Miscellaneous

Ten or fifteen years ago, when I sat around and thought about what I would do with my life, I never considered directing the technology policy program at Mercatus. It’s not exactly a career track you can get on — not like being a lawyer, a doctor, a professor.

One of the things I loved about Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One is that it is self-consciously anti-track. The book is a distillation of Thiel’s 2012 Stanford course on startups. In the preface, he writes,

“My primary goal in teaching the class was to help my students see beyond the tracks laid down by academic specialties to the broader future that is theirs to create.”

I think he is right. The modern economy provides unprecedented opportunity for people with talent and grit and passion to do unique and interesting things with their lives, not just follow an expected path. Continue reading →

Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission unveiled his proposal this week for regulating broadband Internet access under a 1934 law. Since there are three Democrats and two Republicans on the FCC, Wheeler’s proposal is likely to pass on a party-line vote and is almost certain to be appealed.

Free market advocates have pointed out that FCC regulation is not only unnecessary for continued Internet openness, but it could lead to years of disruptive litigation and jeopardize investment and innovation in the network.

Writing in WIRED magazine, Wheeler argues that the Internet wouldn’t even exist if the FCC hadn’t mandated open access for telephone network equipment in the 1960s, and that his mid-1980s startup either failed or was doomed because the phone network was open whereas the cable networks (on which his startup depended) were closed. He also predicts that regulation can be accomplished while encouraging investment in broadband networks, because there will be “no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling.”  There are a number of problems with Chairman Wheeler’s analysis. First, let’s examine the historical assumptions that underlie the Wheeler proposal.

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My employer, the Mercatus Center, provides ridiculously generous funding (up to $40,000/year) for graduate students. There are several opportunities depending on your goals, but I encourage people interested in technology policy to particularly consider the MA Fellowship, as that can come with an opportunity to work with the tech policy team here at Mercatus. Mind the deadlines!

The PhD Fellowship is a three-year, competitive, full-time fellowship program for students who are pursuing a doctoral degree in economics at George Mason University. Our PhD Fellows take courses in market process economics, public choice, and institutional analysis and work on projects that use these lenses to understand global prosperity and the dynamics of social change. Successful PhD Fellows have secured tenure track positions at colleges and universities throughout the US and Europe.

It includes full tuition support, a stipend, and experience as a research assistant working closely with Mercatus-affiliated Mason faculty. It is a total award of up to $120,000 over three years. Acceptance into the fellowship program is dependent on acceptance into the PhD program in economics at George Mason University. The deadline for applications is February 1, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

How Much Tax?

by on October 30, 2014 · 0 comments

As I and others have recently noted, if the Federal Communications Commission reclassifies broadband Internet access as a “telecommunications” service, broadband would automatically become subject to the federal Universal Service tax—currently 16.1%, or more than twice the highest state sales tax (California–7.5%), according to the Tax Foundation.

Erik Telford, writing in The Detroit News, has reached a similar conclusion.

U.S. wireline broadband revenue rose to $43 billion in 2012 from $41 billion in 2011, according to one estimate. “Total U.S. mobile data revenue hit $90 billion in 2013 and is expected to rise above $100 billion this year,” according to another estimate.  Assuming that the wireline and wireless broadband industries as a whole earn approximately $150 billion this year, the current 16.1% Universal Service Contribution Factor would generate over $24 billion in new revenue for government programs administered by the FCC if broadband were defined as a telecommunications service.

The Census Bureau reports that there were approximately 90 million households with Internet use at home in 2012. Wireline broadband providers would have to collect approximately $89 from each one of those households in order to satisfy a 16.1% tax liability on earnings of $50 billion. There were over 117 million smartphone users over the age of 15 in 2011, according to the Census Bureau. Smartphones would account for the bulk of mobile data revenue. Mobile broadband providers would have to collect approximately $137 from each of those smartphone users to shoulder a tax liability of 16.1% on earnings of $100 billion. Continue reading →

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

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

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

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

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

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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 →

Adam Thierer, senior research fellow with the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, discusses his latest book Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom. Thierer discusses which types of policies promote technological discoveries as well as those that stifle the freedom to innovate. He also takes a look at new technologies — such as driverless cars, drones, big data, smartphone apps, and Google Glass — and how the American public will adapt to them.

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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.

Adam and I recently published a Mercatus research paper titled Video Marketplace Regulation: A Primer on the History of Television Regulation And Current Legislative Proposals, now available on SSRN. I presented the paper at a Silicon Flatirons academic conference last week.

We wrote the paper for a policy audience and students who want succinct information and history about the complex world of television regulation. Television programming is delivered to consumers in several ways, including via cable, satellite, broadcast, IPTV (like Verizon FiOS), and, increasingly, over-the-top broadband services (like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video). Despite their obvious similarities–transmitting movies and shows to a screen–each distribution platform is regulated differently.

The television industry is in the news frequently because of problems exacerbated by the disparate regulatory treatment. The Time Warner Cable-CBS dispute last fall (and TWC’s ensuing loss of customers), the Aereo lawsuit, and the Comcast-TWC proposed merger were each caused at least indirectly by some of the ill-conceived and antiquated TV regulations we describe. Further, TV regulation is a “thicket of regulations,” as the Copyright Office has said, which benefits industry insiders at the expense of most everyone else.

We contend that overregulation of television resulted primarily because past FCCs, and Congress to a lesser extent, wanted to promote several social objectives through a nationwide system of local broadcasters:

1) Localism
2) Universal Service
3) Free (that is, ad-based) television; and
4) Competition

These objectives can’t be accomplished simultaneously without substantial regulatory mandates. Further, these social goals may even contradict each other in some respects.

For decades, public policies constrained TV competitors to accomplish those goals. We recommend instead a reliance on markets and consumer choice through comprehensive reform of television laws, including repeal of compulsory copyright laws, must-carry, retransmission consent, and media concentration rules.

At the very least, our historical review of TV regulations provides an illustrative case study of how regulations accumulate haphazardly over time, demand additional “correction,” and damage dynamic industries. Congress and the FCC focused on attaining particular competitive outcomes through industrial policy, unfortunately. Our paper provides support for market-based competition and regulations that put consumer choice at the forefront.