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The Wall Street Journal dropped an FCC bombshell last week, although I’m not sure anyone noticed. In an article ostensibly about the possible role that MFNs might play in the Comcast/Time-Warner Cable merger, the Journal noted that

The FCC is encouraging big media companies to offer feedback confidentially on Comcast’s $45-billion offer for Time Warner Cable.

Not only is the FCC holding secret meetings, but it is encouraging Comcast’s and TWC’s commercial rivals to hold confidential meetings and to submit information under seal. This is not a normal part of ex parte proceedings at the FCC.

In the typical proceeding of this sort – known as a “permit-but-disclose proceeding” – ex parte communications are subject to a host of disclosure requirements delineated in 47 CFR 1.1206. But section 1.1200(a) of the Commission’s rules permits the FCC, in its discretion, to modify the applicable procedures if the public interest so requires.

If you dig deeply into the Public Notice seeking comments on the merger, you find a single sentence stating that

Requests for exemptions from the disclosure requirements pursuant to section 1.1204(a)(9) may be made to Jonathan Sallet [the FCC’s General Counsel] or Hillary Burchuk [who heads the transaction review team].

Similar language appears in the AT&T/DirecTV transaction Public Notice.

This leads to the cited rule exempting certain ex parte presentations from the usual disclosure requirements in such proceedings, including the referenced one that exempts ex partes from disclosure when

The presentation is made pursuant to an express or implied promise of confidentiality to protect an individual from the possibility of reprisal, or there is a reasonable expectation that disclosure would endanger the life or physical safety of an individual

So the FCC is inviting “media companies” to offer confidential feedback and to hold secret meetings that the FCC will hold confidential because of “the possibility of reprisal” based on language intended to protect individuals.

Such deviations from the standard permit-but-disclose procedures are extremely rare. As in non-existent. I guess there might be other examples, but I was unable to find a single one in a quick search. And I’m willing to bet that the language inviting confidential communications in the PN hasn’t appeared before – and certainly not in a transaction review.

It is worth pointing out that the language in 1.1204(a)(9) is remarkably similar to language that appears in the Freedom of Information Act. As the DOJ notes regarding that exemption:

Exemption 7(D) provides protection for “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes [which] could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source… to ensure that “confidential sources are not lost through retaliation against the sources for past disclosure or because of the sources’ fear of future disclosure.”

Surely the fear-of-reprisal rationale for confidentiality makes sense in that context – but here? And invoked to elicit secret meetings and to keep confidential information from corporations instead of individuals, it makes even less sense (and doesn’t even obviously comply with the rule itself). It is not as though – as far as I know – someone approached the Commission with stated fears and requested it implement a procedure for confidentiality in these particular reviews.

Rather, this is the Commission inviting non-transparent process in the midst of a heated, politicized and heavily-scrutinized transaction review.

The optics are astoundingly bad.

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior seems to be par for the course for the current FCC. As Commissioner Pai has noted on more than one occasion, the minority commissioners have been routinely kept in the dark with respect to important matters at the Commission – not coincidentally, in other highly-politicized proceedings.

What’s particularly troubling is that, for all its faults, the FCC’s process is typically extremely open and transparent. Public comments, endless ex parte meetings, regular Open Commission Meetings are all the norm. And this is as it should be. Particularly when it comes to transactions and other regulated conduct for which the regulated entity bears the burden of proving that its behavior does not offend the public interest, it is obviously necessary to have all of the information – to know what might concern the Commission and to make a case respecting those matters.

The kind of arrogance on display of late, and the seeming abuse of process that goes along with it, hearkens back to the heady days of Kevin Martin’s tenure as FCC Chairman – a tenure described as “dysfunctional” and noted for its abuse of process.

All of which should stand as a warning to the vocal, pro-regulatory minority pushing for the FCC to proclaim enormous power to regulate net neutrality – and broadband generally – under Title II. Just as Chairman Martin tried to manipulate diversity rules to accomplish his pet project of cable channel unbundling, some future Chairman will undoubtedly claim authority under Title II to accomplish some other unintended, but politically expedient, objective — and it may not be one the self-proclaimed consumer advocates like, when it happens.

Bad as that risk may be, it is only made more likely by regulatory reviews undertaken in secret. Whatever impelled the Chairman to invite unprecedented secrecy into these transaction reviews, it seems to be of a piece with a deepening politicization and abuse of process at the Commission. It’s both shameful – and deeply worrying.

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.

Susan Crawford recently received the OneCommunity Broadband Hero Award for being a “tireless advocate for 21st century high capacity network access.” In her recent debate with Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka, she emphasized that there is little competition in broadband or between cable broadband and wireless, asserting that the main players have effectively divided the markets. As a result, she argues (as she did here at 17:29) that broadband and wireless providers “are deciding not to invest in the very expensive infrastructure because they are very happy with the profits they are getting now.” In the debate, Manne countered by pointing to substantial investment and innovation in both the wired and wireless broadband marketplaces, and arguing that this is not something monopolists insulated from competition do. So, who’s right?

The recently released 2013 Progressive Policy Institute Report, U.S. Investment Heroes of 2013: The Companies Betting on America’s Future, has two useful little tables that lend support to Manne’s counterargument.

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The first shows the top 25 investors that are nonfinancial companies, and guess who comes in 1st, 2nd, 10th, 13th, and 17th place? None other than AT&T, Verizon Communications, Comcast, Sprint Nextel, and Time Warner, respectively.

skatch

And when the table is adjusted by removing non-energy companies, the ranks become 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, and 9th. In fact, cable and telecom combined to invest over $50.5 billion in 2012.

This high level of investment by supposed monopolists is not a new development. The Progressive Policy Institute’s 2012 Report, Investment Heroes: Who’s Betting on America’s Future? indicates that the same main players have been investing heavily for years. Since 1996, the cable industry has invested over $200 billion into infrastructure alone. These investments have allowed 99.5% of Americans to have access to broadband – via landline, wireless, or both – as of the end of 2012.

There’s more. Not only has there been substantial investment that has increased access, but the speeds of service have increased dramatically over the past few years. The National Broadband Map data show that by the end of 2012:

  • Landline service ≧ 25 megabits per second download available to 81.7% of households, up from 72.9% at the end of 2011 and 58.4% at the end of 2010
  • Landline service ≧ 100 megabits per second download available to 51.5% of households, up from 43.4% at the end of 2011 and only 12.9% at the end of 2010
  • ≧ 1 gigabit per second download available to 6.8% of households, predominantly via fiber
  • Fiber at any speed was available to 22.9% of households, up from 16.8% at the end of 2011 and 14.8% at the end of 2010
  • Landline broadband service at the 3 megabits / 768 kilobits threshold available to 93.4% of households, up from 92.8% at the end of 2011
  • Mobile wireless broadband at the 3 megabits / 768 kilobits threshold available to 94.1% of households , up from 75.8% at the end of 2011
  • Access to mobile wireless broadband providing ≧ 10 megabits per second download has grown to 87%, up from 70.6 percent at the end of 2011 and 8.9 percent at the end of 2010
  • Landline broadband ≧ 10 megabits download was available to 91.1% of households

This leaves only one question: Will the real broadband heroes please stand up?

Over at Forbes Berin Szoka and I have a lengthy piece discussing “10 Reasons To Be More Optimistic About Broadband Than Susan Crawford Is.” Crawford has become the unofficial spokesman for a budding campaign to reshape broadband. She sees cable companies monopolizing broadband, charging too much, withholding content and keeping speeds low, all in order to suppress disruptive innovation — and argues for imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. Berin and I begin (we expect to contribute much more to this discussion in the future) to explain both why her premises are erroneous and also why her proscription is faulty. Here’s a taste:

Things in the US today are better than Crawford claims. While Crawford claims that broadband is faster and cheaper in other developed countries, her statistics are convincingly disputed. She neglects to mention the significant subsidies used to build out those networks. Crawford’s model is Europe, but as Europeans acknowledge, “beyond 100 Mbps supply will be very difficult and expensive. Western Europe may be forced into a second fibre build out earlier than expected, or will find themselves within the slow lane in 3-5 years time.” And while “blazing fast” broadband might be important for some users, broadband speeds in the US are plenty fast enough to satisfy most users. Consumers are willing to pay for speed, but, apparently, have little interest in paying for the sort of speed Crawford deems essential. This isn’t surprising. As the LSE study cited above notes, “most new activities made possible by broadband are already possible with basic or fast broadband: higher speeds mainly allow the same things to happen faster or with higher quality, while the extra costs of providing higher speeds to everyone are very significant.”

Even if she’s right, she wildly exaggerates the costs. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Crawford claims that slow downloads (compared to other countries) could cost the U.S. $3 trillion/year in lost productivity from wasted time spent “waiting for a link to load or an app to function on your wireless device.” This intentionally sensationalist claim, however, rests on a purely hypothetical average wait time in the U.S. of 30 seconds (vs. 2 seconds in Japan). Whatever the actual numbers might be, her methodology would still be shaky, not least because time spent waiting for laggy content isn’t necessarily simply wasted. And for most of us, the opportunity cost of waiting for Angry Birds to load on our phones isn’t counted in wages — it’s counted in beers or time on the golf course or other leisure activities. These are important, to be sure, but does anyone seriously believe our GDP would grow 20% if only apps were snappier? Meanwhile, actual econometric studies looking at the productivity effects of faster broadband on businesses have found that higher broadband speeds are not associated with higher productivity.

* * *

So how do we guard against the possibility of consumer harm without making things worse? For us, it’s a mix of promoting both competition and a smarter, subtler role for government.

Despite Crawford’s assertion that the DOJ should have blocked the Comcast-NBCU merger, antitrust and consumer protection laws do operate to constrain corporate conduct, not only through government enforcement but also private rights of action. Antitrust works best in the background, discouraging harmful conduct without anyone ever suing. The same is true for using consumer protection law to punish deception and truly harmful practices (e.g., misleading billing or overstating speeds).

A range of regulatory reforms would also go a long way toward promoting competition. Most importantly, reform local franchising so competitors like Google Fiber can build their own networks. That means giving them “open access” not to existing networks but to the public rights of way under streets. Instead of requiring that franchisees build out to an entire franchise area—which often makes both new entry and service upgrades unprofitable—remove build-out requirements and craft smart subsidies to encourage competition to deliver high-quality universal service, and to deliver superfast broadband to the customers who want it. Rather than controlling prices, offer broadband vouchers to those that can’t afford it. Encourage telcos to build wireline competitors to cable by transitioning their existing telephone networks to all-IP networks, as we’ve urged the FCC to do (here and here). Let wireless reach its potential by opening up spectrum and discouraging municipalities from blocking tower construction. Clear the deadwood of rules that protect incumbents in the video marketplace—a reform with broad bipartisan appeal.

In short, there’s a lot of ground between “do nothing” and “regulate broadband like electricity—or railroads.” Crawford’s arguments simply don’t justify imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. But that doesn’t leave us powerless to correct practices that truly harm consumers, should they actually arise.

Read the whole thing here.

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…