Broadband & Neutrality Regulation

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.

The outrage over the FCC’s attempt to write new open Internet rules has caught many by surprise, and probably Chairman Wheeler as well. The rumored possibility of the FCC authorizing broadband “fast lanes” draws most complaints and animus. Gus Hurwitz points out that the FCC’s actions this week have nothing to do with fast lanes and Larry Downes reminds us that this week’s rules don’t authorize anything. There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation because few understand how administrative law works. Yet many net neutrality proponents fear the worst from the proposed rules because Wheeler takes the consensus position that broadband provision is a two-sided market and prioritized traffic could be pro-consumer.

Fast lanes have been permitted by the FCC for years and they can benefit consumers. Some broadband services–like video and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)–need to be transmitted faster or with better quality than static webpages, email, and file syncs. Don’t take my word for it. The 2010 Open Internet NPRM, which led to the recently struck-down rules, stated,

As rapid innovation in Internet-related services continues, we recognize that there are and will continue to be Internet-Protocol-based offerings (including voice and subscription video services, and certain business services provided to enterprise customers), often provided over the same networks used for broadband Internet access service, that have not been classified by the Commission. We use the term “managed” or “specialized” services to describe these types of offerings. The existence of these services may provide consumer benefits, including greater competition among voice and subscription video providers, and may lead to increased deployment of broadband networks.

I have no special knowledge about what ISPs will or won’t do. I wouldn’t predict in the short term the widespread development of prioritized traffic under even minimal regulation. I think the carriers haven’t looked too closely at additional services because net neutrality regulations have precariously hung over them for a decade. But some of net neutrality proponents’ talking points (like insinuating or predicting ISPs will block political speech they disagree with) are not based in reality.

We run a serious risk of derailing research and development into broadband services if the FCC is cowed by uninformed and extreme net neutrality views. As Adam eloquently said, “Living in constant fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios — and premising public policy upon them — means that best-case scenarios will never come about.” Many net neutrality proponents would like to smear all priority traffic as unjust and exploitative. This is unfortunate and a bit ironic because one of the most transformative communications developments, cable VoIP, is a prioritized IP service.

There are other IP services that are only economically feasible if jitter, latency, and slow speed are minimized. Prioritized traffic takes several forms, but it could enhance these services:

VoIP. This prioritized service has actually been around for several years and has completely revolutionized the phone industry. Something unthinkable for decades–facilities-based local telephone service–became commonplace in the last few years and undermined much of the careful industrial planning in the 1996 Telecom Act. If you subscribe to voice service from your cable provider, you are benefiting from fast lane treatment. Your “phone” service is carried over your broadband cable, segregated from your television and Internet streams. Smaller ISPs could conceivably make their phone service more attractive by pairing up with a Skype- or Vonage-type voice provider, and there are other possibilities that make local phone service more competitive.

Cloud-hosted virtual desktops. This is not a new idea, but it’s possible to have most or all of your computing done in a secure cloud, not on your PC, via a prioritized data stream. With a virtual desktop, your laptop or desktop PC functions mainly as a dumb portal. No more annoying software updates. Fewer security risks. IT and security departments everywhere would rejoice. Google Chromebooks are a stripped-down version of this but truly functional virtual desktops would be valued by corporations, reporters, or government agencies that don’t want sensitive data saved on a bunch of laptops in their organization that they can’t constantly monitor. Virtual desktops could also transform the device market, putting the focus on a great cloud and (priority) broadband service and less on the power and speed of the device. Unfortunately, at present, virtual desktops are not in widespread use because even small lag frustrates users.

TV. The future of TV is IP-based and the distinction between “TV” and “the Internet” is increasingly blurring, with Netflix leading the way. In a fast lane future, you could imagine ISPs launching pared-down TV bundles–say, Netflix, HBO Go, and some sports channels–over a broadband connection. Most ISPs wouldn’t do it, but an over-the-top package might interest smaller ISPs who find acquiring TV content and bundling their own cable packages time-consuming and expensive.

Gaming. Computer gamers hate jitter and latency. (My experience with a roommate who had unprintable outbursts when Diablo III or World of Warcraft lagged is not uncommon.) Game lag means you die quite frequently because of your data connection and this depresses your interest in a game. There might be gaming companies out there who would like to partner with ISPs and other network operators to ensure smooth gameplay. Priority gaming services could also lead the way to more realistic, beautiful, and graphics-intensive games.

Teleconferencing, telemedicine, teleteaching, etc. Any real-time, video-based service could reach critical mass of subscribers and become economical with priority treatment. Any lag absolutely kills consumer interest in these video-based applications. By favoring applications like telemedicine, providing remote services could become attractive to enough people for ISPS to offer stand-alone broadband products.

This is just a sampling of the possible consumer benefits of pay-for-priority IP services we possibly sacrifice in the name of strict neutrality enforcement. There are other services we can’t even conceive of yet that will never develop. Generally, net neutrality proponents don’t admit these possible benefits and are trying to poison the well against all priority deals, including many of these services.

Most troubling, net neutrality turns the regulatory process on its head. Rather than identify a market failure and then take steps to correct the failure, the FCC may prevent commercial agreements that would be unobjectionable in nearly any other industry. The FCC has many experts who are familiar with the possible benefits of broadband fast lanes, which is why the FCC has consistently blessed priority treatment in some circumstances.

Unfortunately, the orchestrated reaction in recent weeks might leave us with onerous rules, delaying or making impossible new broadband services. Hopefully, in the ensuing months, reason wins out and FCC staff are persuaded by competitive analysis and possible innovations, not t-shirt slogans.

My friend Tim Lee has an article at Vox that argues that interconnection is the new frontier on which the battle for the future of the Internet is being waged. I think the article doesn’t really consider how interconnection has worked in the last few years, and consequently, it makes a big deal out of something that is pretty harmless.

How the Internet used to work

The Internet is a network of networks. Your ISP is a network. It connects to the other ISPs and exchanges traffic with them. Since connections between ISPs are about equally valuable to each other, this often happens through “settlement-free peering,” in which networks exchange traffic on an unpriced basis. The arrangement is equally valuable to both partners.

Not every ISP connects directly to every other ISP. For example, a local ISP in California probably doesn’t connect directly to a local ISP in New York. If you’re an ISP that wants to be sure your customer can reach every other network on the Internet, you have to purchase “transit” services from a bigger or more specialized ISP. This would allow ISPs to transmit data along what used to be called “the backbone” of the Internet. Transit providers that exchange roughly equally valued traffic with other networks themselves have settlement-free peering arrangements with those networks.

How the Internet works now

A few things have changed in the last several years. One major change is that most major ISPs have very large, geographically-dispersed networks. For example, Comcast serves customers in 40 states, and other networks can peer with them in 18 different locations across the US. These 18 locations are connected to each other through very fast cables that Comcast owns. In other words, Comcast is not just a residential ISP anymore. They are part of what used to be called “the backbone,” although it no longer makes sense to call it that since there are so many big pipes that cross the country and so much traffic is transmitted directly through ISP interconnection.

Another thing that has changed is that content providers are increasingly delivering a lot of a) traffic-intensive and b) time-sensitive content across the Internet. This has created the incentive to use what are known as content-delivery networks (CDNs). CDNs are specialized ISPs that locate servers right on the edge of all terminating ISPs’ networks. There are a lot of CDNs—here is one list.

By locating on the edge of each consumer ISP, CDNs are able to deliver content to end users with very low latency and at very fast speeds. For this service, they charge money to their customers. However, they also have to pay consumer ISPs for access to their networks, because the traffic flow is all going in one direction and otherwise CDNs would be making money by using up resources on the consumer ISP’s network.

CDNs’ payments to consumer ISPs are also a matter of equity between the ISP’s customers. Let’s suppose that Vox hires Amazon CloudFront to serve traffic to Comcast customers (they do). If the 50 percent of Comcast customers who wanted to read Vox suddenly started using up so many network resources that Comcast and CloudFront needed to upgrade their connection, who should pay for the upgrade? The naïve answer is to say that Comcast should, because that is what customers are paying them for. But the efficient answer is that the 50 percent who want to access Vox should pay for it, and the 50 percent who don’t want to access it shouldn’t. By Comcast charging CloudFront to access the Comcast network, and CloudFront passing along those costs to Vox, and Vox passing along those costs to customers in the form of advertising, the resource costs of using the network are being paid by those who are using them and not by those who aren’t.

What happened with the Netflix/Comcast dust-up?

Netflix used multiple CDNs to serve its content to subscribers. For example, it used a CDN provided by Cogent to serve content to Comcast customers. Cogent ran out of capacity and refused to upgrade its link to Comcast. As a result, some of Comcast’s customers experienced a decline in quality of Netflix streaming. However, Comcast customers who accessed Netflix with an Apple TV, which is served by CDNs from Level 3 and Limelight, never had any problems. Cogent has had peering disputes in the past with many other networks.

To solve the congestion problem, Netflix and Comcast negotiated a direct interconnection. Instead of Netflix paying Cogent and Cogent paying Comcast, Netflix is now paying Comcast directly. They signed a multi-year deal that is reported to reduce Netflix’s costs relative to what they would have paid through Cogent. Essentially, Netflix is vertically integrating into the CDN business. This makes sense. High-quality CDN service is essential to Netflix’s business; they can’t afford to experience the kind of incident that Cogent caused with Comcast. When a service is strategically important to your business, it’s often a good idea to vertically integrate.

It should be noted that what Comcast and Netflix negotiated was not a “fast lane”—Comcast is prohibited from offering prioritized traffic as a condition of its merger with NBC/Universal.

What about Comcast’s market power?

I think that one of Tim’s hangups is that Comcast has a lot of local market power. There are lots of barriers to creating a competing local ISP in Comcast’s territories. Doesn’t this mean that Comcast will abuse its market power and try to gouge CDNs?

Let’s suppose that Comcast is a pure monopolist in a two-sided market. It’s already extracting the maximum amount of rent that it can on the consumer side. Now it turns to the upstream market and tries to extract rent. The problem with this is that it can only extract rents from upstream content producers insofar as it lowers the value of the rent it can collect from consumers. If customers have to pay higher Netflix bills, then they will be less willing to pay Comcast. The fact that the market is two-sided does not significantly increase the amount of monopoly rent that Comcast can collect.

Interconnection fees that are being paid to Comcast (and virtually all other major ISPs) have virtually nothing to do with Comcast’s market power and everything to do with the fact that the Internet has changed, both in structure and content. This is simply how the Internet works. I use CloudFront, the same CDN that Vox uses, to serve even a small site like my Bitcoin Volatility Index. CloudFront negotiates payments to Comcast and other ISPs on my and Vox’s behalf. There is nothing unseemly about Netflix making similar payments to Comcast, whether indirectly through Cogent or directly, nor is there anything about this arrangement that harms “the little guy” (like me!).

For more reading material on the Netflix/Comcast arrangement, I recommend Dan Rayburn’s posts here, here, and here. Interconnection is a very technical subject, and someone with very specialized expertise like Dan is invaluable in understanding this issue.