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The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has released a new working paper by Daniel A. Lyons, professor at Boston College Law School, entitled “Innovations in Mobile Broadband Pricing.”

In 2010, the FCC passed net neutrality rules for mobile carriers and ISPs that included a “no blocking” provision (since struck down in FCC v. Verizon). The FCC prohibited mobile carriers from blocking Internet content and promised to scrutinize carriers’ non-standard pricing decisions. These broad regulations had a predictable chilling effect on firms trying new business models. For instance, Lyons describes how MetroPCS was hit with a net neutrality complaint because it allowed YouTube but not other video streaming sites on its budget LTE plan (something I’ve written on). Some critics also allege that AT&T’s Sponsored Data program is a net neutrality violation.

In his paper, Lyons explains that the FCC might still regulate mobile networks but advises against a one-size-fits-all net neutrality approach. Instead, he encourages regulatory humility in order to promote investment in mobile networks and devices and to allow new business models. For support, he points out that several developing and rich countries have permitted commercial arrangements between content companies and carriers that arguably violate principles of net neutrality. Lyons makes the persuasive argument that these “non-neutral” service bundles and pricing decisions on the whole, rather than harming consumers, expand online access and ease non-connected populations into the Internet Age. As Lyons says,

The wide range of successful wireless innovations and partnerships at the international level should prompt U.S. regulators to rethink their commitment to a rigid set of rules that limit flexibility in American broadband markets. This should be especially true in the wireless broadband space, where complex technical considerations, rapid change, and robust competition make for anything but a stable and predictable business environment.

Further,

In the rapidly changing world of information technology, it is sometimes easy to forget that experimental new pricing models can be just as innovative as new technological developments. By offering new and different pricing models, companies can provide better value to consumers or identify niche segments that are not well-served by dominant pricing strategies.

Despite the January 2014 court decision striking down the FCC’s net neutrality rules, it’s an issue that hasn’t died. Lyons’ research provides support for the position that a fixation on enforcing net neutrality, however defined, distracts policymakers from serious discussion of how to expand online access. Rules should be written with consumers and competition in mind. Wired ISPs get the lion’s share of scholars’ attention when discussing net neutrality. In an increasingly wireless world, Lyon’s paper provides important research to guide future US policies.

Verizon v. FCC, the court decision overturning the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality rules, didn’t rule directly on the First Amendment issues. It did, however, reject the reasoning of net neutrality advocates who claim Internet service providers (ISPs) are not entitled to freedom of speech.

The court recognized that, in terms of the functionality that it offers consumers and the economic relationships among industry participants, the Internet is as similar to analog cable networks as it is to analog telephone networks. As a result, the court considered most of the issues in the net neutrality case to be “indistinguishable” from those addressed in Midwest Video II, a seminal case addressing the FCC’s authority over cable systems. The court’s emphasis on the substantive similarities between analog cable services, which are clearly entitled to First Amendment protection, indicates that ISPs are likewise entitled to protection.

Net neutrality advocates argued that ISPs are not First Amendment “speakers” because ISPs do not exercise editorial discretion over Internet content. In essence, these advocates argued that ISPs forfeited their First Amendment rights as a result of their “actual conduct” in the marketplace.

Though the court didn’t address the First Amendment issues directly, the court’s reasoning regarding common carrier issues indicates that the “actual conduct” of ISPs is legally irrelevant to their status as First Amendment speakers. Continue reading →

On Saturday, C-SPAN aired a segment of The Communicators featuring me and Free Press’ Chance Williams. In the 30-minute segment, Chance and I discussed the future of net neutrality now that the FCC’s Open Internet rules are vacated. You can see the taping here or below.

The Internet is abuzz with news that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler favors a case-by-case approach to addressing Internet competition issues. It is the wisest course, and perhaps the most courageous. Some on the right will say he is going too far, and some on the left will say he isn’t going far enough. That is one reason Wheeler’s approach should be commended. Staunch disagreements about net neutrality and other Internet governance issues reflect the uncertainty inherent in a dynamic market.

Chairman Wheeler’s comments this week echoed Socrates (“I’m not smart enough to know what comes next [in innovation]”) and, to my surprise, Virginia Postrel (the Chairman favors addressing Internet issues “in a dynamic rather than a static way”). He recognizes that, in a two-sided market, there is no reason to assume that ISPs will necessarily have the ability to charge content providers rather than the other way around. The potential for strategic behavior on the Internet today is radically different than in the dial-up Internet era, and the Chairman appears prepared to consider those differences in his approach to communications regulation. Continue reading →

On its face, Verizon won a resounding victory in Verizon v. FCC since the controversial net neutrality regulations were vacated by all three DC Circuit judges. This marks the second time in four years the FCC had its net neutrality enforcement struck down.

Look at published reactions, though, and you’ll see that both sides feel they suffered a damaging loss in yesterday’s decision.

Prominent net neutrality advocates say “the court loss was even more emphatic and disastrous than anyone expected” and a “FEMA-level fail.”

Conversely, critics of net neutrality say that it was a “big win for FCC” and that “the court has given the FCC near limitless power to regulate not just broadband, but the Internet itself.”

Most analysis of the case will point out that it’s a mixed bag for both sides. What is clear is that the net neutrality movement suffered an almost complete loss in the short term. The FCC’s regulations from the Open Internet Order preventing ISPs from “unreasonable discrimination” and “blocking” of Internet traffic were struck down. The court said those prohibitions are equivalent to common carrier obligations. Since ISPs are not common carriers–per previous FCC rulings–most of the Open Internet Order was vacated.

The long term is more uncertain and net neutrality critics have ample reason to be concerned. The court yesterday said the FCC has broad authority to regulate ISPs’ treatment of traffic under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This somewhat unanticipated conclusion–given its breadth–leaves the FCC with several options if it wants to enact net neutrality or “net neutrality-lite” regulations.

Putting aside the possibility that the FCC or Verizon will appeal the decision, these are the developments to watch:

1. Title II reclassification.

The FCC could always reclassify ISPs as common carriers and subject them to common carrier obligations. I think this is unlikely for several reasons.

First, reclassification would absolutely poison relationships with Congressional Republicans, some important Democrats, and the broadband industry. This is a large reason why then-FCC Chairman Genachowski did not seriously pursue reclassification in 2010. If anything, the political climate is worse for reclassification. Republicans and ISPs simply oppose reclassification more than Democrats and advocates support it.

Second, the content companies–like Google, Hulu, and Netflix–who would ostensibly benefit from net neutrality seem to have cooled to the idea. Part of content companies’ waning interest in net neutrality, I suspect, is exhaustion. This fight has gone on for a decade with little to show for it. They may also realize that ISPs are not likely to engage in truly abusive behaviors. Broadband speeds and capacity have advanced substantially in a decade and concerns about being squeezed out have lessened. There are also powerful norms that ISPs are not likely to violate. Consumers don’t like unseemly behavior by ISPs–like throttling a competing VoIP or video provider. If only because of the PR risk, ISPs have significant incentives to maintain the level of service they have historically provided.

Third, reclassification is a time-consuming and legally fraught process. Even the most principled net neutrality proponents don’t want ISPs subjected to every applicable Title II obligation. But “forbearance” of Title II regulations means several regulatory proceedings, each one potentially subject to litigation.

Finally, Chairman Tom Wheeler, fortunately, does not appear to be an ideologue willing to spend most of his tenure as chairman re-fighting this bitter fight. His comments last month were telling:

I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say, ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that . . . my subscriber receives, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve.

This statement struck dread in the hearts of many net neutrality proponents. I’ve always believed he was talking about specialized services when he made this statement since pay-for-priority deals were essentially banned by the Open Internet Order. Regardless, his apparent comfort with changing pricing dynamics in two-sided markets indicates he is not a net neutrality partisan. I suspect Chairman Wheeler wants to go down as the chairman who guided America to a mobile future. His priorities seem to be in getting spectrum auctions right, not in rehashing old battles.

2. Pay-for-priority deals.

The legal uncertainties need to be settled before ISPs begin looking at prioritization deals, but they’ll probably pursue some. For example, gaming services might want to pay ISPs to make sure gamers receive low latency connections and large enterprise customers might want prioritized traffic for services like virtual desktops for, say, on-the-road employees. No one knows how common these deals will be. In any case, these deals will probably be closely monitored by the FCC for perceived abuses of market power, as explained next.

3. Increased FCC scrutiny using Section 706.

Substantial and costly scrutiny of ISPs’ traffic management from the FCC is the long-term fear. It now appears that the FCC has many tools to regulate how ISPs treat traffic under Section 706. I call this net neutrality-lite but 706 authority has the potential to be a more powerful weapon than the Open Internet Order. Not only can the FCC use 706 to regulate ISPs through adjudications, the mere threat of using 706 against ISPs may induce compliance. If there is a bright side to the court’s recognition of the FCC’s 706 authority, it’s that it makes Title II reclassification of ISPs less likely.

Verizon v. FCC was mostly a win for those of us who viewed the Open Internet Order as a regulatory overreach. Risks remain since net neutrality as a policy goal will not die, but reclassification is a long shot, fortunately. Policy watchers will be analyzing Wheeler’s actions, in particular, to see whether the FCC pursues its Section 706 authority to regulate ISPs. Hopefully the court’s decision is accepted as final and marks the end of the most heated battles over net neutrality. The FCC could then turn its attention to important issues like spectrum auctions, the IP transition, and the rapidly changing television market.

“Net neutrality is a dead man walking,” Marvin Ammori stated in Wired last week, citing the probable demise of the FCC’s Open Internet rules in court. I’d agree for a different reason. Net neutrality has been dead ever since the FCC released its net neutrality order in December 2010. (This is not to say the damaging rules should be upheld by the DC Circuit. For many reasons, the Order should be struck down.) I agree with Ammori because we already have the Internet “fast lane” many net neutrality proponents wanted to prevent. Since that goal is precluded, all the rules do is hang Damocles’ Sword over ISPs regarding traffic management.

The 2010 rules managed to make both sides unhappy. The ISPs face severe penalties if three FCC commissioners believe ISP network management practices “unreasonably discriminate” against certain traffic. Public interest groups, on the other hand, were dissatisfied because they wanted ISPs reclassified as common carriers to prevent deep-pocketed content creators from allying with ISPs to create an Internet “fast lane” for some companies, relegating most other websites to the so-called “winding dirt road” of the public Internet.

Proponents emphasize different goals of net neutrality (to the point–many argue–it’s hard to discern what the term means). But if preventing the creation of a fast lane is the main goal of net neutrality, it’s dead already. Consider two popularly-cited net neutrality “violations” that do not violate the Open Internet Order: Netflix’ Open Connect program and Comcast not counting its Xfinity video-on-demand (VOD) service against customers’ data limits

Both cases involve the creation of a fast lane for certain content and activists rail against them. Both cases also involve network practices expressly exempted from net neutrality regulations. The FCC exempted these sorts of services because they are important, benefit the public, and should be encouraged. With Open Connect, Netflix scatters its many servers across the country closer to households, which allows its content to stream at a higher quality than most other video sites. Comcast gives its Xfinity VOD fast-lane treatment as well, which is completely legal since VOD from a cable company is a “specialized service” exempt from the rules.

“Specialized service” needs some explanation since it’s a novel concept from the FCC order. The net neutrality rules distinguish between “broadband Internet access service” (BIAS)–to which the regulations apply–and specialized (or managed) services–to which they don’t apply. The exemption of specialized services opens up a dangerous loophole in the view of proponents.

BIAS is what most consider “the Internet.” It’s the everyday websites we access on our computers and smartphones. What are specialized services? In the sleepy month of August the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee released its report on what criteria specialized service needs to meet to be exempt from net neutrality scrutiny (these are influential and advisory, but not binding):

1. The service doesn’t reach large parts of the Internet, and
2. The service is an “application level” service.

The Advisory Committee also thought that “capacity isolation” is a good indicator that a service should be exempt. With capacity isolation, the ISP has one broadband connection going to the home but is separating the service’s data stream from the conventional Internet stream consumers use to visit Facebook, YouTube, and the like. This is how Comcast’s streaming of Xfinity to Xboxes is exempt–it is a proprietary network going into the home. As long as carriers don’t divert BIAS capacity for the application, the FCC will likely turn a blind eye.

What are some examples? Specialized service is marked by higher-quality streams that typically don’t suffer from jitter and latency. If you have “digital voice” from Comcast, for example, you are receiving a specialized service–proprietary VoIP. Specialized service can also include data streams like VOD, e-reader downloads, heart monitor data, and gaming services. The FCC exempted these because some are important enough that they shouldn’t compete with BIAS Internet. It would be obviously damaging to have digital phone service or health monitors getting disrupted because others are checking up on their fantasy football team. The FCC also wanted to spur investment in specialized services and video companies like Netflix are considering pairing up with ISPs to deliver a better experience to customers.

That is to say, the net neutrality effort has failed even worse than most realize. The FCC essentially prohibited innovative business models in BIAS, freezing that service into common-carrier-like status. Further, we have an Internet fast lane (which I consider a significant public benefit, though net neutrality proponents often do not). As business models evolve and the costs of server networks fall, our two-tier system will become more apparent.

Over on Forbes today, I have a very long post inspired by Monday’s oral arguments in Verizon’s challenge of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, passed in 2010

I say “inspired” because the post has nothing to say about the oral arguments which, in any case, I did not attend.  Mainstream journalists can’t resist the temptation to try to read into the questions asked or the mood of the judges some indication of how the decision will come out

But as anyone who has ever worked in a court or followed appellate practice  well knows, the tone of oral arguments signals nothing about a judge’s point-of-view.  Often, the harshest questioning is reserved for the side a judge is leaning towards supporting, perhaps because the briefs filed were inadequate.  Bad briefs create more work for the judge and her clerks.

I use the occasion of the hearing to take a fresh look at the net neutrality “debate,” which has been on-going since at least 2005, when I first started paying attention to it.  In particular, I try to disentangle the political term “net neutrality” (undefined and, indeed, not even used in the 2010 Open Internet order) from the engineering principles of packet routing. Continue reading →

The Progressive Policy Institute has released a new and remarkable broadband report. In it, PPI explicitly distances itself from the Crawford/Wu wing of the left-of-center telecommunications conversation. A money quote from the introduction:

What should the progressive agenda be? Are our choices either to embrace this aggressive regulatory agenda or to accede to conservative laissez-faire? This essay argues that there is a third, and far more promising, option for such a progressive broadband policy agenda. It balances respect for the private investment that has built the nation’s broadband infrastructure with the need to realize the Internet’s full promise as a form of social infrastructure and a tool for individual empowerment. It turns away from problems we may reasonably fear but that simply do not exist—most importantly, the idea that the provision of broadband services is dominated by an anti-competitive “duopoly” that stifles the broad dissemination of content.

On “cage match” competition in the telecom sector:

So perhaps the greatest paradox inherent in “cage match” competition is that, while advocates champion more intrusive regulation, the signal providers are in the fight of their business lives. The benefits of their innovation and investment are being appropriated by the devices and services that use the signal; their stock values and capitalizations are listless compared to the companies that make devices and applications; they have made commitments in the tens of billions to build infrastructure that cannot be reversed. And they are trapped in a vicious circle: they innovate to improve signal quality and availability, these innovations make possible new devices, applications, and services that capture consumer allegiance, these other aspects of the broadband experience appropriate value and make signal more commodity-like in the eyes of consumers, which forces the providers to further improve their product, perpetuating the cycle. They are the economy’s front line for investing in and innovating for our broadband infrastructure, and perhaps they benefit from that investment and innovation the least.

From the section entitled “Neutrality,” “Unbundling,” and other progressive policy failures:

The weight of the evidence, therefore, suggests the activist agenda leads progressives to a dead end. It addresses a problem that doesn’t exist—the absence of competition in broadband—and compromises another and more important objective—investment in broadband leading to ubiquitous broadband access. In reality, access providers have made massive investments in high-fixed cost broadband wired and wireless capacity that they can only justify by competing for market share and that are continually improving. The case that they are suppressing or might suppress content—either editorially or competitively—is virtually nonexistent.

This analysis is spot on. While I don’t agree with every policy proposal in the report (though I do agree with some, such as liberating spectrum from the broadcasters and DoD), PPI deserves a lot of credit for its excellent study of the state of telecommunications competition.

Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center discusses his recent working paper with coauthor Brent Skorup, A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector. Thierer takes a look at how cronyism has manifested itself in technology and media markets — whether it be in the form of regulatory favoritism or tax privileges. Which tech companies are the worst offenders? What are the consequences for consumers? And, how does cronyism affect entrepreneurship over the long term?

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Gina Keating, author of Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America’s Eyeballs, discusses the startup of Netflix and their competition with Blockbuster.

Keating begins with the history of the company and their innovative improvements to the movie rental experience. She discusses their use of new technology and marketing strategies in DVD rental, which inspired Blockbuster to adapt to the changing market.

Keating goes on to describe Netflix’s transition to internet streaming and Blockbuster’s attempts to retain their market share.

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