Wireless & Spectrum Policy

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 →

Brent SkorupAdam, Eli, and I are very happy to announce that Brent Skorup joined us this week as a research fellow at Mercatus. He will focus on telecommunications, radio spectrum, and media issues, which will help round out our existing portfolio of work on privacy, cybersecurity, intellectual property, Internet governance, and innovation policy.

Brent has written Mercatus research papers on federal spectrum policy, cronyism in the technology sector, and antitrust standards in the tech economy. Brent also has a forthcoming paper co-authored with Thomas Hazlett on the lessons of LightSquared. His work has appeared in several law reviews, The Hill, US News & World Report, The Washington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek, and San Francisco Chronicle. He also blogs here at Tech Liberation.

With the ongoing debate at the federal level over how to efficiently use radio spectrum, Brent has proposed establishing a congressional commission to determine spectrum allocation for federal users and put up newly available spectrum for auction. He has also called for having an agency similar to the General Services Administration take ownership of federal spectrum and “rent” it to agencies at a fair market value.

Brent previously served as director of operations and research for the Information Economy Project at the George Mason University School of Law, applying law and economics to telecommunications policy. He has a BA in economics from Wheaton College and received his JD at Mason.

It could be argued that the exact match between the DISH bid commitment and the H block reserve price is purely coincidental. To actually believe this was a coincidence would require the same willing suspension of disbelief indulged by summer moviegoers who enjoy the physics-defying stunts enabled by computer-generated special effects. When moviegoers leave the theater after watching the latest Superman flick, they don’t actually believe they can fly home.

The FCC’s Wireless Bureau recently adopted an unusually high $1.564 billion reserve price for the auction of the H block spectrum. Though the FCC has authorized the Bureau to adopt reserve prices based on its consideration of “relevant factors that could reasonably have an impact on valuation of the spectrum being auctioned,” it appears the Bureau exceeded its delegated authority in this proceeding by considering factors unrelated to the value of the H block spectrum that have the effect of giving a particular firm an advantage in the auction. Specifically, the Bureau considered the value to DISH Network Corporation of amendments to FCC rules governing other spectrum bands already licensed to DISH (e.g., the 700 MHz E block) in exchange for DISH’s commitment to meet the $1.564 billion reserve price in the H block auction – a commitment that is contingent on the FCC Commissioners amending rules governing multiple spectrum bands no later than Friday, December 13, 2013.

No matter what the FCC Commissioners decide, if the reserve price stands, the only sure winner would be DISH. If the FCC Commissioners don’t endorse the DISH deal, DISH need not honor its commitment to meet the artificially inflated reserve price, which could result in the spectrum auction’s total failure. If the Commissioners do endorse the DISH deal, the artificially inflated reserve price could deter the participation of other bidders and lower auction revenues that are expected to fund the national public safety network. Neither option would result in an open and transparent auction designed to provide all potential bidders with a fair opportunity to participate.

The FCC would be the only sure loser. The appearance of impropriety in the H block proceeding could compromise public trust in the integrity of FCC spectrum auctions. To ensure the public trust is maintained, the FCC Commissioners should thoroughly review the processes and procedures implemented by the Wireless Bureau in this proceeding before auctioning the H block spectrum.

The following discussion provides background information on the purposes of spectrum auctions and reserve prices. This background information is followed by a more detailed analysis of the terms of the DISH deal and the advantages it would bestow on DISH, the lack of analysis in the Wireless Bureau’s order, the role of the Commissioners, and the potential damage to the integrity of FCC auctions. Continue reading →

Aereo LogoThere are few things more likely to get constituents to call their representative than TV programming blackouts, and the increase in broadcasting disruptions arising from licensing disputes in recent years means Congress may be forced to once again fix television and copyright laws. As Jerry Brito explains at Reason, the current standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable is the result of bad regulations, which contribute to more frequent broadcaster blackouts. While each type of TV distributor (cable, satellite, broadcasters, telcos) is both disadvantaged and advantaged through regulation, broadcasters are particularly favored. As the US Copyright Office has said, the rule at issue in CBS-TWC is “part of a thicket of communications law requirements aimed at protecting and supporting the broadcast industry.”

But as we approach a damaging tipping point of rising programming costs and blackouts, Congress’ potential rescuer–Aereo–appears on the horizon, possibly buying more time before a major regulatory rewrite. Aereo, for the uninitiated, is a small online company that sets up tiny antennas in certain cities to capture broadcast television station signals–like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the CW, and Univision–and streams those signals online to paying customers, who can watch live or record the local signals captured by their own “rented” Aereo antenna. Broadcasters hate this because the service deprives them of lucrative retransmission fees and unsuccessfully sued to get Aereo to cease operations. Continue reading →

Over at The Switch, the Washington Post’s excellent new technology policy blog, Brian Fung has an interesting post about tethering and Google Glass, but I think he perpetuates a common misconception:

Carriers have all sorts of rules about tethering, and sorting through them can be like feeling your way down a dark alley. Verizon used to charge $20 a month for tethering before the FCC ruled it had to allow tethering for free. Now, any data you use comes out of your cellular plan’s overall data allowance. AT&T gives you a separate pool of data for tethering plans, but charges up to $50 a month for the right, much as Verizon once did.

Fung claims that due to the likely increase in tethering as devices like Google Glass come to market, “assuming the FCC didn’t require all wireless carriers to make tethering free, it’d be a huge source of potential revenue for companies like AT&T.”

In fact, the cost of tethering on AT&T is not very different from the cost of doing so on Verizon, which means by definition that AT&T is not likely to get a windfall from increased use of tethering. It’s also evidence that the FCC tethering rule for Verizon doesn’t matter very much.

Continue reading →

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

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The 600 MHz spectrum auction “represents the last best chance to promote competition” among mobile wireless service providers, according to the written testimony of T-Mobile executive who appeared before a congressional subcommittee Jul. 23 and testified in rhetoric that is reminiscent of a bygone era.

The idea that an activist Federal Communications Commission is necessary to preserve and promote competition is a throwback to the government-sanctioned Ma Bell monopoly era.  Sprint still uses the term “Twin Bells” in its FCC pleadings to refer to AT&T and Verizon Wireless in the hope that, for those who can remember the Bell System, the incantation will elicit a visceral response.  The fact is most of the FCC’s efforts to preserve and promote competition have failed, entailed serious collateral damage, or both.

Unless Congress and the FCC get the details right, the implementation of an innovative auction that will free up spectrum that is currently underutilized for broadcasting and make it available for mobile communications could fail to raise in excess of $7 billion for building a nationwide public safety network and making a down payment on the national debt.  Aside from ensuring that broadcasting is not disrupted in the process, one important detail concerns whether the auctioning will be open to every qualified bidder, or whether government officials will, in effect, pick winners and losers before the auctioning begins. Continue reading →

WP coverThe Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released a new paper by Brent Skorup and me entitled, “A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector.” In this 73-page working paper, which we hope to place in a law review or political science journal shortly, we document the evolution of government-granted privileges, or “cronyism,” in the information and communications technology marketplace and in the media-producing sectors. Specifically, we offer detailed histories of rent-seeking and regulatory capture in: the early history of the telephony and spectrum licensing in the United States; local cable TV franchising; the universal service system; the digital TV transition in the 1990s; and modern video marketplace regulation (i.e., must-carry and retransmission consent rules, among others.

Our paper also shows how cronyism is slowly creeping into new high-technology sectors.We document how Internet companies and other high-tech giants are among the fastest-growing lobbying shops in Washington these days. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, lobbying spending by information technology sectors has almost doubled since the turn of the century, from roughly $200 million in 2000 to $390 million in 2012.  The computing and Internet sector has been responsible for most of that growth in recent years. Worse yet, we document how many of these high-tech firms are increasingly seeking and receiving government favors, mostly in the form of targeted tax breaks or incentives. Continue reading →