Articles by Brent Skorup

Brent SkorupBrent is a senior research fellow with the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at GMU. He has an economics degree from Wheaton College and a law degree from George Mason University. Opinions are his own.


A few weeks ago I was invited to provide testimony about rural broadband policy to the Communications and Technology Committee in the Pennsylvania Senate (video recording of the hearing). My co-panelists were Kathyrn de Wit from Pew and Prof. Sasha Meinrath from Penn State University.

In preparing for the testimony I was surprised to learn how much money leaves Pennsylvania annually to fund the federal Universal Service Fund programs. In recent years, a net $200 million leaves the state annually and is disbursed at USAC and in other states. That’s a lot of money considering Pennsylvania, like many geographically large states, has its own broadband deployment problems.

From the Intro:

The federal government has spent more than $100 billion on rural telecommunications in the past 20 years. Most of that total comes from the federal Universal Service Fund (USF), which disburses about $4.5 billion annually to rural providers across the country. In addition, the Pennsylvania Universal Service Fund redistributes about $32 million annually from Pennsylvania phone customers to Pennsylvania phone companies serving rural areas.

Are rural residents seeing commensurate benefits trickle down to them? That seems doubtful. These programs are complex and disburse subsidies in puzzling and uneven ways. Reform of rural telecommunications programs is urgently needed. FCC data suggest that the current USF structure disproportionately penalizes Pennsylvanians—a net $800 million left the state from 2013 to 2017.

I made a few recommendations, which mostly apply for state legislators in other states looking at rural broadband issues.

I also came across an interesting program in Pennsylvania spearheaded in 2018 by Gov. Wolf. It’s a $35 million grant program to rural providers. From the Governor’s website:

The program was a partnership between the Office of Broadband Initiatives and PennDOT. The $35 million of incentive funding was provided through PennDOT to fulfill its strategic goal of supporting intelligent transportation systems, connected vehicle infrastructure, and improving access to PennDOT’s facilities. In exchange for incentive funding, program participants were required to supply PennDOT with the use of current and future network facilities or services.

It’s too early to judge the results of that program but I’ve long thought state DOTs should collaborate more with state telecom officials. There’s a lot of federal and state transportation money that can do double duty in supporting broadband deployment efforts, a subject Prof. Korok Ray and I take up in our recently-released Mercatus Paper, “Smart Cities, Dumb Infrastructure.”

For more, you can find my full testimony at the Mercatus website.

The Ray-Skorup paper, “Smart Cities, Dumb Infrastructure,” about transportation funds and their use in telecom networks is on SSRN.

Last month I spoke at the Innovation Summit in Orlando, hosted by the James Madison Institute. My co-panelists on the transportation panel were Jamal Sowell, President and CEO of Enterprise Florida, state senator Jeff Brandes, who cosponsored Florida’s autonomous vehicle legislation this year, and Stephanie Smith from Uber. Romina Boccia from the Heritage Foundation was our moderator.

Flyer for September 2019 JMI event.

It was a great event and the panel discussion made clear that Florida is at the forefront of autonomous vehicle policy. The panel got me thinking about some nationwide trends that are pushing people towards ride-sharing and, eventually, mobility as a service and autonomous vehicles. Florida seems well positioned but many of these trends will affect the ridesharing and autonomous vehicle market in the next decade.

Rising Cost of Car Ownership

Cars are expensive to own and maintain. Using AAA estimates, the annual cost of a new car in 2019 is $9,300 (nearly $800 per month). These costs are mostly depreciation and insurance, but also include gas, registration, and maintenance.

Used cars are significantly cheaper to own since depreciation is steepest early in a car’s life. I haven’t seen much research on used car costs but out of curiosity I estimated the cost of ownership of our used car. We recently sold my wife’s 2010 Corolla, which she’d bought in 2012. The annual cost of ownership of the Corolla (insurance, maintenance, gas, depreciation) came to about $4,200 ($350 per month).

But costs are much higher for families. Parents adding a teenage boy to their car insurance policy, for instance, can expect their annual insurance costs to jump over $6,000.

Using the AAA numbers and these insurance numbers, we can estimate the costs for adding a new vehicle and a teenage driver for a family budget: from about $15,000 annually (getting a teen driver a new sedan) to about $10,000 annually (getting a teen driver a used compact).

Further, car repair is only going to increase with time. The introduction of sensors and other technology into new cars has caused a spike in repair and insurance costs. Automakers are also adding expensive-to-fix components to engines, like turbochargers and CVTs, in an attempt to comply with federal CAFE standards.

One signal of the increasing costs of repair is rising insurance rates. Over the last four years, the consumer price index for auto insurance increased about 27%, During the same period the CPI for all goods increased about 6%. That increase even exceeds the CPI for hospital services (18%).

This is likely one reason car leasing is becoming more popular, even with good-credit drivers–leasing allows you to shift the (increasing) costs of car depreciation and maintenance to leasing companies.

Mobility as a Service and AVs in Florida

Florida seems to have the perfect recipe for AV and mobility as a service success. First and foremost, they have a governor and state legislature that is welcoming AV companies.

The state also has:

  • many students, retirees, tourists, and uninsured drivers who need rides but don’t use a car regularly
  • very high insurance premiums
  • no-fault auto insurance, which simplifies the claims process in personal injury cases
  • flat terrain and no snow

Suppose a couple in Florida is considering getting a third car, a new car for their teenage son. If their son isn’t interested in getting a drivers license (which is increasingly common) and they live in an area with high penetration of ridesharing services, they might be willing to purchase an annual subscription to mobility as a service. For many families on the fence about getting a second or third car, even a $10,000 annual subscription might make financial sense.

AV tech is slowly but surely approaching mass-market deployment. This month, Waymo announced they were increasing the number of autonomous vehicles on Phoenix-area roads without safety drivers in the front seats. These trends in auto leasing and putting off getting a license is accelerating in urbanized areas in the South. It’s probably where mobility as a service companies and, eventually, AV companies will find their largest potential market.

In the US there is a tangle of communications laws that were added over decades by Congress as–one-by-one–broadcast, cable, and satellite technologies transformed the TV marketplace. The primary TV laws are from 1976, 1984, and 1992, though Congress creates minor patches when the marketplace changes and commercial negotiations start to unravel.

Congress, to its great credit, largely has left alone Internet-based TV (namely, IPTV and vMVPDs) which has created a novel “problem”–too much TV. Internet-based TV, however, for years has put stress on the kludge-y legacy legal system we have, particularly the impenetrable mix of communications and copyright laws that regulates broadcast TV distribution.

Internet-based TV does two things–it undermines the current system with regulatory arbitrage but also shows how tons of diverse TV programming can be distributed to millions of households without Congress (and the FCC and the Copyright Office) injecting politics into the TV marketplace.

Locast TV is the latest Internet-based TV distributor to threaten to unravel parts the current system. In July, broadcast programmers sued Locast (its founder, David Goodfriend) and in September, Locast filed its own suit against the broadcast programmers.

A portion of US TV regulations.

Many readers will remember the 2014 Aereo decision from the Supreme Court. Much like Aereo, Locast TV captures free broadcast TV signals in the markets it operates and transmits the programming via the Internet to viewers in that market. That said, Locast isn’t Aereo.

Aereo’s position was that it could relay broadcast signals without paying broadcasters because it wasn’t a “cable company” (a critical category in copyright law). The majority of the Supreme Court disagreed; Aereo closed up shop.

Locast has a different position: it says it can relay broadcast signals without paying because it is a nonprofit.

It’s a plausible argument. Federal copyright law has a carveout allowing “nonprofit organizations” to relay broadcast signals without payment so long as the nonprofit operates “without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage.”

The broadcasters are focusing on this latter provision, that any nonprofit taking advantage of the carveout mustn’t have commercial purpose. David Goodfriend, the Locast founder, is a lawyer and professor who, apparently, sought to abide by the law. However, the broadcasters argue, his past employment and commercial ties to pay-TV companies mean that the nonprofit is operating for commercial advantage.

It’s hard to say how a court will rule. Assuming a court takes up the major issues, judges will have to decide what “indirect commercial advantage” means. That’s a fact-intensive inquiry. The broadcasters will likely search for hot docs or other evidence that Locast is not a “real” nonprofit. Whatever the facts are, Locast’s arbitrage of the existing regulations is one that could be replicated.

Nobody likes the existing legacy TV regulation system: Broadcasters dislike being subject to compulsory licenses; Cable and satellite operators dislike being forced to carry some broadcast TV and to pay for a bizarre “retransmission” right. Copyright holders are largely sidelined in these artificial commercial negotiations. Wholesale reform–so that programming negotiations look more like the free-market world of Netflix and Hulu programming–would mean every party has give up something they like improve the overall system.

The Internet’s affect on traditional providers’ market share has been modest to date, but hopefully Congress will anticipate the changing marketplace before regulatory distortions become intolerable.

Additional reading: Adam Thierer & Brent Skorup, Video Marketplace Regulation: A Primer on the History of Television Regulation and Current Legislative Proposals (2014).

Last month, Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released a campaign document, Plan for Rural America. The lion’s share of the plan proposed government-funded and -operated health care and broadband. The broadband section of the plan proposes raising $85 billion (from taxes?) to fund rural broadband grants to governments and nonprofits. The Senator then placed a Washington Post op-ed to decrying the state of rural telecommunications in America. 

While it’s commendable she has a plan, it doesn’t materially improve upon existing, flawed rural telecom subsidy programs, which receive only brief mention. In particular, the Plan places an unwarranted faith in the power of government telecom subsidies, despite red flags about their efficacy. The op-ed misdiagnoses rural broadband problems and somehow lays decades of real and perceived failure of government policy at the feet of the current Trump FCC, and Chairman Pai in particular.

As a result, the proposals–more public money, more government telecom programs–are the wrong treatment. The Senator’s plan to wire every household is undermined by “the 2% problem”–the cost to build infrastructure to the most remote homes is massive. 

Other candidates (and perhaps President Trump) will come out with rural broadband plans so it’s worth diving into the issue. Doubling down on a 20 year old government policy–more subsidies to more providers–will mostly just entrench the current costly system.

How dire is the problem?

Somewhere around 6% of Americans (about 20 million people) are unserved by a 25 Mbps landline connection. But that means around 94% of Americans have access to 25 Mbps landline broadband. (Millions more have access if you include broadband from cellular and WISP providers.)

Further, rural buildout has been improving for years, despite the high costs. From 2013 to 2017, under Obama and Trump FCCs, landline broadband providers covered around 3 or 4 million new rural customers annually. This growth in coverage seems to be driven by unsubsidized carriers because, as I found in Montana, FCC-subsidized telecom companies in rural areas are losing subscribers, even as universal service subsidies increased.

This rural buildout is more impressive when you consider that most people who don’t subscribe today simply don’t want Internet access. Somewhere between 55% to 80% of nonadopters don’t want it, according to Department of Commerce and Pew surveys. The fact is, millions of rural homes are connected annually despite the fact that most nonadopters today don’t want the service.

These are the core problems for rural telecom: (1) poorly-designed, overlapping, and expensive programs and (2) millions of consumers who are uninterested in subscribing to broadband.

Tens of billions for government-operated networks

The proposed new $85 billion rural broadband fund gets most of the headlines. It resembles the current universal service programs–the fund would disburse grants to providers, except the grants would be restricted to nonprofit and government operators of networks. Most significant: Senator Warren promises in her Plan for Rural America that, as President, she will “make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection.” 

Every home?

This fiber-to-every-farm idea had advocates 10 years ago. The idea has failed to gain traction because it runs into the punishing economics of building networks.

Costs rise non-linearly for the last few percent of households and $85 billion would bring fiber only to a small sliver of US households. According to estimates from the Obama FCC, it would cost $40 billion to build fiber to the final 2% of households. Further, the network serving those 2% of households would require an annual subsidy of $2 billion simply to maintain those networks since revenues are never expected to cover ongoing costs. 

Recent history suggests rapidly diminishing returns and that $85 billion of taxpayer money will be misspent. If the economics wasn’t difficult enough, real-world politics and government inefficiency also degrade lofty government broadband plans. For example, Australia’s construction of a nationwide publicly-owned fiber network–the nation’s largest-ever infrastructure project–is billions over budget and years behind schedule. The RUS broadband grant debacle in the US only supports the case that $85 billion simply won’t go that far. As Will Rinehart says, profit motive is not the cause of rural broadband problems. Government funding doesn’t fix the economics and government efficacy.

Studies will probably be come out saying it can be done more cheaply but America has been running a similar experiment for 20 years. Since 1998, as economists Scott Wallsten and Lucía Gamboa point out, the US government has spent around $100 billion on rural telecommunications. What does that $100 billion get? Mostly maintenance of existing rural networks and about a 2% increase of phone adoption.

Would the Plan improve or repurpose the current programs and funding? We don’t know. The op-ed from Sen. Warren complains that:

the federal government has shoveled more than a billion in taxpayer dollars per year to private ISPs to expand broadband to remote areas, but these providers have done the bare minimum with these resources.

This understates the problem. The federal government “shovels” not $1 billion, but about $5 billion, annually to providers in rural areas, mostly from the Universal Service Fund Congress established in 1996.

As for the “public option for broadband”–extensive construction of publicly-run broadband networks–I’m skeptical. Broadband is not like a traditional utility. Unlike electricity, water, or sewer, a city or utility network doesn’t have a captive customer base. There are private operators out there.

As a result, public operation of networks is a risky way to spend public funds. Public and public-private operation of networks often leads to financial distress and bankruptcy, as residents in Provo, Lake County, Kentucky, and Australia can attest.

Rural Telecom Reform

I’m glad Sen. Warren raised the issue of rural broadband, but the Plan’s drafters seem uninterested in digging into the extent of the problem and in solutions aside from throwing good money after bad. Lawmakers should focus on fixing the multi-billion dollar programs already in existence at the FCC and Ag Department, which are inexplicably complex, expensive to administer, and unequal towards ostensible beneficiaries. 

Why, for instance, did rural telecom subsidies break down to about $11 per rural household in Sen. Warren’s Massachusetts in 2016 when it was about $2000 per rural household in Alaska? 

Alabama and Mississippi have similar geographies and rural populations. So why did rural households in Alabama receive only about 20% of what rural Mississippi households receive? 

Why have administrative costs as a percentage of the Universal Service Fund more than doubled since 1998? It costs $200 million annually to administer the USF programs today. (Compare to the FCC’s $333 million total budget request to Congress in FY 2019 for everything else the FCC does.)

I’ve written about reforms under existing law, like OTARD rule reform–letting consumers freely install small, outdoor antennas to bring broadband to rural areas–and transforming the current program funds into rural broadband vouchers. There’s also a role for cities and counties to help buildout by constructing long-lasting infrastructure like poles, towers, and fiber conduit. These assets could be leased out a low cost to providers.

Conclusion

After years of planning, the FCC reformed some of the rural telecom program in 2017. However, the reforms are partial and it’s too early to evaluate the results. The foundational problem is with the structure of existing programs. Fixing that structure should be a priority for any Senator or President concerned about rural broadband. Broadband vouchers for rural households would fix many of the problems, but lawmakers first need to question the universal service framework established over 20 years ago. There are many signs it’s not fit for purpose.

The Technology Liberation Front just marked its 15th year in existence. That’s a long time in the blogosphere. (I’ve only been writing at TLF since 2012 so I’m still the new guy.)

Everything from Bitcoin to net neutrality to long-form pieces about technology and society were featured and debated here years before these topics hit the political mainstream.

Thank you to our contributors and our regular readers. Here are the most-read tech policy posts from TLF in the past 15 years (I’ve omitted some popular but non-tech policy posts).

No. 15: Bitcoin is going mainstream. Here is why cypherpunks shouldn’t worry. by Jerry Brito, October 2013

Today is a bit of a banner day for Bitcoin. It was five years ago today that Bitcoin was first described in a paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. And today the New York Times has finally run a profile of the cryptocurrency in its “paper of record” pages. In addition, TIME’s cover story this week is about the “deep web” and how Tor and Bitcoin facilitate it.

The fact is that Bitcoin is inching its way into the mainstream.

No. 14: Is fiber to the home (FTTH) the network of the future, or are there competing technologies? by Roslyn Layton, August 2013

There is no doubt that FTTH is a cool technology, but the love of a particular technology should not blind one to look at the economics.  After some brief background, this blog post will investigate fiber from three perspectives (1) the bandwidth requirements of web applications (2) cost of deployment and (3) substitutes and alternatives. Finally it discusses the notion of fiber as future proof.

No. 13: So You Want to Be an Internet Policy Analyst? by Adam Thierer, December 2012

Each year I am contacted by dozens of people who are looking to break into the field of information technology policy as a think tank analyst, a research fellow at an academic institution, or even as an activist. Some of the people who contact me I already know; most of them I don’t. Some are free-marketeers, but a surprising number of them are independent analysts or even activist-minded Lefties. Some of them are students; others are current professionals looking to change fields (usually because they are stuck in boring job that doesn’t let them channel their intellectual energies in a positive way). Some are lawyers; others are economists, and a growing number are computer science or engineering grads. In sum, it’s a crazy assortment of inquiries I get from people, unified only by their shared desire to move into this exciting field of public policy.

. . . Unfortunately, there’s only so much time in the day and I am sometimes not able to get back to all of them. I always feel bad about that, so, this essay is an effort to gather my thoughts and advice and put it all one place . . . .

No. 12: Violent Video Games & Youth Violence: What Does Real-World Evidence Suggest? by Adam Thierer, February 2010

So, how can we determine whether watching depictions of violence will turn us all into killing machines, rapists, robbers, or just plain ol’ desensitized thugs? Well, how about looking at the real world! Whatever lab experiments might suggest, the evidence of a link between depictions of violence in media and the real-world equivalent just does not show up in the data. The FBI produces ongoing Crime in the United States reports that document violent crimes trends. Here’s what the data tells us about overall violent crime, forcible rape, and juvenile violent crime rates over the past two decades: They have all fallen. Perhaps most impressively, the juvenile crime rate has fallen an astonishing 36% since 1995 (and the juvenile murder rate has plummeted by 62%).

No. 11: Wedding Phtography and Copyright Release by Tim Lee, September 2008

I’m getting married next Spring, and I’m currently negotiating the contract with our photographer. The photography business is weird because even though customers typically pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars up front to have photos taken at their weddings, the copyright in the photographs is typically retained by the photographer, and customers have to go hat in hand to the photographer and pay still more money for the privilege of getting copies of their photographs.

This seems absurd to us . . . .

No. 10: Why would anyone use Bitcoin when PayPal or Visa work perfectly well? by Jerry Brito, December 2013

A common question among smart Bitcoin skeptics is, “Why would one use Bitcoin when you can use dollars or euros, which are more common and more widely accepted?” It’s a fair question, and one I’ve tried to answer by pointing out that if Bitcoin were just a currency (except new and untested), then yes, there would be little reason why one should prefer it to dollars. The fact, however, is that Bitcoin is more than money, as I recently explained in Reason. Bitcoin is better thought of as a payments system, or as a distributed ledger, that (for technical reasons) happens to use a new currency called the bitcoin as the unit of account. As Tim Lee has pointed out, Bitcoin is therefore a platform for innovation, and it is this potential that makes it so valuable.

No. 9: The Hidden Benefactor: How Advertising Informs, Educates & Benefits Consumers by Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka, February 2010

Advertising is increasingly under attack in Washington. . . . This regulatory tsunami could not come at a worse time, of course, since an attack on advertising is tantamount to an attack on media itself, and media is at a critical point of technological change. As we have pointed out repeatedly, the vast majority of media and content in this country is supported by commercial advertising in one way or another-particularly in the era of “free” content and services.

No. 8: Reverse Engineering and Innovation: Some Examples by Tim Lee, June 2006

Reverse engineering the CSS encryption scheme, by itself, isn’t an especially innovative activity. However, what I think Prof. Picker is missing is how important such reverse engineering can be as a pre-condition for subsequent innovation. To illustrate the point, I’d like to offer three examples of companies or open source projects that have forcibly opened a company’s closed architecture, and trace how these have enabled subsequent innovation . . . .

No. 7: Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society by Adam Thierer, January 2010

The cycle goes something like this. A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped). Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.

The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order. If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.

No. 6: Copyright Duration and the Mickey Mouse Curve by Tom Bell, August 2009

Given the rough-and-tumble of real world lawmaking, does the rhetoric of “delicate balancing” merit any place in copyright jurisprudence? The Copyright Act does reflect compromises struck between the various parties that lobby congress and the administration for changes to federal law. A truce among special interests does not and cannot delicately balance all the interests affected by copyright law, however. Not even poetry can license the metaphor, which aggravates copyright’s public choice affliction by endowing the legislative process with more legitimacy than it deserves. To claim that copyright policy strikes a “delicate balance” commits not only legal fiction; it aids and abets a statutory tragedy.

No. 5: Cyber-Libertarianism: The Case for Real Internet Freedom by Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka, August 2009

Generally speaking, the cyber-libertarian’s motto is “Live & Let Live” and “Hands Off the Internet!” The cyber-libertarian aims to minimize the scope of state coercion in solving social and economic problems and looks instead to voluntary solutions and mutual consent-based arrangements.

Cyber-libertarians believe true “Internet freedom” is freedom from state action; not freedom for the State to reorder our affairs to supposedly make certain people or groups better off or to improve some amorphous “public interest”—an all-to convenient facade behind which unaccountable elites can impose their will on the rest of us.

No. 4: Here’s why the Obama FCC Internet regulations don’t protect net neutrality by Brent Skorup, July 2017

It’s becoming clearer why, for six years out of eight, Obama’s appointed FCC chairmen resisted regulating the Internet with Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. Chairman Wheeler famously did not want to go that legal route. It was only after President Obama and the White House called on the FCC in late 2014 to use Title II that Chairman Wheeler relented. If anything, the hastily-drafted 2015 Open Internet rules provide a new incentive to ISPs to curate the Internet in ways they didn’t want to before.

No. 3: 10 Years Ago Today… (Thinking About Technological Progress) by Adam Thierer, February 2009

As I am getting ready to watch the Super Bowl tonight on my amazing 100-inch screen via a Sanyo high-def projector that only cost me $1,600 bucks on eBay, I started thinking back about how much things have evolved (technologically-speaking) over just the past decade. I thought to myself, what sort of technology did I have at my disposal exactly 10 years ago today, on February 1st, 1999? Here’s the miserable snapshot I came up with . . . .

No. 2: Regulatory Capture: What the Experts Have Found by Adam Thierer, December 2010

While capture theory cannot explain all regulatory policies or developments, it does provide an explanation for the actions of political actors with dismaying regularity. Because regulatory capture theory conflicts mightily with romanticized notions of “independent” regulatory agencies or “scientific” bureaucracy, it often evokes a visceral reaction and a fair bit of denialism. . . . Yet, countless studies have shown that regulatory capture has been at work in various arenas: transportation and telecommunications; energy and environmental policy; farming and financial services; and many others.

No. 1: Defining “Technology” by Adam Thierer, April 2014

I spend a lot of time reading books and essays about technology; more specifically, books and essays about technology history and criticism. Yet, I am often struck by how few of the authors of these works even bother defining what they mean by “technology.” . . . Anyway, for what it’s worth, I figured I would create this post to list some of the more interesting definitions of “technology” that I have uncovered in my own research.

By Brent Skorup and Will Gu

The Chinese aviation regulator (CAAC) set out guidelines in January 2019 for drone airworthiness standards. CAAC also released proposed plans in May 2019 for the 30-year development of the unmanned civilian aircraft industry. These proposed plans, while broad and general, highlight unmanned civilian aircraft—like drones and eVTOL—as one of future pillars of the Chinese economy, alongside areas like artificial intelligence and 5G. These pillars are the industries in which the Chinese government wants China to surpass Western countries’ capabilities in the “fourth industrial revolution.” The documents are available online and we’ve translated the documents. Below is a summary of highlights from that translation. 

Industrial Plans for Unmanned Civil Aviation 

Unlike the deliberative, industry-led development in most other countries, China is taking a more top-down approach in the May 2019 plans for unmanned civil aviation. The approach in the document roughly translates as “social + industrial management,” which CAAC lays out in five-year industrial plans. Both the January and May documents outline government action from building domestic supply chains to building drone infrastructure to implementing safety protocols to training personnel.  

Some key dates from the January guidelines: 

  • Develop drone air worthiness standards by the end of 2019 
  • Create eVTOL requirements by the end of 2019 

Some key dates from the 5-year plans released in May: 

  • Allocate segregated, low-altitude airspace by 2025 
  • Develop widespread commercial urban air mobility by 2035 
  • Develop world-class unmanned aerospace manufacturing by 2035 

As a first step, CAAC is pressing ahead on national airworthiness standards because international standards have been slow to develop. A Chinese government database records over 280,000 registered drones for surveillance, agriculture, and delivery uses. There’s seems to be a real-time drone UTM system in place, but we’ve found little information about its capabilities. (Balancing competition, interoperability, and dynamic improvements in UTM will be a difficult task for aviation regulators worldwide.) According to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, drone operators are allocated spectrum at 800 MHz, 1.4 GHz, and 2.4 GHz. 

JD.com, the largest retailer in China, has been doing trial deliveries since 2016. Another drone company, SF Express, received the first commercial drone delivery license in 2018, a year before the first US drones were approved for commercial delivery. SF Express drones can carry up to 30 kg (about 66 lbs).  

The eVTOL industry in China appears far ahead of the US. EHang has been flying tourists in a 2-passenger autonomous eVTOL for a few months, and an unconfirmed report says the company sold 18 of their eVTOL aircraft this month. In the US, eVTOL operators like Uber likely won’t fly passengers in trial flights until 2023, at the earliest. 

National airworthiness standards are needed, in part the Chinese regulators say, because of unsettling news of drones interfering with airports’ operations. However, the more pressing reason for developing standards is for Chinese industry to take the global lead in commercial unmanned aircraft. China aims to establish international norms and standards—a goal mentioned several times in both documents—similar to how China led the way attending global standards-body meetings and developing protocols in the 5G race

The Path Ahead 

One likely obstacle to autonomous urban air mobility and drone cargo development in China is the Chinese military. Most progress in these areas have to be coordinated with the military because of airspace use. According to 2017 Reuters reporting, local media estimate that the military controls about 80% of Chinese airspace. Chinese civil airspace is already somewhat crowded and integrating eVTOLs and other large drones will be a delicate process. 

What stands out from these documents how China perceives itself as lagging in traditional commercial aviation compared to the United States and Europe. That perception seems to serve as a motivation to leapfrog the West and lead the globe in developing commercial drone, eVTOL, and urban air mobility standards and services. The Chinese government has ambitious plans and is moving quickly. In many ways they appear to be leading early but—like 5G—this race is a marathon, not a sprint. 

The urban air mobility stories keep stacking up in 2019. A few highlights and a few thoughts.

Commercial developments

There have been tons of urban air mobility announcements, partnerships, and demos in 2019. EHang, the Chinese drone maker, seems to be farthest along in eVTOL development, though many companies are working with regulators to bring about eVTOL services in the next five years. 

In April, representatives said EHang will start selling its two-passenger, autonomous eVTOL next year for about $350,000 to commercial operators. Ehang’s co-founder says its 2-passenger autonomous eVTOL is already completing routine flights in China for tourists between a hotel and local attractions.

Uber recently announced they’ll offer shared-ride helicopter service between Manhattan and JFK airport, starting in July. This week, Voom (Airbus) announced they will expand their helicopter ridesharing service to San Francisco. They’ve been operating in Sao Paulo and Mexico City already.

These helicopter rides are targeting popular urban routes (airport-to-airport, CBD-to-airport, etc.) for customers who are willing to pay to shorten a one-hour car ride to a ten-minute helicopter ride. Fees are typically $150 to $250 one-way. Both companies want to get a sense of demand, price, and frequency for eVTOL services.

[BS – July 9 update: Last week Xin Gou, a pilot, reported on Twitter that EHang had sold 18 of its 2-passenger eVTOL aircraft, 10 in China, 8 overseas. To my knowledge, these are the first sales of passenger eVTOL aircraft in the world.]

What’s the Plan?

This makes the development of airspace markets and unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems all the more urgent. What regulators must guard against is first-movers squatting on high-revenue aerial routes.

Airspace is nominally a common-pool resource, rationed via regulation and custom. That worked tolerably well for the Wright brother era and the jet age. Still, there are massive distortions and competitive problems because an oligopoly of first movers attained popular routes and airport terminals. The common-pool resource model for airspace also leaves regulators with few tools to ration access sensibly.

From my airspace policy paper:

For example, in 1968, nearly one-third of peak-time New York City air traffic—the busiest region in the United States—was general aviation (that is, small, personal) aircraft. To combat severe congestion, local authorities raised minimum landing fees by a mere $20 (1968 dollars) on sub 25-seat aircraft. General aviation traffic at peak times immediately fell by more than 30 percent, suggesting that a massive amount of pre-July 1968 air traffic in the region was low value. The share of aircraft delayed by 30 or more minutes fell from 17 percent to about 8 percent. Similarly, Logan Airport raised fees on small aircraft in the 1980s in order to lessen congestion. The scheme worked, and general aviation traffic fell by about one-third, though the fee hike was later overturned.

There’s a revolution in aviation policy occurring. The arrival of drones, eVTOL, and urban air mobility requires a totally different framework. It seems inevitable that a layer-cake or corridor approach to airspace management will develop, even though the FAA currently resists that. As with American frontier or radio spectrum: a demand shock to Ostromian common pool resource leads to enclosure and property rights.

Already, first movers and the government are collaborating on UTM and airspace policy. But regulators must resist letting collaboration today degrade into oligopoly tomorrow. This early collaboration on technology and norms is necessary but the regulators will be under immense pressure, inside and outside the agency, to have a single UTM provider, or a few hand-picked vendors. 

A single UTM system or a tightly-integrated system with a few private system operators would reproduce many of the problems with today’s air traffic management. It is very hard to update information-rich systems, especially air traffic control systems, the delayed, over-budget NextGen modernization shows. Today there are 16,000 FAA workers working on the NextGen project, which has been ongoing since 1983. UTM will be an even more information-rich system. An system-wide upgrade to UTM would make NextGen modernization look simple by comparison.

Further, once the urban air mobility market develops, the first movers (UTM and eVTOL operators) will resist newcomers and new UTM technologies in the future. Exclusive aerial corridors, as opposed to shared corridors planned for today by regulators, would allow competitive UTM systems with only basic interoperability requirements.

Quick Hits

NETT Council: In March, USDOT Secretary Chao announced the formation of the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council. It sounds great, and one of the likely topics the Council will take up is urban air mobility.

ASI Aviation Report, “Taking Off”: The Adam Smith Institute (UK) this week published an excellent report from Matthew Lesh about improving competition and service in aviation. The UK often leads the world in deregulation and market-based management of government property (like AIP in spectrum policy), and ASI has been influential in aviation policy in particular. Report highlights:

  1. Analysis of terminal competition policies for Heathrow (which is in the midst of a major expansion project)
  2. Proposes additional slot auctions for takeoff and landing slots at UK airports
  3. Endorses aerial corridor auctions for air taxis and eVTOL

Government study of airspace auctions: My proposal that the FAA auction aerial corridors for eVTOL caught the attention of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee and was included in a working group’s 2018 report about ways to finance drone and eVTOL regulation. Section 360 of the FAA Reauthorization Act, passed a few months after the working group report came out, then instructed the GAO to study ways of financing drone and eVTOL regulation. The law specifies that the GAO must study the six proposals in that working group report, including the auction of aerial corridors.

Lincoln Network Conference: I recently had the privilege of speaking at the Lincoln Network’s Reboot American Innovation conference. Jamie Boone (CTA) and I gave a fireside chat about the fast-moving urban air mobility sector. Matt Parlmer, founder of Ohlogen, was a great moderator. Video here.

eVTOL in North Carolina: The North Carolina state appropriations bill, which is nearing passage, allocates some funds to the Lt. Governor’s office to study eVTOLs, consult with experts, and convene an eVTOL summit in the next year. The Lt. Governor might also form a state advisory committee on eVTOL, a good, forward-looking policy for states given the rapid pace of progress in urban air mobility. To my knowledge, North Carolina is the first state to dedicate funding for study of this industry.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Polis signed a bill that generally cuts off Colorado state funds from ISPs that commit “net neutrality violations” in the state. Oddly, I’ve seen no coverage from national outlets and barely a mention from local outlets. Perhaps journalists and readers have tired from what Larry Downes has dubbed the net neutrality farce, a debate about Internet regulation that has distracted the FCC and lawmakers for over a decade.

There’s not much new in the net neutrality debate, but Colorado did tread new ground: a House amendment to allow ISPs to filter adult content barely failed, on a tied vote 32-32. Net neutrality in the US runs into First Amendment and Section 230 problems, and that amendment is the first time I’ve seen the issue raised by a state legislature.

A few thoughts on the law because in March I was invited to testify before a Colorado House committee about net neutrality, broadband, and the policy implications of the then-pending bill. I commended the bill drafters for scrupulously attempting to narrow their bill to intra-state consumer protection issues. Nevertheless, it was my view that the Colorado law, as written, wouldn’t survive judicial review if litigated.

States can have agreements with vendors and contractors and can require them to abide by certain contractual terms. However, courts have held that states cannot, as Seth Cooper has pointed out, use their contractual relationships with firms to extract concessions that are “tantamount to regulation.” State agencies cannot attempt an end-around federal laws that prevent state regulation of Internet services generally, and net neutrality regulation in particular.

My testimony:

Good afternoon. My name is Brent Skorup and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. I also serve on the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

It is commendable that state legislatures, governors, and cities around the country, including in Colorado, are prioritizing broadband deployment. The focus should remain on the pressing broadband issues of competition and deployment. The political battles in Washington, DC, about net neutrality, which I have observed over the past decade, have alarmingly spread to statehouses in recent months, and they will distract from far more important issues.

Lawmakers should enter the debate with their eyes wide open about the stakes and the unintended effects of internet regulation. By imposing network management rules on certain providers, SB 19-078 conflicts with federal policy, codified in the Telecommunications Act, that internet access should be “unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”

First, net neutrality laws and regulations do not accomplish what they purportedly accomplish. As the FCC revealed when it defended its net neutrality regulations in federal court in 2016, any no-blocking rule is mostly unenforceable. As a tech journalist put it, internet service providers (ISPs) can “exempt [themselves] from the net neutrality rules”—the rules are “essentially voluntary.” The same problem arises with state net neutrality laws.

Second, state internet regulations are unlikely to survive judicial review. Internet access is inherently interstate: simply streaming a YouTube video or sending an email often transmits data across state lines. State attempts to regulate treatment of internet access therefore likely violate federal law, which vests authority to regulate interstate communications with the FCC.

Third, the bill penalizes small, rural carriers. There’s a saying in politics: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It appears that Colorado’s rural broadband providers are “on the menu.” The bill applies internet regulations only to companies receiving state support (13 companies, each one serving rural areas). With the exception of CenturyLink, these are very small telecommunications companies, and the smallest had 64 customers. It is a puzzle why the state would add regulations and compliance costs to rural ISPs at a time when the FCC and most states are doing everything possible to help deploy broadband in rural areas.

This is not a plea to “do nothing” in Colorado regarding broadband. The FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee has several recommendations for states and localities to improve broadband deployment.

Further, the FCC and some states are considering making it easier for private property owners to install wireless antennas without local regulation and fees, much like how satellite dishes are installed.

Finally, the legislature could also urge flexibility from the FCC regarding the federal high-cost fund, which disburses about $60 million annually to carriers in Colorado. My preliminary estimates using FCC data suggest that, under a new voucher program, every rural household in Colorado could receive $15 to $20 per month to reduce their monthly broadband bill.

Testimony on the Mercatus website here.

An interesting divide has opened up in recent months among right-of-center groups about what the FCC should do with the “C Band.” A few weeks ago, the FCC requested public comment on how to proceed with the band.

The C Band is 500 MHz of spectrum that the FCC, like regulators around the globe, dedicated for satellite use years ago and gave to satellite companies to share among each other. Satellite operators typically use it to transmit cable programming to a regional cable network operations center, where it is bundled and relayed to cable subscribers. However, the C Band would work terrifically if repurposed for 5G and cellular services. As Joe Kane explained in a white paper, the FCC and telecom companies are exploring various ways of accomplishing that.

Free-market groups disagree. Should the FCC prioritize:

The quick deployment of new wireless services? Or:

Deficit reduction and limiting FCC-granted windfalls?

This is a complex question since we’re dealing with the allocation of public property. Both sides, in my view, have a defensible free-market position. There are other non-trivial C Band issues like interference protection and the FCC’s authority to act here, but I’ll address the ideological split on the right.

The case for secondary markets

The full 500 MHz of “clean” C Band in the US would be worth tens of billions to cellular companies. However, the current satellite users don’t want to part with all of it and a group of satellite companies using the spectrum estimate they could sell 200 MHz to cellular carriers if the FCC would liberalize its rules to allow flexible uses (like 5G), not merely satellite services. The satellite providers would then be able to sell much of their spectrum on the secondary market (probably to cellular providers) at a nice premium.

Prof. Dan Lyons and Roslyn Layton wrote in support of the secondary market plan on the AEI blog and at Forbes, respectively. Joe Kane also favors the approach. As they say, the benefit of secondary market sales is that it will likely lead a significant and fast repurposing of the C Band for mobile use. The consumer benefits of “upzoned” spectrum are large and with every year of inaction, billions of dollars of consumer welfare evaporate. Hazlett and Munoz estimate that spectrum reallocated from a restricted use to flexible use generates annual consumer benefits in the same order of magnitude as auction value of the spectrum.

I’d add that there’s a history of the FCC upzoning spectrum (SMR spectrum in 2004, EBS spectrum in 2004, AWS-4 in 2011, WCS spectrum in 2012). The FCC is considering doing this with some government spectrum that Ligado or others could repurpose for mobile broadband. In these cases, the FCC upzoned spectrum so that it can be used for higher-valued uses, not legacy uses required by previous FCCs. The circumstances and technologies vary, but some of these bands were repurposed quickly for better uses by cellular providers and are used for 4G LTE today by tens of millions of Americans.

The case for FCC auction

Liberalizing spectrum quickly gets spectrum to higher-valued uses but does raise the complaint that the existing users are gaining an unfair windfall. I’m not sure when the C Band was allocated for satellite but many legacy assignments of spectrum were given to industries for free.

When the FCC upzones spectrum, it typically increases the value of the band. The “secondary market” plan is akin to the government giving away a parcel of public land to a developer to be used for a gas station, then deciding years later to upzone the land so that condo or office buildings can be built on it. It’s a better use for the land, but the gas station operator gains a big windfall when the property value increases. Not only is there a windfall, the government captures no revenue from the increase in the value of public property.

Free-market groups like Americans for Tax Reform, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, and Citizens Against Government Waste favor the FCC reclaiming the spectrum from satellite providers, perhaps via incentive auction, and collecting government revenue by re-selling it. If the FCC went the incentive auction route, the FCC would purchase the “satellite spectrum” (ie a low price) from the current C Band users, upzone it, and re-sell that spectrum as “mobile spectrum” (ie a high price) in an open auction. The FCC and the Treasury pocket the difference, probably several billion dollars here.

The FCC has only done one incentive auction, the 600 MHz auction. There, the FCC purchased “TV spectrum” from broadcasters and re-sold it to wireless carriers.

The benefit of this is deficit reduction and there’s more perceived fairness since there’s no big, FCC-granted windfall to legacy users. The downside is that it’s a slower, more complicated process since the FCC is deeply involved in the spectrum transfer. Arguably, however, the FCC should be deeply involved and interested in government revenue since spectrum is public property.

My view

A few years ago I would have definitely favored speed and the secondary market plan. I still lean towards that approach but I’m a little more on the fence after reading Richard Epstein’s work and others’ about the “public trust doctrine.” This is a traditional governance principle that requires public actors to receive fair value when disposing of public property. It prevents public institutions from giving discounted public property to friends and cronies. Clearly, cronyism isn’t the case here and FCC can’t undo what FCCs did generations ago in giving away spectrum. I think the need for speedy deployment trumps the windfall issue here, but it’s a closer call for me than in the past.

One proposal that hasn’t been contemplated with the C Band but might have merit is an overlay auction with a deadline. With such an auction, the FCC gives incumbent users a deadline to vacate a band (say, 5 years). The FCC then auctions flexible-use licenses in the band. The FCC receives the auction revenues and the winning bidders are allowed to deploy services immediately in the “white spaces” unoccupied by the incumbents. The winning bidders are allowed to pay the incumbents to move out before the deadline.

With an overlay auction, you get fairly rapid deployment–at least in the white spaces–and the government gains revenue from the auction. This type of auction was used to deploy cellular (PCS) in the 1990s and cellular (AWS-1) in the 2000s. However, incumbents dislike it because the deadline devalues their existing spectrum holdings.

I think overlay auctions should be considered in more spectrum proceedings because they avoid the serious windfall problems while also allowing rapid deployment of new services. That doesn’t seem in the cards, however, and secondary markets seems like the next best option.

Every week, it seems, there is a news story about another air taxi startup or test flight. Another signal of the industry’s development is that at a House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing last week, Eric Fanning, the President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, devoted most of his testimony to urging lawmaker action on air taxi (also called vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and, colloquially, flying cars) policy and infrastructure.

The technology is exciting but federal officials are interested in whether the air taxi industry will be a drain on taxpayers. Using government estimates of the air taxi industry and current tax rates for infrastructure-based industries like wireless and oil extraction, I estimate that the air taxi industry could deposit tens of billions of dollars into the US Treasury annually. Hopefully the hundreds of air taxi “vertiports” required are privately funded as well.

Air Taxi Market Size

In November, I published a Wall Street Journal piece about the rapid development and promise of the air taxi industry. Some people inquired as to the potential size of the air taxi market and government revenue. I wasn’t aware of any estimates at the time. Nevertheless, I estimated that the US market could one day reach $200 billion in revenue annually–about the size of the current US aviation market and the US wireless broadband market.

Other analyst and government estimates are now coming out, turns out, my estimates were on the conservative side. For instance, a NASA-funded study (.pdf) estimated that, at the upper limit, the US market could approach $500 billion annually, which is nearly the size of the US auto market. That would require tens of thousands of air taxis serving over 10 million passengers per day.

Experts at McKinsey, NASA, and JP Morgan Chase estimate that the global air taxi market could be anywhere from $615 billion to $3 trillion annually by 2040. Given the potential for this industry, other countries are moving quickly to commercialize air taxis. A German consultancy, Roland Berger, predicts there will be 3,000 commercial air taxis by 2025. The drone expert at the World Economic Forum believes Chinese companies are far ahead when it comes to autonomous air taxi service. That said, the operator of the Frankfurt airport announced a partnership with an eVTOL company recently, and the powerful Japanese trade and industry ministry has convened a 25-member private-public council to develop air taxis. Japanese regulators intend to make Japan the birthplace of urban air taxi service.

Private or Public Funding of Vertiports?

A key decision for US lawmakers is whether the hundreds of vertiports in the US will be privately funded and operated or will, like today’s airports, receive subsidies and public operation. A NASA study estimates that each major US city could support on average about 200 “vertiports.” That would be a major drain on taxpayers if publicly funded.

My working paper on the subject of air taxi traffic management contemplates entirely private funding of urban vertiports and infrastructure. It also proposes that the government auction aerial corridors to air taxi operators. Private infrastructure and the auction of exclusive aerial corridors, in my view, is the safest and most fiscally responsible way to develop the American air taxi market.

However, the FAA and NASA’s plans are unclear on whether air taxi infrastructure will be funded by taxpayers or funded privately. There’s a good chance the FAA and NASA will import the norms and regulations for traditional aviation–open access airspace and public funding of shared airports–into the urban air mobility market. I think that would create an anticompetitive market and be an unnecessary drain on taxpayers.

Government Revenue From the Air Taxi Industry

How much government revenue could be generated by the air taxi industry? We can look to other assets that are auctioned by government for analogues: spectrum and offshore oil sites. There is no “spectrum tax,” but wireless taxes and fees resemble a de facto tax on cellular spectrum. The Tax Foundation puts government (federal, state, and local) wireless taxes and fees at around 9% of annual wireless revenues. For oil leases on federal property, there is a government royalty amounting to about 12.5% of oil revenue.

With these figures in mind, let’s assume that government taxes and fees will one day amount to about 10% of air taxi revenues. Supposing that the US air taxi market will one day fall between my conservative estimate, $200 billion annually, and NASA’s best-case estimate, $500 billion annually, the air taxi industry could one day generate about $20 billion to $50 billion in tax revenue annually. That doesn’t include the auction revenues of aerial corridors, if implemented. If spectrum auctions and offshore oil leases are the best comparison, the auction of aerial corridors could return another $100 billion to the US Treasury.

These are tentative estimates. Market size estimates vary widely, and much depends on whether a workable regulatory framework develops. In any case, like aviation 100 years ago, it’s an exciting area to watch.