How Universal Service Fails Us

by on August 23, 2014 · 0 comments

If there is one thing I have learned in almost 23 years of covering communications and media regulation it is this: No matter how well-intentioned, regulation often has unintended consequences that hurt the very consumers the rules are meant to protect. Case in point: “universal service” mandates that require a company to serve an entire area as a condition of offering service at all. The intention is noble: Get service out to everyone in the community, preferably at a very cheap rate. Alas, the result of mandating that result is clear: You get less competition, less investment, less innovation, and less consumer choice. And often you don’t even get everyone served.

Consider this Wall Street Journal article today, “Google Fiber Is Fast, but Is It Fair? The Company Provides Neighborhoods With Faster and Cheaper Service, but Are Some Being Left Behind?” In the story, Alistair Barr notes that:

U.S. policy long favored extending service to all. AT&T touted its “universal service” in advertisements more than a century ago. The concept was codified in a 1934 law requiring nationwide “wire and radio services” to reach everyone at “reasonable charges.” In exchange for wiring a community, telecommunications providers often gained a monopoly. Cities made similar deals with cable-TV providers beginning in the 1960s.

The problem, of course, is that while this model allowed for the slow spread of service to most communities, it came at a very steep cost: Monopoly and plain vanilla service. I documented this in a 1994 essay entitled, “Unnatural Monopoly: Critical Moments in the Development of the Bell System Monopoly.” As well-intentioned regulatory mandates started piling up, competition slowly disappeared. And a devil’s deal was eventually cut between regulators and AT&T to adopt the company’s advertising motto — “One Policy, One System, Universal Service” — as the de facto law of the land.

It took us almost a century to dig ourselves out of that mess and move towards telecommunications competition. Alas, we’re still living with the vestiges of this old regulatory mentality. Cities and counties across America still impose a wide variety of “universal service” regulatory mandates. Again, their intention is noble: They want everyone in their community served. You can’t blame them for that. But the result is still the same: Limited facilities-based competition and investment.

And so we return to today’s Wall Street Journal story about Google Fiber, which explains how local officials are finally starting to understand these realities. The story notes:

In 2011, Google struck a deal with authorities in both Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., to build the service based on customer demand. City officials say they didn’t push hard for universal coverage because they thought faster Internet service would boost the local economy and they were competing against so many other cities. “The main point was to win and bring that infrastructure to our city,” said Rick Usher, assistant city manager of Kansas City, Mo. As phone and cable companies slowed their own expansion plans, more cities allowed the selective approach.

Google’s ‘build-to-demand’ model is catching on because it produces results: More infrastructure investment, innovation, and competition. Traditional telecom and broadband operators are prepared to step up investment, too, when the incentives are right:

Verizon was required by cities and some state laws to build and offer its FiOS service widely across cities. It stopped expanding to new cities in 2010; to date, it has spent more than $23 billion on the FiOS rollout. Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo said in March that the company wouldn’t expand to additional markets until FiOS had “finally returned its cost of capital.” If Verizon resumes expansion, the company would consider Google’s build-to-demand model because it has the potential to be more profitable, said Chris Levendos, a Verizon executive overseeing the FiOS build-out in Manhattan.

Others are doing just that. AT&T said in April it would offer Internet speeds of up to one gigabit in as many as 100 cities. It is building to demand and working with local authorities to reduce construction costs, the company said. Tuesday, it said it would bring the high-speed service to Cupertino, Calif., close to Google’s headquarters. This approach “starts to make this business model look quite attractive,” John Stankey, AT&T’s chief strategy officer, said at an investor conference on Aug. 13.

Again, when you get the incentives right and give investors and innovators a green light, they will seize the opportunity. And that’s even true — actually, it is especially true — for high fixed-cost investments like fiber networks.

But wait, aren’t there some pockets of the population that will fall through the cracks under this alternative arrangement? In the short-term, potentially yes. But the right answer to that “digital divide” problem is never to restrict short-term investment and innovation opportunities just because you think you have a better, more “well intentioned” plan. That is the crucial mistake policymakers made in the past. Their desire to get everyone served at the exact same time with the exact same plain vanilla service meant we got sub-optimal technologies and stagnant markets with little hope of any new innovation or investment over the long-haul.

This is how “universal service” consistently fails us. Universal service sells us short. It sells human ingenuity short. The logic that motivates universal service regulation is that: ‘Well, this is about the best we can do. Let’s just get everyone some basic level of service and that will be just and good.’  Can you imagine if we would have applied this logic to other major markets and technologies?!

But what about the under-served communities? First, when you allow new innovation in networks, you never know how or where they might spread next. If you have more competitors offering unique networks architectures and services, there is a very good chance that entrepreneurial minds will figure out how to push out the boundaries of what is possible, especially in terms of how the service is delivered.

Consider this: Back in the old days, did it really make sense to try to stretch a thin copper wire way, way out into the middle of every valley, desert, farm field, and mountain? The myopic universal service mindset says: ‘Well, that’s all we had at the time.’ Perhaps for a time it really was. But how much quicker might we have seen some sort of alternative system if we hadn’t locked in those old assumptions as policy requirements? Is it impossible to believe that wireless technologies might have developed much more quickly if the incentives would have been right? Again, there was no reason for any innovators or investors to even consider the idea at a time when policymakers were mandating copper wires be stretched to every corner of the land, and as they were showering favored companies with subsidies to achieve that goal. That’s not something a new innovator could compete with, and so no one did. It would have been like policymakers saying we needed a “universal service” policy for cheap hamburgers for the masses and then showering McDonald’s with subsidies since they were the first one in many local markets who could deliver on that promise. Had we had such a universal cheap hamburger policy, do you think any other fast food places would have ever come to town and tried to compete against those subsidized burgers? Not likely.

The lesson for today’s policymakers is clear: Open up markets, relax regulatory burdens, eliminate discriminatory taxes and subsidies, and clear away other barriers to investment. Then see what happens. As the Google Fiber experience suggests, innovative minds can and will emerge to offer constructive solutions and slowly spread new networks and technologies.

OK, but won’t there still be some communities that are underserved, even with all that new innovation and investment. It’s certainly possible. And where those communities exist, some government action may be necessary to incentivize the spread of some sort of network to them, or even have the government build it for the community. I’m not opposed to that. (Have you ever driven through the hills of West Virginia or the mountains of rural Western states? Hard places to get wired networks out to!) I’m not very optimistic local governments will do a very good job of building sophisticated networks because they already have a horrible track record in this regard. But, again, I don’t oppose local action on this front if no other alternatives appear after a certain period of time.

But, again, the answer here is not crazy national and state-based universal service mandates that regulate everyone in every community as if they had the same problem. Let competition and innovation work its magic where it can and do not mess that up. Where it proves much harder for that network competition and innovation to take root, use smart incentives to get companies to build out their networks further, or offer alternative wireless infrastructure of some sort, or just have the government build the networks themselves. But we should always give competition and innovation the benefit of the doubt and see what happens first.

So, let me perfectly clear what I am saying here: GOOD INTENTIONS ARE NEVER ENOUGH! [And yes, I am using all caps because I am shouting!] The next time somebody starts mouthing something about how they have the moral high ground in these debates because their intentions are supposedly pure as the driven snow, ask them to show you results. Tell them you want evidence that their intentions have actually produced something concrete and positive for society. If their answer is, in essence, ‘Well, with our regulatory mandates we can at least get everybody some basic level of really crappy monopoly service,’ then tell them that they can take their good intentions and shove them. We can do better.

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