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If the FCC is serious about regulating the internet like a utility, then this is what it should do

The argument that access to the internet via broadband networks should be regulated like a public utility sends society the wrong message about how information moves along the internet and that it is okay to devalue information, data, content along certain interconnection points when indeed the opposite should be happening; that for the value added at these interconnection points, added value should be reflected in the price mechanism.  Access should not be priced at near zero on false premises of openness and privacy.

On the contrary, if the data consumer wants to keep the prying eyes of access providers or other data providers away from her activities, there should be an exchange of compensation that guarantees such activity won’t take place.  Rather than regulate the internet as a “public utility”, let the parties in data transactions enter into contracts that spell out each party’s rights.

Unlike an electric utility where the product, electricity, flows for the most part one way (we’ll ignore distributed energy for now), data, content, information flows two ways.  Electricity flows from an energy producer to an entity that coordinates the transmission of electricity flows to the distribution utilities that have been searching for the best price from the generators. Data, content, information flows at least two ways; from content creator/generator/aggregator to an end-user in response to the locational or other personal data the end-user provides to either her internet service provider or content provider.

The data end-user or consumer pays her broadband provider for access to the internet and may also an online entity for access to their content which may be located behind a paywall.  In most cases the information the end-user seeks is offered by content providers free of charge.  But if a public utility model is followed for participants in the data markets then consumers have been underpaying for their search activities and their bills should be adjusted upward to capture the major costs a utility incurs when delivering service.

A consumer’s utility rate includes the cost of generating electricity; transmitting electricity; and distributing electricity to its final stop.  The utility consumer may also pay environmental compliance costs, nuclear construction costs recovery, a municipal franchise fee, and sales tax.

Broadband fees are another matter. What sticks out when you look at your broadband bill is that none of your fees and charges are related to the generation, transmission, or distribution of data, content, information.  For broadband access you may pay state and local taxes and that’s it.

So while a utility’s rate reflects activities impacting the movement of product that end-users want to purchase, electricity, broadband rates, while reflecting the cost of access, include nothing else, not even the cost of generating and transmitting data, content, information. If progressive advocates for public utility-style regulation of internet access want their argument to have validity they will have to accept that along with the additional regulatory burdens they propose via Title II, customers should expect bills that capture all the costs involved in generating and sending their data, content, information to them.  Broadband providers should pay every content provider that the broadband subscriber chooses as a source of data, content, information, and broadband providers should turn around and pass on these costs to the consumer so that her bills reflect these choices.

The benefits from such an approach is that it would give the markets a much more accurate view of which content providers are providing end-users with the most value.  The net neutrality debate would end because consumers would choose content they value the most as a result of rates that reflect the cost of getting a near infinitesimal amount of data to the end-user.

That is, off course, if the FCC is really serious about regulating the internet like a utility.

Consumers will call the FCC’s forbearance bluff

Posted February 19th, 2015 in Broadband, Federal Communications Commission, net neutrality and tagged , , by Alton Drew

We are seven days away from the Federal Communications Commission’s expectedly contentious vote on its reboot of net neutrality rules.  With the support of President Obama, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler will present rules based on the Commission’s alleged Title II authority under the Communications Act of 1934.  Title II was designed to keep in check 20th century monopolies by ensuring the reasonableness of rates charged by telephone companies to their end-users; ensuring that telephone companies as carriers of last resort provided services to all American households; and placing under the Commission’s authority the review of interconnection agreements between common carriers.

President Obama and other Title II proponents are against regulating rates for accessing the internet via broadband services, but Mr. Obama will leave office in January 2017 and a new Commission chairman, should Mr Wheeler also depart, may have different ideas about the regulation of internet access rates.

The irony is that failure to regulate internet access rates may invalidate the “goodwill” Mr Wheeler garnered from a boisterous if not uninformed public of three million grass roots supporters of newt neutrality rules.  Some of these supporters see internet access companies as unfairly leveraging their alleged monopoly positions to provide less services at increasing prices.  If they suspect that the Commission will not take seriously regulating the rates of internet access providers, they may think that their support was in vain.

And it’s not like the Commission will be getting much regulatory help from the state public utility commissions, at least in the short term.  Prior to the recent National Association of Regulatory Commissioners winter conference in Washington, DC, I contacted a number of state commissions to determine if they would begin regulating broadband should the FCC’s rule survive a court challenge.  Most of those who returned my e-mail question responded that it was too early to tell.  A number of commissioners stated that state law prohibited regulation and one commissioner even stated that he saw no way that his state legislature was going to go near the topic given that the legislature had already placed a bold policy statement that the legislature and regulators were to maintain a hands-off approach to broadband.

If the states won’t regulate access to the internet via broadband then the Commission will be all alone in fielding consumer queries as to why the Commission seemingly appears to have reneged on creating a competitive framework for broadband access.

I believe the politics of grassroots activism will catch up with the Commission and that Mr Wheeler and the rest of the Democratic members on the panel will be compelled to regulate end-user rates.

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Google has answers and maybe we should pay for them

Posted February 10th, 2015 in Google, Internet search and tagged , , , by Alton Drew

According to this post in The Wall Street Journal, Google is upping the stakes in the market for data moving away from just providing links to providing answers to your search questions.  Critics like the European Union argues that Google is favoriting its own inventory of information and that this is a no-no because it puts other information providers at a disadvantage, particularly those deemed to be providing more relevant data.  Google, according to the Journal, is driven to move from just providing to links to providing answers in part as a result of consumers using smart phones with smaller screens seeking out facts.  In addition these consumers are speaking their searches versus typing them into a search.  Competitive information providers such as Yelp are providing apps that help consumers bypass Google’s search product.

So far U.S. are not as critical of Google’s move to providing answers versus just providing links, but the European view appears to favor a coordinated delivery of information from data generating websites through search engines to the end using data consumer.  What the Europeans appear to be saying is that Google should act akin to an electric grid independent system operator; identifying the electricity generator that can meet the consumers’ electricity needs on demand and at the best price and transmitting that electricity to the consumer. Consumers are free to bypass Google by using an app from Yelp or any other data provider or going directly to the site they desire.  Google is free to play both data provider and data broker.  There are no legal restrictions saying that Google cannot occupy both spaces.

As Andrew Keen shares in his latest book, “The Internet is Not the Answer”, Google could charge for its search services.  If the consumer values the data they are searching for, why not pay their data broker, Google, to find it for them.  This way Google has a financial incentive to submit the most relevant data sources to the consumer.

Regulators can’t force Google to charge a fee for its services but assessing a fee would address a number of concerns like putting a value on search activity including information.

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Broadband and Title II: It’s starting to feel like 1995

Federal Communications Commission chairman earlier today decided to take us back to 1995 and announced that he will issue new net neutrality rules that would bring wireline and wireless broadband providers under Title II regulation.  According to The Financial Times, investor fears were subdued when Mr. Wheeler assured the public that there would be no rate regulation on the part of the FCC.  Okay.  But that doesn’t mean that there will not be new rates implemented by broadband providers.  Mr. Wheeler in his opinion piece did not rule that possibility out.

Additional rates on the part of broadband providers wouldn’t be a bad thing either for investors, the operators, or consumers.  For investors and operators they can be assured that additional compliance costs under a new Title II regime are being recovered if operators charge additional fees.  For example, electric utilities charge different rates for different classes of ratepayer.  The typical ratepayer classes include residential, commercial, and industrial, with larger ratepayers paying a lower per unit rate because of the greater volume they consume and the decreasing marginal costs involved in generating electricity for larger consumers.  Residential consumers may pay less in total because they consume a smaller gross amounts of electricity but pay a larger per unit cost for their electricity.

Broadband providers may decide to dust off their regulatory playbooks from the period before the 1996 rewrite of the Communications Act and start charging tiered rates or even per minute rates for certain low-use packages.  Since broadband operators and content providers would be banned from entering paid prioritization agreements, what better way to manage congestion than to design packages where consumers in effect determine the speeds at which they get data based on the dollar value of the data.  It may also give wannabe broadband providers like Google and Facebook an excuse to charge for some of their services.

Yes, it’s starting to feel like 1995.

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Today’s data markets require data that brings value

Today’s data markets require that there be valuable data to trade but the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t quite see it that way.  Last week the Commission voted to accept a report that concludes that 17% of the American population or approximately 55 million people, do not have access to advanced broadband.  The Commission’s determination is based on new speed standards based on the speeds that approximately 70% of broadband customers are purchasing today.

From my view of the world here in Atlanta I can’t say that the Commission has much of a case when it argues that there is no choice among competing broadband providers even when you take income into account.  Here in the West End where median income in the 30310 area code is approximately $24,606, we have seven wireline and wireless providers of internet access.  They are Comcast (100 Mbps to 1 Gbps); AT&T (10 Mbps to 25 Mbps); Verizon (10 Mbps to 25 Mbps); T-Mobile (10 Mbps to 25 Mbps); Platinum Equity (6 Mbps to 10 Mbps); Sprint Nextel (6 Mbps to 10 Mbps); and MetroPCS (768 kbps to 1.5 Mbps).

The 30331 area code has a median income of $36,349 and the same choices in internet access carriers, with the only difference being the decrease in speed provided by Platinum Equity (3Mbps to 6 Mbps).

Our more affluent neoghbors to the north in Buckhead enjoy median incomes of $65,642.  Sprint is not available as a service choice for the residents of Buckhead, but no worries.  Platinum Equity provides service speeds of 25 Mbps to 50 Mbps while Level 3 provides 1 Gbps speeds.

You can see these speeds yourself using a nifty broadband-by-zip code calculator provided by the National Broadband Plan Map.

Not to completely dis my neighborhood but the West End is not the epicenter of finance and industry.  While we have a couple grocery stores, a community and arts center, too many churches, a middle school, and a few banks, we are not generating the income that puts us on the list of high value data providers, not at an income of $24,606.  You find that action up in Buckhead.  There are enough banks, law firms, and high tech firms for you yto throw a cat at.  These are the sources of high value data.

Three of the Commission’s members would no doubt nake the argument that with higher speed broadband, the high value data economic activity I allude to would exist in the West End or even Camp Creek.  I would argue with them.  The SnapChats of the world are being bought and sold for billions while only having a staff no larger than the numerous fast food joints that pepper the West End.  These firms are not generating high value data that is made available for trade via data markets that consumers and producers access via broadband links.  The data comes from high income consumers who may not be necessarily employed in tech.

No. Raising speed standards out of sense of duty to equate everyone with everyone is not the approach our progressive friends on the Commission should be taken in order to promote broadband deployment.  Also, trying to preempt state law in order to encourage the deployment of municipal broadband is not the answer especially in neighborhoods like mine.  Half of us simply can’t afford broadband.

Links to the internet should grow organically with broadband providers meeting demand for their services when consumers signal they are ready to purchase them.  We will need to see a turnaround in economic development and incomes to see the broadband speed equality that progressives on the Commission desire.