Big ISPs Want to be Regulated

I’ve always contended that the big ISPs, regardless of their public howling, want to be regulated. It is the nature of any company that is regulated to complain about regulation. For the last decade as AT&T and Verizon made the biggest telecom profits ever they have released press release after press release decrying how regulation was breaking their backs. The big telcos and cable companies spent the last few years declaring loudly that Title II regulation was killing incentives to make investments, while spending record money on capital.

A few months ago Comcast, Charter, and Cox filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit making its way through the US. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In that brief they asked the federal appeals court to restore the Federal Trade Commission’s jurisdiction over AT&T. The specific case being reviewed had to do with deceptive AT&T marketing practices when they originally offered unlimited cellular data plans. It turns out that AT&T throttled customer speeds once customers reached the meager threshold of 3 – 5 GB per month.

In 2014 the FTC sued AT&T for the practice and that’s the case now under appeal. It’s a bit extraordinary to see big ISPs siding with the government over another ISP, and the only reason that can be attributed to the suit is that these companies want there to be a stable regulatory environment. In the brief the cable companies expressed the desire to “reinstate a predictable, uniform, and technology-neutral regulatory framework that will best serve consumers and businesses alike.”

That one sentence sums up very well the real benefit of regulation to big companies. As much as they might hate to be regulated, they absolutely hate making huge investments in new product lines in an uncertain regulatory environment. When a big ISP knows the rules, they can plan accordingly.

One scenario that scares the big ISPs is living in an environment where regulations can easily change. That’s where we find ourselves today. It’s clear that the current FCC and Congress are planning on drastically reducing the ‘regulatory burden’ for the big ISPs. That sounds like an ideal situation for the ISPs, but it’s not. It’s clear that a lot of the regulations are being changed for political purposes and big companies well understand that the political pendulum swings back and forth. They dread having regulations that change with each new administration.

We only have to go back a few decades to see this in action. The FCC got into and then back out of the business of regulating cable TV rates several times in the late 1970s and the 1980s. This created massive havoc for the cable industry. It created uncertainty, which hurt their stock prices and made it harder for them to raise money to expand. The cable industry didn’t become stable and successful until Congress finally passed several pieces of cable legislation to stop these regulatory swings.

Big companies also are not fond of being totally deregulated. That is the basis for the amicus brief in the AT&T case. The big ISPs would rather be regulated by the FTC instead of being unregulated. The FTC might occasionally slap them with big fines, but the big companies are smart enough to know that they have more exposure without regulations. If the FTC punishes AT&T for its marketing practices that’s the end of the story. But the alternative is for AT&T to have to fend off huge class action lawsuits that will seek damages far larger than what the FTC will impose. There is an underlying safety net by being regulated and the big ISPs understand and can quantify the risk of engaging in bad business practices.

In effect, as much as they say that hate being regulated, big companies like the safety of hiding behind regulators who protect them as much as they protect the public. It’s that safety net that can allow a big ISP to invest billions of capital dollars.

I really don’t think the FCC is doing the big ISPs any favors if they eliminate Title II regulations. Almost every big ISP has said publicly that they are not particularly bothered by the general principles of net neutrality – and I largely believe them. Once those rules were put into place the big companies made plans based upon those rules. The big ISPs did fear that some future FCC might use Title II rules to impose rate regulation – much as the disaster with the cable companies in the past. But overall the regulation gives them a framework to safely invest in the future.

I have no doubt that the political pendulum will eventually swing the other way – because it always does. And when we next get a democratic administration and Congress, we are likely to see much of the regulations being killed by the current FCC put back into place by a future one. That’s the nightmare scenario for a big ISP – to find that they have invested in a business line that might be frowned upon by future regulators.

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