Tears for Tiers: Wyden’s “Data Cap” Restrictions Would Hurt, not Help, Internet Users

by on December 20, 2012 · 609 comments

By Geoffrey Manne & Berin Szoka

As Democrats insist that income taxes on the 1% must go up in the name of fairness, one Democratic Senator wants to make sure that the 1% of heaviest Internet users pay the same price as the rest of us. It’s ironic how confused social justice gets when the Internet’s involved.

Senator Ron Wyden is beloved by defenders of Internet freedom, most notably for blocking the Protect IP bill—sister to the more infamous SOPA—in the Senate. He’s widely celebrated as one of the most tech-savvy members of Congress. But his latest bill, the “Data Cap Integrity Act,” is a bizarre, reverse-Robin Hood form of price control for broadband. It should offend those who defend Internet freedom just as much as SOPA did.

Wyden worries that “data caps” will discourage Internet use and allow “Internet providers to extract monopoly rents,” quoting a New York Times editorial from July that stirred up a tempest in a teapot. But his fears are straw men, based on four false premises.

First, US ISPs aren’t “capping” anyone’s broadband; they’re experimenting with usage-based pricing—service tiers. If you want more than the basic tier, your usage isn’t capped: you can always pay more for more bandwidth. But few users will actually exceed that basic tier. For example, Comcast’s basic tier, 300 GB/month, is so generous that 98.5% of users will not exceed it. That’s enough for 130 hours of HD video each month (two full-length movies a day) or between 300 and 1000 hours of standard (compressed) video streaming.

Second, Wyden sets up a false dichotomy: Caps (or tiers, more accurately) are, according to Wyden, “appropriate if they are carefully constructed to manage network congestion,” but apparently for Wyden the only alternative explanation for usage-based pricing is extraction of monopoly rents. This simply isn’t the case, and propagating that fallacy risks chilling investment in network infrastructure. In fact, usage-based pricing allows networks to charge heavy users more, thereby recovering more costs and actually reducing prices for the majority of us who don’t need more bandwidth than the basic tier permits—and whose usage is effectively subsidized by those few who do. Unfortunately, Wyden’s bill wouldn’t allow pricing structures based on cost recovery—only network congestion. So, for example, an ISP might be allowed to price usage during times of peak congestion, but couldn’t simply offer a lower price for the basic tier to light users.

That’s nuts—from the perspective of social justice as well as basic economic rationality. Even as the FCC was issuing its famous Net Neutrality regulations, the agency rejected proposals to ban usage-based pricing, explaining:

prohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks.

It is unclear why Senator Wyden thinks the FCC—no friend of broadband “monopolists”—has this wrong.

Third, charging heavy users more isn’t just more equitable, it’s actually a solution to the very problem Wyden worries about: ensuring that ISPs have an incentive to encourage Internet use. Tiered pricing means they actually benefit from heavy use. So rather than try to slow use or discriminate against bandwidth-heavy applications—which is how the Net Neutrality fight started—ISPs will continue to build out faster networks.

Now, it’s certainly possible that, if the basic tier were set low enough or if additional data were expensive enough, cable companies could discourage their subscribers from canceling a cable subscription and switching to a competing service like Netflix. But it’s hard to see how a 300 GB basic tier deters anyone, especially when users can buy additional blocks of 50 GB for just $10/month—enough for nearly two more hours a day of streamed video. If there actually were a problem here, antitrust law could address it far better than blunt pricing restrictions. Indeed, such an investigation is already ongoing.

Finally, Wyden would require that broadband providers count content download from them against your usage—fearing that a “discriminatory cap” would harm competing video providers. But if the “cap” is high enough, who cares? Under antitrust law, such “discrimination” is illegal only if it harms consumers—and it’s hard to see how consumers suffer from being able to download more video. Would they really be better off if every hour of video they streamed from their cable company meant an hour less they could stream from Netflix? That’s what Wyden’s bill would require.

The recent kerfuffle over Comcast’s decision in October to make some of its television (pay per view) content available through Xbox without counting against Internet usage limits brought this point into stark relief. While activists like Public Knowledge decried the decision for the same reasons Wyden does now, they missed the fact that by removing some of its content from usage limits Comcast was actually freeing up users to access more content at lower prices.

If Wyden’s concern is that usage-based pricing would allow ISPs to extract “monopoly profits” from users who bump up against tiers, then “preferencing” some of their own content will reduce, not increase, that risk: Users would be able to access, say, bandwidth-heavy video content just as they do television content now—without it counting against Internet usage limits. That this might “discriminate” against other Internet-based content providers does not mean that it harms consumers—quite the opposite, in fact. Again, to the extent that it might, antitrust rules are more than sufficient to discourage such practices in the first place or punish them if they arise—without restricting firms’ ability to price their content and manage their networks to ensure a reasonable return on their investments.

Pricing structures for broadband are still evolving. Just this year, Comcast moved from its original 250 GB cap—which it never enforced—to today’s 300 GB basic tier, and other broadband providers will likely follow suit. Those plans will probably continue to evolve towards pricing structures that minimize network congestion—like offering periods of unmetered use in the middle of the night, when network use plummets. That would go a long way to allaying concerns about the effect of tiered plans on competition, since Netflix could send your favorite shows and the next movies in your queue to the device of your choice while you sleep. But pricing structures also have to allow sensible, fair recovery of costs—which the Wyden bill would simply ban.

So much for not blithely regulating the Internet, Senator!

[Cross-posted at Truth on the Market]

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