In a constructive development, the Federal Trade Commission has joined its British counterpart in investigating Nvidia’s proposed $40 billion acquisition of chip designer Arm, a subsidiary of Softbank. Arm provides the technological blueprints for wireless communications devices and, subject to a royalty fee, makes those crown-jewel assets available to all interested firms. Notwithstanding Nvidia’s stated commitment to keep the existing policy in place, there is an obvious risk that the new parent, one of the world’s leading chip makers, would at some time modify this policy with adverse competitive effects.
Ironically, the FTC is likely part of the reason that the Nvidia-Arm transaction is taking place.
Since the mid-2000s, the FTC and other leading competition regulators (except for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division under the leadership of former Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim) have intervened extensively in licensing arrangements in wireless device markets, culminating in the FTC’s recent failed suit against Qualcomm. The Nvidia-Arm transaction suggests that these actions may simply lead chip designers to abandon the licensing model and shift toward structures that monetize chip-design R&D through integrated hardware and software ecosystems. Amazon and Apple are already undertaking chip innovation through this model. Antitrust action that accelerates this movement toward in-house chip design is likely to have adverse effects for the competitive health of the wireless ecosystem.
How IP Licensing Promotes Market Access
Since its inception, the wireless communications market has relied on a handful of IP licensors to supply device producers and other intermediate users with a common suite of technology inputs. The result has been an efficient division of labor between firms that specialize in upstream innovation and firms that specialize in production and other downstream functions. Contrary to the standard assumption that IP rights limit access, this licensing-based model ensures technology access to any firm willing to pay the royalty fee.
Efforts by regulators to reengineer existing relationships between innovators and implementers endanger this market structure by inducing innovators to abandon licensing-based business models, which now operate under a cloud of legal insecurity, for integrated business models in which returns on R&D investments are captured internally through hardware and software products. Rather than expanding technology access and intensifying competition, antitrust restraints on licensing freedom are liable to limit technology access and increase market concentration.
Regulatory Intervention and Market Distortion
This interventionist approach has relied on the assertion that innovators can “lock in” producers and extract a disproportionate fee in exchange for access. This prediction has never found support in fact. Contrary to theoretical arguments that patent owners can impose double-digit “royalty stacks” on device producers, empirical researchers have repeatedly found that the estimated range of aggregate rates lies in the single digits. These findings are unsurprising given market performance over more than two decades: adoption has accelerated as quality-adjusted prices have fallen and innovation has never ceased. If rates were exorbitant, market growth would have been slow, and the smartphone would be a luxury for the rich.
Despite these empirical infirmities, the FTC and other competition regulators have persisted in taking action to mitigate “holdup risk” through policy statements and enforcement actions designed to preclude IP licensors from seeking injunctive relief. The result is a one-sided legal environment in which the world’s largest device producers can effectively infringe patents at will, knowing that the worst-case scenario is a “reasonable royalty” award determined by a court, plus attorneys’ fees. Without any credible threat to deny access even after a favorable adjudication on the merits, any IP licensor’s ability to negotiate a royalty rate that reflects the value of its technology contribution is constrained.
Assuming no change in IP licensing policy on the horizon, it is therefore not surprising that an IP licensor would seek to shift toward an integrated business model in which IP is not licensed but embedded within an integrated suite of products and services. Or alternatively, an IP licensor entity might seek to be acquired by a firm that already has such a model in place. Hence, FTC v. Qualcomm leads Arm to Nvidia.
The Error Costs of Non-Evidence-Based Antitrust
These counterproductive effects of antitrust intervention demonstrate the error costs that arise when regulators act based on unverified assertions of impending market failure. Relying on the somewhat improbable assumption that chip suppliers can dictate licensing terms to device producers that are among the world’s largest companies, competition regulators have placed at risk the legal predicates of IP rights and enforceable contracts that have made the wireless-device market an economic success. As antitrust risk intensifies, the return on licensing strategies falls and competitive advantage shifts toward integrated firms that can monetize R&D internally through stand-alone product and service ecosystems.
Far from increasing competitiveness, regulators’ current approach toward IP licensing in wireless markets is likely to reduce it.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.
Justin “Gus” Hurwitz is associate professor of law, the Menard Director of the Nebraska Governance and Technology Center, and co-director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law Program at the University of Nebraska College of Law. He is also director of law & economics programs at the International Center for Law & Economics.]
I was having a conversation recently with a fellow denizen of rural America, discussing how to create opportunities for academics studying the digital divide to get on-the-ground experience with the realities of rural telecommunications. He recounted a story from a telecom policy event in Washington, D.C., from not long ago. The story featured a couple of well-known participants in federal telecom policy as they were talking about how to close the rural digital divide. The punchline of the story was loud speculation from someone in attendance that neither of these bloviating telecom experts had likely ever set foot in a rural town.
And thus it is with most of those who debate and make telecom policy. The technical and business challenges of connecting rural America are different. Rural America needs different things out of its infrastructure than urban America. And the attitudes of both users and those providing service are different here than they are in urban America.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Aji Pai—as I get to refer to him in writing for perhaps the last time—gets this. As is well-known, he is a native Kansan. He likely spent more time during his time as chairman driving rural roads than this predecessor spent hobnobbing at political fundraisers. I had the opportunity on one of these trips to visit a Nebraska farm with him. He was constantly running a bit behind schedule on this trip. I can attest that this is because he would wander off with a farmer to look at a combine or talk about how they were using drones to survey their fields. And for those cynics out there—I know there are some who don’t believe in the chairman’s interest in rural America—I can tell you that it meant a lot to those on the ground who had the chance to share their experiences.
Rural Digital Divide Policy on the Ground
Closing the rural digital divide is a defining public-policy challenge of telecommunications. It’s right there in the first sentence of the Communications Act, which 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[.]
Depending on how one defines broadband internet, somewhere between 18 and 35 million Americans lack broadband internet access. No matter how you define it, however, most of those lacking access are in rural America.
It’s unsurprising why this is the case. Looking at North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska—three of the five most expensive states to connect each household in both the 2015 and 2018 Connect America Fund models—the cost to connect a household to the internet in these states was twice that of connecting a household in the rest of the United States. Given the low density of households in these areas, often less than one household per square mile, there are relatively fewer economies of scale that allow carriers to amortize these costs across multiple households. We can add that much of rural America is both less wealthy than more urban areas and often doesn’t value the benefits of high-speed internet as highly. Taken together, the cost of providing service in these areas is much higher, and the demand for them much less, than in more urban areas.
On the flip side are the carriers and communities working to provide access. The reality in these states is that connecting those who live here is an all-hands-on-deck exercise. I came to Nebraska with the understanding that cable companies offer internet service via cable and telephone companies offer internet service via DSL or fiber. You can imagine my surprise the first time I spoke to a carrier who was using a mix of cable, DSL, fiber, microwave, and Wi-Fi to offer service to a few hundred customers. And you can also imagine my surprise when he started offering advice to another carrier—ostensibly a competitor—about how to get more performance out of some older equipment. Just last week, I was talking to a mid-size carrier about how they are using fixed wireless to offer service to customers outside of their service area as a stopgap until fiber gets out to the customer’s house.
Pai’s Progress Closing the Rural Digital Divide
This brings us to Chairman Pai’s work to close the rural digital divide. Literally on his first day on the job, he announced that his top priority was closing the digital divide. And he backed this up both with the commission’s agenda and his own time and attention.
On Chairman Pai’s watch, the commission completed the Connect America Fund Phase II Auction. More importantly, it initiated the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and the 5G Fund for Rural America, both expressly targeting rural connectivity. The recently completed RDOF auction promises to connect 10 million rural Americans to the internet; the 5G Fund will ensure that all but the most difficult-to-connect areas of the country will be covered by 5G mobile wireless. These are top-line items on Commissioner Pai’s resume as chairman. But it is important to recognize how much of a break they were from the commission’s previous approach to universal service and the digital divide. These funding mechanisms are best characterized by their technology-neutral, reverse-auction based approach to supporting service deployment.
This is starkly different from prior generations of funding, which focused on subsidizing specific carriers to provide specific levels of service using specific technologies. As I said above, the reality on the ground in rural America is that closing the digital divide is an all-hands-on-deck exercise. It doesn’t matter who is offering service or what technology they are using. Offering 10 mbps service today over a rusty barbed wire fence or a fixed wireless antenna hanging off the branch of a tree is better than offering no service or promising fiber that’s going to take two years to get into the ground. And every dollar saved by connecting one house with a lower-cost technology is a dollar that can be used to connect another house that may otherwise have gone unconnected.
The combination of the reverse-auction and technology-neutral approaches has made it possible for the commission to secure commitments to connect a record number of houses with high-speed internet over an incredibly short period of time.
Then there are the chairman’s accomplishments on the spectrum and wireless–internet fronts. Here, he faced resistance from both within the government and industry. In some of the more absurd episodes of government in-fighting, he tangled withprotectionist interestswithin the governmentto free up CBRS and other mid-band spectrum and to authorize new satellite applications. His support of fixed and satellite wireless has the potential to legitimately shake up the telecom industry. I honestly have no idea whether this is going to prove to be a good or bad bet in the long term—whether fixed wireless is going to be able to offer the quality and speed of service its proponents promise or whether it instead will be a short-run misallocation of capital that will require clawbacks and re-awards of funding in another few years—but the embrace of the technology demonstrated decisive leadership and thawed a too limited and ossified understanding of what technologies could be used to offer service. Again, as said above, closing the rural digital divide is an all-hands-on-deck problem; we do ourselves no favors by excluding possible solutions from our attempts to address it.
There is more that the commission did under Chairman Pai’s leadership, beyond the commission’s obvious order and actions, to close the rural digital divide. Over the past two years, I have had opportunities to work with academic colleagues from other disciplines on a range of federal funding opportunities for research and development relating to next generation technologies to support rural telecommunications, such as programs through the National Science Foundation. It has been wonderful to see increased FCC involvement in these programs. And similarly, another of Chairman Pai’s early initiatives was to establish the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. It has been rare over the past few years for me to be in a meeting with rural stakeholders that didn’t also include at least one member of a BDAC subcommittee. The BDAC process was a valuable way to communicate information up the chair, to make sure that rural stakeholders’ voices were heard in D.C.
But the BDAC process had another important effect: it made clear that there was someone in D.C. who was listening. Commissioner Pai said on his first day as chairman that closing the digital divide was his top priority. That’s easy to just say. But establishing a committee framework that ensures that stakeholders regularly engage with an appointed representative of the FCC, putting in the time and miles to linger with a farmer to talk about the upcoming harvest season, these things make that priority real.
Rural America certainly hopes that the next chair of the commission will continue to pay us as much attention as Chairman Pai did. But even if they don’t, we can rest with some comfort that he has set in motion efforts—from the next generation of universal service programs to supporting research that will help develop the technologies that will come after—that will serve us will for years to come.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.
Harold Feld is senior vice president of Public Knowledge.]
Chairman Ajit Pai prioritized making new spectrum available for 5G. To his credit, he succeeded. Over the course of four years, Chairman Pai made available more high-band and mid-band spectrum, for licensed use and unlicensed use, than any other Federal Communications Commission chairman. He did so in the face of unprecedented opposition from other federal agencies, navigating the chaotic currents of the Trump administration with political acumen and courage. The Pai FCC will go down in history as the 5G FCC, and as the chairman who protected the primacy of FCC control over commercial spectrum policy.
At the same time, the Pai FCC will also go down in history as the most conventional FCC on spectrum policy in the modern era. Chairman Pai undertook no sweeping review of spectrum policy in the manner of former Chairman Michael Powell and no introduction of new and radically different spectrum technologies such as the introduction of unlicensed spectrum and spread spectrum in the 1980s, or the introduction of auctions in the 1990s. To the contrary, Chairman Pai actually rolled back the experimental short-term license structure adopted in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band and replaced it with the conventional long-term with renewal expectation license. He missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically expand the availability of unlicensed use of the TV white spaces (TVWS) via repacking after the television incentive auction. In reworking the rules for the 2.5 GHz band, although Pai laudably embraced the recommendation to create an application window for rural tribal lands, he rejected the proposal to allow nonprofits a chance to use the band for broadband in favor of conventional auction policy.
Ajit Pai’s Spectrum Policy Gave the US a Strong Position for 5G and Wi-Fi 6
To fully appreciate Chairman Pai’s accomplishments, we must first fully appreciate the urgency of opening new spectrum, and the challenges Pai faced from within the Trump administration itself. While providers can (and should) repurpose spectrum from older technologies to newer technologies, successful widespread deployment can only take place when sufficient amounts of new spectrum become available. This “green field” spectrum allows providers to build out new technologies with the most up-to-date equipment without disrupting existing subscriber services. The protocols developed for mobile 5G services work best with “mid-band” spectrum (generally considered to be frequencies between 2 GHz and 6 GHz). At the time Pai became chairman, the FCC did not have any mid-band spectrum identified for auction.
In addition, spectrum available for unlicensed use has become increasingly congested as more and more services depend on Wi-Fi and other unlicensed applications. Indeed, we have become so dependent on Wi-Fi for home broadband and networking that people routinely talk about buying “Wi-Fi” from commercial broadband providers rather than buying “internet access.” The United States further suffered a serious disadvantage moving forward to next generation Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, because the U.S. lacked a contiguous block of spectrum large enough to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6’s gigabit capabilities. Without gigabit Wi-Fi, Americans will increasingly be unable to use the applications that gigabit broadband to the home makes possible.
But virtually all spectrum—particularly mid-band spectrum—have significant incumbents. These incumbents include federal users, particularly the U.S. Department of Defense. Finding new spectrum optimal for 5G required reclaiming spectrum from these incumbents. Unlicensed services do not require relocating incumbent users but creating such “underlay” unlicensed spectrum access requires rules to prevent unlicensed operations from causing harmful interference to licensed services. Needless to say, incumbent services fiercely resist any change in spectrum-allocation rules, claiming that reducing their spectrum allocation or permitting unlicensed services will compromise valuable existing services, while simultaneously causing harmful interference.
The need to reallocate unprecedented amounts of spectrum to ensure successful 5G and Wi-Fi 6 deployment in the United States created an unholy alliance of powerful incumbents, commercial and federal, dedicated to blocking FCC action. Federal agencies—in violation of established federal spectrum policy—publicly challenged the FCC’s spectrum-allocation decisions. Powerful industry incumbents—such as the auto industry, the power industry, and defense contractors—aggressively lobbied Congress to reverse the FCC’s spectrum action by legislation. The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), the federal agency tasked with formulating federal spectrum policy, was missing in action as it rotated among different acting agency heads. As the chair and ranking member of the House Commerce Committee noted, this unprecedented and very public opposition by federal agencies to FCC spectrum policy threatened U.S. wireless interests both domestically and internationally.
Navigating this hostile terrain required Pai to exercise both political acumen and political will. Pai accomplished his goal of reallocating 600 MHz of spectrum for auction, opening over 1200 MHz of contiguous spectrum for unlicensed use, and authorized the new entrant Ligado Networks over the objections of the DOD. He did so by a combination of persuading President Donald Trump of the importance of maintaining U.S. leadership in 5G, and insisting on impeccable analysis by the FCC’s engineers to provide support for the reallocation and underlay decisions. On the most significant votes, Pai secured support (or partial support) from the Democrats. Perhaps most importantly, Pai successfully defended the institutional role of the FCC as the ultimate decisionmaker on commercial spectrum use, not subject to a “heckler’s veto” by other federal agencies.
Missed Innovation, ‘Command and Control Lite‘
While acknowledging Pai’s accomplishments, a fair consideration of Pai’s legacy must also consider his shortcomings. As chairman, Pai proved the most conservative FCC chair on spectrum policy since the 1980s. The Reagan FCC produced unlicensed and spread spectrum rules. The Clinton FCC created the spectrum auction regime. The Bush FCC included a spectrum task force and produced the concept of database management for unlicensed services, creating the TVWS and laying the groundwork for CBRS in the 3.5 GHz band. The Obama FCC recommended and created the world’s first incentive auction.
The Trump FCC does more than lack comparable accomplishments; it actively rolled back previous innovations. Within the first year of his chairmanship, Pai began a rulemaking designed to roll back the innovative priority access licensing (PALs). Under the rules adopted under the previous chairman, PALs provided exclusive use on a census block basis for three years with no expectation of renewal. Pai delayed the rollout of CBRS for two years to replace this approach with a standard license structure of 10 years with an expectation of renewal, explicitly to facilitate traditional carrier investment in traditional networks. Pai followed the same path when restructuring the 2.5 GHz band. While laudably creating a window for Native Americans to apply for 2.5 GHz licenses on rural tribal lands, Pai rejected proposals from nonprofits to adopt a window for non-commercial providers to offer broadband. Instead, he simply eliminated the educational requirement and adopted a standard auction for distribution of remaining licenses.
Similarly, in the unlicensed space, Pai consistently declined to promote innovation. In the repacking following the broadcast incentive auction, Pai rejected the proposal of structuring the repacking to ensure usable TVWS in every market. Instead, under Pai, the FCC managed the repacking so as to minimize the burden on incumbent primary and secondary licensees. As a result, major markets such as Los Angeles have zero channels available for unlicensed TVWS operation. This effectively relegates the service to a niche rural service, augmenting existing rural wireless ISPs.
The result is a modified form of “command and control,” the now-discredited system where the FCC would allocate licenses to provide specific services such as “FM radio” or “mobile pager service.” While preserving license flexibility in name, the licensing rules are explicitly structured to promote certain types of investment and business cases. The result is to encourage the same types of licensees to offer improved and more powerful versions of the same types of services, while discouraging more radical innovations.
Chairman Pai can rightly take pride in his overall 5G legacy. He preserved the institutional role of the FCC as the agency responsible for expanding our nation’s access to wireless services against sustained attack by federal agencies determined to protect their own spectrum interests. He provided enough green field spectrum for both licensed services and unlicensed services to permit the successful deployment of 5G and Wi-Fi 6. At the same time, however, he failed to encourage more radical spectrum policies that have made the United States the birthplace of such technologies as mobile broadband and Wi-Fi. We have won the “race” to next generation wireless, but the players and services are likely to stay the same.
The Finnish consultancy Rewheel periodically issues reports using mobile wireless pricing information to make claims about which countries’ markets are competitive and which are not. For example, Rewheel claims Canada and Greece have the “least competitive monthly prices” while the United Kingdom and Finland have the most competitive.
Rewheel often claims that the number of carriers operating in a country is the key determinant of wireless pricing.
Their pricing studies attract a great deal of attention. For example, in February 2019 testimony before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, Phillip Berenbroick of Public Knowledge asserted: “Rewheel found that consumers in markets with three facilities-based providers paid twice as much per gigabyte as consumers in four firm markets.” So, what’s wrong with Rewheel? An earlier post highlights some of the flaws in Rewheel’s methodology. But there’s more.
Rewheel creates fictional market baskets of mobile plans for each provider in a county. Country-by-country comparisons are made by evaluating the lowest-priced basket for each country and the basket with the median price.
Rewheel’s market baskets are hypothetical packages that say nothing about which plans are actually chosen by consumers or what the actual prices paid by those consumers were. This is not a new criticism. In 2014, Pauline Affeldt and Rainer Nitsche called these measures “meaningless”:
Such approaches are taken by Rewheel (2013) and also the Austrian regulator rtr … Such studies face the following problems: They may pick tariffs that are relatively meaningless in the country. They will have to assume one or more consumption baskets (voice minutes, data volume etc.) in order to compare tariffs. This may drive results. Apart from these difficulties such comparisons require very careful tracking of tariffs and their changes. Even if one assumes studying a sample of tariffs is potentially meaningful, a comparison across countries (or over time) would still require taking into account key differences across countries (or over time) like differences in demand, costs, network quality etc.
For example, reporting that the average price of a certain T-Mobile USA smartphone, tablet and home Internet plan is $125 is about as useless as knowing that the average price of a Kroger shopping cart containing a six-pack of Budweiser, a dozen eggs, and a pound of oranges is $10. Is Safeway less “competitive” if the price of the same cart of goods is $12? What could you say about pricing at a store that doesn’t sell Budweiser (e.g., Trader Joe’s)?
Rewheel solves that last problem by doing something bonkers. If a carrier doesn’t offer a plan in one of Rewheel’s baskets, they “assign” the HIGHEST monthly price in the world.
For example, Rewheel notes that Vodafone India does not offer a fixed wireless broadband plan with at least 1,000GB of data and download speeds of 100 Mbps or faster. So, Rewheel “assigns” Vodafone India the highest price in its dataset. That price belongs to a plan that’s sold in the United Kingdom. It simply makes no sense.
To return to the supermarket analogy, it would be akin to saying that, if a Trader Joe’s in the United States doesn’t sell six-packs of Budweiser, we should assume the price of Budweiser at Trader Joe’s is equal to the world’s most expensive six-pack of the beer. In reality, Trader Joe’s is known for having relatively low prices. But using the Rewheel approach, the store would be assessed to have some of the highest prices.
Because of Rewheel’s “assignment” of highest monthly prices to many plans, it’s irrelevant whether their analysis is based on a country’s median price or lowest price. The median is skewed and the lowest actual may be missing from the dataset.
Rewheel publishes these reports to support its argument that mobile prices are lower in markets with four carriers than in those with three carriers. But even if we accept Rewheel’s price data as reliable, which it isn’t, their own data show no relationship between the number of carriers and average price.
Notice the huge overlap of observations among markets with three and four carriers.
Rewheel’s latest report provides a redacted dataset, reporting only data usage and weighted average price for each provider. So, we have to work with what we have.
A simple regression analysis shows there is no statistically significant difference in the intercept or the slopes for markets with three, four or five carriers (the default is three carriers in the regression). Based on the data Rewheel provides to the public, the number of carriers in a country has no relationship to wireless prices.
Rewheel seems to have a rich dataset of pricing information that could be useful to inform policy. It’s a shame that their topline summaries seem designed to support a predetermined conclusion.
Unexpectedly, on the day that the white copy of the upcoming repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order was published, a mobile operator in Portugal with about 7.5 million subscribers is garnering a lot of attention. Curiously, it’s not because Portugal is a beautiful country (Iker Casillas’ Instagram feed is dope) nor because Portuguese is a beautiful romance language.
Rather it’s because old-fashioned misinformation is being peddled to perpetuate doomsday images that Portuguese ISPs have carved the Internet into pieces — and if the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order passes, the same butchery is coming to an AT&T store near you.
Much ado about data
This tempest in the teacup is about mobile data plans, specifically the ability of mobile subscribers to supplement their data plan (typically ranging from 200 MB to 3 GB per month) with additional 10 GB data packages containing specific bundles of apps – messaging apps, social apps, video apps, music apps, and email and cloud apps. Each additional 10 GB data package costs EUR 6.99 per month and Meo (the mobile operator) also offers its own zero rated apps. Similar plans have been offered in Portugal since at least 2012.
These data packages are a clear win for mobile subscribers, especially pre-paid subscribers who tend to be at a lower income level than post-paid subscribers. They allow consumers to customize their plan beyond their mobile broadband subscription, enabling them to consume data in ways that are better attuned to their preferences. Without access to these data packages, consuming an additional 10 GB of data would cost each user an additional EUR 26 per month and require her to enter into a two year contract.
These discounted data packages also facilitate product differentiation among mobile operators that offer a variety of plans. Keeping with the Portugal example, Vodafone Portugal offers 20 GB of additional data for certain apps (Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and Skype, among others) with the purchase of a 3 GB mobile data plan. Consumers can pick which operator offers the best plan for them.
In addition, data packages like the ones in question here tend to increase the overall consumption of content, reduce users’ cost of obtaining information, and allow for consumers to experiment with new, less familiar apps. In short, they are overwhelmingly pro-consumer.
Even if Portugal actually didn’t have net neutrality rules, this would be the furthest thing from the apocalypse critics make it out to be.
Net Neutrality in Portugal
But, contrary to activists’ misinformation, Portugal does have net neutrality rules. The EU implemented its net neutrality framework in November 2015 as a regulation, meaning that the regulation became the law of the EU when it was enacted, and national governments, including Portugal, did not need to transpose it into national legislation.
While the regulation was automatically enacted in Portugal, the regulation and the 2016 EC guidelines left the decision of whether to allow sponsored data and zero rating plans (the Regulation likely classifies data packages at issue here to be zero rated plans because they give users a lot of data for a low price) in the hands of national regulators. While Portugal is still formulating the standard it will use to evaluate sponsored data and zero rating under the EU’s framework, there is little reason to think that this common practice would be disallowed in Portugal.
On average, in fact, despite its strong net neutrality regulation, the EU appears to be softening its stance toward zero rating. This was evident in a recent EC competition policy authority (DG-Comp) study concluding that there is little reason to believe that such data practices raise concerns.
The activists’ willful misunderstanding of clearly pro-consumer data plans and purposeful mischaracterization of Portugal as not having net neutrality rules are inflammatory and deceitful. Even more puzzling for activists (but great for consumers) is their position given there is nothing in the 2015 Open Internet Order that would prevent these types of data packages from being offered in the US so long as ISPs are transparent with consumers.
It’s fitting that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently compared his predecessor’s jettisoning of the FCC’s light touch framework for Internet access regulation without hard evidence to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden trade. That infamous deal broke up a young nucleus of three of the best players in the NBA in 2012 because keeping all three might someday create salary cap concerns. What few saw coming was a new TV deal in 2015 that sent the salary cap soaring.
If it’s hard to predict how the market will evolve in the closed world of professional basketball, predictions about the path of Internet innovation are an order of magnitude harder — especially for those making crucial decisions with a lot of money at stake.
The FCC’s answer for what it considered to be the dangerous unpredictability of Internet innovation was to write itself a blank check of authority to regulate ISPs in the 2015 Open Internet Order (OIO), embodied in what is referred to as the “Internet conduct standard.” This standard expanded the scope of Internet access regulation well beyond the core principle of preserving openness (i.e., ensuring that any legal content can be accessed by all users) by granting the FCC the unbounded, discretionary authority to define and address “new and novel threats to the Internet.”
When asked about what the standard meant (not long after writing it), former Chairman Tom Wheeler replied,
We don’t really know. We don’t know where things will go next. We have created a playing field where there are known rules, and the FCC will sit there as a referee and will throw the flag.
Somehow, former Chairman Wheeler would have us believe that an amorphous standard that means whatever the agency (or its Enforcement Bureau) says it means created a playing field with “known rules.” But claiming such broad authority is hardly the light-touch approach marketed to the public. Instead, this ill-conceived standard allows the FCC to wade as deeply as it chooses into how an ISP organizes its business and how it manages its network traffic.
Such an approach is destined to undermine, rather than further, the objectives of Internet openness, as embodied in Chairman Powell’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement:
To foster creation, adoption and use of Internet broadband content, applications, services and attachments, and to ensure consumers benefit from the innovation that comes from competition.
Instead, the Internet conduct standard is emblematic of how an off-the-rails quest to heavily regulate one specific component of the complex Internet ecosystem results in arbitrary regulatory imbalances — e.g., between ISPs and over-the-top (OTT) or edge providers that offer similar services such as video streaming or voice calling.
As Boston College Law Professor, Dan Lyons, puts it:
While many might assume that, in theory, what’s good for Netflix is good for consumers, the reality is more complex. To protect innovation at the edge of the Internet ecosystem, the Commission’s sweeping rules reduce the opportunity for consumer-friendly innovation elsewhere, namely by facilities-based broadband providers.
This is no recipe for innovation, nor does it coherently distinguish between practices that might impede competition and innovation on the Internet and those that are merely politically disfavored, for any reason or no reason at all.
Free data madness
The Internet conduct standard’s unholy combination of unfettered discretion and the impulse to micromanage can (and will) be deployed without credible justification to the detriment of consumers and innovation. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the confusion surrounding the regulation of “free data.”
Free data, like T-Mobile’s Binge On program, is data consumed by a user that has been subsidized by a mobile operator or a content provider. The vertical arrangements between operators and content providers creating the free data offerings provide many benefits to consumers, including enabling subscribers to consume more data (or, for low-income users, to consume data in the first place), facilitating product differentiation by mobile operators that offer a variety of free data plans (including allowing smaller operators the chance to get a leg up on competitors by assembling a market-share-winning plan), increasing the overall consumption of content, and reducing users’ cost of obtaining information. It’s also fundamentally about experimentation. As the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) recently explained:
Offering some services at subsidized or zero prices frees up resources (and, where applicable, data under a user’s data cap) enabling users to experiment with new, less-familiar alternatives. Where a user might not find it worthwhile to spend his marginal dollar on an unfamiliar or less-preferred service, differentiated pricing loosens the user’s budget constraint, and may make him more, not less, likely to use alternative services.
In December 2015 then-Chairman Tom Wheeler used his newfound discretion to launch a 13-month “inquiry” into free data practices before preliminarily finding some to be in violation of the standard. Without identifying any actual harm, Wheeler concluded that free data plans “may raise” economic and public policy issues that “may harm consumers and competition.”
After assuming the reins at the FCC, Chairman Pai swiftly put an end to that nonsense, saying that the Commission had better things to do (like removing barriers to broadband deployment) than denying free data plans that expand Internet access and are immensely popular, especially among low-income Americans.
The global morass of free data regulation
But as long as the Internet conduct standard remains on the books, it implicitly grants the US’s imprimatur to harmful policies and regulatory capriciousness in other countries that look to the US for persuasive authority. While Chairman Pai’s decisive intervention resolved the free data debate in the US (at least for now), other countries are still grappling with whether to prohibit the practice, allow it, or allow it with various restrictions.
In Europe, the 2016 EC guidelines left the decision of whether to allow the practice in the hands of national regulators. Consequently, some regulators — in Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands (although there the ban was recently overturned in court) — have banned free data practices while others — in Denmark, Germany, Spain, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine — have not. And whether or not they allow the practice, regulators (e.g., Norway’s Nkom and the UK’s Ofcom) have lamented the lack of regulatory certainty surrounding free data programs, a state of affairs that is compounded by a lack of data on the consequences of various approaches to their regulation.
In Canada this year, the CRTC issued a decision adopting restrictive criteria under which to evaluate free data plans. The criteria include assessing the degree to which the treatment of data is agnostic, whether the free data offer is exclusive to certain customers or certain content providers, the impact on Internet openness and innovation, and whether there is financial compensation involved. The standard is open-ended, and free data plans as they are offered in the US would “likely raise concerns.”
Other regulators are contributing to the confusion through ambiguously framed rules, such as that of the Chilean regulator, Subtel. In a 2014 decision, it found that a free data offer of specific social network apps was in breach of Chile’s Internet rules. In contrast to whatiscommonlyreported, however, Subtel did not ban free data. Instead, it required mobile operators to change how they promotesuch services, requiring them to state that access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were offered “without discounting the user’s balance” instead of “at no cost.” It also required them to disclose the amount of time the offer would be available, but imposed no mandatory limit.
In addition to this confusing regulatory make-work governing how operators market free data plans, the Chilean measures also require that mobile operators offer free data to subscribers who pay for a data plan, in order to ensure free data isn’t the only option users have to access the Internet.
The result is that in Chile today free data plans are widely offered by Movistar, Claro, and Entel and include access to apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Pokemon Go, Waze, Snapchat, Apple Music, Spotify, Netflix or YouTube — even though Subtel has nominally declared such plans to be in violation of Chile’s net neutrality rules.
Other regulators are searching for palatable alternatives to both flex their regulatory muscle to govern Internet access, while simultaneously making free data work. The Indian regulator, TRAI, famously banned free data in February 2016. But the story doesn’t end there. After seeing the potential value of free data in unserved and underserved, low-income areas, TRAI proposed implementing government-sanctioned free data. The proposed scheme would provide rural subscribers with 100 MB of free data per month, funded through the country’s universal service fund. To ensure that there would be no vertical agreements between content providers and mobile operators, TRAI recommended introducing third parties, referred to as “aggregators,” that would facilitate mobile-operator-agnostic arrangements.
The result is a nonsensical, if vaguely well-intentioned, threading of the needle between the perceived need to (over-)regulate access providers and the determination to expand access. Notwithstanding the Indian government’s awareness that free data will help to close the digital divide and enhance Internet access, in other words, it nonetheless banned private markets from employing private capital to achieve that very result, preferring instead non-market processes which are unlikely to be nearly as nimble or as effective — and yet still ultimately offer “non-neutral” options for consumers.
Thinking globally, acting locally (by ditching the Internet conduct standard)
Where it is permitted, free data is undergoing explosive adoption among mobile operators. Currently in the US, for example, all major mobile operators offer some form of free data or unlimited plan to subscribers. And, as a result, free data is proving itself as a business model for users’ early stage experimentation and adoption of augmented reality, virtual reality and other cutting-edge technologies that represent the Internet’s next wave — but that also use vast amounts of data. Were the US to cut off free data at the legs under the OIO absent hard evidence of harm, it would substantially undermine this innovation.
The application of the nebulous Internet conduct standard to free data is a microcosm of the current incoherence: It is a rule rife with a parade of uncertainties and only theoretical problems, needlessly saddling companies with enforcement risk, all in the name of preserving and promoting innovation and openness. As even some of the staunchest proponents of net neutrality have recognized, only companies that can afford years of litigation can be expected to thrive in such an environment.
In the face of confusion and uncertainty globally, the US is now poised to provide leadership grounded in sound policy that promotes innovation. As ICLE noted last month, Chairman Pai took a crucial step toward re-imposing economic rigor and the rule of law at the FCC by questioning the unprecedented and ill-supported expansion of FCC authority that undergirds the OIO in general and the Internet conduct standard in particular. Today the agency will take the next step by voting on Chairman Pai’s proposed rulemaking. Wherever the new proceeding leads, it’s a welcome opportunity to analyze the issues with a degree of rigor that has thus far been appallingly absent.
And we should not forget that there’s a direct solution to these ambiguities that would avoid the undulations of subsequent FCC policy fights: Congress could (and should) pass legislation implementing a regulatory framework grounded in sound economics and empirical evidence that allows for consumers to benefit from the vast number of procompetitive vertical agreements (such as free data plans), while still facilitating a means for policing conduct that may actually harm consumers.
The Golden State Warriors are the heavy odds-on favorite to win another NBA Championship this summer, led by former OKC player Kevin Durant. And James Harden is a contender for league MVP. We can’t always turn back the clock on a terrible decision, hastily made before enough evidence has been gathered, but Chairman Pai’s efforts present a rare opportunity to do so.
The pending wireless spectrum deal between Verizon Wireless and a group of cable companies (the SpectrumCo deal, for short) continues to attract opprobrium from self-proclaimed consumer advocates and policy scolds. In the latest salvo, Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld (and other critics of the deal) aren’t happy that Verizon seems to be working to appease the regulators by selling off some of its spectrum in an effort to secure approval for its deal. Critics are surely correct that appeasement is what’s going on here—but why this merits their derision is unclear.
For starters, whatever the objections to the “divestiture,” the net effect is that Verizon will hold less spectrum than it would under the original terms of the deal and its competitors will hold more. That this is precisely what Public Knowledge and other critics claim to want couldn’t be more clear—and thus neither is the hypocrisy of their criticism.
Note that “divestiture” is Feld’s term, and I think it’s apt, although he uses it derisively. His derision seems to stem from his belief that it is a travesty that such a move could dare be undertaken by a party acting on its own instead of under direct diktat from the FCC (with Public Knowledge advising, of course). Such a view—that condemns the private transfer of spectrum into the very hands Public Knowledge would most like to see holding it for the sake of securing approval for a deal that simultaneously improves Verizon’s spectrum position because it is better for the public to suffer (by Public Knowledge’s own standard) than for Verizon to benefit—seems to betray the organization’s decidedly non-public-interested motives.
But Feld amasses some more specific criticisms. Each falls flat.
For starters, Feld claims that the spectrum licenses Verizon proposes to sell off (Lower (A and B block) 700 MHz band licenses) would just end up in AT&T’s hands—and that doesn’t further the scolds’ preferred vision of Utopia in which smaller providers end up with the spectrum (apparently “small” now includes T-Mobile and Sprint, presumably because they are fair-weather allies in this fight). And why will the spectrum inevitably end up in AT&T’s hands? Writes Feld:
AT&T just has too many advantages to reasonably expect someone else to get the licenses. For starters, AT&T has deeper pockets and can get more financing on better terms. But even more importantly, AT&T has a network plan based on the Lower 700 MHz A &B Block licenses it acquired in auction 2008 (and from Qualcomm more recently). It has towers, contracts for handsets, and everything else that would let it plug in Verizon’s licenses. Other providers would need to incur these expenses over and above the cost of winning the auction in the first place.
Allow me to summarize: AT&T will win the licenses because it can make the most efficient, effective and timely use of the spectrum. The horror!
Feld has in one paragraph seemingly undermined his whole case. If approval of the deal turns on its effect on the public interest, stifling the deal in an explicit (and Quixotic) effort to ensure that the spectrum ends up in the hands of providers less capable of deploying it would seem manifestly to harm, not help, consumers.
And don’t forget that, whatever his preferred vision of the world, the most immediate effect of stopping the SpectrumCo deal will be that all of the spectrum that would have been transferred to—and deployed by—Verizon in the deal will instead remain in the hands of the cable companies where it now sits idly, helping no one relieve the spectrum crunch.
But let’s unpack the claims further. First, a few factual matters. AT&T holds no 700 MHz block A spectrum. It bought block B spectrum in the 2008 auction and acquired spectrum in blocks D and E from Qualcomm.
Second, the claim that this spectrum is essentially worthless, especially to any carrier except AT&T, is betrayed by reality. First, despite the claimed interference problems from TV broadcasters for A block spectrum, carriers are in fact deploying on the A block and have obtained devices to facilitate doing so effectively.
Meanwhile, Verizon had already announced in November of last year that it planned to transfer 12 MHz of A block spectrum in Chicago to Leap (note for those keeping score at home: Leap is notAT&T) in exchange for other spectrum around the country, and Cox recently announced that it is selling its own A and B block 700 MHz licenses (yes, eight B block licenses would go to AT&T, but four A block licenses would go to US Cellular).
Pretty clearly these A and B block 700 MHz licenses have value, and not just to AT&T.
Feld does actually realize that his preferred course of action is harmful. According to Feld, even though the transfer would increase spectrum holdings by companies that aren’t AT&T or Verizon, the fact that it might also facilitate the SpectrumCo deal and thus increase Verizon’s spectrum holdings is reason enough to object. For Feld and other critics of the deal the concern is over concentrationin spectrum holdings, and thus Verizon’s proposed divestiture is insufficient because the net effect of the deal, even with the divestiture, would be to increase Verizon’s spectrum holdings. Feld writes:
Verizon takes a giant leap forward in its spectrum holding and overall spectrum efficiency, whereas the competitors improve only marginally in absolute terms. Yes, compared to their current level of spectrum constraint, it would improve the ability of competitors [to compete] . . . [b]ut in absolute terms . . . the difference is so marginal it is not helpful.
Verizon has already said that they have no plans (assuming they get the AWS spectrum) to actually use the Lower MHz 700 A & B licenses, so selling those off does not reduce Verizon’s lead in the spectrum gap. So if we care about the spectrum gap, we need to take into account that this divestiture still does not alleviate the overall problem of spectrum concentration, even if it does improve spectrum efficiency.
But Feld is using a fantasy denominator to establish his concentration ratio. The divestiture only increases concentration when compared to a hypothetical world in which self-proclaimed protectors of the public interest get to distribute spectrum according to their idealized notions of a preferred market structure. But the relevant baseline for assessing the divestiture, even on Feld’s own concentration-centric terms, is the distribution of licenses under the deal without the divestiture—against which the divestiture manifestly reduces concentration, even if only “marginally.”
Moreover, critics commit the same inappropriate fantasizing when criticizing the SpectrumCo deal itself. Again, even if Feld’s imaginary world would be preferable to the post-deal world (more on which below), that imaginary world simply isn’t on the table. What is on the table if the deal falls through is the status quo—that is, the world in which Verizon is stuck with spectrum it is willing to sell and foreclosed from access to spectrum it wants to buy; US Cellular, AT&T and other carriers are left without access to Verizon’s lower-block 700 MHz spectrum; and the cable companies are saddled with spectrum they won’t use.
Perhaps, compared to this world, the deal does increase concentration. More importantly, compared to this world the deal increases spectrum deployment. Significantly. But never mind: The benefits of actual and immediate deployment of spectrum can never match up in the scolds’ minds to the speculative and theoretical harms from increased concentration, especially when judged against a hypothetical world that does not and will not ever exist.
But what is most appalling about critics’ efforts to withhold valuable spectrum from consumers for the sake of avoiding increased concentration is the reality that increased concentration doesn’t actually cause any harm.
In fact, it is simply inappropriate to assess the likely competitive effects of this or any other transaction in this industry by assessing concentration based on spectrum holdings. Of key importance here is the reality that spectrum alone—though essential to effective competitiveness—is not enough to amass customers, let alone confer market power. In this regard it is well worth noting that the very spectrum holdings at issue in the SpectrumCo deal, although significant in size, produce precisely zero market share for their current owners.
Even the FCC recognizes the weakness of reliance upon market structure as an indicator of market competitiveness in its most recent Wireless Competition Report, where the agency notes that highly concentrated markets may nevertheless be intensely competitive.
And the DOJ, in assessing “Economic Issues in Broadband Competition,” has likewise concluded both that these markets are likely to be concentrated and that such concentration does not raisecompetitive concerns. In large-scale networks “with differentiated products subject to large economies of scale (relative to the size of the market), the Department does not expect to see a large number of suppliers.” Rather, the DOJ cautions against “striving for broadband markets that look like textbook markets of perfect competition, with many price-taking firms. That market structure is unsuitable for the provision of broadband services.”
Although commonly trotted out as a conclusion in support of monopolization, the fact that a market may be concentrated is simply not a reliable indicator of anticompetitive effect, and naked reliance on such conclusions is inconsistent with modern understandings of markets and competition.
As it happens, there is detailed evidence in the Fifteenth Wireless Competition Report on actual competitive dynamics; market share analysis is unlikely to provide any additional insight. And the available evidence suggests that the tide toward concentration has resulted in considerable benefits and certainly doesn’t warrant a presumption of harm in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary specific to this license transfer. Instead, there is considerable evidence of rapidly falling prices, quality expansion, capital investment, and a host of other characteristics inconsistent with a monopoly assumption that might otherwise be erroneously inferred from a structural analysis like that employed by Feld and other critics.
Today’s wireless market is an arguably concentrated but remarkably competitive market. Concentration of resources in the hands of the largest wireless providers has not slowed the growth of the market; rather the central problem is one of spectrum scarcity. According to the Fifteenth Report, “mobile broadband growth is likely to outpace the ability of technology and network improvements to keep up by an estimated factor of three, leading to a spectrum deficit that is likely to approach 300 megahertz within the next five years.”
Feld and his friends can fret about the phantom problem of concentration all they like—it doesn’t change the reality that the real problem is the lack of available spectrum to meet consumer demand. It’s bad enough that they are doing whatever they can to stop the SpectrumCo deal itself which would ensure that spectrum moves from the cable companies, where it sits unused, to Verizon, where it would be speedily deployed. But when they contort themselves to criticize even the re-allocation of spectrum under the so-called divestiture, which would directly address the very issue they hold so dear, it is clear that these “protectors of consumer rights” are not really protecting consumers at all.
The FCC published in June its annual report on the state of competition in the mobile services marketplace. Under ordinary circumstances, this 300-plus page tome would sit quietly on the shelf, since, like last year’s report, it ‘‘makes no formal finding as to whether there is, or is not, effective competition in the industry.’’
But these are not ordinary circumstances. Thanks to innovations including new smartphones and tablet computers, application (app) stores and the mania for games such as ‘‘Angry Birds,’’ the mobile industry is perhaps the only sector of the economy where consumer demand is growing explosively.
Meanwhile, the pending merger between AT&T and T-Mobile USA, valued at more than $39 billion, has the potential to accelerate development of the mobile ecosystem. All eyes, including many in Congress, are on the FCC and the Department of Justice. Their review of the deal could take the rest of the year. So the FCC’s refusal to make a definitive finding on the competitive state of the industry has left analysts poring through the report, reading the tea leaves for clues as to how the FCC will evaluate the proposed merger.
Make no mistake: this is some seriously expensive tea. If the deal is rejected, AT&T is reported to have agreed to pay T-Mobile $3 billion in cash for its troubles. Some competitors, notably Sprint, have declared full-scale war, marshaling an army of interest groups and friendly journalists.
But the deal makes good economic sense for consumers. Most important, T-Mobile’s spectrum assets will allow AT&T to roll out a second national 4G LTE (longterm evolution) network to compete with Verizon’s, and expand service to rural customers. (Currently, only 38 percent of rural customers have three or more choices for mobile broadband.)
More to the point, the government has no legal basis for turning down the deal based on its antitrust review. Under the law, the FCC must approve AT&T’s bid to buy T-Mobile USA unless the agency can prove the transaction is not ‘‘in the public interest.’’ While the FCC’s public interest standard is famously undefined, the agency typically balances the benefits of the deal against potential harm to consumers. If the benefits outweigh the harms, the Commission must approve.
The benefits are there, and the harms are few. Though the FCC refuses to acknowledge it explicitly, the report’s impressive detail amply supports what everyone already knows: falling prices, improved quality, dynamic competition and unflagging innovation have led to a golden age of mobile services. Indeed, the three main themes of the report all support AT&T’s contention that competition will thrive and the public’s interests will be well served by combining with T-Mobile.