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How Congress and the FCC can avoid future Section 257 proceedings

On 25 March 2016, the Federal Communications Commission circulated an item regarding a Section 257 market entry barriers proceeding. The purpose of the proceeding is to prepare and distribute a report to Congress detailing regulatory barriers to entry faced by telecommunications and information service providers. The Commission is also expected to promote policies that favor diversity of media voices, vigorous economic competition, and technological advancement.

I think the biggest barrier to information services providers is not a bunch of rules or the Communications Act itself. It is the philosophy behind describing information services; a philosophy that is still silo-based; that separates broadband access providers from websites, information portals, and search engines. All these platforms have the exchange, gathering, repackaging, and sale of data or information in common and it is time that the Commission recognize this basic characteristic of the digital jungle.

The anti-ISP posse will argue that firms like Verizon and AT&T should not be viewed as mere information service providers because they also sell access services; that content providers and consumers rely on these gateways to access information. The anti-ISP posse have a very limited point when they distinguish Verizon or AT&T from other information services based on their access services. The New York Times, an online digital content provider, may be able to hire delivery boys but it won’t shell out billions for deploying networks just to deliver one publication to their subscribers. Paying last mile, mid-mile, or content delivery networks is more economically feasible for them to get their content out. But if we treated the information markets as an exchange, I believe there is an opportunity to create a model that increases opportunities for smaller content providers while getting the Commission and probably Congress out of the business of trying to make the information markets efficient.

Congress and the Commission should explore a blended exchange/independent system operator model for internet service providers. ISPs trade on information. The information markets in this blended model would be coordinated by a “central ISP”, similar to the regional transmission or independent system operators found in the electricity markets. Carriers, such as AT&T or Verizon, would voluntarily turn over functional control of their networks to this central ISP. In order to trade on this central ISP platform, information service providers such as Facebook, Hulu, Amazon, Google, etc., would buy seats on the central ISP’s exchange, similar to a stock market exchange. As a member, the information service provider would have a say in how the exchange is managed. As long as the information service provider has the annual fee to get a seat or membership, they must be allowed to join.

Yes, I hear your next question. “But what about the lone blogger who wants to get his content out there or the start-up information service provider who can’t afford a seat?” My first response would be “value.”  My second response would be, “tough nookies.”

ISPs are looking for content of great value. Smaller content providers will have to step up their game and demonstrate to ISPs that their content should be added to the ISPs portfolio of video and text goodies. And if a content provider cannot demonstrate this value, then tough. The content provider will have to either find another way to distribute content digitally or accept that the digital content world isn’t ready for her…yet.

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Verizon makes it clear. They are a media company

Verizon’s Craig Silliman published a blog post discussing the appropriate regulatory framework for the application of net neutrality principles. He reiterated the broadband provider’s support for no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization, and a general conduct standard for protecting consumers and competition. What I found interesting was Mr. Silliman’s description of Verizon’s media efforts. In Mr. Silliman’s words:

“We have invested billions in businesses that depend on the ability to reach customers over the networks and platforms of others. We invested in digital ad technology through our $4.4 billion purchase of AOL and own content through properties like the Huffington Post, MapQuest, and TechCrunch. We have an expanding presence in the digital media and entertainment space; Verizon Digital Media Services helps content companies deliver their services in digital form to any screen or device, anywhere in the world.”

To me, Verizon sounds more like a content delivery network. A content delivery network is a large distributive system of servers deployed in multiple data centers across the internet. The goal of a CDN is to serve content to end users with high availability and high performance.

Akamai, a company that touts itself as the global leader in content delivery services, might vehemently disagree with me about Verizon being a content delivery network given Verizon’s position as a gatekeeper to end-user customers. End-users don’t use Akamai to get on to the internet. Access is that functionality that pulls Verizon into the Federal Communications Commission’s sandbox.

As Verizon continues to evolve in the media space, however, it increasingly distinguishes itself from T-Mobile and Sprint whose claim to broadband fame is strictly as a mobile broadband access platform.

Although Verizon has expressed its willingness and the importance of complying with net neutrality principles, should those principles intrude into its content delivery operations? If yes, then should content delivery services provided by edge providers like Akamai also fall under the Commission’s transparency principles? Why should Verizon’s content delivery components be treated differently from Akamai’s content delivery services? Verizon’s evolution will force the Commission to address these questions.

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One end game for broadband adoption: digital currency

The message for broadband adoption is incomplete because there is nary any mention of how adopting broadband aids capital accumulation or deployment for the consumer. I talked last week about how the only thing that slowed down capital expenditure by broadband providers is an economic slowdown. But what inroads on the consumer side should we see at the intersection of capital and broadband?

One intersection I find appealing is digital currency.  Digital currency allows users to exchange online credits for goods and services. Digital currency exchange may involve the use of a mobile app or can be conducted from a computer. With the use of a digital wallet, digital currency can be sent to or received by a consumer.

Transactions are made with no middlemen. International transactions are cheap and are currently not subject to regulation although governments are concerned about taxation and the lack of control over the currency. These concerns conflict directly with the philosophy underlying the development of digital currency; to take power out of the hands of the government and central bankers, a philosophy I believe that is much in keeping with the freedom and openness of the internet. With talk of central banks considering the issuance of digital currency, I’m concerned that the speed and freedom of transactions stemming from the use of digital currency like Bitcoin would be lost.

Digital or more accurately cryptocurrencies offer an alternative medium of exchange especially for communities underserved by traditional mediums of capital exchange. With a computer a consumer could “mine” her own currency, enter into markets where it is accepted and purchase goods and services in those markets. As more goods and services are purchased in digital exchanges with digital currency, not only will the value of the digital currency increase but so to will the value of the broadband networks that sustain these exchanges. More consumers would have incentive to get on board with broadband as broadband and digital currencies combine to give consumers increased access to local, regional, national, and global markets.

 

 

 

With all the talk of pending recession, why implement net neutrality rules?

So far 2016 has not been the best year for the equity markets. Over the past four weeks the Dow Jones average has fallen almost three percent and year-to-date decline is approximately 8.7%.  The telecommunications, media, and technology sector hasn’t fared much better. The NYSE TMT Index has seen a fall of 13.72% over the last twelve months. In the past four weeks, the index fell 2.38%. Last month the investor adviser firm Charles Schwab rated the telecommunications sector as under-performing due in part to the sectors move away from the steady cash flow of a monopoly land line business to the cut throat competitiveness found in the wireless arena.

Just about the only thing that has slowed down capital expenditures in the digital economy has been recessions. Capital expenditure outlays in the information sector, which includes television, radio, publishing, wireless and wireline telecommunications and internet portals, peaked in 1999 at an annual $120.1 billion. The impact and aftermath of the 2000-2001 and 2007-2009 recessions were the two major economic bumps in the road that caused decreases in capex. After hitting a bottom of $87.7 billion in capital expenditures in 2009, the information sector, of which roughly 74% is made up of wireline and wireless telecommunications, has seen an uptick in investment from $97.4 billion in 2010, to $99.7 billion in 2011, to $105.5 billion in 2012.

This increase in spending has occurred when broadband while broadband has been treated as an information service. But if talk of recession becomes solidified over the next twelve months, a slowdown in spending can be aggravated where a recession is compounded by rules that go back to the depression-era 1930s.

Depression-era rules applied during a pending recession. The irony.

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Any regulation of zero rating is unnecessary market interference

Members of the wireless industry got together yesterday in Washington, D.C. to debate what the Federal Communications Commission’s next move on zero rating ought not to be. Inside Sources reported that the wireless confab included T-Mobile, Verizon, Facebook, and other parties. Zero rating allows wireless services subscribers to access certain content providers without that access being charged against the consumer’s data plan. T-Mobile’s “Binge-On” service is a recently deployed example of this type of service.

Pro-net neutrality groups like Free Press, Public Knowledge, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation believe that zero rating violates the Commission’s open internet order by throttling data streams while favoring certain content providers over other providers.  For example, under 47 CFR 8.7, a person engaged in the provision of broadband internet access service shall not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of internet content, application or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management.

One issue will be whether a service like “Binge-On” actually throttles traffic pursuant to this rule. The Commission so far has opted to a light touch approach to zero rating-type services, which wireless carriers have likened to 800-number services where the 800-number customer or its telephone service provider ate the cost of a long distance call from a customer. The Commission should find that there is no throttling because treatment of data traffic will be the same for all content providers, whether access to their content is done via “Binge-On” or not. The Commission’s political constraints go beyond the letter of their rules.

The Commission has been fervent about its clear and fair “rules of the road”; that all traffic be treated equally, that it may not want to rock the boat with the pro-net neutrality posse or their alleged four million post-card writing supporters. There is a chance that the Commission may opt for the safety of saying no to “Binge-On” with the claim that its best to err on the side of caution and avoid having its net neutrality rules go sliding down a slippery slope.

A call against “Binge-On” and other zero rating services is a strike against investor interests especially for investors in smaller carriers like T-Mobile. If T-Mobile is to acquire more market share it will do so with bolder offerings like “Binge-On.” The service appears to be an effective way for promoting the company’s other offerings, so much so that T-Mobile is finding that some customers, having had free access to participating websites are opting for additional and more expensive service. If there is an opportunity for government to show how anti-investor some policies can be, treating zero rating as anti-net neutrality would be one of them.