

Primary Economic Areas

There are several proposals on the table on how to license this spectrum. Large wireless companies want Priority Access Licenses (PALs) based on Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) — 416 wireless service areas the FCC established as part of its spectrum auctions. PEAs are roughly equivalent to metropolitan areas and typically cover multiple counties surrounding a major city. Major wireless carriers are already familiar with PEAs and their networks cover large portions of them.

Charter is proposing to license PALs based on county lines, not PEAs, which will likely reduce the costs of licensing and, in Charter’s view, will “attract interest and investment from new entrants to small and large providers.” If Charter’s proposal is adopted, its costs deploying small cell technology used with CBRS will be much lower, because it will not have to serve larger geographic areas.

The FCC envisioned licensing PALs based on census tract boundaries, which would result in licenses for areas as small as portions of neighborhoods. That proposal has not won favor with like wireless companies or cable operators. The wireless giants would prefer licenses based on PEAs, but companies like AT&T seem also amenable to the cable industry proposal.

Charter’s proposed CBRS network would likely allow the cable company to offload a lot of its mobile data traffic away from Verizon Wireless, reducing the company’s data costs. Charter’s deployment costs are relatively low as well, because the backhaul fiber network used to power small cells is already present throughout Charter’s service areas.

Just how far into rural unserved areas Charter’s CBRS network can reach isn’t publicly known, but it would likely not extend into the most difficult-to-serve areas far away from Charter’s current infrastructure. But if the FCC establishes county boundaries and a requirement that those companies obtaining priority licenses actually serve those areas, it could help resolve some rural broadband problems.

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