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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.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Seth L. Cooper is director of policy studies and a senior fellow at the Free State Foundation.]

During Chairman Ajit Pai’s tenure, the Federal Communications Commission adopted key reforms that improved the agency’s processes. No less important than process reform is process integrity. The commission’s L-Band Order and the process that produced it will be the focus here. In that proceeding, Chairman Pai led a careful and deliberative process that resulted in a clearly reasoned and substantively supportable decision to put unused valuable L-Band spectrum into commercial use for wireless services.

Thanks to one of Chairman Pai’s most successful process reforms, the FCC now publicly posts draft items to be voted on three weeks in advance of the commission’s public meetings. During his chairmanship, the commission adopted reforms to help expedite the regulatory-adjudication process by specifying deadlines and facilitating written administrative law judge (ALJ) decisions rather than in-person hearings. The “Team Telecom” process also was reformed to promote faster agency determinations on matters involving foreign ownership.

Along with his process-reform achievements, Chairman Pai deserves credit for ensuring that the FCC’s proceedings were conducted in a lawful and sound manner. For example, the commission’s courtroom track record was notably better during Chairman Pai’s tenure than during the tenures of his immediate predecessors. Moreover, Chairman Pai deserves high marks for the agency process that preceded the L-Band Order – a process that was perhaps subject to more scrutiny than the process of any other proceeding during his chairmanship. The public record supports the integrity of that process, as well as the order’s merits.

In April 2020, the FCC unanimously approved an order authorizing Ligado Networks to deploy a next-generation mixed mobile-satellite network using licensed spectrum in the L-Band. This action is critical to alleviating the shortage of commercial spectrum in the United States and to ensuring our nation’s economic competitiveness. Ligado’s proposed network will provide industrial Internet-of-Things (IoT) services, and its L-Band spectrum has been identified as capable of pairing with C-Band and other mid-band spectrum for delivering future 5G services. According to the L-Band Order, Ligado plans to invest up to $800 million in network capabilities, which could create over 8,000 jobs. Economist Coleman Bazelon estimated that Ligado’s network could help create up to 3 million jobs and contribute up to $500 billion to the U.S. economy.

Opponents of the L-Band Order have claimed that Ligado’s proposed network would create signal interference with GPS services in adjacent spectrum. Moreover, in attempts to delay or undo implementation of the L-Band Order, several opponents lodged harsh but baseless attacks against the FCC’s process. Some of those process criticisms were made at a May 2020 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that failed to include any Ligado representatives or any FCC commissioners for their viewpoints. And in a May 2020 floor speech, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) repeatedly criticized the commission’s process as sudden, hurried, and taking place “in the darkness of a weekend.”

But those process criticisms fail in the face of easily verifiable facts. Under Chairman Pai’s leadership, the FCC acted within its conceded authority, consistent with its lawful procedures, and with careful—even lengthy—deliberation.

The FCC’s proceeding concerning Ligado’s license applications dates back to 2011. It included public notice and comment periods in 2016 and 2018. An August 2019 National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) report noted the commission’s forthcoming decision. In the fall of 2019, the commission shared a draft of its order with NTIA. Publicly stated opposition to Ligado’s proposed network by GPS operators and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, as well as publicly stated support for the network by Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, ensured that the proceeding received ongoing attention. Claims of “surprise” when the commission finalized its order in April 2020 are impossible to credit.

Importantly, the result of the deliberative agency process helmed by Chairman Pai was a substantively supportable decision. The FCC applied its experience in adjudicating competing technical claims to make commercial spectrum policy decisions. It was persuaded in part by signal testing conducted by the National Advanced Spectrum and Communications Test Network, as well as testing by technology consultants Roberson and Associates. By contrast, the commission found unpersuasive reports of alleged signal interference involving military devices operating outside of their assigned spectrum band.

The FCC also applied its expertise in addressing potential harmful signal interference to incumbent operations in adjacent spectrum bands by imposing several conditions on Ligado’s operations. For example, the L-Band Order requires Ligado to adhere to its agreements with major GPS equipment manufacturers for resolving signal interference concerns. Ligado must dedicate 23 megahertz of its own licensed spectrum as a guard-band from neighboring spectrum and also reduce its base station power levels 99% compared to what Ligado proposed in 2015. The commission requires Ligado to expeditiously replace or repair any U.S. government GPS devices that experience harmful interference from its network. And Ligado must maintain “stop buzzer” capability to halt its network within 15 minutes of any request by the commission.

From a process standpoint, the L-Band Order is a commendable example of Chairman Pai’s perseverance in leading the FCC to a much-needed decision on an economically momentous matter in the face of conflicting government agency and market provider viewpoints. Following a careful and deliberative process, the commission persevered to make a decision that is amply supported by the record and poised to benefit America’s economic welfare.

The ridiculousness currently emanating from ICANN and the NTIA (see these excellent posts from Milton Mueller and Eli Dourado on the issue) over .AMAZON, .PATAGONIA and other “geographic”/commercial TLDs is precisely why ICANN (and, apparently, the NTIA) is a problematic entity as a regulator.

The NTIA’s response to ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee’s (GAC) objection to Amazon’s application for the .AMAZON TLD (along with similar applications from other businesses for other TLDs) is particularly troubling, as Mueller notes:

In other words, the US statement basically says “we think that the GAC is going to do the wrong thing; its most likely course of action has no basis in international law and is contrary to vital policy principles the US is supposed to uphold. But who cares? We are letting everyone know that we will refuse to use the main tool we have that could either stop GAC from doing the wrong thing or provide it with an incentive to moderate its stance.”

Competition/antitrust issues don’t seem to be the focus of this latest chapter in the gTLD story, but it is instructive on this score nonetheless. As Berin Szoka and I wrote in ICLE’s comment to ICANN on gTLDS:

Among the greatest threats to this new “land rush” of innovation is the idea that ICANN should become a competition regulator, deciding whether to approve a TLD application based on its own competition analysis. But ICANN is not a regulator. It is a coordinator. ICANN should exercise its coordinating function by applying the same sort of analysis that it already does in coordinating other applications for TLDs.

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Moreover, the practical difficulties in enforcing different rules for generic TLDs as opposed to brand TLDs likely render any competition pre-clearance mechanism unworkable. ICANN has already determined that .brand TLDs can and should be operated as closed domains for obvious and good reasons. But differentiating between, say .amazon the brand and .amazon the generic or .delta the brand and .delta the generic will necessarily result in arbitrary decisions and costly errors.

Of most obvious salience: implicit in the GAC’s recommendation is the notion that somehow Amazon.com is sufficiently different than .AMAZON to deny Amazon’s ownership of the latter. But as Berin and I point out:

While closed gTLDs might seem to some to limit competition, that limitation would occur only within a particular, closed TLD. But it has every potential to be outweighed by the dramatic opening of competition among gTLDs, including, importantly, competition with .com.

In short, the market for TLDs and domain name registrations do not present particular competitive risks, and there is no a priori reason for ICANN to intervene prospectively.

In other words, treating Amazon.com and .AMAZON as different products, in different relevant markets, is a mistake. No doubt Amazon.com would, even if .AMAZON were owned by Amazon, remain for the foreseeable future the more relevant site. If Latin American governments are concerned with cultural and national identity protection, they should (not that I’m recommending this) focus their objections on Amazon.com. But the reality is that Amazon.com doesn’t compromise cultural identity, and neither would Amazon’s ownership of .AMAZON. Rather, the wide availability of new TLDs opens up an enormous range of new competitive TLD and SLD constraints on existing, dominant .COM SLDs, any number of which could be effective in promoting and preserving cultural and national identities.

By the way – Amazonia.com, Amazonbasin.com and Amazonrainforest.com, presumably among many others, look to be unused and probably available for purchase. Perhaps opponents of Amazon’s ownership of .AMAZON should set their sights on those or other SLDs and avoid engaging in the sort of politicking that will ultimately ruin the Internet.