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With Matt Starr, Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne

Today’s oral argument in the D.C Circuit over the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules suggests that the case — Verizon v. FCC — is likely to turn on whether the Order impermissibly imposes common carrier regulation on broadband ISPs. If so, the FCC will lose, no matter what the court thinks of the Commission’s sharply contested claims of authority under the Telecommunications Act.

The FCC won last year before the same court when Verizon challenged its order mandating that carriers provide data roaming services to their competitors’ customers. But Judge Tatel, who wrote the Cellco decision is likely to write the court’s opinion overturning the Net neutrality rules — just as he wrote the court’s 2010 Comcast v. FCC opinion, thwarting the FCC’s first attempt at informal net neutrality regulation.

Over an extraordinary two-hour session, Judges Tatel and Silberman asked a barrage of questions that suggest they’ll apply the same test used to uphold the data roaming rule to strike down at least the non-discrimination rule at the heart of the Open Internet Order — and probably, the entire Order.

Common Carrier Analysis

The Communications Act explicitly prohibits treating services that are not regulated under Title II as common carriers. Title II regulates “telecommunications services,” such as landline telephone service, but broadband is an “information service” regulated under Title I of the Act, while wireless is regulated under Title III of the Act (as a “radio transmission”).

In Cellco, the court ruled that the FCC’s data roaming rule did not impermissibly classify mobile providers as common carriers even though it compelled wireless carriers to let other companies’ subscribers roam on their networks. Here, the Open Internet Order effectively forces ISPs to carry traffic of all “edge” providers in an equal, non-discriminatory manner. While these might seem similar, the two mandates differ significantly, and Tatel’s analysis in the data roaming case may lead to precisely the opposite result here.

Tatel’s data roaming opinion rested on a test, derived from decades of case law, for determining what level of regulation constitutes an impermissible imposition of common carrier status:

  1. “If a carrier is forced to offer service indiscriminately and on general terms, then that carrier is being relegated to common carrier status”;

  2. “[T]he Commission has significant latitude to determine the bounds of common carriage in particular cases”;

  3. “[C]ommon carriage is not all or nothing—there is a gray area [between common carrier status and private carrier status] in which although a given regulation might be applied to common carriers, the obligations imposed are not common carriage per se” because they permit carriers to retain sufficient decisionmaking authority over their networks (by retaining programming control and/or the authority to negotiate terms, for example); and

  4. In this gray area, “[the FCC’s] determination that a regulation does or does not confer common carrier status warrants deference” under the Supreme Court’s Chevron decision.

In Cellco, the court determined that the data roaming rule fell into the gray area, and thus deferred to the FCC’s determination that the regulation did not impose common carrier status. The essential distinction, according to the court, was that carriers remained free to “negotiate the terms of their roaming arrangements on an individualized basis,” provided their terms were “commercially reasonable.” Rather than impose a “presumption of reasonableness,” the Commission offered “considerable flexibility for providers to respond to the competitive forces at play in the mobile-data market.” Thus, the court held, the data roaming rule “leaves substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms,” and thus “does not amount to a duty to hold out facilities indifferently for public use.”

The Open Internet rules, by contrast, impose a much harsher restriction on what ISPs may do with their broadband networks, barring them from blocking any legal content and prohibiting “unreasonable” discrimination. Judges Tatel and Silberman repeatedly asked questions that suggested that the Order’s reasonable discrimination rule removed the kind of “flexibility” that justified upholding the data roaming rule. By requiring carriers to “offer service indiscriminately and on general terms” and to “hold out facilities indifferently for public use” (to quote the D.C. Circuit’s test), the rule would go beyond the “gray area” in which the FCC gets deference, and fall into the D.C. Circuit’s definition of common carriage. If that’s indeed ultimately where the two judges wind up, it’s game over for the FCC.

The Open Internet Order requires broadband ISPs to make their networks available, and to do so on equal terms that remove pricing flexibility, to any edge provider that wishes to have its content available on an ISP’s network. This seems to be Judge Tatel’s interpretation of ¶ 76 of the Order, which goes on at length about the reasons why “pay for priority” arrangements would “raise significant cause for concern” and then concludes: “In light of each of these concerns, as a general matter, it’s unlikely that pay for priority would satisfy the ‘no unreasonable discrimination’ standard.” So… legal in principle, but effectively banned in practice — a per se rule dressed up as a rule of reason.

If that isn’t, in effect, a requirement that ISPs hold out their networks “indifferently for public use,” it’s hard to imagine what is — as Tatel certainly seemed to think today. Tatel’s use of the term “indiscriminately” in Cellco almost hints that the test was written with the FCC’s “no discrimination” rule in mind.

The FCC tried, but failed, to address such concerns in the Open Internet Order, by arguing that broadband providers remained free to “make individualized decisions” with the only customers that matter: their subscribers. Today, the agency again insisted that restricting, however heavily, a broadband provider’s ability to negotiate with an edge provider (or the backbone providers in between) is irrelevant to the analysis of whether the FCC has illegally imposed common carriage. But if that argument worked, the D.C. Circuit would not have had to analyze whether the data roaming rule afforded sufficient flexibility to carriers in contracting with other carriers to provide data roaming services to their customers.

Similarly, the FCC failed today, and in its briefs, to effectively distinguish this case from Midwest Video II, which was critical to the Cellco decision. here, the Supreme Court court struck down public-access rules imposed on cable companies as impermissible common carrier regulation because they “prohibited [cable operators] from determining or influencing the content of access programming,” and “delimit[ed] what [they could] charge for access and use of equipment.” In other words, the FCC’s rule left no flexibility for negotiations between companies — the same problem as in the Open Internet Order. The FCC attempted to distinguish the two cases by arguing that the FCC was restricting an existing wholesale market for channel carriage, while no such market exists today for prioritized Internet services. But this misses the key point made, emphatically, by Judge Silberman: it is the FCC’s relentless attempt to regulate Net Neutrality that has prevented the development of this market. Nothing better reveals the stasis mentality behind the FCC’s Order

Perhaps the most damning moment of today’s arguments occurred when Verizon’s lawyer responded to questions about what room for negotiation was left under the unreasonable discrimination rule — by pointing to what the FCC itself said in Footnote 240 of the Order. There the FCC quotes, approvingly, comments filed by Sprint: “The unreasonable discrimination standard contained in Section 202(a) of the Act contains the very flexibility the Commission needs to distinguish desirable from improper discrimination.” In other words, the only room for “commercially reasonable negotiation” recognized by the FCC under the nondiscrimination rule is found in the limited discretion traditionally available to common carriers under Section 202(a). Oops. This #LawyerFail will doubtless feature prominently in the court’s discussion of this issue, as the FCC’s perhaps accidental concession that, whatever the agency claims, it’s really imposing common carrier status — analogous to Title II, no less!

Judges Tatel and Silberman seemed to disagree only as to whether the no-blocking rule would also fail under Cellco’s reasoning. Tatel suggested that if the non-discrimination rule didn’t exist, the blocking rule, standing alone, would “leave substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms” just as the data roaming rule did. Tatel spent perhaps fifteen minutes trying to draw clear answers from all counsel on this point, but seemed convinced that, at most, the no-blocking rule simply imposed a duty on the broadband provider to allow an edge provider to reach its customers, while still allowing the broadband provider to negotiate for faster carriage on “commercially reasonable terms.” Silberman disagreed, insisting that the blocking rule still imposed a common carrier duty to carry traffic at a zero price.


Ultimately the distinction between these two rules under Cellco’s common carriage test may not matter. If the court decides that the order is not severable, striking down the nondiscrimination rule as common carriage would cause the entire Order to fall.

The judges got into an interesting, though relatively short, discussion of this point. Verizon’s counsel repeatedly noted that the FCC had never stated any intention that the order should be read as severable either in the Order, in its briefs or even at oral argument. Unlike in MD/DC/DE Broadaster’s Assoc. v. FCC, the Commission did not state in the adopting regulation that it intended to treat the regulation as severable. And, as the DC Circuit has stated, “[s]everance and affirmance of a portion of an administrative regulation is improper if there is ‘substantial doubt’ that the agency would have adopted the severed portion on its own.”

The question, as the Supreme Court held in K Mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., is whether the remainder of the regulation could function sensibly without the stricken provision. This isn’t clear. While Judge Tatel seems to suggest that the rule against blocking could function without the nondiscrimination rule, Judge Silberman seems convinced that the two were intended as necessary complements by the FCC. The determination of the no-blocking rule’s severability may come down to Judge Rogers, who didn’t telegraph her view.

So what’s next?

The prediction made by Fred Campbell shortly after the Cellco decision seems like the most likely outcome: Tatel, joined by at least Silberman, could strike down the entire Order as imposing common carriage — while offering the FCC a roadmap to try its hand at Net Neutrality yet again by rewriting the discrimination rule to allow for prioritized or accelerated carriage on commercially reasonable terms.

Or, if the the court decides the order is severable, it could strike down just the nondiscrimination rule — assuming the court could find either direct or ancillary jurisdiction for both the transparency rule and the non-discrimination rule.

Either way, an FCC loss will mean that negotiated arrangements for priority carriage will be governed under something more like a rule of reason. The FCC could try to create its own rule.  Or the matter could simply be left to the antitrust and consumer protection laws enforced by the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, the states and private plaintiffs. We think the latter’s definitely the best approach. But whether it is or not, it will be the controlling legal authority on the ground the day the FCC loses — unless and until the FCC issues revised rules (or Congress passes a law) that can survive judicial review.

Ultimately, we suspect the FCC will have a hard time letting go. After 79 years, it’s clearly in denial about its growing obsolescence.

Over at Forbes Berin Szoka and I have a lengthy piece discussing “10 Reasons To Be More Optimistic About Broadband Than Susan Crawford Is.” Crawford has become the unofficial spokesman for a budding campaign to reshape broadband. She sees cable companies monopolizing broadband, charging too much, withholding content and keeping speeds low, all in order to suppress disruptive innovation — and argues for imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. Berin and I begin (we expect to contribute much more to this discussion in the future) to explain both why her premises are erroneous and also why her proscription is faulty. Here’s a taste:

Things in the US today are better than Crawford claims. While Crawford claims that broadband is faster and cheaper in other developed countries, her statistics are convincingly disputed. She neglects to mention the significant subsidies used to build out those networks. Crawford’s model is Europe, but as Europeans acknowledge, “beyond 100 Mbps supply will be very difficult and expensive. Western Europe may be forced into a second fibre build out earlier than expected, or will find themselves within the slow lane in 3-5 years time.” And while “blazing fast” broadband might be important for some users, broadband speeds in the US are plenty fast enough to satisfy most users. Consumers are willing to pay for speed, but, apparently, have little interest in paying for the sort of speed Crawford deems essential. This isn’t surprising. As the LSE study cited above notes, “most new activities made possible by broadband are already possible with basic or fast broadband: higher speeds mainly allow the same things to happen faster or with higher quality, while the extra costs of providing higher speeds to everyone are very significant.”

Even if she’s right, she wildly exaggerates the costs. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Crawford claims that slow downloads (compared to other countries) could cost the U.S. $3 trillion/year in lost productivity from wasted time spent “waiting for a link to load or an app to function on your wireless device.” This intentionally sensationalist claim, however, rests on a purely hypothetical average wait time in the U.S. of 30 seconds (vs. 2 seconds in Japan). Whatever the actual numbers might be, her methodology would still be shaky, not least because time spent waiting for laggy content isn’t necessarily simply wasted. And for most of us, the opportunity cost of waiting for Angry Birds to load on our phones isn’t counted in wages — it’s counted in beers or time on the golf course or other leisure activities. These are important, to be sure, but does anyone seriously believe our GDP would grow 20% if only apps were snappier? Meanwhile, actual econometric studies looking at the productivity effects of faster broadband on businesses have found that higher broadband speeds are not associated with higher productivity.

* * *

So how do we guard against the possibility of consumer harm without making things worse? For us, it’s a mix of promoting both competition and a smarter, subtler role for government.

Despite Crawford’s assertion that the DOJ should have blocked the Comcast-NBCU merger, antitrust and consumer protection laws do operate to constrain corporate conduct, not only through government enforcement but also private rights of action. Antitrust works best in the background, discouraging harmful conduct without anyone ever suing. The same is true for using consumer protection law to punish deception and truly harmful practices (e.g., misleading billing or overstating speeds).

A range of regulatory reforms would also go a long way toward promoting competition. Most importantly, reform local franchising so competitors like Google Fiber can build their own networks. That means giving them “open access” not to existing networks but to the public rights of way under streets. Instead of requiring that franchisees build out to an entire franchise area—which often makes both new entry and service upgrades unprofitable—remove build-out requirements and craft smart subsidies to encourage competition to deliver high-quality universal service, and to deliver superfast broadband to the customers who want it. Rather than controlling prices, offer broadband vouchers to those that can’t afford it. Encourage telcos to build wireline competitors to cable by transitioning their existing telephone networks to all-IP networks, as we’ve urged the FCC to do (here and here). Let wireless reach its potential by opening up spectrum and discouraging municipalities from blocking tower construction. Clear the deadwood of rules that protect incumbents in the video marketplace—a reform with broad bipartisan appeal.

In short, there’s a lot of ground between “do nothing” and “regulate broadband like electricity—or railroads.” Crawford’s arguments simply don’t justify imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. But that doesn’t leave us powerless to correct practices that truly harm consumers, should they actually arise.

Read the whole thing here.

By Geoffrey Manne, Matt StarrBerin Szoka

“Real lawyers read the footnotes!”—thus did Harold Feld chastise Geoff and Berin in a recent blog post about our CNET piece on the Verizon/SpectrumCo transaction. We argued, as did Commissioner Pai in his concurrence, that the FCC provided no legal basis for its claims of authority to review the Commercial Agreements that accompanied Verizon’s purchase of spectrum licenses—and that these agreements for joint marketing, etc. were properly subject only to DOJ review (under antitrust).

Harold insists that the FCC provided “actual analysis of its authority” in footnote 349 of its Order. But real lawyers read the footnotes carefully. That footnote doesn’t provide any legal basis for the FTC to review agreements beyond a license transfer; indeed, the footnote doesn’t even assert such authority. In short, we didn’t cite the footnote because it is irrelevant, not because we forgot to read it.

First, a reminder of what we said:

The FCC’s review of the Commercial Agreements accompanying the spectrum deal exceeded the limits of Section 310(d) of the Communications Act. As Commissioner Pai noted in his concurring statement, “Congress limited the scope of our review to the proposed transfer of spectrum licenses, not to other business agreements that may involve the same parties.” We (and others) raised this concern in public comments filed with the Commission. Here’s the agency’s own legal analysis — in full: “The Commission has authority to review the Commercial Agreements and to impose conditions to protect the public interest.” There’s not even an accompanying footnote.

Even if Harold were correct that footnote 349 provides citations to possible sources of authority for the FCC to review the Commercial Agreements, it remains irrelevant to our claim: The FCC exceeded its authority under 310(d) and asserted its authority under 310(d) without any analysis or citation. Footnote 349 begins with the phrase, “[a]side from Section 310(d)….” It is no surprise, then, that the footnote contains no analysis of the agency’s authority under that section.

The FCC’s authority under 310(d) is precisely what is at issue here. The question was raised and argued in several submissions to the Commission (including ours), and the Commission is clearly aware of this. In paragraph 142 of the Order, the agency notes the parties’ objection to its review of the Agreements: “Verizon Wireless and the Cable Companies respond that the Commission should not review the Commercial Agreements because… the Commission does not have authority to review the agreements.” That objection, rooted in 310(d), is to the Commission extending its transaction review authority (unquestionably arising under only 310(d)) beyond that section’s limits. The Commission then answers the parties’ claim in the next paragraph with the language we quoted: “The Commission has authority to review the Commercial Agreements and to impose conditions to protect the public interest.” By doing so without reference to other statutory language, it seems clear that the FCC’s unequivocal, unsupported statement of authority is a statement of authority under 310(d).

This is as it should be. The FCC’s transaction review authority is limited to Section 310(d). Thus if the agency were going to review the Commercial Agreements as part of the transfer, the authority to do so must come from 310(d) alone. But 310(d) on its face provides no authority to review anything beyond the transfer of spectrum. If the Commission wanted to review the Commercial Agreements, it needed to provide analysis on how exactly 310(d), despite appearances, gives it the authority to do so. But the Commission does nothing of the sort.

But let’s be charitable, and consider whether footnote 349 provides relevant analysis of its authority to review the Commercial Agreements under any statute.

The Commission did cite to several other sections of the Communications Act in the paragraph (145) that includes footnote 349. But that paragraph relates not to the review of the transaction itself (or even the ability of the parties to enter into the Commercial Agreements) but to the Commission’s authority to ensure that Verizon complies with the conditions imposed on the transaction, and to monitor the possible effects the Agreements have on the market after the fact. Three of the four statutes cited in the footnote (47 U.S.C. §§ 152, 316, & 548) don’t appear to give the Commission authority for anything related this transaction. Only 47 U.S.C. § 201 is relevant. But having authority to monitor a wireless provider’s post-transaction business practices is far different from having the authority to halt or condition the transaction itself before its completion because of concerns about ancillary agreements. The FCC cites no statutes to support this authority—because none exist.

This is not simply a semantic distinction. By claiming authority to review ancillary agreements in the course of reviewing license transfers, the Commission gains further leverage over companies seeking license transfer approvals, putting more of the companies’ economic interests at risk. This means companies will more likely make the “voluntary” concessions (with no opportunity for judicial scrutiny) that they would not otherwise have made—or they might not enter into deals in the first place. As we (Geoff and Berin) said in our CNET article, “the FCC has laid down its marker, letting all future comers know that its bargaining advantage extends well beyond the stack of chips Congress put in front of it.” In merger reviews, the house has a huge advantage, and it is magnified if the agency can expand the scope of activity under its review.

Thus Harold is particularly off-base when he writes that “[g]iven that there is no question that the FCC has authority to entertain complaints going forward, and certainly has authority to monitor how the markets under its jurisdiction are developing, it is hard to understand the jurisdictional argument even as the worship of empty formalism.” This misses the point entirely. The difference between the FCC reviewing the Commercial Agreements in deciding whether to permit the license transfer (or demand concessions) and regulating the Agreements after the fact is no mere “formalism.”

Regardless, if the FCC were actually trying to rely on these other sections of the Communications Act for authority to review the Commercial Agreements, it would have cited them in Paragraph 143, where it asserted that authority—not two paragraphs later in a footnote supporting the agency’s order assigning post-transaction monitoring tasks to the Wireline Competition Bureau. Moreover, none of these alleged assertions of authority amounts to an analysis of the FCC’s jurisdiction. Given the debate that took place in the record over the issue, a simple list of statutes purporting to confer jurisdiction would be utterly insufficient in response. Not as insufficient as an unadorned, conclusory statement of authority without even such a list of statutes (what the FCC actually did) — but awfully close.

We stand by our claim that the Commission failed to cite — let alone analyze — its authority to review the Commercial Agreements in this transaction. The FCC’s role in transaction reviews has been hotly contested, at least partially inspiring the FCC Process Reform Act that passed this spring in the House. Given the controversy around the issue, the Commission should have gone out of its way to justify its assertion of authority, citing precedent and making a coherent argument — in other words, engaging in legal analysis. At least, that’s what “real lawyers” would do.

But in real politik, perhaps it was naïve of us to expect more analysis from the agency that tried to justify net neutrality regulation by pointing to a deregulatory statute aimed at encouraging the deployment of broadband and claiming that somewhere in there, perhaps, hidden between the lines, was the authority the agency needed—but which Congress never actually gave it.

When the FCC plays fast and loose with the law in issuing regulations, someone will likely sue, thus forcing the FCC to justify itself to a court.  On net neutrality, the D.C. Circuit seems all but certain to strike down the FCC’s Open Internet Order for lacking any firm legal basis.  But when the FCC skirts legal limits on its authority in merger review, the parties to a merger have every incentive to settle and keep their legal qualms to themselves; even when the FCC blocks a merger, the parties usually calculate that t isn’t worth suing or trying to make a point about principle.  Thus, through merger review, the FCC gets away with regulation by stealth—footnotes about legal authority be damned.  Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly worry about the FCC’s expansive claims of authority as a “Trojan Horse,” even when they applaud the FCC’s ends.  We know Harold doesn’t like this transaction, but why doesn’t he worry about where the FCC is taking us?