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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lifeline is about promoting a good society

Today the Federal Communications Commission voted on a notice of proposed rule-making to extend Lifeline services to include access to broadband.  The internet provides modern society an enhanced conduit for sending and receiving messages and data.  This capability allows businesses to provide innovative services on a cost-effective basis and allows consumers an efficient mode for accessing services.

For example, yesterday I met with my new primary care physician.  Not only was I impressed with her personality and knowledge but I was also impressed with how her office uses the internet to manage patient health.  Her patients can get online and register with her information portal in order to review their prescriptions, other medical information, and contact the doctor or her staff with questions.  I can do all this with a laptop and a high-speed internet access connection.

The internet and the high-speed broadband access services that allow us to connect to it provide mechanisms for society to carry out its purpose: to help spread the risks that threaten the abundance of life.  We join societies in order to share resources, maximize our wealth, and increase our security.  Broadband access does that by giving society’s members access to multiple sources of information and data.

Today’s discussion at the FCC unfortunately got hung up on issues such as fraud and waste.  FCC member Mike O’Rielly was correct when he said that today’s vote should have been a five to zero slam dunk but as Chairman Tom Wheeler also noted, it was unfortunate that the issue had become politicized.

If waste and fraud are an issue then the FCC should take consider a couple approaches shared by AT&T’s vice president for external affairs, Jim Cicconi.  In a blog post posted 1 June 2015, Mr. Cicconi  offered the following:

“First, AT&T believes that the government, not carriers, should be responsible for determining Lifeline eligibility and enrollment.  This is the way most federal benefit programs work, and there’s no good reason for handling Lifeline in a radically different way.  Many of the problems associated with Lifeline are rooted in this flawed approach.  Administrative burdens on carriers today are huge, and innocent mistakes can lead to disproportionate punishment—which in turn discourages carrier participation.  And the potential for fraud by less reputable players is very real.  Moreover, consumers are saddled with difficult burdens if they simply want to change carriers.  Government itself should determine eligibility, and can provide the benefit through a debit card approach much like food stamps.  Consumers could then use the benefit for the service of their choice.”

The FCC should keep its eyes on the prize.  It can play an important role in keeping society’s members connected to today’s most important piece of capital, knowledge.  Waste and fraud, albeit important considerations from an operational standpoint should not be a barrier to implementing equitable social policy.

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Is FCC net neutrality policy forcing investors to play broadband providers off of video streaming services?

Do we regulate vans when used to deliver newspapers to grocery stores or pharmacies?  Do we ask grocery stores or pharmacies to disclose the contracts they enter into for displaying The Wall Street Journal or People Magazine on their shelves?  Renting a van to deliver magazines or striking placement deals with grocery stores and pharmacies is the cost of doing business that magazines and newspapers incur when distributing their product and I don’t see why online content providers like Netflix should avoid the same costs of business under a disingenous practice of open internet or net neutrality.

The Federal Communications Commission so far has successfully skirted this argument, having phrased net neutrality as a consumer’s rights issue versus what it truly is: a cost-of-doing business issue for content providers who would rather not pay Comcast, Verizon, or Time Warner a fee to interconnect opting instead for a “bill and keep” scenario.  But like any other media company, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon should be responsible for putting together their own content production and distribution network.

On the content side these companies will hire their own staff to create content in-house or hire a production company to provide them a set amount of programming.  They will, in the case of movies or television, pay licensing fees that enable them to re-broadcast a television or theatrical production.

The distribution side is trickier.  Netflix depends on mid-mile providers like Cogent and last mile providers like Comcast to connect their content to final end-users or consumers.  To keep these distribution costs low, Netflix would prefer to interconnect at no costs with last-mile providers. In its latest 10-K report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Netflix describes risks related to its relationship with last-mile providers:

“We rely upon the ability of consumers to access our service through the Internet. To the extent that network operators implement usage based pricing, including meaningful bandwidth caps, or otherwise try to monetize access to their networks by data providers, we could incur greater operating expenses and our member acquisition and retention could be negatively impacted. Furthermore, to the extent network operators create tiers of Internet access service and either charge us for or prohibit us from being available through these tiers, our business could be negatively impacted.
Most network operators that provide consumers with access to the Internet also provide these consumers with multichannel video programming. As such, many network operators have an incentive to use their network infrastructure in a manner adverse to our continued growth and success. For example, Comcast exempted certain of its own Internet video traffic (e.g., Streampix videos to the Xbox 360) from a bandwidth cap that applies to all unaffiliated Internet video traffic (e.g., Netflix videos to the Xbox 360).
While we believe that consumer demand, regulatory oversight and competition will help check these incentives, to the extent that network operators are able to provide preferential treatment to their data as opposed to ours or otherwise implement discriminatory network management practices, our business could be negatively impacted. In some international markets, these same incentives apply however, the consumer demand, regulatory oversight and competition may not be as strong as in our domestic market.”

The irony of Netflix’s statement on the threats broadband operators impose on their streaming business is that a few paragraphs prior to this statement, Netflix describes these providers as partners, specifically when it comes to streaming over devices provided by cable and telecommunications companies:

“We currently offer members the ability to receive streaming content through a host of Internet-connected devices, including TVs, digital video players, television set-top boxes and mobile devices. We have agreements with various cable, satellite and telecommunications operators to make our service available through the television set-top boxes of these service providers. We intend to continue to broaden our capability to instantly stream TV shows and movies to other platforms and partners over time.

If we are not successful in maintaining existing and creating new relationships, or if we encounter technological, content licensing or other impediments to delivering our streaming content to our members via these devices, our ability to grow our business could be adversely impacted. Our agreements with our device partners are typically between one and three years in duration and our business could be adversely affected if, upon expiration, a number of our partners do not continue to provide access to our service or are unwilling to do so on terms acceptable to us, which terms may include the degree of accessibility and prominence of our service.

Furthermore, devices are manufactured and sold by entities other than Netflix and while these entities should be responsible for the devices’ performance, the connection between these devices and Netflix may nonetheless result in consumer dissatisfaction toward Netflix and such dissatisfaction could result in claims against us or otherwise adversely impact our business. In addition, technology changes to our streaming functionality may require that partners update their devices. If partners do not update or otherwise modify their devices, our service and our members’ use and enjoyment could be negatively impacted.”

The consumer-centric statement caters to the public net neutrality argument of supposed threats posed by broadband providers but the statement describing broadband providers as partners, in my opinion, captures the reality of the relationship between content providers like Netflix and broadband providers.  The way to look at how a seamless internet service experience is provided is to look at the components necessary for getting digital product to the consumer.  Netflix has to coordinate via contract the prodiuction of content and its distribution.  It has demonstrated that it can and has entered into the necessary agreements with wireline and wireless providers to get its content distributed to consumers.

As a going concern I expect Netflix to take initiative in reducing its costs of delivery but using government regulation as the method for mitigating costs eventually is not in the consumer’s best interest nor in investor best interests.  Broadband providers will pass on the increased costs of traffic delivery and net neutrality regulatory compliance to consumers.  Increased costs of broadband access will cause consumers to look for other cable or wireless platforms, including different tiers of service which will have a negative impact on broadband operator revenues in the longer run.  Netflix may see a temporary bump in profits but as consumers decide to downgrade service, access to Netflix may be one of those services consumers may end up doing without.

 

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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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Shouldn’t the Federal Communications Commission​ show that its regulation of commerce increases commerce?

I think it is safe to say that broadband access has an impact on commerce, specifically commerce that passes though the digital conduit we know as the internet. Individuals and businesses use broadband access to acquire online content, deliver services, and communicate.

It would be a difficult argument to make that Congress’ constitutonal power to regulate commerce did not include the electronic commerce. There is a rational basis for concluding that broadband substantially effects interstate commerce. While broadband access is a sub-division of the internet; it provides that last mile connection between end-user and the information cloud, As an impacting factor on commerce, its regulation would come under the reach of Congress.

I suspect that Congress’ regulation of commerce was a left over from the mercantilist period that started to wind down in the late 18th century. Mercantilist policies were designed to protect the government and commercial class. By restraining imports and expanding exports, governments and their commercial classes hoped to expand their nations’ wealth.

Contrast the mercantilist approach with the laissez-faire and free market approach that would replace it. The free market approached emphasized trade based on specialization in production benefited importer and exporter. Economic welfare would, because of free trade and freer markets, be spread across a population outside of government and commercial interests.

But whether in the context of a mercantilist system or today’s preferred free market system, no government would regulate commerce in order to reduce it’s output and vibrancy. The Federal Communications Commission, as a creature of Congress, should, as an economic regulator, demonstrate that its Title II rules for broadband access would do just that. Simply repeating the phrase, “virtuous cycle” doesn’t equate to evidence of growth in the knowledge economy spawned by new rules. In 300-plus pages of support for less than ten pages of actual rules, the FCC offerred no evidence of rigorous quantitative support for growth in commerce as a result of its new rules.

The courts like using deference to an expert agency as their out for not expanding the overreach of government. It may be time to turn the tables on that judicial philosophy by requiring agencies show how their actions improve our economy.