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)

The White House has announced a new effort to help prepare workers for the challenges they will face in the future. While it’s a well-intentioned effort, and one that I hope succeeds, I’m skeptical about it for a simple reason: It’s just really hard to plan for the workforce needs of the future and train people for jobs that we cannot possibly envision today.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, Ivanka Trump, senior adviser to the president, outlines the elements of new Executive Order that President Trump is issuing “to prioritize and expand workforce development so that we can create and fill American jobs with American workers.” Toward that end, the Administration plans on:

  • establishing a National Council for the American Worker, “composed of senior administration officials, who will develop a national strategy for training and retraining workers for high-demand industries.” This is meant to bring more efficiency and effectiveness to the “more than 40 workforce-training programs in more than a dozen agencies, and too many have produced meager results.”
  • “facilitat[ing] the use of data to connect American businesses, workers and educational institutions.” This is meant to help workers find “what jobs are available, where they are, what skills are required to fill them, and where the best training is available.”
  • launching a nationwide campaign “to highlight the growing vocational crisis and promote careers in the skilled trades, technology and manufacturing.”

The Administration also plans on creating a new advisory board of experts to address these issues, and the administration is also “asking companies and trade groups throughout the country to sign our new Pledge to America’s Workers—a commitment to invest in the current and future workforce.” They hope to encourage companies to take additional steps “to educate, train and reskill American students and workers.”

Perhaps some of these steps make sense, and perhaps a few will even help workers deal with the challenges of our more complex, fast-evolving, global economy. But I doubt it.

Continue reading →

A government appeal of a court decision approving AT&T’s acquisition of Tim Warner is a joke.  But maybe it is not surprising when you consider what AT&T management has been up to.

AT&T used to be a power house in Washington.  It now can’t seem to lobby it’s way out of a brown paper bag.

AT&T’s longtime chief representative in Washington—Jim Ciccone—was brilliant.  AT&T’s managers and investors have no idea how much Ciccone accomplished on their behalf. His successor—Pat Quinn—was a brilliant regulatory lawyer.  Quinn was absolutely the best person that could possibly represent you before the Federal Communications Commission.  Unfortunately, Quinn couldn’t see the big picture, and he flamed out as Ciccone’s succesor.

I have no idea who represents AT&T in Washington at this time.  As a shareholder, I believe AT&T management is negligent.

It is no surprise to me that the Department of Justice is appealing the court decision approving the AT&T/Time Warner merger—because AT&T is AWOL in Washington.

P.S. I want to credit my former boss, former Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon–chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee in the early 80’s–for the brown paper bag metaphor.  He didn’t apply it to AT&T, but I think it fits now.

In cleaning up my desk this weekend, I chanced upon an old notebook and like many times before I began to transcribe the notes. It was short, so I got to the end within a couple of minutes. The last page was scribbled with the German term Öffentlichkeit (public sphere), a couple sentences on Hannah Arendt, and a paragraph about Norberto Bobbio’s view of public and private.

Then I remembered. Yep. This is the missing notebook from a class on democracy in the digital age.   

Serendipitously, a couple of hours later, William Freeland alerted me to Franklin Foer’s newest piece in The Atlantic titled “The Death of the Public Square.” Foer is the author of “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” and if you want a good take on that book, check out Adam Thierer’s review in Reason.

Much like the book, this Atlantic piece wades into techno ruin porn but focuses instead on the public sphere: Continue reading →

I’ve been working on a new book that explores the rise of evasive entrepreneurialism and technological civil disobedience in our modern world. Following the publication of my last book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, people started bringing examples of evasive entrepreneurialism and technological civil disobedience to my attention and asked how they were related to the concept of permissionless innovation. As I started exploring and cataloging these cases studies, I realized I could probably write an entire book about these developments and their consequences.

Hopefully that book will be wrapped up shortly. In the meantime, I am going to start rolling out some short essays based on content from the book. To begin, I will state the general purpose of the book and define the key concepts discussed therein. In coming weeks and months, I’ll build on these themes, explain why they are on the rise, explore the effect they are having on society and technological governance efforts, and more fully develop some relevant case studies. Continue reading →

In preparation for a Federalist Society teleforum call that I participated in today about the compliance costs of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), I gathered together some helpful recent articles on the topic and put together some talking points. I thought I would post them here and try to update this list in coming months as I find new material. (My thanks to Andrea O’Sullivan for a major assist on coming up with all this.)

Key Points:

  • GDPR is no free lunch; compliance is very costly
      • All regulation entails trade-offs, no matter how well-intentioned rules are
      • $7.8 billion estimated compliance cost for U.S. firms already
      • Punitive fees can range from €20 million to 4 percent of global firm revenue
      • Vagueness of language leads to considerable regulatory uncertainty — no one knows what “compliance” looks like
      • Even EU member states do not know what compliance looks like: 17 of 24 regulatory bodies polled by Reuters said they were unprepared for GDPR
  • GDPR will hurt competition & innovation; favors big players over small
      • Google, Facebook & others beefing up compliance departments. (“ EU official, Vera Jourova: “They have the money, an army of lawyers, an army of technicians and so on.”)
      • Smaller firms exiting or dumping data that could be used to provide better, more tailored services
      • PwC survey found that 88% of companies surveyed spent more than $1 million on GDPR preparations, and 40% more than $10 million.
      • Before GDPR, half of all EU ad spend went to Google. The first day after it took effect, an astounding 95 percent went to Google.
      • In essence, with the GDPR, the EU is surrendering on the idea of competition being possible going forward
      • The law will actually benefit the same big companies that the EU has been going after on antitrust grounds. Meanwhile, the smaller innovators and innovations will suffer.

Continue reading →

A group of lawmakers is asking the Federal Communications Commission to maintain the agency’s 27 year old “Kid Vid” rules in their “current form,” rather than open a proceeding to evaluate whether the rules can be improved or are even still necessary.

The rules were enacted by the FCC pursuant to the Children’s’ Television Act of 1990—in the analog era, when digital technologies were just starting to be deployed, and the same year that initial steps were being taken to privatize the Internet and open it for commercial use.  A lot has changed since the Act was passed. Continue reading →

The Supreme Court is winding down for the year and last week put out a much awaited decision in Ohio v. American Express. Some have rung the alarm with this case, but I think caution is worthwhile. In short, the Court’s analysis wasn’t expansive like some have claimed, but incomplete. There are a lot of important details to this case and the guideposts it has provided will likely be fought over in future litigation over platform regulation. To narrow the scope of this post, I am going to focus on the market definition question and the issue of two-sided platforms in light of the developments in the industrial organization (IO) literature in the past two decades. Continue reading →

Voices from all over the political and professional spectrum have been clamoring for tech companies to be broken up. Tech investor Roger McNamee, machine learning pioneer Yoshua BengioNYU professor Scott Galloway, and even Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential digital director have all suggested that tech companies should be forcibly separated. So, I took a look at some of the past efforts in a new survey of corporate breakups and found that they really weren’t all that effective at creating competitive markets.

Although many consider Standard Oil and AT&T as classic cases, I think United States v. American Tobacco Company is far more instructive.  Continue reading →