Is the FCC making venture capital investment in unlicensed spectrum risky?

Posted May 19th, 2016 in spectrum, unlicensed spectrum and tagged , by Alton Drew

Venture capital investing in device makers that use unlicensed spectrum have a number of challenges. One challenge is interference from other networks operating in unlicensed spectrum bands. For example, the Federal Communications Commission has in circulation an item containing a request by Globalstar to deploy a low power broadband network in the 2473-2483.5 MHz band where certain devices using unlicensed spectrum operate. The Commission needs to determine whether this service will interfere with devices using unlicensed spectrum.  A number of providers, like Bluetooth, that use unlicensed spectrum to provide services have raised their concerns with the Commission. If consumers find they cannot use devices due to interference, smaller revenue streams may result, putting the device maker’s business model in jeopardy.

Another challenge comes from using unlicensed spectrum itself. Not only is its use less protected from interference as opposed to licensed spectrum, but since the provider also has no license to use as collateral for financing. Will a venture capitalist want to pick up the financing slack (and risk) when additional financing can’t be obtained from banks?

Also, since devices simply need certification that they meet Commission operational rules for unlicensed spectrum, barriers to entry in the unlicensed device space are lower than that in the licensed space. The potential for increased competition means potential reduced revenue streams which lowers returns on a venture capitalist’s investment.

The Commission can’t do much in terms of upfront capital costs or encouraging investment in proprietary technology, the kind of moats that providers of devices using unlicensed spectrum could create to protect their turf. The Commission has to come up with workable definitions of acceptable interference in the unlicensed spectrum space. The Commission should also ensure that deployment of a broadband network in unlicensed space doesn’t result in privatization or a gatekeeper scenario that keeps other unlicensed device providers out of the unlicensed spectrum space.

AT&T makes another media play

Posted May 16th, 2016 in AT&T, media and tagged , , by Alton Drew

AT&T today announced that it will acquire Quickplay Media Inc., as part of its plan to support streaming of DirecTV content over any device. AT&T already has an existing relationship with Quickplay. The company provides the platform for AT&T U-verse TV. Subject to a pre-merger review, the acquisition is expected to close in mid 2016.

The acquisition provides another example of convergence 2.0 as legacy companies such as AT&T and Verizon take their infrastructure to a media level.

Driver-less cars and the nanny state on steroids

Posted May 12th, 2016 in spectrum, unlicensed spectrum, Wi-Fi, wireless communications and tagged by Alton Drew

I’m not a fan of the driver-less car concept. What’s the fun of a driver-less car unless the car itself is not fun to drive to begin with. What’s not so fun is a brewing fight over the best uses for unlicensed spectrum as driver-less car producers bump heads with communications providers. In this article from The Washington Post, there is a discussion about a proposal from Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx that would require all new cars be equipped with car-to-car communications devices. These devices would operate within 75 Mhz of the 5,9 Ghz band. Groups, like the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, argue that spectrum is running out and unlicensed spectrum needs to be made available to fill the gap.

Unlicensed spectrum has been touted as a space for technology and communications innovation. It’s the area in the electromagnetic spectrum where certain wireless devices play including WiFi hot spots, medical equipment, wireless headsets, remote car door openers, wireless keyboards, and cordless phones. With cognitive radio technology, unlicensed spectrum’s vulnerability to interference can be addressed making unlicensed spectrum an emerging alternative for carrying communications.

The only long-term benefit I see from driver-less cars is that flowing to companies like Zip Car. Uber drivers should be scared shitless because why get in a car with a driver with a criminal record when all you have to do is call up a driver-less car from Google. And while the State makes an argument that driver-less cars can reduce the number of non-alcohol related accidents by 80%, shouldn’t drivers (and the insurance companies that issue policies) be prepared to take on the costs of accidents?

I would rather see every available piece of spectrum provided to households that pursue a self-sustainable path. For example, using unlicensed spectrum for their internal needs like monitoring electricity usage or connecting their homes to their rooftop solar panels or wind turbines. Or using unlicensed spectrum to connect with neighbors and public safety.

The Obama administration’s nanny-state approach to the use of unlicensed spectrum by going to bat for initiatives like driver-less cars is a waste of a valuable resource.

Comments Off

Crude oil is a poor analogy for business data services

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a remarks delivered to INCOMPAS recently likened special access or business data services to crude oil given crude oil’s impact on energy prices. As a barrel of crude grudgingly inches higher (now up almost seven dollars from last week and hovering around $42.), prices at the pump have increased as well (although still $.34 a gallon less than last year).

Mr. Wheeler’s comparison struck me at first as a weak attempt to tie special access prices to the prices consumers pay for broadband. I can see that argument for being made for mobile broadband prices given that the costs for ordering special access services are built into the price consumers pay for accessing broadband services.  For other industries such as banking and large grocery chains, the cost for procuring special access is probably built into bank fees or the price per pound of potatoes.

But the reason crude oil is a poor analogy is because its price is not regulated by a government agency although some of its supply may be controlled by the output decisions of a cartel. The prices for special access services, especially those provided by so called dominant carriers, are regulated by the Commission. Rather than hint at letting regulation go if competition is identified, Mr. Wheeler should just go all out and deregulate the industry, period. Mr. Wheeler’s technology-neutral principle is on point and in line with that of INCOMPAS and Verizon, two entities that, by their own admission, don’t agree on much when it comes to special access. Mr Wheeler, INCOMPAS, and Verizon also see eye-to-eye on promoting the movement from legacy TDM services to IP services, arguing that enterprise clients want digital services versus legacy services.

But saying we’ll promote competition after we see competition doesn’t incentivize more private capital to enter the business data services markets to fund additional deployment. That’s the type of uncertainty that scares capital away. Demand for special access services and the price set when providers and business enterprises decide to enter an agreement for such services should be the framework for regulating the market. Private capital is always prepared for high risk with the flip side providing high reward, but not with a regulator ready to erode those rewards.

 

http://www.verizon.com/about/news/compromise-enables-networks-future

Comments Off

How Congress and the FCC can avoid future Section 257 proceedings

On 25 March 2016, the Federal Communications Commission circulated an item regarding a Section 257 market entry barriers proceeding. The purpose of the proceeding is to prepare and distribute a report to Congress detailing regulatory barriers to entry faced by telecommunications and information service providers. The Commission is also expected to promote policies that favor diversity of media voices, vigorous economic competition, and technological advancement.

I think the biggest barrier to information services providers is not a bunch of rules or the Communications Act itself. It is the philosophy behind describing information services; a philosophy that is still silo-based; that separates broadband access providers from websites, information portals, and search engines. All these platforms have the exchange, gathering, repackaging, and sale of data or information in common and it is time that the Commission recognize this basic characteristic of the digital jungle.

The anti-ISP posse will argue that firms like Verizon and AT&T should not be viewed as mere information service providers because they also sell access services; that content providers and consumers rely on these gateways to access information. The anti-ISP posse have a very limited point when they distinguish Verizon or AT&T from other information services based on their access services. The New York Times, an online digital content provider, may be able to hire delivery boys but it won’t shell out billions for deploying networks just to deliver one publication to their subscribers. Paying last mile, mid-mile, or content delivery networks is more economically feasible for them to get their content out. But if we treated the information markets as an exchange, I believe there is an opportunity to create a model that increases opportunities for smaller content providers while getting the Commission and probably Congress out of the business of trying to make the information markets efficient.

Congress and the Commission should explore a blended exchange/independent system operator model for internet service providers. ISPs trade on information. The information markets in this blended model would be coordinated by a “central ISP”, similar to the regional transmission or independent system operators found in the electricity markets. Carriers, such as AT&T or Verizon, would voluntarily turn over functional control of their networks to this central ISP. In order to trade on this central ISP platform, information service providers such as Facebook, Hulu, Amazon, Google, etc., would buy seats on the central ISP’s exchange, similar to a stock market exchange. As a member, the information service provider would have a say in how the exchange is managed. As long as the information service provider has the annual fee to get a seat or membership, they must be allowed to join.

Yes, I hear your next question. “But what about the lone blogger who wants to get his content out there or the start-up information service provider who can’t afford a seat?” My first response would be “value.”  My second response would be, “tough nookies.”

ISPs are looking for content of great value. Smaller content providers will have to step up their game and demonstrate to ISPs that their content should be added to the ISPs portfolio of video and text goodies. And if a content provider cannot demonstrate this value, then tough. The content provider will have to either find another way to distribute content digitally or accept that the digital content world isn’t ready for her…yet.