Regulatory Sleight of Hand

I was looking through a list of ideas for blogs and noticed that I had never written about the FCC’s odd decision to reclassify commercial mobile broadband as private mobile broadband service in WC Docket No. 17-108 – The Restoring Internet Freedom order that was used to kill net neutrality and to eliminate Title II regulation of broadband. There was so much industry stir about those larger topics that the reclassification of the regulatory nature of mobile broadband went largely unnoticed at the time by the press.

The reclassification was extraordinary in the history of FCC regulation because it drastically changed the definition of one of the major industries regulated by the agency. In 1993 the Congress had enacted regulatory amendments to Section 332 of the FCC’s rules to clarify the regulation for the rapidly burgeoning cellular industry.

At that time there were about 16 million cellular subscribers that used the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and another two million private cell phones that used private networks primarily for corporate dispatch. Congress made a distinction between the public and private use of cellular technology and coined the term CMRS (Commercial Mobile Radio Service) to define the public service we still use today for making telephone calls on cell phones. That congressional act defined CMRS service as having three characteristics: a) the service is for profit, b) it’s available to the entire public, and c) it is interconnected to the PSTN. Private mobile service was defined as any cellular service that didn’t meet any one of the three tests.

The current FCC took the extraordinary step of declaring that cellular broadband is private cellular service. The FCC reached this conclusion using what I would call a regulatory sleight-of-hand. Mobile broadband is obviously still for profit and also available to the public, and so the FCC tackled the third test and said that mobile broadband is part of the Internet and not part of the public telephone network. It’s an odd distinction because the path of a telephone call and a data connection from a cellphone is usually identical. A cellphone first delivers the traffic for both services to a nearby cellular tower (or more recently to pole-mounted small cell sites). The traffic for both services is transported from the cell tower using ethernet transport that the industry calls trunking. At some point in the network, likely a switching hub, the voice and data traffic are split and the voice calls continue inside the PSTN while data traffic is peeled off to the Internet. There is no doubt that the user end of every cellular call or cellular data connection uses the network components that are part of the PSTN.

Why did the FCC go through these mental gymnastics? This FCC had two primary goals of this particular order. First, they wanted to kill the net neutrality rules established by the prior FCC in 2015. Second, they wanted to do this in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for a future FCC to reverse the decision. They ended up with a strategy of declaring that broadband is not a Title II service. Title II refers to the set of rules established by the Telecommunications Act of 1934 that was intended as the framework for regulating common carriers. Until the 2017 FCC order, most of the services we think of as telecommunications – landline telephone, cellular telephones, and broadband – were all considered as common carrier services. The current FCC strategy was to reclassify landline and mobile broadband as a Title I information service and essentially wash their hands from regulating broadband at all.

Since net neutrality rules applied to both landline and mobile data services, the FCC needed to first decree that mobile data was not a public and commercial service before they could remove it from Title II regulation.

The FCC’s actions defy logic and it’s clear that mobile data still meets the definition of a CMRS service. It was an interesting tactic by the FCC and probably the only way they could have removed mobile broadband from Title II regulation. However, they also set themselves up for some interesting possibilities from the court review of the FCC order. For example, a court might rule that mobile broadband is a CMRS service and drag it back under Title II regulation while at the same time upholding the FCC’s reclassification of landline broadband.

Why does this matter? Regulatory definitions matter because the regulatory process relies on an accumulated body of FCC orders and court cases that define the actual nature of regulating a given service. Congress generally defines regulation at a high level and later FCC decisions and court cases better define issues that are disputed. When something gets reclassified in this extreme manner, most of the relevant case law and precedents go out the window. That means we start over with a clean slate and much that was adjudicated in the past will likely have to be adjudicated again, but now based upon the new classification. I can’t think of any time in our industry where regulators decided to arbitrarily redefine the basic nature of a major industry product. We are on new regulatory ground, and that means uncertainty, which is never good for the industry.