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My colleague, Neil Turkewitz, begins his fine post for Fair Use Week (read: crashing Fair Use Week) by noting that

Many of the organizations celebrating fair use would have you believe, because it suits their analysis, that copyright protection and the public interest are diametrically opposed. This is merely a rhetorical device, and is a complete fallacy.

If I weren’t a recovering law professor, I would just end there: that about sums it up, and “the rest is commentary,” as they say. Alas….  

All else equal, creators would like as many people to license their works as possible; there’s no inherent incompatibility between “incentives and access” (which is just another version of the fallacious “copyright protection versus the public interest” trope). Everybody wants as much access as possible. Sure, consumers want to pay as little as possible for it, and creators want to be paid as much as possible. That’s a conflict, and at the margin it can seem like a conflict between access and incentives. But it’s not a fundamental, philosophical, and irreconcilable difference — it’s the last 15 minutes of negotiation before the contract is signed.

Reframing what amounts to a fundamental agreement into a pitched battle for society’s soul is indeed a purely rhetorical device — and a mendacious one, at that.

The devil is in the details, of course, and there are still disputes on the margin, as I said. But it helps to know what they’re really about, and why they are so far from the fanciful debates the copyright scolds wish we were having.

First, price is, in fact, a big deal. For the creative industries it can be the difference between, say, making one movie or a hundred, and for artists is can be the difference between earning a livelihood writing songs or packing it in for a desk job.

But despite their occasional lip service to the existence of trade-offs, many “fair-users” see price — i.e., licensing agreements — as nothing less than a threat to social welfare. After all, the logic runs, if copies can be made at (essentially) zero marginal cost, a positive price is just extortion. They say, “more access!,” but they don’t mean, “more access at an agreed-upon price;” they mean “zero-price access, and nothing less.” These aren’t the same thing, and when “fair use” is a stand-in for “zero-price use,” fair-users moving the goalposts — and being disingenuous about it.

The other, related problem, of course, is piracy. Sometimes rightsholders’ objections to the expansion of fair use are about limiting access. But typically that’s true only where fine-tuned contracting isn’t feasible, and where the only realistic choice they’re given is between no access for some people, and pervasive (and often unstoppable) piracy. There are any number of instances where rightsholders have no realistic prospect of efficiently negotiating licensing terms and receiving compensation, and would welcome greater access to their works even without a license — as long as the result isn’t also (or only) excessive piracy. The key thing is that, in such cases, opposition to fair use isn’t opposition to reasonable access, even free access. It’s opposition to piracy.

Time-shifting with VCRs and space-shifting with portable mp3 players (to take two contentious historical examples) fall into this category (even if they are held up — as they often are — by the fair-users as totems of their fanciful battle ). At least at the time of the Sony and Diamond Rio cases, when there was really no feasible way to enforce licenses or charge differential prices for such uses, the choice rightsholders faced was effectively all-or-nothing, and they had to pick one. I’m pretty sure, all else equal, they would have supported such uses, even without licenses and differential compensation — except that the piracy risk was so significant that it swamped the likely benefits, tilting the scale toward “nothing” instead of “all.”

Again, the reality is that creators and rightsholders were confronted with a choice between two imperfect options; neither was likely “right,” and they went with the lesser evil. But one can’t infer from that constrained decision an inherent antipathy to fair use. Sadly, such decisions have to be made in the real world, not law reviews and EFF blog posts. As economists Benjamin Klein, Andres Lerner and Kevin Murphy put it regarding the Diamond Rio case:

[R]ather than representing an attempt by copyright-holders to increase their profits by controlling legally established “fair uses,”… the obvious record-company motivation is to reduce the illegal piracy that is encouraged by the technology. Eliminating a “fair use” [more accurately, “opposing an expansion of fair use” -ed.] is not a benefit to the record companies; it is an unfortunate cost they have to bear to solve the much larger problem of infringing uses. The record companies face competitive pressure to avoid these costs by developing technologies that distinguish infringing from non-infringing copying.

This last point is important, too. Fair-users don’t like technological protection measures, either, even if they actually facilitate licensing and broader access to copyrighted content. But that really just helps to reveal the poverty of their position. They should welcome technology that expands access, even if it also means that it enables rightsholders to fine-tune their licenses and charge a positive price. Put differently: Why do they hate Spotify!?

I’m just hazarding a guess here, but I suspect that the antipathy to technological solutions goes well beyond the short-term limits on some current use of content that copyright minimalists think shouldn’t be limited. If technology, instead of fair use, is truly determinative of the extent of zero-price access, then their ability to seriously influence (read: rein in) the scope of copyright is diminished. Fair use is amorphous. They can bring cases, they can lobby Congress, they can pen strongly worded blog posts, and they can stage protests. But they can’t do much to stop technological progress. Of course, technology does at least as much to limit the enforceability of licenses and create new situations where zero-price access is the norm. But still, R&D is a lot harder than PR.

What’s more, if technology were truly determinative, it would frequently mean that former fair uses could become infringing at some point (or vice versa, of course). Frankly, there’s no reason for time-shifting of TV content to continue to be considered a fair use today. We now have the technology to both enable time shifting and to efficiently license content for the purpose, charge a differential price for it, and enforce the terms. In fact, all of that is so pervasive today that most users do pay for time-shifting technologies, under license terms that presumably define the scope of their right to do so; they just may not have read the contract. Where time-shifting as a fair use rears its ugly head today is in debates over new, infringing technology where, in truth, the fair use argument is really a malleable pretext to advocate for a restriction on the scope of copyright (e.g., Aereo).

In any case, as the success of business models like Spotify and Netflix (to say nothing of Comcast’s X1 interface and new Xfinity Stream app) attest, technology has enabled users to legitimately engage in what was once conceivable seemingly only under fair use. Yes, at a price — one that millions of people are willing to pay. It is surely the case that rightsholders’ licensing of technologies like these have made content more accessible, to more people, and with higher-quality service, than a regime of expansive unlicensed use could ever have done.

At the same time, let’s not forget that, often, even when they could efficiently distribute content only at a positive price, creators offer up scads of content for free, in myriad ways. Sure, the objective is to maximize revenue overall by increasing exposure, price discriminating, or enhancing the quality of paid-for content in some way — but so what? More content is more content, and easier access is easier access. All of that uncompensated distribution isn’t rightsholders nodding toward the copyright scolds’ arguments; it’s perfectly consistent with licensing. Obviously, the vast majority of music, for example, is listened-to subject to license agreements, not because of fair use exceptions or rightsholders’ largesse.

For the vast majority of creators, users and uses, licensed access works, and gets us massive amounts of content and near ubiquitous access. The fair use disputes we do have aren’t really about ensuring broad access; that’s already happening. Rather, those disputes are either niggling over the relatively few ambiguous margins on the one hand, or, on the other, fighting the fair-users’ manufactured, existential fight over whether copyright exceptions will subsume the rule. The former is to be expected: Copyright boundaries will always be imperfect, and courts will always be asked to make the close calls. The latter, however, is simply a drain on resources that could be used to create more content, improve its quality, distribute it more broadly, or lower prices.

Copyright law has always been, and always will be, operating in the shadow of technology — technology both for distribution and novel uses, as well as for pirating content. The irony is that, as digital distribution expands, it has dramatically increased the risk of piracy, even as copyright minimalists argue that the low costs of digital access justify a more expansive interpretation of fair use — which would, in turn, further increase the risk of piracy.

Creators’ opposition to this expansion has nothing to do with opposition to broad access to content, and everything to do with ensuring that piracy doesn’t overwhelm their ability to get paid, and to produce content in the first place.

Even were fair use to somehow disappear tomorrow, there would be more and higher-quality content, available to more people in more places, than ever before. But creators have no interest in seeing fair use disappear. What they do have is an interest in is licensing their content as broadly as possible when doing so is efficient, and in minimizing piracy. Sometimes legitimate fair-use questions get caught in the middle. We could and should have a reasonable debate over the precise contours of fair use in such cases. But the false dichotomy of creators against users makes that extremely difficult. Until the disingenuous rhetoric is clawed back, we’re stuck with needless fights that don’t benefit either users or creators — although they do benefit the policy scolds, academics, wonks and businesses that foment them.

On Friday the the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments with the FCC in response to Chairman Wheeler’s NPRM (proposed rules) to “unlock” the MVPD (i.e., cable and satellite subscription video, essentially) set-top box market. Plenty has been written on the proposed rulemaking—for a few quick hits (among many others) see, e.g., Richard Bennett, Glenn Manishin, Larry Downes, Stuart Brotman, Scott Wallsten, and me—so I’ll dispense with the background and focus on the key points we make in our comments.

Our comments explain that the proposal’s assertion that the MVPD set-top box market isn’t competitive is a product of its failure to appreciate the dynamics of the market (and its disregard for economics). Similarly, the proposal fails to acknowledge the complexity of the markets it intends to regulate, and, in particular, it ignores the harmful effects on content production and distribution the rules would likely bring about.

“Competition, competition, competition!” — Tom Wheeler

“Well, uh… just because I don’t know what it is, it doesn’t mean I’m lying.” — Claude Elsinore

At root, the proposal is aimed at improving competition in a market that is already hyper-competitive. As even Chairman Wheeler has admitted,

American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.

Of course, much of this competition comes from outside the MVPD market, strictly speaking—most notably from OVDs like Netflix. It’s indisputable that the statute directs the FCC to address the MVPD market and the MVPD set-top box market. But addressing competition in those markets doesn’t mean you simply disregard the world outside those markets.

The competitiveness of a market isn’t solely a function of the number of competitors in the market. Even relatively constrained markets like these can be “fully competitive” with only a few competing firms—as is the case in every market in which MVPDs operate (all of which are presumed by the Commission to be subject to “effective competition”).

The truly troubling thing, however, is that the FCC knows that MVPDs compete with OVDs, and thus that the competitiveness of the “MVPD market” (and the “MVPD set-top box market”) isn’t solely a matter of direct, head-to-head MVPD competition.

How do we know that? As I’ve recounted before, in a recent speech FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet approvingly explained that Commission staff recommended rejecting the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger precisely because of the alleged threat it posed to OVD competitors. In essence, Sallet argued that Comcast sought to undertake a $45 billion merger primarily—if not solely—in order to ameliorate the competitive threat to its subscription video services from OVDs:

Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively.…

Thus, at least when it suits it, the Chairman’s office appears not only to believe that this competitive threat is real, but also that Comcast, once the largest MVPD in the country, believes so strongly that the OVD competitive threat is real that it was willing to pay $45 billion for a mere “increased ability” to limit it.

UPDATE 4/26/2016

And now the FCC has approved the Charter/Time Warner Cable, imposing conditions that, according to Wheeler,

focus on removing unfair barriers to video competition. First, New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps. Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm OVDs and protects OVDs from retaliation—an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today.

If MVPDs and OVDs don’t compete, why would such terms be necessary? And even if the threat is merely potential competition, as we note in our comments (citing to this, among other things),

particularly in markets characterized by the sorts of technological change present in video markets, potential competition can operate as effectively as—or even more effectively than—actual competition to generate competitive market conditions.

/UPDATE

Moreover, the proposal asserts that the “market” for MVPD set-top boxes isn’t competitive because “consumers have few alternatives to leasing set-top boxes from their MVPDs, and the vast majority of MVPD subscribers lease boxes from their MVPD.”

But the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket—a secondary market; no one buys set-top boxes without first buying MVPD service—and always or almost always the two are purchased at the same time. As Ben Klein and many others have shown, direct competition in the aftermarket need not be plentiful for the market to nevertheless be competitive.

Whether consumers are fully informed or uninformed, consumers will pay a competitive package price as long as sufficient competition exists among sellers in the [primary] market.

The competitiveness of the MVPD market in which the antecedent choice of provider is made incorporates consumers’ preferences regarding set-top boxes, and makes the secondary market competitive.

The proposal’s superficial and erroneous claim that the set-top box market isn’t competitive thus reflects bad economics, not competitive reality.

But it gets worse. The NPRM doesn’t actually deny the importance of OVDs and app-based competitors wholesale — it only does so when convenient. As we note in our Comments:

The irony is that the NPRM seeks to give a leg up to non-MVPD distribution services in order to promote competition with MVPDs, while simultaneously denying that such competition exists… In order to avoid triggering [Section 629’s sunset provision,] the Commission is forced to pretend that we still live in the world of Blockbuster rentals and analog cable. It must ignore the Netflix behind the curtain—ignore the utter wealth of video choices available to consumers—and focus on the fact that a consumer might have a remote for an Apple TV sitting next to her Xfinity remote.

“Yes, but you’re aware that there’s an invention called television, and on that invention they show shows?” — Jules Winnfield

The NPRM proposes to create a world in which all of the content that MVPDs license from programmers, and all of their own additional services, must be provided to third-party device manufacturers under a zero-rate compulsory license. Apart from the complete absence of statutory authority to mandate such a thing (or, I should say, apart from statutory language specifically prohibiting such a thing), the proposed rules run roughshod over the copyrights and negotiated contract rights of content providers:

The current rulemaking represents an overt assault on the web of contracts that makes content generation and distribution possible… The rules would create a new class of intermediaries lacking contractual privity with content providers (or MVPDs), and would therefore force MVPDs to bear the unpredictable consequences of providing licensed content to third-parties without actual contracts to govern those licenses…

Because such nullification of license terms interferes with content owners’ right “to do and to authorize” their distribution and performance rights, the rules may facially violate copyright law… [Moreover,] the web of contracts that support the creation and distribution of content are complicated, extensively negotiated, and subject to destabilization. Abrogating the parties’ use of the various control points that support the financing, creation, and distribution of content would very likely reduce the incentive to invest in new and better content, thereby rolling back the golden age of television that consumers currently enjoy.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any serious acknowledgement in the NPRM that its rules could have any effect on content providers, apart from this gem:

We do not currently have evidence that regulations are needed to address concerns raised by MVPDs and content providers that competitive navigation solutions will disrupt elements of service presentation (such as agreed-upon channel lineups and neighborhoods), replace or alter advertising, or improperly manipulate content…. We also seek comment on the extent to which copyright law may protect against these concerns, and note that nothing in our proposal will change or affect content creators’ rights or remedies under copyright law.

The Commission can’t rely on copyright to protect against these concerns, at least not without admitting that the rules require MVPDs to violate copyright law and to breach their contracts. And in fact, although it doesn’t acknowledge it, the NPRM does require the abrogation of content owners’ rights embedded in licenses negotiated with MVPD distributors to the extent that they conflict with the terms of the rule (which many of them must).   

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — Inigo Montoya

Finally, the NPRM derives its claimed authority for these rules from an interpretation of the relevant statute (Section 629 of the Communications Act) that is absurdly unreasonable. That provision requires the FCC to enact rules to assure the “commercial availability” of set-top boxes from MVPD-unaffiliated vendors. According to the NPRM,

we cannot assure a commercial market for devices… unless companies unaffiliated with an MVPD are able to offer innovative user interfaces and functionality to consumers wishing to access that multichannel video programming.

This baldly misconstrues a term plainly meant to refer to the manner in which consumers obtain their navigation devices, not how those devices should function. It also contradicts the Commission’s own, prior readings of the statute:

As structured, the rules will place a regulatory thumb on the scale in favor of third-parties and to the detriment of MVPDs and programmers…. [But] Congress explicitly rejected language that would have required unbundling of MVPDs’ content and services in order to promote other distribution services…. Where Congress rejected language that would have favored non-MVPD services, the Commission selectively interprets the language Congress did employ in order to accomplish exactly what Congress rejected.

And despite the above noted problems (and more), the Commission has failed to do even a cursory economic evaluation of the relative costs of the NPRM, instead focusing narrowly on one single benefit it believes might occur (wider distribution of set-top boxes from third-parties) despite the consistent failure of similar FCC efforts in the past.

All of the foregoing leads to a final question: At what point do the costs of these rules finally outweigh the perceived benefits? On the one hand are legal questions of infringement, inducements to violate agreements, and disruptions of complex contractual ecosystems supporting content creation. On the other hand are the presence of more boxes and apps that allow users to choose who gets to draw the UI for their video content…. At some point the Commission needs to take seriously the costs of its actions, and determine whether the public interest is really served by the proposed rules.

Our full comments are available here.

Netflix’s latest net neutrality hypocrisy (yes, there have been others. See here and here, for example) involves its long-term, undisclosed throttling of its video traffic on AT&T’s and Verizon’s wireless networks, while it lobbied heavily for net neutrality rules from the FCC that would prevent just such throttling by ISPs.

It was Netflix that coined the term “strong net neutrality,” in an effort to import interconnection (the connections between ISPs and edge provider networks) into the net neutrality fold. That alone was a bastardization of what net neutrality purportedly stood for, as I previously noted:

There is a reason every iteration of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, including the latest, have explicitly not applied to backbone interconnection agreements: Interconnection over the backbone has always been open and competitive, and it simply doesn’t give rise to the kind of discrimination concerns net neutrality is meant to address.

That Netflix would prefer not to pay for delivery of its content isn’t surprising. But net neutrality regulations don’t — and shouldn’t — have anything to do with it.

But Netflix did something else with “strong net neutrality.” It tied it to consumer choice:

This weak net neutrality isn’t enough to protect an open, competitive Internet; a stronger form of net neutrality is required. Strong net neutrality additionally prevents ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers. Instead, they must provide sufficient access to their network without charge. (Emphasis added).

A focus on consumers is laudable, of course, but when the focus is on consumers there’s no reason to differentiate between ISPs (to whom net neutrality rules apply) and content providers entering into contracts with ISPs to deliver their content (to whom net neutrality rules don’t apply).

And Netflix has just showed us exactly why that’s the case.

Netflix can and does engage in management of its streams in order (presumably) to optimize consumer experience as users move between networks, devices and viewers (e.g., native apps vs Internet browser windows) with very different characteristics and limitations. That’s all well and good. But as we noted in our Policy Comments in the FCC’s Open Internet Order proceeding,

In this circumstance, particularly when the content in question is Netflix, with 30% of network traffic, both the network’s and the content provider’s transmission decisions may be determinative of network quality, as may the users’ device and application choices.

As a 2011 paper by a group of network engineers studying the network characteristics of video streaming data from Netflix and YouTube noted:

This is a concern as it means that a sudden change of application or container in a large population might have a significant impact on the network traffic. Considering the very fast changes in trends this is a real possibility, the most likely being a change from Flash to HTML5 along with an increase in the use of mobile devices…. [S]treaming videos at high resolutions can result in smoother aggregate traffic while at the same time linearly increase the aggregate data rate due to video streaming.

Again, a concern with consumers is admirable, but Netflix isn’t concerned with consumers. It’s concerned at most with consumers of Netflix, while they are consuming Netflix. But the reality is that Netflix’s content management decisions can adversely affect consumers overall, including its own subscribers when they aren’t watching Netflix.

And here’s the huge irony. The FCC’s net neutrality rules are tailor-made to guarantee that Netflix will never have any incentive to take these externalities into account in its own decisions. What’s more, they ensure that ISPs are severely hamstrung in managing their networks for the benefit of all consumers, not least because their interconnection deals with large content providers like Netflix are now being closely scrutinized.

It’s great that Netflix thinks it should manage its video delivery to optimize viewing under different network conditions. But net neutrality rules ensure that Netflix bears no cost for overwhelming the network in the process. Essentially, short of building new capacity — at great expense to all ISP subscribers, of course — ISPs can’t do much about it, either, under the rules. And, of course, the rules also make it impossible for ISPs to negotiate for financial help from Netflix (or its heaviest users) in paying for those upgrades.

On top of this, net neutrality advocates have taken aim at usage-based billing and other pricing practices that would help with the problem by enabling ISPs to charge their heaviest users more in order to alleviate the inherent subsidy by normal users that flat-rate billing entails. (Netflix itself, as one of the articles linked above discusses at length, is hypocritically inconsistent on this score).

As we also noted in our OIO Policy Comments:

The idea that consumers and competition generally are better off when content providers face no incentive to take account of congestion externalities in their pricing (or when users have no incentive to take account of their own usage) runs counter to basic economic logic and is unsupported by the evidence. In fact, contrary to such claims, usage-based pricing, congestion pricing and sponsored content, among other nonlinear pricing models, would, in many circumstances, further incentivize networks to expand capacity (not create artificial scarcity).

Some concern for consumers. Under Netflix’s approach consumers get it coming and going: Either their non-Netflix traffic is compromised for the sake of Netflix’s traffic, or they have to pay higher subscription fees to ISPs for the privilege of accommodating Netflix’s ever-expanding traffic loads (4K videos, anyone?) — whether they ever use Netflix or not.

Sometimes, apparently, Netflix throttles its own traffic in order to “help” a few consumers. (That it does so without disclosing the practice is pretty galling, especially given the enhanced transparency rules in the Open Internet Order — something Netflix also advocated for, and which also apply only to ISPs and not to content providers). But its self-aggrandizing advocacy for the FCC’s latest net neutrality rules reveals that its first priority is to screw over consumers, so long as it can shift the blame and the cost to others.

Last week, FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet pulled back the curtain on the FCC staff’s analysis behind its decision to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. As the FCC staff sets out on its reported Rainbow Tour to reassure regulated companies that it’s not “hostile to the industries it regulates,” Sallet’s remarks suggest it will have an uphill climb. Unfortunately, the staff’s analysis appears to have been unduly speculative, disconnected from critical market realities, and decidedly biased — not characteristics in a regulator that tend to offer much reassurance.

Merger analysis is inherently speculative, but, as courts have repeatedly had occasion to find, the FCC has a penchant for stretching speculation beyond the breaking point, adopting theories of harm that are vaguely possible, even if unlikely and inconsistent with past practice, and poorly supported by empirical evidence. The FCC’s approach here seems to fit this description.

The FCC’s fundamental theory of anticompetitive harm

To begin with, as he must, Sallet acknowledged that there was no direct competitive overlap in the areas served by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and no consumer would have seen the number of providers available to her changed by the deal.

But the FCC staff viewed this critical fact as “not outcome determinative.” Instead, Sallet explained that the staff’s opposition was based primarily on a concern that the deal might enable Comcast to harm “nascent” OVD competitors in order to protect its video (MVPD) business:

Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively, especially through the use of new business models.

The justification for the concern boiled down to an assumption that the addition of TWC’s subscriber base would be sufficient to render an otherwise too-costly anticompetitive campaign against OVDs worthwhile:

Without the merger, a company taking action against OVDs for the benefit of the Pay TV system as a whole would incur costs but gain additional sales – or protect existing sales — only within its footprint. But the combined entity, having a larger footprint, would internalize more of the external “benefits” provided to other industry members.

The FCC theorized that, by acquiring a larger footprint, Comcast would gain enough bargaining power and leverage, as well as the means to profit from an exclusionary strategy, leading it to employ a range of harmful tactics — such as impairing the quality/speed of OVD streams, imposing data caps, limiting OVD access to TV-connected devices, imposing higher interconnection fees, and saddling OVDs with higher programming costs. It’s difficult to see how such conduct would be permitted under the FCC’s Open Internet Order/Title II regime, but, nevertheless, the staff apparently believed that Comcast would possess a powerful “toolkit” with which to harm OVDs post-transaction.

Comcast’s share of the MVPD market wouldn’t have changed enough to justify the FCC’s purported fears

First, the analysis turned on what Comcast could and would do if it were larger. But Comcast was already the largest ISP and MVPD (now second largest MVPD, post AT&T/DIRECTV) in the nation, and presumably it has approximately the same incentives and ability to disadvantage OVDs today.

In fact, there’s no reason to believe that the growth of Comcast’s MVPD business would cause any material change in its incentives with respect to OVDs. Whatever nefarious incentives the merger allegedly would have created by increasing Comcast’s share of the MVPD market (which is where the purported benefits in the FCC staff’s anticompetitive story would be realized), those incentives would be proportional to the size of increase in Comcast’s national MVPD market share — which, here, would be about eight percentage points: from 22% to under 30% of the national market.

It’s difficult to believe that Comcast would gain the wherewithal to engage in this costly strategy by adding such a relatively small fraction of the MVPD market (which would still leave other MVPDs serving fully 70% of the market to reap the purported benefits instead of Comcast), but wouldn’t have it at its current size – and there’s no evidence that it has ever employed such strategies with its current market share.

It bears highlighting that the D.C. Circuit has already twice rejected FCC efforts to impose a 30% market cap on MVPDs, based on the Commission’s inability to demonstrate that a greater-than-30% share would create competitive problems, especially given the highly dynamic nature of the MVPD market. In vacating the FCC’s most recent effort to do so in 2009, the D.C. Circuit was resolute in its condemnation of the agency, noting:

In sum, the Commission has failed to demonstrate that allowing a cable operator to serve more than 30% of all [MVPD] subscribers would threaten to reduce either competition or diversity in programming.

The extent of competition and the amount of available programming (including original programming distributed by OVDs themselves) has increased substantially since 2009; this makes the FCC’s competitive claims even less sustainable today.

It’s damning enough to the FCC’s case that there is no marketplace evidence of such conduct or its anticompetitive effects in today’s market. But it’s truly impossible to square the FCC’s assertions about Comcast’s anticompetitive incentives with the fact that, over the past decade, Comcast has made massive investments in broadband, steadily increased broadband speeds, and freely licensed its programming, among other things that have served to enhance OVDs’ long-term viability and growth. Chalk it up to the threat of regulatory intervention or corporate incompetence if you can’t believe that competition alone could be responsible for this largesse, but, whatever the reason, the FCC staff’s fears appear completely unfounded in a marketplace not significantly different than the landscape that would have existed post-merger.

OVDs aren’t vulnerable, and don’t need the FCC’s “help”

After describing the “new entrants” in the market — such unfamiliar and powerless players as Dish, Sony, HBO, and CBS — Sallet claimed that the staff was principally animated by the understanding that

Entrants are particularly vulnerable when competition is nascent. Thus, staff was particularly concerned that this transaction could damage competition in the video distribution industry.

Sallet’s description of OVDs makes them sound like struggling entrepreneurs working in garages. But, in fact, OVDs have radically reshaped the media business and wield enormous clout in the marketplace.

Netflix, for example, describes itself as “the world’s leading Internet television network with over 65 million members in over 50 countries.” New services like Sony Vue and Sling TV are affiliated with giant, well-established media conglomerates. And whatever new offerings emerge from the FCC-approved AT&T/DIRECTV merger will be as well-positioned as any in the market.

In fact, we already know that the concerns of the FCC are off-base because they are of a piece with the misguided assumptions that underlie the Chairman’s recent NPRM to rewrite the MVPD rules to “protect” just these sorts of companies. But the OVDs themselves — the ones with real money and their competitive futures on the line — don’t see the world the way the FCC does, and they’ve resolutely rejected the Chairman’s proposal. Notably, the proposed rules would “protect” these services from exactly the sort of conduct that Sallet claims would have been a consequence of the Comcast-TWC merger.

If they don’t want or need broad protection from such “harms” in the form of revised industry-wide rules, there is surely no justification for the FCC to throttle a merger based on speculation that the same conduct could conceivably arise in the future.

The realities of the broadband market post-merger wouldn’t have supported the FCC’s argument, either

While a larger Comcast might be in a position to realize more of the benefits from the exclusionary strategy Sallet described, it would also incur more of the costs — likely in direct proportion to the increased size of its subscriber base.

Think of it this way: To the extent that an MVPD can possibly constrain an OVD’s scope of distribution for programming, doing so also necessarily makes the MVPD’s own broadband offering less attractive, forcing it to incur a cost that would increase in proportion to the size of the distributor’s broadband market. In this case, as noted, Comcast would have gained MVPD subscribers — but it would have also gained broadband subscribers. In a world where cable is consistently losing video subscribers (as Sallet acknowledged), and where broadband offers higher margins and faster growth, it makes no economic sense that Comcast would have valued the trade-off the way the FCC claims it would have.

Moreover, in light of the existing conditions imposed on Comcast under the Comcast/NBCU merger order from 2011 (which last for a few more years) and the restrictions adopted in the Open Internet Order, Comcast’s ability to engage in the sort of exclusionary conduct described by Sallet would be severely limited, if not non-existent. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that former or would-be OVD subscribers would choose to subscribe to, or pay more for, any MVPD in lieu of OVDs. Meanwhile, many of the relevant substitutes in the MVPD market (like AT&T and Verizon FiOS) also offer broadband services – thereby increasing the costs that would be incurred in the broadband market even more, as many subscribers would shift not only their MVPD, but also their broadband service, in response to Comcast degrading OVDs.

And speaking of the Open Internet Order — wasn’t that supposed to prevent ISPs like Comcast from acting on their alleged incentives to impede the quality of, or access to, edge providers like OVDs? Why is merger enforcement necessary to accomplish the same thing once Title II and the rest of the Open Internet Order are in place? And if the argument is that the Open Internet Order might be defeated, aside from the completely speculative nature of such a claim, why wouldn’t a merger condition that imposed the same constraints on Comcast – as was done in the Comcast/NBCU merger order by imposing the former net neutrality rules on Comcast – be perfectly sufficient?

While the FCC staff analysis accepted as true (again, contrary to current marketplace evidence) that a bigger Comcast would have more incentive to harm OVDs post-merger, it rejected arguments that there could be countervailing benefits to OVDs and others from this same increase in scale. Thus, things like incremental broadband investments and speed increases, a larger Wi-Fi network, and greater business services market competition – things that Comcast is already doing and would have done on a greater and more-accelerated scale in the acquired territories post-transaction – were deemed insufficient to outweigh the expected costs of the staff’s entirely speculative anticompetitive theory.

In reality, however, not only OVDs, but consumers – and especially TWC subscribers – would have benefitted from the merger by access to Comcast’s faster broadband speeds, its new investments, and its superior video offerings on the X1 platform, among other things. Many low-income families would have benefitted from expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and many businesses would have benefited from the addition of a more effective competitor to the incumbent providers that currently dominate the business services market. Yet these and other verifiable benefits were given short shrift in the agency’s analysis because they “were viewed by staff as incapable of outweighing the potential harms.”

The assumptions underlying the FCC staff’s analysis of the broadband market are arbitrary and unsupportable

Sallet’s claim that the combined firm would have 60% of all high-speed broadband subscribers in the U.S. necessarily assumes a national broadband market measured at 25 Mbps or higher, which is a red herring.

The FCC has not explained why 25 Mbps is a meaningful benchmark for antitrust analysis. The FCC itself endorsed a 10 Mbps baseline for its Connect America fund last December, noting that over 70% of current broadband users subscribe to speeds less than 25 Mbps, even in areas where faster speeds are available. And streaming online video, the most oft-cited reason for needing high bandwidth, doesn’t require 25 Mbps: Netflix says that 5 Mbps is the most that’s required for an HD stream, and the same goes for Amazon (3.5 Mbps) and Hulu (1.5 Mbps).

What’s more, by choosing an arbitrary, faster speed to define the scope of the broadband market (in an effort to assert the non-competitiveness of the market, and thereby justify its broadband regulations), the agency has – without proper analysis or grounding, in my view – unjustifiably shrunk the size of the relevant market. But, as it happens, doing so also shrinks the size of the increase in “national market share” that the merger would have brought about.

Recall that the staff’s theory was premised on the idea that the merger would give Comcast control over enough of the broadband market that it could unilaterally impose costs on OVDs sufficient to impair their ability to reach or sustain minimum viable scale. But Comcast would have added only one percent of this invented “market” as a result of the merger. It strains credulity to assert that there could be any transaction-specific harm from an increase in market share equivalent to a rounding error.

In any case, basing its rejection of the merger on a manufactured 25 Mbps relevant market creates perverse incentives and will likely do far more to harm OVDs than realization of even the staff’s worst fears about the merger ever could have.

The FCC says it wants higher speeds, and it wants firms to invest in faster broadband. But here Comcast did just that, and then was punished for it. Rather than acknowledging Comcast’s ongoing broadband investments as strong indication that the FCC staff’s analysis might be on the wrong track, the FCC leadership simply sidestepped that inconvenient truth by redefining the market.

The lesson is that if you make your product too good, you’ll end up with an impermissibly high share of the market you create and be punished for it. This can’t possibly promote the public interest.

Furthermore, the staff’s analysis of competitive effects even in this ersatz market aren’t likely supportable. As noted, most subscribers access OVDs on connections that deliver content at speeds well below the invented 25 Mbps benchmark, and they pay the same prices for OVD subscriptions as subscribers who receive their content at 25 Mbps. Confronted with the choice to consume content at 25 Mbps or 10 Mbps (or less), the majority of consumers voluntarily opt for slower speeds — and they purchase service from Netflix and other OVDs in droves, nonetheless.

The upshot? Contrary to the implications on which the staff’s analysis rests, if Comcast were to somehow “degrade” OVD content on the 25 Mbps networks so that it was delivered with characteristics of video content delivered over a 10-Mbps network, real-world, observed consumer preferences suggest it wouldn’t harm OVDs’ access to consumers at all. This is especially true given that OVDs often have a global focus and reach (again, Netflix has 65 million subscribers in over 50 countries), making any claims that Comcast could successfully foreclose them from the relevant market even more suspect.

At the same time, while the staff apparently viewed the broadband alternatives as “limited,” the reality is that Comcast, as well as other broadband providers, are surrounded by capable competitors, including, among others, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, many advanced VDSL and fiber-based Internet service providers, and high-speed mobile wireless providers. The FCC understated the complex impact of this robust, dynamic, and ever-increasing competition, and its analysis entirely ignored rapidly growing mobile wireless broadband competition.

Finally, as noted, Sallet claimed that the staff determined that merger conditions would be insufficient to remedy its concerns, without any further explanation. Yet the Commission identified similar concerns about OVDs in both the Comcast/NBCUniversal and AT&T/DIRECTV transactions, and adopted remedies to address those concerns. We know the agency is capable of drafting behavioral conditions, and we know they have teeth, as demonstrated by prior FCC enforcement actions. It’s hard to understand why similar, adequate conditions could not have been fashioned for this transaction.

In the end, while I appreciate Sallet’s attempt to explain the FCC’s decision to reject the Comcast/TWC merger, based on the foregoing I’m not sure that Comcast could have made any argument or showing that would have dissuaded the FCC from challenging the merger. Comcast presented a strong economic analysis answering the staff’s concerns discussed above, all to no avail. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this was a politically-driven result, and not one rigorously based on the facts or marketplace reality.

Last week a group of startup investors wrote a letter to protest what they assume FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed, revised Open Internet NPRM will say.

Bear in mind that an NPRM is a proposal, not a final rule, and its issuance starts a public comment period. Bear in mind, as well, that the proposal isn’t public yet, presumably none of the signatories to this letter has seen it, and the devil is usually in the details. That said, the letter has been getting a lot of press.

I found the letter seriously wanting, and seriously disappointing. But it’s a perfect example of what’s so wrong with this interminable debate on net neutrality.

Below I reproduce the letter in full, in quotes, with my comments interspersed. The key take-away: Neutrality (or non-discrimination) isn’t what’s at stake here. What’s at stake is zero-cost access by content providers to broadband networks. One can surely understand why content providers and those who fund them want their costs of doing business to be lower. But the rhetoric of net neutrality is mismatched with this goal. It’s no wonder they don’t just come out and say it – it’s quite a remarkable claim.

Open Internet Investors Letter

The Honorable Tom Wheeler, Chairman
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington D.C. 20554

May 8, 2014

Dear Chairman Wheeler:

We write to express our support for a free and open Internet.

We invest in entrepreneurs, investing our own funds and those of our investors (who are individuals, pension funds, endowments, and financial institutions).  We often invest at the earliest stages, when companies include just a handful of founders with largely unproven ideas. But, without lawyers, large teams or major revenues, these small startups have had the opportunity to experiment, adapt, and grow, thanks to equal access to the global market.

“Equal” access has nothing to do with it. No startup is inherently benefitted by being “equal” to others. Maybe this is just careless drafting. But frankly, as I’ll discuss, there are good reasons to think (contra the pro-net neutrality narrative) that startups will be helped by inequality (just like contra the (totally wrong) accepted narrative, payola helps new artists). It says more than they would like about what these investors really want that they advocate “equality” despite the harm it may impose on startups (more on this later).

Presumably what “equal” really means here is “zero cost”: “As long as my startup pays nothing for access to ISPs’ subscribers, it’s fine that we’re all on equal footing.” Wheeler has stated his intent that his proposal would require any prioritization to be available to any who want it, on equivalent, commercially reasonable terms. That’s “equal,” too, so what’s to complain about? But it isn’t really inequality that’s gotten everyone so upset.

Of course, access is never really “zero cost;” start-ups wouldn’t need investors if their costs were zero. In that sense, why is equality of ISP access any more important than other forms of potential equality? Why not mandate price controls on rent? Why not mandate equal rent? A cost is a cost. What’s really going on here is that, like Netflix, these investors want to lower their costs and raise their returns as much as possible, and they want the government to do it for them.

As a result, some of the startups we have invested in have managed to become among the most admired, successful, and influential companies in the world.

No startup became successful as a result of “equality” or even zero-cost access to broadband. No doubt some of their business models were predicated on that assumption. But it didn’t cause their success.

We have made our investment decisions based on the certainty of a level playing field and of assurances against discrimination and access fees from Internet access providers.

And they would make investment decisions based on the possibility of an un-level playing field if that were the status quo. More importantly, the businesses vying for investment dollars might be different ones if they built their business models in a different legal/economic environment. So what? This says nothing about the amount of investment, the types of businesses, the quality of businesses that would arise under a different set of rules. It says only that past specific investments might not have been made.

Unless the contention is that businesses would be systematically worse under a different rule, this is irrelevant. I have seen that claim made, and it’s implicit here, of course, but I’ve seen no evidence to actually support it. Businesses thrive in unequal, cost-ladened environments all the time. It costs about $4 million/30 seconds to advertise during the Super Bowl. Budweiser and PepsiCo paid multiple millions this year to do so; many of their competitors didn’t. With inequality like that, it’s a wonder Sierra Nevada and Dr. Pepper haven’t gone bankrupt.

Indeed, our investment decisions in Internet companies are dependent upon the certainty of an equal-opportunity marketplace.

Again, no they’re not. Equal opportunity is a euphemism for zero cost, or else this is simply absurd on its face. Are these investors so lacking in creativity and ability that they can invest only when there is certainty of equal opportunity? Don’t investors thrive – aren’t they most needed – in environments where arbitrage is possible, where a creative entrepreneur can come up with a risky, novel way to take advantage of differential conditions better than his competitors? Moreover, the implicit equating of “equal-opportunity marketplace” with net neutrality rules is far-fetched. Is that really all that matters?

This is a good time to make a point that is so often missed: The loudest voices for net neutrality are the biggest companies – Google, Netflix, Amazon, etc. That fact should give these investors and everyone else serious pause. Their claim rests on the idea that “equality” is needed, so big companies can’t use an Internet “fast lane” to squash them. Google is decidedly a big company. So why do the big boys want this so much?

The battle is often pitched as one of ISPs vs. (small) content providers. But content providers have far less to worry about and face far less competition from broadband providers than from big, incumbent competitors. It is often claimed that “Netflix was able to pay Comcast’s toll, but a small startup won’t have that luxury.” But Comcast won’t even notice or care about a small startup; its traffic demands will be inconsequential. Netflix can afford to pay for Internet access for precisely the same reason it came to Comcast’s attention: It’s hugely successful, and thus creates a huge amount of traffic.

Based on news reports and your own statements, we are worried that your proposed rules will not provide the necessary certainty that we need to make investment decisions and that these rules will stifle innovation in the Internet sector.

Now, there’s little doubt that legal certainty aids investment decisions. But “certainty” is not in danger here. The rules have to change because the court said so – with pretty clear certainty. And a new rule is not inherently any more or less likely to offer certainty than the previous Open Internet Order, which itself was subject to intense litigation (obviously) and would have been subject to interpretation and inconsistent enforcement (and would have allowed all kinds of paid prioritization, too!). Certainty would be good, but Wheeler’s proposed rule won’t likely do anything about the amount of certainty one way or the other.

If established companies are able to pay for better access speeds or lower latency, the Internet will no longer be a level playing field. Start-ups with applications that are advantaged by speed (such as games, video, or payment systems) will be unlikely to overcome that deficit no matter how innovative their service.

Again, it’s notable that some of the strongest advocates for net neutrality are established companies. Another letter sent out last week included signatures from a bunch of startups, but also Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo!, among others.

In truth it’s hard to see why startup investors would think this helps them. Non-neutrality offers the prospect that a startup might be able to buy priority access to overcome the inherent disadvantage of newness, and to better compete with an established company. Neutrality means that that competitive advantage is impossible, and the baseline relative advantages and disadvantages remain – which helps incumbents, not startups. With a neutral Internet – well, the advantages of the incumbent competitor can’t be dissipated by a startup buying a favorable leg-up in speed and the Netflix’s of the world will be more likely to continue to dominate.

Of course the claim is that incumbents will use their huge resources to gain even more advantage with prioritized access. Implicit in this must be the assumption that the advantage that could be gained by a startup buying priority offers less return for the startup than the cost imposed on it by the inherent disadvantages of reputation, brand awareness, customer base, etc. But that’s not plausible for all or even most startups. And investors exist precisely because they are able to provide funds for which there is a likelihood of a good return – so if paying for priority would help overcome inherent disadvantages, there would be money for it.

Also implicit is the claim that the benefits to incumbents (over and above their natural advantages) from paying for priority, in terms of hamstringing new entrants, will outweigh the cost. This is unlikely generally to be true, as well. They already have advantages. Sure, sometimes they might want to pay for more, but in precisely the cases where it would be worth it to do so, the new entrant would also be most benefited by doing so itself – ensuring, again, that investment funds will be available.

Of course if both incumbents and startups decide paying for priority is better, we’re back to a world of “equality,” so what’s to complain about, based on this letter? This puts into stark relief that what these investors really want is government-mandated, subsidized broadband access, not “equality.”

Now, it’s conceivable that that is the optimal state of affairs, but if it is, it isn’t for the reasons given here, nor has anyone actually demonstrated that it is the case.

Entrepreneurs will need to raise money to buy fast lane services before they have proven that consumers want their product. Investors will extract more equity from entrepreneurs to compensate for the risk.

Internet applications will not be able to afford to create a relationship with millions of consumers by making their service freely available and then build a business over time as they better understand the value consumers find in their service (which is what Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, Dropbox and virtually other consumer Internet service did to achieve scale).

In other words: “Subsidize us. We’re worth it.” Maybe. But this is probably more revealing than intended. The Internet cost something to someone to build. (Actually, it cost more than a trillion dollars to broadband providers). This just says “we shouldn’t have to pay them for it now.” Fine, but who, then, and how do you know that forcing someone else to subsidize these startup companies will actually lead to better results? Mightn’t we get less broadband investment such that there is little Internet available for these companies to take advantage of in the first place? If broadband consumers instead of content consumers foot the bill, is that clearly preferable, either from a social welfare perspective, or even the self interest of these investors who, after all, do ultimately rely on consumer spending to earn their return?

Moreover, why is this “build for free, then learn how to monetize over time” business model necessarily better than any other? These startup investors know better than anyone that enshrining existing business models just because they exist is the antithesis of innovation and progress. But that’s exactly what they’re saying – “the successful companies of the past did it this way, so we should get a government guarantee to preserve our ability to do it, too!”

This is the most depressing implication of this letter. These investors and others like them have been responsible for financing enormously valuable innovations. If even they can’t see the hypocrisy of these claims for net neutrality – and worse, choose to propagate it further – then we really have come to a sad place. When innovators argue passionately for stagnation, we’re in trouble.

Instead, creators will have to ask permission of an investor or corporate hierarchy before they can launch. Ideas will be vetted by committees and quirky passion projects will not get a chance. An individual in dorm room or a design studio will not be able to experiment out loud on the Internet. The result will be greater conformity, fewer surprises, and less innovation.

This is just a little too much protest. Creators already have to ask “permission” – or are these investors just opening up their bank accounts to whomever wants their money? The ones that are able to do it on a shoestring, with money saved up from babysitting gigs, may find higher costs, and the need to do more babysitting. But again, there is nothing special about the Internet in this. Let’s mandate zero cost office space and office supplies and developer services and design services and . . . etc. for all – then we’ll have way more “permission-less” startups. If it’s just a handout they want, they should say so, instead of pretending there is a moral or economic welfare basis for their claims.

Further, investors like us will be wary of investing in anything that access providers might consider part of their future product plans for fear they will use the same technical infrastructure to advantage their own services or use network management as an excuse to disadvantage competitive offerings.

This is crazy. For the same reasons I mentioned above, the big access provider (and big incumbent competitor, for that matter) already has huge advantages. If these investors aren’t already wary of investing in anything that Google or Comcast or Apple or… might plan to compete with, they must be terrible at their jobs.

What’s more, Wheeler’s much-reviled proposal (what we know about it, that is), to say nothing of antitrust law, clearly contemplates exactly this sort of foreclosure and addresses it. “Pure” net neutrality doesn’t add much, if anything, to the limits those laws already do or would provide.

Policing this will be almost impossible (even using a standard of “commercial reasonableness”) and access providers do not need to successfully disadvantage their competition; they just need to create a credible threat so that investors like us will be less inclined to back those companies.

You think policing the world of non-neutrality is hard – try policing neutrality. It’s not as easy as proponents make it out to be. It’s simply never been the case that all bits at all times have been treated “neutrally” on the Internet. Any version of an Open Internet Order (just like the last one, for example) will have to recognize this.

Larry Downes compiled a list of the exceptions included in the last Open Internet Order when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the rules in 2011. There are 16 categories of exemption, covering a wide range of fundamental components of broadband connectivity, from CDNs to free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. His testimony is a tour de force, and should be required reading for everyone involved in this debate.

But think about how the manifest advantages of these non-neutral aspects of broadband networks would be squared with “real” neutrality. On their face, if these investors are to be taken at their word, these arguments would preclude all of the Open Internet Order’s exemptions, too. And if any sort of inequality is going to be deemed ok, how accurately would regulators distinguish between “illegitimate” inequality and the acceptable kind that lets coffee shops subsidize broadband? How does the simplistic logic of net equality distinguish between, say, Netflix’s colocated servers and a startup like Uber being integrated into Google Maps? The simple answer is that it doesn’t, and the claims and arguments of this letter are woefully inadequate to the task.

We need simple, strong, enforceable rules against discrimination and access fees, not merely against blocking.

No, we don’t. Or, at least, no one has made that case. These investors want a handout; that is the only case this letter makes.

We encourage the Commission to consider all available jurisdictional tools at its disposal in ensuring a free and open Internet that rewards, not disadvantages, investment and entrepreneurship.

… But not investment in broadband, and not entrepreneurship that breaks with the business models of the past. In reality, this letter is simple rent-seeking: “We want to invest in what we know, in what’s been done before, and we don’t want you to do anything to make that any more costly for us. If that entails impairing broadband investment or imposing costs on others, so be it – we’ll still make our outsized returns, and they can write their own letter complaining about ‘inequality.’”

A final point I have to make. Although the investors don’t come right out and say it, many others have, and it’s implicit in the investors’ letter: “Content providers shouldn’t have to pay for broadband. Users already pay for the service, so making content providers pay would just let ISPs double dip.” The claim is deeply problematic.

For starters, it’s another form of the status quo mentality: “Users have always paid and content hasn’t, so we object to any deviation from that.” But it needn’t be that way. And of course models frequently coexist where different parties pay for the same or similar services. Some periodicals are paid for by readers and offer little or no advertising; others charge a subscription and offer paid ads; and still others are offered for free, funded entirely by ads. All of these models work. None is “better” than the other. There is no reason the same isn’t true for broadband and content.

Net neutrality claims that the only proper price to charge on the content side of the market is zero. (Congratulations: You’re in the same club as that cutting-edge, innovative technology, the check, which is cleared at par by government fiat. A subsidy that no doubt explains why checks have managed to last this long). As an economic matter, that’s possible; it could be that zero is the right price. But it most certainly needn’t be, and issues revolving around Netflix’s traffic and the ability of ISPs and Netflix cost-effectively to handle it are evidence that zero may well not be the right price.

The reality is that these sorts of claims are devoid of economic logic — which is presumably why they, like the whole net neutrality “movement” generally, appeal so gratuitously to emotion rather than reason. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope for more from a bunch of savvy financiers.

 

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

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

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

In summary, I make the following points:

Horizontal Concerns

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

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

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

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

Vertical Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procompetitive Justifications

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

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

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

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

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

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