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Germán Gutiérrez and Thomas Philippon have released a major rewrite of their paper comparing the U.S. and EU competitive environments. 

Although the NBER website provides an enticing title — “How European Markets Became Free: A Study of Institutional Drift” — the paper itself has a much more yawn-inducing title: “How EU Markets Became More Competitive Than US Markets: A Study of Institutional Drift.”

Having already critiqued the original paper at length (here and here), I wouldn’t normally take much interest in the do-over. However, in a recent episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Jason Furman gave a shout out to Philippon’s work on increasing concentration. So, I thought it might be worth a review.

As with the original, the paper begins with a conclusion: The EU appears to be more competitive than the U.S. The authors then concoct a theory to explain their conclusion. The theory’s a bit janky, but it goes something like this:

  • Because of lobbying pressure and regulatory capture, an individual country will enforce competition policy at a suboptimal level.
  • Because of competing interests among different countries, a “supra-national” body will be more independent and better able to foster pro-competitive policies and to engage in more vigorous enforcement of competition policy.
  • The EU’s supra-national body and its Directorate-General for Competition is more independent than the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission.
  • Therefore, their model explains why the EU is more competitive than the U.S. Q.E.D.

If you’re looking for what this has to do with “institutional drift,” don’t bother. The term only shows up in the title.

The original paper provided evidence from 12 separate “markets,” that they say demonstrated their conclusion about EU vs. U.S. competitiveness. These weren’t really “markets” in the competition policy sense, they were just broad industry categories, such as health, information, trade, and professional services (actually “other business sector services”). 

As pointed out in one of my earlier critiques, In all but one of these industries, the 8-firm concentration ratios for the U.S. and the EU are below 40 percent and the HHI measures reported in the original paper are at levels that most observers would presume to be competitive. 

Sending their original markets to drift in the appendices, Gutiérrez and Philippon’s revised paper focuses its attention on two markets — telecommunications and airlines — to highlight their claims that EU markets are more competitive than the U.S. First, telecoms:

To be more concrete, consider the Telecom industry and the entry of the French Telecom company Free Mobile. Until 2011, the French mobile industry was an oligopoly with three large historical incumbents and weak competition. … Free obtained its 4G license in 2011 and entered the market with a plan of unlimited talk, messaging and data for €20. Within six months, the incumbents Orange, SFR and Bouygues had reacted by launching their own discount brands and by offering €20 contracts as well. … The relative price decline was 40%: France went from being 15% more expensive than the US [in 2011] to being 25% cheaper in about two years [in 2013].

While this is an interesting story about how entry can increase competition, the story of a single firm entering a market in a single country is hardly evidence that the EU as a whole is more competitive than the U.S.

What Gutiérrez and Philippon don’t report is that from 2013 to 2019, prices declined by 12% in the U.S. and only 8% in France. In the EU as a whole, prices decreased by only 5% over the years 2013-2019.

Gutiérrez and Philippon’s passenger airline story is even weaker. Because airline prices don’t fit their narrative, they argue that increasing airline profits are evidence that the U.S. is less competitive than the EU. 

The picture above is from Figure 5 of their paper (“Air Transportation Profits and Concentration, EU vs US”). They claim that the “rise in US concentration and profits aligns closely with a controversial merger wave,” with the vertical line in the figure marking the Delta-Northwest merger.

Sure, profitability among U.S. firms increased. But, before the “merger wave,” profits were negative. Perhaps predatory pricing is pro-competitive after all.

Where Gutiérrez and Philippon really fumble is with airline pricing. Since the merger wave that pulled the U.S. airline industry out of insolvency, ticket prices (as measured by the Consumer Price Index), have decreased by 6%. In France, prices increased by 4% and in the EU, prices increased by 30%. 

The paper relies more heavily on eyeballing graphs than statistical analysis, but something about Table 2 caught my attention — the R-squared statistics. First, they’re all over the place. But, look at column (1): A perfect 1.00 R-squared. Could it be that Gutiérrez and Philippon’s statistical model has (almost) as many parameters as variables?

Notice that all the regressions with an R-squared of 0.9 or higher include country fixed effects. The two regressions with R-squareds of 0.95 and 0.96 also include country-industry fixed effects. It’s very possible that the regressions results are driven entirely by idiosyncratic differences among countries and industries. 

Gutiérrez and Philippon provide no interpretation for their results in Table 2, but it seems to work like this, using column (1): A 10% increase in the 4-firm concentration ratio (which is different from a 10 percentage point increase), would be associated with a 1.8% increase in prices four years later. So, an increase in CR4 from 20% to 22% (or an increase from 60% to 66%) would be associated with a 1.8% increase in prices over four years, or about 0.4% a year. On the one hand, I just don’t buy it. On the other hand, the effect is so small that it seems economically insignificant. 

I’m sure Gutiérrez and Philippon have put a lot of time into this paper and its revision. But there’s an old saying that the best thing about banging your head against the wall is that it feels so good when it stops. Perhaps, it’s time to stop with this paper and let it “drift” into obscurity.

Municipal broadband has been heavily promoted by its advocates as a potential source of competition against Internet service providers (“ISPs”) with market power. Jonathan Sallet argued in Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, for instance, that municipal broadband has a huge role to play in boosting broadband competition, with attendant lower prices, faster speeds, and economic development. 

Municipal broadband, of course, can mean more than one thing: From “direct consumer” government-run systems, to “open access” where government builds the back-end, but leaves it up to private firms to bring the connections to consumers, to “middle mile” where the government network reaches only some parts of the community but allows private firms to connect to serve other consumers. The focus of this blog post is on the “direct consumer” model.

There have been many economic studies on municipal broadband, both theoretical and empirical. The literature largely finds that municipal broadband poses serious risks to taxpayers, often relies heavily on cross-subsidies from government-owned electric utilities, crowds out private ISP investment in areas it operates, and largely fails the cost-benefit analysis. While advocates have defended municipal broadband on the grounds of its speed, price, and resulting attractiveness to consumers and businesses, others have noted that many of those benefits come at the expense of other parts of the country from which businesses move. 

What this literature has not touched upon is a more fundamental problem: municipal broadband lacks the price signals necessary for economic calculation.. The insights of the Austrian school of economics helps explain why this model is incapable of providing efficient outcomes for society. Rather than creating a valuable source of competition, municipal broadband creates “islands of chaos” undisciplined by the market test of profit-and-loss. As a result, municipal broadband is a poor model for promoting competition and innovation in broadband markets. 

The importance of profit-and-loss to economic calculation

One of the things often assumed away in economic analysis is the very thing the market process depends upon: the discovery of knowledge. Knowledge, in this context, is not the technical knowledge of how to build or maintain a broadband network, but the more fundamental knowledge which is discovered by those exercising entrepreneurial judgment in the marketplace. 

This type of knowledge is dependent on prices throughout the market. In the market process, prices coordinate exchange between market participants without each knowing the full plan of anyone else. For consumers, prices allow for the incremental choices between different options. For producers, prices in capital markets similarly allow for choices between different ways of producing their goods for the next stage of production. Prices in interest rates help coordinate present consumption, investment, and saving. And, the price signal of profit-and-loss allows producers to know whether they have cost-effectively served consumer needs. 

The broadband marketplace can’t be considered in isolation from the greater marketplace in which it is situated. But it can be analyzed under the framework of prices and the knowledge they convey.

For broadband consumers, prices are important for determining the relative importance of Internet access compared to other felt needs. The quality of broadband connection demanded by consumers is dependent on the price. All other things being equal, consumers demand faster connections with less latency issues. But many consumers may prefer slower speeds and connections with more latency if it is cheaper. Even choices between the importance of upload speeds versus download speeds may be highly asymmetrical if determined by consumers.  

While “High Performance Broadband for All” may be a great goal from a social planner’s perspective, individuals acting in the marketplace may prioritize other needs with his or her scarce resources. Even if consumers do need Internet access of some kind, the benefits of 100 Mbps download speeds over 25 Mbps, or upload speeds of 100 Mbps versus 3 Mbps may not be worth the costs. 

For broadband ISPs, prices for capital goods are important for building out the network. The relative prices of fiber, copper, wireless, and all the other factors of production in building out a network help them choose in light of anticipated profit. 

All the decisions of broadband ISPs are made through the lens of pursuing profit. If they are successful, it is because the revenues generated are greater than the costs of production, including the cost of money represented in interest rates. Just as importantly, loss shows the ISPs were unsuccessful in cost-effectively serving consumers. While broadband companies may be able to have losses over some period of time, they ultimately must turn a profit at some point, or there will be exit from the marketplace. Profit-and-loss both serve important functions.

Sallet misses the point when he states the“full value of broadband lies not just in the number of jobs it directly creates or the profits it delivers to broadband providers but also in its importance as a mechanism that others use across the economy and society.” From an economic point of view, profits aren’t important because economists love it when broadband ISPs get rich. Profits are important as an incentive to build the networks we all benefit from, and a signal for greater competition and innovation.

Municipal broadband as islands of chaos

Sallet believes the lack of high-speed broadband (as he defines it) is due to the monopoly power of broadband ISPs. He sees the entry of municipal broadband as pro-competitive. But the entry of a government-run broadband company actually creates “islands of chaos” within the market economy, reducing the ability of prices to coordinate disparate plans of action among participants. This, ultimately, makes society poorer.

The case against municipal broadband doesn’t rely on greater knowledge of how to build or maintain a network being in the hands of private engineers. It relies instead on the different institutional frameworks within which the manager of the government-run broadband network works as compared to the private broadband ISP. The type of knowledge gained in the market process comes from prices, including profit-and-loss. The manager of the municipal broadband network simply doesn’t have access to this knowledge and can’t calculate the best course of action as a result.

This is because the government-run municipal broadband network is not reliant upon revenues generated by free choices of consumers alone. Rather than needing to ultimately demonstrate positive revenue in order to remain a going concern, government-run providers can instead base their ongoing operation on access to below-market loans backed by government power, cross-subsidies when it is run by a government electric utility, and/or public money in the form of public borrowing (i.e. bonds) or taxes. 

Municipal broadband, in fact, does rely heavily on subsidies from the government. As a result, municipal broadband is not subject to the discipline of the market’s profit-and-loss test. This frees the enterprise to focus on other goals, including higher speeds—especially upload speeds—and lower prices than private ISPs often offer in the same market. This is why municipal broadband networks build symmetrical high-speed fiber networks at higher rates than the private sector.

But far from representing a superior source of “competition,” municipal broadband is actually an example of “predatory entry.” In areas where there is already private provision of broadband, municipal broadband can “out-compete” those providers due to subsidies from the rest of society. Eventually, this could lead to exit by the private ISPs, starting with the least cost-efficient to the most. In areas where there is limited provision of Internet access, the entry of municipal broadband could reduce incentives for private entry altogether. In either case, there is little reason to believe municipal broadband actually increases consumer welfarein the long run.

Moreover, there are serious concerns in relying upon municipal broadband for the buildout of ISP networks. While Sallet describes fiber as “future-proof,” there is little reason to think that it is. The profit motive induces broadband ISPs to constantly innovate and improve their networks. Contrary to what you would expect from an alleged monopoly industry, broadband companies are consistently among the highest investors in the American economy. Similar incentives would not apply to municipal broadband, which lacks the profit motive to innovate. 

Conclusion

There is a definite need to improve public policy to promote more competition in broadband markets. But municipal broadband is not the answer. The lack of profit-and-loss prevents the public manager of municipal broadband from having the price signal necessary to know it is serving the public cost-effectively. No amount of bureaucratic management can replace the institutional incentives of the marketplace.

As Thomas Sowell has noted many times, political debates often involve the use of words which if taken literally mean something very different than the connotations which are conveyed. Examples abound in the debate about broadband buildout. 

There is a general consensus on the need to subsidize aspects of broadband buildout to rural areas in order to close the digital divide. But this real need allows for strategic obfuscation of key terms in this debate by parties hoping to achieve political or competitive gain. 

“Access” and “high-speed broadband”

For instance, nearly everyone would agree that Internet policy should “promote access to high-speed broadband.” But how some academics and activists define “access” and “high-speed broadband” are much different than the average American would expect.

A commonsense definition of access is that consumers have the ability to buy broadband sufficient to meet their needs, considering the costs and benefits they face. In the context of the digital divide between rural and urban areas, the different options available to consumers in each area is a reflection of the very real costs and other challenges of providing service. In rural areas with low population density, it costs broadband providers considerably more per potential subscriber to build the infrastructure needed to provide service. At some point, depending on the technology, it is no longer profitable to build out to the next customer several miles down the road. The options and prices available to rural consumers reflects this unavoidable fact. Holding price constant, there is no doubt that many rural consumers would prefer higher speeds than are currently available to them. But this is not the real-world choice which presents itself. 

But access in this debate instead means the availability of the same broadband options regardless of where people live. Rather than being seen as a reflection of underlying economic realities, the fact that rural Americans do not have the same options available to them that urban Americans do is seen as a problem which calls out for a political solution. Thus, billions of dollars are spent in an attempt to “close the digital divide” by subsidizing broadband providers to build infrastructure to  rural areas. 

“High-speed broadband” similarly has a meaning in this debate significantly different from what many consumers, especially those lacking “high speed” service, expect. For consumers, fast enough is what allows them to use the Internet in the ways they desire. What is fast enough does change over time as more and more uses for the Internet become common. This is why the FCC has changed the technical definition of broadband multiple times over the years as usage patterns and bandwidth requirements change. Currently, the FCC uses 25Mbps down/3 Mbps up as the baseline for broadband.

However, for some, like Jonathan Sallet, this is thoroughly insufficient. In his Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, he instead proposes “100 Mbps symmetrical service without usage limits.” The disconnect between consumer demand as measured in the marketplace in light of real trade-offs between cost and performance and this arbitrary number is not well-explained in this study. The assumption is simply that faster is better, and that the building of faster networks is a mere engineering issue once sufficiently funded and executed with enough political will.

But there is little evidence that consumers “need” faster Internet than the market is currently providing. In fact, one Wall Street Journal study suggests “typical U.S. households don’t use most of their bandwidth while streaming and get marginal gains from upgrading speeds.” Moreover, there is even less evidence that most consumers or businesses need anything close to upload speeds of 100 Mbps. For even intensive uses like high-resolution live streaming, recommended upload speeds still fall far short of 100 Mbps. 

“Competition” and “Overbuilding”

Similarly, no one objects to the importance of “competition in the broadband marketplace.” But what is meant by this term is subject to vastly different interpretations.

The number of competitors is not the same as the amount of competition. Competition is a process by which market participants discover the best way to serve consumers at lowest cost. Specific markets are often subject to competition not only from the firms which exist within those markets, but also from potential competitors who may enter the market any time potential profits reach a point high enough to justify the costs of entry. An important inference from this is that temporary monopolies, in the sense that one firm has a significant share of the market, is not in itself illegal under antitrust law, even if they are charging monopoly prices. Potential entry is as real in its effects as actual competitors in forcing incumbents to continue to innovate and provide value to consumers. 

However, many assume the best way to encourage competition in broadband buildout is to simply promote more competitors. A significant portion of Broadband for America’s Future emphasizes the importance of subsidizing new competition in order to increase buildout, increase quality, and bring down prices. In particular, Sallet emphasizes the benefits of municipal broadband, i.e. when local governments build and run their own networks. 

In fact, Sallet argues that fears of “overbuilding” are really just fears of competition by incumbent broadband ISPs:

Language here is important. There is a tendency to call the construction of new, competitive networks in a locality with an existing network “overbuilding”—as if it were an unnecessary thing, a useless piece of engineering. But what some call “overbuilding” should be called by a more familiar term: “Competition.” “Overbuilding” is an engineering concept; “competition” is an economic concept that helps consumers because it shifts the focus from counting broadband networks to counting the dollars that consumers save when they have competitive choices. The difference is fundamental—overbuilding asks whether the dollars spent to build another network are necessary for the delivery of a communications service; economics asks whether spending those dollars will lead to competition that allows consumers to spend less and get more. 

Sallet makes two rhetorical moves here to make his argument. 

The first is redefining “overbuilding,” which refers to literally building a new network on top of (that is, “over”) previously built architecture, as a ploy by ISPs to avoid competition. But this is truly Orwellian. When a new entrant can build over an incumbent and take advantage of the first-mover’s investments to enter at a lower cost, a failure to compensate the first-mover is free riding. If the government compels such free riding, it reduces incentives for firms to make the initial investment to build the infrastructure.

The second is defining competition as the number of competitors, even if those competitors need to be subsidized by the government in order to enter the marketplace.  

But there is no way to determine the “right” number of competitors in a given market in advance. In the real world, markets don’t match blackboard descriptions of perfect competition. In fact, there are sometimes high fixed costs which limit the number of firms which will likely exist in a competitive market. In some markets, known as natural monopolies, high infrastructural costs and other barriers to entry relative to the size of the market lead to a situation where it is cheaper for a monopoly to provide a good or service than multiple firms in a market. But it is important to note that only firms operating under market pressures can assess the viability of competition. This is why there is a significant risk in government subsidizing entry. 

Competition drives sustained investment in the capital-intensive architecture of broadband networks, which suggests that ISPs are not natural monopolies. If they were, then having a monopoly provider regulated by the government to ensure the public interest, or government-run broadband companies, may make sense. In fact, Sallet denies ISPs are natural monopolies, stating that “the history of telecommunications regulation in the United States suggests that monopolies were a result of policy choices, not mandated by any iron law of economics” and “it would be odd for public policy to treat the creation of a monopoly as a success.” 

As noted by economist George Ford in his study, The Impact of Government-Owned Broadband Networks on Private Investment and Consumer Welfare, unlike the threat of entry which often causes incumbents to act competitively even in the absence of competitors, the threat of subsidized entry reduces incentives for private entities to invest in those markets altogether. This includes both the incentive to build the network and update it. Subsidized entry may, in fact, tip the scales from competition that promotes consumer welfare to that which could harm it. If the market only profitably sustains one or two competitors, adding another through municipal broadband or subsidizing a new entrant may reduce the profitability of the incumbent(s) and eventually lead to exit. When this happens, only the government-run or subsidized network may survive because the subsidized entrant is shielded from the market test of profit-and-loss.

The “Donut Hole” Problem

The term “donut hole” is a final example to consider of how words can be used to confuse rather than enlighten in this debate.

There is broad agreement that to generate the positive externalities from universal service, there needs to be subsidies for buildout to high-cost rural areas. However, this seeming agreement masks vastly different approaches. 

For instance, some critics of the current subsidy approach have identified a phenomenon where the city center has multiple competitive ISPs and government policy extends subsidies to ISPs to build out broadband coverage into rural areas, but there is relatively paltry Internet services in between due to a lack of private or public investment. They describe this as a “donut hole” because the “unserved” rural areas receive subsidies while “underserved” outlying parts immediately surrounding town centers receive nothing under current policy.

Conceptually, this is not a donut hole. It is actually more like a target or bullseye, where the city center is served by private investment and the rural areas receive subsidies to be served. 

Indeed, there is a different use of the term donut hole, which describes how public investment in city centers can create a donut hole of funding needed to support rural build-out. Most Internet providers rely on profits from providing lower-cost service to higher-population areas (like city centers) to cross-subsidize the higher cost of providing service in outlying and rural areas. But municipal providers generally only provide municipal service — they only provide lower-cost service. This hits the carriers that serve higher-cost areas with a double whammy. First, every customer that municipal providers take from private carriers cuts the revenue that those carriers rely on to provide service elsewhere. Second, and even more problematic, because the municipal providers have lower costs (because they tend not to serve the higher-cost outlying areas), they can offer lower prices for service. This “competition” exerts downward pressure on the private firms’ prices, further reducing revenue across their entire in-town customer base. 

This version of the “donut hole,” in which the revenues that private firms rely on from the city center to support the costs of providing service to outlying areas has two simultaneous effects. First, it directly reduces the funding available to serve more rural areas. And, second, it increases the average cost of providing service across its network (because it is no longer recovering as much of its costs from the lower-cost city core), which increases the prices that need to be charged to rural users in order to justify offering service at all.

Conclusion

Overcoming the problem of the rural digital divide starts with understanding why it exists. It is simply more expensive to build networks in areas with low population density. If universal service is the goal, subsidies, whether explicit subsidies from government or implicit cross-subsidies by broadband companies, are necessary to build out to these areas. But obfuscations about increasing “access to high-speed broadband” by promoting “competition” shouldn’t control the debate.

Instead, there needs to be a nuanced understanding of how government-subsidized entry into the broadband marketplace can discourage private investment and grow the size of the “donut hole,” thereby leading to demand for even greater subsidies. Policymakers should avoid exacerbating the digital divide by prioritizing subsidized competition over market processes.

In the face of an unprecedented surge of demand for bandwidth as Americans responded to COVID-19, the nation’s Internet infrastructure delivered for urban and rural users alike. In fact, since the crisis began in March, there has been no appreciable degradation in either the quality or availability of service. That success story is as much about the network’s robust technical capabilities as it is about the competitive environment that made the enormous private infrastructure investments to build the network possible.

Yet, in spite of that success, calls to blind ISP pricing models to the bandwidth demands of users by preventing firms from employing “usage-based billing” (UBB) have again resurfaced. Today those demands are arriving in two waves: first, in the context of a petition by Charter Communications to employ the practice as the conditions of its merger with Time Warner Cable become ripe for review; and second in the form of complaints about ISPs re-imposing UBB following an end to the voluntary temporary halting of the practice during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic — a move that was an expansion by ISPs of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge championed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

In particular, critics believe they have found clear evidence to support their repeated claims that UBB isn’t necessary for network management purposes as (they assert) ISPs have long claimed.  Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch, for example, recently asserted that:

caps are completely unnecessary, existing only as a way to squeeze more money from subscribers. Data caps just don’t matter any more…. Think about it: If the internet provider can even temporarily lift the data caps, then there is definitively enough capacity for the network to be used without those caps. If there’s enough capacity, then why did the caps exist in the first place? Answer: Because they make money.

The thing is, though, ISPs did not claim that UBB was about the day-to-day “manage[ment of] network loads.” Indeed, the network management strawman has taken on a life of its own. It turns out that if you follow the thread of articles in an attempt to substantiate the claim (for instance: here, to here, to here, to here), it is just a long line of critics citing to each other’s criticisms of this purported claim by ISPs. But never do they cite to the ISPs themselves making this assertion — only to instances where ISPs offer completely different explanations, coupled with the critics’ claims that such examples show only that ISPs are now changing their tune. In reality, the imposition of usage-based billing is, and has always been, a basic business decision — as it is for every other company that uses it (which is to say: virtually all companies).

What’s UBB really about?

For critics, however, UBB is never just a “basic business decision.” Rather, the only conceivable explanations for UBB are network management and extraction of money. There is no room in this conception of the practice for perfectly straightforward pricing decisions that offer pricing that differs by customers’ usage of the services. Nor does this viewpoint recognize the importance of these pricing practices for long-term network cultivation in the form of investment in increasing capacity to meet the increased demands generated by users.

But to disregard these actual reasons for the use of UBB is to ignore what is economically self-evident.

In simple terms, UBB allows networks to charge heavy users more, thereby enabling them to recover more costs from these users and to keep prices lower for everyone else. In effect, UBB ensures that the few heaviest users subsidize the vast majority of other users, rather than the other way around.

A flat-rate pricing mandate wouldn’t allow pricing structures based on cost recovery. In such a world an ISP couldn’t simply offer a lower price to lighter users for a basic tier and rely on higher revenues from the heaviest users to cover the costs of network investment. Instead, it would have to finance its ability to improve its network to meet the needs of the most demanding users out of higher prices charged to all users, including the least demanding users that make up the vast majority of users on networks today (for example, according to Comcast, 95 percent of its  subscribers use less than 1.2 TB of data monthly).

On this basis, UBB is a sensible (and equitable, as some ISPs note) way to share the cost of building, maintaining, and upgrading the nation’s networks that simultaneously allows ISPs to react to demand changes in the market while enabling consumers to purchase a tier of service commensurate with their level of use. Indeed, charging customers based on the quality and/or amount of a product they use is a benign, even progressive, practice that insulates the majority of consumers from the obligation to cross-subsidize the most demanding customers.

Objections to the use of UBB fall generally into two categories. One stems from the sort of baseline policy misapprehension that it is needed to manage the network, but that fallacy is dispelled above. The other is borne of a simple lack of familiarity with the practice.

Consider that, in the context of Internet services, broadband customers are accustomed to the notion that access to greater data speed is more costly than the alternative, but are underexposed to the related notion of charging based upon broadband data consumption. Below, we’ll discuss the prevalence of UBB across sectors, how it works in the context of broadband Internet service, and the ultimate benefit associated with allowing for a diversity of pricing models among ISPs.

Usage-based pricing in other sectors

To nobody’s surprise, usage-based pricing is common across all sectors of the economy. Anything you buy by the unit, or by weight, is subject to “usage-based pricing.” Thus, this is how we buy apples from the grocery store and gasoline for our cars.

Usage-based pricing need not always be so linear, either. In the tech sector, for instance, when you hop in a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft, you’re charged a base fare, plus a rate that varies according to the distance of your trip. By the same token, cloud storage services like Dropbox and Box operate under a “freemium” model in which a basic amount of storage and services is offered for free, while access to higher storage tiers and enhanced services costs increasingly more. In each case the customer is effectively responsible (at least in part) for supporting the service to the extent of her use of its infrastructure.

Even in sectors in which virtually all consumers are obligated to purchase products and where regulatory scrutiny is profound — as is the case with utilities and insurance — non-linear and usage-based pricing are still common. That’s because customers who use more electricity or who drive their vehicles more use a larger fraction of shared infrastructure, whether physical conduits or a risk-sharing platform. The regulators of these sectors recognize that tremendous public good is associated with the persistence of utility and insurance products, and that fairly apportioning the costs of their operations requires differentiating between customers on the basis of their use. In point of fact (as we’ve known at least since Ronald Coase pointed it out in 1946), the most efficient and most equitable pricing structure for such products is a two-part tariff incorporating both a fixed, base rate, as well as a variable charge based on usage.  

Pricing models that don’t account for the extent of customer use are vanishingly rare. “All-inclusive” experiences like Club Med or the Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet are the exception and not the rule when it comes to consumer goods. And it is well-understood that such examples adopt effectively regressive pricing — charging everyone a high enough price to ensure that they earn sufficient return from the vast majority of light eaters to offset the occasional losses from the gorgers. For most eaters, in other words, a buffet lunch tends to cost more and deliver less than a menu-based lunch. 

All of which is to say that the typical ISP pricing model — in which charges are based on a generous, and historically growing, basic tier coupled with an additional charge that increases with data use that exceeds the basic allotment — is utterly unremarkable. Rather, the mandatory imposition of uniform or flat-fee pricing would be an aberration.

Aligning network costs with usage

Throughout its history, Internet usage has increased constantly and often dramatically. This ever-growing need has necessitated investment in US broadband infrastructure running into the tens of billions annually. Faced with the need for this investment, UBB is a tool that helps to equitably align network costs with different customers’ usage levels in a way that promotes both access and resilience.

As President Obama’s first FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, put it:

Our work has also demonstrated the importance of business innovation to promote network investment and efficient use of networks, including measures to match price to cost such as usage-based pricing.

Importantly, it is the marginal impact of the highest-usage customers that drives a great deal of those network investment costs. In the case of one ISP, a mere 5 percent of residential users make up over 20 percent of its network usage. Necessarily then, in the absence of UBB and given the constant need for capacity expansion, uniform pricing would typically act to disadvantage low-volume customers and benefit high-volume customers.

Even Tom Wheeler — President Obama’s second FCC Chairman and the architect of utility-style regulation of ISPs — recognized this fact and chose to reject proposals to ban UBB in the 2015 Open Internet Order, explaining that:

[P]rohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks. (emphasis added)

When it comes to expanding Internet connectivity, the policy ramifications of uniform pricing are regressive. As such, they run counter to the stated goals of policymakers across the political spectrum insofar as they deter low-volume users — presumably, precisely the marginal users who may be disinclined to subscribe in the first place —  from subscribing by saddling them with higher prices than they would face with capacity pricing. Closing the digital divide means supporting the development of a network that is at once sustainable and equitable on the basis of its scope and use. Mandated uniform pricing accomplishes neither.

Of similarly profound importance is the need to ensure that Internet infrastructure is ready for demand shocks, as we saw with the COVID-19 crisis. Linking pricing to usage gives ISPs the incentive and wherewithal to build and maintain high-capacity networks to cater to the ever-growing expectations of high-volume users, while also encouraging the adoption of network efficiencies geared towards conserving capacity (e.g., caching, downloading at off-peak hours rather than streaming during peak periods).

Contrary to the claims of some that the success of ISPs’ networks during the COVID-19 crisis shows that UBB is unnecessary and extractive, the recent increases in network usage (which may well persist beyond the eventual end of the crisis) demonstrate the benefits of nonlinear pricing models like UBB. Indeed, the consistent efforts to build out the network to serve high-usage customers, funded in part by UBB, redounds not only to the advantage of abnormal users in regular times, but also to the advantage of regular users in abnormal times.

The need for greater capacity along with capacity-conserving efficiencies has been underscored by the scale of the demand shock among high-load users resulting from COVID-19. According to OpenVault, a data use tracking service, the number of “power users” and “extreme power users” utilizing 1TB/month or more and 2TB/month or more jumped 138 percent and 215 percent respectively. Meaning that now, in total, power users represent 10 percent of subscribers across the network, while extreme power users comprise 1.2 percent of subscribers.

Pricing plans predicated on load volume necessarily evolve along with network capacity, but at this moment the application of UBB for monthly loads above 1TB ensures that ISPs maintain an incentive to cater to power users and extreme power users alike. In doing so, ISPs are also ensuring that all users are protected when the Internet’s next abnormal — but, sadly, predictable — event arrives.

At the same time, UBB also helps to facilitate the sort of customer-side network efficiencies that may emerge as especially important during times of abnormally elevated demand. Customers’ usage need not be indifferent to the value of the data they use, and usage-based pricing helps to ensure that data usage aligns not only with costs but also with the data’s value to consumers. In this way the behavior of both ISPs and customers will better reflect the objective realities of the nations’ networks and their limits.

The case for pricing freedom

Finally, it must be noted that ISPs are not all alike, and that the market sustains a range of pricing models across ISPs according to what suits their particular business models, network characteristics, load capacity, and user types (among other things). Consider that even ISPs that utilize UBB almost always offer unlimited data products, while some ISPs choose to adopt uniform pricing to differentiate their offerings. In fact, at least one ISP has moved to uniform billing in light of COVID-19 to provide their customers with “certainty” about their bills.

The mistake isn’t in any given ISP electing a uniform billing structure or a usage-based billing structure; rather it is in proscribing the use of a single pricing structure for all ISPs. Claims that such price controls are necessary because consumers are harmed by UBB ignore its prevalence across the economy, its salutary effect on network access and resilience, and the manner in which it promotes affordability and a sensible allocation of cost recovery across consumers.

Moreover, network costs and traffic demand patterns are dynamic, and the availability of UBB — among other pricing schemes — also allows ISPs to tailor their offerings to those changing conditions in a manner that differentiates them from their competitors. In doing so, those offerings are optimized to be attractive in the moment, while still facilitating network maintenance and expansion in the future.

Where economically viable, more choice is always preferable. The notion that consumers will somehow be harmed if they get to choose Internet services based not only on speed, but also load, is a specious product of the confused and the unfamiliar. The sooner the stigma around UBB is overcome, the better-off the majority of US broadband customers will be.

Every 5 years, Congress has to reauthorize the sunsetting provisions of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA). And the deadline for renewing the law is quickly approaching (Dec. 31). While sunsetting is, in the abstract, seemingly a good thing to ensure rules don’t become outdated, there are an interlocking set of interest groups who, generally speaking, only support reauthorizing the law because they are locked in a regulatory stalemate. STELA no longer represents an optimal outcome for many if not most of the affected parties. The time is now for finally allowing STELA to sunset, and using this occasion to further reform the underlying regulatory morass it is built upon.

Since the creation of STELA in 1988, much has changed in the marketplace. At the time of the 1992 Cable Act (the first year data from the FCC’s Video Competition Reports is available), cable providers served 95% of multichannel video subscribers. Now, the power of cable has waned to the extent that 2 of the top 4 multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) are satellite providers, without even considering the explosion in competition from online video distributors like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Given these developments, Congress should reconsider whether STELA is necessary at all, along with the whole complex regulatory structure undergirding it, and consider the relative simplicity with which copyright and antitrust law are capable of adequately facilitating the market for broadcast content negotiations. An approach building upon that contemplated in the bipartisan Modern Television Act of 2019 by Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA)—which would repeal the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime for both cable and satellite—would be a step in the right direction.

A brief history of STELA

STELA, originally known as the 1988 Satellite Home Viewer Act, was originally justified as necessary to promote satellite competition against incumbent cable networks and to give satellite companies stronger negotiating positions against network broadcasters. In particular, the goal was to give satellite providers the ability to transmit terrestrial network broadcasts to subscribers. To do this, this regulatory structure modified the Communications Act and the Copyright Act. 

With the 1988 Satellite Home Viewer Act, Congress created a compulsory license for satellite retransmissions under Section 119 of the Copyright Act. This compulsory license provision mandated, just as the Cable Act did for cable providers, that satellite would have the right to certain network broadcast content in exchange for a government-set price (despite the fact that local network affiliates don’t necessarily own the copyrights themselves). The retransmission consent provision requires satellite providers (and cable providers under the Cable Act) to negotiate with network broadcasters for the fee to be paid for the right to network broadcast content. 

Alternatively, broadcasters can opt to impose must-carry provisions on cable and satellite  in lieu of retransmission consent negotiations. These provisions require satellite and cable operators to carry many channels from network broadcasters in order to have access to their content. As ICLE President Geoffrey Manne explained to Congress previously:

The must-carry rules require that, for cable providers offering 12 or more channels in their basic tier, at least one-third of these be local broadcast retransmissions. The forced carriage of additional, less-favored local channels results in a “tax on capacity,” and at the margins causes a reduction in quality… In the end, must-carry rules effectively transfer significant programming decisions from cable providers to broadcast stations, to the detriment of consumers… Although the ability of local broadcasters to opt in to retransmission consent in lieu of must-carry permits negotiation between local broadcasters and cable providers over the price of retransmission, must-carry sets a floor on this price, ensuring that payment never flows from broadcasters to cable providers for carriage, even though for some content this is surely the efficient transaction.

The essential question about the reauthorization of STELA regards the following provisions: 

  1. an exemption from retransmission consent requirements for satellite operators for the carriage of distant network signals to “unserved households” while maintaining the compulsory license right for those signals (modification of the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime);
  2. the prohibition on exclusive retransmission consent contracts between MVPDs and network broadcasters (per se ban on a business model); and
  3. the requirement that television broadcast stations and MVPDs negotiate in good faith (nebulous negotiating standard reviewed by FCC).

This regulatory scheme was supposed to sunset after 5 years. Instead of actually sunsetting, Congress has consistently reauthorized STELA ( in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2010, and 2014).

Each time, satellite companies like DirecTV & Dish Network, as well as interest groups representing rural customers who depend heavily on satellite for cable television, strongly supported the renewal of the legislation. Over time, though, the reauthorization has led to amendments supported by major players from each side of the negotiating table and broad support for what is widely considered “must-pass” legislation. In other words, every affected industry found something they liked about the compromise legislation.

As it stands, the sunset provision of STELA has meant that it gives each side negotiating leverage during the next round of reauthorization talks, and often concessions are drawn. But rather than simplifying this regulatory morass, STELA reauthorization simply extends rules that have outlived their purpose.

Current marketplace competition undermines the necessity of STELA reauthorization

The marketplace is very different in 2019 than it was when STELA’s predecessors were adopted and reauthorized. No longer is it the case that cable dominates and that satellite and other providers need a leg up just to compete. Moreover, there are now services that didn’t even exist when the STELA framework was first developed. Competition is thriving.

Wikipedia:

RankServiceSubscribersProviderType
1.Xfinity21,986,000ComcastCable
2.DirecTV19,222,000AT&TSatellite
3.Spectrum16,606,000CharterCable
4.Dish9,905,000Dish NetworkSatellite
5.Verizon Fios TV4,451,000VerizonFiber-Optic
6.Cox Cable TV4,015,000Cox EnterprisesCable
7.U-Verse TV3,704,000AT&TFiber-Optic
8.Optimum/Suddenlink3,307,500Altice USACable
9.Sling TV*2,417,000Dish NetworkLive Streaming
10.Hulu with Live TV2,000,000Hulu(Disney, Comcast, AT&T)Live Streaming
11.DirecTV Now1,591,000AT&TLive Streaming
12.YouTube TV1,000,000Google(Alphabet)Live Streaming
13.Frontier FiOS838,000FrontierFiber-Optic
14.Mediacom776,000MediacomCable
15.PlayStation Vue500,000SonyLive Streaming
16.CableOne Cable TV326,423Cable OneCable
17.FuboTV250,000FuboTVLive Streaming

A 2018 accounting of the largest MVPDs by subscribers shows that satellite is 2 of the top 4, and that over-the-top services like Sling TV, Hulu with LiveTV, and YouTube TV are gaining significantly. And this does not even consider (non-live) streaming services such as Netflix (approximately 60 million US subscribers), Hulu (about 28 million US subscribers) and Amazon Prime Video (which has about 40 million users in the US). It is not clear from these numbers that satellite needs special rules in order to compete with cable, or that the complex regulatory regime underlying STELA is necessary anymore.

On the contrary, there seems to be a lot of reason to believe that content is king, and the market for the distribution of that content is thriving. Competition among platforms is intense, not only among MVPDs like Comcast, DirecTV, Charter, and Dish Network, but from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and HBONow. Distribution networks heavily invest in exclusive content to attract consumers. There is no reason to think that we need selective forbearance from the byzantine regulations in this space in order to promote satellite adoption when satellite companies are just as good as any at contracting for high-demand content (for instance DirecTV with NFL Sunday Ticket). 

A better way forward: Streamlined regulation in the form of copyright and antitrust

As Geoffrey Manne said in his Congressional testimony on STELA reauthorization back in 2013: 

behind all these special outdated regulations are laws of general application that govern the rest of the economy: antitrust and copyright. These are better, more resilient rules. They are simple rules for a complex world. They will stand up far better as video technology evolves–and they don’t need to be sunsetted.

Copyright law establishes clearly defined rights, thereby permitting efficient bargaining between content owners and distributors. But under the compulsory license system, the copyright holders’ right to a performance license is fundamentally abridged. Retransmission consent normally requires fees to be paid for the content that MVPDs have available to them. But STELA exempts certain network broadcasts (“distant signals” for “unserved households”) from retransmission consent requirements. This reduces incentives to develop content subject to STELA, which at the margin harms both content creators and viewers. It also gives satellite an unfair advantage vis-a-vis cable in those cases it does not need to pay ever-rising retransmission consent fees. Ironically, it also reduces the incentive for satellite providers (DirecTV, at least) to work to provide local content to some rural consumers. Congress should reform the law to allow copyright holders to have their full rights under the Copyright Act again. Congress should also repeal the compulsory license and must-carry provisions that work at cross-purposes and allow true marketplace negotiations.

The initial allocation of property rights guaranteed under copyright law would allow for MVPDs, including satellite providers, to negotiate with copyright holders for content, and thereby realize a more efficient set of content distribution outcomes than is otherwise possible. Under the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime underlying both STELA and the Cable Act, the outcomes at best approximate those that would occur through pure private ordering but in most cases lead to economically inefficient results because of the thumb on the scale in favor of the broadcasters. 

In a similar way, just as copyright law provides a superior set of bargaining conditions for content negotiation, antitrust law provides a superior mechanism for policing potentially problematic conduct between the firms involved. Under STELA, the FCC polices transactions with a “good faith” standard. In an important sense, this ambiguous regulatory discretion provides little information to prospective buyers and sellers of licenses as to what counts as “good faith” negotiations (aside from the specific practices listed).

By contrast, antitrust law, guided by the consumer welfare standard and decades of case law, is designed both to deter potential anticompetitive foreclosure and also to provide a clear standard for firms engaged in the marketplace. The effect of relying on antitrust law to police competitive harms is — as the name of the standard suggest — a net increase in the welfare of consumers, the ultimate beneficiaries of a well functioning market. 

For instance, consider a hypothetical dispute between a network broadcaster and a satellite provider. Under the FCC’s “good faith” oversight, bargaining disputes, which are increasingly resulting in blackouts, are reviewed for certain negotiating practices deemed to be unfair, 47 CFR § 76.65(b)(1), and by a more general “totality of the circumstances” standard, 47 CFR § 76.65(b)(2). This is both over- and under-inclusive as the negotiating practices listed in (b)(1) may have procompetitive benefits in certain circumstances, and the (b)(2) totality of the circumstances standard is vague and ill-defined. By comparison, antitrust claims would be adjudicated through a foreseeable process with reference to a consumer welfare standard illuminated by economic evidence and case law.

If a satellite provider alleges anticompetitive foreclosure by a refusal to license, its claims would be subject to analysis under the Sherman Act. In order to prove its case, it would need to show that the network broadcaster has power in a properly defined market and is using that market power to foreclose competition by leveraging its ownership over network content to the detriment of consumer welfare. A court would then analyze whether this refusal of a duty to deal is a violation of antitrust law under the Trinko and Aspen Skiing standards. Economic evidence would need to be introduced that supports the allegation. 

And, critically, in this process, the defendants would be entitled to raise evidence in their case — both evidence suggesting that there was no foreclosure, as well as evidence of procompetitive justifications for decisions that otherwise may be considered foreclosure. Ultimately, a court, bound by established, nondiscretionary standards would weigh the evidence and make a determination. It is, of course, possible, that a review for “good faith” conduct could reach the correct result, but there is simply not a similarly rigorous process available to consistently push it in that direction.

The above-mentioned Modern Television Act of 2019 does represent a step in the right direction, as it would repeal the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime applied to both cable and satellite operators. However, it is imperfect as it does leave must carry requirements in place for local content and retains the “good faith” negotiating standard to be enforced by the FCC. 

Expiration is better than the status quo even if fundamental reform is not possible

Some scholars who have written on this issue, and very much agree that fundamental reform is needed, nonetheless argue that STELA should be renewed if more fundamental reforms like those described above can’t be achieved. For instance, George Ford recently wrote that 

With limited days left in the legislative calendar before STELAR expires, there is insufficient time for a sensible solution to this complex issue. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has offered a “clean” STELAR reauthorization bill to maintain the status quo, which would provide Congress with some much-needed breathing room to begin tackling the gnarly issue of how broadcast signals can be both widely retransmitted and compensated. Congress and the Trump administration should welcome this opportunity.

However, even in a world without more fundamental reform, it is not clear that satellite needs distant signals in order to compete with cable. The number of “short markets”—i.e. those without access to all four local network broadcasts—implicated by the loss of distant signals is relatively few. Regardless of how bad the overall regulatory scheme needs to be updated, it makes no sense to continue to preserve STELA’s provisions that benefit satellite when it is no longer necessary on competition grounds.

Conclusion

Congress should not only let STELA sunset, but it should consider reforming the entire compulsory license/retransmission consent regime as the Modern Television Act of 2019 aims to do. In fact, reformers should look to go even further in repealing must-carry provisions and the good faith negotiating standard enforced by the FCC. Copyright and antitrust law are much better rules for this constantly evolving space than the current sector-specific rules. 

For previous work from ICLE on STELA see The Future of Video Marketplace Regulation (written testimony of ICLE President Geoffrey Manne from June 12, 2013) and Joint Comments of ICLE and TechFreedom, In the Matter of STELA Reauthorization and Video Programming Reform (March 19, 2014). 

On March 19-20, 2020, the University of Nebraska College of Law will be hosting its third annual roundtable on closing the digital divide. UNL is expanding its program this year to include a one-day roundtable that focuses on the work of academics and researchers who are conducting empirical studies of the rural digital divide. 

Academics and researchers interested in having their work featured in this event are now invited to submit pieces for consideration. Submissions should be submitted by November 18th, 2019 using this form. The authors of papers and projects selected for inclusion will be notified by December 9, 2019. Research honoraria of up to $5,000 may be awarded for selected projects.

Example topics include cost studies of rural wireless deployments, comparative studies of the effects of ACAM funding, event studies of legislative interventions such as allowing customers unserved by carriers in their home exchange to request service from carriers in adjoining exchanges, comparative studies of the effectiveness of various federal and state funding mechanisms, and cost studies of different sorts of municipal deployments. This list is far from exhaustive.

Any questions about this event or the request for projects can be directed to Gus Hurwitz at ghurwitz@unl.edu or Elsbeth Magilton at elsbeth@unl.edu.

Advanced broadband networks, including 5G, fiber, and high speed cable, are hot topics, but little attention is paid to the critical investments in infrastructure necessary to make these networks a reality. Each type of network has its own unique set of challenges to solve, both technically and legally. Advanced broadband delivered over cable systems, for example, not only has to incorporate support and upgrades for the physical infrastructure that facilitates modern high-definition television signals and high-speed Internet service, but also needs to be deployed within a regulatory environment that is fragmented across the many thousands of municipalities in the US. Oftentimes, the complexity of managing such a regulatory environment can be just as difficult as managing the actual provision of service. 

The FCC has taken aim at one of these hurdles with its proposed Third Report and Order on the interpretation of Section 621 of the Cable Act, which is on the agenda for the Commission’s open meeting later this week. The most salient (for purposes of this post) feature of the Order is how the FCC intends to shore up the interpretation of the Cable Act’s limitation on cable franchise fees that municipalities are permitted to levy. 

The Act was passed and later amended in a way that carefully drew lines around the acceptable scope of local franchising authorities’ de facto monopoly power in granting cable franchises. The thrust of the Act was to encourage competition and build-out by discouraging franchising authorities from viewing cable providers as a captive source of unlimited revenue. It did this while also giving franchising authorities the tools necessary to support public, educational, and governmental programming and enabling them to be fairly compensated for use of the public rights of way. Unfortunately, since the 1984 Cable Act was passed, an increasing number of local and state franchising authorities (“LFAs”) have attempted to work around the Act’s careful balance. In particular, these efforts have created two main problems.

First, LFAs frequently attempt to evade the Act’s limitation on franchise fees to five percent of cable revenues by seeking a variety of in-kind contributions from cable operators that impose costs over and above the statutorily permitted five percent limit. LFAs do this despite the plain language of the statute defining franchise fees quite broadly as including any “tax, fee, or assessment of any kind imposed by a franchising authority or any other governmental entity.”

Although not nominally “fees,” such requirements are indisputably “assessments,” and the costs of such obligations are equivalent to the marginal cost of a cable operator providing those “free” services and facilities, as well as the opportunity cost (i.e., the foregone revenue) of using its fixed assets in the absence of a state or local franchise obligation. Any such costs will, to some extent, be passed on to customers as higher subscription prices, reduced quality, or both. By carefully limiting the ability of LFAs to abuse their bargaining position, Congress ensured that they could not extract disproportionate rents from cable operators (and, ultimately, their subscribers).

Second, LFAs also attempt to circumvent the franchise fee cap of five percent of gross cable revenues by seeking additional fees for non-cable services provided over mixed use networks (i.e. imposing additional franchise fees on the provision of broadband and other non-cable services over cable networks). But the statute is similarly clear that LFAs or other governmental entities cannot regulate non-cable services provided via franchised cable systems.

My colleagues and I at ICLE recently filed an ex parte letter on these issues that analyzes the law and economics of both the underlying statute and the FCC’s proposed rulemaking that would affect the interpretation of cable franchise fees. For a variety of reasons set forth in the letter, we believe that the Commission is on firm legal and economic footing to adopt its proposed Order.  

It should be unavailing – and legally irrelevant – to argue, as many LFAs have, that declining cable franchise revenue leaves municipalities with an insufficient source of funds to finance their activities, and thus that recourse to these other sources is required. Congress intentionally enacted the five percent revenue cap to prevent LFAs from relying on cable franchise fees as an unlimited general revenue source. In order to maintain the proper incentives for network buildout — which are ever more-critical as our economy increasingly relies on high-speed broadband networks — the Commission should adopt the proposed Order.

Monday July 22, ICLE filed a regulatory comment arguing the leased access requirements enforced by the FCC are unconstitutional compelled speech that violate the First Amendment. 

When the DC Circuit Court of Appeals last reviewed the constitutionality of leased access rules in Time Warner v. FCC, cable had so-called “bottleneck power” over the marketplace for video programming and, just a few years prior, the Supreme Court had subjected other programming regulations to intermediate scrutiny in Turner v. FCC

Intermediate scrutiny is a lower standard than the strict scrutiny usually required for First Amendment claims. Strict scrutiny requires a regulation of speech to be narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest. Intermediate scrutiny only requires a regulation to further an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and the incidental restriction speech must be no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.

But, since the decisions in Time Warner and Turner, there have been dramatic changes in the video marketplace (including the rise of the Internet!) and cable no longer has anything like “bottleneck power.” Independent programmers have many distribution options to get content to consumers. Since the justification for intermediate scrutiny is no longer an accurate depiction of the competitive marketplace, the leased rules should be subject to strict scrutiny.

And, if subject to strict scrutiny, the leased access rules would not survive judicial review. Even accepting that there is a compelling governmental interest, the rules are not narrowly tailored to that end. Not only are they essentially obsolete in the highly competitive video distribution marketplace, but antitrust law would be better suited to handle any anticompetitive abuses of market power by cable operators. There is no basis for compelling the cable operators to lease some of their channels to unaffiliated programmers.

Our full comments are here

On Monday, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Qualcomm reportedly requested a 30 day delay to a preliminary ruling in their ongoing dispute over the terms of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements–indicating that they may seek a settlement. The dispute raises important issues regarding the scope of so-called FRAND (“fair reasonable and non-discriminatory”) commitments in the context of standards setting bodies and whether these obligations extend to component level licensing in the absence of an express agreement to do so.

At issue is the FTC’s allegation that Qualcomm has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct” that harms its competitors. Underpinning this allegation is the FTC’s claim that Qualcomm’s voluntary contracts with two American standards bodies imply that Qualcomm is obliged to license on the same terms to rival chip makers. In this post, we examine the allegation and the claim upon which it rests.

The recently requested delay relates to a motion for partial summary judgment filed by the FTC on August 30, 2018–about which more below. But the dispute itself stretches back to January 17, 2017, when the FTC filed for a permanent injunction against Qualcomm Inc. for engaging in unfair methods of competition in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act. FTC’s major claims against Qualcomm were as follows:

  • It has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct”  that taxes its competitors’ baseband processor sales, reduces competitors’ ability and incentives to innovate, and raises the prices to be paid by end consumers for cellphones and tablets.  
  • Qualcomm is causing considerable harm to competition and consumers through its “no license, no chips” policy; its refusal to license to its chipset-maker rivals; and its exclusive deals with Apple.
  • The above practices allow Qualcomm to abuse its dominant position in the supply of CDMA and premium LTE modem chips.
  • Given that Qualcomm has made a commitment to standard setting bodies to license these patents on FRAND terms, such behaviour qualifies as a breach of FRAND.

The complaint was filed on the eve of the new presidential administration, when only three of the five commissioners were in place. Moreover, the Commissioners were not unanimous. Commissioner Ohlhausen delivered a dissenting statement in which she argued:

[T]here is no robust economic evidence of exclusion and anticompetitive effects, either as to the complaint’s core “taxation” theory or to associated allegations like exclusive dealing. Instead the Commission speaks about a possibility that less than supports a vague standalone action under a Section 5 FTC claim.

Qualcomm filed a motion to dismiss on April 3, 2017. This was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The court  found that the FTC has adequately alleged that Qualcomm’s conduct violates § 1 and § 2 of the Sherman Act and that it had entered into exclusive dealing arrangements with Apple. Thus, the court asserted, the FTC has adequately stated a claim under § 5 of the FTCA.

It is important to note that the core of the FTC’s arguments regarding Qualcomm’s abuse of dominant position rests on how it adopts the “no license, no chip” policy and thus breaches its FRAND obligations. However, it falls short of proving how the royalties charged by Qualcomm to OEMs exceeds the FRAND rates actually amounting to a breach, and qualifies as what FTC defines as a “tax” under the price squeeze theory that it puts forth.

(The Court did not go into whether there was a violation of § 5 of the FTC independent of a Sherman Act violation. Had it done so, this would have added more clarity to Section 5 claims, which are increasingly being invoked in antitrust cases even though its scope remains quite amorphous.)

On August 30, the FTC filed a partial summary judgement motion in relation to claims on the applicability of local California contract laws. This would leave antitrust issues to be decided in the subsequent hearing, which is set for January next year.

In a well-reasoned submission, the FTC asserts that Qualcomm is bound by voluntary agreements that it signed with two U.S. based standards development organisations (SDOs):

  1. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and
  2. The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS).

These agreements extend to Qualcomm’s standard essential patents (SEPs) on CDMA, UMTS and LTE wireless technologies. Under these contracts, Qualcomm is obligated to license its SEPs to all applicants implementing these standards on FRAND terms.

The FTC asserts that this obligation should be interpreted to extend to Qualcomm’s rival modem chip manufacturers and sellers. It requests the Court to therefore grant a summary judgment since there are no disputed facts on such obligation. It submits that this should “streamline the trial by obviating the need for  extrinsic evidence regarding the meaning of Qualcomm’s commitments on the requirement to license to competitors, to ETSI, a third SDO.”

A review of a heavily redacted filing by FTC and a subsequent response by Qualcomm indicates that questions of fact and law continue to remain as regards Qualcomm’s licensing commitments and their scope. Thus, contrary to the FTC’s assertions, extrinsic evidence is still needed for resolution to some of the questions raised by the parties.

Indeed, the evidence produced by both parties points towards the need for resolution of ambiguities in the contractual agreements that Qualcomm has signed with ATIS and TIA. The scope and purpose of these licensing obligations lie at the core of the motion.

The IP licensing policies of the two SDOs provide for licensing of relevant patents to all applicants who implement these standards on FRAND terms. However, the key issues are whether components such as modem chips can be said to implement standards and whether component level licensing falls within this ambit. Yet, the resolution to these key issues, is unclear.

Qualcomm explains that commitments to ATIS and TIA do not require licenses to be made available for modem chips because modem chips do not implement or practice cellular standards and that standards do not define the operation of modem chips.

In contrast, the complaint by FTC raises the question of whether FRAND commitments extend to licensing at all levels. Different components needed for a device come together to facilitate the adoption and implementation of a standard. However, it does not logically follow that each individual component of the device separately practices or implements that standard even though it contributes to the implementation. While a single component may fully implement a standard, this need not always be the case.

These distinctions are significant from the point of interpreting the scope of the FRAND promise, which is commonly understood to extend to licensing of technologies incorporated in a standard to potential users of the standard. Understanding the meaning of a “user” becomes critical here and Qualcomm’s submission draws attention to this.

An important factor in the determination of a “user” of a particular standard is the extent to which the standard is practiced or implemented therein. Some standards development organisations (SDOs) have addressed this in their policies by clarifying that FRAND obligations extend to those “wholly compliant” or “fully conforming” to the specific standards. Clause 6.1 of the ETSI IPR Policy, clarifies that a patent holder’s obligation to make licenses available is limited to “methods” and “equipments”. It defines an equipment as “a system or device fully conforming to a standard.” And methods as “any method or operation fully conforming to a standard.”

It is noteworthy that the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) Executive Standards Council Appeals Panel in a decision has said that there is no agreement on the definition of the phrase “wholly compliant implementation.”  

Device level licensing is the prevailing industry wide practice by companies like Ericsson, InterDigital, Nokia and others. In November 2017, the European Commission issued guidelines on licensing of SEPs and took a balanced approach on this issue by not prescribing component level licensing in its guidelines.

The former director general of ETSI, Karl Rosenbrock, adopts a contrary view, explaining ETSI’s policy, “allows every company that requests a license to obtain one, regardless of where the prospective licensee is in the chain of production and regardless of whether the prospective licensee is active upstream or downstream.”

Dr. Bertram Huber, a legal expert who personally participated in the drafting of the IPR policy of ETSI, wrote a response to Rosenbrock, in which he explains that ETSI’s IPR policies required licensing obligations for systems “fully conforming” to the standard:

[O]nce a commitment is given to license on FRAND terms, it does not necessarily extend to chipsets and other electronic components of standards-compliant end-devices. He highlights how, in adopting its IPR Policy, ETSI intended to safeguard access to the cellular standards without changing the prevailing industry practice of manufacturers of complete end-devices concluding licenses to the standard essential patents practiced in those end-devices.

Both ATIS and TIA are organizational partners of a collaboration called 3rd Generation Partnership Project along with ETSI and four other SDOs who work on development of cellular technologies. TIA and ATIS are both accredited by ANSI. Therefore, these SDOs are likely to impact one another with the policies each one adopts. In the absence of definitive guidance on interpretation of the IPR policy and contractual terms within the institutional mechanism of ATIS and TIA, at the very least, clarity is needed on the ambit of these policies with respect to component level licensing.

The non-discrimination obligation, which as per FTC, mandates Qualcomm to license to its competitors who manufacture and sell chips, would be limited by the scope of the IPR policy and contractual agreements that bind Qualcomm and depends upon the specific SDO’s policy.  As discussed, the policies of ATIS and TIA are unclear on this.

In conclusion, FTC’s filing does not obviate the need to hear extrinsic evidence on what Qualcomm’s commitments to the ETSI mean. Given the ambiguities in the policies and agreements of ATIS and TIA on whether they include component level licensing or whether the modem chips in their entirety can be said to practice the standard, it would be incorrect to say that there is no genuine dispute of fact (and law) in this instance.

FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel penned an article this week on the doublespeak coming out of the current administration with respect to trade and telecom policy. On one hand, she argues, the administration has proclaimed 5G to be an essential part of our future commercial and defense interests. But, she tells us, the administration has, on the other hand, imposed tariffs on Chinese products that are important for the development of 5G infrastructure, thereby raising the costs of roll-out. This is a sound critique: regardless where one stands on the reasonableness of tariffs, they unquestionably raise the prices of goods on which they are placed, and raising the price of inputs to the 5G ecosystem can only slow down the pace at which 5G technology is deployed.

Unfortunately, Commissioner Rosenworcel’s fervor for advocating the need to reduce the costs of 5G deployment seems animated by the courageous act of a Democratic commissioner decrying the policies of a Republican President and is limited to a context where her voice lacks any power to actually affect policy. Even as she decries trade barriers that would incrementally increase the costs of imported communications hardware, she staunchly opposes FCC proposals that would dramatically reduce the cost of deploying next generation networks.

Given the opportunity to reduce the costs of 5G deployment by a factor far more significant than that by which tariffs will increase them, her preferred role as Democratic commissioner is that of resistance fighter. She acknowledges that “we will need 800,000 of these small cells to stay competitive in 5G” — a number significantly above the “the roughly 280,000 traditional cell towers needed to blanket the nation with 4G”.  Yet, when she has had the opportunity to join the Commission on speeding deployment, she has instead dissented. Party over policy.

In this year’s “Historical Preservation” Order, for example, the Commission voted to expedite deployment on non-Tribal lands, and to exempt small cell deployments from certain onerous review processes under both the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Commissioner Rosenworcel dissented from the Order, claiming that that the FCC has “long-standing duties to consult with Tribes before implementing any regulation or policy that will significantly or uniquely affect Tribal governments, their land, or their resources.” Never mind that the FCC engaged in extensive consultation with Tribal governments prior to enacting this Order.

Indeed, in adopting the Order, the Commission found that the Order did nothing to disturb deployment on Tribal lands at all, and affected only the ability of Tribal authorities to reach beyond their borders to require fees and lengthy reviews for small cells on lands in which Tribes could claim merely an “interest.”

According to the Order, the average number of Tribal authorities seeking to review wireless deployments in a given geographic area nearly doubled between 2008 and 2017. During the same period, commenters consistently noted that the fees charged by Tribal authorities for review of deployments increased dramatically.

One environmental consultant noted that fees for projects that he was involved with increased from an average of $2,000.00 in 2011 to $11,450.00 in 2017. Verizon’s fees are $2,500.00 per small cell site just for Tribal review. Of the 8,100 requests that Verizon submitted for tribal review between 2012 and 2015, just 29 ( 0.3%) resulted in a finding that there would be an adverse effect on tribal historic properties. That means that Verizon paid over $20 million to Tribal authorities over that period for historic reviews that resulted in statistically nil action. Along the same lines, Sprint’s fees are so high that it estimates that “it could construct 13,408 new sites for what 10,000 sites currently cost.”

In other words, Tribal review practices — of deployments not on Tribal land — impose a substantial tariff upon 5G deployment, increasing its cost and slowing its pace.

There is a similar story in the Commission’s adoption of, and Commissioner Rosenworcel’s partial dissent from, the recent Wireless Infrastructure Order.  Although Commissioner Rosenworcel offered many helpful suggestions (for instance, endorsing the OTARD proposal that Brent Skorup has championed) and nodded to the power of the market to solve many problems, she also dissented on central parts of the Order. Her dissent shows an unfortunate concern for provincial, political interests and places those interests above the Commission’s mission of ensuring timely deployment of advanced wireless communication capabilities to all Americans.

Commissioner Rosenworcel’s concern about the Wireless Infrastructure Order is that it would prevent state and local governments from imposing fees sufficient to recover costs incurred by the government to support wireless deployments by private enterprise, or from imposing aesthetic requirements on those deployments. Stated this way, her objections seem almost reasonable: surely local government should be able to recover the costs they incur in facilitating private enterprise; and surely local government has an interest in ensuring that private actors respect the aesthetic interests of the communities in which they build infrastructure.

The problem for Commissioner Rosenworcel is that the Order explicitly takes these concerns into account:

[W]e provide guidance on whether and in what circumstances aesthetic requirements violate the Act. This will help localities develop and implement lawful rules, enable providers to comply with these requirements, and facilitate the resolution of disputes. We conclude that aesthetics requirements are not preempted if they are (1) reasonable, (2) no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments, and (3) objective and published in advance

It neither prohibits localities from recovering costs nor imposing aesthetic requirements. Rather, it requires merely that those costs and requirements be reasonable. The purpose of the Order isn’t to restrict localities from engaging in reasonable conduct; it is to prohibit them from engaging in unreasonable, costly conduct, while providing guidance as to what cost recovery and aesthetic considerations are reasonable (and therefore permissible).

The reality is that localities have a long history of using cost recovery — and especially “soft” or subjective requirements such as aesthetics — to extract significant rents from communications providers. In the 1980s this slowed the deployment and increased the costs of cable television. In the 2000s this slowed the deployment and increase the cost of of fiber-based Internet service. Today this is slowing the deployment and increasing the costs of advanced wireless services. And like any tax — or tariff — the cost is ultimately borne by consumers.

Although we are broadly sympathetic to arguments about local control (and other 10th Amendment-related concerns), the FCC’s goal in the Wireless Infrastructure Order was not to trample upon the autonomy of small municipalities; it was to implement a reasonably predictable permitting process that would facilitate 5G deployment. Those affected would not be the small, local towns attempting to maintain a desirable aesthetic for their downtowns, but large and politically powerful cities like New York City, where the fees per small cell site can be more than $5,000.00 per installation. Such extortionate fees are effectively a tax on smartphone users and others who will utilize 5G for communications. According to the Order, it is estimated that capping these fees would stimulate over $2.4 billion in additional infrastructure buildout, with widespread benefits to consumers and the economy.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Rosenworcel cries “overreach!” “I do not believe the law permits Washington to run roughshod over state and local authority like this,” she said. Her federalist bent is welcome — or it would be, if it weren’t in such stark contrast to her anti-federalist preference for preempting states from establishing rules governing their own internal political institutions when it suits her preferred political objective. We are referring, of course, to Rosenworcel’s support for the previous administration’s FCC’s decision to preempt state laws prohibiting the extension of municipal governments’ broadband systems. The order doing so was plainly illegal from the moment it was passed, as every court that has looked at it has held. That she was ok with. But imposing reasonable federal limits on states’ and localities’ ability to extract political rents by abusing their franchising process is apparently beyond the pale.

Commissioner Rosenworcel is right that the FCC should try to promote market solutions like Brent’s OTARD proposal. And she is also correct in opposing dangerous and destructive tariffs that will increase the cost of telecommunications equipment. Unfortunately, she gets it dead wrong when she supports a stifling regulatory status quo that will surely make it unduly difficult and expensive to deploy next generation networks — not least for those most in need of them. As Chairman Pai noted in his Statement on the Order: “When you raise the cost of deploying wireless infrastructure, it is those who live in areas where the investment case is the most marginal — rural areas or lower-income urban areas — who are most at risk of losing out.”

Reconciling those two positions entails nothing more than pointing to the time-honored Washington tradition of Politics Over Policy. The point is not (entirely) to call out Commissioner Rosenworcel; she’s far from the only person in Washington to make this kind of crass political calculation. In fact, she’s far from the only FCC Commissioner ever to have done so.

One need look no further than the previous FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, to see the hypocritical politics of telecommunications policy in action. (And one need look no further than Tom Hazlett’s masterful book, The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone to find a catalogue of its long, sordid history).

Indeed, Larry Downes has characterized Wheeler’s reign at the FCC (following a lengthy recounting of all its misadventures) as having left the agency “more partisan than ever”:

The lesson of the spectrum auctions—one right, one wrong, one hanging in the balance—is the lesson writ large for Tom Wheeler’s tenure at the helm of the FCC. While repeating, with decreasing credibility, that his lodestone as Chairman was simply to encourage “competition, competition, completion” and let market forces do the agency’s work for it, the reality, as these examples demonstrate, has been something quite different.

The Wheeler FCC has instead been driven by a dangerous combination of traditional rent-seeking behavior by favored industry clients, potent pressure from radical advocacy groups and their friends in the White House, and a sincere if misguided desire by Wheeler to father the next generation of network technologies, which quickly mutated from sound policy to empty populism even as technology continued on its own unpredictable path.

* * *

And the Chairman’s increasingly autocratic management style has left the agency more political and more partisan than ever, quick to abandon policies based on sound legal, economic and engineering principles in favor of bait-and-switch proceedings almost certain to do more harm than good, if only unintentionally.

The great irony is that, while Commissioner Rosenworcel’s complaints are backed by a legitimate concern that the Commission has waited far too long to take action on spectrum issues, the criticism should properly fall not upon the current Chair, but — you guessed it — his predecessor, Chairman Wheeler (and his predecessor, Julius Genachowski). Of course, in true partisan fashion, Rosenworcel was fawning in her praise for her political ally’s spectrum agenda, lauding it on more than one occasion as going “to infinity and beyond!”

Meanwhile, Rosenworcel has taken virtually every opportunity to chide and castigate Chairman Pai’s efforts to get more spectrum into the marketplace, most often criticizing them as too little, too slow, and too late. Yet from any objective perspective, the current FCC has been addressing spectrum issues at a breakneck pace, as fast, or faster than any prior Commission. As with spectrum, there is an upper limit to the speed at which federal bureaucracy can work, and Chairman Pai has kept the Commission pushed right up against that limit.

It’s a shame Commissioner Rosenworcel prefers to blame Chairman Pai for the problems she had a hand in creating, and President Trump for problems she has no ability to correct. It’s even more a shame that, having an opportunity to address the problems she so often decries — by working to get more spectrum deployed and put into service more quickly and at lower cost to industry and consumers alike — she prefers to dutifully wear the hat of resistance, instead.

But that’s just politics, we suppose. And like any tariff, it makes us all poorer.

At this point, only the most masochistic and cynical among DC’s policy elite actually desire for the net neutrality conflict to continue. And yet, despite claims that net neutrality principles are critical to protecting consumers, passage of the current Congressional Review Act (“CRA”) disapproval resolution in Congress would undermine consumer protection and promise only to drag out the fight even longer.

The CRA resolution is primarily intended to roll back the FCC’s re-re-classification of broadband as a Title I service under the Communications Act in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order (“RIFO”). The CRA allows Congress to vote to repeal rules recently adopted by federal agencies; upon a successful CRA vote, the rules are rescinded and the agency is prohibited from adopting substantially similar rules in the future.

But, as TechFreedom has noted, it’s not completely clear that a CRA on a regulatory classification decision will work quite the way Congress intends it and could just trigger more litigation cycles, largely because it is unclear what parts of the RIFO are actually “rules” subject to the CRA. Harold Feld has written a critique of TechFreedom’s position, arguing, in effect, that of course the RIFO is a rule; TechFreedom responded with a pretty devastating rejoinder.

But this exchange really demonstrates TechFreedom’s central argument: It is sufficiently unclear how or whether the CRA will apply to the various provisions of the RIFO, such that the only things the CRA is guaranteed to do are 1) to strip consumers of certain important protections — it would take away the FCC’s transparency requirements for ISPs, and imperil privacy protections currently ensured by the FTC — while 2) prolonging the already interminable litigation and political back-and-forth over net neutrality.

The CRA is political theater

The CRA resolution effort is not about good Internet regulatory policy; rather, it’s pure political opportunism ahead of the midterms. Democrats have recognized net neutrality as a good wedge issue because of its low political opportunity cost. The highest-impact costs of over-regulating broadband through classification decisions are hard to see: Rather than bad things happening, the costs arrive in the form of good things not happening. Eventually those costs work their way to customers through higher access prices or less service — especially in rural areas most in need of it — but even these effects take time to show up and, when they do, are difficult to pin on any particular net neutrality decision, including the CRA resolution. Thus, measured in electoral time scales, prolonging net neutrality as a painful political issue — even though actual resolution of the process by legislation would be the sensible course — offers tremendous upside for political challengers and little cost.  

The truth is, there is widespread agreement that net neutrality issues need to be addressed by Congress: A constant back and forth between the FCC (and across its own administrations) and the courts runs counter to the interests of consumers, broadband companies, and edge providers alike. Virtually whatever that legislative solution ends up looking like, it would be an improvement over the unstable status quo.

There have been various proposals from Republicans and Democrats — many of which contain provisions that are likely bad ideas — but in the end, a bill passed with bipartisan input should have the virtue of capturing an open public debate on the issue. Legislation won’t be perfect, but it will be tremendously better than the advocacy playground that net neutrality has become.

What would the CRA accomplish?

Regardless of what one thinks of the substantive merits of TechFreedom’s arguments on the CRA and the arcana of legislative language distinguishing between agency “rules” and “orders,” if the CRA resolution is successful (a prospect that is a bit more likely following the Senate vote to pass it) what follows is pretty clear.

The only certain result of the the CRA resolution becoming law would be to void the transparency provisions that the FCC introduced in the RIFO — the one part of the Order that is pretty clearly a “rule” subject to CRA review — and it would disable the FCC from offering another transparency rule in its place. Everything else is going to end up — surprise! — before the courts, which would serve only to keep the issues surrounding net neutrality unsettled for another several years. (A cynic might suggest that this is, in fact, the goal of net neutrality proponents, for whom net neutrality has been and continues to have important political valence.)

And if the CRA resolution withstands the inevitable legal challenge to its rescision of the rest of the RIFO, it would also (once again) remove broadband privacy from the FTC’s purview, placing it back into the FCC’s lap — which is already prohibited from adopting privacy rules following last year’s successful CRA resolution undoing the Wheeler FCC’s broadband privacy regulations. The result is that we could be left without any broadband privacy regulator at all — presumably not the outcome strong net neutrality proponents want — but they persevere nonetheless.

Moreover, TechFreedom’s argument that the CRA may not apply to all parts of the RIFO could have a major effect on whether or not Congress is even accomplishing anything at all (other than scoring political points) with this vote. It could be the case that the CRA applies only to “rules” and not “orders,” or it could be the case that even if the CRA does apply to the RIFO, its passage would not force the FCC to revive the abrogated 2015 Open Internet Order, as proponents of the CRA vote hope.

Whatever one thinks of these arguments, however, they are based on a sound reading of the law and present substantial enough questions to sustain lengthy court challenges. Thus, far from a CRA vote actually putting to rest the net neutrality issue, it is likely to spawn litigation that will drag out the classification uncertainty question for at least another year (and probably more, with appeals).

Stop playing net neutrality games — they aren’t fun

Congress needs to stop trying to score easy political points on this issue while avoiding the hard and divisive work of reaching a compromise on actual net neutrality legislation. Despite how the CRA is presented in the popular media, a CRA vote is the furthest thing from a simple vote for net neutrality: It’s a political calculation to avoid accountability.

I had the pleasure last month of hosting the first of a new annual roundtable discussion series on closing the rural digital divide through the University of Nebraska’s Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law Program. The purpose of the roundtable was to convene a diverse group of stakeholders — from farmers to federal regulators; from small municipal ISPs to billion dollar app developers — for a discussion of the on-the-ground reality of closing the rural digital divide.

The impetus behind the roundtable was, quite simply, that in my five years living in Nebraska I have consistently found that the discussions that we have here about the digital divide in rural America are wholly unlike those that the federally-focused policy crowd has back in DC. Every conversation I have with rural stakeholders further reinforces my belief that those of us who approach the rural digital divide from the “DC perspective” fail to appreciate the challenges that rural America faces or the drive, innovation, and resourcefulness that rural stakeholders bring to the issue when DC isn’t looking. So I wanted to bring these disparate groups together to see what was driving this disconnect, and what to do about it.

The unfortunate reality of the rural digital divide is that it is an existential concern for much of America. At the same time, the positive news is that closing this divide has become an all-hands-on-deck effort for stakeholders in rural America, one that defies caricatured political, technological, and industry divides. I have never seen as much agreement and goodwill among stakeholders in any telecom community as when I speak to rural stakeholders about digital divides. I am far from an expert in rural broadband issues — and I don’t mean to hold myself out as one — but as I have engaged with those who are, I am increasingly convinced that there are far more and far better ideas about closing the rural digital divide to be found outside the beltway than within.

The practical reality is that most policy discussions about the rural digital divide over the past decade have been largely irrelevant to the realities on the ground: The legal and policy frameworks focus on the wrong things, and participants in these discussions at the federal level rarely understand the challenges that define the rural divide. As a result, stakeholders almost always fall back on advocating stale, entrenched, viewpoints that have little relevance to the on-the-ground needs. (To their credit, both Chairman Pai and Commissioner Carr have demonstrated a longstanding interest in understanding the rural digital divide — an interest that is recognized and appreciated by almost every rural stakeholder I speak to.)

Framing Things Wrong

It is important to begin by recognizing that contemporary discussion about the digital divide is framed in terms of, and addressed alongside, longstanding federal Universal Service policy. This policy, which has its roots in the 20th century project of ensuring that all Americans had access to basic telephone service, is enshrined in the first words of the Communications Act of 1934. It has not significantly evolved from its origins in the analog telephone system — and that’s a problem.

A brief history of Universal Service

The Communications Act established the FCC

for the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States … a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service ….

The historic goal of “universal service” has been to ensure that anyone in the country is able to connect to the public switched telephone network. In the telephone age, that network provided only one primary last-mile service: transmitting basic voice communications from the customer’s telephone to the carrier’s switch. Once at the switch various other services could be offered — but providing them didn’t require more than a basic analog voice circuit to the customer’s home.

For most of the 20th century, this form of universal service was ensured by fiat and cost recovery. Regulated telephone carriers (that is, primarily, the Bell operating companies under the umbrella of AT&T) were required by the FCC to provide service to all comers, at published rates, no matter the cost of providing that service. In exchange, the carriers were allowed to recover the cost of providing service to high-cost areas through the regulated rates charged to all customers. That is, the cost of ensuring universal service was spread across and subsidized by the entire rate base.

This system fell apart following the break-up of AT&T in the 1980s. The separation of long distance from local exchange service meant that the main form of cross subsidy — from long distance to local callers — could no longer be handled implicitly. Moreover, as competitive exchange services began entering the market, they tended to compete first, and most, over the high-revenue customers who had supported the rate base. To accommodate these changes, the FCC transitioned from a model of implicit cross-subsidies to one of explicit cross-subsidies, introducing long distance access charges and termination fees that were regulated to ensure money continued to flow to support local exchange carriers’ costs of providing services to high-cost users.

The 1996 Telecom Act forced even more dramatic change. The goal of the 1996 Telecom Act was to introduce competition throughout the telecom ecosystem — but the traditional cross-subsidy model doesn’t work in a competitive market. So the 1996 Telecom Act further evolved the FCC’s universal service mechanism, establishing the Universal Service Fund (USF), funded by fees charged to all telecommunications carriers, which would be apportioned to cover the costs incurred by eligible telecommunications carriers in providing high-cost (and other “universal”) services.

The problematic framing of Universal Service

For present purposes, we need not delve into these mechanisms. Rather, the very point of this post is that the interminable debates about these mechanisms — who pays into the USF and how much; who gets paid out of the fund and how much; and what services and technologies the fund covers — simply don’t match the policy challenges of closing the digital divide.

What the 1996 Telecom Act does offer is a statement of the purposes of Universal Service. In 47 USC 254(b)(3), the Act states the purpose of ensuring “Access in rural and high cost areas”:

Consumers in all regions of the Nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular, and high cost areas, should have access to telecommunications and information services … that are reasonably comparable to those services provided in urban areas ….

This is a problematic framing. (I would actually call it patently offensive…). It is a framing that made sense in the telephone era, when ensuring last-mile service meant providing only basic voice telephone service. In that era, having any service meant having all service, and the primary obstacles to overcome were the high-cost of service to remote areas and the lower revenues expected from lower-income areas. But its implicit suggestion is that the goal of federal policy should be to make rural America look like urban America.

Today universal service, at least from the perspective of closing the digital divide, means something different, however. The technological needs of rural America are different than those of urban America; the technological needs of poor and lower-income America are different than those of rich America. Framing the goal in terms of making sure rural and lower-income America have access to the same services as urban and wealthy America is, by definition, not responsive to (or respectful of) the needs of those who are on the wrong side of one of this country’s many digital divides. Indeed, that goal almost certainly distracts from and misallocates resources that could be better leveraged towards closing these divides.

The Demands of Rural Broadband

Rural broadband needs are simultaneously both more and less demanding than the services we typically focus on when discussing universal service. The services that we fund, and the way that we approach how to close digital divides, needs to be based in the first instance on the actual needs of the community that connectivity is meant to serve. Take just two of the prototypical examples: precision and automated farming, and telemedicine.

Assessing rural broadband needs

Precision agriculture requires different networks than does watching Netflix, web surfing, or playing video games. Farms with hundreds or thousands of sensors and other devices per acre can put significant load on networks — but not in terms of bandwidth. The load is instead measured in terms of packets and connections per second. Provisioning networks to handle lots of small packets is very different from provisioning them to handle other, more-typical (to the DC crowd), use cases.

On the other end of the agricultural spectrum, many farms don’t own their own combines. Combines cost upwards of a million dollars. One modern combine is sufficient to tend to several hundred acres in a given farming season. It is common for many farmers to hire someone who owns a combine to service their fields. During harvest season, for instance, one combine service may operate on a dozen farms during harvest season. Prior to operation, modern precision systems need to download a great deal of GIS, mapping, weather, crop, and other data. High-speed Internet can literally mean the difference between letting a combine sit idle for many days of a harvest season while it downloads data and servicing enough fields to cover the debt payments on a million dollar piece of equipment.

Going to the other extreme, rural health care relies upon Internet connectivity — but not in the ways it is usually discussed. The stories one hears on the ground aren’t about the need for particularly high-speed connections or specialized low-latency connections to allow remote doctors to control surgical robots. While tele-surgery and access to highly specialized doctors are important applications of telemedicine, the urgent needs today are far more modest: simple video consultations with primary care physicians for routine care, requiring only a moderate-speed Internet connection capable of basic video conferencing. In reality, literally megabits per second (not even 10 mbps) can mean the difference between a remote primary care physician being able to provide basic health services to a rural community and that community going entirely unserved by a doctor.

Efforts to run gigabit connections and dedicated fiber to rural health care facilities may be a great long-term vision — but the on-the-ground need could be served by a reliable 4G wireless connection or DSL line. (Again, to their credit, this is a point that Chairman Pai and Commissioner Carr have been highlighting in their recent travels through rural parts of the country.)

Of course, rural America faces many of the same digital divides faced elsewhere. Even in the wealthiest cities in Nebraska, for instance, significant numbers of students are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches — a metric that corresponds with income — and rely on anchor institutions for Internet access. The problem is worse in much of rural Nebraska, where there may simply be no Internet access at all.

Addressing rural broadband needs

Two things in particular have struck me as I have spoken to rural stakeholders about the digital divide. The first is that this is an “all hands on deck” problem. Everyone I speak to understands the importance of the issue. Everyone is willing to work with and learn from others. Everyone is willing to commit resources and capital to improve upon the status quo, including by undertaking experiments and incurring risks.

The discussions I have in DC, however, including with and among key participants in the DC policy firmament, are fundamentally different. These discussions focus on tweaking contribution factors and cost models to protect or secure revenues; they are, in short, missing the forest for the trees. Meanwhile, the discussion on the ground focuses on how to actually deploy service and overcome obstacles. No amount of cost-model tweaking will do much at all to accomplish either of these.

The second striking, and rather counterintuitive, thing that I have often heard is that closing the rural digital divide isn’t (just) about money. I’ve heard several times the lament that we need to stop throwing more money at the problem and start thinking about where the money we already have needs to go. Another version of this is that it isn’t about the money, it’s about the business case. Money can influence a decision whether to execute upon a project for which there is a business case — but it rarely creates a business case where there isn’t one. And where it has created a business case, that case was often for building out relatively unimportant networks while increasing the opportunity costs of building out more important networks. The networks we need to build are different from those envisioned by the 1996 Telecom Act or FCC efforts to contort that Act to fund Internet build-out.

Rural Broadband Investment

There is, in fact, a third particularly striking thing I have gleaned from speaking with rural stakeholders, and rural providers in particular: They don’t really care about net neutrality, and don’t see it as helpful to closing the digital divide.  

Rural providers, it must be noted, are generally “pro net neutrality,” in the sense that they don’t think that ISPs should interfere with traffic going over their networks; in the sense that they don’t have any plans themselves to engage in “non-neutral” conduct; and also in the sense that they don’t see a business case for such conduct.

But they are also wary of Title II regulation, or of other rules that are potentially burdensome or that introduce uncertainty into their business. They are particularly concerned that Title II regulation opens the door to — and thus creates significant uncertainty about the possibility of — other forms of significant federal regulation of their businesses.

More than anything else, they want to stop thinking, talking, and worrying about net neutrality regulations. Ultimately, the past decade of fights about net neutrality has meant little other than regulatory cost and uncertainty for them, which makes planning and investment difficult — hardly a boon to closing the digital divide.

The basic theory of the Wheeler-era FCC’s net neutrality regulations was the virtuous cycle — that net neutrality rules gave edge providers the certainty they needed in order to invest in developing new applications that, in turn, would drive demand for, and thus buildout of, new networks. But carriers need certainty, too, if they are going to invest capital in building these networks. Rural ISPs are looking for the business case to justify new builds. Increasing uncertainty has only negative effects on the business case for closing the rural digital divide.

Most crucially, the logic of the virtuous cycle is virtually irrelevant to driving demand for closing the digital divide. Edge innovation isn’t going to create so much more value that users will suddenly demand that networks be built; rather, the applications justifying this demand already exist, and most have existed for many years. What stands in the way of the build-out required to service under- or un-served rural areas is the business case for building these (expensive) networks. And the uncertainty and cost associated with net neutrality only exacerbate this problem.

Indeed, rural markets are an area where the virtuous cycle very likely turns in the other direction. Rural communities are actually hotbeds of innovation. And they know their needs far better than Silicon Valley edge companies, so they are likely to build apps and services that better cater to the unique needs of rural America. But these apps and services aren’t going to be built unless their developers have access to the broadband connections needed to build and maintain them, and, most important of all, unless users have access to the broadband connections needed to actually make use of them. The upshot is that, in rural markets, connectivity precedes and drives the supply of edge services not, as the Wheeler-era virtuous cycle would have it, the other way around.

The effect of Washington’s obsession with net neutrality these past many years has been to increase uncertainty and reduce the business case for building new networks. And its detrimental effects continue today with politicized and showboating efforts to to invoke the Congressional Review Act in order to make a political display of the 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Back in the real world, however, none of this helps to provide rural communities with the type of broadband services they actually need, and the effect is only to worsen the rural digital divide, both politically and technologically.

The Road Ahead …?

The story told above is not a happy one. Closing digital divides, and especially closing the rural digital divide, is one of the most important legal, social, and policy challenges this country faces. Yet the discussion about these issues in DC reflects little of the on-the-ground reality. Rather advocates in DC attack a strawman of the rural digital divide, using it as a foil to protect and advocate for their pet agendas. If anything, the discussion in DC distracts attention and diverts resources from productive ideas.

To end on a more positive note, some are beginning to recognize the importance and direness of the situation. I have noted several times the work of Chairman Pai and Commissioner Carr. Indeed, the first time I met Chairman Pai was when I had the opportunity to accompany him, back when he was Commissioner Pai, on a visit through Diller, Nebraska (pop. 287). More recently, there has been bipartisan recognition of the need for new thinking about the rural digital divide. In February, for instance, a group of Democratic senators asked President Trump to prioritize rural broadband in his infrastructure plans. And the following month Congress enacted, and the President signed, legislation that among other things funded a $600 million pilot program to award grants and loans for rural broadband built out through the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. But both of these efforts rely too heavily on throwing money at the rural divide (speaking of the recent legislation, the head of one Nebraska-based carrier building out service in rural areas lamented that it’s just another effort to give carriers cheap money, which doesn’t do much to help close the divide!). It is, nonetheless, good to see urgent calls for and an interest in experimenting with new ways to deliver assistance in closing the rural digital divide. We need more of this sort of bipartisan thinking and willingness to experiment with new modes of meeting this challenge — and less advocacy for stale, entrenched, viewpoints that have little relevance to the on-the-ground reality of rural America.