Antitrust & Competition Policy

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 →

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 →