Tag: "regulation"

Posted January 7, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

Bob Frankston has long been critical of both telecommunications companies and the regulators who are supposed to oversee them (but instead are often captured).

Bob has published a lengthy explanation of what is wrong with the US approach to expanding access to the Internet and the beginnings of an alternate approach. This paragraph from his conclusion is where I'll start:

We have a right to communicate. If we fund infrastructure instead of charging for services we can realize that right.

A number of thoughtful people have made the same comments and I believe we will ultimately build access to the Internet as infrastructure (rather than as discrete services arising from the history of telecommunications), but I'm not sure how we will get there.

Perhaps it helps for some to remember just how far we have some. Most of the people pushing for the government to stop regulating the gatekeepers to the Internet seem not to understand why government regulates telecommunications providers. Simply put, when telecommunications was largely unregulated, they screwed their subscribers.

The FCC defines a “completed call” as one that merely rings. It’s a perfect example of naïve indifference to the larger question of why we are using the phone. To a user (a word that makes us forget we are talking about people) a call is complete when you reach a person or, at least, leave message. Yet the phone companies didn’t allow answering machines until the Supreme Court overruled them in the 1968 Carterfone decision.

This story is repeated again and again because it is at the very heart of the concept of telephony. In 1956 they lost the Hush-A-Phone decision. They tried to prohibit people from putting a box around their phone! That was the extent to which the providers went to preserve control and dictate how you were supposed to use their network.

As Frankston rightly points out (here and elsewhere), the best one can say about regulation is that it has been imperfect. This is one reason we encourage public ownership rather than regulation from an authority closer to those regulated than the people...

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Posted January 6, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

Frontier has been bitten by the same disadvantage many communities face when building their own networks -- little market power means having to overpay for everything. When Frontier bought millions of Verizon rural lines, it bought a few FiOS connections as well. But not enough to gain any bargaining power with channel owners. So Frontier had to raise the costs of its video services up for 46%. Lest anyone feel too sorry for Frontier, they are doing just fine. It is their customers who suffer. But it is a reminder that the issue of scale and market power are barriers to all competition, not just community networks. If we want to have real competition in this country, the Congress and the FCC need to stop ignoring the problems caused by massive players distorting the market. This unregulated market is an invitation for big players to join together and screw everyone else.

Posted December 30, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

Excellent lecture.

Posted December 21, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

Today, the FCC is poised to pass a half-ass attempt to preserve the open Internet against the interests of massive gatekeepers like AT&T and Comcast. Tim Karr rightly calls it Obama's "Mission Accomplished" moment.

Fortunately, the likely result will be a couple of years in the courts before the rule is thrown out because the FCC has not properly ground its half-ass actions in any authority it has received from Congress. Perhaps when the FCC next has to deal with this, we'll have an FCC Chairperson with a backbone and a stronger interest in what is best for hundreds of millions of Americans than what is best for AT&T and a few other corporations.

The FCC and supporters of this let's-keep-the-Internet-partly-open "compromise" will lump all critics as being extremist looneys. (Okay, the Republicans who oppose this might fit that description as they are literally making things up or totally confused about what is being decided).

But let's look at the crazy looney rhetoric of FCC Chair Genachowski last year:

Genachowski proposed that the FCC formalize its four principles of network openness. To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled:

  • to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
  • to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  • to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

To these, Genachowski proposed adding two more: The first would prevent Internet access providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while allowing for reasonable network management. The second would ensure that Internet access providers are transparent about the network management practices they implement.

Not only has Genachowski sold out on what he once stated was absolutely necessary to maintain the Open Internet, he has rolled back the...

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Posted December 14, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

Whenever the discussion of Network Neutrality comes up, we like to remind everyone that when the network is locally owned and accountable to the community, anti-subscriber discrimination is not a problem. That said, we are strong supporters of proper safeguards to ensure massive companies like AT&T cannot abuse their market power and discourage innovation.

As the FCC prepares to discuss a half measure to preserve parts of the open Internet, a number of us have been frustrated that while we cannot read the proposal, AT&T appears to be helping write it. Karl Bode's take:

[T]he question shouldn't be whether or not consumers can now view a neutrality proposal after it was hashed out in private meetings (predominately with only the largest, wealthiest carriers), it should be: why weren't consumers absolutely integral in crafting it? AT&T has met with the FCC half a dozen times in the course of three weeks and likely knows precisely what's in this plan -- do you?

We've written to FCC Commissioners to make it clear that they must not compromise on the future of the open Internet. You should too.

Photo used under Creative Commons license from AdamWillis.

Posted December 1, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

Barbara Van Schewick, author of Internet Architecture and Innovation, describes the important role of openness on the Internet, what that means, and how to preserve it. Thanks to the New York Chapter of Internet Society for hosting her.

Posted November 30, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

So Comcast and Level 3 are in a peering dispute following the Netflix partnership with Level 3 to distribute their streaming movie service. Studies suggest Netflix movie streaming has become a significant chunk of Internet traffic, particularly at peak times.

A quick primer on peering: the Internet is comprised of a bunch of networks that exchange traffic. Sometimes one has to pay another network for transit and sometimes (commonly with big carriers like Comcast and Level 3) networks have an agreement to exchange traffic without charging (one reason: the costs of monitoring the amount of traffic can be greater than the prices that would be charged). (Update: Read the Ars Technica story for a longer explanation of peering and this conflict.)

Comcast claims that Level 3 is sending Comcast 5x as much traffic as Comcast sends to Level 3 and therefore wants to charge Level 3 for access to Comcast customers. Of course, as Comcast only offers radically asymmetrical services to subscribers, one wonders how Level 3 could be 1:1 with Comcast…

At Public Knowledge, Harold Feld ties the dispute to network neutrality:

On its face, this is the sort of toll booth between residential subscribers and the content of their choice that a Net Neutrality rule is supposed to prohibit.  In addition, this is exactly the sort of anticompetitive harm that opponents of Comcast’s merger with NBC-Universal have warned would happen — that Comcast would leverage its network to harm distribution of competitive video services, while raising prices on its own customers.

Susan Crawford

Susan Crawford wrote a lengthier piece about Comcast, Netflix, network neutrality, set-top boxes and NBC that is well worth reading (as is just about anything she writes).

However, for the purposes of this post, we will assume the 5x traffic imbalance is true (and unique and...

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Posted November 25, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

The abstract immediately captured my attention:

Policymakers often tell us that the Internet succeeded because of a lack of government regulation. For instance, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell recently noted that the “evolution away from government intervention has been the most important ingredient in the Internet’s success.” These views, while widely shared, happen to be inaccurate. In reality, a diverse range of federal regulations, subsidies, and nondiscrimination protections sustained the Internet’s historic growth.

But what if, as many inaccurately assume, these regulations had never existed? What would today’s Internet look like in such a world? In this essay, I provide a fictional alternate history - in form of a satirical book review - to illustrate how differently the Internet might have developed in a truly privatized world. Although the essay below (beginning after this abstract) is fictional, it draws heavily upon both the regulatory history of the Internet and the policy arguments at issue in today’s leading regulatory proceedings.

This article covers decisions like Carterfone, the FCC's Computer Inquires, giving control over TCP/IP to the National Science Foundation rather than AT&T, and the intentions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It also includes a reminder of the difference between open systems and closed systems:

One important way that open policies achieve this goal is by reducing various types of transaction costs. In open networks, new market entrants can completely avoid negotiating with companies who have “gateway control” over the network. The aspiring entrants do not have to pay—nor seek permission from—the network owners for access. Accordingly, these policies encourage vastly more experimentation and amateur “tinkering.” Closed networks, by contrast, produce relatively less innovation because they rely on centralized network owners to introduce—or at least approve—innovation before it becomes available.

This is a fantastic read (really riveting telecom reading -- how often do you get that?) and a good history lesson for people who were not there to see it firsthand over the years.

Posted November 16, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

In the world of essential infrastructure, thousands of years of history have taught us that entities, acting on their own narrow interest, cannot be trusted to build or govern the building blocks of commerce or transportation. The temptation to abuse that powerful position has always proved too much for those without accountability to the public.

For instance, if the only way to move goods is a canal, private canal owners will price at a high level or use their position to take a stake in all the industries using the canal. Such an arrangement is great for the canal owners but poor for the rest of society. Witness the history of canals and railroads.

Two options to dealing with this problem have historically been either regulation or public ownership of such infrastructure. Readers of this site are undoubtedly well aware of our preference for public ownership - a structural approach using coops, local government, or non-profits to ensure the interests of the public at large receive the highest priority.

This post explains one of the reasons a regulatory approach, whereby private companies still own the infrastructure (and often make key decisions) but must go through some form of public body that is supposed to prevent the natural interests of the private company from taking over and reducing the benefits to society at large.

Writing in the Financial Times, John Kay explains regulatory capture, the process by which the agency or commission supposed to regulate effectively begins to act more in the interests of those regulated rather than the public. An obvious example of this is the Minerals Management Agency that has long improperly overseen the extraction industry, leading to the BP Gulf Oil Hole.

As Kay rightly explains, there are multiple kinds of capture from outright corruption to something that leads some political science geeks bring up Gramsci and Hegemony...

But the most common form of capture is honest and may be characterised as intellectual capture. Every regulatory agency is dependent for information on the businesses it regulates. Many of the people who run regulated companies are agreeable, committed individuals who are properly affronted by any suggestion that their activities do not serve the public good. Few members of the public, by contrast, ever make contact with a regulatory agency...

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Posted October 15, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

In all the talk of the need for competition in broadband (or in the mobile space), there is remarkably little attention paid to the difficulties in actually creating competition. A common refrain from the self-interested industry titans (and their many paid flacks) is: "keep the government out of it and let the market decide."

Unfortunately, an unregulated market in telecom tends toward consolidation at best, monopolization at worse. Practicioners of Chicago economics may dispute this, but their theories occur in reality about as frequently as unicorn observations. In our regulatory environment, big incumbents have nearly all the advantages, allowing them to use their advantages of scale to maintain market power (most notably the ability to use cross-subsidization from non-competitive markets to maintain predatory pricing wherever they face even the threat of competition).

The de-regulatory approach of telecom policy over the past 10 or more years has resulted in far less competition among ISPs, something Earthlink hopes to change with a condition of the seeming inevitable NBC-Comcast merger. Requiring incumbents to share their lines with independent ISPs is one policy that would greatly increase competition - but the FCC has refused to even entertain the notion because big companies like AT&T and Comcast are too intimidating for the current Administration to confront.

In the Midwest, Windstream is cutting 146 jobs as part of its acquisition of Iowa Telecom. When these companies consolidate, they can cut jobs to lower their costs... but do subscribers ever see the savings? Not hardly. The result is less competition, which leads to higher prices. Consider that Comcast is the largest cable company, but they are known better for their poor record of customer service than low prices enabled by economies of scale.

We need broadband networks that are structurally accountable to the community, not private shareholders located far outside the community. The solution is not more private companies owning broadband infrastructure, but more private companies offering competing services over next-generation infrastructure that is community owned by coops, non-profits, or local governments.

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