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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.

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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 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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Netflix, Tumblr wanted 1995 not 1934

Internet Innovation Alliance’s Bruce Mehlman wrote an insightful blog post last Friday about the second thoughts companies like Netflix are having about the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to reclassify broadband services as plain old telephone service.  Netflix’s befuddlement over the FCC’s decision to use Title II to drop the regulatory hammer on the internet ecosystem has me wondering how much on the same page were these net neutrality proponents?  The push for net neutrality may be an example of how dysfinctional the left can be when it sells a narrative to multiple classes within its big tent and has the manage the disappointment that ironically occurs when it gets what it wants.

Netflix’s insistence that heavy Ttle II regulation was not a part of its end game has me wondering if progressives had really settled down on a definition of a “fair and open” internet.  The left apparently has not.  To Netflix and other Silicon Valley giants, fair and open appears to mean an internet where they can interconnect in a pre-1996 manner; under some bill and keep methodology with any type of technology they deemed appropriate regardless of a broadband provider’s discomfort.

To the end-users, the four million confused members of the masses, “fair and open” was a rallying cry of the democratic wish; that a fair internet will respect their rights to communicate with whatever website of their choice and move data equally to the end-user no matter the source of the content.

Narrative managers like Public Knowledge and Free Press were successful in conflating the two narratives but were probably inept in educating their supporters, like Tumblr‘s David Karp, as to the downside of using Title II as a mechanism for reconciling the two narratives.  Title II, Mr. Karp and the rest of his Silicon Valley cohorts should have been told that their content operations, particularly the agreements that they enter into to connect to broadband networks, were not guaranteed to escape fees for the exchange of data nor was privacy from prying consumer or competitor eyes or noninterference from the government going to be avoidable.

The FCC may find itself a big loser resulting from its participation in a disingenuous conflation of varying narratives.  It must now deliver on a basket of promises to the consumer as it answers complaints from an an ill-informed electorate regarding every perceived slight in service practice and rate assessments.  It won’t be able to tell consumers or the markets that it never intended to regulate rates.  Consumers won’t stand for that because improving their consumer welfare calls for what they believe is a long awaited initiative to regulate rates.

You wanted 1995?  You may have to settle for 1934.

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If the FCC is serious about regulating the internet like a utility, then this is what it should do

The argument that access to the internet via broadband networks should be regulated like a public utility sends society the wrong message about how information moves along the internet and that it is okay to devalue information, data, content along certain interconnection points when indeed the opposite should be happening; that for the value added at these interconnection points, added value should be reflected in the price mechanism.  Access should not be priced at near zero on false premises of openness and privacy.

On the contrary, if the data consumer wants to keep the prying eyes of access providers or other data providers away from her activities, there should be an exchange of compensation that guarantees such activity won’t take place.  Rather than regulate the internet as a “public utility”, let the parties in data transactions enter into contracts that spell out each party’s rights.

Unlike an electric utility where the product, electricity, flows for the most part one way (we’ll ignore distributed energy for now), data, content, information flows two ways.  Electricity flows from an energy producer to an entity that coordinates the transmission of electricity flows to the distribution utilities that have been searching for the best price from the generators. Data, content, information flows at least two ways; from content creator/generator/aggregator to an end-user in response to the locational or other personal data the end-user provides to either her internet service provider or content provider.

The data end-user or consumer pays her broadband provider for access to the internet and may also an online entity for access to their content which may be located behind a paywall.  In most cases the information the end-user seeks is offered by content providers free of charge.  But if a public utility model is followed for participants in the data markets then consumers have been underpaying for their search activities and their bills should be adjusted upward to capture the major costs a utility incurs when delivering service.

A consumer’s utility rate includes the cost of generating electricity; transmitting electricity; and distributing electricity to its final stop.  The utility consumer may also pay environmental compliance costs, nuclear construction costs recovery, a municipal franchise fee, and sales tax.

Broadband fees are another matter. What sticks out when you look at your broadband bill is that none of your fees and charges are related to the generation, transmission, or distribution of data, content, information.  For broadband access you may pay state and local taxes and that’s it.

So while a utility’s rate reflects activities impacting the movement of product that end-users want to purchase, electricity, broadband rates, while reflecting the cost of access, include nothing else, not even the cost of generating and transmitting data, content, information. If progressive advocates for public utility-style regulation of internet access want their argument to have validity they will have to accept that along with the additional regulatory burdens they propose via Title II, customers should expect bills that capture all the costs involved in generating and sending their data, content, information to them.  Broadband providers should pay every content provider that the broadband subscriber chooses as a source of data, content, information, and broadband providers should turn around and pass on these costs to the consumer so that her bills reflect these choices.

The benefits from such an approach is that it would give the markets a much more accurate view of which content providers are providing end-users with the most value.  The net neutrality debate would end because consumers would choose content they value the most as a result of rates that reflect the cost of getting a near infinitesimal amount of data to the end-user.

That is, off course, if the FCC is really serious about regulating the internet like a utility.

Consumers will call the FCC’s forbearance bluff

Posted February 19th, 2015 in Broadband, Federal Communications Commission, net neutrality and tagged , , by Alton Drew

We are seven days away from the Federal Communications Commission’s expectedly contentious vote on its reboot of net neutrality rules.  With the support of President Obama, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler will present rules based on the Commission’s alleged Title II authority under the Communications Act of 1934.  Title II was designed to keep in check 20th century monopolies by ensuring the reasonableness of rates charged by telephone companies to their end-users; ensuring that telephone companies as carriers of last resort provided services to all American households; and placing under the Commission’s authority the review of interconnection agreements between common carriers.

President Obama and other Title II proponents are against regulating rates for accessing the internet via broadband services, but Mr. Obama will leave office in January 2017 and a new Commission chairman, should Mr Wheeler also depart, may have different ideas about the regulation of internet access rates.

The irony is that failure to regulate internet access rates may invalidate the “goodwill” Mr Wheeler garnered from a boisterous if not uninformed public of three million grass roots supporters of newt neutrality rules.  Some of these supporters see internet access companies as unfairly leveraging their alleged monopoly positions to provide less services at increasing prices.  If they suspect that the Commission will not take seriously regulating the rates of internet access providers, they may think that their support was in vain.

And it’s not like the Commission will be getting much regulatory help from the state public utility commissions, at least in the short term.  Prior to the recent National Association of Regulatory Commissioners winter conference in Washington, DC, I contacted a number of state commissions to determine if they would begin regulating broadband should the FCC’s rule survive a court challenge.  Most of those who returned my e-mail question responded that it was too early to tell.  A number of commissioners stated that state law prohibited regulation and one commissioner even stated that he saw no way that his state legislature was going to go near the topic given that the legislature had already placed a bold policy statement that the legislature and regulators were to maintain a hands-off approach to broadband.

If the states won’t regulate access to the internet via broadband then the Commission will be all alone in fielding consumer queries as to why the Commission seemingly appears to have reneged on creating a competitive framework for broadband access.

I believe the politics of grassroots activism will catch up with the Commission and that Mr Wheeler and the rest of the Democratic members on the panel will be compelled to regulate end-user rates.