Wireless & Spectrum Policy

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.

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.

There was a bold, bizarre proposal published by Axios yesterday that includes leaked documents by a “senior National Security Council official” for accelerating 5G deployment in the US. “5G” refers to the latest generation of wireless technologies, whose evolving specifications are being standardized by global telecommunications companies as we speak. The proposal highlights some reasonable concerns–the need for secure networks, the deleterious slowness in getting wireless infrastructure permits from thousands of municipalities and counties–but recommends an unreasonable solution–a government-operated, nationwide wireless network.

The proposal to nationalize some 5G equipment and network components needs to be nipped in the bud. It relies on the dated notion that centralized government management outperforms “wasteful competition.” It’s infeasible and would severely damage the US telecom and Internet sector, one of the brightest spots in the US economy. The plan will likely go nowhere but the fact it’s being circulated by administration officials is alarming.

First, a little context. In 1927, the US nationalized all radiofrequency spectrum, and for decades the government rations out dribbles of spectrum for commercial use (though much has improved since liberalization in the 1990s). To this day all spectrum is nationalized and wireless companies operate at sufferance. What this new document proposes is to make a poor situation worse.

In particular, the presentation proposes to re-nationalize 500 MHz of spectrum (the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band, which contains mostly satellite and government incumbents) and build wireless equipment and infrastructure across the country to transmit on this band. The federal government would act as a wholesaler to the commercial networks (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, etc.), who would sell retail wireless plans to consumers and businesses.

The justification for nationalizing a portion of 5G networks has a national security component and an economic component: prevent Chinese spying and beat China in the “5G race.”

The announced goals are simultaneously broad and narrow, and at severe tension.

The plan is broad in that it contemplates nationalizing part of the 5G equipment and network. However, it’s narrow in that it would nationalize only a portion of the 5G network (3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz) and not other portions (like 600 MHz and 28 GHz). This undermines the national security purpose (assuming it’s even feasible to protect the nationalized portion) since 5G networks interconnect. It’d be like having government checkpoints on Interstate 95 but leaving all other interstates checkpoint-free.

Further, the document author misunderstands the evolutionary nature of 5G networks. 5G for awhile will be an overlay on the existing 4G LTE network, not a brand-new parallel network, as the NSC document assumes. 5G equipment will be installed on 4G LTE infrastructure in neighborhoods where capacity is strained. As Sherif Hanna, director of the 5G team at Qualcomm, noted on Twitter, in fact, “the first version of the 5G [standard]…by definition requires an existing 4G radio and core network.”

The most implausible idea in the document is a nationwide 5G network could be deployed in the next few years. Environmental and historic preservation review in a single city can take longer than that. (AT&T has battled NIMBYs and local government in San Francisco for a decade, for instance, to install a few hundred utility boxes on the public right-of-way.) The federal government deploying and maintaining hundreds of thousands 5G installations in two years from scratch is a pipe dream. And how to pay for it? The “Financing” section in the document says nothing about how the federal government will find tens of billions of dollars for nationwide deployment of a government 5G network.

The plan to nationalize a portion of 5G wireless networks and deploy nationwide is unwise and unrealistic. It would permanently damage the US broadband industry, it would antagonize city and state officials, it would raise serious privacy and First Amendment concerns, and it would require billions of new tax dollars to deploy. The released plan would also fail to ensure the network security it purports to protect. US telecom companies are lining up to pay the government for spectrum and to invest private dollars to build world-class 5G networks. If the federal government wants to accelerate 5G deployment, it should sell more spectrum and redirect existing government funding towards roadside infrastructure. Network security is a difficult problem but nationalizing networks is overkill.

Already, four out of five [update: all five] FCC commissioners have come out strongly against this plan. Someone reading the NSC proposal would get the impression that the US is sitting still while China is racing ahead on 5G. The US has unique challenges but wireless broadband deployment is probably the FCC’s highest priority. The Commission is aware of the permitting problems and formed the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee in part for that very purpose (I’m a member). The agency, in cooperation with the Department of Commerce, is also busy looking for more spectrum to release for 5G.

Recode is reporting that White House officials are already distancing the White House from the proposal. Hopefully they will publicly reject the plan soon.

Internet regulation advocates are trying to turn a recent FCC Notice of Inquiry about the state of US telecommunications services into a controversy. Twelve US Senators have accused the FCC of wanting to “redefin[e] broadband” in order to “abandon further efforts to connect Americans.”

Considering Chairman Pai and the Commission are already considering actions to accelerate the deployment of broadband, with new proceedings and the formation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, the allegation that the current NOI is an excuse for inaction is perplexing.

The true “controversy” is much more mundane–reasonable people disagree about what congressional neologisms like “advanced telecommunications capability” mean. The FCC must interpret and apply the indeterminate language of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which requires the FCC about whether to determine “whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.” If the answer is negative, the agency must “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” The inquiry is reported in an annual “Broadband Progress Report.” Much of the “scandal” of this proceeding is confusion about what “broadband” means.

What is broadband?

First: what qualifies as “broadband” download speed? It depends.

The OECD says anything above 256 kbps.

ITU standards set it at above 1.5 Mbps (or is 2.0 Mbps?).

In the US, broadband is generally defined as a higher speed. The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service defines it as 4.0 Mbps.

The FCC’s 2015 Broadband Progress Report found, as Obama FCC officials put it, that “the FCC’s definition of broadband” is now 25 Mbps. This is why advocates insist “broadband access” includes only wireline services above 25 Mbps.

But in the same month, the Obama FCC determined in the Open Internet Order that anything above dialup speed–56 kbps–is “broadband Internet access service.”

So, according to regulation advocates, 1.5 Mbps DSL service isn’t “broadband access” service but it is “broadband Internet access service.” Likewise a 30 Mbps 4G LTE connection isn’t a “broadband access” service but it is “broadband Internet access service.”

In other words, the word games about “broadband” are not coming from the Trump FCC. There is no consistency for what “broadband” means because prior FCCs kept changing the definition, and even use the term differently in different proceedings. As the Obama FCC said in 2009, “In previous reports to Congress, the Commission used the terms ‘broadband,’ ‘advanced telecommunications capability,’ and ‘advanced services’ interchangeably.”

Instead, what is going on is that the Trump FCC is trying to apply Section 706 to the current broadband market. The main questions are, what is advanced telecommunications capability, and is it “being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion”?

Is mobile broadband an “advanced telecommunications capability”?

Previous FCCs declined to adopt a speed benchmark for when wireless service satisfies the “advanced telecommunications capability” definition. The so-called controversy is because the latest NOI revisits this omission in light of consumer trends. The NOI straightforwardly asks whether mobile broadband above 10 Mbps satisfies the statutory definition of “advanced telecommunications capability.”

For that, the FCC must consult the statute. Such a capability, the statute says, is technology-neutral (i.e. includes wireless and “fixed” connections) and “enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications.”

Historically, since the statute doesn’t provide much precision, the FCC has examined subscription rates of various broadband speeds and services. From 2010 to 2015, the Obama FCCs defined advanced telecommunications capability as a fixed connection of 4 Mbps. In 2015, as mentioned, that benchmark was raised 25 Mbps.

Regulation advocates fear that if the FCC looks at subscription rates, the agency might find that mobile broadband above 10 Mbps is an advanced telecommunications capability. This finding, they feel, would undermine the argument that the US broadband market needs intense regulation. According to recent Pew surveys, 12% of adults–about 28 million people–are “wireless only” and don’t have a wireline subscription. Those numbers certainly raise the possibility that mobile broadband is an advanced telecommunications capability.

Let’s look at the three fixed broadband technologies that “pass” the vast majority of households–cable modem, DSL, and satellite–and narrow the data to connections 10 Mbps or above.*

Home broadband connections (10 Mbps+)
Cable modem – 54.4 million
DSL – 11.8 million
Satellite – 1.4 million

It’s hard to know for sure since Pew measures adult individuals and the FCC measures households, but it’s possible more people have 4G LTE as home broadband (about 28 million adults and their families) than have 10 Mbps+ DSL as home broadband (11.8 million households).

Subscription rates aren’t the end of the inquiry, but the fact that millions of households are going mobile-only rather than DSL or cable modem is suggestive evidence that mobile broadband offers an advanced telecommunications capability. (Considering T-Mobile is now providing 50 GB of data per line per month, mobile-only household growth will likely accelerate.)

Are high-speed services “being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion”?

The second inquiry is whether these advanced telecommunications capabilities “are being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.” Again, the statute doesn’t give much guidance but consumer adoption of high-speed wireline and wireless broadband has been impressive.

So few people had 25 Mbps for so long that the FCC didn’t record it in its Internet Access Services reports until 2011. At the end of 2011, 6.3 million households subscribed to 25 Mbps. Less than five years later, in June 2016, over 56 million households subscribed. In the last year alone, fixed providers extended 25 Mbps or greater speeds to 21 million households.

The FCC is not completely without guidance on this question. As part of the 2008 Broadband Data Services Improvement Act, Congress instructed the FCC to use international comparisons in its Section 706 Report. International comparisons also suggest that the US is deploying advanced telecommunications capability in a timely manner. For instance, according to the OECD the US has 23.4 fiber and cable modem connections per 100 inhabitants, which far exceeds the OECD average, 16.2 per 100 inhabitants.**

Anyways, the sky is not falling because the FCC is asking about mobile broadband subscription rates. More can be done to accelerate broadband–particularly if the government frees up more spectrum and local governments improve their permitting processes–but the Section 706 inquiry offers little that is controversial or new.

 

*Fiber and fixed wireless connections, 9.6 million and 0.3 million subscribers, respectively, are also noteworthy but these 10 Mbps+ technologies only cover certain areas of the country.

**America’s high rank in the OECD is similar if DSL is included, but the quality of DSL varies widely and often doesn’t provide 10 Mbps or 25 Mbps speeds.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai today announced plans to expand the role of economic analysis at the FCC in a speech at the Hudson Institute. This is an eminently sensible idea that other regulatory agencies (both independent and executive branch) could learn from.

Pai first made the case that when the FCC listened to its economists in the past, it unlocked billions of dollars of value for consumers. The most prominent example was the switch from hearings to auctions in order to allocate spectrum licenses. He perceptively noted that the biggest effect of auctions was the massive improvement in consumer welfare, not just the more than $100 billion raised for the Treasury. Other examples of the FCC using the best ideas of its economists include:

  • Use of reverse auctions to allocate universal service funds to reduce costs.
  • Incentive auctions that reward broadcasters for transferring licenses to other uses – an idea initially proposed in a 2002 working paper by Evan Kwerel and John Williams at the FCC.
  • The move from rate of return to price cap regulation for long distance carriers.

More recently, Pai argued, the FCC has failed to use economics effectively. He identified four key problems:

  1. Economics is not systematically employed in policy decisions and often employed late in the process. The FCC has no guiding principles for conduct and use of economic analysis.
  2. Economists work in silos. They are divided up among bureaus. Economists should be able to work together on a wide variety of issues, as they do in the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division’s economic analysis unit, and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Economic and Risk Analysis.
  3. Benefit-cost analysis is not conducted well or often, and the FCC does not take Regulatory Flexibility Act analysis (which assesses effects of regulations on small entities) seriously. The FCC should use Office of Management and Budget guidance as its guide to doing good analysis, but OMB’s 2016 draft report on the benefits and costs of federal regulations shows that the FCC has estimated neither benefits nor costs of any of its major regulations issued in the past 10 years. Yet executive orders from multiple administrations demonstrate that “Serious cost-benefit analysis is a bipartisan tradition.”
  4. Poor use of data. The FCC probably collects a lot of data that’s unnecessary, at a paperwork cost of $800 million per year, not including opportunity costs of the private sector. But even useful data are not utilized well. For example, a few years ago the FCC stopped trying to determine whether the wireless market is effectively competitive even though it collects lots of data on the wireless market.

To remedy these problems, Pai announced an initiative to establish an Office of Economics and Data that would house the FCC’s economists and data analysts. An internal working group will be established to collect input within the FCC and from the public. He hopes to have the new office up and running by the end of the year. The purpose of this change is to give economists early input into the rulemaking process, better manage the FCC’s data resources, and conduct strategic research to help find solutions to “the next set of difficult issues.”

Can this initiative significantly improve the quality and use of economic analysis at the FCC?

There’s evidence that independent regulatory agencies are capable of making some decent improvements in their economic analysis when they are sufficiently motivated to do so. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s authorizing statue contains language that requires benefit-cost analysis of regulations when the commission seeks to determine whether they are in the public interest. Between 2005 and 2011, the SEC lost several major court cases due to inadequate economic analysis.

In 2012, the commission’s general counsel and chief economist issued new economic analysis guidance that pledged to assess regulations according to the principal criteria identified in executive orders, guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, and independent research. In a recent study, I found that the economic analysis accompanying a sample of major SEC regulations issued after this guidance was measurably better than the analysis accompanying regulations issued prior to the new guidance. The SEC improved on all five aspects of economic analysis it identified as critical: assessment of the need for the regulation, assessment of the baseline outcomes that will likely occur in the absence of new regulation, identification of alternatives, and assessment of the benefits and costs of alternatives.

Unlike the SEC, the FCC faces no statutory benefit-cost analysis requirement for its regulations. Unlike the executive branch agencies, the FCC is under no executive order requiring economic analysis of regulations. Unlike the Federal Trade Commission in the early 1980s, the FCC faces little congressional pressure for abolition.

But Congress is considering legislation that would require all regulatory agencies to conduct economic analysis of major regulations and subject that analysis to limited judicial review. Proponents of executive branch regulatory review have always contended that the president has legal authority to extend the executive orders on regulatory impact analysis to cover independent agencies, and perhaps President Trump is audacious enough to try this. Thus, it appears Chairman Pai is trying to get the FCC out ahead of the curve.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the White House is crafting a plan for $1 trillion in infrastructure investment. I was intrigued to learn that President Trump “inquired about the possibility of auctioning the broadcast spectrum to wireless carriers” to help fund the programs. Spectrum sales are the rare win-win-win: they stimulate infrastructure investment (cell towers, fiber networks, devices), provide new wireless services and lower prices to consumers, and generate billions in revenue for the federal government.

Broadcast TV spectrum is good place to look for revenue but the White House should also look at federal agencies, who possess about ten times what broadcasters hold.

Large portions of spectrum are underused or misallocated because of decades of command-and-control policies. Auctioning spectrum for flexible uses, on the other hand, is a free-market policy that is often lucrative for the federal government. Since 1993, when Congress authorized spectrum auctions, wireless carriers and tech companies have spent somewhere around $120 billion for about 430 MHz of flexible-use spectrum, and the lion’s share of revenue was deposited in the US Treasury.

A few weeks ago, the FCC completed the $19 billion sale of broadcast TV spectrum, the so-called incentive auction. Despite underwhelming many telecom experts, this was the third largest US spectrum auction ever in terms of revenue and will transfer a respectable 70 MHz from restricted (broadcast TV) use to flexible use.

The remaining broadcast TV spectrum that President Trump is interested in totals about 210 MHz. But even more spectrum is under the President’s nose.

As Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology pointed out in 2012, federal agencies possess around 2,000 MHz of “beachfront” (sub-3.7 GHz) spectrum. I charted various spectrum uses in a December 2016 Mercatus policy brief.

This government spectrum is very valuable if portions can be cleared of federal users. Federal spectrum was part of the frequencies the FCC auctioned in 2006 and 2015, and the slivers of federal spectrum (around 70 MHz of the federal total) sold for around $27 billion combined.

The Department of Commerce has been analyzing which federal spectrum bands could be used commercially and the Mobile Now Act, a pending bill in Congress, proposes more sales of federal spectrum. These policies have moved slowly (and the vague language about unlicensed spectrum in the Mobile Now bill has problems) but the Trump administration has a chance to expedite spectrum reallocation processes and sell more federal spectrum to commercial users.

The proposed Mobile Now Act signals that spectrum policy is being prioritized by Congress and there’s some useful reforms in the bill. However, the bill encourages unlicensed spectrum allocations in ways that I believe will create major problems down the road.

Congress and the FCC need to proceed much more carefully before allocating more unlicensed spectrum. The FCC’s 2008 decision, for instance, to allow unlicensed devices in the “TV white spaces” has been disappointing. As some economists recently noted, “[s]imply stated, the FCC’s TV white space policy to date has been a flop.” Unlicensed spectrum policy is also generating costly fights (see WiFi v. LTE-U, Bluetooth v. TLPS, LightSquared v. GPS) as device makers and carriers lobby about who gains regulatory protection and how to divide this valuable resource that the FCC parcels out for free.

The unlicensed spectrum provisions in the Mobile Now Act may force the FCC to referee innumerable fights over who has access to unlicensed spectrum. Section 18 of the Mobile Now bill encourages unlicensed spectrum. It says the FCC must

make available on an unlicensed basis radio frequency bands sufficient to meet demand for unlicensed wireless broadband operations if doing so is…reasonable…and…in the public interest.

Note that we have language about supply and demand here. But unlicensed spectrum is free to all users using an approved device (that is, nearly everyone in the US). Quantity demanded will always outstrip quantity supplied when a valuable asset (like spectrum or real estate) is handed out when price = 0. By removing a valuable asset from the price system, large allocation distortions are likely.

Any policy originating from Congress or the FCC to satisfy “demand” for unlicensed spectrum biases the agency towards parceling out an excessive amount of unlicensed spectrum. 

The problems from unlicensed spectrum allocation could be mitigated if the FCC decided, as part of a “public interest” conclusion, to estimate the opportunity cost of any unlicensed spectrum allocated. That way, the government will have a rough idea of the market value of unlicensed spectrum being given away. There have been several auctions and there is an active secondary market for spectrum so estimates are achievable, and the UK has required the calculation of the opportunity cost of spectrum for over a decade.

With these estimates, it will be more difficult but still possible for the FCC to defend giving away spectrum for free. Economist Coleman Bazelon, for instance, estimates that the incremental value of a nationwide megahertz of licensed spectrum is more than 10x the equivalent unlicensed spectrum allocation. Significantly, unlike licensed spectrum, allocations of unlicensed bands are largely irreversible.

People can quibble with the estimates but it is unclear that unlicensed use is the best use of additional spectrum. In any case, hopefully the FCC will attempt to bring some economic rigor to public interest determinations.