Economics

Earlier this week I posted an essay entitled, “Global Innovation Arbitrage: Commercial Drones & Sharing Economy Edition,” in which I noted how:

Capital moves like quicksilver around the globe today as investors and entrepreneurs look for more hospitable tax and regulatory environments. The same is increasingly true for innovation. Innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.

That essay focused on how actions by U.S. policymakers and regulatory agencies threatened to disincentivize homegrown innovation in the commercial drone and sharing economy sectors. But there are many other troubling examples of how America risks losing its competitive advantage in sectors where we should be global leaders as innovators looks offshore. We can think of this as “global innovation arbitrage,” as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has aptly explained:

Think of it as a sort of “global arbitrage” around permissionless innovation — the freedom to create new technologies without having to ask the powers that be for their blessing. Entrepreneurs can take advantage of the difference between opportunities in different regions, where innovation in a particular domain of interest may be restricted in one region, allowed and encouraged in another, or completely legal in still another.

One of the more vivid recent examples of global innovation arbitrage involves the well-known example of 23andMe, which sells mail-order DNA-testing kits to allow people to learn more about their genetic history and predisposition to various diseases. Continue reading →

Capital moves like quicksilver around the globe today as investors and entrepreneurs look for more hospitable tax and regulatory environments. The same is increasingly true for innovation. Innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity. I was reminded of that fact today while reading two different reports about commercial drones and the sharing economy and the global competition to attract investment on both fronts. First, on commercial drone policy, a new Wall Street Journal article notes that:

Amazon.com Inc., which recently began testing delivery drones in the U.K., is warning American officials it plans to move even more of its drone research abroad if it doesn’t get permission to test-fly in the U.S. soon. The statement is the latest sign that the burgeoning drone industry is shifting overseas in response to the Federal Aviation Administration’s cautious approach to regulating unmanned aircraft.

According to the Journal reporters, Amazon has sent a letter to the FAA warning that, “Without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad.” And another report in the U.K. Telegraph notes that other countries are ready and willing to open their skies to the same innovation that the FAA is thwarting in America. Both the UK and Australia have been more welcoming to drone innovators recently. Here’s a report from an Australian newspaper about Google drone services testing there. (For more details, see this excellent piece by Alan McQuinn, a research assistant with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation: “Commercial Drone Companies Fly Away from FAA Regulations, Go Abroad.”) None of this should be a surprise, as I’ve noted in recent essays and filings. With the FAA adopting such a highly precautionary regulatory approach, innovation has been actively disincentivized. America runs the risk of driving still more private drone innovation offshore in coming months since all signs are that the FAA intends to drag its feet on this front as long as it can, even though Congress has told to agency to take steps to integrate these technologies into national airspace.  Continue reading →

Sharing Economy paper from MercatusI’ve just released a short new paper, co-authored with my Mercatus Center colleagues Christopher Koopman and Matthew Mitchell, on “The Sharing Economy and Consumer Protection Regulation: The Case for Policy Change.” The paper is being released to coincide with a Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee event that I am speaking at today on “Should Congress be Caring About Sharing? Regulation and the Future of Uber, Airbnb and the Sharing Economy.”

In this new paper, Koopman, Mitchell, and I discuss how the sharing economy has changed the way many Americans commute, shop, vacation, borrow, and so on. Of course, the sharing economy “has also disrupted long-established industries, from taxis to hotels, and has confounded policymakers,” we note. “In particular, regulators are trying to determine how to apply many of the traditional ‘consumer protection’ regulations to these new and innovative firms.” This has led to a major debate over the public policies that should govern the sharing economy.

We argue that, coupled with the Internet and various new informational resources, the rapid growth of the sharing economy alleviates the need for much traditional top-down regulation. These recent innovations are likely doing a much better job of serving consumer needs by offering new innovations, more choices, more service differentiation, better prices, and higher-quality services. In particular, the sharing economy and the various feedback mechanism it relies upon helps solve the tradition economic problem of “asymmetrical information,” which is often cited as a rationale for regulation. We conclude, therefore, that “the key contribution of the sharing economy is that it has overcome market imperfections without recourse to traditional forms of regulation. Continued application of these outmoded regulatory regimes is likely to harm consumers.” Continue reading →

Writing last week in The Wall Street Journal, Matt Moffett noted how many European countries continue to struggle with chronic unemployment and general economic malaise.  (“New Entrepreneurs Find Pain in Spain“) It’s a dismal but highly instructive tale about how much policy incentives matter when it comes to innovation and job creation–especially the sort of entrepreneurial activity from small start-ups that is so essential for economic growth. Here’s the key takeaway:

Scarce capital, dense bureaucracy, a culture deeply averse to risk and a cratered consumer market all suppress startups in Europe. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a survey of startup activity, found the percentage of the adult population involved in early stage entrepreneurial activity last year was just 5% in Germany, 4.6% in France and 3.4% in Italy. That compares with 12.7% in the U.S. Even once they are established, European businesses are, on average, smaller and slower growing than those in the U.S.  The problems of entrepreneurs are one reason Europe’s economy continues to struggle after six years of crisis. The European Union this month cut its growth forecasts for the region for this year and next, citing weaker than expected performance in the eurozone’s biggest economies, Germany, France and Italy. This week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development delivered its own pessimistic appraisal, with chief economist Catherine Mann saying, “The eurozone is the locus of the weakness in the global economy.”

[...]
Europe’s unemployment crisis may be eroding a deeply ingrained fear of failure that is a bigger impediment to entrepreneurship on the Continent than in other regions, according to academic surveys. “Fear of failure is less of an issue because the whole country is a failure, and most of us are out of business or have a hard time paying our bills,” said Nick Drandakis of Athens, who in 2011 founded Taxibeat, an app that provides passenger ratings on taxi drivers.

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.

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, discusses how Overstock.com became one of the first online retail stores to accept Bitcoin. Byrne provides insight into how Bitcoin lowers transaction costs, making it beneficial to both retailers and consumers, and how governments are attempting to limit access to Bitcoin. Byrne also discusses his project DeepCapture.com, which raises awareness for market manipulation and naked short selling, as well as his philanthropic work and support for education reform.

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This blog was made in cooperation with Michael James Horney, George Mason University master’s student, based upon our upcoming paper on broadband innovation, investment and competition.

Ezra Klein’s interview with Susan Crawford paints a glowing picture of  publicly provided broadband, particularly fiber to the home (FTTH), but the interview missed a number of important points.

The international broadband comparisons provided were selective and unstandardized.  The US is much bigger and more expensive to cover than many small, highly populated countries. South Korea is the size of Minnesota but has 9 times the population. Essentially the same amount of network can be deployed and used by 9 times as many people. This makes the business case for fiber more cost effective.  However South Korea has limited economic growth to show for its fiber investment. A recent Korean government report complained of “jobless growth”.  The country still earns the bulk of its revenue from the industries from the pre-broadband days.

It is more realistic and correct to compare the US to the European Union, which has a comparable population and geographic areas.  Data from America’s National Broadband Map and the EU Digital Agenda Scoreboard show that  the US exceeds the EU on many important broadband measures, including the deployment of fiber to the home (FTTH), which is twice the rate of EU.  Considering where fiber networks are available in the EU, the overall adoption rate is just 2%.  The EU government itself, as part of its Digital Single Market initiative, has recognized that its approach to broadband has not worked and is now looking to the American model.

The assertion that Americans are “stuck” with cable as the only provider of broadband is false.  It is more correct to say that Europeans are “stuck” with DSL, as 74% of all EU broadband connections are delivered on copper networks. Indeed broadband and cable together account for 70% of America’s broadband connections, with the growing 30% comprising FTTH, wireless, and other  broadband solutions.  In fact, the US buys and lays more fiber than all of the EU combined.

The reality is that Europeans are “stuck” with a tortured regulatory approach to broadband, which disincentivizes investment in next generation networks. As data from Infonetics show, a decade ago the EU accounted for one-third of the world’s investment in broadband; that amount has plummeted to less than one-fifth today. Meanwhile American broadband providers invest at twice the rate of European and account for a quarter of the world’s outlay in communication networks. Americans are just 4% of the world’s population, but enjoy one quarter of its broadband investment.

The following chart illustrates the intermodal competition between different types of broadband networks (cable, fiber, DSL, mobile, satellite, wifi) in the US and EU.

US (%)

EU (%)

Availability of broadband with a download speed of 100 Mbps or higher

57*

30

Availability of cable broadband

88

42

Availability of LTE

94**

26

Availability of FTTH

25

12

Percent of population that subscribes to broadband by DSL

34

74

Percent of households that subscribe to broadband by cable

36***

17

 

The interview offered some cherry picked examples, particularly Stockholm as the FTTH utopia. The story behind this city is more complex and costly than presented.  Some $800 million has been invested in FTTH in Stockholm to date with an additional $38 million each year.  Subscribers purchase the fiber broadband with a combination of monthly access fees and increases to municipal fees assessed on homes and apartments. Acreo, a state-owned consulting company charged with assessing Sweden’s fiber project concludes that the FTTH project shows at best a ”weak but statistically significant correlation between fiber and employment” and that ”it is difficult to estimate the value of FTTH for end users in dollars and some of the effects may show up later.”

Next door Denmark took a different approach.  In 2005, 14 utility companies in Denmark invested $2 billion in FTTH.  With advanced cable and fiber networks, 70% of Denmark’s households and businesses has access to ultra-fast broadband, but less than 1 percent subscribe to the 100 mbps service.  The utility companies have just 250,000 broadband customers combined, and most customers subscribe to the tiers below 100 mbps because it satisfies their needs and budget. Indeed 80% of the broadband subscriptions in Denmark are below 30 mbps.  About 20 percent of homes and businesses subscribe to 30 mbps, but more than two-thirds subscribe to 10 mbps.

Meanwhile, LTE mobile networks have been rolled out, and already 7 percent (350,000) of Danes use 3G/4G as their primary broadband connection, surpassing FTTH customers by 100,000.  This is particularly important because in many sectors of the Danish economy, including banking, health, and government, users can only access services only digitally. Services are fully functional on mobile devices and their associated speeds.  The interview claims that wireless will never be a substitute for fiber, but millions of people around the world are proving that wrong every day.

The price comparisons provided between the US and selected European countries also leave out compulsory media license fees (to cover state broadcasting) and taxes that can add some $80 per month to the cost of every broadband subscription. When these real fees are added up, the real price of broadband is not so cheap in Sweden and other European countries.  Indeed, the US frequently comes out less expensive.

The US broadband approach has a number of advantages.  Private providers bear the risks, not taxpayers. Consumers dictate the broadband they want, not the government.  Also prices are scalable and transparent. The price reflects the real cost. Furthermore, as the OECD and the ITU have recognized, the entry level costs for broadband in the US are some of the lowest in the world. The ITU recommends that people pay no more than 5% of their income for broadband; most developed countries fall within 2-3% for the highest tier of broadband, including the US.  It is only fair to pay more more for better quality. If your needs are just email and web browsing, then basic broadband will do. But if you wants high definition Netflix, you should pay more.  There is no reason why your neighbor should subsidize your entertainment choices.

The interview asserted that government investment in FTTH is needed to increase competitiveness, but there was no evidence given.  It’s not just a broadband network that creates economic growth. Broadband is just one input in a complex economic equation.  To put things into perspective, consider that the US has transformed its economy through broadband in the last two decades.   Just the internet portion alone of America’s economy is larger than the entire GDP of Sweden.

The assertion that the US is #26 in broadband speed is simply wrong. This is an outdated statistic from 2009 used in Crawford’s book. The Akamai report references is released quarterly, so there should have been no reason not to include a more recent figure in time for publication in December 2012. Today the US ranks #8 in the world for the same measure. Clearly the US is not falling behind if its ranking on average measured speed steadily increased from #26 to #8. In any case, according to Akamai, many US cities and states have some of the fastest download speeds in the world and would rank in the top ten in the world.

There is no doubt that fiber is an important technology and the foundation of all modern broadband networks, but the economic question is to what extent should fiber be brought to every household, given the cost of deployment (many thousands of dollars per household), the low level of adoption (it is difficult to get a critical mass of a community to subscribe given diverse needs), and that other broadband technologies continue to improve speed and price.

The interview didn’t mention the many failed federal and municipal broadband projects.  Chattanooga is just one example of a federally funded fiber projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars with too few users  A number of municipal projects that have failed to meet expectations include Chicago, Burlington, VT; Monticello, MN; Oregon’s MINET, and Utah’s UTOPIA.

Before deploying costly FTTH networks, the feasibility to improve existing DSL and cable networks as well as to deploy wireless broadband markets should be considered. As case in point is Canada.  The OECD reports that both Canada and South Korea have essentially the same advertised speeds, 68.33 and 66.83 Mbps respectively.  Canada’s fixed broadband subscriptions are shared almost equally between DSL and cable, with very little FTTH.   This shows that fast speeds are possible on different kinds of networks.

The future demands a multitude of broadband technologies. There is no one technology that is right for everyone. Consumers should have the ability to choose based upon their needs and budget, not be saddled with yet more taxes from misguided politicians and policymakers.

Consider that mobile broadband is growing at four times the rate of fixed broadband according to the OECD, and there are some 300 million mobile broadband subscriptions in the US, three times as many fixed broadband subscriptions.  In Africa mobile broadband is growing at 50 times the rate of fixed broadband.  Many Americans have selected mobile as their only broadband connection and love its speed and flexibility. Vectoring on copper wires enables speeds of 100 mbps. Cable DOCSIS3 enables speeds of 300 mbps, and cable companies are deploying neighborhood wifi solutions.  With all the innovation and competition, it is mindless to create a new government monopoly.  We should let the golden age of broadband flourish.


Source for US and EU Broadband Comparisons: US data from National Broadband Map, “Access to Broadband Technology by Speed,” Broadband Statistics Report, July 2013, http://www.broadbandmap.gov/download/Technology%20by%20Speed.pdf and http://www.broadbandmap.gov/summarize/nationwide. EU data from European Commission, “Chapter 2: Broadband Markets,” Digital Agenda Scoreboard 2013 (working document, December 6, 2013), http://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/sites/digital-agenda/files/DAE%20SCOREBOARD%202013%20-%202-BROADBAND%20MARKETS%20_0.pdf.

*The National Cable Telecommunications Association suggests speeds of 100 Mbps are available to 85% of Americans.  See “America’s Internet Leadership,” 2013, www.ncta.com/positions/americas-internet-leadership.

**Verizon’s most recent report notes that it reaches 97 percent of America’s population with 4G/LTE networks. See Verizon, News Center: LTE Information Center, “Overview,” www.verizonwireless.com/news/LTE/Overview.html.

***This figure is based on 49,310,131 cable subscribers at the end of 2013, noted by Leichtman Research http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/031714release.html compared to 138,505,691 households noted by the National Broadband Map.

Some recent tech news provides insight into the trajectory of broadband and television markets. These stories also indicate a poor prognosis for a net neutrality. Political and ISP opposition to new rules aside (which is substantial), even net neutrality proponents point out that “neutrality” is difficult to define and even harder to implement. Now that the line between “Internet video” and “television” delivered via Internet Protocol (IP) is increasingly blurring, net neutrality goals are suffering from mission creep.

First, there was the announcement that Netflix, like many large content companies, was entering into a paid peering agreement with Comcast, prompting a complaint from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings who argued that ISPs have too much leverage in negotiating these interconnection deals.

Second, Comcast and Apple discussed a possible partnership whereby Comcast customers would receive prioritized access to Apple’s new video service. Apple’s TV offering would be a “managed service” exempt from net neutrality obligations.

Interconnection and managed services are generally not considered net neutrality issues. They are not “loopholes.” They were expressly exempted from the FCC’s 2010 (now-defunct) rules. However, net neutrality proponents are attempting to bring interconnection and managed services to the FCC’s attention as the FCC crafts new net neutrality rules. Net neutrality proponents have an uphill battle already, and the following trends won’t help. Continue reading →

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has released a new working paper by Daniel A. Lyons, professor at Boston College Law School, entitled “Innovations in Mobile Broadband Pricing.”

In 2010, the FCC passed net neutrality rules for mobile carriers and ISPs that included a “no blocking” provision (since struck down in FCC v. Verizon). The FCC prohibited mobile carriers from blocking Internet content and promised to scrutinize carriers’ non-standard pricing decisions. These broad regulations had a predictable chilling effect on firms trying new business models. For instance, Lyons describes how MetroPCS was hit with a net neutrality complaint because it allowed YouTube but not other video streaming sites on its budget LTE plan (something I’ve written on). Some critics also allege that AT&T’s Sponsored Data program is a net neutrality violation.

In his paper, Lyons explains that the FCC might still regulate mobile networks but advises against a one-size-fits-all net neutrality approach. Instead, he encourages regulatory humility in order to promote investment in mobile networks and devices and to allow new business models. For support, he points out that several developing and rich countries have permitted commercial arrangements between content companies and carriers that arguably violate principles of net neutrality. Lyons makes the persuasive argument that these “non-neutral” service bundles and pricing decisions on the whole, rather than harming consumers, expand online access and ease non-connected populations into the Internet Age. As Lyons says,

The wide range of successful wireless innovations and partnerships at the international level should prompt U.S. regulators to rethink their commitment to a rigid set of rules that limit flexibility in American broadband markets. This should be especially true in the wireless broadband space, where complex technical considerations, rapid change, and robust competition make for anything but a stable and predictable business environment.

Further,

In the rapidly changing world of information technology, it is sometimes easy to forget that experimental new pricing models can be just as innovative as new technological developments. By offering new and different pricing models, companies can provide better value to consumers or identify niche segments that are not well-served by dominant pricing strategies.

Despite the January 2014 court decision striking down the FCC’s net neutrality rules, it’s an issue that hasn’t died. Lyons’ research provides support for the position that a fixation on enforcing net neutrality, however defined, distracts policymakers from serious discussion of how to expand online access. Rules should be written with consumers and competition in mind. Wired ISPs get the lion’s share of scholars’ attention when discussing net neutrality. In an increasingly wireless world, Lyon’s paper provides important research to guide future US policies.