Democracy and Technology Blog

Roosevelt Tried To Abolish the FCC

No doubt you are aware that the Communications Act of 1934 eastablished the Federal Communications Commission, which has profoundly affected the broadcast, cable, telecommunications and satellite industries. You will recall that the legislation was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. What you may not realize is that President Roosevelt made two subsequent attempts to abolish the Federal Communications Commission. On Jan. 23, 1939, Roosevelt wrote similar letters to Senator Burton K. Wheeler and Congressman Clarence F. Lea urging dramatic FCC reform. I am thoroughly dissatisfied with the present legal framework and administrative machinery of the [Federal Communications] Commission. I have come to the definite conclusion that new legislation is necessary to effectuate a satisfactory reorganization of the Commission. Read More ›


No More Backscratching Between Phone Companies

An ad campaign urged residents of Butler, GA to “Stop AT&T From Raising Your Rates” by planning to attend a public hearing earlier this month at the Taylor County Courthouse to provide testimony in Docket #35068, Rate Cases on the Track 2 Companies. The Georgia Public Service Commission sets the phone rates in Butler, but politics are politics, and AT&T is a better scapegoat for an ad campaign. AT&T doesn’t even provide the town’s phone service, although the telecom giant does help finance it. That’s because Georgia consumers pay a hidden tax on their phone bills that subsidizes the phone service provided by Public Service Telephone Co. in Butler. You guessed it, PST paid for the ads. >Continue reading


Still Seeking Advantageous Regulation in Telecom

One of the most egregious examples of special interest pleading before the Federal Communications Commission and now possibly before Congress involves the pricing of “special access,” a private line service that high-volume customers purchase from telecommunications providers such as AT&T and Verizon. Sprint, for example, purchases these services to connect its cell towers. Sprint has been seeking government-mandated discounts in the prices charged by AT&T, Verizon and other incumbent local exchange carriers for years. Although Sprint has failed to make a remotely plausible case for re-regulation, fuzzy-headed policymakers are considering using taxpayer’s money in an attempt to gather potentially useless data on Sprint’s behalf. Sprint is trying to undo a regulatory policy adopted by the FCC during the Clinton era. Read More ›


Government cares more about politics than the tech economy

The hottest companies in Washington, DC right now include Netflix, Sprint and T-Mobile. What do these firms have in common? They are all marketplace losers.
A few years ago, the Supreme Court said that the Sherman Act “does not give judges carte blanche to insist that a monopolist alter its way of doing business whenever some other approach might yield greater competition” (see: Verizon v. Trinko, 2004). Yet this is precisely the course of action that technocrats are taking as a result of accepting invitations from Netflix to conduct a “wide-ranging antitrust investigation” of the cable industry and from Sprint and T-Mobile to find a way to block Verizon Wireless’ acquisition of additional spectrum.
Netflix built a successful mail order DVD business when it wasn’t very practical to download movies over the Internet. Fortunately for Netflix, consumers can send and receive, but they cannot rent DVDs from the Post Office. There are legal and political constraints that prevet the U.S. Postal Service from diversifying into new lines of business, and these restrictions conferred a significant degree of monopoly protection on Netflix. Incidentally, saving the Postal Service requires diversification, among other things. What was great for Netflix wasn’t so good for the postal system (upon which we all depend).
Although some advocates of network neutrality wanted to postalize broadband, the Federal Communications Commission said no. Apparently, we are going to have that debate all over again.
Cable companies obviously will not be prevented from competing against Netflix and other online video providers. But a drive to eliminate any conceivable competitive advantage that cable providers may have would ultimately lead to extensive regulation, including, most likely, infrastructure sharing rules like those the Supreme Court looked at in AT&T v. Iowa Utilities Board (1999). In his separate opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer warned that “rules that force firms to share every resource or element of a business would create, not competition, but pervasive regulation, for the regulators, not the marketplace, would set the relevant terms.”
The current administration promised to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement. What that means is a return to the economic stagnation of the 1970s, when antitrust forced consumers to do business with uncompetitive, inefficient firms. It is no exaggeration to speak of antitrust as a form of corporate welfare financed by hidden taxes on consumers. The reality is that government cannot create competition; it can only suppress competitors.

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Network access regulation 4.0

More this week on the efforts of Reed Hastings of Netflix to reignite the perennial debate over network access regulation, courtesy of the New York Times. Hastings is seeking a free ride on Comcast’s multi-billion-dollar investment in broadband Internet access.
Times columnist Eduardo Porter apparently believes that he has seen the future and thinks it works: The French government forced France T�l�com to lease capacity on its wires to rivals for a regulated price, he reports, and now competitor Iliad offers packages that include free international calls to 70 countries and a download speed of 100 megabits per second for less than $40.
It should be noted at the outset that the percentage of French households with broadband in 2009 (57%) was less than the percentage of U.S. households (63%) according to statistics cited by the Federal Communications Commission.
There is a much stronger argument for unbundling in France – which lacks a fully-developed cable TV industry – than in the U.S. As the Berkman Center paper to which Porter’s column links notes on pages 266-68, DSL subscriptions – most of which ride France T�l�com’s network – make up 95% of all broadband connections in France. Cable constitutes approximately only 5% of the overall broadband market. Competition among DSL providers has produced lower prices for consumers, but at the expense of private investment in fiber networks.

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Nothing to fear from pricing freedom for broadband providers

The airline would not let coach passenger Susan Crawford stow her viola in first class on a crowded flight from DC to Boston, she writes at Wired (Be Very Afraid: The Cable-ization of Online Life Is Upon Us).

Just imagine trying to run a business that is utterly dependent on a single delivery network — a gatekeeper — that can make up the rules on the fly and knows you have nowhere else to go. To get the predictability you need to stay solvent, you’ll be told to pay a “first class” premium to reach your customers. From your perspective, the whole situation will feel like you’re being shaken down: It’s arbitrary, unfair, and coercive.

Most people don’t own a viola, nor do they want to subsidize viola travel. They want to pay the lowest fare. Differential pricing (prices set according to the differing costs of supplying products and services) has democratized air travel since Congress deregulated the airlines in 1978. First class helps make it possible for airlines to offer both lower economy ticket prices and more frequent service. Which is probably why Crawford’s column isn’t about airlines.
For one thing, Crawford seems to be annoyed that the “open Internet protections” adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010 do not curtail specialized services — such as an offering from Comcast that lets Xbox 360 owners get thousands of movies and TV shows from XFINITY On Demand. As the commission explained,

“[S]pecialized services,” such as some broadband providers’ existing facilities-based VoIP and Internet Protocol-video offerings, differ from broadband Internet access service and may drive additional private investment in broadband networks and provide end users valued services, supplementing the benefits of the open Internet. (emphasis mine)

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Landline rules won’t work for telecoms, or for Susan Shaw

Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post reports that

the telecom industry is forcing policymakers to re-examine what has long been a basic guarantee of government – that every American home should have access to a phone, along with other utilities such as water or electricity. Industry executives and state lawmakers who support this effort want to expand the definition of the phone utility beyond the century-old icon of the American home to include Web-based devices or mobile phones.

The quid pro quo for a monopoly franchise was an obligation to provide timely service upon reasonable request to anyone, subject to regulated rates, terms and conditions. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 eliminated the monopoly franchise, but the obligation to serve remains in the statute books of most states. Telecom providers, aka carriers-of-last-resort (COLR), are stuck with the quid without the quo.
This has become a problem as more and more consumers are “cutting the cord” in favor of wireless or VoIP services. AT&T, for example, has lost nearly half of its consumer switched access lines since the end of 2006. However, most of the loops, switches, cables and other infrastructure which comprise the telephone network must be maintained if telecom providers have to furnish telephone service to anyone who wants it within days.

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New Client of the Regulatory State Expects Results

When the federal government torpedoed the AT&T/T-Mobile USA merger in December pursuant to the current administration’s commitment to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement,” it created a new client in search of official protection and favors.
It was clear there is no way T-Mobile – which lost 802,000 contract customers in the fourth quarter – is capable of becoming a significant competitor in the near future. T-Mobile doesn’t have the capital or rights to the necessary electromagnetic spectrum to build an advanced fourth-generation wireless broadband network of its own.
T-Mobile’s parent, Deutsche Telekom AG, has been losing money in Europe and expected its American affiliate to become self-reliant. In 2008, T-Mobile sat out the last major auction for spectrum the company needs.
The company received cash and spectrum worth $4 billion from AT&T when the merger fell apart, from which T-Mobile plans to spend only $1.4 billion this year and next on the construction of a limited 4G network in the U.S. But it must acquire additional capital and spectrum to become a viable competitor.
Unfortunately, every wireless service provider requires additional spectrum. “[P]rojected growth in data traffic can be achieved only by making more spectrum available for wireless use,” according to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Congress recently gave the FCC new authority to auction more spectrum, but it failed – in the words of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski – to “eliminate traditional FCC tools for setting terms for participation in auctions.”
Everyone fears it will take the FCC years to successfully conduct the next round of auctions while it fiddles “in the public interest.” That’s why Verizon Wireless is seeking to acquire airwaves from a consortium of cable companies, and why T-Mobile will do anything to stop it.

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Federal broadband loan program hopelessly duplicative

A hearing tomorrow in the House Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture will examine duplicative rural development programs. The subcommittee should pay particular attention to the Broadband Loan Program administered by the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture. Audits have uncovered serious shortcomings and the agency has resisted needed reforms for years. The time has come for lawmakers to brush aside rosy assurances from agency officials and wind the program down. Testifying in February of last year, the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General briefly summarized a shocking set of audit findings from 2005 that included waste, fraud and abuse, and noted that most of the issues had still not been resolved satisfactorily . Of the Read More ›


Kentucky considering telecom update

Legislators in Kentucky are considering a bill for modernizing Chapter 278, sections 541-544 of the Kentucky Revised Statutes relating to the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission (Senate Bill 135).
States including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin have all recently revamped their telecommunications statutes, and Mississippi is in the process of considering similar legislation. SB 135 would put Kentucky in a strong position relative to these nearby states in terms of creating a favorable business climate for private investment in advanced networks.
Rates for basic local exchange service would be market-based and not subject to commission jurisdiction beginning 60 months after a telephone utility elects (or has already elected) to adopt price cap regulation. The requirement to file tariffs would be eliminated at that time.

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