Pricing Experimentation & Broadband Usage-Based Pricing

by on October 19, 2012 · 11 comments

We spend a lot of time here defending the simple proposition that flexible free-market pricing is a good thing. You would think that in 2012 we wouldn’t need to do so, but there’s a growing movement afoot today by some academics, regulatory activists, and public policymakers to have government start asserting more authority over broadband pricing. In particular, they want Congress, the FCC, or state officials to investigate and possibly even regulate efforts by wireline and wireless broadband carriers to use usage-based pricing and data caps as a method of calibrating supply and demand. This was the focus of my last weekly Forbes column, “The Specter Of Broadband Price Controls.” In the piece I note that:

Data caps and usage-based pricing are forms of what economists refer to as price discrimination. Although viewed with suspicion by some policymakers and regulatory-minded academics and activists, price discrimination is widely recognized to improve consumer welfare. Price-differentiated and prioritized services are part of almost every industrial sector in our capitalist economy. Notable examples include airline and hotel reservations, prioritized shipping services, amusement park passes, and fuel and energy pricing. Economists agree that price discrimination represents a sensible way to calibrate supply and demand while ensuring the fixed costs of doing business get covered. Consumers benefit from such pricing experimentation by gaining more options while firms gain more certainty about investment and service decisions.

This is confirmed by an excellent new Mercatus Center working paper on “The Impact of Data Caps and Other Forms of Usage-Based Pricing for Broadband Access,” by Daniel A. Lyons, an assistant professor of law at Boston College Law School. Lyons explains why a return to price controls for communications would be monumentally misguided. Lyons notes that “data caps and other forms of metered consumption are not inherently anti-consumer or anticompetitive. Rather, they reflect different pricing strategies through which a broadband company may recover its costs from its customer base and fund future infrastructure investment.” He notes that “by aligning costs more closely with use, usage-based pricing may effectively shift more network costs onto those consumers who use the network the most.”

What I find most interesting about the debate over broadband pricing flexibility is the way some so-called “consumer advocates” cannot seemingly wrap their heads around the fact that price discrimination can actually benefit most consumers by creating more and better pricing options and service alternatives. As I noted in my Forbes essay, “if policymakers lock-in flat rate pricing or regulate pricing such that it is not allowed to fluctuate with demand or investment needs, then it is likely that light users (including many lower income users) will end up paying more than they need to for their overall share of network costs. If that is also disallowed through rate regulation, then network investment will suffer and further innovation will be discouraged. Something has to give because, again, there really is no free lunch.”

It remains to be seen whether true free market pricing will be allowed to continue in this context, but make no doubt about it, this is the most important aspect of the ongoing debate about modern information economics. If America returns to price and rate controls for communications, innovation and investment will suffer greatly.

Oh, and here’s a video featuring Eli Dourado, who can explain this much more eloquently than me! …

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