Antitrust & Competition Policy

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.

Sprint’s Chairman, Masayoshi Son, is coming to Washington to explain how wireless competition in the US would be improved if only there were less of it.

After buying Sprint last year for $21.6 billion, he has floated plans to buy T-Mobile. When antitrust officials voiced their concerns about the proposed plan’s potential impact on wireless competition, Son decided to respond with an unusual strategy that goes something like this: The US wireless market isn’t competitive enough, so policymakers need to approve the merger of the third and fourth largest wireless companies in order to improve competition, because going from four nationwide wireless companies to three will make things even more competitive. Got it? Me neither. Continue reading →

Google’s announcement this week of plans to expand to dozens of more cities got me thinking about the broadband market and some parallels to transportation markets. Taxi cab and broadband companies are seeing business plans undermined with the emergence of nimble Silicon Valley firms–Uber and Google Fiber, respectively.

The incumbent operators in both cases were subject to costly regulatory obligations in the past but in return they were given some protection from competitors. The taxi medallion system and local cable franchise requirements made new entry difficult. Uber and Google have managed to break into the market through popular innovations, the persistence to work with local regulators, and motivated supporters. Now, in both industries, localities are considering forbearing from regulations and welcoming a competitor that poses an economic threat to the existing operators.

Notably, Google Fiber will not be subject to the extensive build-out requirements imposed on cable companies who typically built their networks according to local franchise agreements in the 1970s and 1980s. Google, in contrast, generally does substantial market research to see if there is an adequate uptake rate among households in particular areas. Neighborhoods that have sufficient interest in Google Fiber become Fiberhoods.

Similarly, companies like Uber and Lyft are exempted from many of the regulations governing taxis. Taxi rates are regulated and drivers have little discretion in deciding who to transport, for instance. Uber and Lyft drivers, in contrast, are not price-regulated and can allow rates to rise and fall with demand. Further, Uber and Lyft have a two-way rating system: drivers rate passengers and passengers rate drivers via smartphone apps. This innovation lowers costs and improves safety: the rider who throws up in cars after bar-hopping, who verbally or physically abuses drivers (one Chicago cab driver told me he was held up at gunpoint several times per year), or who is constantly late will eventually have a hard time hailing an Uber or Lyft. The ratings system naturally forces out expensive riders (and ill-tempered drivers).

Interestingly, support and opposition for Uber and Google Fiber cuts across partisan lines (and across households–my wife, after hearing my argument, is not as sanguine about these upstarts). Because these companies upset long-held expectations, express or implied, strong opposition remains. Nevertheless, states and localities should welcome the rapid expansion of both Uber and Google Fiber.

The taxi registration systems and the cable franchise agreements were major regulatory mistakes. Local regulators should reduce regulations for all similarly-situated competitors and resist the temptation to remedy past errors with more distortions. Of course, there is a decades-long debate about when deregulation turns into subsidies, and this conversation applies to Uber and Google Fiber.

That debate is important, but regulators and policymakers should take every chance to roll back the rules of the past–not layer on more mandates in an ill-conceived attempt to “level the playing field.” Transportation and broadband markets are changing for the better with more competition and localities should generally stand aside.

On Saturday, C-SPAN aired a segment of The Communicators featuring me and Free Press’ Chance Williams. In the 30-minute segment, Chance and I discussed the future of net neutrality now that the FCC’s Open Internet rules are vacated. You can see the taping here or below.

In December, Reps. Upton and Walden announced that they intend to update the Communications Act, which saw its last major revision in 1996. Today marks the deadline to submit initial comments regarding updating the Act. Below is my submission, which includes reference to a Mercatus paper by Raymond Gifford analyzing the Digital Age Communications (DACA) reports. These bipartisan reports would largely replace and reform our deficient communications laws.

Dear Chairman Upton,

As you and Rep. Walden recently acknowledged, U.S. communications law needs updating to remove accumulated regulatory excess and to strengthen market forces. When the 1934 Communications Act was passed, there was a national monopoly telephone provider and Congress’s understanding of radio spectrum physics was rudimentary. Chief among the Communication Act’s many flaws was giving the Federal Communication Commission authority to regulate wired and wireless communications according to “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” an amorphous standard that has been frequently abused. If delegating this expansive grant of discretion to the FCC was ever sensible, it clearly no longer is. Today, eight decades later, with competition between video, telephone, and Internet providers taking place over wired and wireless networks, the public interest standard simply invites costly rent-seeking and stifles technologies and business opportunities.

Like an old cottage receiving several massive additions spanning decades by different clumsy architects, communications law is a disorganized and dilapidated structure that should be razed and reconstituted. As new technologies emerged since the 1930s—broadcast television, cable, satellite, mobile phones, the Internet—and upended existing regulated businesses, the FCC and Congress layered on new rules attempting to mitigate the distortions.

Congressional attempts at reforming communications laws have appeared regularly ever since the 1996 amendments. During the last such attempt, in 2011, the Mercatus Center released a study discussing and summarizing a model for communications law reform known as the Digital Age Communications Act (DACA). That model legislation—consisting of five reports released in 2005 and 2006—came from the bipartisan DACA Working Group. The reports addressed five areas:

1. Regulatory framework;
2. Universal service;
3. Spectrum reform;
4. Federal-state jurisdiction; and
5. Institutional reform.

The DACA reports represent a flexible, market-oriented agenda from dozens of experts that, if implemented, would spur innovation, encourage competition, and benefit consumers. The regulatory framework report is the centerpiece recommendation and adopts a proposal largely based on the Federal Trade Commission Act, which provides a reformed FCC with nearly a century of common law for guidance. Significantly, the reports replace the FCC’s misused “public interest” standard with the general “unfair competition standard” from the FTC Act.

Despite the passage of time, those reports have held up remarkably well. The 2011 Mercatus paper describing the DACA reports is attached for submission in the record. The scholars at Mercatus are happy to discuss this paper and the cited materials below—including the DACA reports—further with Energy & Commerce Committee staff as they draft white papers and reform proposals.

Thank you for initiating discussion about updating the Communications Act. Reform can give America’s innovative technology and telecommunications sector a predictable and technology-neutral legal framework. When Congress replaces command-and-control rules with market forces, consumers will be the primary beneficiaries.

Sincerely,

Brent Skorup
Research Fellow, Technology Policy Program
Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Resources

Digital Age Communications Act (DACA) Working Groups Reports.

JEFFREY A. EISENACH ET AL., THE TELECOM REVOLUTION: AN AMERICAN OPPORTUNITY (1995).

Raymond L. Gifford, The Continuing Case for Serious Communications Law Reform, Mercatus Center Working Paper No. 11-44 (2011).

PETER HUBER, LAW AND DISORDER IN CYBERSPACE: ABOLISH THE FCC AND LET COMMON LAW RULE THE TELECOSM (1997).

Call it what you want: a bailout, a thumb on the scales, bidder restrictions–the FCC might conspicuously intervene in the 2015 incentive auctions at the behest of smaller carriers and public interest advocates.

Chairman Wheeler’s recent comments indicate the FCC may devise a way to prevent the largest two carriers–AT&T and Verizon–from purchasing “too much” of the television broadcasters’ spectrum at auction. AT&T likely sees the writing on the wall and argues that if there are auction limits, the restrictions should apply only to the auction, rather than more extreme restrictions that would penalize AT&T and Verizon, the largest carriers, for previously-acquired spectrum. As The Switch’s Brian Fung put it,

the small carriers favor what are called “asymmetric” spectrum caps that affect various carriers differently, while opponents prefer “symmetric” caps that don’t account for existing market positions.

While I wish AT&T put up more of a fight to auction interventions, they (and staff at the FCC) are handicapped in pursuing an unrestricted auction. The blame lies mostly with Congress who gave the FCC vague (thus ripe for abuse) and conflicting mandates spanning decades. The 1993 law authorizing auctions, for instance, requires the FCC to “avoid[] excessive concentration of licenses” and to “disseminat[e] licenses among a wide variety of applicants” among other regulatory carve-outs for smaller competitors. These latter requirements, if implemented as rigorously as smaller carriers would like, directly undermine the purpose of the 2012 American Taxpayer Relief Act that requires the upcoming spectrum auctions raise $7 billion for a public safety broadband network and $20 billion for deficit reduction.

By asymmetrically penalizing AT&T and Verizon, the FCC increases the probability the auction fails to raise the tens of billions of dollars needed (see Fred Campbell’s recent paper). I haven’t heard a policymaker speak about the incentive auction without remarking how extraordinarily complex it is. That complexity–as was made clear in this week’s Senate hearing on the subject–means no one knows how much spectrum will be auctioned off or how much money will be raised. I was doubtful the FCC would secure the called-for 120 MHz for auction in the first place, but the Senate hearing convinced me that they might not get even 60 MHz. If the FCC meddles too much and the broadcasters aren’t assured they’ll get top dollar for their spectrum, the broadcasters might not show up to sell.

For many reasons, the FCC should ignore the pressures to restrict the large carriers in bidding. Smaller carriers argue the large carriers will outbid them only to preclude competition and hoard the spectrum. Every major carrier is spending billions to expand its footprint and capacity rapidly so the hoarding argument is hard to accept (not to mention, carriers face FCC build out requirements). The hoarding argument also confounds me because AT&T and Verizon are at the forefront arguing for more spectrum auctions, particularly spectrum from federal agencies. Would they want the market flooded with new spectrum only so they could spend billions to hoard it?

Asymmetric auction restrictions also resemble a bailout for smaller carriers. T-Mobile and Sprint–who most actively lobby for auction restrictions–are not mom-and-pop establishments. Each is a sophisticated, powerful corporation with access to capital markets and backed by larger international telecoms–Germany’s Deutsche Telekom for T-Mobile and Japan’s SoftBank for Sprint. DT and SoftBank have both pledged to spend billions in the next few years to improve their American carrier’s competitive position. Such carriers do not need an FCC handout.

The bailout resemblance is more apparent when you realize Sprint has been hamstrung for nearly a decade with damaging business decisions. Three come immediately to mind: 1) the dreadful merger with Nextel in 2005; 2) the ill-fated bet in 2008 to forgo LTE rollout in favor of WiMax, a competing 4G standard; and 3) the loss of over one million customers when it discontinued its push-to-talk iDEN service for network upgrades. The losses from the Nextel merger alone approach $30 billion.

To be clear, I don’t second-guess Sprint’s decisions. They did what innovative firms are supposed to do in attempting big, risky investments. However, it should not be the job of the FCC to favor some firms through spectrum auctions because some carriers’ business decisions did not pan out. That is not a competitive wireless auction–that is an FCC-orchestrated bailout. Granted, the FCC has been handed conflicting mandates. The Commission has ample discretion, however, to conduct a competitive auction that both complies with the law and improves chances of reaching the ambitious revenue goals. Intense meddling with auction results could prove disastrous.

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Please join us at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC on December 16th for a conference launching the year-long project, “FTC: Technology and Reform.” With complex technological issues increasingly on the FTC’s docket, we will consider what it means that the FTC is fast becoming the Federal Technology Commission.

The FTC: Technology & Reform Project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology.

For many, new technologies represent “challenges” to the agency, a continuous stream of complex threats to consumers that can be mitigated only by ongoing regulatory vigilance. We view technology differently, as an overwhelmingly positive force for consumers. To us, the FTC’s role is to promote the consumer benefits of new technology — not to “tame the beast” but to intervene only with caution, when the likely consumer benefits of regulation outweigh the risk of regulatory error. This conference is the start of a year-long project that will recommend concrete reforms to ensure that the FTC’s treatment of technology works to make consumers better off. Continue reading →