FCC’s Net Neutrality Myths

We’ve been having the policy debate over creating net neutrality since at least 2005. During that time there have been a lot of arguments made on both sides of the issue. But overall it’s been a policy debate that is similar to the many other issues discussed in the telecom regulatory world. Both sides make their arguments and eventually a decision is made to regulate or not regulate according to the arguments. Politics has always played a role in these debates and issues tend to slew a bit according to the political leanings of the FCC at any given time.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently released a document that argues strenuously for the end of net neutrality. This document lists various ‘myths’ associated with net neutrality and then describes why each myth is untrue. If you look back at the history of the net neutrality debate you’ll see that his list is a summary of the arguments being made over time by the big ISPs. This is a document that one would expect from AT&T, Comcast, USTA or ALEC – but not from the Chairman of the FCC.

I have a problem with the Chairman’s list because most of the conclusions drawn are factually incorrect. It’s expected for the big ISPs to make arguments in their favor, even if those arguments are not wholly true – but it’s disturbing to see these same arguments coming from the FCC, which is supposed to be the arbiter for telecom policy issues.

I don’t think I have any bias that makes me see these statements as false. Anybody whose been reading my blogs knows that I am as biased as anybody else in the industry. My bias is towards policies that allows smaller ISPs to compete. And I am strongly in favor of policies that try to solve the rural broadband gap and the overall digital divide. But other than that I am largely neutral on other telecom policies and am receptive to hear all arguments on the various issues. Other than as a consumer I have no strong bias in the net neutrality debate because I don’t believe that small ISPs will violate net neutrality even if there aren’t any rules. The net neutrality argument really only concerns the behavior of the largest and most powerful ISPs in the telecom market. I could go through the document and discuss each ‘myth’ – but that doesn’t lend itself to a blog-length discussion. But I think every one of the Chairman’s arguments is stretching the truth.

For example, the document rolls out the old big-ISP argument that broadband investments have dropped due to Title II regulation. This argument goes back to shoddy work done by one researcher on the big ISP payroll and has been debunked numerous times. The numbers tell a different story and investments have not dropped. So do the actions of the big ISPs – AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and most of the other big ISPs are all undertaking aggressive expansion and upgrades. Look at what each of these companies is telling their stockholders and you don’t see an industry in retreat. Title II regulation has had almost zero impact on investment decisions (and regulation rarely has ever done so).

Chairman Pai also argues that the Internet was free and open before we had Title II regulation. That’s not the way I remember it. The net neutrality debate has been going on since 2005 and the ISPs have been held in check by the threat of net neutrality regulation. Even without Title II regulations in place the FCC was able in the past to pressure the ISPs on practices like data caps and zero-rating by the threat of future regulation – and for the last decade this has largely worked. Title II regulation didn’t just appear out of thin air with the FCC order in 2014 – the net neutrality principles were the backbone of FCC regulation and actions for a decade before then.

This FCC document also argues that the Federal Trade Commission is well equipped to police unfair, deceptive and anticompetitive behavior from ISPs. That gives the FCC cover to duck out of regulating broadband. What this doesn’t mention is that the big ISPs are now attacking the FTC’s right to regulate broadband (a blog will be coming on this soon). I find it extraordinary that the FCC would declare that it should have no role in regulating broadband – the most important telecommunications product. Regulating broadband seems to be their role in the industry almost by definition.

I guess more than anything else this document disappoints me. While there have always been some politics involved in the decisions made in our industry, past FCCs have largely decided issues on their merits. My own business was founded largely due to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which unleashed much-needed competition into the industry. But I look at this current FCC and see that the pendulum has swung to one far extreme and the merit of issues aren’t even part of policy discussions. That saddens me.

The Competition Dilemma

One of the most perplexing issues for fiber overbuilders is what I call the competition dilemma. That is where the big cable companies like Comcast will match the prices of any major competitor in their footprint, making it impossible for a competitor to ever get a price advantage.

A lot of fiber overbuilders enter the market and hope to gain customers by offering lower prices. You saw this when Google Fiber offered a gigabit broadband connection for $70, and I see the same thing from many smaller ISPs. But any price advantage disappears if the large incumbent cable company matches the lower prices.

This is an interesting dilemma for municipal cable systems. They often enter the market with a goal of lowering prices in their market. And when the incumbent provider matchers their prices the municipality has achieved their goal since everybody in the city then benefits from lower prices.

But this comes at a cost. Lower prices mean lower margins, and any ISP that lowers prices is hurting their own bottom line. You would think that lower prices also hurt the incumbent providers, but the big ISPs have the advantage of being able to charge more in surrounding communities to offset lower margins where there is competition. They factor in competition when setting their nationwide prices, so it can be argued that competition doesn’t really hurt big companies at all – they make up for competitive losses by charging a little more everywhere else.

There doesn’t seem to be any limit on how low an incumbent provider will go to match prices. Take the example of the cable TV product on the city-owned Click! Network in Tacoma, WA. For many years the city didn’t raise cable prices, and Comcast matched their low pricing. Over time the cable prices in Tacoma were over 30% lower than prices in the Tacoma suburbs and nearby cities like Seattle. The customers in the city benefitted from low cable rates, but the city was losing money on cable TV and over time raised their rates back to the market rates.

This issue is going to be in the news a lot more in the future. In a recent blog I talked about an analyst who believes that Comcast is going to double their broadband rates over the next few years. Even if their rate increases aren’t that drastic I think it’s obvious that they plan to raise rates. This is probably the number one reason they have been lobbying hard to get rid of Title II regulation, since that is the only tool that regulators could use to examine and react to broadband rate increases.

If Comcast and the other big ISPs undertake regular broadband price increases they will create an interesting dynamic in the industry. Anybody with a competing network is going to have to decide if they are going to raise rates to match them. It’s going to be tempting to do so because increases in broadband rates flow 100% straight to the bottom line. But if a competitor doesn’t raise rates, then it’s likely that the big ISPs will raise rates everywhere except where there is significant competition. And that would result in big difference in broadband prices between markets with and without a competitor.

It’s also likely that as the big ISPs raise broadband rates that they will be inviting competitors into the market. I create a lot of financial business plans and there are many markets where it’s hard to make a business case for building fiber at today’s broadband rate. But raise those rates and a lot more business plans become attractive.

The final issue raised by the competition dilemma is customer choice. Most cities desperately want competition in their markets because they can see the large cable companies becoming near-monopolies. One of the primary reasons why cities build fiber networks or lure ISPs to do so is to provide more choice. But you have to ask what kind of choice customers really get when there is no price difference between a competitor and the incumbents?

Cable Companies under Regulatory Siege?

FCC_New_LogoEarlier this year Michael Powell (the head of the National Cable Television Association) complained that the FCC has launched a regulatory assault again cable companies – and in some ways he is probably right. Some of the regulations ordered or contemplated are clearly aimed at cable companies – yet much of the new regulation was aimed at somebody else but still affects the cable companies.

Consider all of the changes affecting the cable companies right now:

  • Net neutrality has meant that cable companies and other ISPs can’t make lucrative deals with content providers to bundle content as part of broadband access.
  • But the biggest change from the net neutrality order is the advent of Title II regulation of the internet. This is resulting in a raft of new regulations for broadband. All of a sudden the FCC is looking at data caps. The agency has demanded that all ISPs disclose all of the details of their broadband connections to customers. Cable companies are suddenly covered by customer privacy regulations – the biggest being that they probably can’t use the information they gather as an ISP without a customer’s approval.
  • The cable companies have become huge sellers of broadband transport and data pipes to businesses. The FCC is about to make major changes in the special access market and that is likely going to lower prices for these products. Special access rates are incredibly high and cable companies and CLECs have made a living out of selling services to businesses at a discount from the published special access rates. The result is that businesses pay a gigantic premium for dedicated broadband connections, and everybody expects the FCC to lower rates across the market.
  • The FCC’s move to somehow eliminate settop boxes is aimed right at the cable companies. To a large extent the industry brought this on themselves as they’ve raised rates to rent a settop box from $5 to $10 or more in most markets. But the idea that there can be some sort of generic solution that can work on every type of network sounds idealistic, at best.
  • The FCC seems to want to allow anybody to carry video content on the Internet without saddling the new providers with the same rules that govern cable companies. So cable companies, for now, are stuck with rules that force them to offer certain kinds of tiers of service while OTT providers can cook up any creative package they can cobble together.

As a telecom guy I find this all to be somewhat ironic. I remember when I first read through the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that my first reaction was that the FCC had let the cable companies completely off the hook. The big telcos were being forced to unbundle their networks to offer voice loops and DSL connections while the cable companies had no corresponding obligation to unbundle for cable modem connections. In the decade following the Act, most state Commissions also excused cable companies from most forms of voice regulation. The cable companies were able to somehow characterize the voice on their networks as VoIP and got out of most voice regulations – but from a customer perspective the cable voice product was indistinguishable from telco voice products. It’s one of the first times that the FCC made an exception for a product based upon the technology used to deliver it – a trend that has since led to some very odd regulatory rulings.

So now it seems that the wheel has turned and the cable companies are being brought back into the regulatory arena with everybody else. I think Powell is right and those in charge of a cable company must feel like they are under regulatory siege. But except for the settop box issue, which is an odd set of regulations clearly aimed at the cable companies – the other regulations can mostly be described as leveling the playing field – something that the cable companies have always said should apply to municipal broadband providers.

But from a regulatory perspective the protections provided to consumers ought to be the same across all broadband technologies. It makes a lot of sense to finally require cable companies to provide privacy protection and to disclose the details and terms of the products they are selling. I have to laugh once in a while about regulation. Five years ago a colleague of mine said he could foresee the end of telecom regulation. But I countered by saying that regulators like to regulate, and sure enough it seems like we have as many – or more! –  regulations today as ever.