Old school regulation of internet service providers raises the threat of less broadband competition and more consolidation

Yesterday’s vote in the U.S. Senate that upended the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of its net neutrality rules was more political grandstanding than good policymaking. S.J. Res. 52 nullified the Commission’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” rules that would have gone into effect on 11 June 2018. The Restoring Internet Freedom rules reclassified broadband access service as an information service; reinstated private mobile service classification of mobile broadband internet access service; required internet access service providers to disclose information about their network management practices, commercial terms and conditions, and performance characteristics; and eliminated the internet conduct standards and bright-line rules.

By repealing the Commission’s Restoring Internet Freedom rules, the Senate signaled its preference for the Commission’s 2015 Open Internet order. The order, based on the premise that broadband access providers posed a threat to openness on the internet and could hinder the virtuous cycle of innovation being introduced by edge providers, the Commission created a regulatory framework that classified broadband access service as a telecommunications service. The 2015 order also established what it referred to as “bright-line” rules that prohibited paid prioritization; the throttling of traffic from websites; and the blocking of consumer access to the legal online content of their choice. In addition, broadband access providers were required to provide consumers with information as to their network management practices, network performance, and commercial terms and conditions. The rationale for this transparency was the need to ensure that consumers made choices based on accurate information.

With its declaration that broadband access is a telecommunications service, the 2015 order subjects broadband access providers to certain sections of the Communications Act of 1934, specifically sections 201, 202, and 208. Although the Commission expressed an intent to not regulate the rates that broadband access providers charge consumers, including edge providers, section 201 of the Communications Act allows broadband access providers to establish different classifications of service.

For example, services may be classified into day, night, repeated, unrepeated, letter, commercial, press, government, etc. So, while no content delivery service can pay a broadband access provider a little extra in order to have their traffic placed ahead of another content provider while in the same class of service, section 201 allows broadband access providers to establish different classes of service that content providers can explore and use.

Let us assume that for some reason the resolution is also approved in the U.S. House of Representatives and President Trump fails to issue a veto. Given the application of sections 201, 202, and 208, small broadband access providers may be faced with the opportunity of being acquired. If a large broadband access provider offers various classes of broadband access, it in essence is carving out smaller markets within which it will dominate. If a broadband access provider carves out a classification that competes with a smaller broadband access provider, that smaller provider will face existential choices. Either lower its rates to where it no longer sees a profit and eventually leaves the market or be acquired which means getting to non-existence a lot faster. The 2015 Open Internet order could well be an example of how regulation stifles competition.

Lastly, I would expect that states will want to get in on the action. I have made this argument before. Under a 2015 Open Internet order regime, states will reassert themselves as the frontline for consumer protection. State public utility commissions don’t see themselves as agencies that sit around and handle consumer complaints all day. They rather those annoying complaints be addressed by their states’ respective attorneys general. State public utilities would rather flex their muscles in the pricing arena and will probably tailor state rules that align with sections 201, 202, and 208 of the federal communications act. The rules and the accompanying administrative procedures that broadband access providers would have to comply with will become burdensome on smaller players.

The result: regulation creating a less competitive market.

Net neutrality: Good politics is about manipulating reality

Democracy gets too much credit as a platform for openness and equity. It operates efficiently by being the opposite: as a platform for manipulating reality by manipulating consensus. American society is under the mistaken belief that facts create reality. I would go further and say that Americans are confused as to the definition of the word “facts.” Engaged in an argument with the average bloke about politics and he will offer as fact his assertions based on what he perceives his surroundings to be as supported by something Joy Ann Reid or Sean Hannity said. That a fact should be measured and its existence corroborated would make his head spin. Measurement and corroboration require too much work and it is much easier to rely on feelings.

There is nothing wrong with feelings and perception per se as navigation tools for moving through life as an individual. As I get older I find myself increasingly comfortable with “going with the flow” of the day, an argument, an event. Being too linear in thinking for my personal daily life is restricting, cuts off the blood flow, creating an uptightness that drives my teenager crazy sometimes.  Sometimes you just have to say, “fuck it.”

But can a society take that attitude? I have some reservations at to what a society is purposed for but will share them some other time. For now, let us stick with a standard definition of what a society is, an organized group with some interest in common or group of persons forming a single community. While as individuals our daily rules of living may differ; you may choose to stay linear, I may choose the flow. A society, if it is to stay, by definition, cohesive must follow some standard that should be followed by everyone. It is a standard arrived at via some political mechanisms and agreed upon by consensus. The agreed upon standard is basis for the political, legal, and economic reality of the community.  Manipulate the consensus and you manipulate the reality.

Take for example the issue of net neutrality. Net neutrality is a set of principles that provide for transparency in the management of broadband networks, calls for equal treatment of all traffic flowing from all websites, and ensures that consumers are able to access the legal content of any website they choose to visit. In short, net neutrality guarantees an open and democratized internet experience.  Over the past fifteen years, ever since the inception of the concept via a paper written by a law professor, net neutrality has become for millions of Americans their internet reality.

Net neutrality is an example of manipulated consensus creating a new reality. Prior to 2003, there was no “net neutrality” concept. All traffic could not, and today arguably cannot, be treated the same. Latency, speed, and bandwidth requirements differ between types of content. Video form RealNetworks in the year 2000 used more bandwidth than an email. Remember your buffering issues? In 2018 while the buffering problems have been adequately addressed to the point where we can watch a two-hour movie on our laptops, a video still uses more bandwidth than email.  But why and how did the new consensus come about, that all traffic should be treated equally, even in the face of facts regarding network management?

First the why. In the early 1990s, alternative network providers, including cable television companies, offered services where they would take a business customer’s calling traffic, route it around a telephone company’s network, and deliver the traffic to the customer’s designated location. This was called bypass.   As revenues and profits increased and technology improved, these companies started their own local telephone networks competing for residential as well as business traffic. In these early local telephone competition days, the traffic that new entrants handed off to incumbent telephone companies was less than the traffic the new entrants received from incumbents. Instead of paying each other for the traffic they exchanged, they decided to merely keep the revenues they received from their own subscribers.

Competitors became increasingly successful and given the increased traffic they provided to the incumbents, the incumbents decided to start pursuing payments. New entrants including fledgling new content providers wanted to maintain the neutrality of payments i.e. no payment exchange, meaning that traffic should continue to be treated with neutrality. This was the beginning of the net neutrality argument.

Now, the how. Politics is about marketing to vote providers and behind good marketing is good communications. First, you make a legal and regulatory argument that neutral exchange of traffic is good policy and should be set in rule. Second, you approach regulators and the courts with this principle and try to convince them as to the feasibility, efficacy, and legality of such a rule. Lastly, to secure the rule once it has been passed, or to gain more support should the rule face roadblocks, you enlist an ignorant public with a narrative that net neutrality is about “open networks” and “freedom on the internet.” Get 4 million signatures on post cards mailed to the Federal Communications Commission and get John Oliver to go on television and skip 20 years of telecommunications history and you can change consensus on what net neutrality is really about.

So far, the efforts have put net neutrality on the political radar.  Efforts by the Federal Communications Commission to remove net neutrality rules from the books are being met in court by proponents for net neutrality rules. How it plays out, I don’t know. I do know that good politics is about effective manipulation of consensus and consensus creates the reality of net neutrality.

Time for broadband providers and Facebook to call a truce

Americans talk too much. They give up too much information on themselves. Right now, I am writing this post in a Krispy Kreme joint where a worker on break is sitting on my right yacking personal business on her smart phone. At the same time a customer is walking out of the store providing details on her travel itinerary including where she is to be picked up from and the color of the vehicle that will scoop her up.

Walk into the Kroger here in the West End Atlanta and you will gather a lot of opinions on the seemingly high prices and the budgetary stresses consumers are under. The U.S. Departments of Labor and Commerce would have a field day gathering so much consumer information.

And as the news that Bill Cosby has been convicted of sexual assault sits atop the “what’s trending” columns of social media, it will be impossible to avoid all the amateur legal and sociological assessments of the former “America’s Dad.”  Fans of Hugh Beaumont and Robert Young may be blowing sighs of relief that these two now sit alone at the top of the perch.

The current political environment provides much fodder for political commentary particularly on social media. The current occupant, as David Horowitz has observed, has had a seven second honeymoon post inauguration and is providing the left plenty to talk about. I don’t consider rumor about his wife, his philandering with prostitutes, or his fast food meal plan true political news. It is noise and in American politics that noise has become the new baseline. It is the surprise that pops out of the baseline that interests me. That is true information. How valuable those noises are is another matter.

Whether noise or baseline, Facebook is collecting and analyzing this user output, ascertaining as much user behavior as possible in order to offer up the user on an advertiser’s menu. This business model, at least in the short term, is working for Facebook as the social media firm is seeing an uptick in users and revenues. According to The Wall Street Journal, the number of Facebook users jumped to 2.2 billion while quarterly revenue jumped to $11.97 billion. It’s quarterly per share profit came in at $1.69, up from $1.04 a year ago. As I write this, Facebook shares are up 9.06% after today’s trading.  All this, according to The Journal, over a tumultuous 17 months of allegations that the company allowed Russians to abuse its platform and that its lax privacy practices allowed third parties to use its subscribers’ private data against the company’s privacy practices.

Some users have managed to share their opinions about Facebook’s privacy practices even as they continue to share cat videos, vacation schedules, and religious and political views. Facebook has been instrumental, as a supporter of net neutrality rules, in convincing some of these users to push the Federal Communications Commission to subject internet service providers (ISPs) to 20th century telephone rules in order to enforce management transparency and privacy protections for broadband subscriber data. The irony. How things have changed since the FCC passed onerous net neutrality rules in 2015 not only to see them overturned late last year but now to have Facebook be subjected to rules onerous enough to damage its business model.

Facebook could, in my opinion, do one of three things. It could continue with business as usual, taking a chance that continued user and revenue growth will buffet it against the threat of onerous regulation. On a second path it could call a truce with ISPs and together convince Congress to pass a statute containing a consumer bill of rights that provides for protection of data while codifying net neutrality principles of transparency   in network management, no blocking, and no throttling. The third path, would be market-based, where Facebook introduces a tiered service where subscribers that want added privacy protections would pay Facebook for insuring no third-party use of information.  Facebook could also “purchase” subscriber data in exchange for not using subscriber data beyond activities related to providing a better customer experience. That promise not to use customer data beyond the need for managing the CX should be equal to the very onerous telephone rules that Facebook would like seen applied to ISPs.

I would recommend Facebook go the middle route. It would ensure, in my opinion, a seamless application of privacy throughout the internet, something that past FCC chairman advocated for and the net neutrality posse cheered on.

Facebook is learning the hard way that American democracy has its spillover effect. To call for a democratized internet means Facebook must do its part to bring it about.

Is broadband access less about connectivity and more about individuality?

My sister recently experimented with Whole Foods‘ delivery service. As an Amazon Prime member, she could take advantage of no cost delivery to her home in the West End. This is a smart move on the part of Whole Foods to deliver to the West End, an area where the median household income is lower than the rest of Atlanta’s sectors. My observation has nothing to do with the wishful thinking that Whole Foods is practicing altruism, but the probability that Whole Foods is betting on the continued gentrification of the area; that it makes sense to plant a flag in the area so that when higher-income, cheap rent seeking young white couples move into the area, Whole Foods will be there to greet them. And while increasing the area’s investment value may not have been on the top of Whole Foods’ agenda, current property holders can at least tell their friends living in other areas of the city that they have not been left out of high-end food delivery options.

Going online and ordering your groceries is an example of what the long-term purpose of broadband connectivity is all about, especially for those with capital. If we accept the Facebook model of broadband and the internet, then we support the argument that broadband and the internet are about connecting people for the sake of creating a larger global community that leads to more democracy, peace, and understanding. This is one of the premises underlying net neutrality; the creation and maintenance of an open internet.  Two billion people connecting on Facebook may be deemed evidence that the globe is demanding this type of connectivity and community development on the world wide web, but such a view fails to account for the “politico-economic physics” of broadband and the internet. I believe the true value of broadband access lies in the empowerment that broadband access creates in the individual. The universe revolves around her and not the other way around.

The internet, at least for those with capital, is about bending the four-dimensional characteristics of space time and enhancing her sovereignty; creating a self-sufficient lifestyle for her. High value individuals don’t see the platforms upon which they move through space and time as flat or linear. The platform is geodesic; a curved line that provides the shortest distance between two points. In this case, between capital and the products and services that capital can acquire. The closer broadband technology brings her to sources of goods and services, the tighter her enclosure around her. She is not creating inclusiveness, or a bigger tent. In actuality, her tent becomes tighter, filled with other high value resources including friends and business associates. Creating a sovereignty blocks out the noise that the internet is becoming increasingly known for.

I would argue further that as her capital and value grows the more space-time bends around her. She creates a gravitational pull attracting even more resources, income, and opportunities. Those who argue for equality and democracy on the internet overlook this important value element. High value, capital holding consumers on the internet bend space-time toward them and high value content and service deliverers will point their commercial starships in the direction of high value.

How should policy react? It can either acknowledge the individual’s use of broadband to create a sovereign individual while transmitting her consumer energy into her tight commercial space or it can regulate her relationship with the points of commercial light within her internet space and risk forcing her to engage with value deficient “black holes” that threaten to reduce her incentive to engage in e-commerce or change her engagement in such a way that the value she receives and transmits is reduced. Policy should opt for protecting her choice for engaging with the value providers of her choice.

Free Press and Public Knowledge are getting a taste of big tent progressive politics

Brian Fung of The Washington Post put out a great piece this morning describing a growing rift between two factions on the progressive side of the net neutrality debate. Grass roots groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge believe that supporters of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order should aggressively push the Congress to overturn the Commission’s 2017 repeal of the Order.

Corporate supporters of the Commission’s Open Internet Order such as Facebook and Google are taking a more centrist approach. While they apparently still support applying net neutrality rules based in Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, they are now signaling that a bi-partisan Congressional approach via a new law would help resolve the net neutrality dispute once and for all.

Based on Mr Fung’s writing, the big tent has a few holes in the tarp, as meetings hosted by the Internet Alliance and attended by both net neutrality factions are growing in the number of attendees and an increasingly diverse level of issues are sprouting. Free Press and Public Knowledge are finding the hard way a couple important lessons about any corporations true mission and that diversity is an empty narrative.

First, the corporate mission. I hesitate to say that the good people at Free Press and Public Knowledge are naive (but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that their 4 million pro net  neutrality followers are), but both groups seem to have fallen for Google’s and Facebook’s silly mission statements about doing no evil and connecting the world for connection sake.

Google and Facebook created and maintained dominant positions in internet search and social networking by first optimizing their business models to maximize shareholder value, a lesson the lawyers at Free Press and Public Knowledge failed to remember from the business associations classes in the second year of law school. “Russiagate” has raised the ire of Congress and Google, Facebook, and other social networking and internet portal companies are gathering their wagons around their revenue streams and profit centers from potential government attacks. They cannot afford any regulatory volatility that will arise from the uncertainty of how net neutrality principles will be applied to broadband access providers. They are realizing that compromise legislation passed in the immediate term is good for long term growth.

While Google and Facebook play in the “attention economy”, Free Press and Public Knowledge play in the “agitation economy.” To stay relevant as a grass roots advocate leader, they must tear up the astro turf regularly. Settling the net neutrality tennis match via a bi-partisan bill means 4 million pairs of eye balls not looking their way because the show will be over. Nothing else to see here. Problem solved.

As for diverse voices, that narrative does not work. The bigger your tent, the further off course the original message drifts. Sooner or later the money bags step up and start setting priorities and those priorities will place those with the least coin ahead of the pack. The 4 million three huggers are going to have internet access no matter their personal beef with their broadband access provider. Most have access to two or three providers whether wireless or wireline. Facebook and Google cannot take comfort in any certainty. As big as they are in digital space, the wilderness is huge and there is always a young predator getting ready to spring out with new technology and the hunger and thirst to match.

Facebook and Google’s profit motives and needs are no different than the broadband access providers Free Press and Public Knowledge rail against. Facebook and Google will take control of the circus under the big tent and call for some grown up behavior that protects their revenues and profits.

 

The President’s 5G public works project

It is election year and President Trump is signaling that he is well aware that priming the economic pump to quench America’s thirst for growth in the economy may buy him some political capital while helping his fellow Republicans in the Congress and maybe a few Republican governors and state house members retain their seats. Today’s latest political proposal: construction of a nation-wide 5G communications network by the federal government.

Reuters reported earlier today that among the Trump administration’s initiatives to address potential Chinese hacks of America’s communications systems is the construction of a 5G network by the U.S. government. According to the report, the idea is still being considered among lower ranking staff within the Administration and proposals may not get to the President for another six to eight months.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai was quick to respond this morning to the 5G proposal. Mr Pai argued in his brief statement that construction of this latest generation of high-speed communications network was best left to the market. Rather than going down a costly and eventually unproductive path, the chairman recommended that federal policy stay the course and focus on getting more spectrum, that portion of electromagnetic waves necessary for making calls and moving mobile data, into the commercial space.

Again, Mr Pai demonstrated that he is one Republican that attempts to be practical.

Progressives haven’t come out one way or the other …. yet. Progressives have thrown support in the past behind the idea that initiatives on the part of municipalities to build their own broadband networks, premised on the need for access to affordable broadband in the face of a lack of supply by large carriers such as AT&T and Comcast. On first blush, Mr Trump’s idea seems to be nothing but municipal broadband on steroids, just on a national level.

I doubt, however, that advocacy groups like Public Knowledge or Free Press are going to jump on the opportunity to provide Mr Trump with any favorable optics on this issue. The last thing progressives want to risk is giving the Administration any type of lifeline that would help pull Mr Trump’s popularity into the respectable zone.

Mr Trump could have used the opportunity to make a political play based on economic stimulus a nation-wide project like this could provide. He could have sold it like his version of the Hoover dam, especially in rural or mountainous areas where broadband companies have dared not tread because of sparser populations and rough topography. The Deplorables in flyover states and the Forgotten that inhabit the insular territories of the Caribbean and the Pacific would have warmed up to Mr Trump’s goody bag of 5G services by 2021,especially if the idea is sold as another job creator.

Mr Trump will have to sell broadband access providers on the idea of falling on their swords and taking one in the national interest. According to NCTA, broadband providers have invested $1.4 trillion in constructing and deployong broadband networks. The cable industry alone claims to have made a $275 billion investment in broadband infrastructure.  They are not about to tell investors that future returns on this investment are about to be pushed aside by a public works communications project designed to keep China from eavesdropping on two ex-college room mates talking recipes for peach cobbler and the latest #MeToo campaign.

Listening to the whiny left on net neutrality can leave you jaded about “edge” technology

Over the past week, a number of progressive grass roots groups and some 21 state attorneys general have filed suit in federal appellate courts seeking to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules that were promulgated in December 2015. This early in the process the petitions have laid out general assertions that the Commission’s decision to repeal was arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of agency discretion.

In other words, the Commission, dominated by three Republicans to two lone Democrats, was given to sudden and unaccountable mood swings as it went from determining in 2015 that broadband access providers should be viewed as old style telephone companies to last year’s decision where the Commission now views broadband access providers as information service providers.

I don’t see how the left’s position, that the Commission should use rules for regulating a point to point communications service, is to increase broadband access for insular communities like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. According to Commission data, 66% of population in U.S. territories lacks access to 25 megabit per second download, 3 megabit per second upload broadband access services.  The flexibility required for deploying more advanced broadband access services in U.S. territories like the USVI and Puerto Rico cannot manifest itself in a regulatory framework that requires a body of regulators give approval or delay proceedings necessary for approving the introduction of new services.

The real arbitrary behavior took place when the Commission, led by Democrat Tom Wheeler, actually persuaded two other Democratic members of the board and some four million naive voters and taxpayers, that the Commission was actually in a position to ensure traffic neutrality throughout the entire internet; from the voter and taxpayer’s laptop to her favorite porn site hosted on a server located in the Azores. For Mr Wheeler to premise a ridiculous expansion of the Communications Act on the assertion that the Commission, via regulation, could ensure that all traffic be treated equally on the internet only resulted in creating false expectations regarding service among a public that couldn’t tell you exactly what net neutrality is in the first place.

The Commission, now led by Ajit Pai, has, if anything, reintroduced some reality into communications regulation. The first reality is that Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 is not necessary for regulating advanced, broadband internet access services in the 21st century. Second, the repeal of the 2015 Wheeler order recognizes that providing American consumers with the best access to a global, interconnected computer network means being able to leverage the openness of the internet to provide new services in a permission-less environment.

It is ironic that the edge providers that want their subscribers to access their content on the highest quality communications networks are willing to endure delays that will certainly arise under a Title II regime that requires permission to innovate at every turn.