I wrote a blog the other day that got me thinking about the huge disparity in regulating two distinct but highly intertwined industries – broadband and voice. Before you stop reading because you might think voice is no longer relevant, voice regulation includes the cellular business, and in terms of revenue, the voice market is larger than broadband. JD Powers reported in April of this year that the average household is spending $144 for cellular per month.
I call these industries intertwined because the players at the top of both industries are the same. The big ISPs are Comcast, Charter, AT&T, and Verizon. The biggest voice players are AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Comcast and Charter are making aggressive moves to develop a wireless business, and T-Mobile is aggressively selling broadband.
The two markets are intertwined in a household. Most people connect their cell phones directly to landline broadband when they are home. The primary use for cell phones is to connect to the Internet. My twenty-something daughter is amazed that I predominantly use my cell phone to actually talk to people.
This handful of giant companies control the lion’s shares of both the voice and broadband industries. Yet we’ve decided to regulate the two business lines completely differently. You must admit that this it’s an odd national decision to regulate AT&T’s voice business but not its broadband business, particularly considering how intertwined the two businesses are. Comcast and Charter are proof of the link between the two industries since the companies will only sell cellular plans to customers who are buying broadband.
A regulatory expert from another country would look at the U.S. regulatory environment with incredulity. They would instantly wonder how we can treat the two industries so differently since they engage in such similar business lines, particularly since the same companies lead both markets.
The average American has no idea of how differently we treat the two industries and would be just as confused as a foreign regulator expert. It’s really hard to explain the difference in regulations since that quickly devolves into a discussion of things like Title II regulation, and the average person listening will quickly have no idea what you are talking about.
The easiest way to explain the difference in regulation is that we don’t regulate according to common sense but base regulation on the original legislation that established regulations for each industry. Voice is still regulated because, in the past, various pieces of federal legislation, like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, specifically mention voice. There were also laws that specifically defined how to regulate cable TV – but there has never been a definitive legislative declaration that broadband must be regulated.
This all started when interest in home broadband mushroomed. AOL, CompuServe, and others created a robust ISP industry that took off rapidly when DSL and cable modems increased speed to the point that people could do useful things with broadband. In those early days, there was a lot of discussion about regulating broadband, but the consensus among legislators was that regulators should leave the fledgling new broadband industry alone until it grew large enough. No doubt, this hands-off approach was whispered into the ears of legislators by lobbyists for the big ISPs.
With no direction from Congress, the FCC and various States tried to find ways to regulate broadband over the last few decades. But as hard as it is to believe, we weren’t even able to define what broadband is without legislative direction – is broadband a telecommunications service or an information service? All of the wrangling about regulating broadband ultimately comes down to this simple designation.
Regulation gets really bizarre the deeper you go into the details. Cell phones calls are regulated for voice, but the broadband on a cellphone is considered to be an information service. What is the regulatory regime of a cell phone call that is handed off to a broadband network through WiFi but then eventually reconnected with the cellular network? The average cell phone user regularly bounces between regulated and unregulated functions.
The title of the blog refers to A Tale of Two Cities, which opened with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”. That’s as good of a description of our odd regulatory environment as anything else I can think of.