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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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Why can’t broadband competition proponents focus on the real picture?

The Center for Public Integrity released a post yesterday that has me questioning their economics integrity.  In the post, the Center describes how broadband providers avoid competition by arguing that the “Internet service grew out of the old telephone and cable TV systems, where only two companies owned direct lines to U.S. households.”  Sorry, but that’s only half the story.  As I shared in my comments on the post:

“Advocates for competition in the broadband access platform market need look no further than the localities that ensure that only the provider with the deepest pockets are able to get entry into a market. Onerous financial, regulatory, and technical barriers keep ouyt smaller players. Richard Bennett makes a powerful point about legacy carriers having no incentives to go beyond service territories they negotiated for or acquired when initiating services.

In addition, there is too much emphasis on the “number of carriers” narrative. This is a capital intensive business and unless new players can muster up the cash, then you won’t see a third wireline carrier entering a market.

Finally, when will “competition proponents” come out and give a definitive number for the amount of carriers in a market necessary for a declaration of competition. Two, three, or four carriers still reflects an imperfect competitive market.”

Not only are Federal Communications Commission rules not promoting broadband deployment, but local government policies are adding to the hindrance.  No one complains about whether Interstate 4 connecting Tampa and Orlando should have a duplicate interstate running along it.  The concern is whether there is enough commerce running over the highway to spur economic growth and justify widening the existing lanes.

For example, according to comScore.com’s report , 2015 U.S. Digital Future in Focus”, in 2014, mobile app usage made up the majority of digital media activity.  Traditional television ratings fell as more Americans obtained content from emerging online platforms.    Seventy-five percent of all digital consumers over the age of 18 use desktop and mobile platforms to access Internet content.

Another sign of mobile’s encroachment on the desktop is growth in smartphone use.  According to comScore, smartphone use increased 16% in 2014.

I just started watching “House of Cards” (Okay, I’m a late bloomer) so now I’m counted as one of 7 of 8 Americans watching video content online, with half of these consumers watching content online on a daily basis.

And about that commerce moving along the roadway?  E-commerce grew 14% in 2014 with businesses raking in $268.5 billion.

All this content and e-commerce activity happening while consumers allegedly are “abused” by a lack of broadband access platform competition.  Policy makers shouldn’t waste their time on making an oligopoly a larger oligopoly.  The focus should be on clearing spectrum for greater use of the internet and ensuring that the provision of data, whether in the form of video or text, is not interfered with.

Ajit Pai asks Netflix what gives on net neutrality

Federal Communications Commission member Ajit Pai yesterday wrote a letter asking Netflix to explain why it is not participating in the development of open standards for video streaming and why, according to press reports, the largest generator of online traffic in North America is using its own proprietary software to cache its traffic.

Mr. Pai is curious about the reports that Netflix may be charting its own course for delivering video services including the development of of fast lanes for its own traffic, all while advocating for equal treatment by internet service providers of content provider traffic.

Open standards, as defined in a paper by Ken Krechner, represent common agreements that enable communications.  Open standards help provide interoperabilty on the internet and maximize access to resources.  I guess what drives Mr. Pai’s curiosity is if the concept of net neutrality is based on transparency of management practices and the equal treatment of data, why would Netflix want o use proprietary caching technology to speed up the transmission of its video services at the cost of competition with other content providers?

Mr. Pai has asked Netflix to respond to his letter by 16 December 2014.

 

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The FCC shouldn’t risk creating market failure by issuing a blanket ban on prioritization

In a letter filed yesterday with the Federal Communications Commission, broadband access provider AT&T made an argument for promoting user-directed prioritization of internet traffic.  AT&T wants to ensure that the Commission does not lump user directed prioritization together with paid prioritization agreements entered into between a content producer and a broadband provider.  The narrative has been that paid prioritization, where a content producer pays for faster throughput via a digital high volume lane, discriminates against other content providers who may not have the scale or capital to leverage in return for an express lane.  AT&T is basically saying, if you aren’t going to cut the big content producers some net neutrality slack, at least let end-users determine which traffic they would like coming their way at a faster speed.

AT&T does provide an internet traffic management service for its enterprise customers.  AT&T Managed Internet Service allows business customers to prioritize certain internet traffic.  Business customers designate certain performance sensitive traffic for special handling in the event of network congestion.

So, if a medical office places greater value on receiving data on whether a patient is taking their medication versus whether the mailroom boy gets his favorite Felix the Cat video, the patient data will take higher priority.

What this service implies from a consumer welfare perspective is that certain consumers of content transmitted over the internet have made determinations about the value or quality of information they choose to consume.  In the example of the medical office, they know what content is important to them.  They, through trial and error and search experience have eliminated some amount of information asymmetry and choose to enhance the value of time spent consuming data by receiving the most important information first.

This may also be the case in publishing.  When I wrote for a trade magazine back in 1999, we subscribed to a rich data base of media information online.  That data base took precedent over other sources of information. Through experience we had made a determination on the quality of data.

From an efficiency and market failure view, end-user directed prioritization makes sense.  It would be good if broadband access providers could create and market similar services to non-enterprise consumers who, in the new emerging world of quasi a la carte content viewing may also want to prioritize HBO or CBS’ video traffic over other content.  Consumers won’t see this benefit if the Commission issues a blanket ban on prioritization.

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Requiring access to cable-owned content creates a barrier to entry for smaller content providers

Yesterday Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler announced his intent to ask his fellow commissioners to sign off on a rule that would require cable companies to provide over-the-top video distributors with access to cable company-owned content.  According to Mr. Wheeler, the intent of the rule modification is to provide consumers of content “more alternatives from which to choose so they can buy the programs they want.”

What this change to the rules will actually do is create a barrier to entry by smaller content providers.  Mr. Wheeler’s rule amendment, much like the statute passed in 1992 and its subsequent rule, will simply give incumbent content an additional platform from which to be seen.  “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” will now be seen on cable, satellite, and over-the-top video distribution.  Over-the-top providers can now take a short cut to content and forgo negotiating contracts for new content from new entrants.

For start-up, minority-owned, or woman-owned content production companies there will be a lost opportunity to showcase more of their content to over-the-top distributors.  Smaller content providers may have to reduce the price offerings for their programming just to get one of fewer remaining slots on a over-the-top’s network.

If the FCC is so concerned with competition throughout the internet ecosystem, it should let all stakeholders in the ecosystem enter into contracts on their own without government interference.  Also it should provide smaller content providers the opportunity to enter into strategic partnerships that get their product in front of the public.