Telecom & Cable Regulation

The FCC’s Open Internet Order is long and complex and the challenge to it is likewise difficult to untangle. The agency regularly engages in ad hoc rulemaking that results, per Judge Posner, in “unprincipled compromises of Rube Goldberg complexity among contending interest groups viewed merely as clamoring suppliants who have somehow to be conciliated.” The Open Internet Order is no exception and therefore faces several legal vulnerabilities.

In my view, the soft underbelly of the Order is the agency’s position that ISPs are not First Amendment speakers. While courts are generally very deferential to agencies, they are not deferential on constitutional questions. Further, the court panel (two Democrat appointees, one Republican appointee), unfortunately, was not in the carriers’ favor. The major carriers, however, have focused their arguments on whether the agency should receive deference in classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service.

That said, it’s possible the major carriers could get at least a partial win with their arguments. That likelihood is increased because Alamo Broadband and Dan Berninger raised the First Amendment problems with the Order. Given the strength of the First Amendment arguments, the Court might shy away from reaching the issue of whether ISPs are speakers. Below, some thoughts on the moments during oral arguments that surprised me and what went according to predictions.

The Unexpected

A receptive ear in Judge Williams re: the First Amendment arguments. (Good for: ISPs) The First Amendment arguments went better than I’d expected. Alamo and Berninger’s counsel, Brett Shumate, argued the First Amendment issues well and had good responses for skeptical questions. Shumate found a receptive ear in Judge Williams, who seemed to understand the serious First Amendment risks posed by the Order. Williams repeatedly brought up the fact that MetroPCS a few years ago tried to curate the Internet and provide its customers free YouTube, only to face resistance from the FCC and net neutrality activists.

The other two judges were more skeptical but Shumate corrected some misconceptions. The biggest substantive objection from Srinivasan, who sounded the most skeptical of the First Amendment arguments, was that if the Court reaches the First Amendment issues, it has determined that the FCC has reasonably classified Internet access as a common carrier service. He suggested that this means the First Amendment issues mostly disappear. No, Shumate explained. Congress and the FCC can call services whatever they want. They could declare Google Search or Twitter feeds a common carrier service tomorrow and that would have zero effect on whether filtering by Google and Twitter is protected by the First Amendment. Tatel asked whether Section 230’s liability protections suggest ISPs are common carriers and Shumate corrected that misconception, a subject I have written on before.

A major FCC concession that ISPs have to option to change their offerings and escape common carrier regulation. (Good for: ISPs) Title II advocates are spinning the terse First Amendment exchanges as a victory. I’m not convinced. The reason the arguments didn’t generate more heat was because the FCC lawyer made a huge concession at the outset: ISPs that choose to filter the Internet are not covered by the Open Internet Order.

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 they drop out of the definition of [BIAS] and the rules don’t apply to them.”

This admission seriously undermines the purposes of the Order. The FCC is stating outright that ISPs have the option to filter and to avoid the rules. That seems to mean that Comcast’s Stream Internet protocol television service, where it is curating streaming TV programs, is not covered by the rules. If Facebook’s Free Basics or a similar service launched in the US giving free, limited access to the Web, that is not covered by the Order. Finally, this means that the many broadband packages that offer family-friendly filtering are outside of the FCC’s rules. It’s not clear how much remains to be regulated since all ISPs reserve the right to filter content and each filters at least some content.

Judge Tatel directing most questioning. (Good for: wash) Many view Judge Tatel as the “swing vote” but I was surprised at the relative quiet from Williams and Srinivasan. Tatel was the most inquisitive, by my listening. He was much more skeptical of some of the FCC’s arguments regarding interconnection than I expected but also more skeptical of the First Amendment arguments than I expected.

Little discussion of Chevron Step 0. (Good for: FCC) Many on the free-market side wanted to make this case about Chevron Step 0 and the notion that Title II is too economically and socially significant to warrant deference. Unfortunately, at oral argument there was very little discussion of Chevron Step 0.

The Expected

Focus on agency discretion. (Good for: FCC) The judges generally seem to see this as a straightforward Chevron case and the questions focused on Chevron Step 1, whether there is ambiguity in the statute about “offering telecommunications” for the FCC to interpret. As expected, the FCC did fairly well in their arguments because these technical issues are very hard to untangle.

On Chevron Step 2, whether the reinterpretation of “telecommunications service” to include Internet access was reasonable, the US Telecom attorney was strong. He leaned heavily on the fact that in Section 230, which amends the Communications Act, Congress announces a national policy that the Internet and specifically Internet access services, should remain “unfettered by Federal regulation.” That would seem to preclude the FCC from using, at the very least, its most powerful regulatory weapon–common carriage–against Internet access providers. Even if “telecommunications service” is ambiguous, he stated, it was unreasonable to include Internet access in that definition.

Focus on whether mobile broadband can be properly classified under Title II. (Benefit: ISPs) As many commentators have noted, the idea that the traditional phone network and the mobile broadband network can be classified as the same interconnected network is far-fetched. Each judge seemed very skeptical of the FCC’s argument and Tatel suggested there was a lack of adequate notice.

Srinivasan pointed out that striking down the wireless rules and maintaining the wireline rules would mean that using the same tablet in different areas of your house would lead to different regulatory treatment, depending on whether you’re on the cellular broadband network or Wifi. Title II supporters think this is pretty clever gotcha but communications law already abounds with seemingly absurd FCC- and court-created legal distinctions. (The FCC invents its own absurd distinction and offers vastly different regulatory treatment for DNS operated by an ISP v. DNS operated by literally anyone else.)

Conclusion

Predictions about major regulatory cases are notoriously difficult. I’ve read (and made) enough predictions about big court cases to know that prognosticators almost always get it wrong. If that’s the case, at least consider one thought-provoking outcome: the rules are largely struck down because the FCC provided inadequate notice on most of the major issues of classification.

If the rules, in contrast, were sustained under Chevron and judged to have had adequate notice, the Court would likely need to confront the First Amendment issues. I don’t think Tatel and Srinivasan, especially, want to rule on these hard constitutional questions. The judges must know the Supreme Court has, as Prof. Susan Crawford says, an “absolutist approach” to the First Amendment that protects speakers of all kinds. Sustaining the rules means the FCC risks a loss on First Amendment grounds on appeal that would nearly eliminate the ability of the FCC to regulate the Internet. For that reason, and because of the notice problems, the Court may strike down the rules on notice and comment grounds, thereby preserving the ability of the FCC to take a fourth bite at the apple.

On October 7th I appeared on a webinar hosted by Prof. Barry Umansky and Ball State’s Digital Policy Institute about the FCC’s Title II case before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, US Telecom Association v. FCC. The other panelists were Andrew Schwartzman of Georgetown University and Stuart Brotman of Harvard Law School and the Brookings Institution. Check it out, but here’s a brief summary of our hour-long discussion. Continue reading →

Last Friday I attended a fascinating conference hosted by the Duke Law School’s Center for Innovation Policy about television regulation and competition. It’s remarkable how quickly television competition has changed and how online video providers are putting pressure on old business models.

I’ve been working on a project about competition in technology, communications, and media and one chart that stands out is one that shows increasing competition in pay television, below. Namely, that cable providers have lost nearly 15 million subscribers since 2002. Cable was essentially the only game in town in 1990 for pay television (about 100% market share). Yet today, cable’s market share approaches 50%. This competitive pressure accounts for some cable companies trying to merge in recent years.

Much of this churn by subscribers was to satellite providers but it’s the “telephone” companies providing TV that’s really had a competitive impact in recent years. Telcos went from about 0% market share in 2005 to 13% in 2014. This new competition can be tied to Congress finally allowing telephone companies to provide TV in 1996. However, these new services didn’t really get started until a decade ago when 1) digital and IP technology improved, and 2) the FCC made it clear by deregulating DSL ISPs that telephone companies could expect a market return for investing in fiber broadband nationwide.

Pay TV Market Share TLF

UPDATE:

And below is market share data going back ten more years to 1994 using FCC data, which uses a slightly different measurement methodology (hence the kink around 2003-2004). I’ve also omitted market share of Home Satellite Dish (those large dishes you sometimes see in rural areas). Though HSD has negligible market share today, it had a few million subscribers in the mid-1990s. I may add HSD later.

Pay TV Market Share TLF 1994-2014

Those of us with deep reservations about the push for ever more unlicensed spectrum are having many of our fears realized with the new resistance to novel technologies using unlicensed spectrum. By law unlicensed spectrum users have no rights to their spectrum; unlicensed spectrum is a managed commons. In practice, however, existing users frequently act as if they own their spectrum and they can exclude others. By entertaining these complaints, the FCC simply encourages NIMBYism in unlicensed spectrum.

The general idea behind unlicensed spectrum is that by providing a free spectrum commons to any device maker who complies with certain simple rules (namely, Part 15’s low power operation requirement), device makers will develop wireless services that would never have developed if the device makers had to shell out millions for licensed spectrum. For decades, unlicensed spectrum has stimulated development and sale of millions of consumer devices, including cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, wifi access points, RC cars, and microwave ovens.

Now, however, many device makers are getting nervous about new entrants. For instance, Globalstar is developing a technology, TLPS, based on wifi standards that will use some unlicensed spectrum at 2.4 GHz and mobile carriers would like to market an unlicensed spectrum technology, LTE-U, based on 4G LTE standards that will use spectrum at 5 GHz.

This resistance from various groups and spectrum incumbents, who fear interference in “their” spectrum if these new technologies catch on, was foreseeable, which makes these intractable conflicts even more regrettable. As Prof. Tom Hazlett wrote in a 2003 essay, long before today’s conflicts, when it comes to unlicensed devices, “economic success spells its own demise.” Hazlett noted, “Where an unlicensed firm successfully innovates, open access guarantees imitation. This not only results in competition…but may degrade wireless emissions — perhaps severely.”

On the other hand, the many technical filings about potential interference to existing unlicensed devices are red herrings. Prospective device makers in these unlicensed bands have no duty to protect existing users. Part 15 rules say that unlicensed users like wifi and Bluetooth “shall not be deemed to have any vested or recognizable right to continued use of any given frequency by virtue of prior registration or certification of equipment” and that “interference must be accepted.” These rules, however, put the FCC in a self-created double bind: the agency provides no interference protection to existing users but its open access policy makes interference conflicts likely. Continue reading →

As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said of the Internet, “It is our printing press.” Unfortunately, for First Amendment purposes, regulators and courts treat our modern printing presses — electronic media — very differently from the traditional ones. Therefore, there is persistent political and activist pressure on regulators to rule that Internet intermediaries — like social networks and search engines — are not engaging in constitutionally-protected speech.

Most controversial is the idea that, as content creators and curators, Internet service providers are speakers with First Amendment rights. The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order designates ISPs as common carriers and generally prohibits ISPs from blocking Internet content. The agency asserts outright that ISPs “are not speakers.” These Title II rules may be struck down on procedural grounds, but the First Amendment issues pose a significant threat to the new rules.

ISPs are Speakers
Courts and Congress, as explained below, have long recognized that ISPs possess editorial discretion. Extensive ISP filtering was much more common in the 1990s but still exists today. Take JNet and DNet. These ISPs block large portions of Internet content that may violate religious principles. They also block neutral services like gaming and video if the subscriber wishes. JNet offers several services, including DSL Internet access, and markets itself to religious Jews. It is server-based (not client-based) and offers several types of filters, including application-based blocking, blacklists, and whitelists. Similarly, DNet, targeted mostly to Christian families in the Carolinas, offers DSL and wireless server-based filtering of content like pornography and erotic material. A strict no-blocking rule on the “last mile” access connection, which most net neutrality proponents want enforced, would prohibit these types of services. Continue reading →

The most pressing challenge in wireless telecommunications policy is transferring spectrum from inefficient legacy operators like federal agencies to the commercial sector for consumer use.

Reflecting high consumer demand for more wireless services, in early 2015 the FCC completed an auction for a small slice of prime spectrum–currently occupied by federal agencies and other non-federal incumbents–that grossed over $40 billion for the US Treasury. Increasing demand for mobile services such as Web browsing, streaming video, the Internet of Things, and gaming requires even more spectrum. Inaction means higher smartphone bills, more dropped calls, and stuttering downloads.

My latest research for the Mercatus Center, “Sweeten the Deal: Transfer of Federal Spectrum through Overlay Licenses,” was published recently and recommends the use of overlay licenses to transfer federal spectrum into commercial use. Purchasing an overlay license is like acquiring real property that contains a few tenants with unexpired leases. While those tenants have a superior possessory right to use the property, a high enough cash payment or trade will persuade them to vacate the property. The same dynamic applies for spectrum. Continue reading →

A British telecom executive alleges that Verizon and AT&T may be overcharging corporate customers approximately $9 billion a year for wholesale “special access,” services, according to the Financial Times.

The Federal Communications Commission is presently evaluating proprietary data from both providers and purchasers of high-capacity, private line (i.e., special access) services.  Some competitors want nothing less than for the FCC to regulate Verizon’s and AT&T’s prices and terms of service. There’s a real danger the FCC could be persuaded–as it has in the past–to set wholesale prices at or below cost in the name of promoting competition.  That discourages investment in the network by incumbents and new entrants alike.

As researcher Susan Gately explained in 2007, a study by her firm claimed $8.3 billion in special access “overcharges” in 2006.  She predicted they could reach $9.0-$9.5 billion in 2007.  This would mean that special access overcharges haven’t increased at all in the past seven to eight years, implying that Verizon and AT&T must not be doing a very good job “abusing their landline monopolies to hurt competitors” (the words of the Financial Times writer).

As I wrote in 2009, researchers at both the National Regulatory Research Institute (NRRI) and National Economic Research Associates (NERA) pointed out that Gately and her colleagues relied on extremely flawed FCC accounting data.  This is why the FCC required data collection from providers and purchasers in 2012, the results of which are not yet publicly known.  Both the NRRI and NERA studies suggested the possibility that accusations of overcharging could be greatly exaggerated.  If Verizon and AT&T were over-earning, their competitors would find it profitable to invest in their own facilities instead of seeking more regulation.

Verizon and AT&T are responsible for much of the investment in the network.  Many of the firms that entered the market as a result of the 1996 telecom act have been reluctant to invest in competitive facilities, preferring to lease facilities at low regulated prices.  The FCC has always expressed a preference for multiple competing networks (i.e., facilities-based competition), but taking the profit out of special access is sure to defeat this goal by making it more economical to lease.

At the same time FilmOn, an Aereo look-alike, is seeking a compulsory license to broadcast TV content, free market advocates in Congress and officials at the Copyright Office are trying to remove this compulsory license. A compulsory license to copyrighted content gives parties like FilmOn the use of copyrighted material at a regulated rate without the consent of the copyright holder. There may be sensible objections to repealing the TV compulsory license, but transaction costs–the ostensible inability to acquire the numerous permissions to retransmit TV content–should not be one of them. Continue reading →

The FCC is being dragged–reluctantly, it appears–into disputes that resemble the infamous beauty contests of bygone years, where the agency takes on the impossible task of deciding which wireless services deliver more benefits to the public. Two novel technologies used for wireless broadband–TLPS and LTE-U–reveal the growing tensions in unlicensed spectrum. The two technologies are different and pose slightly different regulatory issues but each is an attempt to bring wireless Internet to consumers. Their advocates believe these technologies will provide better service than existing wifi technology and will also improve wifi performance. Their major similarity is that others, namely wifi advocates, object that the unlicensed bands are already too crowded and these new technologies will cause interference to existing users.

The LTE-U issue is new and developing. The TLPS proceeding, on the other hand, has been pending for a few years and there are warning signs the FCC may enter into beauty contests–choosing which technologies are entitled to free spectrum–once again.

What are FCC beauty contests and why does the FCC want to avoid them? Continue reading →

After some ten years, gallons of ink and thousands of megabytes of bandwidth, the debate over network neutrality is reaching a climactic moment.

Bills are expected to be introduced in both the Senate and House this week that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to regulate paid prioritization, the stated goal of network neutrality advocates from the start. Led by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the legislation represents a major compromise on the part of congressional Republicans, who until now have held fast against any additional Internet regulation. Their willingness to soften on paid prioritization has gotten the attention of a number of leading Democrats, including Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). The only question that remains is if FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler and President Barack Obama are willing to buy into this emerging spirit of partisanship.

Obama wants a more radical course—outright reclassification of Internet services under Title II of the Communications Act, a policy Wheeler appears to have embraced in spite of reservations he expressed last year. Title II, however, would give the FCC the same type of sweeping regulatory authority over the Internet as it does monopoly phone service—a situation that stands to create a “Mother, may I” regime over what, to date, has been an wildly successful environment of permissionless innovation.

Continue reading →