Broadband & Neutrality Regulation

The FCC is currently considering ways to make municipal broadband projects easier to deploy, an exercise that has drawn substantial criticism from Republicans, who passed a bill to prevent FCC preemption of state laws. Today the Mercatus Center released a policy analysis of municipal broadband projects, titled Community Broadband, Community Benefits? An Economic Analysis of Local Government Broadband Initiatives. The researcher is Brian Deignan, an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship. Brian wrote an excellent, empirical paper about the economic effects of publicly-funded broadband.

It’s remarkable how little empirical research there is on municipal broadband investment, despite years of federal data and billions of dollars in federal investment (notably, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). This dearth of research is in part because muni broadband proponents, as Brian points out, expressly downplay the relevance of economic evidence and suggest that the primary social benefits of muni broadband cannot be measured using traditional metrics. The current “research” about muni broadband, pro- and anti-, tends to be unfalsifiable generalizations based on extrapolations of cherry-picked examples. (There are several successes and failures, depending on your point of view.)

Brian’s paper provides researchers a great starting point when they attempt to answer an increasingly important policy question: What is the economic impact of publicly-funded broadband? Brian uses 23 years of BLS data from 80 cities that have deployed broadband and analyzes muni broadband’s effect on 1) quantity of businesses; 2) employee wages; and 3) employment. Continue reading →

Supporters of Title II reclassification for broadband Internet access services point to the fact that some wireless services have been governed by a subset of Title II provisions since 1993.  No one is complaining about that.  So what, then, is the basis for opposition to similar regulatory treatment for broadband?

Austin Schlick, the former FCC general counsel, outlined the so-called “Third Way” legal framework for broadband in a 2010 memo that proposed Title II reclassification along with forbearance of all but six of Title II’s 48 provisions.  He noted that “this third way is a proven success for wireless communications.”  This is the model that President Obama is backing.  Title II reclassification “doesn’t have to be a big deal,” Harold Feld reminds us, since the wireless industry seems to be doing okay despite the fact mobile phone service was classified as a Title II service in 1993.

To be clear, only mobile voice services are subject to Title II, since the FCC classified broadband access to the Internet over wireless networks as an “information” service (and thus completely exempt from Title II) in March of 2007.

Sec. 6002(c) of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (Public Law 103-66) modified Sec. 332 of the Communications Act so commercial mobile services would be treated “as a common carrier … except for such provisions of title II as the Commission may specify by regulation as inapplicable…”

The FCC commendably did forbear.  Former Chairman Reed E. Hundt would later boast in his memoir that the commission “totally deregulated the wireless industry.” He added that this was possible thanks to a Democratic Congress and former Vice President Al Gore’s tie-breaking Senate vote. Continue reading →

Would the Federal Communications Commission expose broadband Internet access services to tax rates of at least 16.6% of every dollar spent on international and interstate data transfers—and averaging 11.23% on transfers within a particular state and locality—if it reclassifies broadband as a telecommunications service pursuant to Title II of the Communications Act of 1934?

As former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth notes in a recent Forbes column, the Internet Tax Freedom Act only prohibits state and local taxes on Internet access.  It says nothing about federal user fees.  The House Energy & Commerce Committee report accompanying the “Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act” (H.R. 3086) makes this distinction clear.

The law specifies that it does not prohibit the collection of the 911 access or Universal Service Fund (USF) fees. The USF is imposed on telephone service rather than Internet access anyway, although the FCC periodically contemplates broadening the base to include data services.

The USF fee applies to all interstate and international telecommunications revenues.  If the FCC reclassifies broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service in the Open Internet Proceeding, the USF fee would automatically apply unless and until the commission concluded a separate rulemaking proceeding to exempt Internet access.  The Universal Service Contribution Factor is not insignificant. Last month, the commission increased it to 16.1%.  According to Furchtgott-Roth,

At the current 16.1% fee structure, it would be perhaps the largest, one-time tax increase on the Internet.  The FCC would have many billions of dollars of expanded revenue base to fund new programs without, according to the FCC, any need for congressional authorization.

Continue reading →

Last week, I participated in a program co-sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, the Lisbon Council, and the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy on “Growing the Transatlantic Digital Economy.”

The complete program, including keynote remarks from EU VP Neelie Kroes and U.S. Under Secretary of State Catherine A. Novelli, is available below.

My remarks reviewed worrying signs of old-style interventionist trade practices creeping into the digital economy in new guises, and urged traditional governments to stay the course (or correct it) on leaving the Internet ecosystem largely to its own organic forms of regulation and market correctives: Continue reading →

There are several “flavors” of net neutrality–Eli Noam at Columbia University estimates there are seven distinct meanings of the term–but most net neutrality proponents agree that reinterpreting the 1934 Communications Act and “classifying” Internet service providers as Title II “telecommunications” companies is the best way forward. Proponents argue that ISPs are common carriers and therefore should be regulated much like common carrier telephone companies. Last week I filed a public interest comment about net neutrality and pointed out why the Title II option is unwise and possibly illegal. Continue reading →

If there is one thing I have learned in almost 23 years of covering communications and media regulation it is this: No matter how well-intentioned, regulation often has unintended consequences that hurt the very consumers the rules are meant to protect. Case in point: “universal service” mandates that require a company to serve an entire area as a condition of offering service at all. The intention is noble: Get service out to everyone in the community, preferably at a very cheap rate. Alas, the result of mandating that result is clear: You get less competition, less investment, less innovation, and less consumer choice. And often you don’t even get everyone served.

Consider this Wall Street Journal article today, “Google Fiber Is Fast, but Is It Fair? The Company Provides Neighborhoods With Faster and Cheaper Service, but Are Some Being Left Behind?” In the story, Alistair Barr notes that:

U.S. policy long favored extending service to all. AT&T touted its “universal service” in advertisements more than a century ago. The concept was codified in a 1934 law requiring nationwide “wire and radio services” to reach everyone at “reasonable charges.” In exchange for wiring a community, telecommunications providers often gained a monopoly. Cities made similar deals with cable-TV providers beginning in the 1960s.

The problem, of course, is that while this model allowed for the slow spread of service to most communities, it came at a very steep cost: Monopoly and plain vanilla service. I documented this in a 1994 essay entitled, “Unnatural Monopoly: Critical Moments in the Development of the Bell System Monopoly.” As well-intentioned regulatory mandates started piling up, competition slowly disappeared. And a devil’s deal was eventually cut between regulators and AT&T to adopt the company’s advertising motto — “One Policy, One System, Universal Service” — as the de facto law of the land. Continue reading →

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.

Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son of SoftBank again criticized U.S. broadband (see this and this) at last week’s Code Conference.

The U.S. created the Internet, but its speeds rank 15th out of 16 major countries, ahead of only the Philippines.  Mexico is No. 17, by the way.

It turns out that Son couldn’t have been referring to the broadband service he receives from Comcast, since the survey data he was citing—as he has in the past—appears to be from OpenSignal and was gleaned from a subset of the six million users of the OpenSignal app who had 4G LTE wireless access in the second half of 2013.

Oh, and Son neglected to mention that immediately ahead of the U.S. in the OpenSignal survey is Japan. Continue reading →

Telephone companies have already begun transitioning their networks to Internet Protocol. This could save billions while improving service for consumers and promoting faster broadband, but has raised a host of policy and legal questions. How can we ensure the switch is as smooth and successful as possible? What legal authority do the FCC and other agencies have over the IP Transition and how should they use it?

Join TechFreedom on Monday, May 19, at its Capitol Hill office for a lunch event to discuss this and more with top experts from the field. Two short technical presentations will set the stage for a panel of legal and policy experts, including:

  • Jodie Griffin, Senior Staff Attorney, Public Knowledge
  • Hank Hultquist, VP of Federal Regulatory, AT&T
  • Berin Szoka, President, TechFreedom
  • Christopher Yoo, Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law
  • David Young, VP of Federal Regulatory Affairs, Verizon

The panel will be livestreamed (available here). Join the conversation on Twitter with the #IPTransition hashtag.

Monday, May 19, 2014
11:30am – 12:00pm — Lunch and registration
12:00pm – 12:20pm — Technical presentations by AT&T and Verizon
12:20pm – 2:00 pm — Panel on legal and policy issues, audience Q&A

United Methodist Building, Rooms 1 & 2
100 Maryland Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002

RSVP today!


There seems to be increasing chatter among net neutrality activists lately on the subject of reclassifying ISPs as Title II services, subject to common carriage regulation. Although the intent in pushing reclassification is to make the Internet more open and free, in reality such a move could backfire badly. Activists don’t seem to have considered the effect of reclassification on international Internet politics, where it would likely give enemies of Internet openness everything they have always wanted.

At the WCIT in 2012, one of the major issues up for debate was whether the revised International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) would apply to Operating Agencies (OAs) or to Recognized Operating Agencies (ROAs). OA is a very broad term that covers private network operators, leased line networks, and even ham radio operators. Since “OA” would have included IP service providers, the US and other more liberal countries were very much opposed to the application of the ITRs to OAs. ROAs, on the other hand, are OAs that operate “public correspondence or broadcasting service.” That first term, “public correspondence,” is a term of art that means basically common carriage. The US government was OK with the use of ROA in the treaty because it would have essentially cabined the regulations to international telephone service, leaving the Internet free from UN interference. What actually happened was that there was a failed compromise in which ITU Member States created a new term, Authorized Operating Agency, that was arguably somewhere in the middle—the definition included the word “public” but not “public correspondence”—and the US and other countries refused to sign the treaty out of concern that it was still too broad.

If the US reclassified ISPs as Title II services, that would arguably make them ROAs for purposes at the ITU (arguably because it depends on how you read the definition of ROA and Article 6 of the ITU Constitution). This potentially opens ISPs up to regulation under the ITRs. This might not be so bad if the US were the only country in the world—after all, the US did not sign the 2012 ITRs, and it does not use the ITU’s accounting rate provisions to govern international telecom payments.

But what happens when other countries start copying the US, imposing common carriage requirements, and classifying their ISPs as ROAs? Then the story gets much worse. Countries that are signatories to the 2012 ITRs would have ITU mandates on security and spam imposed on their networks, which is to say that the UN would start essentially regulating content on the Internet. This is what Russia, Saudia Arabia, and China have always wanted. Furthermore (and perhaps more frighteningly), classification as ROAs would allow foreign ISPs to forgo commercial peering arrangements in favor of the ITU’s accounting rate system. This is what a number of African governments have always wanted. Ethiopia, for example, considered a bill (I’m not 100 percent sure it ever passed) that would send its own citizens to jail for 15 years for using VOIP, because this decreases Ethiopian international telecom revenues. Having the option of using the ITU accounting rate system would make it easier to extract revenues from international Internet use.

Whatever you think of, e.g., Comcast and Cogent’s peering dispute, applying ITU regulation to ISPs would be significantly worse in terms of keeping the Internet open. By reclassifying US ISPs as common carriers, we would open the door to exactly that. The US government has never objected to ITU regulation of ROAs, so if we ever create a norm under which ISPs are arguably ROAs, we would be essentially undoing all of the progress that we made at the WCIT in standing up for a distinction between old-school telecom and the Internet. I imagine that some net neutrality advocates will find this unfair—after all, their goal is openness, not ITU control over IP service. But this is the reality of international politics: the US would have a very hard time at the ITU arguing that regulating for neutrality and common carriage is OK, but regulating for security, content, and payment is not.

If the goal is to keep the Internet open, we must look somewhere besides Title II.