Wireless & Spectrum Policy

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 →

There is bipartisan agreement that the 1996 Telecom Act was antiquated only shortly after President Clinton’s signature had dried on the legislation. There is also consensus that spectrum policy, still largely grounded in the 1934 communications statute, absolutely distorts today’s wireless markets. And there is frequent criticism from thought leaders, right and left, that the FCC has been, for decades, too accommodating to the firms it regulates and too beholden to the status quo (economist Thomas Hazlett quips the agency’s initials stand for “Forever Captured by Corporations”).

For these reasons, members of Congress every few years announce their intention to reform the 1934 and 1996 communications laws and modernize the FCC. Yesterday, some powerful House members unexpectedly reignited hopes that Congress would overhaul our telecom, broadband, and video laws. In a Google Hangout (!), Reps. Fred Upton and Greg Walden said they wanted to take on the ambitious task of passing a new law in 2015.

Much depends on next year’s elections and the composition of Congress, but hopefully the announcement spurs a major re-write that eliminates regulatory distortions in communications, much as airlines and transportation were deregulated in the 1970s–an effort led by reformist Democrats.

About ten years ago, more than fifty scholars and technologists crafted reports which constituted the Digital Age Communications Act (or DACA) that is largely deregulatory (a majority of the group had served in Democratic administrations, interestingly enough). In 2005, then-Sen. Jim DeMint proposed a bill similar to the working group’s proposals. The working group’s recommendations aged very well in eight years–which you can’t say about the 1996 Act–and represents a great starting point for future legislation.

As Adam has said the DACA reports have five primary reform objectives:

- Replacing the amorphous “public interest” standard with a consumer welfare standard, which is more well-established in field of antitrust law

- Eliminate regulatory silos and level the playing field through deregulation

- Comprehensively reform spectrum not just through more auctioning but through clear property rights

- Reform universal service by either voucherizing it or devolving it to the States and let them run their own telecom welfare programs; and

- Significantly reforming & downsizing the scope of the FCC’s power of the modern information economy

DACA redefines the FCC as a specialized competition agency for the communications sector. The FCC largely sees itself as a competition agency today but the current statutes don’t represent that gradual change in purpose. The FCC is slow, arbitrary, Balkanizes industries artificially, and attempts to regulate in areas it isn’t equipped to regulate–the agency has a notoriously bad record in federal courts. These characteristics create a poor environment for substantial investments in technology and communications infrastructure. The DACA proposals aren’t perfect but it is a resilient framework that minimizes the effect of special interests in communications and encourages investments that improve consumers’ lives.

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.

I recently prepared a paper for the Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition and Consumer Electronics Association that provides empirical data regarding the costs of restricting the eligibility of large firms to participate in FCC spectrum auctions (available in PDF here). The paper demonstrates that there is no significant likelihood that an open incentive auction would substantially harm the competitive positions of Sprint and T-Mobile. It also demonstrates that Sprint and T-Mobile have incentives to constrain the ability of Verizon and AT&T to expand their network capacity, and that Sprint and T-Mobile could consider FCC restraints on their primary rivals a “win” even if Sprint and T-Mobile don’t place a single bid in the incentive auction. (Winning regulatory battles is a lot cheaper than winning spectrum in a competitive auction.)

Some might think it is implausible that Sprint or T-Mobile would decide to forgo participation in the incentive auction. However, the recent announcement by Sprint that it won’t compete in the H block auction highlights the difficulty in predicting accurately whether any particular company will participate in a particular auction. Sprint’s announcement stunned market analysts, who had considered Sprint a key contender for the H block spectrum. Until recently, Sprint had given every indication it was keen to acquire this spectrum, which is located directly adjacent to the nationwide G block that Sprint already owns. It participated heavily in the FCC’s service rules proceeding for the H block (WT Docket No. 12-357) and even conducted its own testing to assist the FCC in assessing the technical issues. But, by the time the H Block auction was actually announced, Sprint decided its business would be better served by focusing its efforts on the deployment of its trove of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band. Continue reading →