AT&T Cutting Capital Spending

AT&T announced it will be reducing capital spending in 2020. That news is significant for several reasons. AT&T’s capital plans are always big news because they have the largest annual capital budget of the big telcos and cable companies. The AT&T capital budget for 2019 was $23 billion. It’s big news when they are only planning on spending $20 billion in 2020.

It’s worth noting that some of AT&T’s capital spending is not being done with their own money. In 2020 they will be receiving the final installment of $428 million for the sixth year of the CAF II program. AT&T recently announced that they are 75% finished the construction of the FirstNet network for first responders, so the company should be receiving the last 25% of the $6.5 billion of federal funding next year. In future years AT&T will likely be collecting some significant share of the recently announced $9 billion 5G Fund paid out of the Universal Service Fund to bring better cellular service for the most rural parts of the country.

There are ripples throughout the telecom sector when AT&T increases or decreases its capital budget. For example, a significant slash of AT&T spending has a significant impact on the various major electronics vendors that will now have to lower their revenue expectations for 2020. While the whole telecom sector is busy, this still means lower revenues for the major telecom vendors.

This reduction in AT&T spending makes me wonder about the 5G war we are supposedly having with China. If you listen to the carrier-driven rhetoric in Washington DC, you would think that there is an urgent need to spend huge amounts of capital immediately on 5G infrastructure. It was that rhetoric that gave the FCC cover to double the size of the recently announced 5G Fund to $9 billion.

It’s hard to imagine that AT&T would be cutting its capital budget if 5G implementation was truly a national priority and a crisis. The truth about 5G can be seen by how the cellular carrier CEOs communicate with their stockholders – the big carriers are struggling right now to find an immediate business case that justifies huge spending on 5G. It turns out that much of the public isn’t willing to pay more for faster cellular broadband. Every carrier has a list of future benefits from 5G, but there are no applications that will create the quick revenues that would prompt AT&T to keep spending capital at historic levels.

This is not to say that AT&T and the other wireless carriers aren’t spending money on 5G – but AT&T is fitting 5G expansion into its shrinking capital budget. Contrary to everything that the carriers have been telling Washington DC, the carriers are not planning on spending massive amounts of their own money on 5G just yet.

Lower capital spending by AT&T also takes the wind out of the sails of the FCC’s argument that net neutrality was holding back the big ISPs from making capital expenditures. This was the primary reason cited by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for killing net neutrality and Title II regulation. He argued that overregulation was stopping the big carriers from investing, and he’s still making this same argument today to justify his decision. If Chairman Pai was right, we should be seeing AT&T increase capital spending rather than cutting it.

The idea that there is a direct correlation between capital spending and regulation was always fictional. Big ISPs spend money on capital that they think will increase future returns – it’s hard to imagine regulations that would stop the big companies from pursuing good business ideas. AT&T’s capital spending is much more related to what its competitors like Verizon, T-Mobile, and Comcast are doing. When the FCC killed Title II regulation and net neutrality, the agency was removing the last regulations major from a broadband industry that was already barely regulated. It’s hard to think that change had much impact in the Board room or the business development groups at the big ISPs.

It’s worth noting that AT&T has now joined many other big US corporations and is using free cash to buy back its own stock. The company already announced plans to buy back $4 billion of its own stock in the first quarter of 2020 – retiring roughly 100 million shares. I’m sure that decision had some impact on the capital budget. This might mean that AT&T upper management values stock buy-backs to increase earnings per share more than they value capital spending.

Court Upholds Repeal of Net Neutrality

The DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the last day of September that the FCC had the authority to kill Title II regulation and to repeal net neutrality. However, the ruling wasn’t entirely in the FCC’s favor. The agency was ordered to look again at how the repeal of Title II regulation affects public safety. In a more important ruling, the courts said that the FCC didn’t have the authority to stop states and municipalities from establishing their own rules for net neutrality.

This court was ruling on the appeal of the FCCs net neutrality order filed by Mozilla and joined by 22 states and a few other web companies like Reddit and Etsy. Those appeals centered on the FCC’s authority to kill Title II regulation and to hand broadband regulation to the Federal Trade Commission.

Net neutrality has been a roller coaster of an issue. Tom Wheeler’s FCC put the net neutrality rules in place in 2015. An appeal of that case got a court ruling that the FCC was within its power to implement net neutrality. After a change in administration, the Ajit Pai FCC killed net neutrality in 2017 by also killing Title II regulation. Now the courts have said that the FCC also has the authority to not regulate net neutrality.

The latest court order will set off another round of fighting about net neutrality. The FCC had quashed a law in California to introduce their version of net neutrality and this order effectively will allow those California rules to go into effect. That battle is far from over and there will be likely new appeals against the California rules and similar rules enacted in Washington. It wouldn’t be surprising to see other states enact rules in the coming year since the net neutrality issue is overwhelmingly popular with voters. It’s possibly the worst of all worlds for big ISPs if they have to follow different net neutrality rules in different states. I think they’d much prefer federal net neutrality rules rather than different rules in  a dozen states.

The reversal of net neutrality rules only went effect in June of 2018 and there have been no major violations of the old rules since then. The ISPs were likely waiting for the results of this court ruling and also are wary of a political and regulatory backlash if they start breaking net neutrality rules. The closest thing we had to a big issue was mentioned in this ruling. Verizon had cut off broadband for firemen in California who were working on wildfires after the firemen exceeded their monthly data caps. It turns out that wasn’t a net neutrality violation, but rather an enforcement issue on a corporate cellular account. But the press on that case was bad enough to prompt the courts to require the FCC to take another look at how ISPs treat public safety.

This issue is also far from over politically. Most of the democratic presidential candidates have come out in favor of net neutrality and if Democrats win the White House you can expect a pro-net neutrality chairman of the FCC. Chairman Pai believes that by killing Title II regulation that a future FCC will have a harder time putting the rules back in place. But the two court appeals have shown that the courts largely believe the FCC has the authority to implement or not implement net neutrality as they see fit.

While net neutrality is getting all of the press, the larger issue is that the FCC has washed its hands of broadband regulation. The US is the only major economy in the world to not regulate the broadband industry. This makes little sense in a country where are a large part of the country is still controlled by the cable/telco duopoly, which many argue is quickly becoming a cable monopoly. It’s easy to foresee bad behavior from the big ISPs if they aren’t regulated. We’ve seen the big ISPs increase broadband rates in the last few years and there is no regulatory authority in the country that can apply any brakes to the industry. The big ISPs are likely to demand more money out of Google, Facebook and the big web companies.

The FCC handed off the authority to regulate broadband to the Federal Trade Commission. That means practically no regulation because the FTC tackles a single corporation for bad behavior but does not establish permanent rules that apply to other similar businesses. The FTC might slam AT&T or Comcast from time to time, but that’s not likely to change the behavior of the rest of the industry very much.

There is only one clear path for dealing with net neutrality. Congress can stop future FCC actions and the ensuing lawsuits by passing a clear set of laws that either implements net neutrality or that forbids it. However, until there is a Congress and a White House willing to together implement such a law this is going to continue to bounce around.

The big ISPs and Chairman Pai argued that net neutrality was holding back broadband investments in the country – a claim that has no basis when looking at the numbers. However, there is definitely an impact in the industry from regulatory uncertainty, and nobody is benefitting from an environment where subsequent administrations alternately pass and repeal net neutrality. We need to resolve this once way or the other.

Will Congress Be Forced to Re-regulate Broadband?

Last year the current FCC largely deregulated broadband. They killed Title II regulation and also handed off any remaining vestiges of broadband regulation to the Federal Trade Commission. The FCC is still left with broadband-related tasks associated with broadband. For instance, they still have to track broadband adoption rates. They are still required to try to solve the rural digital divide. They still approve electronics used to provide broadband. But this FCC has killed its own authority to make ISPs change their behavior.

I wrote a blog a month ago talking about the regulatory pendulum. Industries that become dominated by monopolies are always eventually regulated in some manner – governments either proscribe operating rules or else break up monopolies using antitrust laws. One only has to look at the conversation going on in Washington (and around the world) about somehow regulating Facebook, Google and other big web platforms to see that this is inevitable. Big monopolies always grow to trample consumers and eventually the public demands that monopoly abused be curbed.

It’s only been a little over a year since the FCC deregulated broadband and there are already topics looming that beg for regulation. There is nothing to stop this FCC or a future FCC from reintroducing regulation – the courts already gave approval for regulating using Title II. Regulation can also come from Congress – which is the preferred path to stop the wild swings every time there’s a new administration. Even the ISPs would rather be regulated by Congress than to bounce back and forth between FCCs with differing philosophies.

Over half of the states have introduced bills that seek to regulate data privacy. Consumers are tired of data breaches and tired of having their personal information secretly peddled to the highest bidder. A year ago the California legislature passed data rules that largely mimic what’s being done in Europe. The Maine legislature just passed rules that are even more stringent than California in some ways.

It’s going to be incredibly expensive and complicated for web companies to try to comply with rules that differ by state. Web companies are in favor of one set of federal privacy rules – the big companies are already complying with European Union rules and they’ve accepted that providing some privacy to consumers is the cost of doing business. Privacy rules need to apply to ISPs as much as they do to the big web companies. Large ISPs are busy gathering and selling customer data in the same manner as web companies. Cellular companies are gathering and selling huge amounts of customer data.

There are other regulatory issues that are also looming. It seems obvious that if the administration and the Senate turn Democratic that one of their priorities will be to reimplement net neutrality. The ISPs are already starting to quietly violate net neutrality rules. They are first tackling things that customers like such as sponsored video as part of a cellular plan – but over time you can expect the worst kind of abuses that were the reasons behind net neutrality rules.

I think that broadband prices are going to become a major issue. The big ISPs have all acknowledged that one of the few tools they have to maintain earnings growth is to raise broadband prices. Cord cutting is accelerating and in the first quarter the ISPs lost cable customers at a rate of 6% annually. Cord cutting looks like it’s going to go much faster than the industry anticipated as millions of customers bail on traditional cable each quarter. The pressure to raise broadband rates is growing.

We’ve already seen the start of broadband price increases. Over the last few years the ISPs have been raising rates around the edges, such as increasing the monthly price for a broadband modem. More recently we’ve seen direct broadband price increases such as the $5 rate increase for bundled broadband by Charter. We’re seeing Comcast and other ISPs start billing people for crossing data caps. Most recently we know that several ISPs are talking about significantly curtailing special rates and discount for customers – eliminating those discounts probably equates to a 10% – 15% rate increase.

At some point, the FCC will have to deal with rising broadband rates. Higher broadband rates will increase the digital divide as households get priced out from affording broadband. The public will put a lot of pressure on politicians to do something about ISP prices.

Deregulating broadband at a time when a handful of ISPs have the vast majority of broadband customers was one of the most bizarre regulatory decisions I’ve ever seen. All monopolies, regardless of industry need to be regulated – we’ve known this for over a hundred years. It’s just a matter of time before Congress is forced to step up and re-regulate broadband. It may not be tomorrow, but I find it highly unlikely that broadband will still be deregulated a decade from now, and I expect it much sooner.

Why is the FCC Still Spinning Net Neutrality?

Chairman Ajit Pai and several other FCC Commissioners are still sticking with the story that regulation and net neutrality were quashing capital spending and innovation in the industry. This was the primary argument that justified killing net neutrality and gutting Title II regulation. Pai claimed that net neutrality was disrupting the big ISPs so much that they were reining in capital spending. Chairman Pai further claimed that killing regulation would free the big ISPs to expand their networks and to improve broadband coverage – he’s also repeatedly argued that without regulation that ‘the market’ would solve the rural broadband divide. Chairman Pai launched this story on his first day as Chairman and hasn’t let up – even now, over a year after the FCC successfully killed net neutrality and Title II regulation.

I find this to be unusual. Normally, when somebody in the industry wins a regulatory battle they quietly move on to the next issue, but at almost every public speaking opportunity the Chairman is still repeating these same talking points. I’ve been thinking about why Chairman Pai would keep harping on this argument long after he successfully killed net neutrality. I can think of a few reasons.

The Lawsuits. The FCC is probably concerned about the lawsuits challenging net neutrality. That order used some legal gymnastics in the FCC argument to kill Title II regulation. So perhaps Chairman Pai is continuing to make these same arguments as a way to let the courts know that keeping Title II regulation dead is still the number one priority of this FCC. I’m sure that if the courts challenge the FCC order that the agency will appeal, and so perhaps he continues to make the same arguments in anticipation of that coming court battle.

5G Deployment. In a very odd back-door way, the FCC has been using the net neutrality argument to grease the skids for an unregulated roll-out of 5G. The FCC’s message couldn’t be simpler: “all regulation bad / 5G and innovation good”.

I doubt that the average American understands the magnitude of what this FCC did when they killed Title II regulation. The agency basically killed its own authority to regulate what is probably the most important product it has ever regulated. Broadband is vital to both the economy and to people’s everyday lives. Yet this FCC thinks that their best regulatory role is to not regulate the industry in any manner. That means not regulating the many issues covered by net neutrality. It means not caring about consumer privacy on the web. It means not being concerned with runaway price increases and data caps. Killing Title II regulation means that future FCCs might have a hard time trying to reintroduce any regulation of broadband. The FCC handed the keys of the broadband industry to the monopoly ISPs and told them to run the industry as they see fit.

At the strong urging of the big wireless companies, this FCC wants to also make sure there are no restraints on 5G. It seems the only parties the FCC wants to regulate are those that might create roadblocks for 5G, such as cities that control rights-of-way.

Congress. Congress has the ability to permanently resolve the Title II and net neutrality battle. Congress could codify the current deregulated state-of-affairs or they could put Title II and net neutrality permanently back on the books. In fact, it’s the lack of Congressional action that led the FCC to kill net neutrality – they would much have preferred that Congress did it. But the Congress hasn’t undertaken any policy initiatives in the telecom industry since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, when most of us still were using dial-up.

There has been a lot of recent discussion in Congress on telecom issues and perhaps one of the reasons that Chairman Pai continues to lobby against net neutrality is to keep that position in front of Congress. However, it seems unlikely that any significant regulation is going to come out of a split Congress.

No Better Argument? Finally, and what is my favorite theory, perhaps the FCC doesn’t have any better argument about why they should be killing regulation. They’ve had years to come up with a story that the American people will buy, and the best they’ve come up with is that killing regulation will unleash innovation.

I think the FCC is afraid to touch the policy issues that the public really cares about. People in rural areas are adamant that the FCC finds a way to get them real broadband. The vast majority of broadband users are worried about being hacked and are worried about how the big ISPs are spying on them and selling their data. Everybody is concerned about the talk on Wall Street that encourages the big ISPs to significantly jack up rates. A large majority of the country cares about net neutrality and an open Internet. I can see why the FCC would rather stick with their story about how killing regulation unleashes innovation – because they are afraid of opening Pandora’s box to let all of these other issues into the open.

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.

Deregulating Text Messaging

“This is one of the oddest dockets I’ve ever seen”. That’s roughly quoting myself several times over the last year as I read some of the things that the current FCC is up to. I find myself saying that again as I read the FCC’s recent docket that proposes to classify SMS text messaging as a Title I information service. Their stated reason for the reclassification is that it will make it easier to fight text message spam, and that stated reason is where the FCC loses me.

Text message spam is a real thing and I’ve gotten some annoying text spam over the last year and I’d sure hate to see my texting inbox get polluted with crap like my email inbox. However, I doubt that you’ll find any technologist in the industry that will tell you that the way to fight spam of any kind is by waving a magic wand and changing the way that something is regulated. The way you fight spam is to put barriers in place to detect and block it – and that is something that only the carriers that control the flow inside of a communications path can do. It’s the solution that the FCC themselves just pushed recently to try to stop robocalling – by demanding that the telephone industry find a solution.

Yet here sits a docket that blindly declares that reclassifying texting as an information service will somehow dissuade bad actors from sending spam text messages. I’m pretty sure that those bad actors don’t really care about the differences between Title I and Title II regulation.

One of the interesting things about this filing is that past FCCs have never definitively said how texting is regulated. Over the years the industry has come to assume that it’s regulated under Title II just like a telephone call – because functionally that’s all a text message is, a telephone call made using texted words rather than a voice call.

To some extent this docket is the first time the FCC has every officially addressed the regulatory nature of text messaging. In the past they made rulings about texting that implies a regulatory scheme, but they never have officially put texting into the Title II category. Now they want to remove it from Title II authority – the first time we’ve ever been told definitively that text is already a Title II service. Here are some of the past FCC treatment of the regulatory nature of text messages:

  • In 1994 the FCC ruled that systems that store and forward telecommunications messages, like SMS texting are ‘interconnected’ services, which at that time were clearly regulated by Title II. But there was no specific statement at the time that texting was a Title II service.
  • In the Telecommunications Act of 1996 the FCC defined a telecommunications service for the first time – which was defined as a service that uses telephones and the PSTN to communicate. The 1996 Act didn’t mention texting, but it clearly fits that definition.
  • In 2003 the FCC declared that text messages were ‘calls’ when the agency implemented the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which was the same treatment given to other Title II telephone services.
  • In 2007 the FCC included texting as one of the Title II services for which cellular carriers must allow roaming.
  • In 2011 USAC began enforcing the inclusion of text revenues as a Title II interstate revenues that used to assess monies owed to the Universal Service Fund.

All of these regulatory actions implied that texting is a Title II service, although that was never explicitly stated until now, when the FCC wants to reclassify it to be an information service. Reclassification doesn’t pass the ‘quack like a duck test’ because telephone calls and anything like them fit squarely as Title II services. Texting is clearly a type of telephone call and any person on the street will tell you that a text message from a cellphone is just like a phone call using text rather than voice.

Unfortunately, the only conclusion I can draw from this docket is that the FCC has an ulterior motive since their stated reasons for wanting to reclassify texting are pure bosh. There seem to be no obvious reasons for the reclassification. There are no parties in the industry, including the cellular carriers, that have been clamoring for this change. Further, the change will have the negative impact of further shrinking the Universal Service Fund – and expanding rural broadband is supposedly the number one goal of this FCC.

This is disturbing for somebody who has followed regulation for forty years. By definition, regulatory agencies are not supposed to push for changes without first opening an industry-wide discussion about the pros and cons of any suggested changes. Regulators are not supposed to hide the motives for their ideas behind false premises.

The only justification for the FCC’s proposed ruling that I can imagine is that the FCC wants to kill all Title II regulation. It seems they are on a mission to eliminate Title II as a regulatory category to make it hard for future FCC’s to reregulate broadband or to bring back network neutrality.

If that’s their real agenda, then we ought to have an open discussion and ask if we ought to eliminate Title II regulation – that’s how it’s supposed to work. The rules establishing the FCC call for a process where the agency floats new ideas to the world so that all interested parties can weigh in. The FCC is not ready to face the backlash from openly trying to kill Title II regulation, so instead of an open debate we are seeing a series of ridiculous attempts to chip quietly away at Title II regulation without overtly saying that’s their agenda.

In my opinion the time when we ought to stop regulating telephone services is getting closer as technology changes the way that we communicate. But that time is not here and there is still room for monopoly abuse of text messaging. There are a number of examples over the last decade where carriers have blocked text messages – sometimes when they disagreed with the content.

I’m disappointed to have an FCC that is using regulatory trickery to achieve their agenda rather than having a bold FCC that is willing to have the public debate that such a decision deserves. Telephone and related services like text messaging were regulated for many reasons and we ought to examine all of the pros and cons before deregulating them.

I’m guessing that this FCC wants to kill Title II regulation without ever having to tell the public that’s their agenda. I think they want to deregulate text messaging and then point to that deregulation as the precedent to justify deregulating all Title II services without having to suffer to criticism that is sure to come when the public realizes this closes the door on net neutrality.

Now That Net Neutrality is Dead . . .

The FCC’s net neutrality rules expired last week. There is a process for FCC rule changes that require the agency to take steps like publishing their decisions in the Federal Register, and all of the administrative steps have been taken and the old rules expired.

The press and social media made a big deal about the end of the administrative process, but the issue is a lot more complicated than that and so today I’ll look at what happens next. Officially the big ISPs are now free to make changes in their policies that were prohibited by net neutrality, but for various reasons they are not likely to do so.

First, 22 states filed a lawsuit against the FCC challenging various aspects of the FCC’s ruling. That suit now resides at the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington DC. The big ISPs are unlikely to make any significant changes in policies that might be reversed by the courts. In the past the whole industry has waited out the appeals process on this kind of lawsuit because the Courts might find reason to reverse some or all of the FCC’s actions. The ISPs aren’t legally obligated to wait out the lawsuits, but I’m sure their legal counsel is telling them to do so.

Interestingly, the judges hearing this case also heard the previous appeals associated with net neutrality and are familiar with the issues. This court previously had ruled that the FCC had the authority to use Title II regulation as the way to regulate broadband and net neutrality. I’ve not read any predictions yet of how the courts might rule in this case. But if the FCC had the authority to institute Title Ii authority I would think they also have the authority to reverse that decision.

The big ISPs also have to worry about Congress. The Senate voted to reverse the repeal of Title II regulations as part of the Congressional Review Act (CRA) that was used to pass the last budget. The issue is not currently slated for a vote in the House of Representatives and it seems clear that there are not enough votes there to reverse the FCC’s decisions. But it’s only four months until the next election and there is a chance that the Democrats will win a majority of seats. One would think that net neutrality would be on the list of legislative priorities for a Democratic House since polls show over an 80% public approval of the issue.

A vote by Congress to implement net neutrality would end the various court cases since the new laws would supersede any actions taking by the FCC on prior rules. It’s been the lack of Congressional action that has been the underlying reason for all of the various FCC actions and lawsuits on the topic over the years – Congress can give the FCC specific direction and the authority to enforce whatever Congress wants done.

There is another wild card in the mix in that numerous states have either passed rules concerning net neutrality or are contemplating doing so. Most of the state laws would restrict the award of state telecom business to vendors that adhere to net neutrality. My guess is that these lawsuits will make it through appeals because States have the authority to determine their purchasing preferences. But realistically these laws might backfire since most ISPs that are large enough to tackle state telecom needs are likely to be in violation of net neutrality. States implementing these rules might find themselves unable to find a suitable telecom vendor.

The most direct state net neutrality law comes from Washington. Their law, which went into effect automatically when the FCC net neutrality laws expired, prohibits ISPs from blocking or throttling home landline or mobile data. It also specifically prohibits paid prioritization.  An even more stringent bill was near passage by the California legislature. As I was writing this blog it appears that AT&T lobbyists were successful in derailing that legislation. It’s likely that we’ll see more actions from state legislatures in the coming year.

The FCC stated in the Title II repeal order that States were not allowed to override the FCC order. But as we’ve seen many times in the past at the FCC, there is a constant battle between federal authority and state’s rights, .and disputes of this kind are almost always resolved by the courts. There is a long history of battles between FCC authority and State’s rights and over the years both sides have won battles.

The big ISPs hate uncertainty and each of these paths provide a way to reinstate net neutrality. It seems unlikely that the big ISPs will be aggressive with changes until they get a better feel for the resolution of these various challenges to the FCC. Some of the ISPs already had practices that skirted net neutrality rules such as zero-rating of their own content. It’s seems likely that the ISPs will continue to push around the edges of net neutrality, but it seems unlikely that the ISPs will be more aggressive with implementing products and practices that are clear net neutrality violations. The bottom line is that the end of the FCC administrative process was only the beginning of the process and we still have a way to go to get a clear resolution of the issue.

Should We Regulate Google and Facebook?

I started to write a blog a few weeks ago asking the question of whether we should be regulating big web companies like Google and Facebook. I put that blog on hold due to the furor about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The original genesis for the blog was comments made by Michael Powell, the President and CEO of NCTA, the lobbying arm for the big cable companies.

At a speech given at the Cable Congress in Dublin, Ireland Powell said that edge providers like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple “have the size, power and influence of a nation state”. He said that there is a need for antitrust rules to reign in the power of the big web companies. Powell put these comments into a framework of arguing that net neutrality is a weak attempt to regulate web issues and that regulation ought to instead focus on the real problems with the web for issues like data privacy, technology addiction and fake news.

It was fairly obvious that Powell was trying to deflect attention away from the lawsuits and state legislation that are trying to bring back net neutrality and Title II regulations. Powell did make same some good points about the need to regulate big web companies. But in doing so I think he also focuses the attention back on ISPs for some of the same behavior he sees at the big web providers.

I believe that Powell is right that there needs to be some regulation of the big edge providers. The US has made almost no regulations concerning these companies. It’s easy to contrast our lack of laws here to the regulations of these companies in the European Union. While the EU hasn’t tackled everything, they have regulations in place in a number of areas.

The EU has tackled the monopoly power of Google as a search engine and advertiser. I think many people don’t understand the power of Google ads. I recently stayed at a bed and breakfast and the owner told me that his Google ranking had become the most important factor in his ability to function as a business. Any time they change their algorithms and his ranking drops in searches he sees an immediate drop-off in business.

The EU also recently introduced strong privacy regulations for web companies. Under the new rules consumers must opt-in the having their data collected and used. In the US web companies are free to use customer information in any manner they choose – and we just saw from the example of Cambridge Analytica how big web companies like Facebook monetize consumer data.

But even the EU regulations are going to have little impact if people grant the ability for the big companies to use their data. One thing that these companies know about us is that we willingly give them access to our lives. People take Facebook personality tests without realizing that they are providing a detailed portrait of themselves to marketeers. People grant permissions to apps to gather all sorts of information about them, such a log of every call made from their cellphone. Recent revelations show that people even unknowingly grant the right to some apps to read their personal messages.

So I think Powell is right in that there needs to be some regulations of the big web companies. Probably the most needed regulation is one of total transparency where people are told in a clear manner how their data will be used. I suspect people might be less willing to sign up for a game or app if they understood that the app provider is going to glean all of the call records from their cellphone.

But Powell is off base when he thinks that the actions of the edge providers somehow lets ISPs off the hook for similar regulation. There is one big difference between all of the edge providers and the ISPs. Regardless of how much market power the web companies have, people are not required to use them. I dropped off Facebook over a year ago because of my discomfort from their data gathering.

But you can’t avoid having an ISP. For most of us the only ISP options are one or two of the big ISPs. Most people are in the same boat as me – my choice for ISP is either Charter or AT&T. There is some small percentage of consumers in the US who can instead use a municipal ISP, an independent telco or a small fiber overbuilder that promises not to use their data. But everybody else has little option but to use one of the big ISPs and is then at their mercy of their data gathering practices. We have even fewer choices in the cellular world since four providers serve almost every customer in the country.

I was never convinced that Title II regulation went far enough – but it was better than nothing as a tool to put some constraints on the big ISPs. When the current FCC killed Title II regulation they essentially set the ISPs free to do anything they want – broadband is nearly totally unregulated. I find it ironic that Powell wants to see some rules the curb market abuse for Google and Facebook while saying at the same time that the ISPs ought to be off the hook. The fact is that they all need to be regulated unless we are willing to live with the current state of affairs where ISPs and edge providers are able to use customer data in any manner they choose.

States and Net Neutrality

We now know how states are going to react to the end of net neutrality. There are several different responses so far. First, a coalition of 23 states filed a lawsuit challenging the FCC’s ability to eliminate net neutrality and Title II regulation of broadband. The lawsuit is mostly driven by blue states, but there are red states included like Mississippi and Kentucky.

The lawsuit argues that the FCC has exceeded its authority in eliminating net neutrality. The lawsuit makes several claims:

  • The suit claims that under the Administrative Procedure Act (ACA) the FCC can’t make “arbitrary and capricious” changes to existing policies. The FCC has defended net neutrality for over a decade and the claim is that the FCC’s ruling fails to provide enough justification for abandoning the existing policy.
  • The suit claims that the FCC ignored the significant public record filed in the case that details the potential harm to consumers from ending net neutrality.
  • The suit claims that the FCC exceeded its authority by reclassifying broadband service as a Title I information service rather than as a Title II telecommunications service.
  • Finally, the suit claims that the FCC ruling improperly preempts state and local laws.

Like with past challenges of major FCC rulings, one would expect this suit to go through at least several levels of courts, perhaps even to the supreme court. It’s likely that the loser of the first ruling will appeal. This process is likely to take a year or longer. Generally, the first court to hear the case will determine quickly if some or all of the FCC’s ruling net neutrality order will be stayed until resolution of the lawsuit.

I lamented in a recent blog how partisan this and other FCCs have gotten. It would be a positive thing for FCC regulation in general if the courts put some cap on the ability of the FCC to create new policy without considering existing policies and the public record about the harm that can be caused by a shift in policy. Otherwise we face having this and future FCCs constantly changing the rules every time we get a new administration – and that’s not healthy for the industry.

A second tactic being used by states is to implement a state law that effectively implements net neutrality at the state level. The states of New York, New Jersey and Montana have passed laws that basically mimic the old FCC net neutrality rules at the state level. It’s an interesting tactic and will trigger a lawsuit about state rights if challenged (and I have to imagine that somebody will challenge these laws). I’ve read a few lawyers who opine that this tactic has some legs since the FCC largely walked away from regulating broadband, and in doing so might have accidentally opened up the door for the states to regulate the issue. If these laws hold up that would mean a hodgepodge of net neutrality rules by state – something that benefits nobody.

Another tactic being taken is for states, and even a few cities, to pass laws that change the purchasing rules so that any carrier that bids for government telecom business must adhere to net neutrality. This is an interesting tactic and I haven’t seen anybody that thinks this is not allowed. Governments have wide latitude in deciding the rules for purchasing goods and services and there are already many similar restrictions that states put onto purchasing. The only problem with this tactic is going to be if eventually all of the major carriers violate the old net neutrality rules. That could leave a state with poor or no good choice of telecom providers.

As usual, California is taking a slightly different tactic. They want to require that carriers must adhere to net neutrality if they use state-owned telecom facilities or facilities that were funded by the state. Over the years California has built fiber of its own and also given out grants for carriers to build broadband networks. This includes a recently announced grant program that is likely to go largely to Frontier and CenturyLink. If this law is upheld it could cause major problems for carriers that have taken state money in the past.

It’s likely that there are going to be numerous lawsuits challenging different aspects of the various attempts by states to protect net neutrality. And there are likely to also be new tactics tried by states during the coming year to further muddy the picture. It’s not unusual for the courts to finally decide the legitimacy of major FCC decisions. But there are so many different tactics being used here that we are likely to get conflicting rulings from different courts. It’s clearly going to take some time for this to all settle out.

One interesting aspect of all of this is how the FCC will react if their cancellation of net neutrality is put on hold by the courts. If that happens it means that some or all of net neutrality will still be the law of the land. The FCC always has the option to enforce or not enforce the rules, so you’d suspect that they wouldn’t do much about ISPs that violate the spirit of the rules. But more importantly, the FCC is walking away from regulating broadband as part of killing Title II regulation. They are actively shuttling some regulatory authority to the FTC for issues like privacy. It seems to me that this wouldn’t be allowed until the end of the various lawsuits. I think the one thing we can count on is that this is going to be a messy regulatory year for broadband.

Broadband Regulation in Limbo

The recent ruling earlier this week by the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit highlights the current weak state of regulations over broadband. The case is one that’s been around for years and stems from AT&T’s attempt to drive customers off of their original unlimited cellphone data plans. AT&T began throttling unlimited customers when they reached some unpublished threshold of data use, in some cases as small as 2 GB in a month. AT&T then lied to the FCC about the practice when they inquired. This case allows the FTC suit against AT&T to continue.

The ruling demonstrates that the FTC has some limited jurisdiction over common carriers like AT&T. However, the clincher came when the court ruled that the FTC only has jurisdiction over issues where the carriers aren’t engaging in common-carrier services. This particular case involves AT&T not delivering a product they promised to customers and thus falls under FTC jurisdiction. But the court made it clear that future cases that involve direct common carrier functions, such as abuse of net neutrality would not fall under the FTC.

This case clarifies the limited FTCs jurisdiction over ISPs and contradicts the FCC’s statements that the FTC is going to be able to step in and take their place on most matters involving broadband. The court has made it clear that is not the case. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised this court ruling and cited it as a good example of how the transition of jurisdiction to the FTC is going to work as promised. But in looking at the details of the ruling, that is not true.

This court ruling makes it clear that there is no regulatory body now in charge of direct common carrier issues. For instance, if Netflix and one of the ISPs get into a big fight about paid prioritization there would be nowhere for Netflix to turn. The FCC would refuse to hear the case. The FTC wouldn’t be able to take the case since it involves a common carrier issue. And while a court might take the case, they would have no basis on which to make a ruling. As long as the ISP didn’t break any other kinds of laws, such as reneging on a contract, a court would have no legal basis on which to rule for or against the ISPs behavior.

That means not only that broadband is now unregulated, it also means that there is no place for some body to complain against abuse by ISPs until the point where that abuse violates some existing law. That is the purest definition of limbo that I can think of for the industry.

To make matters worse, even this jumbled state of regulation is likely to more muddled soon by the courts involved in the various net neutrality suits. Numerous states have sued the FCC for various reasons, and if past practice holds, the courts are liable to put some or all of the FCC’s net neutrality decision on hold.

It’s hard to fathom what that might mean. For example, if the courts were to put the FCC’s decision to cancel Title II regulation on hold, then that would mean that Title II regulation would still be the law of the land until the net neutrality lawsuits are finally settled. But this FCC has made it clear that they don’t want to regulate broadband and they would likely ignore such a ruling in practice. The Commission has always had the authority to pick and choose cases it will accept and I’m picturing that they would refuse to accept cases that relied on their Title II regulation authority.

That would be even muddier for the industry than today’s situation. Back to the Netflix example, if Title II regulation was back in effect and yet the FCC refused to pursue a complaint from Netflix, then Netflix would likely be precluded from trying to take the issue to court. The Netflix complaint would just sit unanswered at the FCC, giving Netflix no possible remedy, or even a hearing about their issues.

The real issue that is gumming up broadband regulation is not the end of Title II regulation. The move to Title II regulation just became effective with the recent net neutrality decision and the FCCs before that had no problem tackling broadband issues. The real problem is that this FCC is washing their hands of broadband regulation, and supposedly tossed that authority to the FTC – something the court just made clear can’t work in the majority of cases.

This FCC has shown that there is a flaw in their mandate from Congress in that they feel they are not obligated to regulate broadband. So I guess the only fix will be if Congress makes the FCC’s jurisdiction, or lack of jurisdiction clear. Otherwise, we couldn’t even trust a future FCC to reverse course, because it’s now clear that the decision to regulate or not regulate broadband is up to the FCC and nobody else. The absolute worst long-term outcome would be future FCCs regulating or not regulating depending upon changes in the administration.

My guess is that AT&T and the other big ISPs are going to eventually come to regret where they have pushed this FCC. There are going to be future disputes between carriers and the ISPs are going to find that the FCC can not help them just like they can’t help anybody complaining against them. That’s a void that is going to serve this industry poorly.