The FCC today released an executive summary of its National Broadband Plan, which is supposed to be delivered to Congress tomorrow. Of course, executive summaries by their nature are brief and usually don’t explain the underlying logic and evidence supporting the conclusions. Here are a few highlights, some possible interpretations, and things to look for when the full plan gets released tomorrow:
Recommendation: “Undertake a comprehensive review of wholesale competition rules to help ensure competition in fixed and mobile broadband.” This could signal that the FCC plans to re-impose “unbundling” or “line sharing” regulations, which would require broadband companies to let competitors use their lines and other facilities at regulated rates. Such initiatives would likely undermine broadband deployment and investment. Economic research by my GMU colleague Tom Hazlett and others finds that broadband investment, competition, deployment in the US took off only after the FCC eliminated line-sharing requirements. Christina Forsberg and I summarized a lot of this research here.
Recommendation: “Make 500 Mhz of spectrum available for broadband within ten years … Enable incentives and mechanisms to repurpose spectrum.” This is a fantastic recommendation. A Mercatus Center review of the costs of federal telecommunications regulations found that federal spectrum allocation, which prevents spectrum from being reallocated to uses that consumers value highly (like broadband), is by far the costliest federal regulation affecting telecom and the Internet. This recommendation indicates the FCC leadership would like to auction a lot more spectrum and share the proceeds with existing users (like broadcasters) in order to overcome resistance to reallocation. It’s not quite a market in spectrum, but it might be the closest the FCC can come.
Recommendation: “Broaden the USF contribution base to ensure USF remains sustainable over time.” Uh-oh. I’m not sure what this means, but if means that broadband subscribers will have to start payng into the FCC’s universal service fund (USF), watch out! Most economic studies find that consumer demand for broadband is very price-sensitive. That means if the FCC slaps broadband with universal service fees (which currently exceed 10 percent), we’ll see a big drop in broadband subscribership — maybe by 4-7 million subscribers. This is , of course, precisely the opposite of what the FCC wants to accomplish!
Recommendation: “Reform intercarrier compensation, which provides implicit subsidies to telephone companies by eliminating per minute charges over the next ten years…” Another excellent idea. “Intercarrier compensation” refers to payments phone companies make when they hand traffic off to each other. Small, rural phone companies usually receive the highest per minute payments — as much as 15-30 cents per minute! This is a huge markup on long-distance phone service — another price-sensitive service!
Recommendation: Provide subsidies so that rural areas can have broadband with download speeds of 4 MB. It will be interesting to read in the full plan where this 4 MB figure came from. Does it reflect the speed of service that a lot of Americans currently have, so these subsidies are just supposed to help equalize opportunities for rural residents? Or does it reflect some balancing of the costs and benefits of subsidizing broadband in rural areas? Or is this a magic number experts believe subscribers need, regardless of the choices consumers actually make in the marketplace and regardless of what it costs?
The executive summary also lists a set of goals, such as ensuring that every American has the ability to subscribe to “robust” broadband service, having 100 million households with access to 100 MB broadband, and ensuring that the US has the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation. When the full plan comes out, look carefully at whether or how the FCC plans to measure accomplishment of these goals. More importantly, look to see whether the FCC explains how it will quantify how much its own policies actually contribute to these goals over time. The FCC is famous for NOT doing these kinds of things, so let’s see if the broadband plan signals a new era in accountability.