Archives For Federal Communications Commission

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.

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.

The debates over mobile spectrum aggregation and the auction rules for the FCC’s upcoming incentive auction — like all regulatory rent-seeking — can be farcical. One aspect of the debate in particular is worth highlighting, as it puts into stark relief the tendentiousness of self-interested companies making claims about the public interestedness of their preferred policies: The debate over how and whether to limit the buying and aggregating of lower frequency (in this case 600 MHz) spectrum.

A little technical background is in order. At its most basic, a signal carried in higher frequency spectrum doesn’t travel as well as a signal carried in lower frequency spectrum. The higher the frequency, the closer together cell towers need to be to maintain a good signal.

600MHz is relatively low frequency for wireless communications. In rural areas it is helpful in reducing infrastructure costs for wide area coverage because cell towers can be placed further apart and thus fewer towers must be built. But in cities, population density trumps frequency, and propagation range is essentially irrelevant for infrastructure costs. In other words, it doesn’t matter how far your signal will travel if congestion alleviation demands you build cell towers closer together than even the highest frequency spectrum requires anyway. The optimal — nay, the largest usable — cell radius in urban and suburban areas is considerably smaller than the sort of cell radius that low frequency spectrum allows for.

It is important to note, of course, that signal distance isn’t the only propagation characteristic imparting value to lower frequency spectrum; in particular, it is also valuable even in densely populated settings for its ability to travel through building walls. That said, however, the primary arguments made in favor of spreading the 600 MHz wealth — of effectively subsidizing its purchase by smaller carriers — are rooted in its value in offering more efficient coverage in less-populated areas. Thus the FCC has noted that while there may be significant infrastructure cost savings associated with deploying lower frequency networks in rural areas, this lower frequency spectrum provides little cost advantage in urban or suburban areas (even though, as noted, it has building-penetrating value there).

It is primarily because of these possible rural network cost advantages that certain entities (the Department of Justice, Free Press, the Competitive Carriers Association, e.g.) have proposed that AT&T and Verizon (both of whom have significant lower frequency spectrum holdings) should be restricted from winning “too much” spectrum in the FCC’s upcoming 600 MHz incentive auctions. The argument goes that, in order to ensure national competition — that is, to give other companies financial incentive to build out their networks into rural areas — the auction should be structured to favor Sprint and T-Mobile (both of whose spectrum holdings are mostly in the upper frequency bands) as awardees of this low-frequency spectrum, at commensurately lower cost.

Shockingly, T-Mobile and Sprint are on board with this plan.

So, to recap: 600MHz spectrum confers cost savings when used in rural areas. It has much less effect on infrastructure costs in urban and suburban areas. T-Mobile and Sprint don’t have much of it; AT&T and Verizon have lots. If we want T-Mobile and Sprint to create the competing national networks that the government seems dead set on engineering, we need to put a thumb on the scale in the 600MHz auctions. So they can compete in rural areas. Because that’s where 600MHz spectrum offers cost advantages. In rural areas.

So what does T-Mobile plan to do if it wins the spectrum lottery? Certainly not build in rural areas. As Craig Moffett notes, currently “T-Mobile’s U.S. network is fast…but coverage is not its strong suit, particularly outside of metro areas.” And for the future? T-mobile’s breakneck LTE coverage ramp up since the failed merger with AT&T is expected to top out at 225 million people, or the 71% of consumers living in the most-populated areas (it’s currently somewhere over 200 million). “Although sticking to a smaller network, T-Mobile plans to keep increasing the depth of its LTE coverage” (emphasis added). Depth. That means more bandwidth in high-density areas. It does not mean broader coverage. Obviously.

Sprint, meanwhile, is devoting all of its resources to playing LTE catch-up in the most-populated areas; it isn’t going to waste valuable spectrum resources on expanded rural build out anytime soon.

The kicker is that T-Mobile relies on AT&T’s network to provide its urban and suburban customers with coverage (3G) when they do roam into rural areas, taking advantage of a merger break-up provision that gives it roaming access to AT&T’s 3G network. In other words, T-Mobile’s national network is truly “national” only insofar as it piggybacks on AT&T’s broader coverage. And because AT&T will get the blame for congestion when T-Mobile’s customers roam onto its network, the cost to T-Mobile of hamstringing AT&T’s network is low.

The upshot is that T-Mobile seems not to need, nor does it intend to deploy, lower frequency spectrum to build out its network in less-populated areas. Defenders say that rigging the auction rules to benefit T-Mobile and Sprint will allow them to build out in rural areas to compete with AT&T’s and Verizon’s broader networks. But this is a red herring. They may get the spectrum, but they won’t use it to extend their coverage in rural areas; they’ll use it to add “depth” to their overloaded urban and suburban networks.

But for AT&T the need for additional spectrum is made more acute by the roaming deal, which requires it to serve its own customers and those of T-Mobile.

This makes clear the reason underlying T‑Mobile’s advocacy for rigging the 600 MHz auction – it is simply so that T‑Mobile can acquire this spectrum on the cheap to use in urban and suburban areas, not so that it can deploy a wide rural network. And the beauty of it is that by hamstringing AT&T’s ability to acquire this spectrum, it becomes more expensive for AT&T to serve T‑Mobile’s own customers!

Two birds, one stone: lower your costs, raise your competitor’s costs.

The lesson is this: If we want 600 MHz spectrum to be used efficiently to provide rural LTE service, we should assume that the highest bidder will make the most valuable use of the spectrum. The experience of the relatively unrestricted 700 MHz auction in 2008 confirms this. The purchase of 700 MHz spectrum by AT&T and Verizon led to the US becoming the world leader in LTE. Why mess with success?

[Cross-posted at RedState]

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.

On Monday the DC Circuit hears oral argument in Verizon v. FCC – the case challenging the FCC’s Open Internet Order.

Following the oral argument I’ll be participating in two events discussing the case.

The first is a joint production of the International Center for Law & Economics and TechFreedom, a lunchtime debrief on the case featuring:

  • Matt Brill, Latham & Watkins LLP
  • Fred Campbell, Communications Liberty and Innovation Project
  • Markham Erickson, Steptoe & Johnson LLP
  • Robert McDowell, Hudson Institute
  • Sherwin Siy, Public Knowledge
  • Berin Szoka, TechFreedom

I’ll be introducing the event. You can register here.

Then at two o’clock I’ll be leading a Federalist Society “Courthouse Steps Teleforum” on the case entitled, “FCC Regulation of the Internet: Verizon v. FCC.”

Register for the event at the link above.

I suspect we’ll have much more to say about the case here at Truth on the Market, as well. For now, you can find our collected wisdom on the topic of net neutrality at this link.

I hope you’ll join either or both of Monday’s events!

Gus Hurwitz is Assistant Professor of Law at University of Nebraska College of Law

Administrative law really is a strange beast. My last post explained this a bit, in the context of Chevron. In this post, I want to make this point in another context, explaining how utterly useless a policy statement can be. Our discussion today has focused on what should go into a policy statement – there seems to be general consensus that one is a good idea. But I’m not sure that we have a good understanding of how little certainty a policy statement offers.

Administrative Stare Decisis?

I alluded in my previous post to the absence of stare decisis in the administrative context. This is one of the greatest differences between judicial and administrative rulemaking: agencies are not bound by either prior judicial interpretations of their statutes, or even by their own prior interpretations. These conclusions follow from relatively recent opinions – Brand-X in 2005 and Fox I in 2007 – and have broad implications for the relationship between courts and agencies.

In Brand-X, the Court explained that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” This conclusion follows from a direct application of Chevron: courts are responsible for determining whether a statute is ambiguous; agencies are responsible for determining the (reasonable) meaning of a statute that is ambiguous.

Not only are agencies not bound by a court’s prior interpretations of an ambiguous statute – they’re not even bound by their own prior interpretations!

In Fox I, the Court held that an agency’s own interpretation of an ambiguous statute impose no special obligations should the agency subsequently change its interpretation.[1] It may be necessary to acknowledge the prior policy; and factual findings upon which the new policy is based that contradict findings upon which the prior policy was based may need to be explained.[2] But where a statute may be interpreted in multiple ways – that is, in any case where the statute is ambiguous – Congress, and by extension its agencies, is free to choose between those alternative interpretations. The fact that an agency previously adopted one interpretation does not necessarily render other possible interpretations any less reasonable; the mere fact that one was previously adopted therefore, on its own, cannot act as a bar to subsequent adoption of a competing interpretation.

What Does This Mean for Policy Statements?

In a contentious policy environment – that is, one where the prevailing understanding of an ambiguous law changes with the consensus of a three-Commissioner majority – policy statements are worth next to nothing. Generally, the value of a policy statement is explaining to a court the agency’s rationale for its preferred construction of an ambiguous statute. Absent such an explanation, a court is likely to find that the construction was not sufficiently reasoned to merit deference. That is: a policy statement makes it easier for an agency to assert a given construction of a statute in litigation.

But a policy statement isn’t necessary to make that assertion, or for an agency to receive deference. Absent a policy statement, the agency needs to demonstrate to the court that its interpretation of the statute is sufficiently reasoned (and not merely a strategic interpretation adopted for the purposes of the present litigation).

And, more important, a policy statement in no way prevents an agency from changing its interpretation. Fox I makes clear that an agency is free to change its interpretations of a given statute. Prior interpretations – including prior policy statements – are not a bar to such changes. Prior interpretations also, therefore, offer little assurance to parties subject to any given interpretation.

Are Policy Statements entirely Useless?

Policy statements may not be entirely useless. The likely front on which to challenge an unexpected change agency interpretation of its statute is on Due Process or Notice grounds. The existence of a policy statement may make it easier for a party to argue that a changed interpretation runs afoul of Due Process or Notice requirements. See, e.g., Fox II.

So there is some hope that a policy statement would be useful. But, in the context of Section 5 UMC claims, I’m not sure how much comfort this really affords. Regulatory takings jurisprudence gives agencies broad power to seemingly-contravene Due Process and Notice expectations. This is largely because of the nature of relief available to the FTC: injunctive relief, such as barring certain business practices, even if it results in real economic losses, is likely to survive a regulatory takings challenge, and therefore also a Due Process challenge.  Generally, the Due Process and Notice lines of argument are best suited against fines and similar retrospective remedies; they offer little comfort against prospective remedies like injunctions.

Conclusion

I’ll conclude the same way that I did my previous post, with what I believe is the most important takeaway from this post: however we proceed, we must do so with an understanding of both antitrust and administrative law. Administrative law is the unique, beautiful, and scary beast that governs the FTC – those who fail to respect its nuances do so at their own peril.


[1] Fox v. FCC, 556 U.S. 502, 514–516 (2007) (“The statute makes no distinction [] between initial agency action and subsequent agency action undoing or revising that action. … And of course the agency must show that there are good reasons for the new policy. But it need not demonstrate to a court’s satisfaction that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the old one; it suffices that the new policy is permissible under the statute, that there are good reasons for it, and that the agency believes it to be better, which the conscious change of course adequately indicates.”).

[2] Id. (“To be sure, the requirement that an agency provide reasoned explanation for its action would ordinarily demand that it display awareness that it is changing position. … This means that the agency need not always provide a more detailed justification than what would suffice for a new policy created on a blank slate. Sometimes it must—when, for example, its new policy rests upon factual findings that contradict those which underlay its prior policy; or when its prior policy has engendered serious reliance interests that must be taken into account. It would be arbitrary or capricious to ignore such matters. In such cases it is not that further justification is demanded by the mere fact of policy change; but that a reasoned explanation is needed for disregarding facts and circumstances that underlay or were engendered by the prior policy.”).

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?

As I have posted before, I was disappointed that the DOJ filed against AT&T in its bid to acquire T-Mobile.  The efficacious provision of mobile broadband service is a complicated business, but it has become even more so by government’s meddling.  Responses like this merger are both inevitable and essential.  And Sprint and Cellular South piling on doesn’t help — and, as Josh has pointed out, further suggests that the merger is actually pro-competitive.

Tomorrow, along with a great group of antitrust attorneys, I am going to pick up where I left off in that post during a roundtable discussion hosted by the American Bar Association.  If you are in the DC area you should attend in person, or you can call in to listen to the discussion–but either way, you will need to register here.  There should be a couple of people live tweeting the event, so keep up with the conversation by following #ABASAL.

Panelists:
Richard Brunell, Director of Legal Advocacy, American Antitrust Institute, Boston
Allen Grunes, Partner, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Washington
Glenn Manishin, Partner, Duane Morris LLP, Washington
Geoffrey Manne, Lecturer in Law, Lewis & Clark Law School, Portland
Patrick Pascarella, Partner, Tucker Ellis & West, Cleveland

Location: 
Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, P.C. 1700 K St. N.W. Fifth Floor Washington, D.C. 20006

For more information, check out the flyer here.