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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.

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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.

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Taking “toll free” to the 21st century level

If you want to see the true colors of net neutrality rule proponents look no further on their stances on zero rating.  A zero rated site is a site that a wireless carrier has exempted from its fee structure or data cap.  The company behind the site may have decided that exempting access to its site via its app may be good for attracting additional eyeballs which means more people viewing the ads that may be appearing on the site.  For a wireless carrier wanting to heat up the competition with other carriers, offering their subscribers data cap exemption when accessing popular websites like Facebook may help garner subscribers.

So far it looks like when 12 June 2015 rolls around and the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules kick in that the strategic partnership between mobile carriers and app developers in the form of zero rating may remain unharmed.  Carriers, according to published reports, are turning to zero rating because of the additional revenues that can be generated by advertisers.  And as I allued to earlier, app developers or advertisers are taking advantage of the traffic they can create by making it easy for consumers to avoid additional data charges when viewing their sites.

The FCC, in some deference to the net neutrality advocacy groups, will apply additional scrutiny to these arrangements because at the core of the net neutrality debate is whether content providers that bring better value, better marketing, or both, should be able to dominate a market against those content providers who are not able to market their content as valuable.  The FCC will, on a case-by-case basis, determine whether a consumer’s lawful access to internet content is being hindered by broadband access providers.

The “case-by-case” review will cause snarls on the way to product deployment and those delays will increase an app developers cost of deployment combined with lost ad revenues as the FCC makes up its mind as to whether a strategic partnership between app developers, advertisers, and broadband access providers violates net neutrality.  I believe that such arrangements even under the FCC’s net neutrality rule shouldn’t be viewed as violations.

First, there is apparently no blocking on the part of a broadband access provider pursuant to Section 8.5 of the FCC’s net neutrality rules.  The app providers are, by definition, edge providers and they are offering sponsorship of subscriber data as such.  Nothing in a zero rating scheme appears to prohibit any broadband access provider from visiting sites that compete with a zero rated site.

Second, zero rating a site is not the same as throttling according to Section 8.7 of the FCC’s rules.  Throttling is defined as impairing or degrading lawful internet traffic; slowing it down and negatively impacting the quality of the traffic’s flow.  Nothing in the definition of zero rating implies that a broadband provider would have to slow down traffic to site B in order to meet its zero rating promise to site A.  There would be no incentive since the company behind the app is reimbursing the broadband provider for revenues lost when exempting subscribers from data caps.

Finally, I wouldn’t equate zero rating with paid prioritization, and apparently not even net neutrality proponents are doing so.  Under Section 8.9 of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, paid prioritization sees a broadband access provider managing its network in order to favor one content provider’s traffic over another provider’s traffic in exchange for compensation.  In the case of zero rating, a content provider’s traffic is not being given any higher priority treatment.  Nothing in the definition of zero rating says that one provider’s traffic moves through a faster lane.  Neither can an argument be made that consumers are being disadvantaged.  On the contrary, the consumer benefits because they are accessing more content at a lower cost.

Zero rating is a win for consumers and content providers. The FCC, while expected to scrutinize these relationships, should not go overboard with oversight in this area.

 

 

 

http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2015/02/25/388948293/what-net-neutrality-rules-could-mean-for-your-wireless-carrier

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What regulators say about the internet of things

For the past two or three days the chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have been clarifying their regulatory agendas for and approaches to the Internet.  FCC chairman Tom Wheeler plans to issue net neutrality rules around 5 February with the full FCC voting on those rules on 26 February.  Media reports have Mr. Wheeler outlining what he believes the benefits consumers would enjoy from reclassifying broadband as an old school, run-of-the-mill telephone company.  For example at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Mr. Wheeler reportedly said the following:

“So, there is a way to do Title II right, that says there are many parts of Title II that are inappropriate, and would thwart investment, but that a model has been set in the wireless business.”

CTIA-The Wireless Association has taken the position that given the level of competition for mobile broadband that net neutrality rules should be “mobile broadband specific” and that mobile broadband has never been regulated under Title II.

Mr. Wheeler, in an attempt to keep net neutrality advocates happy, appears to be willing to use Title II regulation to strike down deals between content providers and broadband operators where content providers pay to have their traffic given higher priority over other providers.  Mr. Wheeler wants the role of determining which transactions and agreements are commercially reasonable and how that traffic should be moved from content provider to broadband provider to ultimate end user.

FTC chairman Edith Ramirez’s approach appears to focus more on transparency of participants in information markets.  Her concern, as shared with CES participants, is about privacy and the Internet of Things. As more devices connect to each other via the internet, more devices become subject to hacking and a wealth of data, thought by consumers to be private, becomes subject to misuse, theft, or fraud.

Ms. Ramirez’s focus on the consumer is not surprising given the nature of her agency’s work, but it also seems the slightly, and I mean slightly, better approach to overseeing market behavior versus individual business behavior.  The internet is a platform for information exchange between information generators and information seekers.  The more information that a provider has on how her information is going to be used in the markets helps her make better decisions not only on whether she should make it available but also on its value and how best to monetize her data. Information gatherers will simply have to provide better incentives to information providers to get them to give up their data.

What kind of growth does the market see for the Internet of Things?  According to Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group, some 25 billion devices will be connected to the internet by the end of 2015.  That number will climb to 50 billion connected devices by the end of 2020.  That’s a lot of broadband infrastructure for the FCC to oversee and more hacking access points for the FTC to worry about in five short years.

Investors will see the biggest gains in the infrastructure space of the Internet of Things.  Leading growth in this space will be manufacturers of processor chips, wifi networks, sensors, and software.  Investors should also be concerned with factors that impact demand for devices that talk to each other and I believe the factor that has the heaviest weight is the consumer privacy factor.  Devices aren’t just talking to each other but are gathering information on consumer likes and habits and storing this data for the information gatherer’s future use.  Privacy is an immediate and long term issue because it concerns one half of the parties involved in the information market transaction: the consumer.

As for the FCC’s open access approach it is too short-sighted.  Mr. Wheeler’s focus on competition for broadband service and equal treatment of traffic may have a nice sounding populist ring, but in the internet eco-system what matters is the consumer’s choice of product obtained through broadband.  That product is content and the price the consumer pays in exchange for that content is, ironically, content in the form of personal data.  Consumers already have wireless and wireline choices for broadband access.  The value play for consumers lies in the quality of content available online and consumers are more than capable of deciding that for themselves.

What the government can do is what it does best (albeit it is not the best at it, but work with me); government should adjudicate privacy and other consumer disputes and make available to consumers information that they may not be able to gleen readily from the private sector.  The FTC’s focus on privacy and consumer protection does a better job at this than the FCC.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the private sector is taking care of the FCC’s mandate of ensuring a nationwide communications network.  The FCC’s focus given the growth in the mobile market and the increasing need for devices to wirelessly connect should remain on allocating spectrum and assuring the reliability and safety of wired and wireless communications infrastructure.  Any other endeavor is waste.

 

 

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The FCC does not owe Marriott an unencumbered revenue stream

According to a petition filed with the Federal Communications Commission by Marriott International and other hotels, Marriott would like to the FCC to declare that a hotel’s management of its wifi networks does not violate section 333 of the Communications Act if management of its wifi operations interfere with wifi hot spots authorized under the FCC’s rule 15.  Sounds more like the hotels would like to protect one of their revenue streams.

From a business standpoint I’m not surprised, but if the FCC allows Marriott’s petition, in my opinion they run the risk of contradicting themselves on the policy of an open Internet, specifically the policy of allowing consumers to attach any lawful devices to the #internet for use by the consumer.

In addition, Marriott would like the public and the FCC to believe that this is not a #netneutrality issue. Granted I’m no fan of net neutrality but if you want to promote consumer access to websites of their choice, shouldn’t the FCC ensure that the consumer can access those sites using the lawful devices of their choice?

Given the proliferation of hot spots, it makes better business sense for hotels to discontinue their wifi services. Over 80% of consumers have cell phones and hot spots are less expensive than phones. Simply put in your brochures that you do not offer wifi and that you better buy a hot spot from AT&T or Verizon or a hot spot enabling smart phone before making that business trip.

The FCC does not owe Marriott or any other hotel an unencumbered revenue stream.