Telecom & Cable Regulation

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.

Even though few things are getting passed this Congress, the pressure is on to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) before it expires at the end of this year. Unsurprisingly, many have hoped this “must pass bill” will be the vehicle for broader reform of video. Getting video law right is important for our content rich world, but the discussion needs to expand much further than STELA. Continue reading →

Telephone companies have already begun transitioning their networks to Internet Protocol. This could save billions while improving service for consumers and promoting faster broadband, but has raised a host of policy and legal questions. How can we ensure the switch is as smooth and successful as possible? What legal authority do the FCC and other agencies have over the IP Transition and how should they use it?

Join TechFreedom on Monday, May 19, at its Capitol Hill office for a lunch event to discuss this and more with top experts from the field. Two short technical presentations will set the stage for a panel of legal and policy experts, including:

  • Jodie Griffin, Senior Staff Attorney, Public Knowledge
  • Hank Hultquist, VP of Federal Regulatory, AT&T
  • Berin Szoka, President, TechFreedom
  • Christopher Yoo, Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law
  • David Young, VP of Federal Regulatory Affairs, Verizon

The panel will be livestreamed (available here). Join the conversation on Twitter with the #IPTransition hashtag.

When:
Monday, May 19, 2014
11:30am – 12:00pm — Lunch and registration
12:00pm – 12:20pm — Technical presentations by AT&T and Verizon
12:20pm – 2:00 pm — Panel on legal and policy issues, audience Q&A

Where:
United Methodist Building, Rooms 1 & 2
100 Maryland Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002

RSVP today!

Questions?
Email mail@techfreedom.org.

There seems to be increasing chatter among net neutrality activists lately on the subject of reclassifying ISPs as Title II services, subject to common carriage regulation. Although the intent in pushing reclassification is to make the Internet more open and free, in reality such a move could backfire badly. Activists don’t seem to have considered the effect of reclassification on international Internet politics, where it would likely give enemies of Internet openness everything they have always wanted.

At the WCIT in 2012, one of the major issues up for debate was whether the revised International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) would apply to Operating Agencies (OAs) or to Recognized Operating Agencies (ROAs). OA is a very broad term that covers private network operators, leased line networks, and even ham radio operators. Since “OA” would have included IP service providers, the US and other more liberal countries were very much opposed to the application of the ITRs to OAs. ROAs, on the other hand, are OAs that operate “public correspondence or broadcasting service.” That first term, “public correspondence,” is a term of art that means basically common carriage. The US government was OK with the use of ROA in the treaty because it would have essentially cabined the regulations to international telephone service, leaving the Internet free from UN interference. What actually happened was that there was a failed compromise in which ITU Member States created a new term, Authorized Operating Agency, that was arguably somewhere in the middle—the definition included the word “public” but not “public correspondence”—and the US and other countries refused to sign the treaty out of concern that it was still too broad.

If the US reclassified ISPs as Title II services, that would arguably make them ROAs for purposes at the ITU (arguably because it depends on how you read the definition of ROA and Article 6 of the ITU Constitution). This potentially opens ISPs up to regulation under the ITRs. This might not be so bad if the US were the only country in the world—after all, the US did not sign the 2012 ITRs, and it does not use the ITU’s accounting rate provisions to govern international telecom payments.

But what happens when other countries start copying the US, imposing common carriage requirements, and classifying their ISPs as ROAs? Then the story gets much worse. Countries that are signatories to the 2012 ITRs would have ITU mandates on security and spam imposed on their networks, which is to say that the UN would start essentially regulating content on the Internet. This is what Russia, Saudia Arabia, and China have always wanted. Furthermore (and perhaps more frighteningly), classification as ROAs would allow foreign ISPs to forgo commercial peering arrangements in favor of the ITU’s accounting rate system. This is what a number of African governments have always wanted. Ethiopia, for example, considered a bill (I’m not 100 percent sure it ever passed) that would send its own citizens to jail for 15 years for using VOIP, because this decreases Ethiopian international telecom revenues. Having the option of using the ITU accounting rate system would make it easier to extract revenues from international Internet use.

Whatever you think of, e.g., Comcast and Cogent’s peering dispute, applying ITU regulation to ISPs would be significantly worse in terms of keeping the Internet open. By reclassifying US ISPs as common carriers, we would open the door to exactly that. The US government has never objected to ITU regulation of ROAs, so if we ever create a norm under which ISPs are arguably ROAs, we would be essentially undoing all of the progress that we made at the WCIT in standing up for a distinction between old-school telecom and the Internet. I imagine that some net neutrality advocates will find this unfair—after all, their goal is openness, not ITU control over IP service. But this is the reality of international politics: the US would have a very hard time at the ITU arguing that regulating for neutrality and common carriage is OK, but regulating for security, content, and payment is not.

If the goal is to keep the Internet open, we must look somewhere besides Title II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allowing broadband providers to impose tolls on Internet companies represents a “grave” threat to the Internet, or so wrote several Internet giants and their allies in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission this past week.

The reality is that broadband networks are very expensive to build and maintain.  Broadband companies have invested approximately $250 billion in U.S. wired and wireless broadband networks—and have doubled average delivered broadband speeds—just since President Obama took office in early 2009.  Nevertheless, some critics claim that American broadband is still too slow and expensive.

The current broadband pricing model is designed to recover the entire cost of maintaining and improving the network from consumers.  Internet companies get free access to broadband subscribers.

Although the broadband companies are not poised to experiment with different pricing models at this time, the Internet giants and their allies are mobilizing against the hypothetical possibility that they might in the future.  But this is not the gravest threat to the Internet.   Continue reading →

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.

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.