One peeve I have had with the Federal Communications Commission in past and today is its penchant to describe its role in the broadband market as a facilitator of growth and innovation. It’s like having cousin Louie visit for a weekend, overstay his welcome, and claim that he helped to build your house. I’ve had to ask myself if I missed something during my two decades in the regulatory game. Where did the Commission facilitate growth in the online markets?
There are probably a number of different sources to look at. I try to keep things simple, so I decided to take a look at what professional market watchers have seen over the past four years. Not a formal analysis that wreaks of regression analysis and all that, but an albeit cursory review of the findings from three Morningstar reports that covered a broadband provider; an online bookseller; a media company; and an over-the-top video distributor. Since the Commission continuously refers to the entire internet ecosystem as its unit of regulatory analysis, I figured looking at companies that play in different but connected boxes in the internet ecosystem was an allowable approach. So here goes.
First, lets go back to a Morningstar analysis of Amazon conducted on 6 December 2010. The analysis discusses the advantages that Amazon has over brick and mortar companies such as Barnes and Nobles and Borders. Amazon has been able to leverage the internet to deliver books at the lowest cost point, a cost point achievable because of low overhead costs. Amazon has also been able to leverage the internet to produce and distribute e-books which, according to Morningstar, has a compelling advantage over hardcover books. The main reason e-books have been successful is that production and distribution costs are near, if not, zero. This ability to keep production costs near scraping the bottom has translated into lower prices for consumers.
I read through that report looking for some acknowledgment of the Federal Communications Commission. I saw none. Based on this report it seems that the idea of storing books in warehouses and shipping them out to consumers as the result of receiving an order online was part of a business model developed by an engineer by the name of Jeff Bezos. No mention of the Commission or the Communications Act.
In September 2011, Morningstar sounded kind of so-so on Netflix. Morningstar made it clear that content owners held the upper hand with the ability to enter into shorter licensing agreements for content and repricing at a higher amount. Morningstar also noted in 2011 that Netflix faced heightened competition from new entrants and the lack of access to higher quality content.
Fast forward three years. Netflix has built its own house of cards where orange is the new black. Just like the Amazon analysis, Morningstar makes no mention of how the Commission’s regulation of the internet contributed to Netflix’s business model or its decision to go outside the box and not just deliver DVDs but stream video as well.
Speaking of content, Morningstar’s July 2012 analysis of Time Warner proceeded from the premise that quality content is king and that Time Warner has been able to take a strong competitive position in content. The quality of Time Warner’s content, according to Morningstar, increases in value because it can be consumed on multiple devices, including laptops, smartphones, and tablets in addition to televisions.
The decision to deliver it via multiple platforms via multiple devices appears to have been made by private actors with no input, appropriately, from the Commission.
And how about the broadband provider portion of the ecosystem. The Commission, along with net neutrality advocates, has been harping on the need for robust competition in the broadband space, but according to Morningstar’s August 2012 analysis of broadband provider CenturyLink, for the company to stay competitive with cable companies it would have to invest in network enhancements that facilitate faster download and upload speeds. Not only does CenturyLink have to compete with cable in providing broadband access, they also compete with cable to distribute video. Their provision of fiber-to-the-tower finds them competing with not just cable companies but with other competitive local exchange carriers. CenturyLink also competes with Amazon, Salesforce.com, and Verizon in the provision of cloud management services.
Again, nothing in Morningstar’s analysis that speaks to the Commission’s requirement or even suggestion that CenturyLink enter into these markets within the internet ecosystem.
Growth and innovation have been occurring within the internet without the Commission’s persuasion or regulation and so far the Commission has not demonstrated why applying Title II regulation could add any value to the market-driven actions taken by the firms I just discussed.