Technology Liberation Front
Sens. Lamar Alexander and Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill that would ban cellphone calls on planes today, just before the FCC votes on the issue. Alexander, a small government conservative, had this to say in a statement:
Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense. This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts.
As I pointed out in Reason last week, the fear that if airlines are given the option of allowing cellphones in-flight then we’ll have millions of “yapping” passengers is contrary to all evidence. First of all, not all airlines will allow in-flight phone use, giving folks who fear “yapping” a choice.
If [demand for phone-free flights] is there, as it certainly seems to be, airlines will respond with private rules and bans on cellphone use without government’s help. And private rules have the advantage of being much more varied and flexible than the difficult-to-change, one-size-fits-all rules we can get from government. We can see this at work in Europe and Asia, which already allow cellphone use in-flight. According to the New York Times, “Virgin Atlantic allows unlimited data connections, but it lets only six people talk on a cellphone at once. Some Lufthansa flights allow data connections through a cellphone, but no phone calls.”
By introducing this legislation, Alexander is essentially saying that he doesn’t trust markets to meet consumer demand, and that a government edict is the better course. More to the point:
Even on flights that do allow cell phone use, it won’t be “chaos” as Rep. DeFazio predicts. Humans have a pretty good history of eliciting good behavior from each other through the development of norms without the need for codified rules–public or private. According to the FAA, civil authorities in countries were in-flight cellphone use is permitted reported no “cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations.”
Having the government tell airlines what services they can and can’t offer their customers is not “commons sense” as Alexander puts it; it’s big-government paternalism. Perhaps I have a higher opinion of my fellow Americans, including travelers from Tennessee, but I really doubt that if an airline allows cellphone use, then we will necessarily see endless mindless “yapping.” Americans would probably behave like the Europeans and Asians who already have this choice, being judicious about using their phone and courteous when they do.
Call it what you want: a bailout, a thumb on the scales, bidder restrictions–the FCC might conspicuously intervene in the 2015 incentive auctions at the behest of smaller carriers and public interest advocates.
Chairman Wheeler’s recent comments indicate the FCC may devise a way to prevent the largest two carriers–AT&T and Verizon–from purchasing “too much” of the television broadcasters’ spectrum at auction. AT&T likely sees the writing on the wall and argues that if there are auction limits, the restrictions should apply only to the auction, rather than more extreme restrictions that would penalize AT&T and Verizon, the largest carriers, for previously-acquired spectrum. As The Switch’s Brian Fung put it,
the small carriers favor what are called “asymmetric” spectrum caps that affect various carriers differently, while opponents prefer “symmetric” caps that don’t account for existing market positions.
While I wish AT&T put up more of a fight to auction interventions, they (and staff at the FCC) are handicapped in pursuing an unrestricted auction. The blame lies mostly with Congress who gave the FCC vague (thus ripe for abuse) and conflicting mandates spanning decades. The 1993 law authorizing auctions, for instance, requires the FCC to “avoid excessive concentration of licenses” and to “disseminat[e] licenses among a wide variety of applicants” among other regulatory carve-outs for smaller competitors. These latter requirements, if implemented as rigorously as smaller carriers would like, directly undermine the purpose of the 2012 American Taxpayer Relief Act that requires the upcoming spectrum auctions raise $7 billion for a public safety broadband network and $20 billion for deficit reduction.
By asymmetrically penalizing AT&T and Verizon, the FCC increases the probability the auction fails to raise the tens of billions of dollars needed (see Fred Campbell’s recent paper). I haven’t heard a policymaker speak about the incentive auction without remarking how extraordinarily complex it is. That complexity–as was made clear in this week’s Senate hearing on the subject–means no one knows how much spectrum will be auctioned off or how much money will be raised. I was doubtful the FCC would secure the called-for 120 MHz for auction in the first place, but the Senate hearing convinced me that they might not get even 60 MHz. If the FCC meddles too much and the broadcasters aren’t assured they’ll get top dollar for their spectrum, the broadcasters might not show up to sell.
For many reasons, the FCC should ignore the pressures to restrict the large carriers in bidding. Smaller carriers argue the large carriers will outbid them only to preclude competition and hoard the spectrum. Every major carrier is spending billions to expand its footprint and capacity rapidly so the hoarding argument is hard to accept (not to mention, carriers face FCC build out requirements). The hoarding argument also confounds me because AT&T and Verizon are at the forefront arguing for more spectrum auctions, particularly spectrum from federal agencies. Would they want the market flooded with new spectrum only so they could spend billions to hoard it?
Asymmetric auction restrictions also resemble a bailout for smaller carriers. T-Mobile and Sprint–who most actively lobby for auction restrictions–are not mom-and-pop establishments. Each is a sophisticated, powerful corporation with access to capital markets and backed by larger international telecoms–Germany’s Deutsche Telekom for T-Mobile and Japan’s SoftBank for Sprint. DT and SoftBank have both pledged to spend billions in the next few years to improve their American carrier’s competitive position. Such carriers do not need an FCC handout.
The bailout resemblance is more apparent when you realize Sprint has been hamstrung for nearly a decade with damaging business decisions. Three come immediately to mind: 1) the dreadful merger with Nextel in 2005; 2) the ill-fated bet in 2008 to forgo LTE rollout in favor of WiMax, a competing 4G standard; and 3) the loss of over one million customers when it discontinued its push-to-talk iDEN service for network upgrades. The losses from the Nextel merger alone approach $30 billion.
To be clear, I don’t second-guess Sprint’s decisions. They did what innovative firms are supposed to do in attempting big, risky investments. However, it should not be the job of the FCC to favor some firms through spectrum auctions because some carriers’ business decisions did not pan out. That is not a competitive wireless auction–that is an FCC-orchestrated bailout. Granted, the FCC has been handed conflicting mandates. The Commission has ample discretion, however, to conduct a competitive auction that both complies with the law and improves chances of reaching the ambitious revenue goals. Intense meddling with auction results could prove disastrous.
Here are a few Internet policy essays I collected over the past year which I thought were particularly well done and worth highlighting once more. They are listed in chronological order:
- L. Gordon Crovitz – “Silicon Valley’s ‘Suicide Impulse,’” Wall Street Journal, January 28. (“It’s a measure of how far Silicon Valley has strayed from its entrepreneurial roots that a top regulator is calling on technology companies to do less lobbying and more competing,” Crovitz argued. “Rather than lobby government to go after one another, Silicon Valley lobbyists should unite to go after overreaching government. Instead of the “suicide impulse” of lobbying for more regulation, Silicon Valley should seek deregulation and a long-overdue freedom to return to its entrepreneurial roots.”)
- John Gruber – “Open and Shut,” Daring Fireball, March 1. (An absolutely brutal evisceration of Tim Wu’s recent work.)
- R. U. Sirius – “Cypherpunk Rising: WikiLeaks, Encryption, and the Coming Surveillance Dystopia,” The Verge, March 7.
- Julian Sanchez – “A Reply to Epstein & Pilon on NSA’s Metadata Program,” Cato at Liberty, June 16. (A meticulous point-by-point takedown of an essay by Roger Pilon & Richard Epstein defending NSA’s online surveillance tactics.)
- Ethan Zuckerman – “Is Cybertopianism Really Such a Bad Thing?” Slate, June 17 (A “defense of believing that technology can do good.”)
- Jill Lepore – “The Prism: Privacy in an Age of Publicity,” New Yorker, June 24. (An examination of the evolution of privacy norms over the past 150 years. Lepore argued that “As a matter of historical analysis, the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom: the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets. In other words, the case for privacy always comes too late. The horse is out of the barn.”)
- Michael Nelson – “ Six Myths of Innovation Policy,” The European Institute Blog, July 2013. (An interesting examination of some myths about innovation policy with a discussion about how it impacts policy in both U.S. and E.U.)
- Daniel O’Connor – “Rent Seeking and the Internet Economy (Part 1): Why is the Internet So Frequently the Target of Rent Seekers?” DisCo blog, August 15. (Nice overview of what rent-seeking is and why it is increasing in the tech economy.)
- Bruce Schneier – “Our Decreasing Tolerance To Risk,” Forbes, August 23. (Good exploration of the psychology of risk by one of the great experts on the topic. It’s not strictly about information technology policy, but it has profound ramifications for it. He notes: “We need to relearn how to recognize the trade-offs that come from risk management, especially risk from our fellow human beings. We need to relearn how to accept risk, and even embrace it, as essential to human progress and our free society. The more we expect technology to protect us from people in the same way it protects us from nature, the more we will sacrifice the very values of our society in futile attempts to achieve this security.”)
- Clive Thompson – “Googling Yourself Takes on a Whole New Meaning,” New York Times Magazine, August 30, 2013. (I’d be hard-pressed to find a more gifted and insightful technology pundit than Clive Thompson and he delivers yet again in this interesting piece. My review of his excellent new book was published by Reason. Needless to say, I loved it.)
- Eli Noam – “Towards the Federated Internet,” InterMEDIA, Autumn 2013. (A provocative essay advocating for an “internet of internets” to replace the current unified global Internet. Noam argues that the time has come to abandon our slavish allegiance to the dream of a single, uniform global network and “we should instead think about a system of federated internets working together in some form of technological coexistence of interoperability.”)
And my vote for worst Internet policy essay of the year goes to Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson for his astonishing essay, “Beware the Internet and the Danger of Cyberattacks,” in which he says, “If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it.” Where does one even begin with such logic?! Well, I responded here. [A close runner-up for the Worst of Year prize would be this essay by Benjamin Kunkel, "Socialize Social Media! A Manifesto." But it's so hard to take that essay seriously that it should probably just be disqualified from the competition entirely.]
Anyway, let me know some of your favorite (or even least favorite) Net policy essays of 2013. (And yes, I fully expect some of you to list some of my essays as candidates for Worst of Year honors!)
Please join us at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC on December 16th for a conference launching the year-long project, “FTC: Technology and Reform.” With complex technological issues increasingly on the FTC’s docket, we will consider what it means that the FTC is fast becoming the Federal Technology Commission.
The FTC: Technology & Reform Project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology.
For many, new technologies represent “challenges” to the agency, a continuous stream of complex threats to consumers that can be mitigated only by ongoing regulatory vigilance. We view technology differently, as an overwhelmingly positive force for consumers. To us, the FTC’s role is to promote the consumer benefits of new technology — not to “tame the beast” but to intervene only with caution, when the likely consumer benefits of regulation outweigh the risk of regulatory error. This conference is the start of a year-long project that will recommend concrete reforms to ensure that the FTC’s treatment of technology works to make consumers better off.
Convened by TechFreedom and the International Center for Law & Economics, the FTC Technology & Reform Project includes academics, practitioners, policy experts and several former FTC Commissioners and staffers. Our initial report, to be released around the December 16th event, will identify critical questions facing the agency, Congress, and the courts about the FTC’s future and will propose a framework for addressing them.
FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright will kick off the half-day conference with a luncheon keynote. Following his remarks, Project members will discus principal aspects of our initial report. The event will conclude with a networking reception. Attendees will include a wide variety of practitioners and scholars with expertise working at the Commission or counseling businesses about it.
Monday, December 16, 2013
11:30 – Registration opens
12:00 – 5:30 pm – Luncheon keynote & conference
5:30 – 6:30 p.m. – Reception
The Willard Hotel
1401 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20004
FCC Tariff Decision Is Not Consistent with the IP Transition, the National Broadband Plan, or the Law
Yesterday’s decision requiring AT&T to continue offering seven-year term discounts on POTS lines while the FCC conducts a meritless investigation is more than a drag – it is a government shackle on the deployment of modern IP-based infrastructure to rural and low-income consumers.
In early 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued the National Broadband Plan (Plan) to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband Internet communications. The Plan concluded that “broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life” and urged that everyone “must now act and rise to our era’s infrastructure challenge.” (Plan at XI, XV) Yesterday the FCC threatened to turn its back on this call to action when it suspended revisions to AT&T tariffs that sought to stop offering term discount plans of five to seven years for 1960s era “Plain Old Telephone Service” (POTS) technology using circuit switched “special access” lines. The FCC suspended the tariff revisions for five months to investigate their “lawfulness” (even though the remaining tariff rates have already been conclusively presumed to be just and reasonable).
Ironically, at the open Commission meeting on Thursday, the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force will provide a status update on the National Broadband Plan’s recommendation that the FCC eliminate—within the next five to seven years—the requirement that AT&T and other carriers offer POTS technologies using circuit-switched networks (known as the “IP transition”).
Why would the FCC open a five-month investigation on Monday to determine whether it is “lawful” for AT&T to stop providing long-term discounts for services using outdated technologies the FCC will discuss eliminating altogether at its meeting on Thursday?
The most plausible answer is that the FCC intends to use its regulatory leverage to pressure AT&T into renegotiating its tariffed rates for outdated special access services while the agency decides how to proceed with the IP transition. That might provide some short-term benefits to AT&T competitors who would prefer to avoid investing in their own infrastructure, but in the long-term, the uncertainty created by this regulatory overreach might also forestall investment in the IP infrastructure necessary to fulfill the goals of the National Broadband Plan.
Neither possibility would benefit residential consumers in rural and low-income areas that don’t have access to broadband. The transition from POTS circuit-switched networks to all Internet Protocol networks was a key recommendation of the National Broadband Plan for achieving universal broadband access. The Plan noted that legacy regulation requiring certain carriers to maintain POTS—a requirement the Plan concluded is not sustainable—leads to investments in stranded assets that siphon funding away from IP networks and services. (Plan at 59) Consistent with previous technology transitions, the Plan recommended that the FCC ensure that legacy regulations and services do not become a drag on the transition to a more modern and efficient communications infrastructure while ensuring that consumers don’t lose services they need and businesses can plan for and adjust to the new standards. (Id.) “The challenge for the country is to ensure that as IP-based services replace circuit-switched services, there is a smooth transition.” (Id.)
It’s been nearly four years since the FCC recognized the need to ensure that legacy regulations and services do not become a drag on the IP transition. Yesterday’s decision requiring AT&T to continue offering seven-year term discounts on POTS lines while the FCC conducts a meritless investigation is more than a drag – it is a government shackle on the deployment of modern IP-based infrastructure to rural and low-income consumers. Most special access lines are not capable of providing broadband Internet services, and they are almost never used to provide services to residential consumers. Other carriers typically lease special access lines from AT&T at government-regulated rates in order to provide phone lines and narrowband data services to businesses – a regressive policy framework that subsidizes corporate telephony at the expense of investment in high-speed broadband services for residential consumers.
In addition to being bad policy, suspending tariff revisions in order to protect competitors and shift costs from corporations to consumers is bad law. The current AT&T tariffs have already been “deemed lawful,” which means that AT&T’s tariffed rates for special access services offered for terms of three years or less have been conclusively presumed to be “just and reasonable” within the meaning of section 201(b) of the Communications Act. (See Virgin Islands Tele. Corp. v. FCC, 444 F.3d 666 (DC Circ. 2006)) Those rates cannot be deemed unjust and unreasonable merely because AT&T is no longer offering discounts for longer-term arrangements. The Communications Act does not require a carrier to offer any term discounts at all. (See BellSouth v. FCC, 469 F.3d 1052 (D.C. Cir. 2006))
Of course, as noted above, I suspect the FCC’s decision to suspend this tariff was not driven by concerns about the reasonableness of AT&T’s rates (which have already been deemed lawful). It was likely driven by the desire to obtain additional regulatory leverage over services that benefit particular competitors and to buy time for an express decision on the timeline for the IP transition. Even if those were appropriate regulatory goals (and the former certainly is not), bending tariff laws and procedures is not an appropriate means of achieving them.
One year ago I wrote that conservatives were the leading voices in technology policy. Conservative leadership on tech policy issues became even more apparent last week, when House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) announced plans to update the Communications Act for the Internet era (#CommActUpdate). Virtually everyone recognizes that the Act, which Rep. Walden noted was “written during the Great Depression and last updated when 56 kilobits per second via dial-up modem was state of the art,” is now hopelessly out of date. But it was conservative leadership that was willing to begin the legislative process necessary to update it.
Although the term “progressive” literally means “advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are,” some political progressives have focused their communications advocacy on maintaining the status quo. In response to the #CommActUpdate, Free Press said, “We’re not going to get a better act than we have now.” (Communications Daily, Dec. 5, 2013 (subscription required)) Free Press, which describes itself as a “movement to change media and technology policies,” also told Comm Daily, “The IP transition should be governed by the laws on the books today.”
The “do-nothing” approach advocated by Free Press is symptomatic of the regressive policies pursued by some communications advocates today. The laws Free Press seeks to preserve unreasonably discriminate among similar networks providing substantially the same services based solely on their historical identity. Among other things, this discriminatory statutory framework artificially shifts the costs of communications services provided to corporations to residential consumers, inhibits investment in the modern communications infrastructure to serve rural and low-income areas, and distorts competition.
When did self-described “progressives” start believing that Congress cannot improve such painfully outdated laws?
I have more faith in the legislative process than Free Press. I am confident that Congress can work in a bipartisan way to improve laws that are unfairly subsidizing business services at the expense of residential consumers, inhibiting investment in modern communications infrastructure, and distorting competition. Previous revisions to the Communications Act have not provoked partisan rancor, and this one shouldn’t either. Policymakers and advocates from both right and left of center understand the importance of ensuring that consumer-focused communications laws provide a level playing field for all market participants and foster the investment necessary to bring high-speed Internet services to every American.
Of course, improving the act will require that Congress conduct a thorough examination of the current communications market and retain only those policies that have proven successful – which is why the #CommActUpdate announcement is so important. Reviewing the Communications Act will take time, and in a global economy, we have no more time to waste.