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I have a new article on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger in the latest edition of the CPI Antitrust Chronicle, which includes several other articles on the merger, as well.

In a recent essay, Allen Grunes & Maurice Stucke (who also have an essay in the CPI issue) pose a thought experiment: If Comcast can acquire TWC, what’s to stop it acquiring all cable companies? The authors’ assertion is that the arguments being put forward to support the merger contain no “limiting principle,” and that the same arguments, if accepted here, would unjustifiably permit further consolidation. But there is a limiting principle: competitive harm. Size doesn’t matter, as courts and economists have repeatedly pointed out.

The article explains why the merger doesn’t give rise to any plausible theory of anticompetitive harm under modern antitrust analysis. Instead, arguments against the merger amount to little more than the usual “big-is-bad” naysaying.

In summary, I make the following points:

Horizontal Concerns

The absence of any reduction in competition should end the inquiry into any potentially anticompetitive effects in consumer markets resulting from the horizontal aspects of the transaction.

  • It’s well understood at this point that Comcast and TWC don’t compete directly for subscribers in any relevant market; in terms of concentration and horizontal effects, the transaction will neither reduce competition nor restrict consumer choice.
  • Even if Comcast were a true monopolist provider of broadband service in certain geographic markets, the DOJ would have to show that the merger would be substantially likely to lessen competition—a difficult showing to make where Comcast and TWC are neither actual nor potential competitors in any of these markets.
  • Whatever market power Comcast may currently possess, the proposed merger simply does nothing to increase it, nor to facilitate its exercise.

Comcast doesn’t currently have substantial bargaining power in its dealings with content providers, and the merger won’t change that. The claim that the combined entity will gain bargaining leverage against content providers from the merger, resulting in lower content prices to programmers, fails for similar reasons.

  • After the transaction, Comcast will serve fewer than 30 percent of total MVPD subscribers in the United States. This share is insufficient to give Comcast market power over sellers of video programming.
  • The FCC has tried to impose a 30 percent cable ownership cap, and twice it has been rejected by the courts. The D.C. Circuit concluded more than a decade ago—in far less competitive conditions than exist today—that the evidence didn’t justify a horizontal ownership limit lower than 60% on the basis of buyer power.
  • The recent exponential growth in OVDs like Google, Netflix, Amazon and Apple gives content providers even more ways to distribute their programming.
  • In fact, greater concentration among cable operators has coincided with an enormous increase in output and quality of video programming
  • Moreover, because the merger doesn’t alter the competitive make-up of any relevant consumer market, Comcast will have no greater ability to threaten to withhold carriage of content in order to extract better terms.
  • Finally, programmers with valuable content have significant bargaining power and have been able to extract the prices to prove it. None of that will change post-merger.

Vertical Concerns

The merger won’t give Comcast the ability (or the incentive) to foreclose competition from other content providers for its NBCUniversal content.

  • Because the merger would represent only 30 percent of the national market (for MVPD services), 70 percent of the market is still available for content distribution.
  • But even this significantly overstates the extent of possible foreclosure. OVD providers increasingly vie for the same content as cable (and satellite).
  • In the past when regulators have considered foreclosure effects for localized content (regional sports networks, primarily)—for example, in the 2005 Adelphia/Comcast/TWC deal, under far less competitive conditions—the FTC found no substantial threat of anticompetitive harm. And while the FCC did identify a potential risk of harm in its review of the Adelphia deal, its solution was to impose arbitration requirements for access to this programming—which are already part of the NBCUniversal deal conditions and which will be extended to the new territory and new programming from TWC.

The argument that the merger will increase Comcast’s incentive and ability to impair access to its users by online video competitors or other edge providers is similarly without merit.

  • Fundamentally, Comcast benefits from providing its users access to edge providers, and it would harm itself if it were to constrain access to these providers.
  • Foreclosure effects would be limited, even if they did arise. On a national level, the combined firm would have only about 40 percent of broadband customers, at most (and considerably less if wireless broadband is included in the market).
  • This leaves at least 60 percent—and quite possibly far more—of customers available to purchase content and support edge providers reaching minimum viable scale, even if Comcast were to attempt to foreclose access.

Some have also argued that because Comcast has a monopoly on access to its customers, transit providers are beholden to it, giving it the ability to degrade or simply block content from companies like Netflix. But these arguments misunderstand the market.

  • The transit market through which edge providers bring their content into the Comcast network is highly competitive. Edge providers can access Comcast’s network through multiple channels, undermining Comcast’s ability to deny access or degrade service to such providers.
  • The transit market is also almost entirely populated by big players engaged in repeat interactions and, despite a large number of transactions over the years, marked by a trivial number of disputes.
  • The recent Comcast/Netflix agreement demonstrates that the sophisticated commercial entities in this market are capable of resolving conflicts—conflicts that appear to affect only the distribution of profits among contracting parties but not raise anticompetitive concerns.
  • If Netflix does end up paying more to access Comcast’s network over time, it won’t be because of market power or this merger. Rather, it’s an indication of the evolving market and the increasing popularity of OTT providers.
  • The Comcast/Netflix deal has procompetitive justifications, as well. Charging Netflix allows Comcast to better distinguish between the high-usage Netflix customers (two percent of Netflix users account for 20 percent of all broadband traffic) and everyone else. This should lower cable bills on average, improve incentives for users, and lead to more efficient infrastructure investments by both Comcast and Netflix.

Critics have also alleged that the vertically integrated Comcast may withhold its own content from competing MVPDs or OVDs, or deny carriage to unaffiliated programming. In theory, by denying competitors or potential competitors access to popular programming, a vertically integrated MVPD might gain a competitive advantage over its rivals. Similarly, an MVPD that owns cable channels may refuse to carry at least some unaffiliated content to benefit its own channels. But these claims also fall flat.

  • Once again, these issue are not transaction specific.
  • But, regardless, Comcast will not be able to engage in successful foreclosure strategies following the transaction.
  • The merger has no effect on Comcast’s share of national programming. And while it will have a larger share of national distribution post-merger, a 30 percent market share is nonetheless insufficient to confer buyer power in today’s highly competitive MVPD market.
  • Moreover, the programming market is highly dynamic and competitive, and Comcast’s affiliated programming networks face significant competition.
  • Comcast already has no ownership interest in the overwhelming majority of content it distributes. This won’t measurably change post-transaction.

Procompetitive Justifications

While the proposed transaction doesn’t give rise to plausible anticompetitive harms, it should bring well-understood pro-competitive benefits. Most notably:

  • The deal will bring significant scale efficiencies in a marketplace that requires large, fixed-cost investments in network infrastructure and technology.
  • And bringing a more vertical structure to TWC will likely be beneficial, as well. Vertical integration can increase efficiency, and the elimination of double marginalization often leads to lower prices for consumers.

Let’s be clear about the baseline here. Remember all those years ago when Netflix was a mail-order DVD company? Before either Netflix or Comcast even considered using the internet to distribute Netflix’s video content, Comcast invested in the technology and infrastructure that ultimately enabled the Netflix of today. It did so at enormous cost (tens of billions of dollars over the last 20 years) and risk. Absent broadband we’d still be waiting for our Netflix DVDs to be delivered by snail mail, and Netflix would still be spending three-quarters of a billion dollars a year on shipping.

The ability to realize returns—including returns from scale—is essential to incentivizing continued network and other quality investments. The cable industry today operates with a small positive annual return on invested capital (“ROIC”) but it has had cumulative negative ROIC over the entirety of the last decade. In fact, on invested capital of $127 billion between 2000 and 2009, cable has seen economic profits of negative $62 billion and a weighted average ROIC of negative 5 percent. Meanwhile Comcast’s stock has significantly underperformed the S&P 500 over the same period and only outperformed the S&P over the last two years.

Comcast is far from being a rapacious and endlessly profitable monopolist. This merger should help it (and TWC) improve its cable and broadband services, not harm consumers.

No matter how many times Al Franken and Susan Crawford say it, neither the broadband market nor the MVPD market is imperiled by vertical or horizontal integration. The proposed merger won’t create cognizable antitrust harms. Comcast may get bigger, but that simply isn’t enough to thwart the merger.

Today the D.C. Circuit struck down most of the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, rejecting rules that required broadband providers to carry all traffic for edge providers (“anti-blocking”) and prevented providers from negotiating deals for prioritized carriage. However, the appeals court did conclude that the FCC has statutory authority to issue “Net Neutrality” rules under Section 706(a) and let stand the FCC’s requirement that broadband providers clearly disclose their network management practices.

The following statement may be attributed to Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka:

The FCC may have lost today’s battle, but it just won the war over regulating the Internet. By recognizing Section 706 as an independent grant of statutory authority, the court has given the FCC near limitless power to regulate not just broadband, but the Internet itself, as Judge Silberman recognized in his dissent.

The court left the door open for the FCC to write new Net Neutrality rules, provided the Commission doesn’t treat broadband providers as common carriers. This means that, even without reclassifying broadband as a Title II service, the FCC could require that any deals between broadband and content providers be reasonable and non-discriminatory, just as it has required wireless carriers to provide data roaming services to their competitors’ customers on that basis. In principle, this might be a sound approach, if the rule resembles antitrust standards. But even that limitation could easily be evaded if the FCC regulates through case-by-case enforcement actions, as it tried to do before issuing the Open Internet Order. Either way, the FCC need only make a colorable argument under Section 706 that its actions are designed to “encourage the deployment… of advanced telecommunications services.” If the FCC’s tenuous “triple cushion shot” argument could satisfy that test, there is little limit to the deference the FCC will receive.

But that’s just for Net Neutrality. Section 706 covers “advanced telecommunications,” which seems to include any information service, from broadband to the interconnectivity of smart appliances like washing machines and home thermostats. If the court’s ruling on Section 706 is really as broad as it sounds, and as the dissent fears, the FCC just acquired wide authority over these, as well — in short, the entire Internet, including the “Internet of Things.” While the court’s “no common carrier rules” limitation is a real one, the FCC clearly just gained enormous power that it didn’t have before today’s ruling.

Today’s decision essentially rewrites the Communications Act in a way that will, ironically, do the opposite of what the FCC claims: hurt, not help, deployment of new Internet services. Whatever the FCC’s role ought to be, such decisions should be up to our elected representatives, not three unelected FCC Commissioners. So if there’s a silver lining in any of this, it may be that the true implications of today’s decision are so radical that Congress finally writes a new Communications Act — a long-overdue process Congressmen Fred Upton and Greg Walden have recently begun.

Szoka and Manne are available for comment at media@techfreedom.org. Find/share this release on Facebook or Twitter.

For those in the DC area interested in telecom regulation, there is another great event opportunity coming up next week.

Join TechFreedom on Thursday, December 19, the 100th anniversary of the Kingsbury Commitment, AT&T’s negotiated settlement of antitrust charges brought by the Department of Justice that gave AT&T a legal monopoly in most of the U.S. in exchange for a commitment to provide universal service.

The Commitment is hailed by many not just as a milestone in the public interest but as the bedrock of U.S. communications policy. Others see the settlement as the cynical exploitation of lofty rhetoric to establish a tightly regulated monopoly — and the beginning of decades of cozy regulatory capture that stifled competition and strangled innovation.

So which was it? More importantly, what can we learn from the seventy year period before the 1984 break-up of AT&T, and the last three decades of efforts to unleash competition? With fewer than a third of Americans relying on traditional telephony and Internet-based competitors increasingly driving competition, what does universal service mean in the digital era? As Congress contemplates overhauling the Communications Act, how can policymakers promote universal service through competition, by promoting innovation and investment? What should a new Kingsbury Commitment look like?

Following a luncheon keynote address by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a diverse panel of experts moderated by TechFreedom President Berin Szoka will explore these issues and more. The panel includes:

  • Harold Feld, Public Knowledge
  • Rob Atkinson, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation
  • Hance Haney, Discovery Institute
  • Jeff Eisenach, American Enterprise Institute
  • Fred Campbell, Former FCC Commissioner

Space is limited so RSVP now if you plan to attend in person. A live stream of the event will be available on this page. You can follow the conversation on Twitter on the #Kingsbury100 hashtag.

When:
Thursday, December 19, 2013
11:30 – 12:00 Registration & lunch
12:00 – 1:45 Event & live stream

The live stream will begin on this page at noon Eastern.

Where:
The Methodist Building
100 Maryland Ave NE
Washington D.C. 20002

Questions?
Email contact@techfreedom.org.

I have a new post up at TechPolicyDaily.com, excerpted below, in which I discuss the growing body of (surprising uncontroversial) work showing that broadband in the US compares favorably to that in the rest of the world. My conclusion, which is frankly more cynical than I like, is that concern about the US “falling behind” is manufactured debate. It’s a compelling story that the media likes and that plays well for (some) academics.

Before the excerpt, I’d also like to quote one of today’s headlines from Slashdot:

“Google launched the citywide Wi-Fi network with much fanfare in 2006 as a way for Mountain View residents and businesses to connect to the Internet at no cost. It covers most of the Silicon Valley city and worked well until last year, as Slashdot readers may recall, when connectivity got rapidly worse. As a result, Mountain View is installing new Wi-Fi hotspots in parts of the city to supplement the poorly performing network operated by Google. Both the city and Google have blamed the problems on the design of the network. Google, which is involved in several projects to provide Internet access in various parts of the world, said in a statement that it is ‘actively in discussions with the Mountain View city staff to review several options for the future of the network.’”

The added emphasis is mine. It is added to draw attention to the simple point that designing and building networks is hard. Like, really really hard. Folks think that it’s easy, because they have small networks in their homes or offices — so surely they can scale to a nationwide network without much trouble. But all sorts of crazy stuff starts to happen when we substantially increase the scale of IP networks. This is just one of the very many things that should give us pause about calls for the buildout of a government run or sponsored Internet infrastructure.

Another of those things is whether there’s any need for that. Which brings us to my TechPolicyDaily.com post:

In the week or so since TPRC, I’ve found myself dwelling on an observation I made during the conference: how much agreement there was, especially on issues usually thought of as controversial. I want to take a few paragraphs to consider what was probably the most surprisingly non-controversial panel of the conference, the final Internet Policy panel, in which two papers - one by ITIF’s Rob Atkinson and the other by James McConnaughey from NTIA – were presented that showed that broadband Internet service in US (and Canada, though I will focus on the US) compares quite well to that offered in the rest of the world. [...]

But the real question that this panel raised for me was: given how well the US actually compares to other countries, why does concern about the US falling behind dominate so much discourse in this area? When you get technical, economic, legal, and policy experts together in a room – which is what TPRC does – the near consensus seems to be that the “kids are all right”; but when you read the press, or much of the high-profile academic literature, “the sky is falling.”

The gap between these assessments could not be larger. I think that we need to think about why this is. I hate to be cynical or disparaging – especially since I know strong advocates on both sides and believe that their concerns are sincere and efforts earnest. But after this year’s conference, I’m having trouble shaking the feeling that ongoing concern about how US broadband stacks up to the rest of the world is a manufactured debate. It’s a compelling, media- and public-friendly, narrative that supports a powerful political agenda. And the clear incentives, for academics and media alike, are to find problems and raise concerns. [...]

Compare this to the Chicken Little narrative. As I was writing this, I received a message from a friend asking my views on an Economist blog post that shares data from the ITU’s just-released Measuring the Information Society 2013 report. This data shows that the US has some of the highest prices for pre-paid handset-based mobile data around the world. That is, it reports the standard narrative – and it does so without looking at the report’s methodology. [...]

Even more problematic than what the Economist blog reports, however, is what it doesn’t report. [The report contains data showing the US has some of the lowest cost fixed broadband and mobile broadband prices in the world. See the full post at TechPolicyDaily.com for the numbers.]

Now, there are possible methodological problems with these rankings, too. My point here isn’t to debate over the relative position of the United States. It’s to ask why the “story” about this report cherry-picks the alarming data, doesn’t consider its methodology, and ignores the data that contradicts its story.

Of course, I answered that question above: It’s a compelling, media- and public-friendly, narrative that supports a powerful political agenda. And the clear incentives, for academics and media alike, are to find problems and raise concerns. Manufacturing debate sells copy and ads, and advances careers.

With Matt Starr, Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne

Today’s oral argument in the D.C Circuit over the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules suggests that the case — Verizon v. FCC — is likely to turn on whether the Order impermissibly imposes common carrier regulation on broadband ISPs. If so, the FCC will lose, no matter what the court thinks of the Commission’s sharply contested claims of authority under the Telecommunications Act.

The FCC won last year before the same court when Verizon challenged its order mandating that carriers provide data roaming services to their competitors’ customers. But Judge Tatel, who wrote the Cellco decision is likely to write the court’s opinion overturning the Net neutrality rules — just as he wrote the court’s 2010 Comcast v. FCC opinion, thwarting the FCC’s first attempt at informal net neutrality regulation.

Over an extraordinary two-hour session, Judges Tatel and Silberman asked a barrage of questions that suggest they’ll apply the same test used to uphold the data roaming rule to strike down at least the non-discrimination rule at the heart of the Open Internet Order — and probably, the entire Order.

Common Carrier Analysis

The Communications Act explicitly prohibits treating services that are not regulated under Title II as common carriers. Title II regulates “telecommunications services,” such as landline telephone service, but broadband is an “information service” regulated under Title I of the Act, while wireless is regulated under Title III of the Act (as a “radio transmission”).

In Cellco, the court ruled that the FCC’s data roaming rule did not impermissibly classify mobile providers as common carriers even though it compelled wireless carriers to let other companies’ subscribers roam on their networks. Here, the Open Internet Order effectively forces ISPs to carry traffic of all “edge” providers in an equal, non-discriminatory manner. While these might seem similar, the two mandates differ significantly, and Tatel’s analysis in the data roaming case may lead to precisely the opposite result here.

Tatel’s data roaming opinion rested on a test, derived from decades of case law, for determining what level of regulation constitutes an impermissible imposition of common carrier status:

  1. “If a carrier is forced to offer service indiscriminately and on general terms, then that carrier is being relegated to common carrier status”;

  2. “[T]he Commission has significant latitude to determine the bounds of common carriage in particular cases”;

  3. “[C]ommon carriage is not all or nothing—there is a gray area [between common carrier status and private carrier status] in which although a given regulation might be applied to common carriers, the obligations imposed are not common carriage per se” because they permit carriers to retain sufficient decisionmaking authority over their networks (by retaining programming control and/or the authority to negotiate terms, for example); and

  4. In this gray area, “[the FCC’s] determination that a regulation does or does not confer common carrier status warrants deference” under the Supreme Court’s Chevron decision.

In Cellco, the court determined that the data roaming rule fell into the gray area, and thus deferred to the FCC’s determination that the regulation did not impose common carrier status. The essential distinction, according to the court, was that carriers remained free to “negotiate the terms of their roaming arrangements on an individualized basis,” provided their terms were “commercially reasonable.” Rather than impose a “presumption of reasonableness,” the Commission offered “considerable flexibility for providers to respond to the competitive forces at play in the mobile-data market.” Thus, the court held, the data roaming rule “leaves substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms,” and thus “does not amount to a duty to hold out facilities indifferently for public use.”

The Open Internet rules, by contrast, impose a much harsher restriction on what ISPs may do with their broadband networks, barring them from blocking any legal content and prohibiting “unreasonable” discrimination. Judges Tatel and Silberman repeatedly asked questions that suggested that the Order’s reasonable discrimination rule removed the kind of “flexibility” that justified upholding the data roaming rule. By requiring carriers to “offer service indiscriminately and on general terms” and to “hold out facilities indifferently for public use” (to quote the D.C. Circuit’s test), the rule would go beyond the “gray area” in which the FCC gets deference, and fall into the D.C. Circuit’s definition of common carriage. If that’s indeed ultimately where the two judges wind up, it’s game over for the FCC.

The Open Internet Order requires broadband ISPs to make their networks available, and to do so on equal terms that remove pricing flexibility, to any edge provider that wishes to have its content available on an ISP’s network. This seems to be Judge Tatel’s interpretation of ¶ 76 of the Order, which goes on at length about the reasons why “pay for priority” arrangements would “raise significant cause for concern” and then concludes: “In light of each of these concerns, as a general matter, it’s unlikely that pay for priority would satisfy the ‘no unreasonable discrimination’ standard.” So… legal in principle, but effectively banned in practice — a per se rule dressed up as a rule of reason.

If that isn’t, in effect, a requirement that ISPs hold out their networks “indifferently for public use,” it’s hard to imagine what is — as Tatel certainly seemed to think today. Tatel’s use of the term “indiscriminately” in Cellco almost hints that the test was written with the FCC’s “no discrimination” rule in mind.

The FCC tried, but failed, to address such concerns in the Open Internet Order, by arguing that broadband providers remained free to “make individualized decisions” with the only customers that matter: their subscribers. Today, the agency again insisted that restricting, however heavily, a broadband provider’s ability to negotiate with an edge provider (or the backbone providers in between) is irrelevant to the analysis of whether the FCC has illegally imposed common carriage. But if that argument worked, the D.C. Circuit would not have had to analyze whether the data roaming rule afforded sufficient flexibility to carriers in contracting with other carriers to provide data roaming services to their customers.

Similarly, the FCC failed today, and in its briefs, to effectively distinguish this case from Midwest Video II, which was critical to the Cellco decision. here, the Supreme Court court struck down public-access rules imposed on cable companies as impermissible common carrier regulation because they “prohibited [cable operators] from determining or influencing the content of access programming,” and “delimit[ed] what [they could] charge for access and use of equipment.” In other words, the FCC’s rule left no flexibility for negotiations between companies — the same problem as in the Open Internet Order. The FCC attempted to distinguish the two cases by arguing that the FCC was restricting an existing wholesale market for channel carriage, while no such market exists today for prioritized Internet services. But this misses the key point made, emphatically, by Judge Silberman: it is the FCC’s relentless attempt to regulate Net Neutrality that has prevented the development of this market. Nothing better reveals the stasis mentality behind the FCC’s Order

Perhaps the most damning moment of today’s arguments occurred when Verizon’s lawyer responded to questions about what room for negotiation was left under the unreasonable discrimination rule — by pointing to what the FCC itself said in Footnote 240 of the Order. There the FCC quotes, approvingly, comments filed by Sprint: “The unreasonable discrimination standard contained in Section 202(a) of the Act contains the very flexibility the Commission needs to distinguish desirable from improper discrimination.” In other words, the only room for “commercially reasonable negotiation” recognized by the FCC under the nondiscrimination rule is found in the limited discretion traditionally available to common carriers under Section 202(a). Oops. This #LawyerFail will doubtless feature prominently in the court’s discussion of this issue, as the FCC’s perhaps accidental concession that, whatever the agency claims, it’s really imposing common carrier status — analogous to Title II, no less!

Judges Tatel and Silberman seemed to disagree only as to whether the no-blocking rule would also fail under Cellco’s reasoning. Tatel suggested that if the non-discrimination rule didn’t exist, the blocking rule, standing alone, would “leave substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms” just as the data roaming rule did. Tatel spent perhaps fifteen minutes trying to draw clear answers from all counsel on this point, but seemed convinced that, at most, the no-blocking rule simply imposed a duty on the broadband provider to allow an edge provider to reach its customers, while still allowing the broadband provider to negotiate for faster carriage on “commercially reasonable terms.” Silberman disagreed, insisting that the blocking rule still imposed a common carrier duty to carry traffic at a zero price.

Severability

Ultimately the distinction between these two rules under Cellco’s common carriage test may not matter. If the court decides that the order is not severable, striking down the nondiscrimination rule as common carriage would cause the entire Order to fall.

The judges got into an interesting, though relatively short, discussion of this point. Verizon’s counsel repeatedly noted that the FCC had never stated any intention that the order should be read as severable either in the Order, in its briefs or even at oral argument. Unlike in MD/DC/DE Broadaster’s Assoc. v. FCC, the Commission did not state in the adopting regulation that it intended to treat the regulation as severable. And, as the DC Circuit has stated, “[s]everance and affirmance of a portion of an administrative regulation is improper if there is ‘substantial doubt’ that the agency would have adopted the severed portion on its own.”

The question, as the Supreme Court held in K Mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., is whether the remainder of the regulation could function sensibly without the stricken provision. This isn’t clear. While Judge Tatel seems to suggest that the rule against blocking could function without the nondiscrimination rule, Judge Silberman seems convinced that the two were intended as necessary complements by the FCC. The determination of the no-blocking rule’s severability may come down to Judge Rogers, who didn’t telegraph her view.

So what’s next?

The prediction made by Fred Campbell shortly after the Cellco decision seems like the most likely outcome: Tatel, joined by at least Silberman, could strike down the entire Order as imposing common carriage — while offering the FCC a roadmap to try its hand at Net Neutrality yet again by rewriting the discrimination rule to allow for prioritized or accelerated carriage on commercially reasonable terms.

Or, if the the court decides the order is severable, it could strike down just the nondiscrimination rule — assuming the court could find either direct or ancillary jurisdiction for both the transparency rule and the non-discrimination rule.

Either way, an FCC loss will mean that negotiated arrangements for priority carriage will be governed under something more like a rule of reason. The FCC could try to create its own rule.  Or the matter could simply be left to the antitrust and consumer protection laws enforced by the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, the states and private plaintiffs. We think the latter’s definitely the best approach. But whether it is or not, it will be the controlling legal authority on the ground the day the FCC loses — unless and until the FCC issues revised rules (or Congress passes a law) that can survive judicial review.

Ultimately, we suspect the FCC will have a hard time letting go. After 79 years, it’s clearly in denial about its growing obsolescence.

With Berin Szoka

We’ll be delving into today’s oral arguments at our live-streamed TechFreedom/ICLE event at 12:30 EDT — and tweeting on the #NetNeutrality hashtag.

But here are a few thoughts to help guide the frantic tea-leaf reading everyone will doubtless be engaged in after (and probably even during) the arguments:

While most commentators have focused on ancillary jurisdiction questions, the FCC first and foremost asserts that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act gives it direct authority to regulate the Internet.

  • The FCC purports to find this authority primarily in the language of the Section 706, which directs the Commission to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans… by utilizing… measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.”

  • The DC Circuit in Comcast suggested that this language might constitute a direct grant of authority, but in that case it’s clear the court was talking about a grant of authority sufficient to constitute the basis for ancillary jurisdiction. Here, the FCC explicitly claims that the language confers direct authority (although the Commission still claims other sections as the basis for ancillary authority).

  • In any case, the court in Comcast didn’t address the substance of the Commission’s claim, and despite some commentators’ claims to the contrary, nothing in the court’s analysis of Section 706 in Comcast directly forecloses the arguments the FCC makes in this case (although some of its language suggests the court may be uncomfortable with the FCC’s claim of authority).

  • Rather, because the FCC had not yet offered the revised interpretation of Section 706 contained within the Open Internet Order, the court in Comcast simply accepted the FCC’s then-current interpretation that Section 706 conferred no direct authority on the Commission to regulate broadband information services.

  • Since then, however, the FCC has changed course, and it now asserts such authority in the OIO. It is worth noting, as Commissioner McDowell discussed in his dissent from the OIO, that the process by which the FCC majority repudiated its previous interpretation and set up the basis for its authority under Section 706 was remarkably disingenuous and underhanded. The court may or may not take notice of this, but it should serve as a caution.

Thus the case is likely to hinge primarily on whether the court accepts the FCC’s claim that Section 706 grants direct authority, and, if so, whether the Open Internet Order adduces sufficient evidence to justify the FCC’s claim that Section 706 constitutes a valid basis for the specific regulations encompassed in the OIO.

  • The FCC’s arguments that it has ancillary jurisdiction under other provisions of the Telecommunications Act aren’t likely to get any more traction than last time.

  • The analysis of Section 706 as a basis for direct or ancillary jurisdiction is similar — and the court may well agree with Verizon that the FCC is really still claiming ancillary jurisdiction with a different label. So why does the distinction matter?

In order to establish Section 706 as the jurisdictional basis for the OIO under ancillary jurisdiction, the FCC would have to demonstrate that the OIO is necessary to implementation of Section 706’s (Section 4(i) of the Act says the FCC “may perform any and all acts, make such rules and regulations, and issue such orders … as may be necessary in the execution of its functions”). But if Section 706 confers authority for the OIO directly, the FCC need only show that its interpretation of the provision authorizing the Order is reasonable and not arbitrary and capricious. In other words, the FCC is trying to significantly lower its factual burden for using Section 706 (even as it claims that section confers authority narrower in scope than would ancillary authority). If the court accepts this argument, it could accept the FCC’s argument (however poorly supported and contrary to Congress’s clear intent) that the regulation of ISPs in order to encourage broadband deployment is a legitimate action under Section 706.

But the analysis doesn’t end there. Authority may exist in the abstract, but that doesn’t mean that this particular implementation of Section 706 is appropriate (or consistent with the Communications Act or the Constitution).

  • Rather, the plain language of Section 706 demands regulation that encourages deployment by means of removing barriers to infrastructure deployment. It is thus a sort of effects-based standard, and the FCC’s implementation of it is permitted only to the extent that its regulation actually has the effect of encouraging deployment.

  • This means that the FCC must adduce evidence sufficient to support the claim that, on net, its regulation will encourage deployment. To us, the FCC hasn’t met its burden.

  • The problem for the FCC is that, while the OIO contains a raft of assertions that prohibiting discrimination against, and forbidding the blocking of, edge content will encourage demand for, and thus deployment of, broadband infrastructure, the Order gives short shrift to the obvious reality that, at the same time, constraining broadband providers will reduce their incentive to invest in infrastructure.

  • It is an empirical question which effect is stronger, and, in theory, the Commission may be correct that the OIO meets the obligations imposed on it by Section 706.

  • But it is not enough simply to argue, as the FCC has done, that the OIO will encourage deployment along one dimension, while dismissing the other.

  • Unfortunately for the FCC, the OIO does just that (and badly, it must be added. Not only does the record clearly demonstrate only the most minimal instances of non-neutrality, but most of these were resolved without FCC intervention. Moreover, despite its bold claims, the economic evidence connecting neutrality and infrastructure deployment is vanishingly thin, to say the least).

It seems clear that the FCC is reading Section 706 with the wrong emphasis. The provision is not meant to be a broad grant of power (and to its credit the FCC asserts that it understands there are some limits to the provision and whatever powers it might confer). But in contorting the provision to find a basis for the OIO, the FCC doesn’t go far enough in accepting the limits of Section 706.

  • Properly understood, Section 706 is meant rather to be a broad limitation on the FCC’s power, requiring it to act, but only insofar as doing so encourages, on net, deployment, increases competition and removes barriers. This obligation is the most likely reason why the FCC had previously minimized the importance of Section 706.

  • The NTIA, for example, seems to understand this. As it wrote in a letter to the FCC in 1998, “the legislative history of section 706 suggests that it would operate only in the event that competition failed to produce reasonable and timely broadband deployment.” In asserting this the NTIA cites to, among other things, a statement from then Sen. Burns that “If competition is stalled, the [bill] gives the FCC authority to quicken the pace of competition and deregulation to accelerate the deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructure.”

  • Quite clearly, the provision is not meant to authorize regulation except where regulating will improve the status quo — will “quicken the pace of competition.”

The evidence required to defend a regulation promulgated under this provision thus must include evidence not only that the regulation is intended to increase competition relative to the status quo, but that it actually does so. The OIO contains no such evidence. Instead, the FCC

  • identifies vanishingly few instances of discrimination by ISPs and fails to note that most of these wouldn’t be affected by the OIO or were resolved without the FCC’s intervention;

  • asserts that ISPs have an ill-defined “incentive” to foreclose content providers and offers no baseline from which to assess whether foreclosure, if it exists, would actually cause consumer harm;

  • merely asserts that the benefits of the OIO outweigh its costs;

  • draws only a tenuous connection between neutrality and broadband deployment;

  • does not address how excluding vertically integrated broadband providers from profiting from the “virtuous circle of innovation” will affect net outcomes;

  • neglects to establish the requisite baseline showing that that competition and deployment have stalled in the status quo and that they will improve under its rules.

  • fails to confront the possibility that its expansive reading of its authority will further deter investment and innovation; and

  • fails to analyze the rules within the well-established framework of consumer welfare economics.

The Commission may be correct that “[e]ach round of innovation increases the value of the Internet for broadband providers, edge providers, online businesses, and consumers.” But the OIO explicitly forbids broadband providers from capturing these rents in any but the most blunt fashion, ensuring that whatever positive effects edge content innovation will confer, they will not substantially be enjoyed by the companies actually making infrastructure investment decisions.

  • Moreover, directly flouting Section 706’s mandate, the Order contains a number of explicit exceptions (for, e.g., CDNs, VPNs, peering arrangements, game consoles and app stores) that collectively have the effect of enshrining the competitive conditions of the status quo rather than encouraging innovation. These exceptions are well-taken and clearly benefit consumers. But by acknowledging that many aspects of today’s Internet are appropriately non-neutral and by establishing exceptions for these existing technologies, but not for the non-neutral technologies of tomorrow that will also benefit competition and consumers, the OIO impedes rather than quickens the pace of competition.

Even if the FCC gets this far, it still has to establish that it hasn’t violated the Communications Act by imposing common carrier status on broadband providers, which the FCC has classified as a Title I non-common-carrier service. To win here, the court would have to find that the Net Neutrality rules leave room for “commercially reasonable negotiation” — as it did in upholding the FCC’s mandate that wireless carriers offer data roaming to the subscribers of other carriers. The Order insists that the FCC hasn’t regulated negotiations with consumers, which the agency claims is all that matters. But that’s clearly inconsistent with Judge Tatel’s analysis in the data roaming order, which focused on whether the data roaming rule left room for such negotiations on the other side of the market— between carriers. So look for Judge Tatel to ask tough questions about this point today.

FInally, Verizon’s Constitutional arguments remain, and while they present an uphill battle, the court may press the FCC on whether its regulations are consistent with the the First and Fifth Amendments — the core of TechFreedom’s amicus brief.

There will be much more to say following the oral argument, but we wanted to offer these preliminary thoughts to guide court watchers. In sum, as a technical legal matter, we believe that the court will not focus on the ancillary jurisdiction question and will likely defer substantially to the FCC’s interpretation of its direct jurisdiction to regulate broadband information providers under the Telecommunications Act. But the real action will be in the court’s evaluation of the FCC’s claimed support for its specific implementation of its authority. And if the Court seems open to the FCC’s arguments, it will have to delve into the common carriage and constitutional questions.

We add one note in conclusion: The type of analysis and resulting regulation called for under even the FCC’s interpretation of Section 706 should look an awful lot like a rule of reason foreclosure analysis under antitrust law. The rule is effects-based and calls for a case by case evidentiary determination that complained of conduct results in anticompetitive foreclosure relative to the but-for world without the conduct. We can certainly imagine Judge Tatel striking down the rule, upholding the assertion of jurisdiction, and offering guidance to the FCC that it might cure its error by implementing a rule that effectively embodies the well-established law and economics of an antitrust rule of reason analysis. Or perhaps we could cut out the middleman and just let the FTC apply antitrust laws directly.

Of Cake and Netflix

Gus Hurwitz —  6 September 2013

My new FSF Perspectives piece, Let Them Eat Cake and Watch Netflix, was published today. This piece explores a tension in Susan Crawford’s recent Wired commentary on Pew’s 2013 Broadband Report.

I excerpt from the piece below. You can (and, I daresay, should!) read the whole thing here.

In her piece, after noting the persistence of the digital divide, Crawford turns to her critique of both Pew’s and the FCC’s definition of “high-speed internet” – 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up – and the inclusion of mobile Internet access in these measurements. She argues that this definition … is too slow. What if you wanted to watch two HD quality videos at once over a single connection? [...]

But the digital divide isn’t about people today not being able to watch movies on Netflix. And it’s definitely not about people today not being able to use future service that may or may not require the sort of infrastructure Crawford wants the government to build. [...] It’s about the (very real) concern that, as civic and democratic institutions increasingly migrate online, those without basic Internet access or knowledge will be locked out of a vital civic and democratic forum. [...]

None of [applications central to concerns about the digital divide] require bandwidth sufficient to stream high-quality video. Indeed, none of them should require such capacity. Another very real concern related to the digital divide is that various groups with disabilities – the deaf and blind, for instance – are already unable to avail themselves of these online forums because they rely too much on sophisticated multimedia formats to provide basic information. [...]

I would suggest that a better target for Crawford’s efforts – if she is really concerned about lessening the digital divide (and I do fully believe that her convictions are well meaning and sincere) – would be to advocate for government institutions and other civic and democratic forums to develop online applications that do not require high-speed broadband connections. [...]

In a world where consumers perceive a non-zero marginal cost for incremental bandwidth consumption – perhaps, as an example, a world with consumer bandwidth caps – there would be consumer demand for lower-bandwidth versions of websites and other Internet services. Rather than ratcheting bandwidth requirements consistently up – increasing the size of the digital divide – the self-interested decisions of consumers on the fortunate side of that divide could actually help shrink that divide. [...]

The tragic thing (though, to economists, not surprising) about demands that the Internet economy disobey laws of supply and demand, that Internet providers offer consumers a service unconstrained by scarcity, is that such demands create the Internet-equivalent of bread lines. They are, in fact, the wedge that widens the digital divide.

By Geoffrey Manne & Berin Szoka

As Democrats insist that income taxes on the 1% must go up in the name of fairness, one Democratic Senator wants to make sure that the 1% of heaviest Internet users pay the same price as the rest of us. It’s ironic how confused social justice gets when the Internet’s involved.

Senator Ron Wyden is beloved by defenders of Internet freedom, most notably for blocking the Protect IP bill—sister to the more infamous SOPA—in the Senate. He’s widely celebrated as one of the most tech-savvy members of Congress. But his latest bill, the “Data Cap Integrity Act,” is a bizarre, reverse-Robin Hood form of price control for broadband. It should offend those who defend Internet freedom just as much as SOPA did.

Wyden worries that “data caps” will discourage Internet use and allow “Internet providers to extract monopoly rents,” quoting a New York Times editorial from July that stirred up a tempest in a teapot. But his fears are straw men, based on four false premises.

First, US ISPs aren’t “capping” anyone’s broadband; they’re experimenting with usage-based pricing—service tiers. If you want more than the basic tier, your usage isn’t capped: you can always pay more for more bandwidth. But few users will actually exceed that basic tier. For example, Comcast’s basic tier, 300 GB/month, is so generous that 98.5% of users will not exceed it. That’s enough for 130 hours of HD video each month (two full-length movies a day) or between 300 and 1000 hours of standard (compressed) video streaming. Continue Reading…

by Larry Downes and Geoffrey A. Manne

Now that the election is over, the Federal Communications Commission is returning to the important but painfully slow business of updating its spectrum management policies for the 21st century. That includes a process the agency started in September to formalize its dangerously unstructured role in reviewing mergers and other large transactions in the communications industry.

This followed growing concern about “mission creep” at the FCC, which, in deals such as those between Comcast and NBCUniversal, AT&T and T-Mobile USA, and Verizon Wireless and SpectrumCo, has repeatedly been caught with its thumb on the scales of what is supposed to be a balance between private markets and what the Communications Act refers to as the “public interest.” Continue Reading…

By Geoffrey Manne, Matt StarrBerin Szoka

“Real lawyers read the footnotes!”—thus did Harold Feld chastise Geoff and Berin in a recent blog post about our CNET piece on the Verizon/SpectrumCo transaction. We argued, as did Commissioner Pai in his concurrence, that the FCC provided no legal basis for its claims of authority to review the Commercial Agreements that accompanied Verizon’s purchase of spectrum licenses—and that these agreements for joint marketing, etc. were properly subject only to DOJ review (under antitrust).

Harold insists that the FCC provided “actual analysis of its authority” in footnote 349 of its Order. But real lawyers read the footnotes carefully. That footnote doesn’t provide any legal basis for the FTC to review agreements beyond a license transfer; indeed, the footnote doesn’t even assert such authority. In short, we didn’t cite the footnote because it is irrelevant, not because we forgot to read it.

First, a reminder of what we said:

The FCC’s review of the Commercial Agreements accompanying the spectrum deal exceeded the limits of Section 310(d) of the Communications Act. As Commissioner Pai noted in his concurring statement, “Congress limited the scope of our review to the proposed transfer of spectrum licenses, not to other business agreements that may involve the same parties.” We (and others) raised this concern in public comments filed with the Commission. Here’s the agency’s own legal analysis — in full: “The Commission has authority to review the Commercial Agreements and to impose conditions to protect the public interest.” There’s not even an accompanying footnote.

Even if Harold were correct that footnote 349 provides citations to possible sources of authority for the FCC to review the Commercial Agreements, it remains irrelevant to our claim: The FCC exceeded its authority under 310(d) and asserted its authority under 310(d) without any analysis or citation. Footnote 349 begins with the phrase, “[a]side from Section 310(d)….” It is no surprise, then, that the footnote contains no analysis of the agency’s authority under that section.

The FCC’s authority under 310(d) is precisely what is at issue here. The question was raised and argued in several submissions to the Commission (including ours), and the Commission is clearly aware of this. In paragraph 142 of the Order, the agency notes the parties’ objection to its review of the Agreements: “Verizon Wireless and the Cable Companies respond that the Commission should not review the Commercial Agreements because… the Commission does not have authority to review the agreements.” That objection, rooted in 310(d), is to the Commission extending its transaction review authority (unquestionably arising under only 310(d)) beyond that section’s limits. The Commission then answers the parties’ claim in the next paragraph with the language we quoted: “The Commission has authority to review the Commercial Agreements and to impose conditions to protect the public interest.” By doing so without reference to other statutory language, it seems clear that the FCC’s unequivocal, unsupported statement of authority is a statement of authority under 310(d).

This is as it should be. The FCC’s transaction review authority is limited to Section 310(d). Thus if the agency were going to review the Commercial Agreements as part of the transfer, the authority to do so must come from 310(d) alone. But 310(d) on its face provides no authority to review anything beyond the transfer of spectrum. If the Commission wanted to review the Commercial Agreements, it needed to provide analysis on how exactly 310(d), despite appearances, gives it the authority to do so. But the Commission does nothing of the sort.

But let’s be charitable, and consider whether footnote 349 provides relevant analysis of its authority to review the Commercial Agreements under any statute.

The Commission did cite to several other sections of the Communications Act in the paragraph (145) that includes footnote 349. But that paragraph relates not to the review of the transaction itself (or even the ability of the parties to enter into the Commercial Agreements) but to the Commission’s authority to ensure that Verizon complies with the conditions imposed on the transaction, and to monitor the possible effects the Agreements have on the market after the fact. Three of the four statutes cited in the footnote (47 U.S.C. §§ 152, 316, & 548) don’t appear to give the Commission authority for anything related this transaction. Only 47 U.S.C. § 201 is relevant. But having authority to monitor a wireless provider’s post-transaction business practices is far different from having the authority to halt or condition the transaction itself before its completion because of concerns about ancillary agreements. The FCC cites no statutes to support this authority—because none exist.

This is not simply a semantic distinction. By claiming authority to review ancillary agreements in the course of reviewing license transfers, the Commission gains further leverage over companies seeking license transfer approvals, putting more of the companies’ economic interests at risk. This means companies will more likely make the “voluntary” concessions (with no opportunity for judicial scrutiny) that they would not otherwise have made—or they might not enter into deals in the first place. As we (Geoff and Berin) said in our CNET article, “the FCC has laid down its marker, letting all future comers know that its bargaining advantage extends well beyond the stack of chips Congress put in front of it.” In merger reviews, the house has a huge advantage, and it is magnified if the agency can expand the scope of activity under its review.

Thus Harold is particularly off-base when he writes that “[g]iven that there is no question that the FCC has authority to entertain complaints going forward, and certainly has authority to monitor how the markets under its jurisdiction are developing, it is hard to understand the jurisdictional argument even as the worship of empty formalism.” This misses the point entirely. The difference between the FCC reviewing the Commercial Agreements in deciding whether to permit the license transfer (or demand concessions) and regulating the Agreements after the fact is no mere “formalism.”

Regardless, if the FCC were actually trying to rely on these other sections of the Communications Act for authority to review the Commercial Agreements, it would have cited them in Paragraph 143, where it asserted that authority—not two paragraphs later in a footnote supporting the agency’s order assigning post-transaction monitoring tasks to the Wireline Competition Bureau. Moreover, none of these alleged assertions of authority amounts to an analysis of the FCC’s jurisdiction. Given the debate that took place in the record over the issue, a simple list of statutes purporting to confer jurisdiction would be utterly insufficient in response. Not as insufficient as an unadorned, conclusory statement of authority without even such a list of statutes (what the FCC actually did) — but awfully close.

We stand by our claim that the Commission failed to cite — let alone analyze — its authority to review the Commercial Agreements in this transaction. The FCC’s role in transaction reviews has been hotly contested, at least partially inspiring the FCC Process Reform Act that passed this spring in the House. Given the controversy around the issue, the Commission should have gone out of its way to justify its assertion of authority, citing precedent and making a coherent argument — in other words, engaging in legal analysis. At least, that’s what “real lawyers” would do.

But in real politik, perhaps it was naïve of us to expect more analysis from the agency that tried to justify net neutrality regulation by pointing to a deregulatory statute aimed at encouraging the deployment of broadband and claiming that somewhere in there, perhaps, hidden between the lines, was the authority the agency needed—but which Congress never actually gave it.

When the FCC plays fast and loose with the law in issuing regulations, someone will likely sue, thus forcing the FCC to justify itself to a court.  On net neutrality, the D.C. Circuit seems all but certain to strike down the FCC’s Open Internet Order for lacking any firm legal basis.  But when the FCC skirts legal limits on its authority in merger review, the parties to a merger have every incentive to settle and keep their legal qualms to themselves; even when the FCC blocks a merger, the parties usually calculate that t isn’t worth suing or trying to make a point about principle.  Thus, through merger review, the FCC gets away with regulation by stealth—footnotes about legal authority be damned.  Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly worry about the FCC’s expansive claims of authority as a “Trojan Horse,” even when they applaud the FCC’s ends.  We know Harold doesn’t like this transaction, but why doesn’t he worry about where the FCC is taking us?