Comments Off

Haven’t seen an argument for Title II regulation increasing the output of information services

According to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis, information services, which includes telecommunications and broadcast services, saw its contribution to gross domestic product increase 10.6% in the fourth quarter of 2015. That was a big jump from the .4% increase in contribution to GDP in the third quarter of 2015. According to the BEA, fourth quarter growth primarily reflected increases in telecommunications and broadcast.

While real gross output increased just 1.4% for the United States in fourth quarter 2015, the information services sector saw its real gross output increase by 10.8% in the fourth quarter of 2015.  For all of 2015, real gross domestic product for the United States increased by 2.4%, but for the information services sector alone, gross domestic product increased 6.3% for 2015.

Proponents of Title II common carrier regulation and open internet rules have not given their preferred regulatory framework any credit for the performance of the information services sector. For example, a review of Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s blog posts and statements at the time BEA released its report in April 2016 reveals no reference to the information services sector’s contribution to GDP. In a March 2016 blog post. Mr. Wheeler acknowledged the negative impact rate regulation could have on innovation and investment:

“But the 1996 Act did not change the basic economics of building and running large communications networks.   Whether they are wireless or fixed, operating these networks is a capital-intensive undertaking.   It requires the purchase of expensive inputs like spectrum, optical fiber, and radio antennae, plus the additional administrative and legal expenses of deploying these resources in the cities, towns and rural communities where network users live and work.  While the FCC has taken many steps over the years and is still working to promote competition among network service providers, the fact remains that the financial barriers to building these networks are formidable, and most American consumers have few or no choices when it comes to this service.   Our most recent Broadband Progress Report, for example, found that only 38 percent of Americans have more than one option for fixed advanced telecommunications technology.

One of the biggest challenges I have confronted in my time at the Commission is facing down the false choice between investment and openness.  I believe our Open Internet Order took the right approach, by protecting entrepreneurs and small businesses’ free and open access to the Internet, while also forbearing from sections of Title II like rate regulation and unbundling that might reduce network owners’ incentives to continue building out their networks and investing in new technologies like 5G.”

If Mr. Wheeler believes that forbearance from rate regulation will provide incentives for continued investment in broadband networks, then investors should expect continued positive growth in the integrated telecommunications services industry which has seen market value increase 2.69% over the past year, just as long as Mr. Wheeler keeps his word. I don’t believe Mr. Wheeler has any incentive to go back on his word to forbear. To do so would put the final dagger in the heart of the initiative to apply Title II to broadband providers and prove the anti-Title II constituency’s argument that Title II is bad for growth and investment.

So while we haven’t seen an argument that Title II regulation is responsible for information services positive contribution to growth, I wouldn’t expect to see one any time in the near future.

Comments Off

Replace “telecommunications carrier” with “broadband access provider and voila, privacy rules

The Federal Communications Commission today issued some guidance on protection of consumer privacy.  Short of any specific privacy rules, the FCC will apply provisions of Section 222 of the Communications Act to providers of broadband access services.  In other words, substitute the term “telecommunications carrier” with the phrase, “broadband internet access service provider” and we will have a template for broadband access providers to follow when determining how to use consumer information that they collect either from consumers themselves or the other broadband access providers with which traffic, data, and private information are exchanged.

Which has me asking.  Just what type of consumer information do broadband providers collect and how do they use it? To provide an example of information collected and how it is used, I took a look at the privacy agreement provided by All Points Broadband, a broadband provider located in Loudon County, Virginia.  The company collects personal information including a subscriber’s name, billing address, credit card information, service address, and the nature of the devices used by the subscriber.

Personal information provided by the subscriber to the company may be combined with other personal data gleaned from the company’s Facebook page, the company’s affiliates, third party operators, market research firms, or credit reporting firms.  All Points also collects non-personal information such as the specific device identifier for a subscriber’s device, the browser being used by the subscriber, or the page requested during a subscriber search.

The company also collects information about the use of their network including the equipment used on the subscriber’s premises, time when the service is being used, the type of data being transmitted, the content received and transmitted by the subscriber, and the websites visited by the subscriber.

And just how is this data being used?  Network information is used by the company to monitor the performance of the company’s network.  The company, using network information, assesses how the subscriber uses the company’s services including the amount and type of data beineg received and transmitted.

Personal information may be used to send the subscriber marketing and advertising messages about the company’s servivces and website.  While disclosure of personal information to third parties is provided only with a subscriber’s consent, the company reserves the right to disclose non-personal information or any other information that the subscriber decides to make public.

In an era of big data, broadband companies are sitting on a treasure chest of information that can generate up to 10% economic value, depending on the quality of analytics, both from internal and external monetization points of view.

Could the FCC’s application of Section 222 to data collected by broadband providers threaten a provider’s revenues and profits?  My answer is yes.  For example, take Section 222(c)(1) of the Communications Act.  Under this section, broadband access providers receiving customer proprietary network information would only be able to use this network information in the provision of broadband services from which the information was derived or for service necessary for providing broadband servivces.

Broadband providers would have to make the argument that network information has a distinct meaning from personal  or run the risk of losing revenues from the acquisition and distribution of this data.  Should the FCC’s network neutrality rules survive court challenge, the agency should consider making a distinction in its rules between network information and personal information.

Comments Off

Quick note on the Federal Communications Commission’s inconsistency on rate regulation

I just finished delivering a presentation before the National League of Cities infrormation technology committee.  Cities and towns are taking an interest in how the Federal Communication Commission’s reclassification of broadband may impact their decision to deploy commercial broadband facilities.  It’s one thing for the FCC to say that it will preempt state laws that prohibit a city from expanding broadband services from beyond its electric utility’s boundaries.  It is quite another to run the risk of having those services regulated by Tom Wheeler and Associates.

I pointed out to attendees that there is an inconsistency stemming from two sources.  First is the FCC’s proclamation that it will not apply public utility style rate regulation to broadband providers and that it will forbear from applying tariffing requirements to broadband carriers.  The problem is that the FCC is ready to apply “core requirements” of Title II.  Those core requirements, as found in sections 201 and 202 of the Communications Act, require that the rates charged by telecommunications firms be just and reasonable.  How will the FCC ensure just and reasonableness without a rate review?  In addition, “rate regulation” need not take the form of the traditional methodology where a regulatory body determines what the appropriate rate base is i.e. the assets needed for providing a service and, after applying a government-determined rate of return, calculating revenue and rates.

Rate regulation, as I shared with the committee, may take the form of determining rate bands, implementing price caps, or some other form of incentive regulation.  Also, while traditional tariff requirements might be foreborne, simple price schedules, as required for cable companies, may also be an option for making rates transparent and publicly on file with the FCC.  Simply sayng there will be no “public utility-style” rate regulation does not mean that broadband operator rates will not be regulated.

Second, the FCC and its net neutrality proponent allies sold consumers a level of expectation, a bill of goods, by arguing that need for regulating the internet was imperative to maintaining an open internet that would facilitate consumers’ abilities to freeluy express themselves on the printing press of the 21st century.  Notwithstanding a lack of any threat to the consumers’ ability to express themselves, the FCC, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and other groups insisted on Title II as a ready source of necessary consumer protections.  To the consumer, protection takes the form of rate and services regulation.  If the FCC is going to forbear from rate regulation, then what was the point of the net neutrality exercise?

As I relayed to the atendees, net neutrality was never about consumers and their rights to rant, vent, and watch videos.  Net neutrality is and always be a battle about content providers attempting to push their costs for transmitting content to a zero rate.  Uncertainty has been created by the FCC with its reclassification of broadband as a Title II, common carrier service.  That’s a quagmire that municipalities should stay out of.

Comments Off

The liberty to choose content based on value is what civil rights groups should rally on

The civil rights perspective regarding broadband access is severely misplaced.  The narrative in general has been that access to information exchanged over a medium based on internet protocol is a civil right; an enforceable right or privilege guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution which when interfered with by another gives rise to am action for an injury. Civil rights belong to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th amendments.

The last time I checked the U.S. Constitution, there was no language in there that expressly supports my access to a communications medium powered by internet protocol.  The Constitution didn’t even guarantee U.S. citizens access to communications networks powered by smoke signals, the telegraph, or even the telephone.  One could argue that in today’s modern telecommunications world that the Communications Act of 1934′s mandate that the Federal Communications Commission ensure the a nationwide communications network universally accessible by all Americans creates that right.  I would argue that it doesn’t and that the Act’s supporters in Congress got lucky in that the universal accessibility requirement of the Act was not challenged.

In some ways I’m surprised that Free Press or Public Knowledge have not turned the NAACP or the National Urban League’s “broadband is a civil right” argument into a “right to access a common carrier” argument thus buttressing their incorrect argument that broadband should be regulated as a Title II common carrier or public utility.  Ironically some civil rights groups like ColorofChange.org and the National Hispanic Media Coalition support public utility-like regulation of broadband and could likely add fuel to Free Press or Public Knowledge’s positions.  Unfortunately for Free Press and Public Knowledge their accusations that legacy civil rights groups are nothing but money-taking hacks for phone and cable companies has provided enough of a taint that most civil rights groups, no matter their position on net neutrality, would prefer stand closer to a spraying skunk that ally with Free Press or Public Knowledge.

Rather than risk getting to close to the edge of inadvertently pushing broadband into a common carrier box, civil rights should push a purer market-based consumer welfare argument when it comes to broadband in general and net neutrality in particular.  Their policy statement should be that federal and state government should not interfere with a consumer’s choice to have certain content delivered to their broadband-enabled devices and recognize that the consumer can enter agreements with internet access providers and content providers based on the value the consumer recognizes in particular content.

Rather than push a civil rights argument that has consumers asking for the government to define access rights, civil rights advocates should take the position that the liberty of consumer choice is a given and that public policy should recognize and respect that.

Comments Off

What I heard Tom Wheeler say yesterday

Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler delivered remarks to the organization, 1776, on the future of broadband competition.  What I took away from Mr. Wheeler’s remarks was an attempt by the Chairman to flesh out the role of Title II in a regulatory framework for broadband access.

In its notice of proposed rulemaking addressing the protection of Internet openness, the Commission states that:

“The goal of this proceeding is to find the best approach to protecting and promoting Internet openness.  Per the blueprint offered by the D.C. Circuit in its decision in Verizon v. FCC, the Commission proposes to rely on section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  At the same time, the Commission will seriously consider the use of Title II of the Communications Act as the basis for legal authority.”

I believe, based on Mr. Wheeler’s comments, that he would like the Commission to apply Title II primarily to consumer protection issues hence creating a competitive environment for broadband access.  While Mr. Wheeler appears uncertain as to whether a competitive broadband access industry exists for consumers that are choosing broadband for the first time, he is less convinced that there are competitive alternatives available for consumers who want to switch carriers.

A truly competitive broadband market will see consumers being able to switch between broadband access providers with the relative ease that consumers changed long distance carriers during the 1990s long distance carrier price wars, according to Mr. Wheeler.  Mr. Wheeler argues that consumers may be foreclosed from pursuing competitive alternatives when deciding to switch carriers due to high switching costs in the form of terminating fees and equipment rental fees.

While section 706 speaks primarily to encouraging advanced services deployment, interpreted as broadband deployment, it doesn’t expressly discuss consumer protection mechanisms.  Title II doesn’t expressly claim to be a consumer protection portion of statute but given its heavy emphasis on pricing and contractual relationship disclosure and its call for the application of just and reasonable rates, a Commission order that emphasizes using Title II to protect consumers would not be surprising.

A hybrid system would create regulatory uncertainty because of the potential clash between what section 706 provides in options to pursue increased innovation and deployment versus Title II’s restrictions on common carriers.

For example, it may be a challenge to forbear from certain pricing methodologies pursuant to section 706 while requiring a broadband access provider who has been reclassified as a common carrier to file tariffs and while making showings on a frequent, case-by-case basis why its rates are just and reasonable.

In order to reduce uncertainty, what investors and broadband access providers should continue arguing for and what the Commission should seriously consider is a regulatory scheme based solely on section 706.  Again, section 706 focuses on broadband deployment by encouraging modifying regulatory action in order to incentivize investment and deployment.

To address consumer protection issues, the Commission should take an ex-ante approach to consumer complaints of discrimination or blocking, taking each complaint on a case-by-case basis.

 

http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/comment/view?id=6017642393