Economics

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.

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 →

As you know doubt have heard, Silk Road has been shut down by the FBI and its alleged operator, Ross Ulbricht, has been arrested. I've been getting a lot of questions about this and what it means for Bitcoin. Here are some initial thoughts.

The price of Bitcoin is dropping. What does that mean? It means that speculators are speculating. That said, here's how I'm going to read it: If the main value of Bitcoin is that it can be used to buy drugs on Silk Road (as some contend), then we should see the value drop to zero is short order. If Bitcoin has other value, we should see it weather this jolt. One year ago a Bitcoin traded for about $14. As I type this, it's hovering at about $118 $127.

How did they catch the guy? Good question. I don't know the answer, but that won't stop me from speculating. I will point out two things. First is this from the criminal complaint against Ross Ulbricht:

During the course of this investigation, the FBI has located a number of computer servers, both in the United States and in multiple foreign countries, associated with the operation of Silk Road. In particular, the FBI has located in a certain foreign country the server used to host Silk Road's website (the "Silk Road Web Server"). Pursuant to a mutual Legal Assistance Treaty request, an image of the Silk Road Web Server was made on or about July 23, 2013, and produced thereafter to the FBI.

OK. So how did the FBI "locate" the servers that hosted the Silk Road Tor hidden service? The FBI has recently admitted that they have exploited vulnerabilities in Tor to identify users. Could it be that they exploited some vulnerability in this case? I look forward to finding out.

That said, here is another possibility. Also according to the criminal complaint (emphasis added),

On or about July 10, 2013, [Customs and Border Patrol] intercepted a package from the mail inbound from Canada as part of a routine border search. The package was found to contain nine counterfeit identity documents. Each of the counterfeit identification documents was in a different name yet all contained a photograph of the same person.

That person was Ulbricht and the package was addressed to him. Maybe it was from this lead that the FBI was able to begin the process of identifying the servers, once they had a suspect. If so, and if this indeed was a "routine" search, then the authorities got completely lucky!

Finally, I'll point out that Bitcoin was in no way involved in the identification of the suspect. In fact, in the criminal complaint the FBI argues that because the blockchain (Bitcoin's public ledger) is pseudonymous, that it is not useful in tracing transactions. I don't think that's quite right, but that's how the FBI sees it in this case. So, in this case at least, the privacy Bitcoin affords was not compromised in any way.

UPDATE: As I think about this some more, it's clear that the FBI was able to identify Ross Ulbricht because he posted his Gmail address to the Bitcoin Talk forum using the same username that first mentioned Silk Road ever. So, what are the chances that the CPB search that turned up the package of fake IDs bound for Ulbricht was routine? If it was routine, it was routine in the sense that packages to people on a watchlist might be routinely searched. I'm still not clear how the FBI got from identifying a possible suspect to locating the server for the Silk Road Tor hidden service.

How do you seize Bitcoins? I'm surprised by how many times I've been asked this question. It's amazing what it is that people seize upon in a story. < cough > I don't know how the authorities have carried out the seizure, but it's not to difficult to conceive how it could be done. Basically they would have to get the private keys to the suspect's Bitcoin addresses. (Think of it essentially like getting the password to an account.) They could either get that with his cooperation or if he had stored it somewhere now accessible to the authorities. Once they have the private keys, they would be able to transfer the bitcoins and I imagine that they would transfer them to a Bitcoin address that only they control.

UPDATE: So I got ahold of the seizure order and indeed I was correct that this is how the government will try to go about seizing the bitcoins. From the court order:

The United States is further authorized to seize any and all Bitcoins contained in wallet files residing on Silk Road servers, including those servers enumerate in the caption of this Complaint, pending the outcome of this civil proceeding, by transffering the full account balance in each Silk Road wallet to a public Bitcoin address controlled by the United States.

But to be clear, to seize bitcoins you do need to get the "password" that controls them. You can't just go to an intermediary and order that an account be frozen as you can do with traditional financial intermediaries like banks or PayPal.

I'll be tweeting and posting more as I learn more about what happened, but those are my initial thoughts. Shoot me any questions or thoughts you have. I'm at @jerrybrito on Twitter. And by the way, you can follow all the coverage of the Silk Road arrest and seizure on my site Mostly Bitcoin.

Sherwin Siy, Vice President of Legal Affairs at Public Knowledge, discusses emerging issues in digital copyright policy. He addresses the Department of Commerce’s recent green paper on digital copyright, including the need to reform copyright laws in light of new technologies. This podcast also covers the DMCA, online streaming, piracy, cell phone unlocking, fair use recognition, digital ownership, and what we’ve learned about copyright policy from the SOPA debate.

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over-the-topCBS and Time Warner Cable have been embroiled in a heated contractual battle over the past week that has resulted in viewers in some major markets losing access to CBS programming. When disputes like these go nuclear and signal blackouts occur, it is inevitable that some folks will call for policy interventions since nobody likes it when the content they love goes dark.

While some policy responses are warranted in this matter, policymakers should proceed with caution. Heated contractual negotiations are a normal part of any capitalist marketplace. We shouldn’t expect lawmakers to intervene to speed up negotiations or set content prices because that would disrupt the normal allocation of programming by placing a regulatory thumb too heavily on one side of the scale. This is why I am somewhat sympathetic to CBS in this fight. In an age when content creators struggle to protect their copyrighted content and get compensation for it, the last thing we need is government intervention that undermines the few distribution schemes that actually work well.

On the other hand, Time Warner Cable deserves sympathy here, too, since CBS currently enjoys some preexisting regulatory benefits. As I noted in this 2012 Forbes oped, “Toward a True Free Market in Television Programming,” many layers of red tape still encumber America’s video marketplace and prevent a truly free market in video programming from developing. The battle here revolves around the “retransmission consent” rules that were put in place as part of the Cable Act of 1992 and govern how video distributors carry signals from TV broadcasters, which includes CBS.

But those “retrans” rules are not the only part of the regulatory mess here. Continue reading →

This is the second of a series of three blog posts about broadband in America in response to Susan Crawford’s book Captive Audience and her recent blog post responding to positive assessments of America’s broadband marketplace in the New York Times. Read the first post here. This post addresses Crawford’s claim that every American needs fiber, regardless of the cost and that government should manage the rollout.

It is important to point out that fiber is extant in almost all broadband technologies and has been for years.  Not only are backbones built with fiber, but there is fiber to the mobile base station and fiber in cable and DSL networks.  In fact American carriers are already some of world’s biggest buyers of fiber.  They made the largest heretofore purchase in 2011, some 18 million miles of fiber optic cable.  In the last few years American firms bought more fiber optic cable than all of Europe combined.[1]

The debate is about a broadband technology called fiber to the home (FTTH).  The question is whether and how to pay for fiber from the existing infrastructure—from  the curb into the house itself as it were.  Typically the it’s the last part of the journey that can be expensive given the need to secure rights of way, eminent domain, labor cost, trenching, indoor wiring and repair costs.  Subscribers should have a say in whether the cost and disruption are warranted by the price and performance.  There is also a question of whether the technology is so essential and proven that the government should pay for it outright, or mandate that carriers provide it.

Fiber in the corporate setting is a different discussion. Many companies use private, fiber networks.  The fact of that a company or large office building offers a concentration of many subscribers paying higher fees has helped fiber grow in as the enterprise broadband choice for many companies.  Households don’t have the same economics.

There is no doubt that FTTH is a cool technology, but the love of a particular technology should not blind one to look at the economics.  After some brief background, this blog post will investigate fiber from three perspectives (1) the bandwidth requirements of web applications (2) cost of deployment and (3) substitutes and alternatives. Finally it discusses the notion of fiber as future proof.

Broadband Subscriptions in the OCED

By way of background, the OECD Broadband Portal[2] report from December 2012 notes that the US has 90 million fixed  (wired) connections, more than a quarter of the total (327 million) for 34 nations in the study.  On the mobile side, Americans have three times as many mobile broadband subscriptions as fixed.  The 280 million mobile broadband subscriptions held by Americans account for 35% of the total 780 million mobile subscriptions in the OECD. These are smartphones and devices which Americans use to the connect to the internet.

Continue reading →

I am American earning an industrial PhD in internet economics in Denmark, one of the countries that law professor Susan Crawford praises in her book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. The crise du jour in America today is broadband, and Susan Crawford is echoed by journalists David Carr, John Judis and Eduardo Porter and publications such as the New York Times, New Republic, Wired, Bloomberg News, and Huffington Post. One can also read David Cay Johnston’s The Fine Print:  How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind.

It has become fashionable to write that American broadband internet is slow and expensive and that cable and telecom companies are holding back the future—even though the data shows otherwise.  We can count on the ”America is falling behind” genre of business literature to keep us in a state of alert while it ensures a steady stream of book sales and traffic to news websites.

After six months of pro-Crawford coverage, the New York Times finally published two op-eds[1] which offered a counter view to the “America is falling behind in broadband” mantra. Crawford complained about this in Salon.com and posted a 23 page blog on the Roosevelt Institute website to present “the facts”, but she didn’t mention that the New York Times printed two of her op-eds and featured her in two interviews for promotion of her book.   I read Crawford’s book closely as well as her long blog post, including the the references she provides.  I address Crawford’s charges as questions in four blogs.

  1. Do Europeans and East Asians have better and cheaper broadband than Americans?
  2. Is fiber to the home the network of the future (FTTH), or are there competing technologies?
  3. Is there really a cable/mobile duopoly in broadband?
  4.  What is the #1 reason why older Americans use the internet?

For additional critique of the America is falling behind broadband myth, see my 10 Myths and Realities of Broadband.   See also the response of one of the op-ed authors whom Crawford criticizes.

 

How the broadband myth got started

Crawford’s book quotes a statistic from Akamai in 2009. That year was the nadir of the average measured connection speed for the US, placing it at #22 and falling. Certainly presenting the number at its worse point strengthens Crawford’s case for slow speeds. However, Akamai’s State of the Internet Report is released quarterly, so there should have been no problem for Crawford to include a more recent figure in time for her book’s publication in December 2012. Presently the US ranks #9 for the same measure. Clearly the US is not falling behind if its ranking on average measured speed steadily increased from 22nd to 9th.

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Jerry Ellig, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, discusses the the FCC’s lifeline assistance benefit funded through the Universal Service Fund (USF). The program, created in 1997, subsidizes phone services for low-income households. The USF is not funded through the federal budget, rather via a fee from monthly phone bills — reaching an all-time high of 17% of telecomm companies’ revenues last year. Ellig discusses the similarities between the USF fee and a tax, how the fee fluctuates, how subsidies to the telecomm industry have boomed in recent years, and how to curb the waste, fraud and abuse that comes as a result of the lifeline assistance benefit.

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Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center discusses his recent working paper with coauthor Brent Skorup, A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector. Thierer takes a look at how cronyism has manifested itself in technology and media markets — whether it be in the form of regulatory favoritism or tax privileges. Which tech companies are the worst offenders? What are the consequences for consumers? And, how does cronyism affect entrepreneurship over the long term?

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