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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 what is commonly reported, however, Subtel did not ban free data. Instead, it required mobile operators to change how they promote such 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.

In fact, as economists Gerald Faulhaber, Robert Hahn & Hal Singer point out, a simple plotting of cellular prices against market concentration shows a strong inverse relationship inconsistent with an inference of monopoly power from market shares:

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.

[Cross-posted at Forbes]

BY LARRY DOWNES AND GEOFFREY A. MANNE

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.

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