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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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The FCC needs to change its mindset about capital and Title II

The politics of Washington is not commensurate with capital flow when it concerns broadband investment.  The Federal Communications Commission’s decision to apply Title II common carrier rules has resulted in a decrease in capital expenditures.

It has been reported that during the first half of 2015, AT&T saw a decrease in capital expenditures of 29% relative to 2014.  Charter Communications also saw a decline of 29% relative to 2014 while Cablevision saw capital expenditures fall off by 10% versus last year. CenturyLink was down nine percent while Verizon saw a fall in capex of four percent.

The politics pushing the FCC toward their anti-capital decision was driven by a grass roots group argument that freedom of expression was being challenged by the potential bottlenecks that broadband providers could create.  With narratives that included claims that consumers would not be able to create content on the internet or access the content of their choice, at least the three Democratic FCC members fell sway to it.

Edge providers, like Netflix, also played the “threat to democracy” card, arguing that broadband access providers , via paid prioritization, would discriminate among content providers and deny consumers access to their content.  Netflix, however, has been able to hedge its political bets by paying some of these broadband providers for fast lanes so that video traffic to its subscribers is not congested.

Now the political center of gravity lies in the Congress, at least this week, as the House committee on energy and commerce takes a look at how Title II common carrier treatment of broadband will impact investment.  Given Republican control of the committee, it’s no surprise that the committee’s leadership sees Title II as a burden on investment.  For example, the committee’s majority takes issue with the FCC’s finding that the total annual cost on all broadband providers for complying with the application of the FCC’s Title II rules would be approximately $700,000.  The majority believes the annual cost of compliance could be as much as $52 million.

Having supervised a tariff shop for a state regulator and drafting and filing tariffs as a staff attorney for a law firm, I can assure you that the cost of complying with Title II rules will well exceed the $6.95 per hour that the FCC estimates.  We are not talking flipping burgers here.

Politically, reversing the impact Title II regulation will have on broadband investment is out of the hands of Congress, at least in the short term.  Should a Republican win the White House in 2016 and the GOP maintain control of both chambers of Congress, then investors should expect a new FCC Republican majority to repeal the rules.

A repeal by the Republicans could be moot should the United States Court of Appeals-District of Columbia find that the rules have no statutory basis or that the FCC has not shown why its earlier treatment of broadband as an information service should be abandoned.

The probabilities of a court decision or an election outcome in favor of broadband providers is difficult to calculate but the likelihood of the FCC or the Obama administration changing its mindset about Title II’s impact on capital flows to broadband is definitely zero.  Both the President and the FCC’s three Democrats have invested too much political capital in steering the wrong course.

Congress should not fund a FCC with misplaced priorities

Free Press has been calling on its constituents to encourage the Republican-controlled Congress to vote against a House appropriations bill that would significantly reduce funding for the Federal Communications Commission.  For Fiscal Year 2016, the FCC asked Congress for $388,000,000 in offsetting collections. This represents a $48 million increase over the FCC’s request for Fiscal Year 2015, which ends tonight at midnight.

House Republicans have been blatant about their unwillingness to fund the FCC’s net neutrality regime.  So serious are they about taking the wind out of the so called open internet that they have a budget bill that would provide the FCC with only $314,844,000 for Fiscal Year 2016.  If federal budgets represent national priorities, it is clear that net neutrality is not a priority for the GOP, whose members have railed against how onerous the rules are.

While the rules are burdensome, what is more telling is the FCC’s unwillingness to get out of the narrow vision box.  The FCC is still stuck on the concept of encouraging competitive telecommunications networks.  In the 21st century why would the FCC be concerned about a concept calling for a multiple number of firms providing point-to-point voice communications services via wire or wireline?

What the FCC should be concerned about is promoting the development of the information and data markets that are being created and transacted in over internet infrastructure.   Information and data are the currency being exchanged on digital networks.  Also the returns on stock that investors are seeing should be an indication as to where the economy via the internet is going.

According to data from Morningstar, the telecom services industry saw one-year returns on stock at 8.42%.  Three-year returns were 9.82% while five-year returns were at 9.64%.

In the information technology services industry, one-year returns amounted to 10.93%; three-year returns came in at 10.41%; and five-year returns were 12.16%.

The internet content and information industry saw first-year returns of 17.04%; three-year returns of 23.90%; and five-year returns on 18.70%.

I don’t pretend to be a stock analyst but if the FCC really wants to encourage competition on the internet, shouldn’t the agency promote entry into the higher performing industries?  If the FCC wants to convince me that they are interested in economic growth, their analysis should be based on the current reality of the internet economy and the data and information markets.

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Paid prioritization would get the GOP bill closer to ideal

Today the hashtags, #openinternet and #netneutrality were used extensively as the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the House Sub-committee on Communications and Technology listened to testimony that they hope will help refine draft legislation designed to rein in the Federal Communications Commission while bringing clarity on paid prioritization, unreasonable network management, discrimination against network traffic, and access to legal websites.

The bill expressly prohibits paid prioritization, which allows content providers to enter agreements with broadband providers that allow traffic higher priority for certain traffic to end-users.  The argument against paid prioritization has been that smaller content providers would not be able to compete with the big dogs who have deeper pockets and can afford to pay to get their traffic placed before the rest of the dog pile.  But what this view fails to consider is that firms willing to pay for priority treatment of their traffic recognize the value to their subscribers that their traffic has and paying to get that traffic to content subscribers is a cost that will generate benefits.

Content providers are not shy about the how failure to get traffic to subscribers in a timely fashion might impact their business models.  Take for eample the investment information firm, Morningstar.

Morningstar is in the information and services delivery industry.  The Chicago-based firm provides independent investment research to subscribers around the globe.  It relies on internet technology to deliver its services, thus an ability to upgrade to the newest technology is necessary if content providers like Morningstar are to remain competitive.  Outages of their network data centers can result in lost customers and lost revenues.  According to Morningstar:

“Many of our client contracts contain service-level agreements that require us to meet certain obligations for delivering time-sensitive, up-to-date data and information. We may not be able to meet these obligations in the event of failure or downtime in our information systems. Our operations and those of our suppliers and customers are vulnerable to interruption by fire, earthquake, power loss, telecommunications failure, terrorist attacks, wars, Internet failures or disruptions, computer viruses, and other events beyond our control. Our database and network facilities may also be vulnerable to external attacks that misappropriate our data, corrupt our databases, or limit access to our information systems.

Most of our products and services depend heavily on our electronic delivery systems and the Internet. Our ability to deliver information using the Internet may be impaired because of infrastructure failures, service outages at third-party Internet providers, malicious attacks, or other factors. If disruptions, failures, or slowdowns of our electronic delivery systems or the Internet occur, our ability to distribute our products and services effectively and to serve our customers may be impaired.”

Question is, would a statutory ban on paid prioritization benefit Morningstar or other firms in the information delivery services industry where, again, timeliness ois of the essence?  If contracts with their clients call for liabilities where data is not delivered in a timely manner or where quality is eroded, can Morningstar afford prohibition from entering priority contracts?

While the bill is a good start toward bringing clarity and closure to the net neutrality debate, Congress needs to focus on the commercial aspects of the internet and keep in mind that speed and capacity are the characteristics that make the exchange of information over the internet far more superior, productive, and profitable than any other medium.  Paid prioritization is about meeting customer needs and recognizing the value certain content brings not only to the subscribing end users but to the economy as a whole.

 

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Henry Waxman’s final net neutrality gasp

I guess U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, didn’t like it when I did back flips over his announcement last week that he was retiring from the U.S. Congress after 40 years of service.  If you’re wondering why I went gleefully acrobatic over his pending departure then you got an example today when Mr. Waxman introduced HR 3982, the Open Internet Preservation Act.  The intent of the bill is to restore the Federal Communications Commission’s anti-discrimination and anti-blocking portion rules vacated last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals-District of Columbia.   Mr. Waxman argues that via the bill, Congress will be sending a strong message to the FCC that Congress expects these internet protections to be put back on the books.

I expect that the bill will not get out of committee since the majority of its members are Republican.  While the GOP arguably supports an open internet, they have in general voiced opposition to any onerous regulation of the thoroughfare for today’s digital commerce.  Maintaining light touch regulation will be the expected rally cry and on this issue I would support the GOP’s position.

I’m not surprised that an attempt to put the rules back in place would be made in Congress, but the waste of energy is a bit disconcerting.  Unfortunately for broadband providers, the FCC still has authority to regulate broadband and, given the penchant the government has for stepping on slippery slopes, the entire internet.  Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act calls on the FCC to promote the deployment of advanced services and the court held that this is the existing source of the agency’s limited regulatory authority.

If Mr. Waxman is concerned about consumer access to services, content, applications, and devices, he shouldn’t be.  Broadband providers know that they are subject to significant consumer choice.  Consumers can choose between a number of wired and wire-line providers of broadband services.  In addition, the rule of network effects constrains broadband providers from negatively impacting the value of their networks by reducing the number of content providers, app developers, and other edge services providers that a consumer can connect with.

Mr. Waxman’s  attempt to fulfill that last gasp of air for net neutrality as public policy doesn’t improve consumer or producer welfare and only amounts to another empty attempt by the state to direct the business judgment of entrepreneurs and the free enterprises that they run.