Antitrust & Competition Policy

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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 →

There is bipartisan agreement that the 1996 Telecom Act was antiquated only shortly after President Clinton’s signature had dried on the legislation. There is also consensus that spectrum policy, still largely grounded in the 1934 communications statute, absolutely distorts today’s wireless markets. And there is frequent criticism from thought leaders, right and left, that the FCC has been, for decades, too accommodating to the firms it regulates and too beholden to the status quo (economist Thomas Hazlett quips the agency’s initials stand for “Forever Captured by Corporations”).

For these reasons, members of Congress every few years announce their intention to reform the 1934 and 1996 communications laws and modernize the FCC. Yesterday, some powerful House members unexpectedly reignited hopes that Congress would overhaul our telecom, broadband, and video laws. In a Google Hangout (!), Reps. Fred Upton and Greg Walden said they wanted to take on the ambitious task of passing a new law in 2015.

Much depends on next year’s elections and the composition of Congress, but hopefully the announcement spurs a major re-write that eliminates regulatory distortions in communications, much as airlines and transportation were deregulated in the 1970s–an effort led by reformist Democrats.

About ten years ago, more than fifty scholars and technologists crafted reports which constituted the Digital Age Communications Act (or DACA) that is largely deregulatory (a majority of the group had served in Democratic administrations, interestingly enough). In 2005, then-Sen. Jim DeMint proposed a bill similar to the working group’s proposals. The working group’s recommendations aged very well in eight years–which you can’t say about the 1996 Act–and represents a great starting point for future legislation.

As Adam has said the DACA reports have five primary reform objectives:

- Replacing the amorphous “public interest” standard with a consumer welfare standard, which is more well-established in field of antitrust law

- Eliminate regulatory silos and level the playing field through deregulation

- Comprehensively reform spectrum not just through more auctioning but through clear property rights

- Reform universal service by either voucherizing it or devolving it to the States and let them run their own telecom welfare programs; and

- Significantly reforming & downsizing the scope of the FCC’s power of the modern information economy

DACA redefines the FCC as a specialized competition agency for the communications sector. The FCC largely sees itself as a competition agency today but the current statutes don’t represent that gradual change in purpose. The FCC is slow, arbitrary, Balkanizes industries artificially, and attempts to regulate in areas it isn’t equipped to regulate–the agency has a notoriously bad record in federal courts. These characteristics create a poor environment for substantial investments in technology and communications infrastructure. The DACA proposals aren’t perfect but it is a resilient framework that minimizes the effect of special interests in communications and encourages investments that improve consumers’ lives.

The following is a guest post by James C. Cooper of George Mason University School of Law.

What are the limits to the FTC’s Section 5 antitrust authority? The short answer is, who knows. The FTC has been on a 100-year quest to find the maleficence that it alone was meant to combat. Early in its history, the Supreme Court appeared to give the FTC license to challenge a wide range of conduct that had little to do with competition. A series of appellate setbacks in the 1980s – relating largely to claims that Section 5 could reach tacit collusion and oligopolistic interdependence – led the Commission to retrench. Since then, the FTC has avoided litigating a Section 5 case, focusing primarily on invitations to collude (ITCs), and breaches of agreements to disclose or to license standard essential patents. Of course since all of these cases have settled, no court has had to opportunity to weigh in on whether Congress meant Section 5 to cover this type of conduct.

In my new Mercatus Center working paper, The Perils of Excessive Discretion: The Elusive Meaning of Unfairness in Section 5 of the FTC Act, I argue that the undefined nature of Section 5 leaves the FTC with broad discretion to investigate and extract settlements from companies. Although the appellate rebukes of the 1980s provide some clear boundaries, given firms’ understandable aversion to litigation – especially when only injunctive relief is on the table, and when the risk of follow-on private suits is much lower than it would be under a Sherman Act settlement – there is still a relatively large zone in which the FTC can develop this quasi Section 5 common law with little fear of triggering litigation, which would lead to appellate review. (A similar problem exists with respect to the FTC’s use of its Section 5 authority to become the de facto national privacy and data security regulator, but that’s another post).

Continue reading →

Last week, the House held a hearing about the so-called IP Transition. The IP Transition refers to the telephone industry practice of carrying all wire-based consumer services–voice, Internet, and television–via faster, better fiber networks and not on the traditional copper wires that had fewer capabilities. Most consumers have not and will not notice the change. The completed IP Transition, however, has enormous implications for how the FCC regulates. As one telecom watcher said, “What’s at stake? Everything in telecom policy.”

For 100 years or so, phone service has had a special place in regulatory law given its importance in connecting the public. Phone service was almost exclusively over copper wires, a service affectionately called “plain old telephone service” (POTS). AT&T became the government-approved POTS national monopolist in 1913 (which ended with the AT&T antitrust breakup in the 1980s). The deal was: AT&T got to be a protected monopolist while the government got to require AT&T provide various public benefits. The most significant of these is universal service–AT&T had to serve virtually every US household and charge reasonable rates even to remote (that is, expensive) customers.

To create more phone competitors to the Baby Bells–the phone companies spun off from the AT&T break-up in the 1980s–the Congress passed the 1996 Telecom Act and the FCC put burdens on the Baby Bells to allow new phone companies to lease the Baby Bells’ AT&T-created copper wires at regulated rates. The market changed in ways never envisioned in the 1990s however. Today, phone companies face competition–not from the new phone companies leasing the old monopoly infrastructure but from entirely different technologies. You can receive voice service from your cable company (“digital voice”), your “phone” company (POTS), your wireless company, and even Internet-based providers like Vonage and Skype. Increasingly, households are leaving POTS behind in favor of voice service from cable or wireless providers. Yet POTS providers–like Verizon and AT&T (which also offer wireless service)–must abide by monopoly-era regulations that their cable and wireless competitors–Comcast, Sprint, and others–don’t have to abide by.

Understanding the significance of the IP Transition requires (unfortunately) knowing a little bit about Title I and Title II of the Communications Act. “Telecommunications services,” which are the phone companies with copper networks, are heavily regulated by the FCC under Title II. On the other hand, “information services,” which includes Internet service, are lightly regulated under Title I. This division made some sense in the 1990s. It is increasingly under stress now because burdened “telecommunications” companies like AT&T and Verizon are offering “information services” like Internet via DSL, FiOS, and U-Verse. Conversely, lightly-regulated “information services” companies like Comcast, Charter, and Time-Warner Cable are entering the regulated telephone market but face few of the regulatory burdens.

Which brings us to the IP Transition. As Title II phone companies replace their copper wires with fiber and deploy broadband networks to compete with cable companies, their customers’ phone service is being carried via IP packets. Functionally, these new networks act like a heavily-regulated Title II service since they carry voice, but they also act like the Title I broadband networks that cable providers built. So should these new fiber networks be burdened like Title II services or deregulated like Title I services? Or is it possible to achieve some middle ground using existing law? Those are the questions before the FCC and policymakers. Billions of dollars of investment will be accelerated or slowed and many firms will live or die depending on how the FCC and Congress act. Stay tuned.

Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica and Brian Fung at The Switch have posts featuring a New America Foundation study, The Cost of Connectivity 2013, comparing international prices and speeds of broadband. As I told Fung when he asked for my assessment of the study, I was left wondering whether lower prices in some European and Asian cities arise from more competition in those cities or unacknowledged tax benefits and consumer subsidies that bring the price of, say, a local fiber network down.

The report raised a few more questions in my mind, however, that I’ll outline here. Continue reading →

Over on Forbes today, I have a very long post inspired by Monday’s oral arguments in Verizon’s challenge of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, passed in 2010

I say “inspired” because the post has nothing to say about the oral arguments which, in any case, I did not attend.  Mainstream journalists can’t resist the temptation to try to read into the questions asked or the mood of the judges some indication of how the decision will come out

But as anyone who has ever worked in a court or followed appellate practice  well knows, the tone of oral arguments signals nothing about a judge’s point-of-view.  Often, the harshest questioning is reserved for the side a judge is leaning towards supporting, perhaps because the briefs filed were inadequate.  Bad briefs create more work for the judge and her clerks.

I use the occasion of the hearing to take a fresh look at the net neutrality “debate,” which has been on-going since at least 2005, when I first started paying attention to it.  In particular, I try to disentangle the political term “net neutrality” (undefined and, indeed, not even used in the 2010 Open Internet order) from the engineering principles of packet routing. Continue reading →

Yesterday, Time Warner Cable and CBS reached a deal to end the weeks-long impasse that had resulted in CBS being blacked out in over 3 million U.S. households.

I predicted the two companies would resolve their differences before the start of the NFL season in a RealClearPolicy op-ed published last week:

From Los Angeles to New York, 3 million Americans in eight U.S. cities haven’t been able to watch CBS on cable for weeks, because of a business dispute between the network and Time Warner Cable (TWC). The two companies can’t agree on how much TWC should pay to carry CBS, so the network has blacked out TWC subscribers since August 1. With the NFL season kicking off on September 5, the timing couldn’t be worse for football fans.blackouts-work-1

Regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) face growing pressure to force the feuding companies to reach an agreement. But despite viewers’ frustrations with this standoff, government intervention isn’t the answer. If bureaucrats begin “overseeing” disputes between network owners and video providers, television viewers will face higher prices or lower-quality shows.

TWC and CBS are playing hardball over serious cash. CBS reportedly seeks to double its fee to $2 per subscriber each month, which TWC claims is an outrageous price increase. But CBS argues it costs more and more to develop hit new shows like Under the Dome, so it’s only fair viewers pay a bit more.

Both sides have a point. TWC is looking out for its millions of subscribers—and its bottom line—by keeping programming costs down. CBS, on the other hand, needs cash to develop creative new content, and hopes it can make some money doing so.

Continue reading →

The 600 MHz spectrum auction “represents the last best chance to promote competition” among mobile wireless service providers, according to the written testimony of T-Mobile executive who appeared before a congressional subcommittee Jul. 23 and testified in rhetoric that is reminiscent of a bygone era.

The idea that an activist Federal Communications Commission is necessary to preserve and promote competition is a throwback to the government-sanctioned Ma Bell monopoly era.  Sprint still uses the term “Twin Bells” in its FCC pleadings to refer to AT&T and Verizon Wireless in the hope that, for those who can remember the Bell System, the incantation will elicit a visceral response.  The fact is most of the FCC’s efforts to preserve and promote competition have failed, entailed serious collateral damage, or both.

Unless Congress and the FCC get the details right, the implementation of an innovative auction that will free up spectrum that is currently underutilized for broadcasting and make it available for mobile communications could fail to raise in excess of $7 billion for building a nationwide public safety network and making a down payment on the national debt.  Aside from ensuring that broadcasting is not disrupted in the process, one important detail concerns whether the auctioning will be open to every qualified bidder, or whether government officials will, in effect, pick winners and losers before the auctioning begins. Continue reading →

Richard Brandt, technology journalist and author, discusses his new book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.Com. Brandt discusses Bezos’ entrepreneurial drive, his business philosophy, and how he’s grown Amazon to become the biggest retailer in the world. This episode also covers the biggest mistake Bezos ever made, how Amazon uses patent laws to its advantage, whether Amazon will soon become a publishing house, Bezos’ idea for privately-funded space exploration and his plan to revolutionize technology with quantum computing.

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This week at CTIA 2013, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel presented ten ideas for spectrum policy. Though I don’t agree with all of them, she articulated a reasonable vision for spectrum policy that prioritizes consumer demand, incorporates market-oriented solutions, and establishes transparent goals and timelines. Commissioner Rosenworcel’s principled approach stands in stark contrast to the intellectually bankrupt incentive auction recommendation offered by the Department of Justice last month. Continue reading →