Wireless & Spectrum Policy

Congressional debates about STELA reauthorization have resurrected the notion that TV stations “must provide a free service” because they “are using public spectrum.” This notion, which is rooted in 1930s government policy, has long been used to justify the imposition of unique “public interest” regulations on TV stations. But outdated policy decisions don’t dictate future rights in perpetuity, and policymakers abandoned the “public spectrum” rationale long ago. 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.

The FCC is set to vote later this month on rules for the incentive auction of spectrum licenses in the broadcast television band. These licenses would ordinarily be won by the highest bidders, but not in this auction. The FCC plans to ensure that Sprint and T-Mobile win licenses in the incentive auction even if they aren’t willing to pay the highest price, because it believes that Sprint and T-Mobile will expand their networks to cover rural areas if it sells them licenses at a substantial discount.

This theory is fundamentally flawed. Sprint and T-Mobile won’t substantially expand their footprints into rural areas even if the FCC were to give them spectrum licenses for free. There simply isn’t enough additional revenue potential in rural areas to justify covering them with four or more networks no matter what spectrum is used or how much it costs. It is far more likely that Sprint and T-Mobile will focus their efforts on more profitable urban areas while continuing to rely on FCC roaming rights to use networks built by other carriers in rural areas. 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.

Sprint’s Chairman, Masayoshi Son, is coming to Washington to explain how wireless competition in the US would be improved if only there were less of it.

After buying Sprint last year for $21.6 billion, he has floated plans to buy T-Mobile. When antitrust officials voiced their concerns about the proposed plan’s potential impact on wireless competition, Son decided to respond with an unusual strategy that goes something like this: The US wireless market isn’t competitive enough, so policymakers need to approve the merger of the third and fourth largest wireless companies in order to improve competition, because going from four nationwide wireless companies to three will make things even more competitive. Got it? Me neither. Continue reading →

In December, Reps. Upton and Walden announced that they intend to update the Communications Act, which saw its last major revision in 1996. Today marks the deadline to submit initial comments regarding updating the Act. Below is my submission, which includes reference to a Mercatus paper by Raymond Gifford analyzing the Digital Age Communications (DACA) reports. These bipartisan reports would largely replace and reform our deficient communications laws.

Dear Chairman Upton,

As you and Rep. Walden recently acknowledged, U.S. communications law needs updating to remove accumulated regulatory excess and to strengthen market forces. When the 1934 Communications Act was passed, there was a national monopoly telephone provider and Congress’s understanding of radio spectrum physics was rudimentary. Chief among the Communication Act’s many flaws was giving the Federal Communication Commission authority to regulate wired and wireless communications according to “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” an amorphous standard that has been frequently abused. If delegating this expansive grant of discretion to the FCC was ever sensible, it clearly no longer is. Today, eight decades later, with competition between video, telephone, and Internet providers taking place over wired and wireless networks, the public interest standard simply invites costly rent-seeking and stifles technologies and business opportunities.

Like an old cottage receiving several massive additions spanning decades by different clumsy architects, communications law is a disorganized and dilapidated structure that should be razed and reconstituted. As new technologies emerged since the 1930s—broadcast television, cable, satellite, mobile phones, the Internet—and upended existing regulated businesses, the FCC and Congress layered on new rules attempting to mitigate the distortions.

Congressional attempts at reforming communications laws have appeared regularly ever since the 1996 amendments. During the last such attempt, in 2011, the Mercatus Center released a study discussing and summarizing a model for communications law reform known as the Digital Age Communications Act (DACA). That model legislation—consisting of five reports released in 2005 and 2006—came from the bipartisan DACA Working Group. The reports addressed five areas:

1. Regulatory framework;
2. Universal service;
3. Spectrum reform;
4. Federal-state jurisdiction; and
5. Institutional reform.

The DACA reports represent a flexible, market-oriented agenda from dozens of experts that, if implemented, would spur innovation, encourage competition, and benefit consumers. The regulatory framework report is the centerpiece recommendation and adopts a proposal largely based on the Federal Trade Commission Act, which provides a reformed FCC with nearly a century of common law for guidance. Significantly, the reports replace the FCC’s misused “public interest” standard with the general “unfair competition standard” from the FTC Act.

Despite the passage of time, those reports have held up remarkably well. The 2011 Mercatus paper describing the DACA reports is attached for submission in the record. The scholars at Mercatus are happy to discuss this paper and the cited materials below—including the DACA reports—further with Energy & Commerce Committee staff as they draft white papers and reform proposals.

Thank you for initiating discussion about updating the Communications Act. Reform can give America’s innovative technology and telecommunications sector a predictable and technology-neutral legal framework. When Congress replaces command-and-control rules with market forces, consumers will be the primary beneficiaries.

Sincerely,

Brent Skorup
Research Fellow, Technology Policy Program
Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Resources

Digital Age Communications Act (DACA) Working Groups Reports.

JEFFREY A. EISENACH ET AL., THE TELECOM REVOLUTION: AN AMERICAN OPPORTUNITY (1995).

Raymond L. Gifford, The Continuing Case for Serious Communications Law Reform, Mercatus Center Working Paper No. 11-44 (2011).

PETER HUBER, LAW AND DISORDER IN CYBERSPACE: ABOLISH THE FCC AND LET COMMON LAW RULE THE TELECOSM (1997).

It’s encouraging to see more congressional movement in repurposing federal spectrum for commercial use. This week, a bill rewarding federal agencies for ending or moving their wireless operations passed a House committee. The bipartisan Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2013 allows agencies to benefit when they voluntarily give up their spectrum for FCC auction.

In the past, an agency could receive a portion of auction proceeds but only to compensate the agency for relocating its systems. Agencies complained, sensibly, that this arrangement does little to encourage them to give up spectrum. Federal agencies had to go through the hassle of modifying their wireless equipment and sharing spectrum with another agency but were left no better off than before. In some cases, the complications with sharing spectrum made them worse off, so there was risk of downside and no upside.

This House bill provides that an agency can keep 1% of auction proceeds in addition to relocation costs. With this additional carrot, the hope is, agencies will be more willing to modify their equipment and make room for mobile broadband carriers.

The bill is a good start but I think it’s a little too restrictive. A one percent claim on auction receipts seems insufficient to induce dramatically improved agency participation. Given how poorly federal agencies use spectrum, Congress should be doing much more to force agencies to justify their spectrum usage. Additionally, how agencies can use that 1% benefit seems too limited. The bill allows the funds to be used 1) to offset sequestration cuts, and 2) to compensate other agencies if they agree to share spectrum. Some journalists are reporting that agencies can use the funds to expand existing programs but I don’t see that language in the proposed bill. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, though, to have fewer restrictions on the payments since it would likely increase agency participation.

Further Reading:

See my Mercatus paper on the subject of repurposing federal spectrum.

Sens. Lamar Alexander and Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill that would ban cellphone calls on planes today, just before the FCC votes on the issue. Alexander, a small government conservative, had this to say in a statement:

Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense. This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts.

As I pointed out in Reason last week, the fear that if airlines are given the option of allowing cellphones in-flight then we’ll have millions of “yapping” passengers is contrary to all evidence. First of all, not all airlines will allow in-flight phone use, giving folks who fear “yapping” a choice.

If [demand for phone-free flights] is there, as it certainly seems to be, airlines will respond with private rules and bans on cellphone use without government’s help. And private rules have the advantage of being much more varied and flexible than the difficult-to-change, one-size-fits-all rules we can get from government. We can see this at work in Europe and Asia, which already allow cellphone use in-flight. According to the New York Times, “Virgin Atlantic allows unlimited data connections, but it lets only six people talk on a cellphone at once. Some Lufthansa flights allow data connections through a cellphone, but no phone calls.”

By introducing this legislation, Alexander is essentially saying that he doesn’t trust markets to meet consumer demand, and that a government edict is the better course. More to the point:

Even on flights that do allow cell phone use, it won’t be “chaos” as Rep. DeFazio predicts. Humans have a pretty good history of eliciting good behavior from each other through the development of norms without the need for codified rules–public or private. According to the FAA, civil authorities in countries were in-flight cellphone use is permitted reported no “cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations.”

Having the government tell airlines what services they can and can’t offer their customers is not “commons sense” as Alexander puts it; it’s big-government paternalism. Perhaps I have a higher opinion of my fellow Americans, including travelers from Tennessee, but I really doubt that if an airline allows cellphone use, then we will necessarily see endless mindless “yapping.” Americans would probably behave like the Europeans and Asians who already have this choice, being judicious about using their phone and courteous when they do.

Call it what you want: a bailout, a thumb on the scales, bidder restrictions–the FCC might conspicuously intervene in the 2015 incentive auctions at the behest of smaller carriers and public interest advocates.

Chairman Wheeler’s recent comments indicate the FCC may devise a way to prevent the largest two carriers–AT&T and Verizon–from purchasing “too much” of the television broadcasters’ spectrum at auction. AT&T likely sees the writing on the wall and argues that if there are auction limits, the restrictions should apply only to the auction, rather than more extreme restrictions that would penalize AT&T and Verizon, the largest carriers, for previously-acquired spectrum. As The Switch’s Brian Fung put it,

the small carriers favor what are called “asymmetric” spectrum caps that affect various carriers differently, while opponents prefer “symmetric” caps that don’t account for existing market positions.

While I wish AT&T put up more of a fight to auction interventions, they (and staff at the FCC) are handicapped in pursuing an unrestricted auction. The blame lies mostly with Congress who gave the FCC vague (thus ripe for abuse) and conflicting mandates spanning decades. The 1993 law authorizing auctions, for instance, requires the FCC to “avoid[] excessive concentration of licenses” and to “disseminat[e] licenses among a wide variety of applicants” among other regulatory carve-outs for smaller competitors. These latter requirements, if implemented as rigorously as smaller carriers would like, directly undermine the purpose of the 2012 American Taxpayer Relief Act that requires the upcoming spectrum auctions raise $7 billion for a public safety broadband network and $20 billion for deficit reduction.

By asymmetrically penalizing AT&T and Verizon, the FCC increases the probability the auction fails to raise the tens of billions of dollars needed (see Fred Campbell’s recent paper). I haven’t heard a policymaker speak about the incentive auction without remarking how extraordinarily complex it is. That complexity–as was made clear in this week’s Senate hearing on the subject–means no one knows how much spectrum will be auctioned off or how much money will be raised. I was doubtful the FCC would secure the called-for 120 MHz for auction in the first place, but the Senate hearing convinced me that they might not get even 60 MHz. If the FCC meddles too much and the broadcasters aren’t assured they’ll get top dollar for their spectrum, the broadcasters might not show up to sell.

For many reasons, the FCC should ignore the pressures to restrict the large carriers in bidding. Smaller carriers argue the large carriers will outbid them only to preclude competition and hoard the spectrum. Every major carrier is spending billions to expand its footprint and capacity rapidly so the hoarding argument is hard to accept (not to mention, carriers face FCC build out requirements). The hoarding argument also confounds me because AT&T and Verizon are at the forefront arguing for more spectrum auctions, particularly spectrum from federal agencies. Would they want the market flooded with new spectrum only so they could spend billions to hoard it?

Asymmetric auction restrictions also resemble a bailout for smaller carriers. T-Mobile and Sprint–who most actively lobby for auction restrictions–are not mom-and-pop establishments. Each is a sophisticated, powerful corporation with access to capital markets and backed by larger international telecoms–Germany’s Deutsche Telekom for T-Mobile and Japan’s SoftBank for Sprint. DT and SoftBank have both pledged to spend billions in the next few years to improve their American carrier’s competitive position. Such carriers do not need an FCC handout.

The bailout resemblance is more apparent when you realize Sprint has been hamstrung for nearly a decade with damaging business decisions. Three come immediately to mind: 1) the dreadful merger with Nextel in 2005; 2) the ill-fated bet in 2008 to forgo LTE rollout in favor of WiMax, a competing 4G standard; and 3) the loss of over one million customers when it discontinued its push-to-talk iDEN service for network upgrades. The losses from the Nextel merger alone approach $30 billion.

To be clear, I don’t second-guess Sprint’s decisions. They did what innovative firms are supposed to do in attempting big, risky investments. However, it should not be the job of the FCC to favor some firms through spectrum auctions because some carriers’ business decisions did not pan out. That is not a competitive wireless auction–that is an FCC-orchestrated bailout. Granted, the FCC has been handed conflicting mandates. The Commission has ample discretion, however, to conduct a competitive auction that both complies with the law and improves chances of reaching the ambitious revenue goals. Intense meddling with auction results could prove disastrous.

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

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