Is the FCC Squelching Web Innovation?

FCC_New_LogoI am always intrigued when politics enters the telecom realm, because the vast majority of issues we wrangle with are still handled in the traditional way. Engineers innovate and regulators regulate and generally, in the telecom world, the best technical solutions have always made it to the top and good ideas have generally won their way to the market.

Recently there was a guest editorial written for Forbes by Senator Steve Daines of Montana and FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly. This editorial took the FCC to task for squelching innovation by creating what they called a ‘permissionless culture’ of overregulation that is stopping innovation from happening on the web. The editorial goes on to talk about how web innovation has created a trillion dollar annual economy in the US and praises such ventures as Uber, Facebook and the iPhone. They go on to talk about how companies like GroupMe didn’t require any regulatory approval to try new ideas.

What seems to have them incensed is that the FCC recently called in Comcast, AT&T and T-Mobile to talk about each of their zero-rating schemes where they favor certain content by not making it part of their data caps. And this is where their analogy starts to break apart. It starts looking like a stretch to me to call Comcast or AT&T innovators. Comcast and the other large cable companies are very close to being broadband monopolists in the vast majority of their markets, and are at best a duopolist in other markets. AT&T and T-Mobile are two of only four wireless companies with any national reach in a market that is clearly an oligopoly.

If the FCC isn’t supposed to regulate the monopolists, duopolists and oligopolists then who are they supposed to regulate? It’s clear these two guys don’t like net neutrality, and probably not regulation in general. It also seems a bit extraordinary to me to see a sitting FCC Commissioner so heavily lobbying against his own agency in public.

The key accusation they have made is that the FCC is somehow stopping innovation by discussing net neutrality with these three large carriers. Is there any chance that they are?

I think it’s a huge stretch to compare Comcast and AT&T to GroupMe and the iPhone. The particular issues that prompted the editorial are essentially billing issues and these carriers aren’t being innovative and haven’t created anything new with zero-rating.

The huge number of filed comments in the net neutrality case made it very clear that the innovators in Silicon Valley are worried about the power of carriers like Comcast and AT&T. They fear that those companies who act as the ISP for most Americans can pick winners and losers among the GroupMe’s of the world by favoring a handful of large established web companies over everybody else. Those comments made it clear that the people who are the actual innovators want the FCC to insure that new web companies and new ideas be given a fair chance in the marketplace.

And so this is where politics enters the argument. Probably one of the oldest techniques used in politics is to call something the opposite of what it really is. Do that loudly enough and often enough and many people will start believing the opposite of what is really true.

In this case the FCC is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. They haven’t taken any actions yet, but they might. They are looking into whether the various zero-rating schemes of these three companies are anti-competitive. There is no guarantee on what they will decide since the three companies are trying different ideas. But what is clear is that companies like these three have the power to pick winners and losers among web content providers.

I find it disingenuous to be calling the FCC anti-competitive and accusing them of squelching competition when the FCC is investigating companies that actually have the power to do exactly that. I guess these kinds of editorials are written to stir up people outside of the telecom industry, because I suspect most industry insiders understand the issue clearly and just shake their heads when politics enters our universe.

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