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.


For decades, cities, the FCC, and Congress have mandated that cable TV operators carry certain types of TV programming, including public access channels, local broadcast channels, local public television, and children’s programming. These carriage mandates have generated several First Amendment lawsuits but cable operators have generally lost. Cable operators have junior varsity First Amendment rights and the content they distribute is more regulated than, say, newspapers, Internet service providers, search engines, and Netflix. I submitted public interest comments (with JP Mohler) to the FCC this week explaining why cable operators would likely win today if they litigated these cable carriage regulations.

Regulations requiring newspapers, book publishers, or Internet service providers to carry the government’s preferred types of content are subject to strict scrutiny, which means such regulations typically don’t survive. However, cable is different, the Supreme Court held in the 1994 Turner case. The Supreme Court said regulations about what cable operators must carry are subject to intermediate–not strict–scrutiny because cable operators (in 1994) possessed about 95% of the subscription TV market and nearly every household had a single choice for subscription TV–their local cable monopoly. In the words of the Supreme Court, cable’s content regulations “are justified by the special characteristics of the cable medium: the bottleneck monopoly power exercised by cable operators.”

As a result, the FCC enforces “leased access” regulations that require cable operators to leave blank certain TV channels and give non-affiliated programmers a chance to use that channel capacity and gain viewership. Cable operators in the 1990s sued the FCC for enforcing these regulations in a 1996 case called Time Warner v. FCC. The DC Circuit relied on the 1994 Turner case and upheld the leased access rules.

Recently, however, the FCC asked whether First Amendment interests or TV competition requires giving these regulations another look. In our public interest comment, JP and I say that these rules have outlived their usefulness and cable operators would likely win a First Amendment lawsuit against the FCC today.

Two things have changed. First, cable operators have lost their “bottleneck monopoly power” that justified, in the eyes of the Supreme Court in 1994, giving cable operators weakened First Amendment protection.

Unlike in the 1990s, cable operators face significant competition in most local markets from satellite and telco TV providers. Over 99 percent of US households have at least three pay-TV options, and cable has lost over 15 million subscriber households since 2002. In 1997, when Turner II was decided, cable had over 90 percent of the pay-TV market. Cable operators’ market share has shrunk nearly every year since, and in 2015 cable had around 54 percent market share.

This competitive marketplace has stimulated massive investment and choice in TV programming. The typical household has access to far more channels than in the past. Independent researchers found that a typical US household in 1999 received about 50 TV channels. By 2014, the typical household received over 200 TV channels. In 2018, there will be an estimated 520 scripted TV series available, which is up nearly 50 percent from just five years ago.

This emergence of TV competition and its beneficial effects in programming and consumer choice undermines the justification for upholding cable content regulations like leased access.

Second, courts are more likely to view the Supreme Court’s Denver decision about leased access regulations in a new light.  In Denver, the Supreme Court divided into concurrences as to the proper First Amendment category of cable operators, and whether intermediate or strict scrutiny should apply to the leased access laws at issue. The “Marks test” is the test lower courts use for determining the holding of a Supreme Court decision where there is no majority supporting the rationale of any opinion. Viewed through the lens of the prevailing Marks test, cable operators are entitled to “bookstore owner” status for First Amendment purposes:

Given that four justices in Denver concur that one of the potential bases for deciding cable’s First Amendment status is the classification of cable operators as bookstores and three justices concur that this classification is the definitive justification for the judgment, the narrowest grounds for resolving the issue is simply this latter justification. Under the prevailing Marks test, then, lower courts will apply strict scrutiny to the leased access rules in light of the Denver decision.

For these reasons, and the need to conserve agency resources for more pressing matters, like rural broadband deployment and spectrum auctions, we encourage the FCC to discontinue these regulations.

You can read our public interest comment about the leased access regulations at the Mercatus Center website.

Leased Access Mandates Infringe on the First Amendment Rights of Cable Operators, and the FCC Should Decline to Enforce the Regulations

The move to small cells and fixed wireless broadband means states, cities, and the FCC are changing their regulatory approaches. For decades, wireless providers have competed primarily on coverage, which meant building large cell towers all over the country, each one serving hundreds of people. That’s changing. As Commissioner Carr noted,

5G networks will look very different from today’s 4G deployments. 5G will involve the addition of hundreds of thousands of new, small-scale facilities with antennas no larger than a small backpack.

Currently, wireless companies don’t have many good options when it comes to placing these lower-power, higher-bandwidth “small cells.” They typically install small cells and 5G transmitters on public rights-of-way and on utility poles, but there may not be room on poles and attachment fees might be high. 

One thing the FCC might consider to stimulate 5G and small cell investment is to dust off its 20 year-old over-the-air-reception-device (OTARD) rules. These little-known rules protect homeowners and renters from unwarranted regulation of TV and broadband antennas placed on their property. If liberalized, the OTARD rules would open up tens of millions of other potential small cell sites–on rooftops, on balconies, and in open fields and backyards around the country. 

Background

In the early 1990s, cities and homeowner associations would sometimes prohibit, charge for, or regulate satellite dishes that homeowners or renters installed on their rooftops or balconies. Lawmakers saw a problem and wanted to jumpstart competition in television (cities had authorized cable TV monopolies for decades and cable had over 95% of the pay-TV market).

In the 1996 Telecom Act, then, Congress instructed the FCC to increase TV competition by regulating the regulators. Congress said that state, local, and HOA restrictions cannot impose restrictions that

impair a viewer’s ability to receive video programming services through devices designed for over-the-air reception of television broadcast signals, multichannel multipoint distribution service [MMDS], or direct broadcast satellite services.

With these congressional instructions, the FCC created its OTARD rules, informally known as the “pizza box rule.” Briefly stated, if your TV antenna, satellite TV receiver, or “fixed wireless” antenna is smaller than a large pizza (1 meter diameter–no cell towers in front yards), you are free to install the necessary equipment on property you control, like a yard or balcony. (There are some exceptions for safety issues and historical buildings.) The 1996 law expressly protects MMDS (now called “broadband radio service”), which includes spectrum in the 2.1 GHz, 2.5 GHz, 2.6 GHz, 28 GHz, 29 GHz, and 31 GHz bands. The Clinton FCC expanded the rules to protect, broadly, any antennas that “receive or transmit fixed wireless signals.” You can even install a mast with an antenna that extends up to 12 feet above your roofline. 

OTARD reform

The rules protect fixed wireless antennas and could see new life in the 5G world. Carriers are building small cells and fixed wireless primarily to provide faster broadband and “mobile TV” services. Millions of Americans now view their cable and Netflix content on mobile devices and carriers are starting to test mobile-focused pay-TV services. AT&T has Watch TV, T-Mobile is expected to deploy a mobile TV service soon because of its Layer3 acquisition, and reporting suggests that Verizon is approaching YouTube TV and Apple to supply TV for its 5G service. 

The FCC’s current interpretation of its OTARD rules doesn’t help 5G and small cell deployment all that much, even though the antennas are small and they transmit TV services. The actual rules don’t say this but the FCC’s interpretation is that their OTARD protections don’t protect antenna “hubs” (one-to-many transmitters like small cells). The FCC liberalized this interpretation in its Massport proceeding and allowed hub one-to-many transmitters [Correction, via Connor at the FCC: the FCC liberalized to say that one-to-many transmitters are permitted, not hub antennas.] but did not extend this interpretation for homeowners’ antennas. In short, under the current interpretation, cities and HOAs can regulate, charge for, and prohibit the installation of 5G and small cells on private property.

The FCC should consider expanding its rules to protect the installation of (low power) 5G and small cell hubs on private property. This would directly improve, per the statute, “viewers’ ability to receive video programming services” via wireless. It would have the ancillary effect of improving other wireless services. The prospect of installing small cells on private property, even temporarily, should temper the fees carriers are charged to use the public rights-of-way and poles.

In rural areas, the FCC might also consider modifying the rules to allow masts that extend beyond 12 feet above the roofline. Transmitters even a few feet taller would improve wireless backhaul and coverage to nearby homes, thus increasing rural broadband deployment and IP-based television services.

Wireless trends

OTARD reform is especially timely today because the Wheeler and Pai FCCs have freed up several bands of spectrum and fixed wireless is surging. Fixed wireless and mesh network providers using CBRS and other spectrum bands could benefit from more installation sites, particularly in rural areas. C Spire, for instance, is creating “hub homes” for fixed wireless, and Starry and Rise Broadband are expanding their service areas. CableLabs is working on upgrading cable networks for mobile and 5G backhaul and cable operators might benefit from OTARD reform and more outside infrastructure.

Modifying the OTARD rules might be controversial but modification directly gives consumers and homeowners more control over improving broadband service in their neighborhood, just as the rules improved TV competition in the past. Courts are pretty deferential when agencies change an interpretation of an existing rule. Further, as the agency said years ago:

The Federal Communications Commission has consistently maintained that it has the ultimate responsibility to determine whether the public interest would be served by construction of any specific antenna tower.

The future of wireless services is densification–putting fiber and small cells all over downtowns and neighborhoods in order to increase broadband capacity for cutting-edge services, like smart glasses for the blind and remote-controlled passenger cars. The OTARD rules and the FCC’s authority over wireless antennas provides another tool to improve wireless coverage and TV services.

Though ubiquitous in urban and rural landscapes, most people barely notice utility poles. Nevertheless, utility poles play a large role in national broadband policy. Improving pole access won’t generate the headlines like billion-dollar spectrum auctions and repeal of Title II Internet regulations, but it’s just as important for improving broadband competition and investment. To that end, the FCC is proposing to create “one-touch-make-ready” rules for FCC-regulated utility poles across the country. I was pleased to see that the FCC will likely implement this and other policy recommendations from the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.*

“Access regulations”–like must-carry of broadcast TV, net neutrality, and telecom network unbundling–are always controversial and frequently fail. However, in my view, one-touch-make-ready is an example of useful access regulation and I think it’s likely to succeed at its aims–more broadband competition and investment. Pole access appears to be, using former FCC chief economist Jerry Faulhaber’s phrase, an efficient market boundary. FCC pole access mandates are feasible because the “interface”–physical wires and poles–is relatively simple and regulatory compliance–did the entrant damage existing users? did they provide notice?–is pretty easy to ascertain. Typically, visual inspection will reveal damage and the liable party is usually obvious.

As the FCC says in the proposed order, these proposed modifications and one-touch-make-ready,

put[] the parties most interested in efficient broadband deployment—new attachers—in a position to control the survey and make-ready processes.

Reasonable people (even on the free-market side) will disagree about how to regulate utility pole access. One-touch-make-ready was a controversial proposal and commercial operators have been divided on the issue. In the end, it was not unanimous but the BDAC reached large consensus on the issue. In my view, the FCC struck the right balance in protecting existing companies’ equipment and promoting infrastructure construction and competitive entry.

Some utility pole basics: Utility poles are often owned by a phone company, a utility company, or a city. At the top of utility poles are electric lines. (The FCC is not talking about doing work near the electric lines on top, which is trickier and more dangerous for obvious reasons.) The rule changes here affect the “communications space,” which is midway up the poles and typically has one or several copper, coaxial, or fiber lines strung across.

For decades, the “market” for communications space access was highly regulated but stable. National and local policy encouraged monopoly phone service and cable TV provision and, therefore, entrants rarely sought access to string up lines on utility poles. In the 1990s, however, phone and cable was deregulated and competition became national policy. In the last ten years, as the price of fiber broadband provision has fallen and consumer demand for competitive broadband options has increased, new companies–notably Google Fiber–have needed access to utility poles. The FCC notes in its proposed order that, going forward, “small cell” and 5G deployments will benefit from competitive, lower-cost fiber providers.

The pre-2018 approach to pole attachments, wherein many parties had effective veto rights over new entrants, was creating too many backlogs and discouraging competitive providers from making the investments necessary. The FCC’s proposed rules streamline the process by creating tighter deadlines for other parties to respond to new entrants. The rules also give new entrants new privileges and greater control in constructing new lines and equipment, so long as they notify existing users and don’t damage existing lines.

I’m pleased to see that the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee’s recommendations are proving useful to the agency. It’s encouraging that this FCC, by taking a weed-whacker to legacy policies regarding spectrum, pole access, and net neutrality, is taking steps to improve broadband in America.

 

*I’m the vice chair of the Competitive Access working group.

Related research and commentary:

The Importance of Spectrum Access to the Future of Innovation (pdf)

A Truly ‘Open Internet’ Would Be Free of Burdensome FCC Regulation (NRO)

Lawmakers frequently hear impressive-sounding stats about net neutrality like “83% of voters support keeping FCC’s net neutrality rules.” This 83% number (and similar “75% of Republicans support the rules”) is based on a survey from the Program for Public Consultation released in December 2017, right before the FCC voted to repeal the 2015 Internet regulations.

These numbers should be treated with skepticism. This survey generates these high approval numbers by asking about net neutrality “rules” found nowhere in the 2015 Open Internet Order. The released survey does not ask about the substance of the Order, like the Title II classification, government price controls online, or the FCC’s newly-created authority to approve of and disapprove of new Internet services.

Here’s how the survey frames the issue:

Under the current regulations, ISPs are required to:   

provide customers access to all websites on the internet.   

provide equal access to all websites without giving any websites faster or slower download speeds.  

The survey then essentially asks the participant if they favor these “regulations.” The nearly 400-page Order is long and complex and I’m guessing the survey creators lacked expertise in this area because this is a serious misinterpretation of the Order. This framing is how net neutrality advocates discuss the issue, but the Obama FCC’s interpretations of the 2015 Order look nothing like these survey questions. Exaggeration and misinformation is common when discussing net neutrality and unfortunately these pollsters contributed to it. (The Washington Post Fact Checker column recently assigned “Three Pinocchios” to similar net neutrality advocate claims.)

Let’s break down these rules ostensibly found in the 2015 Order.

“ISPs are required to provide customers access to all websites on the internet”

This is wrong. The Obama FCC was quite clear in the 2015 Order and during litigation that ISPs are free to filter the Internet and block websites. From the oral arguments:

FCC lawyer: “If [ISPs] want to curate the Internet…that would drop them out of the definition of Broadband Internet Access Service.”
Judge Williams: “They have that option under the Order?”
FCC lawyer: “Absolutely, your Honor. …If they filter the Internet and don’t provide access to all or substantially all endpoints, then…the rules don’t apply to them.”

As a result, the judges who upheld the Order said, “The Order…specifies that an ISP remains ‘free to offer ‘edited’ services’ without becoming subject to the rule’s requirements.”

Further, in the 1996 Telecom Act, Congress gave Internet access providers legal protection in order to encourage them to block lewd and “objectionable content.” Today, many ISPs offer family-friendly Internet access that blocks, say, pornographic and violent content. An FCC Order cannot and did not rewrite the Telecom Act and cannot require “access to all websites on the internet.”

“ISPs are required to provide equal access to all websites without giving any websites faster or slower download speeds”

Again, wrong. There is no “equal access to all websites” mandate (see above). Further, the 2015 Order allows ISPs to prioritize certain Internet traffic because preventing prioritization online would break Internet services.

This myth–that net neutrality rules require ISPs to be dumb pipes, treating all bits the same–has been circulated for years but is derided by networks experts. MIT computer scientist and early Internet developer David Clark colorfully dismissed this idea as “happy little bunny rabbit dreams.” He pointed out that prioritization has been built into Internet protocols for years and “[t]he network is not neutral and never has been.” 

Other experts, such as tech entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban and President Obama’s former chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, have observed that the need for Internet “fast lanes” as Internet services grow more diverse. Further, the nature of interconnection agreements and content delivery networks mean that some websites pay for and receive better service than others.

This is not to say the Order is toothless. It authorizes government price controls and invents a vague “general conduct standard” that gives the agency broad authority to reject, favor, and restrict new Internet services. The survey, however, declined to ask members of the public about the substance of the 2015 rules and instead asked about support for net neutrality slogans that have only a tenuous relationship with the actual rules.

“Net neutrality” has always been about giving the FCC, the US media regulator, vast authority to regulate the Internet. In doing so, the 2015 Order rejects the 20-year policy of the United States, codified in law, that the Internet and Internet services should be “unfettered by Federal or State regulation.” The US tech and telecom sector thrived before 2015 and the 2017 repeal of the 2015 rules will reinstate, fortunately, that light-touch regulatory regime.

Mobile broadband is a tough business in the US. There are four national carriers–Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint–but since about 2011, mergers have been contemplated (and attempted, but blocked). Recently, the competition has gotten fiercer. The higher data buckets and unlimited data plans have been great for consumers.

The FCC’s latest mobile competition report, citing UBS data, says that industry ARPU (basically, monthly revenue per subscriber), which had been pretty stable since 1998, declined significantly from 2013 to 2016 from about $46 to about $36. These revenue pressures seemed to fall hardest on Sprint, who in February, issued $1.5 billion of “junk bonds” to help fund its network investments. Analysts pointed out in 2016 that “Sprint has not reported full-year net profits since 2006.” Further, mobile TV watching is becoming a bigger business. AT&T and Verizon both plan to offer a TV bundle to their wireless customers this year, and T-Mobile’s purchase of Layer3 indicates an interest in offering a mobile TV service.

It’s these trends that probably pushed T-Mobile and Sprint to announce yesterday their intention to merge. All eyes will be on the DOJ and the FCC as their competition divisions consider whether to approve the merger.

The Core Arguments

Merger opponents’ primary argument is what’s been raised several times since the 2011 AT&T-T-Mobile aborted merger: this “4 to 3” merger significantly raises the prospect of “tacit collusion.” After the merger, the story goes, the 3 remaining mobile carriers won’t work as hard to lower prices or improve services. While outright collusion on prices is illegal, they have a point that tacit collusion is more difficult for regulators to prove, to prevent, and to prosecute.

The counterargument, that T-Mobile and Sprint are already making, is that “mobile” is not a distinct market anymore–technologies and services are converging. Therefore, tacit collusion won’t be feasible because mobile broadband is increasingly competing with landline broadband providers (like Comcast and Charter), and possibly even media companies (like Netflix and Disney). Further, they claim, T-Mobile and Sprint going it alone will each struggle to deploy a capex-intensive 5G network that can compete with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast-NBCU, and the rest, but the merged company will be a formidable competitor in TV and in consumer and enterprise broadband.

Competitive Review

Any prediction about whether the deal will be approved or denied is premature. This is a horizontal merger in a highly-visible industry and it will receive an intense antitrust review. (Rachel Barkow and Peter Huber have an informative 2001 law journal article about telecom mergers at the DOJ and FCC.) The DOJ and FCC will seek years of emails and financial records from Sprint and T-Mobile executives and attempt to ascertain the “real” motivation for the merger and its likely consumer effects.

T-Mobile and Sprint will likely lean on evidence that consumers view (or soon will view) mobile broadband and TV as a substitute for landline broadband and TV. Much like phone and TV went from “local markets with one or two competitors” years ago to a “national market with several competitors,” their story seems to be, broadband is following a similar trajectory and viewing this as a 4 to 3 merger misreads industry trends.

There’s preliminary evidence that mobile broadband will put competitive pressure on conventional, landline broadband. Census surveys indicate that in 2013, 10% of Internet-using households were mobile Internet only (no landline Internet). By 2015, about 20% of households were mobile-only, and the proportion of Internet users who had landline broadband actually fell from 82% to 75%. But this is still preliminary and I haven’t seen economic evidence yet that mobile is putting pricing pressure on landline TV and broadband.

FCC Review

Antitrust review is only one step, however. The FCC transaction review process is typically longer and harder to predict. The FCC has concurrent authority with the DOJ under the Clayton Act to review telecommunications mergers under Sections 7 and 11 of the Clayton Act but it has never used that authority. Instead, the FCC uses its spectrum transfer review authority as a hook to evaluate mergers using the Communication Act’s (vague) “public interest standard.” Unlike antitrust standards, which generally put the burden on regulators to show consumer and competitive harm, the public interest standard as currently interpreted puts the burden on merging companies to show social and competitive benefits.

Hopefully the FCC will hew to a more rigorous antitrust inquiry and reform the open-ended public interest inquiry. As Chris Koopman and I wrote for the law journal a few years ago, these FCC  “public interest” reviews are sometimes excessively long and advocates use the vague standards to force the FCC into ancillary concerns, like TV programming decisions and “net neutrality” compliance.

Part of the public interest inquiry is a complex “spectrum screen” analysis. Basically, transacting companies can’t have too much “good” spectrum in a single regional market. I doubt the spectrum screen analysis would be dispositive (much of the analysis in the past seemed pretty ad hoc), but I do wonder if it will be an issue since this was a major issue raised in the AT&T-T-Mobile attempted merger.

In any case, that’s where I see the core issues, though we’ll learn much more as the merger reviews commence.

Expanding rural broadband has generated significant interest in recent years. However, the current subsidy programs are often mismanaged and impose little accountability. It’s not clear what effect rural broadband subsidies have had, despite the amount of money spent on it. As economist Scott Wallsten has pointed out, the US government has spent around $100 billion on rural telecommunications and broadband since 1995 “without evidence that it has improved adoption.”

So I was pleased to hear a few months ago that the Montana Public Service Commission was making an inquiry into how to improve rural broadband subsidy programs. Montana looms large in rural broadband discussions because Montana telecommunications providers face some of the most challenging terrain the US–mountainous, vast, and lightly-populated. (In fact, “no bars on your phone” in rural Montana is a major plot element in the popular videogame Far Cry 5. HT Rob Jackson.)

I submitted comments in the Montana PSC proceeding and received an invitation to testify at a hearing on the subject. So last week I flew to Helena to discuss rural broadband programs with the PSC and panelists. I emphasized three points.

  • Federal broadband subsidy programs are facing higher costs and fewer beneficiaries.

Using FCC data, I calculated that since 1998, USF high-cost subsidies to Montana telecom companies have risen by about 40% while the number of rural customers served by those companies have decreased by over 50%. I suspect these trends are common nationally, and that USF subsidies are increasing while fewer people are benefiting.

  • Wireless broadband is the future, especially in rural areas.

“Fiber everywhere” is not a wise use of taxpayer funds and exurban and rural households are increasingly relying on wireless–from satellite, WISPs, and mobile. In 2016, the CDC reported that more households had wireless phone than landline phone service. You’re starting to see “cord cutting” pick up for broadband as well. Census surveys indicate that in 2013, 10% of Internet-using households were mobile Internet only (no landline Internet). By 2015, that percentage had doubled, and about 20% of households were mobile-only. The percentage is likely even higher today now that unlimited data plans are common. Someday soon the FCC will have to conclude that mobile broadband is a substitute for fixed broadband, and subsidy programs should reflect that.

  • Consumer-focused “tech vouchers” would be a huge improvement over current broadband programs.

Current programs subsidize the construction of networks even where there’s no demand. The main reason the vast majority of non-Internet users don’t subscribe to broadband is that they are uninterested in subscribing, according to surveys from the NTIA (55% are uninterested), Pew (70% are uninterested), and FCC and Connected Nation experts (63% are uninterested). With rising costs and diminishing returns to rural fiber construction, the FCC needs to reevaluate USF and make subsidies more consumer-focused. The UK for a couple years has pursued another model for rural broadband: consumer broadband vouchers. Since most people who don’t subscribe to broadband don’t want it, vouchers protect taxpayers from unnecessary expense and paying for gold-plated services.

For years, economists and the GAO have criticized the structure, complexity, and inefficiency of the USF programs, and particularly the rural program. The FCC is constantly changing the programs because of real and perceived deficiencies, but this has made the USF unwieldy. Montana providers participate in at least seven different rural USF programs alone (that doesn’t include the other USF programs and subprograms or other federal help, like RUS grants).

Unfortunately, most analysis and reporting on US broadband programs can be summed up as “don’t touch the existing programs–just send more money.” (There are some exceptions and scrutiny of the programs, like Tony Romm’s 2015 Politico investigation into the mismanagement of stimulus-funded Ag Department broadband projects.)

“Journalism as advocacy” is unfortunately the norm when it comes to broadband policy. Take, for instance, this article about the digital divide that omits mention of the $100 billion spent in rural areas alone, only to conclude that “small [broadband] companies and cooperatives are going it more or less alone, without much help yet from the federal government.”

(That story and another digital divide story had other problems, namely, a reliance on an academic study using faulty data purchased from a partisan campaign firm. FiveThirtyEight deserves credit for acknowledging the data’s flaws but that should have alerted the editors on the need for still more fact-checking.) 

States can’t rewrite federal statutes and regulations but it’s to the Montana PSC’s great credit that they sensed that all is not well. Current trends will only put more stress on the programs. Hopefully other state PUCs will see that the current programs do a disservice for universal service objectives and consumers.

Years ago it looked like the Obama FCC would make broadband deployment, especially wireless service and spectrum reform, a top priority. They accomplished plenty–including two of the largest spectrum auctions to date–but, under tremendous political and special interest pressure, FCC leadership diverted significant agency resources into regulatory battles that had very little upside, like regulating TV apps and unprecedented regulation of Internet services.

Fortunately, the Trump FCC so far has made broadband deployment the agency’s top priority, which Chairman Pai signaled last year with the creation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. As part of those deployment efforts, Commissioner Carr has led an effort to streamline some legacy regulatory obstacles, like historic preservation and environmental reviews and the FCC will vote this week on an order to expedite wireless infrastructure construction.

According to the FCC, somewhere around 96% of the US population has LTE coverage from three or more wireless operators, like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. The operators’ job isn’t done in rural areas, but much of the future investment into broadband networks will be to “densify” their existing coverage maps with “small cells” in order to provide wireless customers more bandwidth.

Since telecom companies build infrastructure, many current projects require review under the federal National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. However, unlike for the 100-foot cellphone towers in the past, the environmental checklists currently required for small cells are largely perfunctory since small cells typically use existing infrastructure, like utility poles. For Sprint’s tens of thousands of small cell site applications, for instance, the proposed order says “every single review resulted in a finding of no significant impact.”

The order under consideration will bring some structure to regulatory timelines and procedures. This should save carriers on unnecessary regulatory overhead and, more importantly, save time.

The order comes at a crucial time, which is why the prior FCC’s net neutrality distractions are so regrettable. Mobile broadband has huge demands and inadequate infrastructure and spectrum. According to studies, millions of Americans are going “mobile only,” and bypassing landline Internet service. Census Bureau surveys estimated that in 2015, about 20% of Internet-using households were mobile-only. (HT to Michael Horney.) That number is likely even higher today.

The construction of higher-capacity and 5G wireless, combined with repeal of the 2015 Internet regulations, will give consumers more options and better prices for Internet services, and will support new mobile applications like remote-control of driverless cars and AR “smart glasses” for blind people. Hopefully, after this order, the agency will continue with spectrum liberalization and other reforms that will expedite broadband projects.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) proposed to mandate a government-designed “talking cars” technology–so-called DSRC devices–on all new cars. Fortunately, in part because of opposition from free-market advocates, the Trump administration paused the proposed mandate. The FCC had set aside spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for DSRC technologies in 1999 but it’s been largely unused since then and these new developments raise the question: What to do with that 75 MHz of fairly “clean” spectrum? Hopefully the FCC will take the opportunity to liberalize the use of the DSRC band so it can be put to better uses.

Background

Since the mid-1990s, the USDOT and auto device suppliers have needed the FCC’s assistance–via free spectrum–to jumpstart the USDOT’s vehicle-to-vehicle technology plans. The DSRC disappointment provides an illustration of what the FCC (and other agencies) should not do. DSRC was one of the FCC’s last major “beauty contests,” which is where the agency dispenses valuable spectrum for free on the condition it be used for certain, narrow uses–in this case, only USDOT-approved wireless systems for transportation. The grand plans for DSRC haven’t lived up to its expectations (USDOT officials in 2004 were predicting commercialization as early as 2005) and the device mandate in 2016–now paused–was a Hail Mary attempt to compel widespread adoption of the technology.

Last year, I submitted public interest comments to the USDOT opposing the proposed DSRC mandate as premature, anticompetitive, and unsafe (researchers found, for instance, that “the system will be able to reliably predict collisions only about 35% of the time”). I noted that, after nearly 20 years of work on DSRC, the USDOT and their hand-selected vendors had made little progress and were being leapfrogged by competing systems, like automatic emergency brakes, to say nothing of self-driving cars. The FCC has noticed the fallow DSRC spectrum and Commissioners O’Rielly and Rosenworcel proposed in 2015 to allow other, non-DSRC wireless technologies, like WiFi, into the band.

The FCC’s Role

These DSRC devices use spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band. The FCC set aside radio spectrum in the band for DSRC applications in 1999 based on a scant 19 comments and reply comments from outside parties. 

Despite the typical flowery language in the 1999 Order, FCC commissioners and Wireless Bureau staff must have had an inkling this was not a good idea. After decades of beauty contests, it was clear the spectrum set-asides were inefficient and anticonsumer, and in 1993 Congress gave the FCC authority to auction spectrum to the highest bidder. The FCC also moved towards “flexible-use” licenses in the 1990s, thus replacing top-down technology choices with market-driven ones. The DSRC set-aside broke from those practices, likely because DSRC in 1999 had powerful backers that the FCC simply couldn’t ignore: the USDOT, device vendors, automakers, and some members of Congress.

The FCC then codified the first DSRC standards in 2003. However, innovation at the speed of government, it turns out, isn’t very speedy at all. The fast-moving connected car industry simply moved ahead without waiting for DSRC technology to catch up. (Government-selected vendors making devices according to 15-year old government-prescribed technical standards on spectrum allocated by the government in 1999. Gee, what could go wrong?)

A Second Chance

So if the DSRC plans didn’t pan out, what should be done with that spectrum? Hopefully the FCC will liberalize the band and, possibly, combine it with the adjacent bands.

The gold standard for maximizing the use of spectrum is flexible-use, licensed spectrum, so the best option is probably liberalizing the DSRC spectrum, combining it with the adjacent higher band (5.925 GHz to 6.425 GHz) and auctioning it. In November 2017, the FCC asked about freeing this latter band for flexible, licensed use.  

The other (probably more popular) option is liberalizing the DSRC band and making it available for free, that is, unlicensed use. Giving away spectrum for free often leads to misallocation but this option is better than keeping it dedicated for DSRC technology. Unlicensed is for flexible uses and allows for many consumer technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, and unlicensed LTE devices.

Further, because of global technical standards, unlicensed devices in the DSRC band make far more sense, it seems to me, in 5.9 GHz than in the CBRS band* (3.6 GHz), which many countries are using for licensed services like LTE. The FCC is currently trying to simplify the rules in the CBRS band to encourage investment in licensed services, and perhaps that’s a compromise the FCC will reach with those who want more unlicensed spectrum: make 3.6 GHz more accommodating for licensed, flexible uses but in return open the DSRC band to unlicensed devices.

Either way, the FCC has an opportunity to liberalize the use of the DSRC band. Grand plans for DSRC didn’t work out and hopefully the FCC can repurpose that spectrum for flexible uses, either licensed or unlicensed.

 

 

*Technically, the GAA devices in the CBRS band are non-exclusive licenses, but the rules intentionally resemble an unlicensed framework.

Internet regulation advocates lost their fight at the FCC, which voted in December 2017 to rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order. Regulation advocates have now taken their “net neutrality” regulations to the states.

Some state officials–via procurement contracts, executive order, or legislation–are attempting to monitor and regulate traffic management techniques and Internet service provider business models in the name of net neutrality. No one, apparently, told these officials that government-mandated net neutrality principles are dead in the US.

As the litigation over the 2015 rules showed, our national laissez faire policy towards the Internet and our First Amendment guts any attempt to enforce net neutrality. Recall that the 1996 amendments to the Communications Act announce a clear national policy about the Internet: Continue reading →

Last week the FCC commissioners voted to restructure the agency and create an Office of Economics and Analytics. Hopefully the new Office will give some rigor to the “public interest standard” that guides most FCC decisions. It’s important the FCC formally inject economics in to public interest determinations, perhaps much like the Australian telecom regulator’s “total welfare standard,” which is basically a social welfare calculation plus consideration of “broader social impacts.”

In contrast, the existing “standard” has several components and subcomponents (some of them contradictory) depending on the circumstances; that is, it’s no standard at all. As the first general counsel of the Federal Radio Commission, Louis Caldwell, said of the public interest standard, it means

as little as any phrase that the drafters of the Act could have used and still comply with the constitutional requirement that there be some standard to guide the administrative wisdom of the licensing authority.

Unfortunately, this means public interest determinations are largely shielded from serious court scrutiny. As Judge Posner said of the standard in Schurz Communications v. FCC,

So nebulous a mandate invests the Commission with an enormous discretion and correspondingly limits the practical scope of responsible judicial review.

Posner colorfully characterized FCC public interest analysis in that case:

The Commission’s majority opinion … is long, but much of it consists of boilerplate, the recitation of the multitudinous parties’ multifarious contentions, and self-congratulatory rhetoric about how careful and thoughtful and measured and balanced the majority has been in evaluating those contentions and carrying out its responsibilities. Stripped of verbiage, the opinion, like a Persian cat with its fur shaved, is alarmingly pale and thin.

Every party who does significant work before the FCC has agreed with Judge Posner’s sentiments at one time or another.

Which brings us to the Office of Economics and Analytics. Cost-benefit analysis has its limits, but economic rigor is increasingly important as the FCC turns its attention away from media regulation and towards spectrum assignment and broadband subsidies.

The worst excesses of FCC regulation are in the past where, for instance, one broadcaster’s staff in 1989 “was required to review 14,000 pages of records to compile information for one [FCC] interrogatory alone out of 299.” Or when, say, FCC staff had to sift through and consider 60,000 TV and radio “fairness” complaints in 1970. These regulatory excesses were corrected by economists (namely, Ronald Coase’s recommendation that spectrum licenses be auctioned, rather than given away for free by the FCC after a broadcast “beauty contest” hearing), but history shows that FCC proceedings spiral out of control without the agency intending it.

Since Congress gave such a nebulous standard, the FCC is always at risk of regressing. Look no further than the FCC’s meaningless “Internet conduct standard” from its 2015 Open Internet Order. This “net neutrality” regulation is a throwback to the bad old days, an unpredictable conduct standard that–like the Fairness Doctrine–would constantly draw the FCC into social policy activism and distract companies with interminable FCC investigations and unknowable compliance requirements.

In the OIO’s mercifully short life, we saw glimpses of the disputes that would’ve distracted the agency and regulated companies. For instance, prominent net neutrality supporters had wildly different views about whether a common practice, “zero rating” of IP content, by T-Mobile violated the Internet conduct standard. Chairman Tom Wheeler initially called it “highly innovative and highly competitive” while Harvard professor Susan Crawford said it was “dangerous” and “malignant” and should be outlawed “immediately.” The nearly year-long FCC investigations into zero rating and the equivocal report sent a clear, chilling message to ISPs and app companies: 20 years of permissionless innovation for the Internet was long enough. Submit your new technologies and business plans to us or face the consequences.

Fortunately, by rescinding the 2015 Order and creating the new economics Office, Chairman Pai and his Republican colleagues are improving the outlook for the development of the Internet. Hopefully the Office will make social welfare calculations a critical part of the public interest standard.