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What regulators say about the internet of things

For the past two or three days the chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have been clarifying their regulatory agendas for and approaches to the Internet.  FCC chairman Tom Wheeler plans to issue net neutrality rules around 5 February with the full FCC voting on those rules on 26 February.  Media reports have Mr. Wheeler outlining what he believes the benefits consumers would enjoy from reclassifying broadband as an old school, run-of-the-mill telephone company.  For example at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Mr. Wheeler reportedly said the following:

“So, there is a way to do Title II right, that says there are many parts of Title II that are inappropriate, and would thwart investment, but that a model has been set in the wireless business.”

CTIA-The Wireless Association has taken the position that given the level of competition for mobile broadband that net neutrality rules should be “mobile broadband specific” and that mobile broadband has never been regulated under Title II.

Mr. Wheeler, in an attempt to keep net neutrality advocates happy, appears to be willing to use Title II regulation to strike down deals between content providers and broadband operators where content providers pay to have their traffic given higher priority over other providers.  Mr. Wheeler wants the role of determining which transactions and agreements are commercially reasonable and how that traffic should be moved from content provider to broadband provider to ultimate end user.

FTC chairman Edith Ramirez’s approach appears to focus more on transparency of participants in information markets.  Her concern, as shared with CES participants, is about privacy and the Internet of Things. As more devices connect to each other via the internet, more devices become subject to hacking and a wealth of data, thought by consumers to be private, becomes subject to misuse, theft, or fraud.

Ms. Ramirez’s focus on the consumer is not surprising given the nature of her agency’s work, but it also seems the slightly, and I mean slightly, better approach to overseeing market behavior versus individual business behavior.  The internet is a platform for information exchange between information generators and information seekers.  The more information that a provider has on how her information is going to be used in the markets helps her make better decisions not only on whether she should make it available but also on its value and how best to monetize her data. Information gatherers will simply have to provide better incentives to information providers to get them to give up their data.

What kind of growth does the market see for the Internet of Things?  According to Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group, some 25 billion devices will be connected to the internet by the end of 2015.  That number will climb to 50 billion connected devices by the end of 2020.  That’s a lot of broadband infrastructure for the FCC to oversee and more hacking access points for the FTC to worry about in five short years.

Investors will see the biggest gains in the infrastructure space of the Internet of Things.  Leading growth in this space will be manufacturers of processor chips, wifi networks, sensors, and software.  Investors should also be concerned with factors that impact demand for devices that talk to each other and I believe the factor that has the heaviest weight is the consumer privacy factor.  Devices aren’t just talking to each other but are gathering information on consumer likes and habits and storing this data for the information gatherer’s future use.  Privacy is an immediate and long term issue because it concerns one half of the parties involved in the information market transaction: the consumer.

As for the FCC’s open access approach it is too short-sighted.  Mr. Wheeler’s focus on competition for broadband service and equal treatment of traffic may have a nice sounding populist ring, but in the internet eco-system what matters is the consumer’s choice of product obtained through broadband.  That product is content and the price the consumer pays in exchange for that content is, ironically, content in the form of personal data.  Consumers already have wireless and wireline choices for broadband access.  The value play for consumers lies in the quality of content available online and consumers are more than capable of deciding that for themselves.

What the government can do is what it does best (albeit it is not the best at it, but work with me); government should adjudicate privacy and other consumer disputes and make available to consumers information that they may not be able to gleen readily from the private sector.  The FTC’s focus on privacy and consumer protection does a better job at this than the FCC.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the private sector is taking care of the FCC’s mandate of ensuring a nationwide communications network.  The FCC’s focus given the growth in the mobile market and the increasing need for devices to wirelessly connect should remain on allocating spectrum and assuring the reliability and safety of wired and wireless communications infrastructure.  Any other endeavor is waste.

 

 

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Internet commerce flourishes because of market demand not regulation

One peeve I have had with the Federal Communications Commission in past and today is its penchant to describe its role in the broadband market as a facilitator of growth and innovation.  It’s like having cousin Louie visit for a weekend, overstay his welcome, and claim that he helped to build your house.  I’ve had to ask myself if I missed something during my two decades in the regulatory game.  Where did the Commission facilitate growth in the online markets?

There are probably a number of different sources to look at.  I try to keep things simple, so I decided to take a look at what professional market watchers have seen over the past four years.  Not a formal analysis that wreaks of regression analysis and all that, but an albeit cursory review of the findings from three Morningstar reports that covered a broadband provider; an online bookseller; a media company; and an over-the-top video distributor.  Since the Commission continuously refers to the entire internet ecosystem as its unit of regulatory analysis, I figured looking at companies that play in different but connected boxes in the internet ecosystem was an allowable approach.  So here goes.

First, lets go back to a Morningstar analysis of Amazon conducted on 6 December 2010.  The analysis discusses the advantages that Amazon has over brick and mortar companies such as Barnes and Nobles and Borders.  Amazon has been able to leverage the internet to deliver books at the lowest cost point, a cost point achievable because of low overhead costs.  Amazon has also been able to leverage the internet to produce and distribute e-books which, according to Morningstar, has a compelling advantage over hardcover books.  The main reason e-books have been successful is that production and distribution costs are near, if not, zero.  This ability to keep production costs near scraping the bottom has translated into lower prices for consumers.

I read through that report looking for some acknowledgment of the Federal Communications Commission.  I saw none.  Based on this report it seems that the idea of storing books in warehouses and shipping them out to consumers as the result of receiving an order online was part of a business model developed by an engineer by the name of Jeff Bezos.  No mention of the Commission or the Communications Act.

In September 2011, Morningstar sounded kind of so-so on Netflix.  Morningstar made it clear that content owners held the upper hand with the ability to enter into shorter licensing agreements for content and repricing at a higher amount.  Morningstar also noted in 2011 that Netflix faced heightened competition from new entrants and the lack of access to higher quality content.

Fast forward three years.  Netflix has built its own house of cards where orange is the new black.  Just like the Amazon analysis, Morningstar makes no mention of how the Commission’s regulation of the internet contributed to Netflix’s business model or its decision to go outside the box and not just deliver DVDs but stream video as well.

Speaking of content, Morningstar’s July 2012 analysis of Time Warner proceeded from the premise that quality content is king and that Time Warner has been able to take a strong competitive position in content.  The quality of Time Warner’s content, according to Morningstar, increases in value because it can be consumed on multiple devices, including laptops, smartphones, and tablets in addition to televisions.

The decision to deliver it via multiple platforms via multiple devices appears to have been made by private actors with no input, appropriately, from the Commission.

And how about the broadband provider portion of the ecosystem.  The Commission, along with net neutrality advocates, has been harping on the need for robust competition in the broadband space, but according to Morningstar’s August 2012 analysis of broadband provider CenturyLink, for the company to stay competitive with cable companies it would have to invest in network enhancements that facilitate faster download and upload speeds.  Not only does CenturyLink have to compete with cable in providing broadband access, they also compete with cable to distribute video.  Their provision of fiber-to-the-tower finds them competing with not just cable companies but with other competitive local exchange carriers.  CenturyLink also competes with Amazon, Salesforce.com, and Verizon in the provision of cloud management services.

Again, nothing in Morningstar’s analysis that speaks to the Commission’s requirement or even suggestion that CenturyLink enter into these markets within the internet ecosystem.

Growth and innovation have been occurring within the internet without the Commission’s persuasion or regulation and so far the Commission has not demonstrated why applying Title II regulation could add any value to the market-driven actions taken by the firms I just discussed.

Can the FCC afford a public utility tax on an emerging mobile payments industry

The Economist last month published an article describing how consumers can use social media like Twitter and Facebook and mobile apps like Snapcash to send payments to businesses or other consumers.  The Person-to-Person or P2P market is expected to reach $5 billion this year and grow approximately 26% per year to reach $17 billion by the end of 2019.

Although mobile payments has been around in Kenya since 2007, what’s changing, according to The Economist, is that mobile payment services are getting easier and faster to use.  As new business models for mobile payments evolve the issue of monetizing those models raises its head.  Some platforms charge a fee for completing mobile payments.  Other platforms introduce premium services that they can probably charge a fee for but some platforms will remain free of fee charges to consumers, at least in a non-Title II world.

Why did I add a qualifier?  Because with Title II regulation, which would treat broadband internet access providers like old school common carriers, consumers may find their broadband services subject to a number of additional fees that may make consumers think twice about adopting and using broadband access.

According to a study by Hal Singer and Robert Litan, the average annual increase in state and local fees for wireline and wireless broadband access services will be $67 and $72, respectively.  The annual increase in federal fees will be approximately $17.  Messrs. Singer and Litan estimate that consumers will pay approximately an additional $15 billion in fees.  As Messrs. Singer and Litan correctly point out, broadband internet access providers won’t eat the federal, state, and local taxes or franchise and gross receipts taxes they are assessed.  They will, as they do with good old fashioned telecommunications services pass these taxes on to consumers.

That’s $15 billion in lost personal consumption expenditures going down the black hole of government coffers and not being circulated in the general economy.

Can consumer welfare afford a Title II reclassification by the Federal Communications Commission?  I don’t think so.

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The liberty to choose content based on value is what civil rights groups should rally on

The civil rights perspective regarding broadband access is severely misplaced.  The narrative in general has been that access to information exchanged over a medium based on internet protocol is a civil right; an enforceable right or privilege guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution which when interfered with by another gives rise to am action for an injury. Civil rights belong to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th amendments.

The last time I checked the U.S. Constitution, there was no language in there that expressly supports my access to a communications medium powered by internet protocol.  The Constitution didn’t even guarantee U.S. citizens access to communications networks powered by smoke signals, the telegraph, or even the telephone.  One could argue that in today’s modern telecommunications world that the Communications Act of 1934′s mandate that the Federal Communications Commission ensure the a nationwide communications network universally accessible by all Americans creates that right.  I would argue that it doesn’t and that the Act’s supporters in Congress got lucky in that the universal accessibility requirement of the Act was not challenged.

In some ways I’m surprised that Free Press or Public Knowledge have not turned the NAACP or the National Urban League’s “broadband is a civil right” argument into a “right to access a common carrier” argument thus buttressing their incorrect argument that broadband should be regulated as a Title II common carrier or public utility.  Ironically some civil rights groups like ColorofChange.org and the National Hispanic Media Coalition support public utility-like regulation of broadband and could likely add fuel to Free Press or Public Knowledge’s positions.  Unfortunately for Free Press and Public Knowledge their accusations that legacy civil rights groups are nothing but money-taking hacks for phone and cable companies has provided enough of a taint that most civil rights groups, no matter their position on net neutrality, would prefer stand closer to a spraying skunk that ally with Free Press or Public Knowledge.

Rather than risk getting to close to the edge of inadvertently pushing broadband into a common carrier box, civil rights should push a purer market-based consumer welfare argument when it comes to broadband in general and net neutrality in particular.  Their policy statement should be that federal and state government should not interfere with a consumer’s choice to have certain content delivered to their broadband-enabled devices and recognize that the consumer can enter agreements with internet access providers and content providers based on the value the consumer recognizes in particular content.

Rather than push a civil rights argument that has consumers asking for the government to define access rights, civil rights advocates should take the position that the liberty of consumer choice is a given and that public policy should recognize and respect that.

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Mr. Obama drinks the net neutrality kool-aid

Posted November 10th, 2014 in Federal Communications Commission, net neutrality, Obama and tagged , , by Alton Drew

Mr. Obama, unfortunately, has fallen for the #TitleII argument for regulating the #internet, erroneously arguing that the internet has been operating via net neutrality since the beginning of time. Wrong.

Certain traffic has always been sent before others because of the traffic’s makeup i.e. e-mail versus video. Title II would create various levels of internet service just like it did for telephone service. Also, Title II regulation means FCC and state approval of new services, just like Title II required of telephone services.

For those of us who worked in telecommunications regulation, we witnessed first hand how long and burdensome the approval process is for new services. Bottom line, if you want to see a slow down in the introduction of new internet services, go ahead and throw your support behind the President and Title II/net neutrality.

The President may have been a great constitutional law professor, but on telecommunications law, he needs to do his homework…..