Broadband & Neutrality Regulation

One year ago I wrote that conservatives were the leading voices in technology policy. Conservative leadership on tech policy issues became even more apparent last week, when House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) announced plans to update the Communications Act for the Internet era (#CommActUpdate). Virtually everyone recognizes that the Act, which Rep. Walden noted was “written during the Great Depression and last updated when 56 kilobits per second via dial-up modem was state of the art,” is now hopelessly out of date. But it was conservative leadership that was willing to begin the legislative process necessary to update it.

Although the term “progressive” literally means “advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are,” some political progressives have focused their communications advocacy on maintaining the status quo. In response to the #CommActUpdate, Free Press said, “We’re not going to get a better act than we have now.” (Communications Daily, Dec. 5, 2013 (subscription required)) Free Press, which describes itself as a “movement to change media and technology policies,” also told Comm Daily, “The IP transition should be governed by the laws on the books today.” 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.

Both parties of Congress has been increasingly critical of federal agencies’ inefficient use of spectrum in the past few years and it seems like agencies are getting the message. The NTIA, which is the official manager of federal agency spectrum, released a letter yesterday announcing that the Department of Defense would be relocating some of its systems. Defense had reached an agreement with broadcasters that Defense systems will share spectrum in the Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) band.

The soon-to-be vacated band held by Defense will eventually be auctioned off–hopefully in 2014–for billions of dollars and likely used for mobile broadband provided by wireless carriers like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. These carriers face serious congestion problems because of government-created scarcity of spectrum.

The carriers actually had targeted some of BAS spectrum because they weren’t convinced Defense would be willing to move their systems. The broadcaster deal reached with Defense means everyone’s apparently happy–the broadcasters can keep their BAS spectrum, the feds get new equipment and Congress off their back (temporarily), and the carriers get new spectrum for auction.

The deal is welcome news because the spectrum will be put to a higher-valued use once auctioned. The federal government pays almost nothing for its own spectrum and is a poor steward of the resource. Transferring spectrum from agencies to carriers means lower phone bills and more mobile broadband coverage. Government agencies are notoriously resistant to moving their systems or sharing with others, so entering into a sharing pact with the broadcasters indicates some of the resistance is thawing.

It’s not unequivocal good news, though.

The government is clearing out from a 25 MHz band of spectrum and occupying the larger, 85 MHz BAS band that will be shared with broadcasters. The military will need a larger band because sharing imposes some capacity constraints necessitating new, agile systems that search the airwaves to make sure they don’t interfere with existing broadcast users. Dynamic sharing like this only adds to the cost and complexity and may imperil next years’ planned auction.

Further, the BAS band is unavailable for auction only because of the antiquated command-and-control regime the FCC uses to award spectrum licenses. BAS is mostly used for electronic news gathering, which relays local and national newscasts from reporters on the scene to broadcast studios. Broadcasters have used BAS spectrum since the 1960s when it was allocated to them for free.

In a market, broadcasters likely would not have as much BAS spectrum as they currently have. In fact, because of technology changes and squeezed newsroom budgets, broadcasters are finding cheaper alternatives. Increasingly, journalists are using carriers’ LTE technology to transmit their breaking newscasts since the technology costs a fraction of the cost of news vans and equipment needed for BAS transmissions. That is to say, there are alternative business models in the absence of Soviet-style allocations.

So despite these industry changes, BAS spectrum cannot be auctioned for its highest-valued use (probably mobile broadband) under current FCC rules. Further, it will be even more difficult to bring the benefits of auctions to the airwaves if federal users are intermingling with existing users, broadcasters in this case. It’s a trend to be wary of. Let’s just hope that next year’s planned auctions occur on time so that more consumers can benefit from mobile broadband.

“Net neutrality is a dead man walking,” Marvin Ammori stated in Wired last week, citing the probable demise of the FCC’s Open Internet rules in court. I’d agree for a different reason. Net neutrality has been dead ever since the FCC released its net neutrality order in December 2010. (This is not to say the damaging rules should be upheld by the DC Circuit. For many reasons, the Order should be struck down.) I agree with Ammori because we already have the Internet “fast lane” many net neutrality proponents wanted to prevent. Since that goal is precluded, all the rules do is hang Damocles’ Sword over ISPs regarding traffic management.

The 2010 rules managed to make both sides unhappy. The ISPs face severe penalties if three FCC commissioners believe ISP network management practices “unreasonably discriminate” against certain traffic. Public interest groups, on the other hand, were dissatisfied because they wanted ISPs reclassified as common carriers to prevent deep-pocketed content creators from allying with ISPs to create an Internet “fast lane” for some companies, relegating most other websites to the so-called “winding dirt road” of the public Internet.

Proponents emphasize different goals of net neutrality (to the point–many argue–it’s hard to discern what the term means). But if preventing the creation of a fast lane is the main goal of net neutrality, it’s dead already. Consider two popularly-cited net neutrality “violations” that do not violate the Open Internet Order: Netflix’ Open Connect program and Comcast not counting its Xfinity video-on-demand (VOD) service against customers’ data limits

Both cases involve the creation of a fast lane for certain content and activists rail against them. Both cases also involve network practices expressly exempted from net neutrality regulations. The FCC exempted these sorts of services because they are important, benefit the public, and should be encouraged. With Open Connect, Netflix scatters its many servers across the country closer to households, which allows its content to stream at a higher quality than most other video sites. Comcast gives its Xfinity VOD fast-lane treatment as well, which is completely legal since VOD from a cable company is a “specialized service” exempt from the rules.

“Specialized service” needs some explanation since it’s a novel concept from the FCC order. The net neutrality rules distinguish between “broadband Internet access service” (BIAS)–to which the regulations apply–and specialized (or managed) services–to which they don’t apply. The exemption of specialized services opens up a dangerous loophole in the view of proponents.

BIAS is what most consider “the Internet.” It’s the everyday websites we access on our computers and smartphones. What are specialized services? In the sleepy month of August the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee released its report on what criteria specialized service needs to meet to be exempt from net neutrality scrutiny (these are influential and advisory, but not binding):

1. The service doesn’t reach large parts of the Internet, and
2. The service is an “application level” service.

The Advisory Committee also thought that “capacity isolation” is a good indicator that a service should be exempt. With capacity isolation, the ISP has one broadband connection going to the home but is separating the service’s data stream from the conventional Internet stream consumers use to visit Facebook, YouTube, and the like. This is how Comcast’s streaming of Xfinity to Xboxes is exempt–it is a proprietary network going into the home. As long as carriers don’t divert BIAS capacity for the application, the FCC will likely turn a blind eye.

What are some examples? Specialized service is marked by higher-quality streams that typically don’t suffer from jitter and latency. If you have “digital voice” from Comcast, for example, you are receiving a specialized service–proprietary VoIP. Specialized service can also include data streams like VOD, e-reader downloads, heart monitor data, and gaming services. The FCC exempted these because some are important enough that they shouldn’t compete with BIAS Internet. It would be obviously damaging to have digital phone service or health monitors getting disrupted because others are checking up on their fantasy football team. The FCC also wanted to spur investment in specialized services and video companies like Netflix are considering pairing up with ISPs to deliver a better experience to customers.

That is to say, the net neutrality effort has failed even worse than most realize. The FCC essentially prohibited innovative business models in BIAS, freezing that service into common-carrier-like status. Further, we have an Internet fast lane (which I consider a significant public benefit, though net neutrality proponents often do not). As business models evolve and the costs of server networks fall, our two-tier system will become more apparent.

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 →

Brent SkorupAdam, Eli, and I are very happy to announce that Brent Skorup joined us this week as a research fellow at Mercatus. He will focus on telecommunications, radio spectrum, and media issues, which will help round out our existing portfolio of work on privacy, cybersecurity, intellectual property, Internet governance, and innovation policy.

Brent has written Mercatus research papers on federal spectrum policy, cronyism in the technology sector, and antitrust standards in the tech economy. Brent also has a forthcoming paper co-authored with Thomas Hazlett on the lessons of LightSquared. His work has appeared in several law reviews, The Hill, US News & World Report, The Washington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek, and San Francisco Chronicle. He also blogs here at Tech Liberation.

With the ongoing debate at the federal level over how to efficiently use radio spectrum, Brent has proposed establishing a congressional commission to determine spectrum allocation for federal users and put up newly available spectrum for auction. He has also called for having an agency similar to the General Services Administration take ownership of federal spectrum and “rent” it to agencies at a fair market value.

Brent previously served as director of operations and research for the Information Economy Project at the George Mason University School of Law, applying law and economics to telecommunications policy. He has a BA in economics from Wheaton College and received his JD at Mason.

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 →

Last week on The Diane Rehm Show, Susan Crawford, former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology, and innovation policy, claimed that China “makes us look like a backwater when it comes to [broadband] connectivity.” When she was asked how this could be, Ms. Crawford responded:

It happened because of [Chinese industrial] policy. You can call that overregulation. It’s the way we make innovation happen in America.

Ms. Crawford is wrong on the facts and the philosophy. Continue reading →

Answer: To check health information. Seniors who can investigate a symptom online will save a trip to the hospital. Not knowing whether a symptom is serious and not having the ability to investigate the condition online, many seniors without internet access go to emergency room to answer their health related questions.

This is the fourth post in a series about broadband. It investigates criticisms about America’s broadband market by Susan Crawford. Other posts are available here and here.

Crawford notes on a recent blog post, “One recent 2012 study showed that even after going through digital literacy training, 22% of participants still did not have a connection.”  The part that Crawford doesn’t mention is that 78% of the 33,000 people who participated in the digital literacy program (30 hours of classroom instruction on the basics of the computers and internet) went on to become sustainable broadband adopters (SBAs), meaning they secured their own broadband connection at home. Continue reading →