Articles by Steven Titch

Steven Titch (@stevetitch) is an independent telecom and IT policy analyst. His policy analysis has been published by the Reason Foundation and the Heartland Institute and covers topics such as municipal broadband, network neutrality, universal service, telecom taxes and online gambling. Titch holds a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and English from Syracuse University. He lives in Sugar Land, Texas. He burns off energy running 5K races, is an avid poker player, and likes to mellow out in cellar jazz bars.


Proponents of higher taxes have taken to calling the exemption that out-of-state online shoppers enjoy a “loophole,” as if it were an unintended flaw in two established court rulings that addressed the power of one state to tax residents of another.

My latest commentary at Reason.org looks at the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act, a bill that the House Judiciary Committee has scheduled for hearings tomorrow. The bill aims to help states collect sales taxes on out-of-state purchases, typically made via catalogue or, to an ever-greater extent, the Internet. Two Supreme Court decisions, Quill vs. North Dakota and National Bellas Hess vs. [Illinois] Department of Revenue, both of which pre-date Internet shopping, protect out-of-state consumers from the taxman’s reach.

As I write:

Editorials and op-eds supporting the bill, such as in the Arizone Daily Star and the Chicago Sun-Times, say it will close a “loophole” that allows Internet purchases to escape taxation. This is akin to saying the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision is a loophole for defendants to escape prosecution. No doubt some overzealous prosecutors may think so, but in truth, Miranda sharpened and affirmed the right of due process already present in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Likewise, in Quill and Bellas Haas, the courts sharpened and affirmed the Constitution’s commerce clause that prevents one state from taxing residents of another.

Seeing it as counterproductive to an interdependent economy, the Founders did not want states plundering each other’s residents and enterprises with taxes. Yet that’s exactly the environment the Marketplace Fairness Act sets up. New York State can tax residents of Illinois and the Prairie State can tax Hoosiers.

In doing so, the Marketplace Fairness Act ignores the constitutional underpinnings of the Quill and Bellas Hess decisions and treats the Internet sales tax issue as a procedural issue when the in fact the constitutional bar is set much higher. The giveaway, however, is the portion of the bill that requires states to simplify their state tax collection procedures before launching cross-border taxation. It’s an unusual quid pro quo, perhaps because Congress has to offer states the prerequisite of a buy-in. That’s because any attempt to impose a tax collection structure wholesale on the states would likely face a constitutional challenge on 10th Amendment grounds of state’s rights.

In reality, the states, struggling as they are with debt crises of their own making, are angling for a greater piece of the $200 billion Americans are spending with Internet merchants each year. Of course, not all of this goes untaxed; on-line retailers who have brick-and-mortar stores within a state must collect tax from residents in that state. Besides creating a mess of competing state tax grabs, this law stands to increase paperwork and complexity for thousands of small online businesses and catalogue firms, who would now be obliged to calculate taxes on some 11,000 sales tax jurisdictions throughout the country. Whether or not it’s “simplified” in line with some Congressional definition, it still stands to be the burden as noted in Quill and Bellas Hess.

But all the talk of loopholes, level playing fields and what does or does not constitute a “burden” diverts attention from the real issue. The Marketplace Fairness Act is not about the Internet, e-commerce, the marketplace or fairness–it’s about what the Constitution says about the power of state governments to tax citizens beyond their borders.

It’s come to this. After more than a decade of policies aimed at reducing the telephone companies’ share of the landline broadband market, the feds now want to thwart a key wireless deal on the remote chance it might result in a major phone company exiting the wireline market completely.

The Department of Justice is holding up the $3.9 billion deal that would transfer a block of unused wireless spectrum from a consortium of four cable companies to Verizon Wireless, an arm of Verizon, the country’s largest phone company.

The rationale, reports The Washington Post’s Cecilia Kang, is that DoJ is concerned the deal, which also would involve a wireless co-marketing agreement with Comcast, Cox, Time Warner and Bright House Networks, the companies that jointly own the spectrum in question, would lead Verizon to neglect of its FiOS fiber-to-the-home service.

There’s no evidence that this might happen, but the fact that DoJ put it on the table demonstrates the problems inherent in government attempts to regulate competition.

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I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that two days into DirecTV’s shutdown of 17 Viacom programming channels (26 if you count the HD feeds) no congressman, senator or FCC chairman has come forth demanding that DirecTV reinstate them to protect consumers’ “right” to watch SpongeBob SquarePants.

Yes, it’s another one of those dust-ups between studios and cable/satellite companies over the cost of carrying programming. Two weeks ago, DirecTV competitor Dish Network dropped AMC, IFC and WE TV. As with AMC and Dish, Viacom wants a bigger payment—in this case 30 percent more—from DirecTV to carry its channel line-up, which includes Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon. DirecTV, balked, wanting to keep its own prices down. Hence, as of yesterday, those channels are not available pending a resolution.

As I have said in the past, Washington should let both these disputes play out. For starters, despite some consumer complaints, demographics might be in DirecTV’s favor. True, Viacom has some popular channels with popular shows. But they all skew to younger age groups that are turning to their tablets and smartphones for viewing entertainment. At the same time, satellite TV service likely skews toward homeowners, a slightly older demographic. It could be that DirecTV’s research and the math shows dropping Viacom will not cost them too many subscribers.

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Delaware looks ready to become the second state after Nevada to authorize Internet poker as a gambling bill was approved this week by the state senate 14-6 with one senator abstaining.

In the wake of the Department of Justice’s Dec. 23, 2011 memo that for all intents and purposes said there were no federal statutes prohibiting intrastate online wagering on anything save sports, several states. Including Iowa, New Jersey and California, have started moving on legislation that would permit Internet poker, other casino games, and online purchasing of lottery tickets for residents and visitors inside their borders.

Poker players across the country would welcome the chance to play online once more. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 did not make Internet poker illegal outright, but by prohibiting U.S. banks from conducting transactions with off-shore gaming sites, made it extremely difficult for U.S. players to open or maintain accounts with legitimate sites such as Bovada, Bodog and PartyPoker.

With legislation moving along, most gaming industry analysts see Internet poker becoming a reality in at least one or two states by the end of this year.

While the topic of online gambling is still controversial, poker is just one more place where the Internet has had an impact. Before the World Wide Web, you either had to live in Nevada or New Jersey (even in states that had casino gambling, not every casino had a card room) to play regularly. For most who did play, poker was a friendly diversion within a family or social circle.

In broadening poker’s appeal, the Internet also changed the nature of the game. These changes fully manifested themselves when Chris Moneymaker won the main event of World Series of Poker (WSOP) in 2003. Moneymaker was the first world champion to have qualified for the tournament at on line site. The WSOP was the first major live tournament he played. The bulk of his experience and expertise was acquired through online play.

In honor of developments in Delaware and elsewhere, and keeping in mind that the main event of the 2012 World Series of Poker begins July 7, and because it’s Friday afternoon, let’s look at four ways the Internet has changed poker significantly from the game your parents knew. For our purposes here, we will keep things in the context of Texas Hold ‘Em, today’s most popular poker game.

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In his syndicated column yesterday, Leonard Pitts, Jr. bemoaned the decision by the New Orleans Times-Picayune to cut back its print edition to three days a week, and attacked the sentiment, most recently expressed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who might herself been quoting Matt Drudge, that the Internet allows “every citizen to be a reporter and take on the powers that be.”

Pitts immediately attacks the comment on the basis of its source, Palin. Then he wanders further from the point by conjuring the truly unpleasant conditions under which reporters, Picayune staffers no doubt among them, labored to ensure news got out in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast.

One night I had the distinct honor of sleeping in an RV in the parking lot of the Sun Herald in Gulfport, Miss., part of an army of journalists who had descended on the beleaguered city to help its reporters get this story told. The locals wore donated clothes and subsisted on snack food. They worked from a broken building in a broken city where the rotten egg smell of natural gas lingered in the air and homes had been reduced to debris fields, to produce their paper. Shattered, cut off from the rest of the world, people in the Biloxi-Gulfport region received those jerry-rigged newspapers, those bulletins from the outside world, the way a starving man receives food.

Yet nothing in this rather self-important prose tells us what’s so irreplaceable about printed newspapers as a platform for news delivery. Instead, we get a straw man.

Palin’s sin–and she is hardly alone in this–is to consider professional reporters easily replaceable by so-called citizen journalists like Drudge. Granted, bloggers occasionally originate news. Still, I can’t envision Matt Drudge standing his ground in a flooded city to report and inform.

One can say the same thing about Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann or Wolf Blitzer. Yet, come the next disaster, there’s no reason not to expect the same dedication from a handful of individuals who are driven to place themselves in the middle of an adverse, if not outright dangerous, event just to document first-hand what is happening. Only this time they have the cheap video cameras, battery operated laptops and cellphones with wireless Internet connections. The news will get out.

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Thanks to TLFers Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, and the anonymous individual who leaked a key planning document for the International Telecommunication Union’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) on Jerry and Eli’s inspired WCITLeaks.org site, we now have a clearer view of what a handful of regimes hope to accomplish at WCIT, scheduled for December in Dubai, U.A.E.

Although there is some danger of oversimplification, essentially a number of member states in the ITU, an arm of the United Nations, are pushing for an international treaty that will give their governments a much more powerful role in the architecture of the Internet and economics of the cross-border interconnection. Dispensing with the fancy words, it represents a desperate, last ditch effort by several authoritarian nations to regain control of their national telecommunications infrastructure and operations

A little history may help. Until the 1990s, the U.S. was the only country where telephone companies were owned by private investors. Even then, from AT&T and GTE on down, they were government-sanctioned monopolies. Just about everywhere else, including western democracies such as the U.K, France and Germany, the phone company was a state-owned monopoly. Its president generally reported to the Minster of Telecommunications.

Since most phone companies were large state agencies, the ITU, as a UN organization, could wield a lot of clout in terms of telecom standards, policy and governance–and indeed that was the case for much of the last half of the 20th century. That changed, for nations as much as the ITU, with the advent of privatization and the introduction of wireless technology. In a policy change that directly connects to these very issues here, just about every country in the world embarked on full or partial telecom privatization and, moreover, allowed at least one private company to build wireless telecom infrastructure. As ITU membership was reserved for governments, not enterprises, the ITU’s political influence as a global standards and policy agency has since diminished greatly. Add to that concurrent emergence of the Internet, which changed the fundamental architecture and cost of public communications from a capital-intensive hierarchical mechanism to inexpensive peer-to-peer connections and the stage was set for today’s environment where every smartphone owner is a reporter and videographer. Telecommunications, once part of the commanding heights of government control, was decentralized down to street level.

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Count me among those who are rolling their eyes as the Department of Justice initiates an investigation into whether cable companies are using data caps to strong-arm so-called “over-the-top” on-demand video providers like Netflix, Walmart’s Vudu and Amazon.com and YouTube.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that DoJ investigators “are taking a particularly close look at the data caps that pay-TV providers like Comcast and AT&T Inc. have used to deal with surging video traffic on the Internet. The companies say the limits are needed to stop heavy users from overwhelming their networks.”

Internet video providers like Netflix have expressed concern that the limits are aimed at stopping consumers from dropping cable television and switching to online video providers. They also worry that cable companies will give priority to their own online video offerings on their networks to stop subscribers from leaving.

Here are five reasons why the current anticompetitive sturm und drang is an absurd waste of time and might end up leading to more harm than good.

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Lafayette, La., like a number of U.S. municipalities, is facing a recession-driven budget crunch, largely due to health care and retirement costs. Unlike most municipalities, however, Lafayette faces a $140-million reckoning in the form a municipal fiber to the home system.

After an auditor’s report raised some flags about the extent city’s been dipping into its reserve savings, Lorrie Toups, Lafayette Consolidated Government’s chief financial officer said $5 million in reductions might be needed to maintain a status quo budget.

This might not be so bad save for the loans that start to come due in 2013 on Lafayette municipal FTTH system, which, according to the auditor’s report, is costing the city of Lafayette $45,000 a day. Thus far, the city has issued the full $125 million in bonds authorized for construction and operation of LUS Fiber. In addition, LUS Fiber has borrowed $15 million from its parent, Lafayette Utilities System, the city’s municipally-owned water and power utility. (One reason LUS is so flush is that in 2009 it received $11.6 million as part of the Obama stimulus, ostensibly to fund a smart grid electricity system.)

Andrew Moylan at the National Taxpayers Union picked up the item from the Lafayette Advertiser:

In sum, LUS Fiber is losing boatloads of money and exacerbating an already-difficult budget situation in the area. There is a silver lining though! According to LUS’s own numbers, the project might break even by the time 2014 or 2015 roll around. Or maybe not…you know, whatever.

The Advertiser reports that Toups defended LUS Fiber as a start-up enterprise that “budgeted for losses and expected to incur them in its early years.”

That’s true–to an extent. LUS launched in 2009, and is only half-way through its fourth year of operation. The original feasibility report on the Lafayette FTTH system, produced by CCG Consulting in 2004, projected net losses of $7.1 million and $4.9 million in years two and three of operation. The recent audit, however, showed LUS Fiber ended the 2010 fiscal year, its second year of operation, with a net loss of $12.3 million. In 2011, its third year, LUS Fiber reported a loss of $16.5 million–more than three times the deficit projected in the business plan.

Of course, this is exactly what I warned about when I analyzed the CCG plan back in 2005.

Lafayette is now in the running to be the country’s biggest municipal broadband failure–a fact made worse its diving in headfirst despite the documented financial messes of those cities that went before it.

 

The Reason Foundation today has published the Telecommunications and Internet section of its 2011 Annual Privatization Review.

Although there’s been a bit of lead time since the articles were written, they are still timely. Notable is the discussion on the collection of state sales taxes from Internet retailers, back in the news now that Amazon.com has reached an agreement with the state of Texas to collect sales taxes from consumers in the Lone Star State. The settlement concludes a lengthy battle in Austin as to whether Amazon’s distribution facility in Ft. Worth constitutes a “nexus” as defined in previous court cases.

While a blow to Amazon’s Texas customers (full disclosure: I count myself as one), the action may shed further light on the debate as to how much advantage the Amazon has because it can waive sales tax collection. Competitors such as ailing Best Buy have said it’s enough to hurt brick-and-mortar retailers. Amazon points to findings that in New York, the most populous state where it collects sales tax, sales have not fallen off. Soon we’ll see if Texas tracks with that data as well. If it does, it will further validate opinions that Amazon and other on-line retailers are succeeding because they have fundamentally changed the way people shop, not because they can simply avoid sales taxes.

Also in the report look for updates on the FCC’s options for the next spectrum auction, state and federal policymaking on search engines and social networking sites, and how priorities may change as the FCC migrates from the current Federal Universal Service Fund to its new more broadband-oriented Connect America Fund.

The telecom section of APR 2011 can be found here.

A few weeks back, now-former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn blamed the retailer’s $1.7 billion quarterly loss and its decision to close 50 stores nationwide on the fact that its online competitors, Amazon.com in particular, “aren’t encumbered by the costs of running physical locations and in many cases don’t have to collect sales tax.”

Dunn’s comments rehash the now-familiar meme that forcing e-retailers to collect sales tax is the silver bullet to saving brick-and-mortar retailers. It gives politicians on all sides cover–for some, it’s a way to keep revenues coming in for excessive spending. For others, it’s a handy way to wave the flag for local commerce.

But slapping consumers with more taxes isn’t going to save retailing. In a short piece this week, BusinessWeek explores the fundamental shifts online retailing has created in consumer behavior. Here’s a nugget from the article:

Best Buy’s decline reflects a cultural shift that’s reshaping the retail world. All big-box stores, and Best Buy in particular, thrived in an era when comparison shopping meant physically going from store to store. The effort required of consumers was a kind of transactional friction. With the advent of mobile technology, friction has all but disappeared. Rather than ruminate with a salesperson before making a selection, tech-savvy consumers are more likely to walk into stores, eyeball products, scan barcodes with their smartphones, note cheaper prices online, and head for the exit. Shoppers can purchase virtually any product under the sun on Amazon or eBay while sipping a latte at Starbucks. For traditional retailers, that spells trouble, if not death. “So far nothing Best Buy is doing is fast enough or significant enough to get in front of these waves,” says Scot Wingo, CEO of e-commerce consulting firm ChannelAdvisor.

Certainly e-commerce created competitive problems for Best Buy, but the sales tax advantage was likely the least of them. Brick-and-mortar retailing is facing an out-and-out crisis that’s going to require creativity and innovation to solve. Taxing consumers who buy online won’t do much toward that end.

And for more, see Adam’s post on Heritage Foundation’s new report on Internet tax policy.