President Joe Biden named his post-COVID-19 agenda “Build Back Better,” but his proposals to prioritize support for government-run broadband service “with less pressure to turn profits” and to “reduce Internet prices for all Americans” will slow broadband deployment and leave taxpayers with an enormous bill.
Policymakers should pay particular heed to this danger, amid news that the Senate is moving forward with considering a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, and that the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service will coordinate on spending broadband subsidy dollars.
In order to ensure that broadband subsidies lead to greater buildout and adoption, policymakers must correctly understand the state of competition in broadband and not assume that increasing the number of firms in a market will necessarily lead to better outcomes for consumers or the public.
A recent white paper published by us here at the International Center for Law & Economics makes the case that concentration is a poor predictor of competitiveness, while offering alternative policies for reaching Americans who don’t have access to high-speed Internet service.
The data show that the state of competition in broadband is generally healthy. ISPs routinely invest billions of dollars per year in building, maintaining, and upgrading their networks to be faster, more reliable, and more available to consumers. FCC data show that average speeds available to consumers, as well as the number of competitors providing higher-speed tiers, have increased each year. And prices for broadband, as measured by price-per-Mbps, have fallen precipitously, dropping 98% over the last 20 years. None of this makes sense if the facile narrative about the absence of competition were true.
In our paper, we argue that the real public policy issue for broadband isn’t curbing the pursuit of profits or adopting price controls, but making sure Americans have broadband access and encouraging adoption. In areas where it is very costly to build out broadband networks, like rural areas, there tend to be fewer firms in the market. But having only one or two ISPs available is far less of a problem than having none at all. Understanding the underlying market conditions and how subsidies can both help and hurt the availability and adoption of broadband is an important prerequisite to good policy.
The basic problem is that those who have decried the lack of competition in broadband often look at the number of ISPs in a given market to determine whether a market is competitive. But this is not how economists think of competition. Instead, economists look at competition as a dynamic process where changes in supply and demand factors are constantly pushing the market toward new equilibria.
In general, where a market is “contestable”—that is, where existing firms face potential competition from the threat of new entry—even just a single existing firm may have to act as if it faces vigorous competition. Such markets often have characteristics (e.g., price, quality, and level of innovation) similar or even identical to those with multiple existing competitors. This dynamic competition, driven by changes in technology or consumer preferences, ensures that such markets are regularly disrupted by innovative products and services—a process that does not always favor incumbents.
Proposals focused on increasing the number of firms providing broadband can actually reduce consumer welfare. Whether through overbuilding—by allowing new private entrants to free-ride on the initial investment by incumbent companies—or by going into the Internet business itself through municipal broadband, government subsidies can increase the number of firms providing broadband. But it can’t do so without costs―which include not just the cost of the subsidies themselves, which ultimately come from taxpayers, but also the reduced incentives for unsubsidized private firms to build out broadband in the first place.
If underlying supply and demand conditions in rural areas lead to a situation where only one provider can profitably exist, artificially adding another completely reliant on subsidies will likely just lead to the exit of the unsubsidized provider. Or, where a community already has municipal broadband, it is unlikely that a private ISP will want to enter and compete with a firm that doesn’t have to turn a profit.
A much better alternative for policymakers is to increase the demand for buildout through targeted user subsidies, while reducing regulatory barriers to entry that limit supply.
For instance, policymakers should consider offering connectivity vouchers to unserved households in order to stimulate broadband deployment and consumption. Current subsidy programs rely largely on subsidizing the supply side, but this requires the government to determine the who and where of entry. Connectivity vouchers would put the choice in the hands of consumers, while encouraging more buildout to areas that may currently be uneconomic to reach due to low population density or insufficient demand due to low adoption rates.
Local governments could also facilitate broadband buildout by reducing unnecessary regulatory barriers. Local building codes could adopt more connection-friendly standards. Local governments could also reduce the cost of access to existing poles and other infrastructure. Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) requirements could also be eliminated, because they deter potential providers from seeking funds for buildout (and don’t offer countervailing benefits).
Albert Einstein once said: “if I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, and one minute resolving it.” When it comes to encouraging broadband buildout, policymakers should make sure they are solving the right problem. The problem is that the cost of building out broadband to unserved areas is too high or the demand too low—not that there are too few competitors.
Municipal broadband has been heavily promoted by its advocates as a potential source of competition against Internet service providers (“ISPs”) with market power. Jonathan Sallet argued in Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, for instance, that municipal broadband has a huge role to play in boosting broadband competition, with attendant lower prices, faster speeds, and economic development.
Municipal broadband, of course, can mean more than one thing: From “direct consumer” government-run systems, to “open access” where government builds the back-end, but leaves it up to private firms to bring the connections to consumers, to “middle mile” where the government network reaches only some parts of the community but allows private firms to connect to serve other consumers. The focus of this blog post is on the “direct consumer” model.
There have been many economic studies on municipal broadband, both theoretical and empirical. The literature largely finds that municipal broadband poses serious risks to taxpayers, often relies heavily on cross-subsidies from government-owned electric utilities, crowds out private ISP investment in areas it operates, and largely fails the cost-benefit analysis. While advocates have defended municipal broadband on the grounds of its speed, price, and resulting attractiveness to consumers and businesses, others have noted that many of those benefits come at the expense of other parts of the country from which businesses move.
What this literature has not touched upon is a more fundamental problem: municipal broadband lacks the price signals necessary for economic calculation.. The insights of the Austrian school of economics helps explain why this model is incapable of providing efficient outcomes for society. Rather than creating a valuable source of competition, municipal broadband creates “islands of chaos” undisciplined by the market test of profit-and-loss. As a result, municipal broadband is a poor model for promoting competition and innovation in broadband markets.
The importance of profit-and-loss to economic calculation
One of the things often assumed away in economic analysis is the very thing the market process depends upon: the discovery of knowledge. Knowledge, in this context, is not the technical knowledge of how to build or maintain a broadband network, but the more fundamental knowledge which is discovered by those exercising entrepreneurial judgment in the marketplace.
This type of knowledge is dependent on prices throughout the market. In the market process, prices coordinate exchange between market participants without each knowing the full plan of anyone else. For consumers, prices allow for the incremental choices between different options. For producers, prices in capital markets similarly allow for choices between different ways of producing their goods for the next stage of production. Prices in interest rates help coordinate present consumption, investment, and saving. And, the price signal of profit-and-loss allows producers to know whether they have cost-effectively served consumer needs.
The broadband marketplace can’t be considered in isolation from the greater marketplace in which it is situated. But it can be analyzed under the framework of prices and the knowledge they convey.
For broadband consumers, prices are important for determining the relative importance of Internet access compared to other felt needs. The quality of broadband connection demanded by consumers is dependent on the price. All other things being equal, consumers demand faster connections with less latency issues. But many consumers may prefer slower speeds and connections with more latency if it is cheaper. Even choices between the importance of upload speeds versus download speeds may be highly asymmetrical if determined by consumers.
While “High Performance Broadband for All” may be a great goal from a social planner’s perspective, individuals acting in the marketplace may prioritize other needs with his or her scarce resources. Even if consumers do need Internet access of some kind, the benefits of 100 Mbps download speeds over 25 Mbps, or upload speeds of 100 Mbps versus 3 Mbps may not be worth the costs.
For broadband ISPs, prices for capital goods are important for building out the network. The relative prices of fiber, copper, wireless, and all the other factors of production in building out a network help them choose in light of anticipated profit.
All the decisions of broadband ISPs are made through the lens of pursuing profit. If they are successful, it is because the revenues generated are greater than the costs of production, including the cost of money represented in interest rates. Just as importantly, loss shows the ISPs were unsuccessful in cost-effectively serving consumers. While broadband companies may be able to have losses over some period of time, they ultimately must turn a profit at some point, or there will be exit from the marketplace. Profit-and-loss both serve important functions.
Sallet misses the point when he states the“full value of broadband lies not just in the number of jobs it directly creates or the profits it delivers to broadband providers but also in its importance as a mechanism that others use across the economy and society.” From an economic point of view, profits aren’t important because economists love it when broadband ISPs get rich. Profits are important as an incentive to build the networks we all benefit from, and a signal for greater competition and innovation.
Municipal broadband as islands of chaos
Sallet believes the lack of high-speed broadband (as he defines it) is due to the monopoly power of broadband ISPs. He sees the entry of municipal broadband as pro-competitive. But the entry of a government-run broadband company actually creates “islands of chaos” within the market economy, reducing the ability of prices to coordinate disparate plans of action among participants. This, ultimately, makes society poorer.
The case against municipal broadband doesn’t rely on greater knowledge of how to build or maintain a network being in the hands of private engineers. It relies instead on the different institutional frameworks within which the manager of the government-run broadband network works as compared to the private broadband ISP. The type of knowledge gained in the market process comes from prices, including profit-and-loss. The manager of the municipal broadband network simply doesn’t have access to this knowledge and can’t calculate the best course of action as a result.
This is because the government-run municipal broadband network is not reliant upon revenues generated by free choices of consumers alone. Rather than needing to ultimately demonstrate positive revenue in order to remain a going concern, government-run providers can instead base their ongoing operation on access to below-market loans backed by government power, cross-subsidies when it is run by a government electric utility, and/or public money in the form of public borrowing (i.e. bonds) or taxes.
Municipal broadband, in fact, does rely heavily on subsidies from the government. As a result, municipal broadband is not subject to the discipline of the market’s profit-and-loss test. This frees the enterprise to focus on other goals, including higher speeds—especially upload speeds—and lower prices than private ISPs often offer in the same market. This is why municipal broadband networks build symmetrical high-speed fiber networks at higher rates than the private sector.
But far from representing a superior source of “competition,” municipal broadband is actually an example of “predatory entry.” In areas where there is already private provision of broadband, municipal broadband can “out-compete” those providers due to subsidies from the rest of society. Eventually, this could lead to exit by the private ISPs, starting with the least cost-efficient to the most. In areas where there is limited provision of Internet access, the entry of municipal broadband could reduce incentives for private entry altogether. In either case, there is little reason to believe municipal broadband actually increases consumer welfarein the long run.
Moreover, there are serious concerns in relying upon municipal broadband for the buildout of ISP networks. While Sallet describes fiber as “future-proof,” there is little reason to think that it is. The profit motive induces broadband ISPs to constantly innovate and improve their networks. Contrary to what you would expect from an alleged monopoly industry, broadband companies are consistently among the highest investors in the American economy. Similar incentives would not apply to municipal broadband, which lacks the profit motive to innovate.
There is a definite need to improve public policy to promote more competition in broadband markets. But municipal broadband is not the answer. The lack of profit-and-loss prevents the public manager of municipal broadband from having the price signal necessary to know it is serving the public cost-effectively. No amount of bureaucratic management can replace the institutional incentives of the marketplace.
As Thomas Sowell has noted many times, political debates often involve the use of words which if taken literally mean something very different than the connotations which are conveyed. Examples abound in the debate about broadband buildout.
There is a general consensus on the need to subsidize aspects of broadband buildout to rural areas in order to close the digital divide. But this real need allows for strategic obfuscation of key terms in this debate by parties hoping to achieve political or competitive gain.
“Access” and “high-speed broadband”
For instance, nearly everyone would agree that Internet policy should “promote access to high-speed broadband.” But how some academics and activists define “access” and “high-speed broadband” are much different than the average American would expect.
A commonsense definition of access is that consumers have the ability to buy broadband sufficient to meet their needs, considering the costs and benefits they face. In the context of the digital divide between rural and urban areas, the different options available to consumers in each area is a reflection of the very real costs and other challenges of providing service. In rural areas with low population density, it costs broadband providers considerably more per potential subscriber to build the infrastructure needed to provide service. At some point, depending on the technology, it is no longer profitable to build out to the next customer several miles down the road. The options and prices available to rural consumers reflects this unavoidable fact. Holding price constant, there is no doubt that many rural consumers would prefer higher speeds than are currently available to them. But this is not the real-world choice which presents itself.
But access in this debate instead means the availability of the same broadband options regardless of where people live. Rather than being seen as a reflection of underlying economic realities, the fact that rural Americans do not have the same options available to them that urban Americans do is seen as a problem which calls out for a political solution. Thus, billions of dollars are spent in an attempt to “close the digital divide” by subsidizing broadband providers to build infrastructure to rural areas.
“High-speed broadband” similarly has a meaning in this debate significantly different from what many consumers, especially those lacking “high speed” service, expect. For consumers, fast enough is what allows them to use the Internet in the ways they desire. What is fast enough does change over time as more and more uses for the Internet become common. This is why the FCC has changed the technical definition of broadband multiple times over the years as usage patterns and bandwidth requirements change. Currently, the FCC uses 25Mbps down/3 Mbps up as the baseline for broadband.
However, for some, like Jonathan Sallet, this is thoroughly insufficient. In his Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, he instead proposes “100 Mbps symmetrical service without usage limits.” The disconnect between consumer demand as measured in the marketplace in light of real trade-offs between cost and performance and this arbitrary number is not well-explained in this study. The assumption is simply that faster is better, and that the building of faster networks is a mere engineering issue once sufficiently funded and executed with enough political will.
But there is little evidence that consumers “need” faster Internet than the market is currently providing. In fact, one Wall Street Journal study suggests “typical U.S. households don’t use most of their bandwidth while streaming and get marginal gains from upgrading speeds.” Moreover, there is even less evidence that most consumers or businesses need anything close to upload speeds of 100 Mbps. For even intensive uses like high-resolution live streaming, recommended upload speeds still fall far short of 100 Mbps.
“Competition” and “Overbuilding”
Similarly, no one objects to the importance of “competition in the broadband marketplace.” But what is meant by this term is subject to vastly different interpretations.
The number of competitors is not the same as the amount of competition. Competition is a process by which market participants discover the best way to serve consumers at lowest cost. Specific markets are often subject to competition not only from the firms which exist within those markets, but also from potential competitors who may enter the market any time potential profits reach a point high enough to justify the costs of entry. An important inference from this is that temporary monopolies, in the sense that one firm has a significant share of the market, is not in itself illegal under antitrust law, even if they are charging monopoly prices. Potential entry is as real in its effects as actual competitors in forcing incumbents to continue to innovate and provide value to consumers.
However, many assume the best way to encourage competition in broadband buildout is to simply promote more competitors. A significant portion of Broadband for America’s Future emphasizes the importance of subsidizing new competition in order to increase buildout, increase quality, and bring down prices. In particular, Sallet emphasizes the benefits of municipal broadband, i.e. when local governments build and run their own networks.
In fact, Sallet argues that fears of “overbuilding” are really just fears of competition by incumbent broadband ISPs:
Language here is important. There is a tendency to call the construction of new, competitive networks in a locality with an existing network “overbuilding”—as if it were an unnecessary thing, a useless piece of engineering. But what some call “overbuilding” should be called by a more familiar term: “Competition.” “Overbuilding” is an engineering concept; “competition” is an economic concept that helps consumers because it shifts the focus from counting broadband networks to counting the dollars that consumers save when they have competitive choices. The difference is fundamental—overbuilding asks whether the dollars spent to build another network are necessary for the delivery of a communications service; economics asks whether spending those dollars will lead to competition that allows consumers to spend less and get more.
Sallet makes two rhetorical moves here to make his argument.
The first is redefining “overbuilding,” which refers to literally building a new network on top of (that is, “over”) previously built architecture, as a ploy by ISPs to avoid competition. But this is truly Orwellian. When a new entrant can build over an incumbent and take advantage of the first-mover’s investments to enter at a lower cost, a failure to compensate the first-mover is free riding. If the government compels such free riding, it reduces incentives for firms to make the initial investment to build the infrastructure.
The second is defining competition as the number of competitors, even if those competitors need to be subsidized by the government in order to enter the marketplace.
But there is no way to determine the “right” number of competitors in a given market in advance. In the real world, markets don’t match blackboard descriptions of perfect competition. In fact, there are sometimes high fixed costs which limit the number of firms which will likely exist in a competitive market. In some markets, known as natural monopolies, high infrastructural costs and other barriers to entry relative to the size of the market lead to a situation where it is cheaper for a monopoly to provide a good or service than multiple firms in a market. But it is important to note that only firms operating under market pressures can assess the viability of competition. This is why there is a significant risk in government subsidizing entry.
Competition drives sustained investment in the capital-intensive architecture of broadband networks, which suggests that ISPs are not natural monopolies. If they were, then having a monopoly provider regulated by the government to ensure the public interest, or government-run broadband companies, may make sense. In fact, Sallet denies ISPs are natural monopolies, stating that “the history of telecommunications regulation in the United States suggests that monopolies were a result of policy choices, not mandated by any iron law of economics” and “it would be odd for public policy to treat the creation of a monopoly as a success.”
As noted by economist George Ford in his study, The Impact of Government-Owned Broadband Networks on Private Investment and Consumer Welfare, unlike the threat of entry which often causes incumbents to act competitively even in the absence of competitors, the threat of subsidized entry reduces incentives for private entities to invest in those markets altogether. This includes both the incentive to build the network and update it. Subsidized entry may, in fact, tip the scales from competition that promotes consumer welfare to that which could harm it. If the market only profitably sustains one or two competitors, adding another through municipal broadband or subsidizing a new entrant may reduce the profitability of the incumbent(s) and eventually lead to exit. When this happens, only the government-run or subsidized network may survive because the subsidized entrant is shielded from the market test of profit-and-loss.
The “Donut Hole” Problem
The term “donut hole” is a final example to consider of how words can be used to confuse rather than enlighten in this debate.
There is broad agreement that to generate the positive externalities from universal service, there needs to be subsidies for buildout to high-cost rural areas. However, this seeming agreement masks vastly different approaches.
For instance, some critics of the current subsidy approach have identified a phenomenon where the city center has multiple competitive ISPs and government policy extends subsidies to ISPs to build out broadband coverage into rural areas, but there is relatively paltry Internet services in between due to a lack of private or public investment. They describe this as a “donut hole” because the “unserved” rural areas receive subsidies while “underserved” outlying parts immediately surrounding town centers receive nothing under current policy.
Conceptually, this is not a donut hole. It is actually more like a target or bullseye, where the city center is served by private investment and the rural areas receive subsidies to be served.
Indeed, there is a different use of the term donut hole, which describes how public investment in city centers can create a donut hole of funding needed to support rural build-out. Most Internet providers rely on profits from providing lower-cost service to higher-population areas (like city centers) to cross-subsidize the higher cost of providing service in outlying and rural areas. But municipal providers generally only provide municipal service — they only provide lower-cost service. This hits the carriers that serve higher-cost areas with a double whammy. First, every customer that municipal providers take from private carriers cuts the revenue that those carriers rely on to provide service elsewhere. Second, and even more problematic, because the municipal providers have lower costs (because they tend not to serve the higher-cost outlying areas), they can offer lower prices for service. This “competition” exerts downward pressure on the private firms’ prices, further reducing revenue across their entire in-town customer base.
This version of the “donut hole,” in which the revenues that private firms rely on from the city center to support the costs of providing service to outlying areas has two simultaneous effects. First, it directly reduces the funding available to serve more rural areas. And, second, it increases the average cost of providing service across its network (because it is no longer recovering as much of its costs from the lower-cost city core), which increases the prices that need to be charged to rural users in order to justify offering service at all.
Overcoming the problem of the rural digital divide starts with understanding why it exists. It is simply more expensive to build networks in areas with low population density. If universal service is the goal, subsidies, whether explicit subsidies from government or implicit cross-subsidies by broadband companies, are necessary to build out to these areas. But obfuscations about increasing “access to high-speed broadband” by promoting “competition” shouldn’t control the debate.
Instead, there needs to be a nuanced understanding of how government-subsidized entry into the broadband marketplace can discourage private investment and grow the size of the “donut hole,” thereby leading to demand for even greater subsidies. Policymakers should avoid exacerbating the digital divide by prioritizing subsidized competition over market processes.
The Senate should not reconfirm Jessica Rosenworcel to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in order to allow the Trump Administration to usher in needed reforms in the critical area of communications policy.
As documented by the Free State Foundation (FSF) and other supporters of free markets, the Obama Administration’s FCC has done a dismal job in overseeing communications regulation, both as a matter of law and economics (see, for example, the abuses documented in FSF publications). The FCC’s proposal to impose common carrier-like regulations on the Internet is just one example of what constitutes not merely flawed policy, but a failure to adhere to the rule of law, as I explain in an October 2016 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum (citations omitted):
[T]he rule of law involves “a system of binding rules” that have been adopted and applied by a valid government authority and that embody “clarity, predictability, and equal applicability.”
Practices employed by government agencies that undermine the rule of law ignore a fundamental duty that the government owes its citizens and thereby undermine America’s constitutional system. Federal courts, however, will not review a federal administrative action unless an actual litigated “case or controversy” is presented to them, and they generally are reluctant to invoke constitutional “first principles” to strike down federal agency initiatives. Judicial intervention is thus a poor check on an agency’s tendency to flout the rule of law—or merely give it lip service—by acting in an unpredictable and inequitable manner.
It follows, therefore, that close scrutiny of federal administrative agencies’ activities is particularly important in helping to achieve public accountability for an agency’s failure to honor the rule of law standard. Applying such scrutiny to the FCC reveals that it does a poor job of adhering to rule of law principles. Accordingly, specific legislative reforms to rectify that shortcoming warrant serious consideration by Congress. . . .
The FCC has fallen short in meeting rule of law standards, both in its procedural practices and in various substantive actions that it has taken. . . .
[FCC Procedural failures include] delays, lack of transparency, and inefficiencies in agency proceedings (including “voting on secret texts and delaying the publication of orders”; excessive cost burdens on regulated parties; outdated rules; and problems in agency interactions with the public. . . .
Substantive agency actions also undermine the rule of law if they fall outside the scope of the agency’s constitutional, statutory, or regulatory authority. By their nature, such actions indicate that an agency does not view itself as bound by the law and is unwilling to clarify how the government’s coercive powers will be applied. Significant FCC initiatives in recent years have involved such derogations from rule of law principles and have proved to be far more serious than mere procedural imperfections.
Specific FCC abuses of the rule of law, documented in my Heritage Legal Memorandum, include the imposition of arbitrary conditions on merging parties having nothing to do with the actual effects of a merger. They also involve regulatory initiatives that exceed the FCC’s statutory authority, such as (1) an attempt to repeal state municipal broadband regulation (struck down in court), (2) the “Open Internet Order” which seeks to regulate the Internet under the guise of “net neutrality,” (3) the unauthorized extension of FCC rules covering joint sales agreements by broadcast stations (struck down in court), and (4) the unauthorized regulation of video “set top box” equipment.
The FCC has also brought a variety of public enforcement actions against private parties that could not reasonably have known that they were violating a legal norm as defined by the FCC, thereby violating principles of clarity, predictability, and equal treatment in law enforcement.
Key FCC actions that flout the rule of law have been enacted by partisan three-to-two FCC votes, with the three Democratic Commissioners (Chairman Tom Wheeler, Mignon Clyburn, and Jessica Rosenworcel) voting in favor of such measures and the two Republican Commissioners (Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly) voting in opposition. Without Commissioner Rosenworcel’s votes, the FCC’s ability to undermine the rule of law in those instances would have been thwarted.
Commissioner Rosenworcel’s term expired in June 2015, but she remained on the Commission. In 2015 President Obama nominated her for a new five-year term as FCC Commissioner, and, as explained by the Senate Commerce Committee, “[s]he may remain in her current role as commissioner until December 31, 2016 while awaiting Senate confirmation for a second term.”
Rosenworcel’s remomination has not yet been taken up by the Senate, giving President-Elect Trump the opportunity to select a new Commissioner (and Chairman) who can steer the FCC in a market-oriented direction that respects the rule of law. On December 2nd, however, it was reported that “[Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid and President Obama are circulating a petition to remove the hold on FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel so that she can be reconfirmed before Congress recesses next week.”
This is troublesome news. Confirmation of Rosenworcel would deny the new President the ability to reshape communications policy, with serious negative effects on Internet freedom and innovation in the economically vital communications sector. Senate Republicans should stand firm and deny confirmation to Ms. Rosenworcel, in order to ensure that the new President has the opportunity to reform the FCC.
On October 6, the Heritage Foundation released a legal memorandum (authored by me) that recounts the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent sad history of ignoring the rule of law in its enforcement and regulatory actions. The memorandum calls for a legislative reform agenda to rectify this problem by reining in the agency. Key points culled from the memorandum are highlighted below (footnotes omitted).
1. Background: The Rule of Law
The American concept of the rule of law is embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in the constitutional principles of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a government under law, and equality of all before the law. As the late Friedrich Hayek explained:
[The rule of law] means the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand—rules which make it possible to see with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.
In other words, the rule of law involves a system of binding rules that have been adopted and applied by a valid government authority and that embody clarity, predictability, and equal applicability. Practices employed by government agencies that undermine the rule of law ignore a fundamental duty that the government owes its citizens and thereby weaken America’s constitutional system. It follows, therefore, that close scrutiny of federal administrative agencies’ activities is particularly important in helping to achieve public accountability for an agency’s failure to honor the rule of law standard.
2. How the FCC Flouts the Rule of Law
Applying such scrutiny to the FCC reveals that it does a poor job in adhering to rule of law principles, both in its procedural practices and in various substantive actions that it has taken.
Opaque procedures that generate uncertainties regarding agency plans undermine the clarity and predictability of agency actions and thereby undermine the effectiveness of rule of law safeguards. Process-based reforms designed to deal with these problems, to the extent that they succeed, strengthen the rule of law. Procedural inadequacies at the FCC include inordinate delays and a lack of transparency, including the failure to promptly release the text of proposed and final rules. The FCC itself has admitted that procedural improvements are needed, and legislative proposals have been advanced to make the Commission more transparent, efficient, and accountable.
Nevertheless, mere procedural reforms would not address the far more serious problem of FCC substantive actions that flout the rule of law. Examples abound:
The FCC imposes a variety of “public interest” conditions on proposed mergers subject to its jurisdiction. Those conditions often are announced after inordinate delays, and typically have no bearing on the mergers’ actual effects. The unpredictable nature and timing of such impositions generate a lack of certainty for businesses and thereby undermine the rule of law.
The FCC’s 2015 Municipal Broadband Order preempted state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented municipally owned broadband providers from providing broadband service beyond their geographic boundaries. Apart from its substantive inadequacies, this Order went beyond the FCC’s statutory authority and raised grave federalism problems (by interfering with a state’s sovereign right to oversee its municipalities), thereby ignoring the constitutional limitations placed on the exercise of governmental powers that lie at the heart of the rule of law. The Order was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in August 2016.
The FCC’s 2015 “net neutrality” rule (the Open Internet Order) subjects internet service providers (ISPs) to sweeping “reasonableness-based” FCC regulatory oversight. This “reasonableness” standard gives the FCC virtually unbounded discretion to impose sanctions on ISPs. It does not provide, in advance, a knowable, predictable rule consistent with due process and rule of law norms. In the dynamic and fast-changing “Internet ecosystem,” this lack of predictable guidance is a major drag on innovation. Regrettably, in June 2014, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, by a two-to-one vote, rejected a challenge to the order brought by ISPs and their trade association.
The FCC’s abrupt 2014 extension of its long-standing rules restricting common ownership of local television broadcast stations, to encompass Joint Sales Agreements (JSAs) likewise undermined the rule of law. JSAs, which allow one television station to sell advertising (but not programming) on another station, have long been used by stations that had no reason to believe that their actions in any way constituted illegal “ownership interests,” especially since many of them were originally approved by the FCC. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wisely vacated the television JSA rule in May 2016, stressing that the FCC had violated a statutory command by failing to carry out in a timely fashion the quadrennial review of the television ownership rules on which the JSA rule was based.
The FCC’s February 2016 proposed rules that are designed to “open” the market for video set-top boxes, appear to fly in the face of federal laws and treaty language protecting intellectual property rights, by arbitrarily denying protection to intellectual property based solely on a particular mode of information transmission. Such a denial is repugnant to rule of law principles.
FCC enforcement practices also show a lack of respect for rule of law principles, by seeking to obtain sanctions against behavior that has never been deemed contrary to law or regulatory edicts. Two examples illustrate this point.
In 2014, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed imposing a $10 million fine on TerraCom, Inc., and YourTelAmerica, Inc., two small telephone companies, for a data breach that exposed certain personally identifiable information to unauthorized access. In so doing, the FCC cited provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and accompanying regulations that had never been construed to authorize sanctions for failure to adopt “reasonable data security practices” to protect sensitive consumer information.
In November 2015, the FCC similarly imposed a $595,000 fine on Cox Communications for failure to prevent a data breach committed by a third-party hacker, although no statutory or regulatory language supported imposing any penalty on a firm that was itself victimized by a hack attack
3. Legislative Reforms to Rein in the FCC
What is to be done? One sure way to limit an agency’s ability to flout the rule of law is to restrict the scope of its legal authority. As a matter of first principles, Congress should therefore examine the FCC’s activities with an eye to eliminating its jurisdiction over areas in which regulation is no longer needed: For example, residual price regulation may be unnecessary in all markets where competition is effective. Regulation is called for only in the presence of serious market failure, coupled with strong evidence that government intervention will yield a better economic outcome than will a decision not to regulate.
Congress should craft legislation designed to sharply restrict the FCC’s ability to flout the rule of law. At a minimum, no matter how it decides to pursue broad FCC reform, the following five proposals merit special congressional attention as a means of advancing rule of law principles:
Eliminate the FCC’s jurisdiction over all mergers. The federal antitrust agencies are best equipped to handle merger analysis, and this source of costly delay and uncertainty regarding ad hoc restrictive conditions should be eliminated.
Eliminate the FCC’s jurisdiction over broadband Internet service. Given the benefits associated with an open and unregulated Internet, Congress should provide clearly and unequivocally that the FCC has no jurisdiction, direct or indirect, in this area.
Shift FCC regulatory authority over broadband-related consumer protection (including, for example, deceptive advertising, privacy, and data protection) and competition to the Federal Trade Commission, which has longstanding experience and expertise in the area. This jurisdictional transfer would promote clarity and reduce uncertainty, thereby strengthening the rule of law.
Require that before taking regulatory action, the FCC carefully scrutinize regulatory language to seek to avoid the sorts of rule of law problems that have plagued prior commission rulemakings.
Require that the FCC not seek fines in an enforcement action unless the alleged infraction involves a violation of the precise language of a regulation or statutory provision.
In recent years, the FCC too often has acted in a manner that undermines the rule of law. Internal agency reforms might be somewhat helpful in rectifying this situation, but they inevitably would be limited in scope and inherently malleable as FCC personnel changes. Accordingly, Congress should weigh major statutory reforms to rein in the FCC—reforms that will advance the rule of law and promote American economic well-being.
The American concept of “the rule of law” (see here) is embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in the constitutional principles of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a government under law, and equality of all before the law (see here). It holds that the executive must comply with the law because ours is “a government of laws, and not of men,” or, as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in a 2006 address to the American Bar Association, “that the Law is superior to, and thus binds, the government and all its officials.” (See here.) More specifically, and consistent with these broader formulations, the late and great legal philosopher Friedrich Hayek wrote that the rule of law “means the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand – rules which make it possible to see with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.” (See here.) In other words, as former Boston University Law School Dean Ron Cass put it, the rule of law involves “a system of binding rules” adopted and applied by a valid government authority that embody “clarity, predictability, and equal applicability.” (See here.)
Regrettably, by engaging in regulatory overreach and ignoring statutory limitations on the scope of their authority, federal administrative agencies have shown scant appreciation for rule of law restraints under the current administration (see here and here for commentaries on this problem by Heritage Foundation scholars). Although many agencies could be singled out, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) actions in recent years have been especially egregious (see here).
A prime example of regulatory overreach by the FCC that flouted the rule of law was its promulgation in 2015 of an order preempting state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented municipally-owned broadband providers from providing broadband service beyond their geographic boundaries (Municipal Broadband Order, see here). As a matter of substance, this decision ignored powerful economic evidence that municipally-provided broadband services often involve wasteful subsidies for financially–troubled government-owned providers that interfere with effective private sector competition and are economically harmful (my analysis is here). As a legal matter, the Municipal Broadband Order went beyond the FCC’s statutory authority and raises grave constitutional problems, thereby ignoring the constitutional limitations placed on the exercise of governmental powers that lie at the heart of the rule of law (see here). The Order lacked a sound legal footing in basing its authority on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which merely authorizes the FCC to promote local broadband competition and investment (a goal which the Order did not advance) and says nothing about preemption. In addition, the FCC’s invocation of preemption authority trenched upon the power of the states to control their subordinate governmental entities, guaranteed to them by the Constitution as an essential element of their sovereignty in our federal system (see here). What’s more, the Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina municipal broadband systems that had requested FCC preemption imposed content-based restrictions on users of their network that raised serious First Amendment issues (see here). Specifically, those systems’ bans on the transmittal of various sorts of “abusive” language appeared to be too broad to withstand First Amendment “strict scrutiny.” Moreover, by requiring prospective broadband enrollees to agree not to sue their provider as an initial condition of service, two of the municipal systems arguably unconstitutionally coerced users to forgo exercise of their First Amendment rights.
Fortunately, on August 10, 2016, in Tennessee v. FCC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit struck down the Municipal Broadband Order, pithily stating:
The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities. This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation. The FCC relies upon § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the authority to preempt in this case, but that statute falls far short of such a clear statement. The preemption order must accordingly be reversed.
The FCC’s Municipal Broadband Preemption Order would have turned constitutional federalism inside out by severing local political subdivisions’ accountability from the states governments that created them. Had the agency’s order been upheld, the FCC surely would have preempted several other state laws restricting municipalities’ ownership and operation of broadband networks. Several state governments would have been locked into an unwise policy of favoring municipal broadband business ventures with a track record of legal and proprietary conflicts of interest, expensive financial failures, and burdensome debts for local taxpayers.
The avoidance of a series of bad side effects in a corner of the regulatory world is not, however, sufficient grounds for breaking out the champagne. From a global perspective, the Sixth Circuit’s Tennessee v. FCC decision, while helpful, does not address the broader problem of agency disregard for the limitations of constitutional federalism and the rule of law. Administrative overreach, like a chronic debilitating virus, saps the initiative of the private sector (and, more generally, the body politic) and undermines its vitality. In addition, not all federal judges can be counted on to rein in legally unjustified rules (which in any event impose costly delay and uncertainty, even if they are eventually overturned). What is needed is an administration that emphasizes by word and deed that it is committed to constitutionalist rule of law principles – and insists that its appointees (including commissioners of independent agencies) share that philosophy. Let us hope that we do not have to wait too long for such an administration.
The narrow FCC majority rested its decision on its authority to remove broadband investment barriers, citing Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Section 706 requires the FCC to encourage the deployment of broadband to all Americans by using “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” As dissenting Commissioner Ajit Pai pointed out, however, Section 706 contains no specific language empowering it to preempt state laws, and the FCC’s action trenches upon the sovereign power of the states to control their subordinate governmental entities. Moreover, it is far from clear that authorizing government-owned broadband companies to expand into new territories promotes competition or eliminates broadband investment barriers. Indeed, the opposite is more likely to be the case.
Simply put, government-owned networks artificially displace market forces and are an affront to a reliance on free competition to provide the goods and services consumers demand – including broadband communications. Government-owned networks use local taxpayer monies and federal grants (also taxpayer funded, of course) to compete unfairly with existing private sector providers. Those taxpayer subsidies put privately funded networks at a competitive disadvantage, creating barriers to new private sector entry or expansion, as private businesses decide they cannot fairly compete against government-backed enterprises. In turn, reduced private sector investment tends to diminish quality and effective consumer choice.
These conclusions are based on hard facts, not mere theory. There is no evidence that municipal broadband is needed because “market failure” has deterred private sector provision of broadband – indeed, firms such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast spend many billions of dollars annually to maintain, upgrade, and expand their broadband networks. Indeed, far more serious is the risk of “government failure.” Municipal corporations, free from market discipline and accountability due to their public funding, may be expected to be bureaucratic, inefficient, and slow to react to changing market conditions. Consistent with this observation, an economic study of government-operated municipal broadband networks reveals failures to achieve universal service in areas that they serve; lack of cost-benefit analysis that has caused costs to outweigh benefits; the inefficient use of scarce resources; the inability to cover costs; anticompetitive behavior fueled by unfair competitive advantages; the inefficient allocation of limited tax revenues that are denied to more essential public services; and the stifling of private firm innovation. In a time of tight budget constraints, the waste of taxpayer funds and competitive harm stemming from municipal broadband activities is particularly unfortunate. In short, real world evidence demonstrates that “[i]n a dynamic market such as broadband services, government ownership has proven to be an abject failure.” What is required is not more government involvement, but, rather, fewer governmental constraints on private sector broadband activities.
Finally, what’s worse, the FCC’s decision has harmful constitutional overtones. The Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina municipal broadband networks that requested FCC preemption impose troublesome speech limitations as conditions of service. The utility that operates the Chattanooga network may “reject or remove any material residing on or transmitted to or through” the network that violates its “Accepted Use Policy.” That Policy, among other things, prohibits using the network to send materials that are “threatening, abusive or hateful” or that offend “the privacy, publicity, or other personal rights of others.” It also bars the posting of messages that are “intended to annoy or harass others.” In a similar vein, the Wilson network bars transmission of materials that are “harassing, abusive, libelous or obscene” and “activities or actions intended to withhold or cloak any user’s identity or contact information.” Content-based prohibitions of this type broadly restrict carriage of constitutionally protected speech and, thus, raise serious First Amendment questions. Other municipal broadband systems may, of course, elect to adopt similarly questionable censorship-based policies.
In short, the FCC’s broadband preemption decision is likely to harm economic welfare and is highly problematic on legal grounds to boot. The FCC should rescind that decision. If it fails to do so, and if the courts do not strike the decision down, Congress should consider legislation to bar the FCC from meddling in state oversight of municipal broadband.