Articles by Fred Campbell

Fred CampbellFred is Executive Director of the Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law and former Chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the FCC.

It appears that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler is returning to a competition-based approach to communications regulation. Chairman Wheeler’s emphasis on “competition, competition, competition” indicates his intent to intervene in communications markets only when it is necessary to correct a market failure.

I expect most on both sides of the political spectrum would welcome a return to rigorous market analysis at the FCC, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. The American Television Alliance (ATVA), whose FCC petition wouldn’t withstand even a cursory market power analysis, is sure to be among the displeased.

The ATVA petition asks the FCC to regulate prices for retransmission consent (the prices video service providers (VSPs) pay for the rights to provide broadcast television programming to pay-TV subscribers) because retransmission fees and competition among VSPs are increasing. Though true, this data doesn’t indicate that TV stations or broadcast television networks have market power — it indicates that legislative and policy efforts to increase competition among VSPs are working. Continue reading →

The Internet is abuzz with news that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler favors a case-by-case approach to addressing Internet competition issues. It is the wisest course, and perhaps the most courageous. Some on the right will say he is going too far, and some on the left will say he isn’t going far enough. That is one reason Wheeler’s approach should be commended. Staunch disagreements about net neutrality and other Internet governance issues reflect the uncertainty inherent in a dynamic market.

Chairman Wheeler’s comments this week echoed Socrates (“I’m not smart enough to know what comes next [in innovation]”) and, to my surprise, Virginia Postrel (the Chairman favors addressing Internet issues “in a dynamic rather than a static way”). He recognizes that, in a two-sided market, there is no reason to assume that ISPs will necessarily have the ability to charge content providers rather than the other way around. The potential for strategic behavior on the Internet today is radically different than in the dial-up Internet era, and the Chairman appears prepared to consider those differences in his approach to communications regulation. Continue reading →

My response to Free State Foundation’s blog post, “Understanding the Un-Free Market for Retrans Consent Is the First Step for Reforming It

The Free State Foundation (FSF) questioned my most recent blog post at RedState, which noted that the American Television Alliance’s (ATVA) arguments supporting FCC price regulation of broadcast television content are inconsistent with the arguments its largest members make against government intervention proposed by net neutrality supporters. FSF claimed that my post created a “false equivalency” between efforts to modify an existing regulatory regime and efforts to impose new regulations in a previously free market.

FSF’s “false equivalence” theory is a red herring that is apparently intended to distract from the substantive issues I raised. The validity of the economic arguments related to two-sided markets discussed in my blog doesn’t depend on the regulatory status of the two-sided markets those arguments address. The notion that the existence of regulation in the video marketplace gives ATVA a free pass to say anything it wants without heed for intellectual consistency is absurd.

I suspect FSF knows this. Its blog post does not dispute that ATVA’s arguments at the FCC are inconsistent with the arguments its largest members make against net neutrality; in fact, FSF failed to address the ATVA petition at all. Though the FSF blog was ostensibly prompted by my post at RedState, FSF decided to “leave the merits of ATVA’s various proposals to others” (except me, apparently).

FSF’s decision to avoid the merits of ATVA’s arguments at the FCC (the subject of my blog post), begs the question: What was the FSF blog actually about? It appears FSF wrote the blog to (1) reiterate its previous (and misleading) analyses of the video programing market, and (2) argue that the Next Generation Television Marketplace Act “represents the proper direction” for reforming it.

To be clear, I haven’t previously addressed either issue. But, in the spirit of collegial dialogue initiated by FSF, I discuss them briefly in this blog. Continue reading →

The decision to forgo distribution is referred to as a “blackout” in the cable context and “blocking” in the Internet context, but the economic considerations affecting such negotiations are substantially the same.

The American Television Alliance (ATVA), a coalition comprised primarily of cable and satellite TV operators, is using the playbook of net neutrality proponents in abid to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate prices for broadcast television content. The goal of ATVA’s cable and satellite members is to increase their profit margins by convincing the government to artificially lower the cost of programming they resell to consumers. I suspect the goal of ATVA’s non-profit memberse.g.Public Knowledge and New America Foundation, is to solidify the FCC’s flawed rationale for adopting net neutrality rules in 2010, which imposed restrictions on market arrangements between Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Internet content providers without finding a market failure.

Many of ATVA’s cable members are also ISPs that have routinely argued against the imposition of net neutrality regulations in the market for Internet services. By supporting ATVA, these same companies appear to have abandoned the intellectual foundation for opposition to net neutrality. Are they now signaling their intent to embrace net neutrality regulation of the Internet? Continue reading →

Yesterday’s decision requiring AT&T to continue offering seven-year term discounts on POTS lines while the FCC conducts a meritless investigation is more than a drag – it is a government shackle on the deployment of modern IP-based infrastructure to rural and low-income consumers.

In early 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued the National Broadband Plan (Plan) to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband Internet communications. The Plan concluded that “broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life” and urged that everyone “must now act and rise to our era’s infrastructure challenge.” (Plan at XI, XV) Yesterday the FCC threatened to turn its back on this call to action when it suspended revisions to AT&T tariffs that sought to stop offering term discount plans of five to seven years for 1960s era “Plain Old Telephone Service” (POTS) technology using circuit switched “special access” lines. The FCC suspended the tariff revisions for five months to investigate their “lawfulness” (even though the remaining tariff rates have already been conclusively presumed to be just and reasonable).

Ironically, at the open Commission meeting on Thursday, the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force will provide a status update on the National Broadband Plan’s recommendation that the FCC eliminate—within the next five to seven years—the requirement that AT&T and other carriers offer POTS technologies using circuit-switched networks (known as the “IP transition”).

Why would the FCC open a five-month investigation on Monday to determine whether it is “lawful” for AT&T to stop providing long-term discounts for services using outdated technologies the FCC will discuss eliminating altogether at its meeting on Thursday? Continue reading →

One year ago I wrote that conservatives were the leading voices in technology policy. Conservative leadership on tech policy issues became even more apparent last week, when House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) announced plans to update the Communications Act for the Internet era (#CommActUpdate). Virtually everyone recognizes that the Act, which Rep. Walden noted was “written during the Great Depression and last updated when 56 kilobits per second via dial-up modem was state of the art,” is now hopelessly out of date. But it was conservative leadership that was willing to begin the legislative process necessary to update it.

Although the term “progressive” literally means “advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are,” some political progressives have focused their communications advocacy on maintaining the status quo. In response to the #CommActUpdate, Free Press said, “We’re not going to get a better act than we have now.” (Communications Daily, Dec. 5, 2013 (subscription required)) Free Press, which describes itself as a “movement to change media and technology policies,” also told Comm Daily, “The IP transition should be governed by the laws on the books today.” Continue reading →

From the time Tom Wheeler was nominated to become the next FCC Chairman, many have wondered, “What would Wheeler do?” Though it is still early in his chairmanship, the only ruling issued in Chairman Wheeler’s first meeting signals a pro-investment approach to communications regulation.

The declaratory ruling clarified that the FCC would evaluate foreign investment in broadcast licensees that exceeds the 25 percent statutory benchmark using its existing analytical framework. It had previously been unclear whether broadcasters were subject to the same standard as other segments of the communications industry. The ruling recognized that providing broadcasters with regulatory certainty in this respect would promote investment and that greater investment yields greater innovation.

The FCC’s decision to apply the same standards for reviewing foreign ownership of broadcasters as it applies to other segments of the communications industry is very encouraging. It affirms the watershed policy decisions in the USF/ICC Transformation Order, in which the FCC concluded that “leveling the playing field” promotes competition whereas implied subsidies deter investment and are “unfair for consumers.” Continue reading →

I recently prepared a paper for the Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition and Consumer Electronics Association that provides empirical data regarding the costs of restricting the eligibility of large firms to participate in FCC spectrum auctions (available in PDF here). The paper demonstrates that there is no significant likelihood that an open incentive auction would substantially harm the competitive positions of Sprint and T-Mobile. It also demonstrates that Sprint and T-Mobile have incentives to constrain the ability of Verizon and AT&T to expand their network capacity, and that Sprint and T-Mobile could consider FCC restraints on their primary rivals a “win” even if Sprint and T-Mobile don’t place a single bid in the incentive auction. (Winning regulatory battles is a lot cheaper than winning spectrum in a competitive auction.)

Some might think it is implausible that Sprint or T-Mobile would decide to forgo participation in the incentive auction. However, the recent announcement by Sprint that it won’t compete in the H block auction highlights the difficulty in predicting accurately whether any particular company will participate in a particular auction. Sprint’s announcement stunned market analysts, who had considered Sprint a key contender for the H block spectrum. Until recently, Sprint had given every indication it was keen to acquire this spectrum, which is located directly adjacent to the nationwide G block that Sprint already owns. It participated heavily in the FCC’s service rules proceeding for the H block (WT Docket No. 12-357) and even conducted its own testing to assist the FCC in assessing the technical issues. But, by the time the H Block auction was actually announced, Sprint decided its business would be better served by focusing its efforts on the deployment of its trove of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band. Continue reading →

It could be argued that the exact match between the DISH bid commitment and the H block reserve price is purely coincidental. To actually believe this was a coincidence would require the same willing suspension of disbelief indulged by summer moviegoers who enjoy the physics-defying stunts enabled by computer-generated special effects. When moviegoers leave the theater after watching the latest Superman flick, they don’t actually believe they can fly home.

The FCC’s Wireless Bureau recently adopted an unusually high $1.564 billion reserve price for the auction of the H block spectrum. Though the FCC has authorized the Bureau to adopt reserve prices based on its consideration of “relevant factors that could reasonably have an impact on valuation of the spectrum being auctioned,” it appears the Bureau exceeded its delegated authority in this proceeding by considering factors unrelated to the value of the H block spectrum that have the effect of giving a particular firm an advantage in the auction. Specifically, the Bureau considered the value to DISH Network Corporation of amendments to FCC rules governing other spectrum bands already licensed to DISH (e.g., the 700 MHz E block) in exchange for DISH’s commitment to meet the $1.564 billion reserve price in the H block auction – a commitment that is contingent on the FCC Commissioners amending rules governing multiple spectrum bands no later than Friday, December 13, 2013.

No matter what the FCC Commissioners decide, if the reserve price stands, the only sure winner would be DISH. If the FCC Commissioners don’t endorse the DISH deal, DISH need not honor its commitment to meet the artificially inflated reserve price, which could result in the spectrum auction’s total failure. If the Commissioners do endorse the DISH deal, the artificially inflated reserve price could deter the participation of other bidders and lower auction revenues that are expected to fund the national public safety network. Neither option would result in an open and transparent auction designed to provide all potential bidders with a fair opportunity to participate.

The FCC would be the only sure loser. The appearance of impropriety in the H block proceeding could compromise public trust in the integrity of FCC spectrum auctions. To ensure the public trust is maintained, the FCC Commissioners should thoroughly review the processes and procedures implemented by the Wireless Bureau in this proceeding before auctioning the H block spectrum.

The following discussion provides background information on the purposes of spectrum auctions and reserve prices. This background information is followed by a more detailed analysis of the terms of the DISH deal and the advantages it would bestow on DISH, the lack of analysis in the Wireless Bureau’s order, the role of the Commissioners, and the potential damage to the integrity of FCC auctions. Continue reading →

Last week on The Diane Rehm Show, Susan Crawford, former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology, and innovation policy, claimed that China “makes us look like a backwater when it comes to [broadband] connectivity.” When she was asked how this could be, Ms. Crawford responded:

It happened because of [Chinese industrial] policy. You can call that overregulation. It’s the way we make innovation happen in America.

Ms. Crawford is wrong on the facts and the philosophy. Continue reading →