Antitrust & Competition Policy

There’s a small but influential number of tech reporters and scholars who seem to delight in making the US sound like a broadband and technology backwater. A new Mercatus working paper by Roslyn Layton, a PhD fellow at a research center at Aalborg University, and Michael Horney a researcher at the Free State Foundation, counter that narrative and highlight data from several studies that show the US is at or near the top in important broadband categories.

For example, per Pew and ITU data, the vast majority of Americans use the Internet and the US is second in the world in data consumption per capita, trailing only South Korea. Pew reveals that for those who are not online the leading reasons are lack of usability and the Internet’s perceived lack of benefits. High cost, notably, is not the primary reason for infrequent use.

I’ve noted before some of the methodological problems in studies claiming the US has unusually high broadband prices. In what I consider their biggest contribution to the literature, Layton and Horney highlight another broadband cost frequently omitted in international comparisons: the mandatory media license fees many nations impose on broadband and television subscribers.

These fees can add as much as $44 to the monthly cost of broadband. When these fees are included in comparisons, American prices are frequently an even better value. In two-thirds of European countries and half of Asian countries, households pay a media license fee on top of the subscription fees to use devices such as connected computers and TVs.

…When calculating the real cost of international broadband prices, one needs to take into account media license fees, taxation, and subsidies. …[T]hese inputs can materially affect the cost of broadband, especially in countries where broadband is subject to value-added taxes as high as 27 percent, not to mention media license fees of hundreds of dollars per year.

US broadband providers, the authors point out, have priced broadband relatively efficiently for heterogenous uses–there are low-cost, low-bandwidth connections available as well as more expensive, higher-quality connections for intensive users.

Further, the US is well-positioned for future broadband use. Unlike many wealthy countries, Americans typically have access, at least, to broadband from telephone companies (like AT&T DSL or UVerse) as well as from a local cable provider. Competition between ISPs has meant steady investment in network upgrades, despite the 2008 global recession. The story is very different in much of Europe, where broadband investment, as a percentage of the global total, has fallen noticeably in recent years. US wireless broadband is also a bright spot: 97% of Americans can subscribe to 4G LTE while only 26% in the EU have access (which partially explains, by the way, why Europeans often pay less for mobile subscriptions–they’re using an inferior product).

There’s a lot to praise in the study and it’s necessary reading for anyone looking to understand how US broadband policy compares to other nations’. The fashionable arguments that the US is at risk of falling behind technologically were never convincing–the US is THE place to be if you’re a tech company or startup, for one–but Layton and Horney show the vulnerability of that narrative with data and rigor.

Shortly after Tom Wheeler assumed the Chairmanship at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), he summed up his regulatory philosophy as “competition, competition, competition.” Promoting competition has been the norm in communications policy since Congress adopted the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in order to “promote competition and reduce regulation.” The 1996 Act has largely succeeded in achieving competition in communications markets with one glaring exception: broadcast television. In stark contrast to the pro-competitive approach that is applied in other market segments, Congress and the FCC have consistently supported policies that artificially limit the ability of TV stations to compete or innovate in the communications marketplace. Continue reading →

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently sought additional comment on whether it should eliminate its network non-duplication and syndicated exclusivity rules (known as the “broadcasting exclusivity” rules). It should just as well have asked whether it should eliminate its rules governing broadcast television. Local TV stations could not survive without broadcast exclusivity rights that are enforceable both legally and practicably.

The FCC’s broadcast exclusivity rules “do not create rights but rather provide a means for the parties to exclusive contracts to enforce them through the Commission rather than the courts.” (Broadcast Exclusivity Order, FCC 88-180 at ¶ 120 (1988)) The rights themselves are created through private contracts between TV stations and video programming vendors in the same manner that MVPDs create exclusive rights to distribute cable network programming.

Local TV stations typically negotiate contracts for the exclusive distribution of national broadcast network or syndicated programming in their respective local markets in order to preserve their ability to obtain local advertising revenue. The FCC has long recognized that, “When the same program a [local] broadcaster is showing is available via cable transmission of a duplicative [distant] signal, the [local] broadcaster will attract a smaller audience, reducing the amount of advertising revenue it can garner.” (Program Access Order, FCC 12-123 at ¶ 62 (2012)) Enforceable broadcast exclusivity agreements are thus necessary for local TV stations to generate the advertising revenue that is necessary for them to survive the government’s mandatory broadcast television business model.

The FCC determined nearly fifty years ago that it is an anticompetitive practice for multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to import distant broadcast signals into local markets that duplicate network and syndicated programming to which local stations have purchased exclusive rights. (See First Exclusivity Order, 38 FCC 683, 703-704 (1965)) Though the video marketplace has changed since 1965, the government’s mandatory broadcast business model is still required by law, and MVPD violations of broadcast exclusivity rights are still anticompetitive. Continue reading →

Adam and I recently published a Mercatus research paper titled Video Marketplace Regulation: A Primer on the History of Television Regulation And Current Legislative Proposals, now available on SSRN. I presented the paper at a Silicon Flatirons academic conference last week.

We wrote the paper for a policy audience and students who want succinct information and history about the complex world of television regulation. Television programming is delivered to consumers in several ways, including via cable, satellite, broadcast, IPTV (like Verizon FiOS), and, increasingly, over-the-top broadband services (like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video). Despite their obvious similarities–transmitting movies and shows to a screen–each distribution platform is regulated differently.

The television industry is in the news frequently because of problems exacerbated by the disparate regulatory treatment. The Time Warner Cable-CBS dispute last fall (and TWC’s ensuing loss of customers), the Aereo lawsuit, and the Comcast-TWC proposed merger were each caused at least indirectly by some of the ill-conceived and antiquated TV regulations we describe. Further, TV regulation is a “thicket of regulations,” as the Copyright Office has said, which benefits industry insiders at the expense of most everyone else.

We contend that overregulation of television resulted primarily because past FCCs, and Congress to a lesser extent, wanted to promote several social objectives through a nationwide system of local broadcasters:

1) Localism
2) Universal Service
3) Free (that is, ad-based) television; and
4) Competition

These objectives can’t be accomplished simultaneously without substantial regulatory mandates. Further, these social goals may even contradict each other in some respects.

For decades, public policies constrained TV competitors to accomplish those goals. We recommend instead a reliance on markets and consumer choice through comprehensive reform of television laws, including repeal of compulsory copyright laws, must-carry, retransmission consent, and media concentration rules.

At the very least, our historical review of TV regulations provides an illustrative case study of how regulations accumulate haphazardly over time, demand additional “correction,” and damage dynamic industries. Congress and the FCC focused on attaining particular competitive outcomes through industrial policy, unfortunately. Our paper provides support for market-based competition and regulations that put consumer choice at the forefront.

Aereo’s antenna system is frequently characterized perjoratively as a Rube Goldberg contraption, including in the Supreme Court oral arguments. Funny enough, Preston Padden, a veteran television executive, has characterized the legal system producing over-the-air broadcast television–Aereo’s chief legal opponents–precisely the same way. It’s also ironic that Aereo is in a fight for its life over alleged copyright violations since communications law diminishes the import of copyright law and makes copyright almost incomprehensible. Larry Downes calls the legal arguments for and against Aereo a “tangled mess.” David Post at the Volokh Conspiracy likewise concluded the situation is “pretty bizarre, when you think about it” after briefly exploring how copyright law interacts with communications law.

I agree, but Post actually understates how distorted the copyright law becomes when TV programs pass through a broadcaster’s towers, as opposed to a cable company’s headend. In particular, a broadcaster, which is mostly a passive transmitter of TV programs, gains more control over the programs than the copyright owners. It’s nearly impossible to separate the communications law distortions from the copyright issues, but the Aereo issue could be solved relatively painlessly by the FCC. It’s unfortunate copyright and television law intertwine like this because a ruling adverse to Aereo could potentially–and unnecessarily–upend copyright law.

This week I’ve seen many commentators, even Supreme Court justices, mischaracterize the state of television law when discussing the Aereo case. This is a very complex area and below is my attempt to lay out some of the deeper legal issues driving trends in the television industry that gave rise to the Aereo dispute. Crucially, the law is even more complex than most people realize, which benefits industry insiders and prevents sensible reforms. Continue reading →

The Supreme Court hears oral arguments today in a case that will decide whether Aereo, an over-the-top video distributor, can retransmit broadcast television signals online without obtaining a copyright license. If the court rules in Aereo’s favor, national programming networks might stop distributing their programming for free over the air, and without prime time programming, local TV stations might go out of business across the country. It’s a make or break case for Aereo, but for broadcasters, it represents only one piece of a broader regulatory puzzle regarding the future of over-the-air television.

If the court rules in favor of the broadcasters, they could still lose at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). At a National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) event earlier this month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler focused on “the opportunity for broadcast licensees in the 21st century . . . to provide over-the-top services.” According to Chairman Wheeler, TV stations shouldn’t limit themselves to being in the “television” business, because their “business horizons are greater than [their] current product.” Wheeler wants TV stations to become over-the-top “information providers”, and he sees the FCC’s role as helping them redefine themselves as a “growing source of competition” in that market segment. Continue reading →

After yesterday’s FCC meeting, it appears that Chairman Wheeler has a finely tuned microscope trained on broadcasters and a proportionately large blind spot for the cable television industry.

Yesterday’s FCC meeting was unabashedly pro-cable and anti-broadcaster. The agency decided to prohibit television broadcasters from engaging in the same industry behavior as cable, satellite, and telco television distributors and programmers. The resulting disparity in regulatory treatment highlights the inherent dangers in addressing regulatory reform piecemeal rather than comprehensively as contemplated by the #CommActUpdate. Congress should lead the FCC by example and adopt a “clean” approach to STELA reauthorization that avoids the agency’s regulatory mistakes.

The FCC meeting offered a study in the way policymakers pick winners and losers in the marketplace without acknowledging unfair regulatory treatment. It’s a three-step process.

  • First, the policymaker obfuscates similarities among issues by referring to substantively similar economic activity across multiple industry segments using different terminology.
  • Second, it artificially narrows the issues by limiting any regulatory inquiry to the disfavored industry segment only.
  • Third, it adopts disparate regulations applicable to the disfavored industry segment only while claiming the unfair regulatory treatment benefits consumers.

The broadcast items adopted by the FCC yesterday hit all three points. Continue reading →

Some recent tech news provides insight into the trajectory of broadband and television markets. These stories also indicate a poor prognosis for a net neutrality. Political and ISP opposition to new rules aside (which is substantial), even net neutrality proponents point out that “neutrality” is difficult to define and even harder to implement. Now that the line between “Internet video” and “television” delivered via Internet Protocol (IP) is increasingly blurring, net neutrality goals are suffering from mission creep.

First, there was the announcement that Netflix, like many large content companies, was entering into a paid peering agreement with Comcast, prompting a complaint from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings who argued that ISPs have too much leverage in negotiating these interconnection deals.

Second, Comcast and Apple discussed a possible partnership whereby Comcast customers would receive prioritized access to Apple’s new video service. Apple’s TV offering would be a “managed service” exempt from net neutrality obligations.

Interconnection and managed services are generally not considered net neutrality issues. They are not “loopholes.” They were expressly exempted from the FCC’s 2010 (now-defunct) rules. However, net neutrality proponents are attempting to bring interconnection and managed services to the FCC’s attention as the FCC crafts new net neutrality rules. Net neutrality proponents have an uphill battle already, and the following trends won’t help. Continue reading →

Most conservatives and many prominent thinkers on the left agree that the Communications Act should be updated based on the insight provided by the wireless and Internet protocol revolutions. The fundamental problem with the current legislation is its disparate treatment of competitive communications services. A comprehensive legislative update offers an opportunity to adopt a technologically neutral, consumer focused approach to communications regulation that would maximize competition, investment and innovation.

Though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must continue implementing the existing Act while Congress deliberates legislative changes, the agency should avoid creating new regulatory disparities on its own. Yet that is where the agency appears to be heading at its meeting next Monday. Continue reading →

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has released a new working paper by Daniel A. Lyons, professor at Boston College Law School, entitled “Innovations in Mobile Broadband Pricing.”

In 2010, the FCC passed net neutrality rules for mobile carriers and ISPs that included a “no blocking” provision (since struck down in FCC v. Verizon). The FCC prohibited mobile carriers from blocking Internet content and promised to scrutinize carriers’ non-standard pricing decisions. These broad regulations had a predictable chilling effect on firms trying new business models. For instance, Lyons describes how MetroPCS was hit with a net neutrality complaint because it allowed YouTube but not other video streaming sites on its budget LTE plan (something I’ve written on). Some critics also allege that AT&T’s Sponsored Data program is a net neutrality violation.

In his paper, Lyons explains that the FCC might still regulate mobile networks but advises against a one-size-fits-all net neutrality approach. Instead, he encourages regulatory humility in order to promote investment in mobile networks and devices and to allow new business models. For support, he points out that several developing and rich countries have permitted commercial arrangements between content companies and carriers that arguably violate principles of net neutrality. Lyons makes the persuasive argument that these “non-neutral” service bundles and pricing decisions on the whole, rather than harming consumers, expand online access and ease non-connected populations into the Internet Age. As Lyons says,

The wide range of successful wireless innovations and partnerships at the international level should prompt U.S. regulators to rethink their commitment to a rigid set of rules that limit flexibility in American broadband markets. This should be especially true in the wireless broadband space, where complex technical considerations, rapid change, and robust competition make for anything but a stable and predictable business environment.

Further,

In the rapidly changing world of information technology, it is sometimes easy to forget that experimental new pricing models can be just as innovative as new technological developments. By offering new and different pricing models, companies can provide better value to consumers or identify niche segments that are not well-served by dominant pricing strategies.

Despite the January 2014 court decision striking down the FCC’s net neutrality rules, it’s an issue that hasn’t died. Lyons’ research provides support for the position that a fixation on enforcing net neutrality, however defined, distracts policymakers from serious discussion of how to expand online access. Rules should be written with consumers and competition in mind. Wired ISPs get the lion’s share of scholars’ attention when discussing net neutrality. In an increasingly wireless world, Lyon’s paper provides important research to guide future US policies.