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How can the FCC help expand the broadband economy

Yesterday Michael O’Rielly provided a definition of the internet economy during remarks made before the Internet Innovation Alliance.

“Here is a simple truth.  The Internet thrives today on aggregating information for the purposes of increasing advertising revenues and the use of data analysis for multiple purposes.  Data and advertising are why Internet-related companies are valued so highly by investors and Wall Street, and why those companies that cannot monetize such activities face harsh realities and uncertain futures.”

In other words, regulators need to understand that the commercial internet is an infrastructure that facilitates data trade and that the regulations they implement can limit the type of data collected over the internet by internet-related companies.  Broadband operators are involved in this data trade.  For example, Comcast collects non-personally identifiable data that they may share with third-parties for the purpose of targeting advertisement.  This non-personally identifiable data may include IP and HTTP header information; a consumer’s device address; a consumer’s web browser; or a consumer’s operating system when using Comcast’s web services.  Where a Comcast subscriber is trying to personalize the use of Comcast’s web services, the consumer may provide to the broadband provider for storage the consumer’s zip code, age, or gender information.

The competition that gets ignored by regulators is the competition broadband providers face in the capture and sale of consumer data.  This competition includes cloud storage companies, content creators, and app developers.  It also includes companies in the internet, publishing, and broadcasting industry with familiar names like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo. According to Hoover’s, these companies publish content online or operate websites that guide information consumers to the content they are seeking.

Demand for this industry’s services is driven by consumer or business needs for information and other forms of content. Profit is created when these companies deliver relevant information to consumers while offering advertisers a targeted audience.  According to Hoover’s, sales of online advertisements account for just over half of U.S. industry revenue with 75% of advertising revenue coming from search and display advertising formats.

Comcast was hoping to make major inroads into advertising with its proposed acquisition of Time Warner.  Writing for Adage.com in February 2014, Jeanine Poggi wrote:

“Assuming the deal is approved, however, it will make Comcast become a more important partner for advertisers, said Ken Doctor, affiliate analyst, Outsell. Its expanded role as both a content producer and content distributor will make it all the more competitive for ad dollars with companies like Yahoo, AOLGoogle, and Facebook. “It will become more of an ad competitor as selling of TV [and] digital inventory blurs,” he said.”

Writing further, Ms. Poggi points out that:

“A merged Comcast reaching 30 million U.S. households, along with the national reach of DirecTV and Dish Network, creates an alternative to buying national advertising from the TV networks, said Jason Kanefsky, exec VP-strategic investments, Havas Media.”

Unfortunately for Comcast investors, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice bought into the pseudo net neutrality argument pushed by grassroots groups and Netflix that mergers such as Comcast and Time Warner would somehow thwart the average man’s ability to express themselves online and that a larger Comcast would be a detriment to competition in broadband access.  Allowing the merger it appears would have given advertisers, from large corporations to small entrepreneurs, alternatives for online advertising.  The economies of scale that a Comcast-Time Warner marriage would have produced may have lead to lower advertising rates especially for smaller companies.  The FCC’s new Title II rules for broadband companies may only serve to further foreclose such scale.

The issue is, under the current rules and statutes, should broadband providers be prohibited for sharing data with advertisers or other third-parties seeking to target ads at a broadband provider’s subscribers?  I believe the answer is no and investors should lobby the FCC to ensure that no such rules are drafted.

47 CFR 8 of the FCC’s rules for protecting the open internet provides no explicit prohibition on a broadband operator providing third-parties with subscriber data that could be used to deliver advertisement.  Section 8.11 of the rules, in my opinion, gives broadband operators an argument for providing customer data to third-parties, particularly edge providers.  Specifically, the rule says:

“Any person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage end users’ ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or the lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice, or edge providers’ ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users. Reasonable network management shall not be considered a violation of this rule.”

Section 222 of the Communications Act does not expressly prohibit use of consumer information for advertising purposes, but given that the statute is written for telecommunications companies, Congressional action would be needed to amend the section with language that reflects how broadband and other internet companies use consumer information.

If the FCC wants to help expand the broadband economy, it will have to persuade Congress to make these language changes lest leave investors in a state of uncertainty.